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
Kay noticed his teammates looking on like wide-eyed spectators. He sauntered over to stand next to them, out of the way of the feminine siege, but looking strangely at home in the middle of a situation that would bemuse a lesser man. The staff had finished delivering luggage and was clearing out, happily, when Katrina noticed they had attracted an audience. She came straight toward Elora with a grin that showed off dimples Shirley Temple would envy.
Elora had guessed she must be Katrina because the three sisters were taller, blonder and bore a family resemblance to each other as well as Kay. Katrina had hazel eyes, a heart-shaped face and a head full of shiny brown curls with a touch of red in them. She was pretty, but more importantly, her manner gave the impression - even before she spoke - of someone who was kind and gracious; both highly valued traits in Southern society. She had the singularly self-possessed bearing of a woman who had never experienced loneliness, rejection, or a broken heart. And she never would.
When Katrina approached, she leaned toward Ram for a kiss on the cheek. Elora extended her hand with the intention of introducing herself.
"Oh, put that away and come here." Katrina laughed as she ignored Elora's hand and pulled her into a hug. "You could only be Elora. Kay's warned us not to invite you to one of our late night poker games unless we want to lose everything."
Elora smiled. "He couldn't be more wrong. Ram's the shark. Blackball him."
Katrina laughed and glanced up at Kay with a look that was proprietary and adoring at the same time. When her attention came back to Elora she said: "This is
much fun! An elf wedding. Wow. Maybe I'll pick up some ideas."
"Well," Elora said, "if you do, I can't take credit. Ram's mother and sister are the architects of the event of the millennium. I'm along for the ride and glad to have somebody else taming the details."
Kay's sisters suddenly took the hallway. In a dizzying flurry of femininity, they said hello to Ram then grabbed Elora, pulled her into their suite, and closed the door, leaving their brother and the groom standing in the hall alone.
Kay looked down at Ram with a tiny shake of his head and a crooked little smile that implied this was nothing unusual.
Ram said: "I happen to know where the tenants of this monstrosity keep some very fine Irish whiskey."
"Lead the way." Kay immediately looked more optimistic about the prospects for a pleasant afternoon.
They had only gone a few steps when the girls' door opened. Dandie stuck her head out. "Hey. Any chance we can get some..." Her head disappeared momentarily while there was apparently some appended discussion, then popped out again. "...Arnold Palmers sent up here?"
"Sure." Ram shrugged offhandedly.
Without thanks or further adieu, the door closed, leaving the two men staring at an empty hallway. After a few seconds, they turned and resumed their quest for whiskey, but were stopped by Squoozie this time. "We need snacks, too. That airline food was just... well, you know. Y'all got stuff down there to make chicken cheese nachos?" Someone was saying something. She looked away for just a second. "With jalapenos." Another voice was heard coming from inside the room. "Not the sissy kind."
Ram took a deep breath and put his hands in his jeans pockets. "No nachos, Squooze. Why do you no' come downstairs to the solarium or the library or the game room? We can drum up some cheese and fruit. Maybe tarts or popovers."
She opened her mouth to say something, but Ram held up his hand shaking his head. "No' a single jalapeno in the house."
She contemplated that for a minute, ducked her head back into the room, then reemerged smiling brightly. "That'd be great, Ram. Thanks, hon." The door slammed, but reopened three seconds later. "We'll be down in twenty minutes."
Behind closed doors four single ladies piled up on the beds next to Elora and insisted that she give up details on how she "bagged" the world's most eligible and allegedly "active" bachelor. While Elora found the company of other young women novel and exhilarating, she had to get very creative with her story to ease around the fact that she was an alien from another dimension with extra physical abilities, who was employed by an ancient secret society of knights and paranormal investigators who guarded innocents from harm by occult or supernatural forces sometimes using occult or supernatural forces in the process. She found that she was able to stay close to the core facts while tiptoeing around specifics that would require security clearance.
When she recalled her time with Ram at the hunting cottage in the New Forest Preserve, she repeatedly heard sighs and noticed that eyes had glazed over with longing. Well, it
a good story.
She was less prepared for a question about where she got her hair color done. After a couple of beats of indecision, she said, "It's natural."
The four blinked at her for a few seconds, uncertain how to respond, then simultaneously exploded into a fit of shared laughter. Squoozie said, "Good one, Elora."
Sometimes honesty really
the best policy.
The other women were so open and easy to be with, that by the time the little group emerged an hour later to make their way toward fruit, cheese, tarts, popovers, and Arnold Palmers, Elora felt like she had known them for a long time. She noticed that Kay's sisters alternately called his fiancée "Trina" or an even more affectionate "Trinnie".
On the way downstairs Elora pointed out what she had learned so far about the palace and how to get around without getting lost. She headed straight for the solarium while they talked about costumes for the handfasting and who would be wearing what. They were just traversing the grand foyer when the giant doors opened and in walked Baka, Aelsong, and Storm.
Elora's eyes went straight to Storm's and locked there. She hated feeling uncomfortable around him and wished that she could run up to him and give him the same sort of unself-conscious hug she had received from Katrina an hour before. Instead, she froze where she was and simply nodded. He did the same, but was quickly distracted by Kay's women swarming him to say hello. Elora made herself useful introducing Aelsong and Baka, who seemed to be enjoying the female attention immensely.
Aelsong gave instructions to staff as to where to put Storm's bag.
"We were going to the solarium for a Texas style tea. It's an iced thing called Arnold Palmer. Ram and Kay are together somewhere, but I don't know where."
Aelsong turned to a maid passing by. "Where are my brother and his gigantic friend?"
"The library bar," she replied.
