Updated: Jan 12
People whispered as I passed them, rumors spreading across the room like smoke in the wind. The Devil’s Creek elite offered fake smiles when our gazes met and pretended they weren’t talking about me.
“That’s Alexandrea Wellington,” a blonde woman said with her hand in front of her mouth, glancing at me from the corner of her eye.
“She’s beautiful,” another woman commented. “But I heard she’s crazy like her mother.”
My cheeks flushed with heat. I considered correcting her but held my tongue. Pops had coached me before the party and warned me about the nosy townspeople. So I ignored them, keeping my ear to the ground as they gossiped.
The Salvatores hosted their annual Midsummer Night’s Dream party at the end of July. Everyone from the prestigious coastal community attended. And since the Wellingtons were among the founding families, I had to play my part. So I would be the dutiful granddaughter for one night.
An hour ago, my grandfather had disappeared from the ballroom with Arlo Salvatore. My grandmother drank flutes of champagne with her snotty friends, but I kept my distance. She made it clear she hated me. I didn’t know anyone in town or care to know them.
My twin brother pounded shots of Patrón as he muttered about everyone in Devil’s Creek being stupid rich fucks with no vision. Aiden said that about anyone who gave him shit for his street art, a hobby frowned upon by the masters of the universe. I eventually grew bored watching Aiden drink himself into a coma, so I wandered off and separated from him.
“She’ll probably run like her mother,” a red-haired woman said about me, flicking her long locks over her shoulder. “The Salvatore men can’t keep the Wellington women around long enough to make an heir.”
A pretty blonde in her late forties tipped her head back and laughed. “If she’s anything like her mother, she won’t last until the wedding day.”
I craned my ear to listen, but the loud orchestra music drowned out their voices. Wedding? An heir? What the hell was she talking about?
Head down, I tugged on my carnival mask and pushed my way toward the ballroom entrance. My name was on everyone’s lips. They wanted to know why my grandfather had kept me hidden for the past eighteen years.
Men gawked at me while women studied me with curiosity and disdain. I knew when I wasn’t wanted somewhere. A lesson I had learned from my shitty parents. So I slipped out of the room and ventured down a long tiled hallway.
Expensive paintings donned the elaborate walls, everything from van Gogh to Metzinger, and I couldn’t help but study them with fascination. The ceiling was so high voices echoed and traveled with me, the sounds growing farther away as I approached the back of the estate. I ascended the long staircase, and though I knew not to pry, I needed to find my brother.
All night I’d dreamed about taking a walk on the beach with Aiden before we headed back to Wellington Manor. Neither of us could stand our grandparents dressing us up like dolls, all to show us off to their friends. I was on my best behavior all night and wanted nothing more than to strip off my heels and feel the sand between my toes.
As I strolled down the corridor, a chill rolled down my bare shoulders, creating tiny bumps that dotted my skin. I rubbed my hands down my arms for warmth. The tulle skirt of my pixie dress rode up my ass, leaving little to the imagination. My grandmother had insisted I meet the Salvatore brothers in this ridiculous outfit. I was like a perfectly wrapped present for the cruel boys to open. But they just stared at me as our families introduced us.
Midway down the hallway, a flash of light seeped out from one bedroom. The door was open a crack, wide enough to see a tall, muscular man rip off his suit jacket. He had black hair, tanned skin, and a black-and-gold masquerade mask resting on his forehead. I watched as he stripped off his shirt and dropped the white oxford on the floor with a silk tie. My mouth fell open as I stared in disbelief at dozens of scars on his back.
A gasp ripped from my throat, and he spun around, nostrils flared. Luca Salvatore was the oldest of Arlo’s boys, heir to billions, and only a few years older than me. And possibly the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in my life.
He grabbed the shirt from the floor and slipped it on, his muscular stomach equally scarred. Luca flung open the door and pulled me inside with a snarl. “What did you see?”
Limbs trembling, fear rocked my body, and my heart thudded in my chest. I wrapped my arms around my middle to steady my nerves. “Nothing,” I whispered, my voice shaking.
“Bullshit.” His mouth twisted in disgust. “Why are you up here? Are you spying on me, Little Wellington?”
