Chapter Twenty-Five

The morning of the Grenfords' Christmas party, they gathered in Vincent's living room. A large area with burgundy carpeting and cream colored walls, it featured a massive high definition television, a bar, and a large aquarium of tropical fish. Along the right wall, hung a wide abstract painting of what looked like a black diagonal stroke coupled with scattered dots. Adel stared at the painting, cocking her head. What exactly was she supposed to think of it?

She felt someone approach from behind and a low, familiar voice murmured, "I prefer basic scenery stuff myself. Call me unsophisticated, but lines never quite appealed to me."

Being around Tristan still felt surreal. She'd gotten so used to hiding from him, bickering with him, that now that they were technically … together, she didn't quite know what to do with herself anymore. More times than less, she'd found herself acting awkward and self-conscious around him which was annoying in itself. He never commented on it, but perhaps that was really rankled her: the fact that he knows that she knows that he noticed. The bastard with his cheeky grins.

She shrugged. "Well, you never know. This thing might represent scenery. Of sorts. Like, that black line could be … waves. And the dots are fishies."

Tristan turned back to the painting and squinted. "Ah. Yes. Apparently, fish can fly too."

She chuckled, bumping his shoulder with hers and his hand caught hers. Her hand hung loose in his and she tried to act indifferent, but the smirk on his face was too smug for his own good. She tried to loop her foot around his ankle and he evaded her, tugging her to his side. "Trip me and I'm taking you down with me," he promised, voice low and even.

"I'd like to see you try," she countered.

He didn't make a response, but the look in his eyes went dark with anticipation. He let go of her hand to clamp both arms around her and she twisted away from him, laughter bubbling up in her throat.

Since most of them would be busy later on preparing for the party, they decided to meet up early to exchange their presents. Caine, sprawled across the leather sofa, clicked through channels on the massive HD-TV while Danielle stayed across the room, perched on a stool behind the bar as she flipped through the latest Vogue magazine. Next to Jack, Carrie sat with her legs curled up beneath her on the loveseat. The brown haired boy's eyes were plastered on the television while his girlfriend rummaged through the bag she bought with her.

Vincent strolled in after Sammy with bags in hand and without missing a beat, he said, "Will, get your hand out of the aquarium."

Will pulled his hand back from the large tank that took up the right side of the room, guiltily wiping it against his shirt. "I just wanted to … find Dory."

"What?"

"Dory. Dory! The forgetful fish from Finding Nemo! I like Dory best because she can speak whale." Will snorted, making a face. "I mean, really, who cares about Nemo? Dory and the turtles, for the win! Dude!"

Vincent turned to his girlfriend. "I think we've waited too long to send him to a psychiatrist."

Danielle flipped another page in her magazine without looking up. "The kid helped himself to some gin and tonic. Someone save him before he tries to climb into the aquarium. Again."

Caine didn't turn around, pointing the remote at the television. "Why don't you just punch him out? You seem to be good at that."

Without a word, Danielle started to roll up a particularly thick issue of Vogue and Sammy jumped in quickly with false enthusiasm, "So is everybody ready for presents?"

A mixture of grunts and unenthused "yays" met her.

Vincent rolled his eyes skyward. "Let's just get this Secret Santa thing started." He plopped down on the second couch adjacent to the one Caine reclined on and Sammy took a seat next to him. Adel followed Tristan and she took the other spot next to the redhead while Tristan sat beside her, perched on the armrest. Danielle crossed the room to lean against the back of the couch with her arms folded. Vincent nodded at Caine. "Want to begin?"

Caine dropped the remote and leaned forward to pick up the bag he'd set down by his feet. He handed a flat, medium sized blue box wrapped with a white ribbon over to Will.

Then without looking up, the boy stuck a similarly wrapped box in Danielle's general direction. "Here," he mumbled.

Startled, she accepted it and blurted out, "You got me a gift?"

He glanced away. "Well, Tristan got you for Secret Santa and since I figured he should spend time picking out a gift for Adel, I'd help him get a gift for you instead –"

"He yanked the paper out of my hand and told me he wanted to get you something," Tristan commented.

Will nodded without looking up from his present. "Word. Adel wasn't even there then. Lying makes your nose bigger, Caine."

Caine's lips curled back as his glare turned lethal.

Still stunned, Danielle stammered, "Um, thanks."

Caine looked away and jerked his shoulders in a half-hearted shrug.

Danielle slipped a finger underneath the ribbon and pulled it off. She hesitated for a second, suspicion flickering in her eyes. "Wait. This isn't some gag thing and something's going to pop out at me, is it?"

Caine rolled his eyes. "I'm not Will."

Will smacked him even as he worked on opening his own present.