Aelsong thanked her and turned to the women. "I will show these two to the library bar and then join you for Texas style tea if 'tis no' presumin'?"
After assuring Aelsong she was more than welcome to join them, the little group dispersed, going in opposite directions. Elora looked back over her shoulder at the same time Storm was doing the same. She would have to talk to Ram about a way to get past this touchy situation. There must be a way to back a relationship up, call a romantic truce, pledge friendship, and move on.
When the men decided to drift toward the warmth and excitement of feminine company, Storm excused himself to his room saying he would unpack and settle in before dinner.
In the solarium, the conversation quickly turned to questions about the handfasting. Shortly after they'd been joined by the men minus Storm, Elora's mother-in-law-to-be arrived to talk about the various activities scheduled. They were all to enjoy dance lessons in the ballroom after dinner. The women responded with enthusiasm. Kay and Baka groaned. Like most elves, Ram loved to dance so it was okay with him.
Dinner was served in one of the small, intimate dining halls since there would be only twenty-one guests including a few of Ram's relatives. The average person would have been so impressed they might have been tempted to call it theater, but the six-course production was nothing extraordinary for the royal family.
Tepring sat Aelsbood at one end flanked by two of the Norns and put Storm between one of the sisters and Katrina, with Kay across from her. Aelsong and Baka were next to each other across the table from Ram and Elora which gave the betrothed couple a ringside seat to the seduction underway.
Ram found the interaction between Song and Baka more or less comical. He reached for Elora's hand under the table and gave her a smile promising a midnight encounter hotter than anything the ex-vampire could dream up, but toward the end of dinner, he began to seem preoccupied. When everyone rose to make their way to the ballroom, he steered Elora off to the side.
"I thought of somethin' I must do. I'll be away for a few hours."
"Ram," Elora looked concerned, "what...?"
"I'll tell you everythin' when I return. Promise."
"Wait. What's going on?"
He pressed his lips to hers and lingered so sweetly it reminded her of their first kiss. "'Tis a surprise. Go and dance with the others. Leave our door unlocked. And keep the bed warm for me." He left Elora standing in the doorway wondering.
The ballroom was lit so brightly it was dazzling. It was amazing that the centuries-old building had been wired for modernity; a sort of miracle in itself. Tepring had hired the same musicians who would play at the handfasting to be on hand for dance lessons that evening. She was thoughtful enough to have young, virile-looking gentlemen partners on hand for whichever two of the three Norns would not be dancing with Storm. It was becoming clear that Tepring was a genius at planning and organization, never missing the slightest detail.
Aelsong and Baka were happily paired off and lost in their own world. When Elora showed up with no partner, Tepring promptly sent for her other son, the king.
Aelsblood arrived, wearing a certain stiff politeness if not genuine pleasure at being summoned from whatever he was about. Though lacking the personal traits usually paired with dance instructors, Aelsblood proved to be an adequate teacher and Elora could see that he possessed the basic athleticism of his younger brother.
Were it not for the entertainment factor in watching people make fools of themselves, the elves, excluding Elora, would have been bored to the core going through steps they had learned as babies. But there was an inherent fun factor in an Irish reel and, by the time everyone was up to speed, the laughter threatened to interfere with keeping the dance steps in time. Even the king flashed a split-second smile, revealing a spark that reminded her of the magnetism Tepring had passed to Ram and Aelsong.
When the dance stopped, Aelsblood bowed from the waist. As he did so Elora projected the thought, "So. You hide a second nature."
He cocked his head almost imperceptibly and allowed the corners of his mouth to turn up as his lips flirted with a smile. Even that tiny change transformed his appearance from mask to semi-handsome face.
"Good night." He nodded slightly as he started away, a modern day version of a bow she supposed, and a rousing demonstration of warmth by Aelsblood standards.
"Stop right there!" Tepring commanded, proving that even kings relinquish command to the firmly stated wishes of mums. "We are no' done here. Your sister-in-law needs a partner for the waltz."
For a heartbeat Aelsblood looked like he might tell his mother to fuck off. No matter how much Elora liked Tepring, for the king's sake, there was a part of her that hoped he would.
To Elora she said: "After the handfastin' you and Rammel will greet our guests in the receivin' line. Immediately afterward you will lead a waltz."
"Alright. You can free the king from dance duty because, I assure you, I
know how to waltz."
Tepring smiled brightly. "Well, then, Aelsblood will very much enjoy bein' first to dance with the bride." She stepped back. "The rest of you can join them after a few bars." She waved a sweeping hand at the musicians. "The Shannon Waltz."
This was the first time Elora had seen Tepring's imperious side and had to admit it was impressive. Her future mother-in-law would have made a passing good field general.
The king was an excellent dancer. With her right hand in his left, her left hand on his shoulder, and Aelsblood's right hand pressed firmly between her shoulder blades where he could exert the most control, he guided Elora around the floor effortlessly, the two of them demonstrating that they had both been born to pretension. Of course, Ram's family could not know that. Ever.
"You're a wonderful dancer. Can you waltz The Shannon and talk at the same time, your brotherness?"
"No' awed by the elfdom then?" he deadpanned without looking directly at her.
"Is that what you're accustomed to? Awe?"
Aelsblood had danced them toward a far corner, where he stopped and dropped his hands. "Unlike your mate, Ms. Laiken, no' all of us can go about selfishly actin' out our fantasies like carefree children. Some of us have interminable responsibilities."
And there it is
"Were you ever a carefree child?" She saw something flicker behind Aelsblood's eyes, something that said she had pinched a sore place. "Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not making light of your job. Only a loon would want your burden. But maybe you could gain some mastery over that burden before it swallows you whole?"