Authors: Victoria Danann
Tags: #vampire romance, #vampire, #paranormal romance romance, #werewolf, #steampunk, #chick lit urban fantasy, #order of the black swan, #werewolves, #witch, #shifter romance, #shifter, #victoria danann
She had loved the solarium on first sight. It was basically a glass room held together with white iron grids forming frames around individual panes of glass narrowing as they reached toward the sky to form the complex and beautiful shape of a convex roof. The room housed a lush indoor garden, peacocks and a large fountain featuring the statue of a young elf with bow and arrow.
"Here we are," she said as they stepped through the open doors. She gestured to the room. "Wonderful, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is, my la...Elora." Baka's smile was part conspiracy and part sheepishness. "It's hard to remember."
Elora smiled and nodded. "Come sit. How have you been? I still can't get used to the color of your eyes. I guess I always knew they'd be blue, but I couldn't have guessed the shade."
He pulled out one of the wrought iron chairs for Elora, then held up a finger to his lips to indicate that her slip was even worse than his had been. She laughed. "It
hard to remember, isn't it?" She leaned in closer. "What can we talk about safely?"
His eyes danced with laughter.
Elora leaned closer and spoke quietly. "Not the fact that this will be the first time I've seen you eat actual food."
His eyes sparkled with amusement. "No. Not that."
"And who is this?" The exchange was interrupted when Aelsong breezed into the room wearing a red silk dress, the slightest suggestion of expensive perfume, and as much self-confidence as can be contained in one personality.
Baka stood up as she approached saying to Elora under his breath, "Yes. This will do."
Elora smiled at Song. "This is Istvan Baka. He's a business associate of Ram's. Baka, meet Aelsong, Ram's sister, if there was any chance you couldn't tell."
Aelsong was captivated. She held out her hand. Baka took it and smiled, "Pretty name. And I
red." He glanced at Elora just long enough to insure she knew it was a joke intended for her.
Aelsong giggled a most attractive version of her tinkling, wind chimes laugh while Elora snorted as inelegantly as a person raised behind the bar at a roadhouse.
Song looked at her as if to say, "What's your problem?" Then, turning big, blue-eyed attention back to Baka she proceeded seamlessly, "An
Baka stepped closer without breaking the connection with her upturned gaze, lowered his voice, and said pointedly, "
Song's mouth spread into an appreciative, well-what-have-we-here smile.
Elora was thinking that this flirtation was fascinating to watch, as smooth as a professional tango.
Ram came in and without breaking his stride or acting as if anything was noteworthy, walked around Baka, who was still holding Aelsong's hand. "Song. You havin' lunch with us?"
She withdrew her hand and looked at her brother. "Absolutely," she grinned.
"Okay. I said three, not four, so go pick up the phone and get blessed out by Bridget for changin' the request. And while you're doin' that, tell her I forgot to ask for an extra chocolate for the baby." He sat down next to Elora taking her hand and looking at her like she was the first female in the history of the world to conceive life.
"She is probably goin' to say, 'What baby?'" Song said dryly. Turning back to Baka she cheered immediately. "Keep me company? 'Tis no' far. Just over there."
Baka gave Ram and Elora a quick glance. "Be right back."
When Ram and Elora were left alone he reached over and ran his fingers through her hair, like he couldn't stand to go for another minute without touching her. She noticed that he seemed completely relaxed about the fact that Song was aggressively flirting up a recently cured ex-vampire, one who may also be a notorious womanizer.
"The fact that Baka's trifling with your sister doesn't seem to bother you."
Ram looked confused. "Why should it? She's grown, healthy and unmated. And he's the poor devil who's spent the last hundred years whackin' off in a tower keep."
Apparently elves in this dimension were progressive about sex even when it came to younger sisters. She recalled the section on pre-mated sex from the book he had given her:
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Elves But Were Afraid To Ask
. It did seem to indicate that rampant promiscuity was to be expected from both sexes before mating.
