Again, I owe my beta reader Iamwhoiamnotwhouwantme2b a big THANK YOU!! She makes me look good, always a bonus in my book, and cracks me up with her observations.
And I also want to thank the people who take the time to review the story. I appreciate all your comments and encouragement.
It was her wish that he escort Alex to dinner and Morden was not interested in questioning the Queen. Word had been sent that she wanted their 'guest' to dine with them, and she had been clear that he was to escort her because as the second in command it was his duty. So, he had dressed carefully in one of Gabriel's suits and concentrated on remaining calm. He was not getting nervous about taking the little witch into dinner. It was not a big deal. Now he just had to make himself believe it.
He waited for her at the bottom of the stairs, suffocating in the well made suit, wishing he was wearing jeans, and drinking a cold beer. That would be perfect. He had paced for a while, tried tapping his foot, and now he was boring holes into the empty space at the top of the stairs willing her to appear. The sooner she got down stairs the sooner it would be over, and the sooner he could get out of the damn suit.
Kane had spent the last three hours grumbling consistently of his desire to see her in rags while they were in their finery. He wanted her humiliated and any means to that end, even something as petty as clothes, would do. His talk had annoyed Gabriel so much that they had almost come to blows. William had straightened them out but it had taken some time. Kane eventually accused them all of taking the side of a witch over their own brother. AT one point he had even refused to eat with them until Morden reminded him about the King's wrath, which was considerable, and his tune soon changed. With any luck Alex and Kane would be at opposite ends of the table. Robert had set the table so it seemed likely he would take that into consideration.
Also simmering in the pot was the introduction of Isabel, William's sister, who was going to be joining the Chosen as their first female member. Tonight the King was making the announcement and, as far as he knew, not even William knew yet. Morden smiled at that thought. He was willing to pay to see the look on his brother's face when his sister was called to duty. He and his brothers were open-minded and he could not think of any reason they would object to a female Chosen. But, one could never be sure.
Chimes rang out the hour and he began to pace again. He was waiting like a pre-change on a first date. Suddenly annoyed he contemplated going up and just hauling Alex down to dinner when she stepped into view. The air clogged in his lungs for just a moment as he watched her descend the stairs.
The dress clung to her body in different places as she moved leaving him in a state of suspense. Her neck and chest were exposed by the tight low bodice and he had a sudden urge to haul her to his room, peel the gown away leisurely, and explore her body until dawn. Common sense prevented him from doing just that, and he steeled his resolve to keep his distance no matter what his instincts wanted.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs he offered his hand to her and pasted what he hoped was a polite look on his face. She looked startled, but just for a moment, before she politely smiled in return, lowering her eyes shyly before she fit her hand into his.
"You look amazing," he said quietly as his hand closed around hers. He saw a blush creep across her cheeks and could feel her pulse quicken.
"I have Robert to thank," she said. "I didn't have anything but he found me this," she looked down and Morden lifted her hand and twirled her around. When she turned back to face him he was rewarded with that sunny smile of hers.
"You're stunning." He smiled at her slowly and her blush deepened. It made him feel perversely satisfied. Now he was back to the thoughts of hauling her away and he had to look away from her to keep himself in check.
"Shall we go then?" he asked, tucking her hand into his arm. Nodding she fell into step beside him.
"We are eating in the King and Queen's Formal Dining Hall. It is next to the Grand Ball Room, where we hold state functions and fancy dress functions.
"Balls? Like, tuxedos and fluffy dresses, or costumes?" She wrinkled her nose and he could not help but laugh. Her expression changed as she watched him from mildly disgusted to confused. "Sorry, but you don't look like the fancy dress type."
"You'd be surprised," he said with a self deprecating smile. Feeling full of himself, and forgetting his earlier resolve, he ran his thumb across the sensitive skin on the inside of her elbow. Her reaction was a soft gasp before she tried to pull away. He increased the pressure of his hold, felt her pulse jump again, and kept walking.
"There are going to be some announcements this evening that may cause some commotion. It would be best for you to remain quiet," he paused and added, "please."
"A-alright," she said, shock clearly evident in her tone. He patted her hand, in what could be interpreted as a reassuring gesture. It had the effect of draining the color from Alex's face.