Luca slammed the door, caging me inside his bedroom. He pushed me onto his bed, and his eyes traveled over the front of my dress before settling on my face.
“No, I’m not a spy. I was looking for my brother.”
He stood between my legs and slid his fingers beneath my chin to tilt my head back until our eyes met. “Are you lying to me?”
I shook my head.
His thumb grazed my bottom lip, and my pulse raced as the scent of the sea and sandalwood invaded my senses. He smelled so good I wanted to lick his skin, taste the cocky asshole who held me captive.
“Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” I choked out. “You won’t hurt me.”
He raised an eyebrow, a wicked smirk tugging at his mouth. “What makes you so certain?”
I bit my lip to stop it from trembling, and his face contorted into something sinister. His eyes fell to my mouth like he wanted to take my lip between his teeth. A man like Luca wouldn’t give me a sweet kiss or a peck on the cheek. Instead, he would make every second hurt as he branded my lips with his sinful touch.
“Use your words,” Luca demanded. “Answer me, Little Wellington, or I’ll have to punish you for being a bad girl.”
My jaw unhinged at his comment. “I’m not a bad girl,” I shot back with fire behind my words.
His eyes flickered with desire. “No? Because I think there’s a little devil hidden beneath your beautiful exterior.” His long fingers inched down my arm, flames scorching my skin. “And I think she wants to come out and play.”
I cleared my throat, ignoring his last statement. “I know when someone wants to hurt me. You won’t hurt me, Luca. So cut the shit and let me go.”
Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way. Most people in my life tried to hurt me over the years. Because of them, I wasn’t a delicate girl who handed out her trust to anyone. I could spot a snake a mile away, and despite his intimidation tactics, I knew Luca did not want to cause me physical harm. But what he was doing to my emotions… and my body. Well, that was another story.
A moment of silence passed between us, and Luca inspected me like he was peeling back my skin, looking beneath each layer. Like it wouldn’t satisfy him until he discovered my darkest secrets. But I could tell even my worst ones wouldn’t compare to what he was hiding.
A monster lurked in the shadows. He couldn’t fool me. I’d known enough evil people to see right through him.
Luca Salvatore was rotten to the core and didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about him. He wanted people to see the ugliness inside him. I knew from firsthand experience it was easier to push someone away before they got too close than to let them into my life, only to end up disappointed. It was easier to be the aggressor because it still allowed me a certain amount of control. After years of having none, I needed it. And I could tell Luca needed it, too.
“What happened to your back?” I said to take the attention from me.
He turned away from me, his eyes on the balcony to our left. “You don’t want to know.”
A warm breeze blew in through the French doors that led to a large patio overlooking the bay. His jaw looked even harder from the side, all clean lines and sharp edges. My fingers itched at the chance to sketch every detail of his face so I could capture his essence with my charcoals.
“Art tells the truth, even when people lie,” I said, a direct quote from his deceased mother, a famous painter named Evangeline Franco.
She was my idol, the woman who had inspired most of my art. So when I heard Luca was Evangeline’s son, I jumped at the chance to attend this fancy party with my grandparents. I wasn’t excited about being paraded around like a pageant queen, but I thought… I don’t know what I thought I would get out of coming here. But seeing the world my idol once ruled over helped me understand her art better.
Luca’s head snapped to me, and heat rushed down my arms from the intensity on his face. I couldn’t tell if he wanted to kiss me or kill me. Knowing his family, I assumed the latter. They were more affluent than gods, but the Salvatores made money from illegal activities.
“You don’t have to hide from me, Luca.”
Standing painfully still, he clenched his fist, and his jaw tightened. I shot up from the bed, standing in front of him, and he towered over me at well over six feet tall.
Feeling brave, I slid the dress shirt over his strong shoulders. “Let me see you.”
I wasn’t talking about the scars on his back. I wanted to know what made Luca Salvatore tick. What were his hopes and dreams, his strengths and his weaknesses? I wondered why my heart beat differently when I looked into his eyes, why I felt connected to him in ways I could not explain.
“I see you too,” he said with a sharpness to his tone. “You know what it’s like to hide the truth. Don’t you?”
I nodded. “I won’t hurt you, Luca.”
Madness danced across his blue irises. “Maybe I want you to.”
He turned his head to the side, una