Gold Mine by Skye Warren

“No, thank you,” I answer for both of us.

The man gives a slight smile, as if I’ve said something clever, a joke that we’re both in on. “Now I know with whom I must dance. It’s you, of course. The leader.”

My eyes narrow from behind my glittering mask. “No means no.”

“I think you want to dance with me. In fact, I think you came here expressly for this purpose.”

A slight gasp from beside me. My sister knows what I’ve suspected. This is the man who’s supposed to make contact with us. “Perhaps we can go somewhere more private?”

He makes a tsk sound. “And skip the foreplay? I think not.”

He holds out his arm, and I take it with great reluctance. It feels a little like taking the scaly arm of an alligator, one who’s already showing me his hundreds of teeth.

A waltz begins, and he sweeps me into a smooth arc. The man can dance, I’ll give him that much. He may be an international thug, one who threatens my sister, but he’s a skilled dancer. He leads me with such effortless skill, it almost feels like floating.

“Call me old-fashioned,” I say, “but shouldn’t we conduct illegal business somewhere where there aren’t a thousand other people?”

He glances down my body, to my cleavage. My skin crawls. “Oh, we will. Right now I’m having a good time imagining all the places you might have hidden the diamonds.”

“Maybe my sister has them.”

“No,” he says decisively. “It’s my business to know who has the power. It’s you.”

“It’s us,” I say, correcting him. “We have what you want.”

He grins, showing a gleaming white smile beneath the long nose of the mask. “I know, sweet thing. I do know that. That’s why I haven’t killed her yet.”

I stiffen in his arms, almost stumbling to a halt amid the whirl of other couples. “Don’t you touch her. Don’t you touch a hair on her head or I swear to God I’ll—”

“Calm down, calm down. I have no intention of hurting her. All I want is the money she owes me. You seem to be in some doubt as to my role here. I’m a businessman, first and foremost.”

“I know exactly what you are.” A loan shark.

“Good.” His hands tighten. “Then there won’t be any tricks tonight.”

“No tricks.” It will be a relief to give up the diamonds, actually. They’ve become heavier with every day that’s passed, gained a thousand pounds of emotional weight with every month. So heavy that dragging them around makes my muscles sore, even if it’s only in my head. Every day has taken us farther away from Elijah, and each day has broken something inside me.

He nods once, decisive. Ian Taggart has a reputation that even I’ve heard about in my insulated American experience. An international loan shark with dangerous tactics. More than one of his competitors have disappeared.

Without missing a beat, he sweeps us out of the flow of dancing couples.

Two men appear out of nowhere in plain black masks and large builds.

They surround me on either side, forming a human cage. I glance back, wild-eyed, for my sister, but there’s only a whirl of black and red and gold.

“Don’t worry,” the man says, reading my mind. “You’ll return to her shortly, once you and I have finished conducting our business.”

The way the words roll off his tongue, it sounds as if we’re going to meet for a private affair, rather than a cold, violent business deal. Then again, that’s probably what everyone thinks as I enter one of the antechambers. There’s not only one man with me. There’s three. What must people think of me? A slightly hysterical laugh bubbles up.

Then we’re alone, the sound of the waltz abruptly muted, and my laughter disappears.

Shadows reign in the lush antechamber. They patrol the perimeter of the room. They lean on the armchairs and tables. The man sits on an oversized sofa, one arm slung over the back, his legs spread. He whips off the plague mask, revealing handsome features and a cold expression.

He’s clearly the king in this scenario, and I’m his subject.

I lift my chin and take a step forward. “So, let’s do business.”

Another slow glance over my breasts, my waist, my hips. It makes me feel naked instead of encased in gold satin. “You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”

I lean down to pull something out of my petticoat. A small black velvet pouch holding a single diamond. I toss it to him. He catches it deftly and tips the gem onto his palm. “Seems real enough. Worth maybe ten thousand dollars. Not even close to the five hundred thousand your sister owes me.”