"Is this so awful?" he asked pulling her to a stop, suddenly very annoyed. "Is this," he looked down to their joined arms, "so terrible? To be touched by a vampire?"
"No!" She looked up at him now, her eyes defiant. "It isn't that. You have no idea at all how … difficult this is for me. I am not used to being submissive to anyone. In my world I call the shots. Yet, here I am, a glorified slave and then you go and …" She stopped, flushed deeply and again tried to pull away,
"I go and what?" he prompted, his eyes narrowing as he looked into hers.
"You … this … and last night in the infirmary … ," she stammered, clearly annoyed. "I'm confused by you. Confused by the way you treat me."
'As am I,' he thought but remained silent and walked the rest of the way to the Dining Hall in silence. Before he pushed the doors open he looked down at her and said quietly, "Around you my control is tested. My instincts draw me to you. I don't know how I feel about that."
"Because I'm a witch." It was not a question. He looked at her and said nothing. There was nothing else he could add. With that they entered the banquet.
Hermia sat in her plush office that overlooked the main floor of Opium. She had opened the club some ten years ago, the blink of an eye really, and it was successful enough that she was able to buy a villa in the South of France as well as a loft apartment in the trendy part of town. Money, more than anything, was her passion. Well, money and males.
Looking over the financial report for the previous month she glowed with satisfaction. Profits were indeed up and it was her job to keep the money rolling in. Her place was designed to satisfy the needs of her most valued clientele so if that meant she pretended not to notice when 'professionals' worked the floor, so be it. If she happened to see a cut of their profits to keep quiet, then all the better.
The crowd below her was made up primarily of vampires with a few humans mixed in for fun. She did not despise them like other vampires did, however she did not want them overrunning the place. They were so tacky in their cheap costumes and gaudy makeup. Standing, she crossed to the window and watched the bodies below undulate to the pounding beat of the music that was just a muffled thump in her private space. Bodies meant cash. Cash made her smile.
There was a soft knock at the door and her general manager, a vampire who called himself Thor, entered.
"Got a problem," he said curtly.
"Don't tell me we are out of domestic beer again. I swear if that vendor didn't make his delivery again …"
"No," he said, "it's worse than that. I found two dead vampires in the alley. Someone drained them dry."
"Dear god," she said and placed a hand over her chest. "I guess we'll have to contact the Chosen."
"I'll call," Thor said and added, "They were professionals."
"Shit," she muttered. "Well, no one can prove they were working for me. Make sure their bodies are clean before you call."
"Got it." He left the office and Hermia pressed her fingers to her eyes to stifle the headache that was starting to pound. This was the last thing she needed.
Alex was reeling. As Morden led her in to dinner she grew increasingly uncomfortable by his nearness. There were feelings he evoked from her that she refused to examine too closely. She didn't really know him, had almost nothing in common with him, and yet she found herself wanting him with a desire she had never experienced before.
The room was grand and reflected sheer wealth. As she took it all in she again felt the age of the furnishings surround her. The lights were dim and the table was dotted with candles and small bowls of ivory roses. Seated at the head of the table was the King, dressed in an immaculate tuxedo. In his lap sat the Queen.
The room was empty except for them, and they were sharing a quiet kiss. Morden chuckled softly as the King sent him a murderous look before Sarai slipped from his lap and smiled. The Queen was dressed in a shimmery gold halter dress that exposed her back fully. Three tiers of diamonds were draped around her neck and the quiet feeling of royalty emanated from her.
"Your Highness, welcome home," said Morden with a deep bow. Alex, not sure if she should say anything, simply dipped into a formal curtsey.
"Morden, how well you look in one of Gabriel's suits," she said with a lilting laugh. He laughed but had the sense to look chagrined and shrugged.
"And you," she said approaching Alex, "I am so pleased you could join us for this celebration. You look beautiful."
"Thank you, your Highness."
"Of course," she took her hand and pulled her away from Morden. "I hope you are feeling up to this tonight. I understand from my husband you had an … incident last night."
"Please, don't worry on my account. I assure you I am perfectly well.
"I am so glad. Maybe tomorrow we could take some time to chat?"
Stunned she blinked twice before she said, "Of course, I would love to."
