Chapter Twenty-One

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May stood next to the town car gazing up at the massive manor before her in awe. Beside her, Welkin blinked around at the glamorous people streaming inside, looking significantly less impressed.

When he finished relaying instructions to Lety, Grant straightened and flashed a bright smile at them both. "Let's roll, kids."

"Pst, Tiny!"

Frowning, May glared over her shoulder to where Lety was peeping over the top car at her.

"I meant what I said earlier," Lety said, her voice low so Grant and Welkin wouldn't hear her. Her playful teasing was gone, her expression stony. She flicked her eyes up to the front door. "Good luck in here."

Before May could even think of a reply, Lety disappeared back into the car and pulled away to make room for the next sleek vehicle in line.

"May?" Welkin stood, one foot planted on the first of polished stone steps. "Is everything alright?"

Rolling her shoulders back, May lifted her chin and smiled. "Just jitters. I'm coming."

The Star held out a delicate hand and she accepted it, laying her fingers softly atop their palm. After a few carefully placed steps — on her part — they joined Grant in the warm glow of the manor's threshold. Waitstaff dressed in crisp black suits offered flutes of sparkling wine, which they took before allowing themselves to be swept inside to join the other guests milling about a grand foyer.

"This isn't what I was expecting at all," May whispered to Grant from behind her glass. Everywhere she looked she saw opulence and refinement, the likes of which she had only read about in books or seen played out in movies. "I feel like I'm at a royal ball."

"Did you think this was going to be some seedy affair down a back alley?" Grant asked with a smirk.

She shrugged a shoulder. "Kind of. Or, at least I did until the fancy clothes came into the picture. At that point I was just confused."

Surrounded by elegant women in dramatic gowns that showed about as much skin as they covered, May no longer felt self-conscious. Instead she marveled at the mix of people all parading in a similar lavish uniform; some looked as if they were born exactly as they were, shimmering and perfect, while others likely had stepped out of their comfort zones for the occasion. Her half-shaved head was hardly out of place amid other heads of vibrant hues or artistic cuts, bobbing between sweeping up-dos and neatly coiffed manes. Some faces sported scars, and some arms were inked, but everyone wore the same expression of excitement and hunger.

"The spoils may have been procured through less than legal means, but when it comes to auction, all that matters is money," Grant explained, giving a small wave of acknowledgment to someone he recognized in passing. "And anyone who's about to spend big money wants to be treated like their shit don't stink."

Welkin scowled at the metaphor. "What a... pleasant visual."

May continued her wide-eyed people watching while she sipped at her Champagne. "So what does this Necar woman look like? Let's go find her."

Grant laughed. "Slow it down, Maybe Baby. No one sees Necar until after the auction." He downed what was left of his beverage and signaled for one of the roaming waiters for a fresh glass. "You're just going to have to be patient. Let's go find some seats before all the good ones are gone."

Patient was the last thing May was feeling, but she followed Grant as he wove through the crowd without complaint. Even though the venue and crowd weren't quite as intimidating as she had anticipated, she kept her guard up. She peered at every face she passed as if she might instinctively know Necar Devereaux when she saw her, but found only strangers.

They stepped into a vast salon where the crowd seemed to be congregating. Beyond the sea of faces were towering walls of glossy stone, but you'd have to really be paying attention to notice. Virtually every surface was covered in framed paintings and photographs in all sizes, pieced together like a puzzle with a carefully measured inch between them. May didn't realize she had paused, enthralled by a life size painting of a ballerina that was so enchanting she ached to join her in the dance, until a server stopped beside her and offered a fresh flute of Champagne.

"Thank you," she mumbled, her eyes darting through the faces in search of her friends. Just as panic was starting to set in, she spotted Grant and Welkin in conversation with a glamorous couple on the other side of the room. She wove between the beautiful bodies, muttering apologies and avoiding long hemlines until she joined them.

"Welcome back," Welkin whispered from the corner of their mouth. They kept their eyes on the couple, nodding along to a story being told about a recent sabbatical the couple had taken somewhere warm and sunny.

"Sorry," May replied. She paused to sip from her glass. "This room is a little distracting."

"Isn't this collection incredible?" asked one half of the couple, a woman in a black velvet gown and half of May's weight in diamonds encrusted around her throat. "The Art Collector has such inspired taste. I love when she hosts auctions."

May's lips parted, ready to ask who the woman was referring to. She looked to Grant, pausing just in case she was about to ask a question that could potentially cause them trouble.

Grant, who was mid-sip in what may have been his fourth glass, nodded to someone over May's shoulder. "The Art Collector owns this fine chalet. She hosts a lot of auctions. I think she just likes having people over so they can fawn over her newest finds."

The woman he was referring to stood in the middle of a throng of admirers. The majority of her dark sepia skin was cloaked in stunning tattoos, like a mural of ink and flesh. The sides of her head were shaved close to her scalp – also tattooed – leaving a patch of dark curls on the top of her head that bounced every time she moved. Her ears, neck, wrists, and fingers glittered in gemstone jewelry. She was a lot to behold.

"Wow," May breathed, trying not to stare but failing. The Art Collector caught sight of her out of the corner of her eye and raised her glass. May reciprocated politely.

A gong was struck, reverberating throughout the room. The din ceased for a split-second, then picked back up in excited earnest when a pair of large, carved oak doors beside May and company creaked open.

A delighted, shark-like grin slid across Grant's face.

"Let's go grab our seats," he said, giving May a nudge toward the threshold. "The show's about to begin."

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