The dark haired girl pulled off the cover and her breath caught. Stunned, she stared down at the contents and Caine watched her from the corner of his eyes, trying to be nonchalant. "Oh, Caine," she breathed. "Thank you oh so much."

A smile came across his face and he chuckled, "It just made me think of you –"

She hurled the box at his head and it clipped the side of his cheek. He could only blink.

"I should have expected as much!" She snapped and then without another word, got up and stormed out of the room, her heels sinking in the carpet with each forceful step.

Caine watched her leave in shock. "What the hell did I do, crazy -" He glanced down at the box and his face crumpled. Rubbing his face with a hand, he groaned, "Ah, hell."

Will plucked out a light pink Burberry cashmere check scarf from his box and reverently held it up to his neck. "Oh, Caine! It's just my color! And it's so soft!" He rubbed his cheek against it and his eyes lit up. "Yay! There's more! He plucked out a small box from the white tissue paper. "Perfume!"

He started to tear open the Chanel No. 5 when Caine grabbed everything out of his hands. Will blinked. "This is Danielle's present!" Caine said desperately. "God. Why the hell are the wrapping papers the same stupid color?"

"Because you're stupid. Where's my present?" Will demanded, disgruntled.

With a grimace, Caine shoved the other box at the boy and Will pulled out two T-shirts with the sayings: "Boobies make me smile" and "I don't have A.D.D., it's just – Hey look! A squirrel!" Lubricating gel and a box of condoms, strawberry flavored and ribbed for pleasure, followed.

The room went silent. The bubbles in the aquarium gurgled, sending fish flitting through the kaleidoscopic stone castle decoration.

"Thanks, Caine!" Will finally exclaimed with wild enthusiasm, again holding up the box of condoms to his cheek. "Just my flavor!"

"What should I do?" Caine raked his hands through his hair.

"I'm thinking you should go and find Danielle before she comes back with a rifle and blast your ass off," Will suggested as he shook the box like a tambourine.

"Blast your ass off …" Jack wondered. "Physically possible?"

Vincent whistled lowly and leaned forward with a heavy expression. "Find her, but be sure to stay two feet away from her. Slowly dangle the scarf in the air –"

"Like a white flag?" Tristan remarked, drumming his fingers along the couch behind Adel.

"Like you're surrendering," Vincent confirmed. "And then inch toward her when you're sure she's not going to punch you out again."

Sammy nodded in agreement, trying to stifle a giggle.

Caine glanced around them and sighed. "I'm not going to survive this, am I?"

Jack gave him thumbs up. "Good luck, bro."

"Maybe you should bring out the Chanel and give her a spray too," Vincent suggested.

Caine paused, licking his lips nervously. "Like in her eyes, you mean? Slow her down?"

"Like a pepper spray?" Jack pondered. "Does that work?"

Carrie's brows knitted as she leaned forward, perching her chin against her hand. "I'm pretty sure that'd just make her angrier –"

"Like a bear!" Will agreed, hooking his fingers into claws.

Adel hesitated. "Just tell her it was a misunderstanding, Caine. I'm pretty sure she'll understand –"

Everyone else snorted and Tristan chuckled, combing his fingers through Adel's long ponytail. "Just grovel, man."

Caine sulked his way to the door, shoulders slumped. Pausing, he threw them a hopeful look over his shoulder. "Anyone want to come with –"

"No." It was a resounding chorus.

Caine gritted his teeth. "Thanks for being so damn supportive." With a sigh, he clutched the gift and left.

"Well, that was fun," Will declared. "Who's next?"

After that debacle, they decided to exchange all of their presents at once. Adel handed her hastily wrapped package to Tristan, though her grip tightened when he tried to take it from her. Amusement fell over his face as he tapped her whitened knuckles, "Are you going to make me wrestle for it?"

She released it quickly and sat back. Bemused, Tristan's eyes lingered on her face before he set a rectangular box in her lap, wrapped in glistening crimson paper. She stared down at it, holding the sides of it but made no move to unwrap it.

As the sound of crinkling paper surrounded them, Adel's face grew grimmer and grimmer and she ducked her head low with a grimace.

Vincent tore open the white package Sammy handed to him and his face lit up. "Oh, wow," he breathed as he pulled out a long, forest green scarf. "It's gorgeous." Sammy laced her fingers together and shook her head, turning slightly pink, but she looked pleased.

Adel still couldn't meet Tristan's eyes and she cringed with the sound of crumpling wrapping paper. When silence fell, her cheeks started to burn. "Wow." Tristan cleared his throat, "Uh. This is nice, Adel. Really nice."

Adel ventured a peek at him. He stared down at his gift in mild puzzlement and she pressed her lips together, wincing. "Sorry."

"No. No no. This is … nice." Tristan repeated cautiously. "I'm just – just, uh, no offense, but what is it exactly?"