"Very good!" Sarai released Alex and smiled back at the King. His expression softened and the love between them seemed to sigh in the room. It was lovely and Alex felt slightly like an intruder in a private moment. Deciding she needed a drink she went to the bar against the wall.
"Here, let me," Morden said behind her. He was close, too close, and the nerves she felt in the hall jumped inside her. She could smell the cologne he was wearing, feel his energy against her back, and could sense each breath as he drew it in and out. 'Damn it,' she thought with annoyance.
"Thank you," she said weakly and cursed herself. With more force she said, "I'm fond of whiskey, or champagne."
"Well, this is a party after all," he said with a slow smile as he moved from behind her to the bar. "How about champagne?"
"Alright," Alex said and stepped away from him. Morden looked at her, challenging her subtle retreat. 'Damn it,' she thought again.
He opened the bottle with a muffled pop and poured two glasses. He offered her a glass but held it just out of her reach forcing her to step forward and take it. Looking directly in his eyes she stepped close and took the glass. Their fingers brushed and heat tickled her fingers. Not wanting to retreat again, Alex kept her eyes fixed on him as she took a slow sip. Sighing in genuine pleasure she closed her eyes and focused on the bubbles tickling her tongue. Her mouth curved into a slow smile.
When she opened her eyes again she saw Morden watching her, his eyes intently watching her mouth. Immediate alarm bells swept through her.
"Thank you," she said, her voice breathy and sipped again.
"My pleasure," he said, his voice deep and caressing. Before he could say something more the door opened and in walked the most powerful female she had ever seen.
Her chin length gold hair framed her face and her eyes were an almost black shade of brown. Her face was sharp without being harsh and was classically beautiful. Alex wondered if all vampires were beautiful. So far each of the ones in this house had been. The female was trim, but not exactly slim. Her frame was too muscular for that, but it suited her height perfectly. Alex figured she was at least six feet tall, and in the silver sheath dress she wore she seemed miles taller.
"Isabel," Sarai said as she rushed to the female and hugged her close.
"Surprise," the King said then barked with laughter.
"Your Highness," she said, returning the hug before dipping into a curtsey for the King.
"What are you doing here?" Sarai said, taking her hand and drawing her to the fire.
"All shall be revealed in time," the King said before kissing Isabel's hand. "Morden," he said not looking in his direction, "bring three more glasses of that champagne over here and welcome our guest."
"Morden," Isabel said with a grin, "how are you? Still up to your old tricks?"
'Old tricks?' Alex wondered. He joined the group, handing out glasses of ice cold bubbly and they stood there, a unit, and she felt out of place and excluded.
They chatted, switching to Slavic, and she turned to examine a painting over the bar of Sarai draped in red silk and resting on a black leather fainting couch.
"And this," Sarai said returning to Englsh, "is Alex." Sarai walked to her with Isabel's arm tucked in hers. The women appeared to be good friends and Alex found she missed Maggie and Reg desperately.
"Alex, this is William's sister Isabel."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Alex said, dipping into a curtsey. She saw Isabel's eyes dart to the cuffs around her wrists and her eyes iced over.
"Likewise, I'm sure," she said, her tone clearly indicating the opposite. She turned and looked at Sarai, the question of why Alex was there clear as a bell.
"Alex is my particularguest," she said with emphasis. Isabel nodded but her manner was still reserved. Alex expected it. "And," Sarai continued, "she has been assisting Robert in the kitchen. He said she is a genius with pastry and bread." She turned and looked at Alex, "I hope we will be seeing your handy work this evening?"
"Yes, your Highness. I prepared the bread and the dessert. Robert said you were fond of hazelnuts so I made a hazelnut tart."
Sarai beamed, "My favorite! I wonder if we can have dessert first."
The three women laughed and for a moment it was natural and comfortable, but Isabel caught herself and her features shifted from amused to polite.
"I look forward to tasting your cooking," Isabel said.
"I hope you enjoy it," Alex replied and excused herself to refill her glass.
She refilled the flute and turned to see William and Gabriel enter. Isabel launched herself across the room and into William's arms. He laughed and spun his sister around in a circle. They were so similar Alex noticed as he lowered her to the floor. Their faces and features were almost identical and she wondered if they were twins. She would ask Robert, he would know.
