“I’ll allow you a minute to rethink your request,” he warns, his hand on mine, imparting heat. “You say the word and we’ll leave. I’ll take you home and you can rest—because I’m partly sure delirium may be fueling your newfound lust to experience the forbidden.”
I have to laugh at that. “No,” I say, shaking my head—for my own benefit, not his. “I…I’ll play your game, Mr. Villa. I want to.”
“Then play you shall.” He lowers his mouth near my ear. “You will star alone tonight,” he says, dropping all pretense. No more word games. This is real. “Just you in front of a full audience—but I want you blindfolded. I’ll let you wonder as to their faces. Their identities. Their reactions. Because none of them matter to you, do you understand? This performance is for me. Show me who the sheltered girl is behind her mask. Reveal to me what she needs. In a sea of these pretentious fucking people, you listen for me.”
He draws back as his words ripple down my spine.
“Daphne will assist you from here,” he calls to me while advancing toward the viewing rooms. “I look forward to your performance, Ms. Thorne. I do suggest that you follow all of her instructions. Adios.”
“Hello.” Daphne is a smiling blond in a slimming black dress who appears as if conjured. “Follow me, Ms. Thorne,” she says before heading in the direction opposite Damien. “Mr. Villa has made all of the arrangements.”
I don’t know what I expect to discover when she finally ushers me into a small room. An elegant vanity and a wooden wardrobe would be far down on my list. It’s an intimate, surprisingly tasteful setting adorned with a ruby color scheme similar to the theater-like atrium I viewed the last time he brought me here.
“You can undress,” Daphne says. Then she crosses the room and points out a door opposite from the one we entered through. “You can leave through here when you are ready,” she explains. “It opens to the stage.”
“Is that where…where I’ll be blindfolded?” I ask.
Daphne shakes her head. “No. Once you are ready, I’ll be waiting on the other side.” She nods to the door again. “There, I’ll blindfold you as well as relay Mr. Villa’s final instructions. There is a robe you can put on until then,” she adds as if sensing the nerves crawling up my throat, robbing me of my voice. “Whenever you are ready.”
She slips through the door, leaving me alone, and I eye my reflection in the vanity’s mirror.
I look so young. So tired. Purplish bruises encircle my eyes, and my ratty hair is in dire need of a deep condition and a brush.
No wonder Damien changed his mind so suddenly on indulging my impulsive request. As I look now, few men would desire me.
Once I strip my coat, my beautiful dress enhances my appearance, but only by a little. I’m a dull, plain shadow overall. The kind of woman who may be whispered about and hounded but only because she makes for such an easy target.
A haunted, hollow doll.
My fingers shake as I reach around to my back, searching for the zipper of the dress. When it’s loosened, the fabric easily falls, revealing more pale, unremarkable skin.
In a horrible way, I’m relieved Damien is blind. He can’t see the gaunt, rail-thin body I do. Or the scars on my thigh. Or the fear in my eyes.
Yet he somehow sees beyond it all, peering beneath the flesh to the parts of me I can’t disguise. Now, I think I know exactly why he changed his mind; this is a test, designed for me more so than him.
Can I truly trust him despite all the people who may be watching? Whispering? Judging?
Am I that fragile doll Heyworth coddled or an opponent worthy of playing the monster’s game?
The answer terrifies me as I step out of my shoes and approach the closed door, knocking once.
I don’t know.
But I want to find out.