He held up a navy knitted square patch the size of his palm and he flapped it, studying it from all sides. The fabric was thick, made out of dark navy blue yarn, and there seemed to be odd loops and gaps in some sections.

Her reply was quiet. "A coaster."

"A toaster?" he repeated blankly.

"A coaster!" she raised her voice.

He blinked.

"I – I was making a scarf, but I couldn't finish it in time." She gestured lamely at the cooing couple next to them. "Sammy taught me, but I kept making mistakes and it took forever to – I'm sorry."

"So … a coaster." Tristan held it up to his eye, the light seeping through the patchy spots.

"Yes," she said curtly. "You know, those things you use to put your cups on so your table doesn't get rings –"

"I know what a coaster is," he interrupted, this time with an amused smile. "Thanks, Adel."

"I know it looks like crap, but it's because I couldn't quite figure out the pattern and the yarn kept slipping and something went wrong with purling or whatever it's called and I got all these holes so I tried to take it apart again, but this was already my fifth time and I just kept on messing up –" she cut herself off, ashamed. She made a face. "Sorry. I don't think I'm too good at knitting."

The look he gave her though sent a tingly feeling over her skin. Eyes a clear cerulean, he smiled gently. "It's great, Adel. I love it."

Of course, that only made her feel worse. "Don't lie to me. You don't have to worry. I'm going to get you something else later," she continued desperately. "I –"

"I love this," Tristan cut her off, flapping the pathetic scrap at her. "I love my coaster."

"It's a dinky gift," she sulked.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself when it's my present." He rolled his eyes. Anticipation lit his expression as he nodded at the package in her lap. "Now open yours."

She eyed it. "I don't want to now. It'd only make me feel worse."

"It'd make me feel good," he countered. Tristan ducked his head to brush his lips quickly against her ear, murmuring thickly, "But if you're really that upset, I can think of ways you can pay me back later."

The back of her neck flushed red hot and she didn't deign to acknowledge his suggestive tone. She focused her attention on the package, carefully unpeeling the tape away from the corners. "Your present better not be great," she muttered.

"Only you could wish for something like that," he remarked wryly.

"The first thing I'm going to do when this is over is call up a delivery service and have someone send you … five hundred crystal cups," she babbled as she removed another piece of tape.

"Okay," he quipped. "Guess I can look forward to five hundred more coasters too then." She gave him a look which he ignored. He inclined his head in her direction with an impatient smile, leaning closer as he ran a finger against the still unopened package. "Can you be any slower?"

She turned her head, flicking her ponytail in his face. "I'm trying to be careful with the –"

"Why bother? You're just going to throw away the wrapping paper anyway." His fingers entwined with her ponytail, playing with the ends of her hair, and her head was locked in place.

Her eyes slid in his direction, narrowed, and she responded primly, "Maybe I want to save it."

"For what?" He tapped a finger against his chin. "Recycling for my next coaster?"

She elbowed him in the gut and his hand slipped away from her hair, arm settling around her shoulders casually. The spot where his hand rested against felt pleasantly warm and she resisted the urge to turn to him and hug him, maybe pinch his cheeks really hard. A snicker escaped her and his eyes narrowed. "What?"

"Nothing," she said quickly, pulling off the wrapping paper. "I was just laughing at your hilarious comment."

"Freaking liar," he muttered and then he looped an arm around her neck, grinding his knuckles against her noggin.

She jerked away from him and glared. "I pay you a compliment and you –"

"I call you a liar," he answered. "Now open your gift before I do it for you."

"Bossy jerk," she grumbled.

The paper unfolded to reveal a white, nondescript box and she sent him a curious look. He merely dipped his chin at it, his eyes fixed upon her face. He curled his arm against the back of the sofa, leaning his elbow on it as he rested his face in his palm, long fingers curled against his cheek.

She pulled apart the flaps of the box, parting the mound of white tissue paper and her heart skipped a beat. Reclining upon a blanket of filmy white paper was a small doll just a tad larger than the size of her hand. With porcelain skin and wavy black hair, it was dressed in a lacy white dress and a pair of crystalline silver flats. A small, simple ruby stone necklace adorned its neck.

As Adel lifted the doll out, the eyes opened and they were a warm pale brown, like caramelized chocolate. It was ridiculous, but something about the tiny thing and how it fit so snugly within her hands made her feel strangely touched.

Tristan addressed her haltingly. "Do you like it? I saw the way you looked at Carrie's old dolls in the attic and I thought you would like –"

She turned to him with such abruptness, the words failed in his mouth. Cheeks flushed, her eyes were bright and she stared at him, lost and vulnerable. A wondering smile came over Tristan's lips and he automatically shifted closer, reaching for her.