Behind them, mostly unnoticed, entered Kane. He glanced around the room then made his way around to the bar. When his eyes rested on Alex she felt the icy coldness of his gaze even though his face was schooled into pleasant lines. Slowly she nodded at him. His reaction was to narrow his eyes and approach her.
"Nice dress," he said, his eyes looking at her with irritation.
"Robert," she said simply and looked away.
"It isn't right," he said darkly, "that you should have a seat at our table."
"I was not aware it was your place to say," Alex retorted, her aggravation simmering.
"Good thing it isn't," his mouth spread into a smile of pure malice. "You would not have lasted this long if I had set your punishment."
Before she could respond Morden was calling him over to greet Isabel, a look of warning in his eyes.
"Saved again, witch," he muttered as she moved away, all the anger clearing from his face as he embraced Isabel. Alex turned away and took a few cleansing breaths. She wondered why he was so intent on hating her. His brothers had begun to warm to her, even like her, yet he staunchly held his belief that she was not to be trusted.
Feeling slightly apprehensive and not sure how to deal with that feeling, she moved closer to the dining table. The table was laid with fine bone china rimmed in what looked to be gold. She saw place cards adorned each setting and was disappointed to find herself between Morden and William. She had wanted to be seated next to Gabriel so she would have someone polite to talk to. Instead she was between a vampire she hardly knew and one that unnerved her.
The King took his Queen's hand and led her to the table. The rest of the guests followed and Alex stood behind the chair assigned to her. Having never been to a formal vampire dinner before she planned to let the others' behavior be her guide. William leaned over and said quietly to her, "Good evening Alex. You look lovely."
Looking at him with surprise she said, "Thank you."
He nodded, face serious, and returned his attention to the table.
"Friends and guests," said the King in a booming voice, "we gather to celebrate the return of the Queen and," he paused dramatically, "we welcome a new member to the Chosen of the Blood." Lifting a goblet high he said, "Isabel, welcome!"
There was an audible gasp from William. Kane barked out a laugh then they toasted Isabel who grinned fiercely at the males around her.
"Speech," said Sarai, who clasped her hands before her, her joy evident.
"Thank you, your Highness, for the words of welcome. I hope I am able to serve our race with dignity and honor."
"Well said," said Morden who lifted his own glass and drank. Alex, not sure if she should participate, sipped the wine in her goblet delicately. Morden turned and pulled out Alex's chair. Alex sat and listened as Sarai told Isabel about her trip to visit her family in what she called the 'old country'. She slipped into Slavic, as did Isabel, and she tried her hardest not to feel completely left out when the people around her laughed.
Conversation returned to English as the food was served. As she watched the food she had helped to prepare be delivered she marveled at Robert's ability to handle it all so competently. Of course, he had probably planned and executed more than one formal dinner so he would have it all down pat.
Once the main course was served she settled in and did her best to enjoy the food and the conversation that flowed freely around her. It did not take long for her to forget her earlier apprehension and discomfort.
"You should have told me," William said to his sister who was seated across from him.
"And spoil the surprise?" She laughed, her smile as bright as the fire behind them. "Besides, the King asked me not to say anything. I do as I'm told," she said.
"Sure you do," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I remember when we were young, mother asked you not to tell father about a certain birthday gift …"
"Oh come on, that was ages ago? Will I never live that down?" Her mouth formed a perfect child's pout. Alex stifled a giggle.
"Never," he said, turning to Alex. "We had gotten my father this really rare book that he had been wanting for as long as I can remember him collecting books. Took my mother decades to find one and she made us swear not to tell." He looked back at his sister now. "First thing Isabel does when he gets home is jump into his arms and say, 'Daddy, don't go in the kitchen! Mommy is wrapping your book!"
Alex smiled and noticed Isabel smiled back, still reserved but willing to share a humorous moment with her.
"I was never very good at keeping secrets," she said with a shrug.
"You sound like you were a joyous child," Alex said diplomatically.
"Hard headed is more like it," Morden said, grinning. "Our families were very close and I remember more than one occasion when Isabel managed to spoil one surprise or another. Or, she would say something out of turn and shock everyone."
"I like her description better," Isabel said with mock indignation. "Besides, I'm an adult now and capable of keeping things to myself. Thank you very much." She popped a morsel of meat into her moth and chewed vigorously.