Somehow the four of them managed to make conversation without discussing the subject of vampire, the business of The Order, or anything else about their lives that would be considered strange by civilians or treasonous by Black Swan. When it was time to leave to pick Storm up from the airport, Elora asked Baka if he would mind doing it as a favor because she and Ram had a handfasting task to complete.
She hadn't asked Ram about it in advance, but it seemed like a good solution, partly because Storm genuinely liked Baka and partly because the awkwardness had not yet been ironed out of their relationship. That sad fact was compounded by the fact that Storm was Ram's Best Man. What a cluster!
Ram had felt like asking him was rubbing salt in the wound, but how could he not ask? If Lan was alive that job would have been his, but there was no question that Storm was next in line, and passing him over would be like punishing him for being in love with the woman Ram was marrying. So he had asked Storm to stand up with him and Storm had simply said, "Of course."
"I would be happy to retrieve the dark and broodin' one."
Aelsong laughed her musical laugh that made everyone want to freeze in place while the pleasure of the sound washed over them.
Baka was delighted that she acknowledged his dry wit with magical sounds that, apparently, only elves could make. "I take it you've met the pilgrim of whom we speak?"
"Oh, aye. He has visited a few times. As you say, beautiful, but broody."
"I'm certain I didn't say beautiful."
Maybe her own feelings of guilt were too close to the surface, but Elora felt defensive about Storm. It sounded to her like they were making fun of him when he was not able to speak for himself. "Well," she began, "say what you will, but, as Kay once put it, someone has to be the grown up. Since I would not be sitting here if that dark and brooding one hadn't saved my life. Twice. I can't help but object that you seem to be having fun at his expense and, more to the point, in his absence."
Aelsong looked stunned. "'Tis misunderstandin' pure and simple. I'm quite fond of Ram's friend."
"Likewise," Baka said, looking unusually sincere, "I meant no disrespect. As you know, I also owe Storm a great debt for... several things including recommending me for the position I now hold. The reprimand is unjust, but stings nonetheless."
Elora smiled brightly. "Okay then. So long as we understand each other. I don't mind retrieving him myself. "
Ram laughed. "Oh! Retrievin' him yourself, is it? Great Paddy in the flesh would no' agree to ride in a vehicle with you at the wheel. You've no' even mastered drivin' on the right hand side of a parkin' lot yet." Elora glared. "O' course I would
to drive you."
"No need," said Song, taking charge in a remarkable imitation of her mother. "Baka, I will go with you to fetch our esteemed guest..." She turned her high beam smile Elora's way. "...whom it is our very great honor to host."
"So. You got your brother's silver tongue as well as his looks and his smile."
"No' at all." Song's mouth curled seductively as she stepped closer to Baka. "My tongue is sweet and pink."
Elora looked at Ram as if to say, "No. Way."
He took her hand in his and laughed softly in response.
Baka looked down at Aelsong with the amused confidence of someone who had been playing the seducer longer and better. "Nothing would please me more than to have your delightful company, but I'm afraid I rented one of those two-seater sports cars."
Song chuckled. "Autos are hardly a problem, em... Do you want to be called Baka?"
He glanced at Elora again. "I've grown accustomed to it. Baka is fine."
"Well, Baka, what do you say? Unless you need to be alone with my brother's friend?"
Baka laughed. "No. I neither need nor wish to be alone with your brother's friend." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "I would much rather be alone with you."
Song responded with the obligatory giggle of a flirtation ritual as she rose from her chair and said goodbye to Ram and Elora. "We've gone to the garage to choose transport."
As she led the way, Baka looked at Elora over his shoulder and grinned. She smiled and gave him a little chest high wave.
What a pleasure it was to see him enjoying life. He deserved it, but unfortunately, didn't believe that.