Adel shoved a hand in his face and demanded, "Give me back your coaster."

He blinked. "Pardon?"

"Give it." Without waiting for his response, she reached for the fabric that was on his lap and his hand automatically clamped down upon it.

"What? No. This is mine now," he protested. "You can't just take a gift back."

Desperation entered her voice and she tried to pry his fingers off the coaster. "Please, Tristan, just let go."

"No way in hell. You –" He gritted his teeth. "Fine, if you don't like your gift, I'd take back the doll and get you something else." One hand crept toward her package and she backed away from him, clutching the doll to her chest wildly.

"I love it," she blurted out. "I love it too much, damn you! It's too – it's just too nice." She glared at him, frustration wild in her eyes. "Can I just get back my coaster now? I'd make you something else and you can just forget about the crappy coaster. I'd extend it into a scarf or a pair of mittens – no, a sweater! A blanket!"

Tristan lifted his chin and eyed her down along the length of his nose. "I don't think so. I like my dinky coaster, thank you very much."

"You!" Suspicion darkened her eyes. "You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?"

"What? Accepting a gift with grace? Yes, completely part of my devious plan for world domination."

"No!" She jabbed a finger at him. "You're acting all nice because you know it'd just make me feel worse and then I'd be in debt to you because I feel so bad."

"Paranoid much?" But he glanced away from her with a suppressed smile.

"No! You know that I'm going to feel guilty and then I'd have to be nice to you!"

"Oh yes, and that's so hard to do," he commented dryly.

"I –" She sat back and stared down at the doll, petting its hair. "I feel too bad."

"Well, did you know I also got it custom made? Handcrafted with personalized details and special delivery, did you know that?" He couldn't resist adding.

She looked up at him miserably and hugged the doll to her. "I hate you," she responded with no rancor.

He watched her fondly and then he moved closer, hooking his finger under her necklace. "Like this, for example. I had them put a matching ruby necklace on the doll for you." His finger traced along the length of the silver chain, caressing against the skin over her collarbone and she shivered. "Isn't it pretty?" His voice turned husky.

She nodded and shifted in her seat, looking away from him. Her arms wrapped around the doll in a death-grip as if it was a shield. Her body felt too warm and she could feel herself starting to tip toward Tristan as if he was exerting super gravitational pull.

Adel muttered underneath her breath. "I'm going to buy you a customized bicycle and some ice skates and a huge-ass, life-size Big Bird. Then we'll see who owes who what."

Tristan ducked low to press a kiss against her cheek and her heartbeat spiked. As he pulled away, he chuckled. "Is it so bad to want to please each other?"

That's it. She'd had enough of him getting a rise out of her all the time. Why the heck was he so calm all the freaking time? Twisting her body around to face him, her lips thinned with determination.

He pulled back sharply, wary. "You're not going to deck me, are you?"

"How come everything we do always end up as a competition?" she murmured, trailing her fingers up his chest as she moved closer to him. The heat radiating from his body enveloped her and she couldn't meet his eyes, knowing that if he even had a smirk on, she'd crack.

But his voice, though impassive, was satisfyingly uneven. "Because you're childish."

"You're a child," she grumbled and then she yanked him forward by the collar, crushing her lips against his. It was clumsy and she was certain she'd fairly cracked his front tooth, but she made up for the awkward assault by gently softening her lips, pliant against his. She released him just as quickly though, shoving him backward before anyone saw, and sat away from him. Petting the doll, she mumbled softly, "Thanks."

Her cheeks burned and for a while, Tristan remained still, sprawled back against the armrest, his eyes pinned on her with stunned intensity. Her cheeks turned warm. Suddenly, his hand latched onto her arm and he straightened up to mumble thickly in her ear, his breath ghosting over her sensitive skin. "Get up."

"What?" She frowned.

"We're finding a closet." His eyes were deep blue, full of mischief and promise, and her heartbeat quickened.

"Okay, stop!" Will cried out. "You're all making me lonely!"

They lifted their eyes to see that Jack and Carrie were snuggling in a corner and Vincent had pulled Sammy into his lap. The redhead rested her head against her boyfriend's shoulder, one arm looped around his neck while her other hand played with the new heart-shaped emerald necklace she got from Vincent. The couples kept shooting them knowing smirks.

Vincent snorted. "Newlyweds."

Somewhere in the distant perimeters of the house, something shattered and the muffled sound of yelling seeped through the walls.

Jack pointed up to the ceiling. "Destructive love."

Will plopped down on the ground, crossing his legs Indian-style and sulked. Hand raised, he grumbled, "Sexy, unappreciated single."

Vincent kissed Sammy's neck. "Find Dory."


"Close your eyes," Danielle ordered.

Adel leaned back warily. "What are you going to do?"

