The first time I met him, he’d been in disguise, dressed up in a stylish black suit, made to look like he was one of us. But while the layers of fine fabric covered his many tattoos, they couldn’t hide his true nature. It shone through, dangerous and chilling. Back then I’d have never thought that I’d get to know him and the monster within better than I knew anyone else, and that it would turn my whole life upside down. That it would change my entire being to the very core.
“I can’t believe they let you go with them,” Talia muttered. I turned away from the mirror to look at her. She sat cross-legged on my desk chair, dressed in her shabbiest jogging pants, and her long brown hair was piled atop her head in a messy bun. Her t-shirt, a faded grey thing littered with holes and stains, would drive our mother into a meltdown. Talia smiled grimly when she followed my gaze. “It’s not like I need to dress up for anyone, you know.”
“There’s a difference between not dressing up and between what you’re doing,” I said with a hint of disapproval. I wasn’t really annoyed at my sister for wearing her shabbiest clothes, but I knew their only purpose was to rile mother up, and it was a likely scenario given our Mother’s tendency for perfectionism and overreacting. I really didn’t want her mood to turn sour so shortly before the ball. I’d be the one to suffer since Father was definitely out of the question when it came to becoming Mother’s favorite target. Mother had a tendency to take it personally if Talia or I weren’t perfect.
“I’m making a point,” Talia said with a small shrug.
I sighed. “No, you’re being petty and childish.”
“I am a child, too young for a social gathering at the Falcone’s mansion,” Talia intoned in her best imitation of Mother’s chiding tone.
“This is an event for adults. Most people will be over eighteen or far beyond. Mother’s right. You’d have no one to talk to and someone would have to keep an eye on you all night.”
“I’m fifteen, not six. And you are only four years older than me, so don’t act so grown-up,” she said indignantly, pushing up from the desk chair, leaving it spinning around itself, and staggered toward me. She eyed me squarely, the challenge unmistakable. “You probably told mother not to take me with you because you were worried you’d have to watch me and that I’d embarrass you in front of your oh-so-perfect friends.”
I glowered. “You’re being ridiculous.” But a flicker of guilt flashed through me at Talia’s words. I hadn’t talked Mother into letting Talia stay home but I hadn’t really fought very hard for my sister joining us either. Talia was right. I’d been worried that I’d be stuck with her all evening. My friends tolerated her when we met at home but being seen with a girl four years younger at an official gathering wouldn’t sit well with them. A party at Falcone always meant the best chance to meet eligible matches and having to babysit your friend’s sister didn’t really help with that endeavor. I wanted this night to be special.
Something from my train of thoughts must have shown on my face because Talia scoffed. “I knew it.” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, slamming the door shut so hard that I couldn’t help but wince.
I let out a small breath, then turned back to my reflection, checking my make-up and hairdo one last time. I’d watched countless tutorials of beauty bloggers to make sure I got the smokey-eyes-look right. Everything needed to be perfect. Mother was a harsh critic but Trish and Anastasia were even worse. They’d notice if I matched the wrong tone of eye shadow to my dress or if my hand had trembled while holding my eyeliner, but their scrutiny had made my preparations meticulous. They were the reason why I was never slacking. And that was what friends were for.
My dress was dark green, and my eye-shadow just a few shades lighter. Perfect. I checked my nails one last time for chinks, but they too looked immaculate in their dark green sheen. I smoothed down my dress a few times until I was satisfied with the way the hem brushed my knees, then smoothed my hair back again, too, for good measure, turning to see if the bobby pins were still all in place holding my light brown hair up.
“Cara, are you ready? We need to leave,” Mother called from downstairs.
I checked my reflection and smoothed my dress again, scanned my tights, then finally forced myself to hurry out of the room before Mother lost her patience. I could have spent hours checking my outfit for possible mistakes if I’d had the time.
Mother stood in the doorway when I came downstairs, letting the cool autumn air into the house. She was checking her golden watch but the moment she spotted me, she grabbed her favorite winter coat, a splendid thing that had cost many ermines their life and put it over her long dress. Even with the temperatures being unusually cold for Las Vegas in November, a fur coat was completely over the top, but since Mother had bought it many years ago in Russia and loved it to pieces, she used every chance she got to wear it, no matter how inappropriate.
I walked toward her, ignoring Talia who leaned against the banister of the staircase, a sulk on her face. I felt sorry for her but I didn’t want anyone or anything to ruin this evening for me. Father and Mother hardly ever allowed me to attend parties and tonight was the biggest event of the year in our social circles. Everyone who aspired to be someone in Las Vegas had tried to get an invitation to Falcone’s Thanksgiving Feast. This would be my first year attending myself. Trish and Anastasia had been lucky enough to have been there last year too, and if Father hadn’t forbidden me from going I’d have gone too. I’d felt small and left out whenever Trish and Anastasia had talked about the party in the weeks prior and after, and they’d done so non-stop, probably because that gave them the chance to gloat.