When Kay's bunch arrived, it suddenly seemed as if the one hundred seventy-five room palace on twelve thousand acres would not be nearly big enough. The Caelian family had migrated to South Texas in the nineteenth century and found it agreeably inhospitable. Berserkers enjoy a good challenge. So they founded an organization to clean up the mess, taking on rowdy itinerants who heartily embraced a get-it-done, no-rules philosophy, and called it the Texas Rangers. Were it not for the early wave of berserkers it seems unlikely that the frontier mix of Comanche, desperados, and javelina could have been subdued so relatively quickly and by so few.
Chaos Caelian was named by his maternal grandmother as was her privilege in berserker society, but had come to be affectionately known as Kay, a nickname bestowed by his teammate Rammel Hawking soon after they'd met. Ram had thought a knight named Kay - like the foster brother of King Arthur from Arthurian legend - was amusing. So Chaos became Sir Kay and it stuck. Even his own parents eventually began calling him Kay.
Yes. Everybody knew the near-giant knight as Kay except for his three older sisters who flatly refused to give up calling him Bubba, never letting him forget for a minute that he was the "baby" of the family. The four youngest Caelian children were close in every way including age, only a year apart. There was a much older brother, but he and their parents almost seemed to comprise a separate family. The three preschool girls started out calling him "brother", but something in the Southeast Texas atmosphere caused that to quickly degenerate into Bubba. And it was clearly not going away.
Their grandmother, sometimes called Evil Gran by those she had named, gave the girls similar hardships to bear. Having inherited the "sight" from her own grandmother, Evil Gran claimed she knew three girls were coming and set out to name them after the Norns, the three keepers of time according to Norse myth. Hence, they were named in order of linear time - past, present, and future: Urda, Verdandia, and Skulda. In a triumph of sibling camaraderie and conspiracy over custom, their names had morphed into something more suitable before they entered kindergarten. Urda became known as "Urz", Verdandia as "Dandie" and Skulda did a triple twist into "Squoozie" which, odd as it was, seemed like a custom fit.
Kay was fond of saying that opening the door to his boyhood home was like going through the wardrobe to the land of "Nornia".
The entire family resembled the popular perception of Vikings: tall, fair haired, fair skinned, with blue eyes, an abundance of athletic ability, and an indomitable desire to know where to plunder the best jewelry. Fortunately the family had accumulated multigenerational wealth in land, cattle, and oil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century so the quest for jewelry did not require going a-viking as it was known in the old days. Kay's sisters were content with the occasional plunder of Gump's, Tiffany, and Cartier.
Ram and Elora had dutifully set themselves to the task of gathering materials for their handfasting cord. Some of the flowers had indeed arrived after lunch. Elora had suggested they each pick one red rose to go into the braid. They had also borrowed a few long, coarse strands from the manes of two horses. Elora had been drawn to a dapple-gray mare with a pretty face, an intelligent expression, and a wavy mane that just begged to be laced with flowers. She also happened to be pregnant.
Ram argued with a magnificent black stallion over giving up two strands of mane, but after some alarming hoof strikes echoed against the stall's wooden walls, he jumped over the stall to land in the breezeway looking deliriously victorious. Grinning at Elora wickedly, he came straight for her and proceeded to crowd her against the wall where she waited. While still breathing deep to get his breath back, he whispered something in her ear about stud horses and fertility. It got the
reaction he was hoping for and he laughed with the delight of a mischievous boy.
"'Tis a first. I made a knight of the Black Swan blush
giggle at the same time."
Back in their suite they were laying out the components they'd gathered and were discussing who would hold the knotted end and who would braid the strands when they heard the commotion of Kay's troupe being shown to their accommodations down the hall. They took one look at each other and dropped what they were doing, scrambling to the door to go and see the show.
The far end of the hall was beyond excitement. It could only be compared to a three-ring circus. The three sisters were assigned to a suite of two bedrooms with shared bath while Katrina was planning to room with Kay. Ram and Elora stood in the hallway at a suitably safe distance to enjoy the theater of commotion. There was arguing over beds, giving directions as to where luggage should be set down and which way it should face, questions about additional hangers, opening and closing of windows and doors, and, of course, running back and forth between rooms to make sure that nobody else got a better deal.