"Line your eyes." The girl held up an eyeliner pencil, waving it before her face.

"I think I'm fine," Adel protested. The girls had decided to get ready together and between all of them and the bustling of maids in and out, Danielle's room was a state of havoc with discarded clothes piled everywhere.

Carrie looked away from the mirror and giggled. "No, let her do it, Adel. You should wear a really low-cut, sexy dress and get smoky eyes. I bet it'd get Tristan all hot and –"

"Carrie!" Adel blurted out. For such a quiet girl, Tristan's little sister certainly had no qualms about offering pointers on how to hit Tristan's weak spots.

Interesting.

"It's going to be so much fun. Another masquerade ball!" Danielle crowed. "I'm a genius for convincing my mother again."

"She had to after you gave Caine a black eye," Sammy commented dryly. The girl pulled a comb through her long red hair and let out a content sigh. "Thank goodness I don't have to change my hair color like last year."

"What?" That piqued Adel's curiosity.

"Long story. Ended badly." Sammy waved a hand and crossed the room to Adel's side.

Danielle clasped Adel's face with one hand and aimed her pencil. Adel squeezed her eyes shut and tried to retreat. "Stop! You're going to poke my eyes out!"

"Not if you don't move!" Danielle clucked her tongue.

"We're going to wear masks anyway. We don't need eye makeup!"

"Of course eye makeup is important! It's all about the eyes tonight," Danielle retorted. "Just imagine giving Tristan a sultry look across the room. Your mysterious gaze behind your sequined mask luring him in …"

"He's going to tackle you to the ground again!" Sammy chimed in, combing Adel's hair.

"You guys have been hanging around Will too much," Adel muttered. "I don't like it."

"Relax, I made sure there's plenty of mistletoe hanging around everywhere," Danielle nodded. "Plenty of nookie for you!"

"Seriously, it's like I'm surrounded by Wills," Adel continued. She perched her arm up along the back of her chair and curled up her legs, eyes dropping to her lap. "I still feel kinda bad about the stupid present I got him. How do you think I can make it up to him?"

Their heads popped up in unison, three pairs of eyes gleaming as they narrowed in on her. She held up a hand before they could begin. "Okay, stop channeling Will!"

Carrie twisted off the cap of a pink lipgloss. "What do you like about my brother, Adel?"

Adel choked. "Wh – what?"

"You do like him … right?" Carrie applied the pink sheen, carefully slicking it over her bottom lip.

Adel cleared her throat and offered a curt nod.

"So what do you like about him?" Carrie asked again with a broad smile. In that smile, Adel could pick up on the clear resemblance between the girl and her brother and she realized then that the Harland siblings had always been hiding cores of evil.

She waved a hand as if trying to dissipate the question. "Oh, you know. The usual things you would like about him."

"Like?"

"What, you want a list?"

"Sure," Danielle agreed, uncapping a tube of mascara.

"He's nice. He's smart. He's cute. He's –"

"Really?"

"No. He's mean. He picks on me. He likes to laugh at me. He's a jerk. And –" Adel turned red, grimacing as she admitted, "And I don't know. I like him. Call me a masochist."

"You should tell him that," Sammy suggested.

"I'm a masochist?"

"No, that you like him." Sammy laughed, leaning forward to the mirror as she curled her lashes.

Adel stammered. "Oh, I think he knows."

"But you haven't told him before, have you?"

"I don't believe there's a need to," Adel informed them primly. "We understand each other clearly and we have a deep connection –"

"Stop trying to BS your way out of this." Danielle chuckled, pulling a tissue to wipe off excess mascara. Crumpling it up in her fist, she jabbed her finger in Adel's face. "I double dare you to declare your love to Tristan tonight."

"L - love? Love is kinda a strong term to be throwing around –" Adel choked.

"Your like then. Whatever. You wanted to do something for him, didn't you? This sound simple enough … doesn't it?"

"What about you?" Adel countered. "What about you and Caine?"

Danielle's face twisted into a scowl. "Ew. Caine's like a brother. A very annoying, perverted brother."

Sammy frowned. "But he really likes you."

The older girl leaned back in her chair, reaching over to toss the balled up tissue into the waste basket. "No, he doesn't. He likes to flirt with everybody."

"He punched a guy for you."

"And I punched him back. So?"

"I think he likes you," Sammy persisted, rummaging through various tubes of mascara. Adel didn't quite know why there were so many different kinds out there, but apparently they were supposed to contain distinct super powers including lengthening, non-clumping, non-smearing, volumizing, and perhaps the bestowal of bullet-proof, bionic eyelashes. Maybe.

Danielle rolled her eyes. "The boy just sees me as a challenge. Give him a day or two and he'll be back to luring maids into supply closets."

"What if he's serious this time?" Carrie joined in.

"Please, the day Caine gets serious about a girl will be the day I burn all of my Gucci bags." Danielle turned back to Adel, whipping out another tiny angled brush from her case. "Now stop distracting me and let me define your brows."


Adel wobbled on her heels as she turned the corner from the hallway to Danielle's room. The path opened out to a huge, winding staircase that led straight down to the foyer. The room was bathed in dim, ochre light and a light fragrance of mint and cinnamon laced the air. Peering over the balustrade, her first glimpse of Tristan sent her heart racing. The foyer was surprisingly almost empty and she realized from the strains of music floating in that the party had already started. Tristan waited at the bottom of the steps, arms folded before him as Will jabbered to him. The other boy had already donned his mask, a sparkling silver that covered nearly half his face, and with each animated wave of his hands, the light seemed to twinkle around his eyes. Across the room, by the door, Vincent stood with Jack as they poured champagne from a bottle into their glasses.

They must all be waiting for the girls, Adel realized. Her eyes drifted back to Tristan and her heart throbbed as she recognized that she, too, had someone waiting for her as well.

Tristan wore a tuxedo of pure white and one hand clutched what appeared to be a thin white mask. He tapped it slowly against his upper arm as he listened to Will with his head bent, the orange light from the lamp gleaming upon his golden hair.

She staggered down the steps, fumbling for the banister as her heels clicked against the marble. Licking her lips nervously, she pushed back her straightened black hair over one shoulder and tried to keep herself from reaching up to pull at the top of her dress again. One thing bad about strapless gowns is that she's constantly worried about it slipping down her front. Pulling a nipplegate, won't that be fun?

At the sound of her approach, Tristan lifted his eyes up. With a leisurely smile, he slipped on his mask and took the few steps to wait directly at the bottom of the staircase. His arms still folded, he waited until she reached him. "I would have held my hand out for you, bowed, given you a peck on your hand and everything, but then you'd probably call me cheesy," he drawled.

She stopped beside him and she grinned at him. "How well you know me."

"So I guess I'd just have to settle with …" He crooked his elbow at her. "Not as cheesy?"

"Just a tad," she teased him as she took his arm. She held out the skirt of her black strapless gown she'd finally agreed upon after perusing what Danielle had selected for her. "Well, do I meet your approval?"

He tilted his head as his eyes scanned her up and down and with a musing hum, he nodded. "You'd do."

"I'm much relieved."

He held out his other arm and straightened up. "And I? Do I merit an okay?"

Her lips twitched in a smile. "Yeah, okay."

"And me? Me?" Will broke in excitedly. He held out his arms and turned for them, the long tails of his black tuxedo coat fluttering. "Am I beautiful?"

"Very," they echoed.

Jack leaned around Vincent, calling out to her. "Where're Carrie and the others?"

"They're still upstairs," she informed the others. Turning her attention back to Tristan, she clutched his hand tightly and looked him straight in the eyes. "I'm very sorry, but I had to escape first." Her hand fluttered to her chest as her voice grew heavy. "Danielle wanted to glue false eyelashes on me."

His eyes widened and he let out a mockingly distraught gasp. "No. Not the lashes!"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. I could barely run in these heels so I managed to crawl out instead. Please don't judge me." She tried to nod solemnly and even so, she was the first one to crack. Apparently, Tristan just has too much damn experience with slapping on poker faces. He didn't even break into a smile as she doubled over with laughter, but when she slipped him a look, his eyes were so tender that for a moment she couldn't help herself from leaning against his arm, ducking her face low against his shoulder. He chuckled.

Distractedly, he murmured over his shoulder, "Will, tell the others to meet us inside."

Tristan led her through two rooms to the right and the music got stronger. Flashes of colorful lights fell through the darkened doorway to the ballroom and as she followed his lead to the room, they paused in the doorway. A hand slipped around her waist and she stumbled forward to him. Innocently, he brushed his other hand over her bare shoulder. "Warm enough?"

"Yes," she mumbled.

He didn't say a word and she looked back at him. Blue eyes intent on her, he slowly lifted a hand and pointed up.

She cursed even as she lifted her eyes up. A small green twig tied with a jaunty red bow dangled in the doorway. Of course, mistletoe.

Nonchalantly, she shrugged, "Cute decoration, but we should really get out of the doorway before we block anyone –"

"You know what it is. Dani told me she was going to tell you beforehand just in case you don't know what mistletoe is."

"What? Really? I guess she forgot," Adel lied. "What's a mistletoe?"

"The girl is supposed to kiss a guy underneath a mistletoe," he informed her without blinking an eye.

Oh, damn. "Stop lying," she griped, realizing too late that she'd just dug herself into a hole.

"Am I?" He raised an eyebrow. "How would you know?"

She stared back at him evenly. I know that you know that I know so you can stop backing me into a corner, jerk.

His eyebrows climbed higher. So just kiss me. You lied first, sucker.

"Can – can we get out of the doorway so other people can get through –" she started.

"You have to kiss me first, Adel. It's seven years of bad luck if you don't," he stated in a heavy voice, shrugging his shoulders sorrowfully.

Lies! "Okay, fine," she blurted out and she pulled her hand out of the crook of his arm and clasped her fingers before her. Sucking in a deep breath, she closed her eyes, arched her neck, and waited.

And waited.

She peeked out. He watched her with an amused smile, hands in his pockets, and she glowered at him. "What are you waiting for?"

"Girl." He pointed at her. "Kisses a boy." He jabbed his thumb at himself. "I'm the one who's waiting."

Crimson color blossomed in her cheeks as she stammered, "Oh, come on, Tristan. There's no rule that the girl has to kiss the –"

"You don't know about the rules." He shook his head. "It's ten years of bad luck –"

"You said seven!" she exclaimed, ready to throttle him.

"Seven years of bad luck if you don't kiss underneath the mistletoe. Ten years if the girl doesn't kiss the guy," he explained calmly. There was no hint of mischief on his face, but his lips quirked for a second.

She shot him a lethal look. "Okay, you know that I was just lying when I said that I didn't know. I know about mistletoes and I know that there isn't any rule about –"

"Are you going to kiss me or not? We're blocking the doorway."

"Argh!" She gave up. Hands balled up into fists around his lapels, she hauled him forward as she crushed her lips against his.

When she pulled away, he was still blinking as he rubbed the back of his neck. His lips quirked into a teasing smile. "You know, it's not necessary to yank me forward each time you want to kiss me, Adel. You're starting to give me whiplash."

A giggle drew Adel's attention to the doorway where two girls who looked like they were ten goggled at them. Their hands covered their mouths as they shot looks of admiration at Tristan and what seemed to be sympathy at Adel.

Mortified, she whirled around and stormed off into the crush of the crowd. Halfway across the room, a hand closed around her upper arm and she turned around into Tristan's arms. His arms closed around her as she struggled. He laughed. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. That wasn't very funny, okay?"

She stilled. "You're still laughing though," she grumbled, plucking at the first button of his white coat. She had half the mind to yank it off and lob it at his head.

"I'm not. Not anymore," he murmured. Hands slipping around her waist, he started to move her along to the beat of the music. A slow song had come on, the melody light and sweet with strains of violin reverberating in the air. "While we're here, want to dance?"

Her back remained rigid for several minutes and then with a soft sigh, she reached up to thread her arms around his neck in response. They swayed to the music, not really paying attention to the elaborate ballroom styles some couples around them were dancing in. His hands curved around her lower back and she moved closer to him.

"Did you see those girls' faces? Even kids were laughing at me," she grumbled.

He grinned at her and in the dim light, all she could see was the flash of his teeth and the gleam of his white mask. "At least your face was covered by your mask. No worries about people making fun of you."

She gazed up at him and his voice lowered, "Tonight's the night where everyone can move in relative anonymity." His face drew closer to her, their lips a breath's apart.

"Fun," she murmured faintly. The music didn't have a loud beat like the dance songs in clubs so why was her heart pounding so furiously?

His eyes were dark and intense, lids half fallen, and her pulse raced. He smelled like the outdoors, woodsy oak and pine. His body heat seared her skin and as he lowered his head, cheek brushing against hers, his breath whispered against her bare shoulder, tingling hot. In a daze, she turned her head to one side and arched up to close the remaining distance between them. Her lips brushed his gently, once, twice, and then settled fully upon his.

He took over from there, arms entwining around her tightly as he pulled her flushed against his body. One hand came up to cup her face as he deepened the kiss. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she pressed closer to him.

When they finally broke away from each other, breaths ragged, she stared at him and his pale blue eyes. Summoning up her nerves, she blurted out, "I like you. Really. Really. A lot!" Her arms squeezed around him as she all but flung herself at him again, burying her face against his neck before she could die of embarrassment.

Tristan stood in stunned silence, holding her, while couples moved around them. The music had picked up again and it was a loud song with a pulsing beat.

"Say what?" he said, the words vibrating in his chest.

She shook her head, face still plastered against his coat.

His arms came up and he gently disentangled himself, holding her away from him. "Say that again?"

She stared at him, disgruntled, and reached up to fix her mask, which had slipped crookedly. He adjusted it for her, fingers brushing away hers. He raised his voice again. "Repeat what you just said!"

Her teeth gritted and she bellowed, "Are you deaf! I said I like you! Like a whole lot!" She threw out her arms in a wide arc to embellish her declaration and true to her luck, the music quieted just as she screamed her confession. A horde of couples nearest to them turned to send her looks of astonishment and Adel turned red. Fumbling with her mask to make sure it was still firmly in place, she ducked her head low.

Tristan burst out laughing.

Another quick-paced song came on. Adel's eyes narrowed and she slapped his arm. "Thanks a lot, jackass!"

He couldn't stop laughing, shaking his head even as he clutched her arm to keep her from running away from him. "Wh – what brought that on?"

"I was double dared by Danielle," she muttered. "It was kinda supposed to make up for my crappy present until your life-size Big Bird arrives and you're supposed to be all touched and happy, not laughing your head off."

"Okay. I am dutifully touched. And happy," he said between snorts.

"I hate you."

"I thought you're supposed to tell me how much you like me."

"I did. Now I hate you."

"Don't worry. You still have a mask on. You may kiss me again to show me your adoration."

"I absolutely despise you."

"Okay, let's calm you down with a cup of eggnog." His arm fell around her shoulders as he steered her through the crowd toward the side of the room. A long table was set with hors d'oeuvres, wine bottles, various beverages, and a punch bowl. Further along, a huge Christmas tree decorated with colorful ornaments and silver tinsel took up most of the corner next to the massive crackling fireplace.

"What, is eggnog supposed to have an important meaning too?" she grumbled.

"Of course. One cup of eggnog, you bear my children."

The ridiculous statement pulled her eyes to him, but all he did was look back at her with a tranquil expression. A smile tugged at the corners of her lips and she tried to clamp it down. "Whatever." She rolled her eyes.

"You think I'm joking. Eggnog, made from eggs, naturally represent fertility. We take a cup of eggnog underneath a mistletoe, where you then kiss me and promise to have my babies and we're as good as married," Tristan enlightened her, throwing a conspiring nod in her attention. This time though, there was a twinkle in his eyes.

She twisted her face away from him as a giggle slipped from her. "You're an idiot."

"You already declared your love for me –"

"Like! I declared my like!"

"So tonight's the night where we take our relationship through multiple levels. At breakneck speed." He nodded. "By midnight, we should be rocking our grandkids to sleep."

She turned to him, stopping him in his steps. Curling her hands up around his shoulders, she grinned lopsidedly at him. "Okay, since when did my oh so serious Tristan pick up this wicked sense of humor? It's kinda scaring me."

His fingers caressed the fabric over her pelvic bone. "Since you gave me whiplash and reorganized my brain cells."

She made a face at him even as he pulled her forward to give her another kiss.


"He's kissing her." It's so easy to get lost in the crowds, easier still if they didn't draw much attention. From the opposite corner of the room, far away from the flickering light of the fireplace, they kept their eyes on the couple.

"He's been kissing her the whole night," a second voice grumbled.

"Are you sure we should do this now?"

"Yes."

"But what if Tristan gets in the way?"

"Figure out something. Anything. Just get her to me."


Author's Note:

Sorry about the lateness! Finals week is finally winding down. Finally.

Happy Holidays, everyone! In light of the recent deluge of messages inquiring after False Facades (I'm thinking it's because of the holiday break with everyone having more time to kill), I've realized certain things and my feelings about reposting now war between two extremes: giving in to those who asked nicely and trying to rein back my irritation at certain readers' unbelievable arrogance. I have the feeling that when I repost it, I'll get some follow up emails with the attitude "It's about time! See, I told this author what to do and now she follows my commands because I know best and I am all mighty."

Okay, I'm not discussing this here anymore. More on the blog, maybe.

Anyway, I just wanted to wish everybody a very happy winter break! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Thank you all for your reviews, messages, and your support thus far! For taking the time to read and offer your comments, I thank you even if a few of you tend to rub me the wrong way. I still appreciate your thoughts.

- Maeven


FAQs:

Q: Whatever happened to Adel's brother? Do you plan to bring him into the story at some point and if so, will he play some significant role?

A: He's smarter than Adel and ran away so he wouldn't have to deal with any crazy engagement plans. He may or may not return soon. We'll see?

Q: Heh? I thought Adel was Lee's sister? CONFUSED...

A: Lee is Adel's uncle.

Q: Did Adel grow up in China? She seems not really intuned to the American culture. And yet she speaks English...

A: Adel grew up in China. She's half-Caucasian though and her father is from America so when they converse, they speak English.

Q: How tall is Adel? The way you describe her makes her seem really tall!

A: Hmm, she's taller than Sammy, but she's a few inches shorter than Tristan. I would place her to be just grazing the tip of his ears.


© Copyright 11/16/2008 Maeven (FictionPress ID:349779). All rights reserved. Distribution of any kind is prohibited without the written consent of Maeven.