Alex laughed and said, "And I suppose neither of you were heard headed as children?"
"Still are hard headed," Sarai said with a laugh.
"I was the angel," William said with a wicked grin.
"Angel!" Isabel said rolling her eyes, "Please! You were always in trouble, and it was always with some female or other. Remember when you got caught under the bridge with that prostitute from,"
"That's enough, Issie," William said, his voice stern but his cheeks red. Alex and Isabel looked at one another and then over and Sarai, and all three broke into peals of laughter. The indignant look on William's face caused another wave of laughter that eventually infected the males as well. After the laughter subsided William asked Alex, "And I suppose you never got into any trouble as a child?"
All the eyes at the table were on her. Taking a breath she said, "I was a tomboy. I caught lizards, climbed trees and rolled in the mud with my dogs. My parents had to bribe me to wear a dress on school picture day, and I always managed to get it dirty by the time I got my picture taken."
"I bet you were adorable," Sarai said, the knowing smile of a mother playing across her mouth.
"Did you wear those little overalls that kids wear these days?" Isabel asked. "I was so jealous when those came out. We had one choice when I was young. A dress."
Alex smiled at the memory. "Yeah, I did have them. My mom always sewed on these awful girly patches on the back pockets. She used to say that I was a girl and should at least look like one. Trust me, there was nothing more humiliating than chasing around after the boys with a butterfly on my fanny."
Gabriel laughed and said, "I'm surprised you're wearing a dress tonight, considering."
Shaking her head she said, "I understand, now, that certain times call for certain clothes. Rest assured, I'll be out of this dress the second I'm back in my room."
Everyone laughed at that remark except Kane, who was glaring at her, doubtless angry that the conversation had been steered her way.
"Well, thank you," Sarai said, "for suffering the horrors of a dress this evening."
"Of course, your Highness," she said, returning to her food as others shared stories of their youth.
Soon the main course was finished and it was time for dessert. Alex watched as Sarai tasted a delicate bite of the tart she had prepared. Her eyes rolled back, and with a throaty moan declared, "Alex you are a genius!"
Ducking her head, Alex said, "Thank you, your Highness. I am glad you enjoy it."
Kane made an unpleasant sound and dropped his fork with a loud clatter on his dessert plate. Alex ignored the insult but the Queen did not.
"Something wrong, Kane?" Sarai nailed him with a hard look and he squirmed slightly.
"The tart is not to my taste, my Queen." He tried to charm her with a flirtatious smile but she was having none of it.
"Rude behavior is not tolerated at my table Kane," she said.
"Of course, I'm sorry." He bowed his head to Sarai before shooting Alex murderous look.
Alex averted her eyes, looking instead at the half eaten tart that no longer held any appeal to her. The remainder of the meal passed with polite conversation, but her ease and joy from earlier was gone.
Once the plates were cleared away and the last of the port was drunk they rose. The King quite obviously wanted his wife alone and had not even waited for the room to clear before pulling her close for a passionate kiss.
In the hall Kane stomped off toward the Chosen's common area. Isabel and William went toward the library and Gabriel went to the training center. Alex walked toward the main staircase, thinking of the soft bad that awaited her and how nice getting out of the dress would feel, when Morden joined her. Gently he took her arm and led her to the stairs.
"I can manage on my own," she said, attempting to tug her arm free, but his grip was firm.
"Let me just make sure you get to your room, ok?" he asked, leading her up the stairs. "I want to make sure you're settled before I leave. Just in case something happens again."
"I had managed for forget about that this evening," she said sadly. "Thanks." She smiled wanly up at him and he frowned.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." He sounded sincere but she shrugged.
"Facts are facts. I appreciate you … thinking of me."
They were quiet for a moment then Morden asked, "Were you really a tomboy?"
"Yeah," she grinned remembering herself as a child, "still am in a lot of ways."
"Yeah? Such as?"
"Well, I love sports, mostly hockey because of the checking and fighting. I like angry boy rock,"
"What's that?" he asked with a laugh.
"You know like Tool, Korn, Slipknot?"
"Never thought of it that way exactly, but ok. What else?"
"I like video games, first-person shooters and fighting games mostly, and," she leaned in and said in a stage whisper, "I like to eat messy food, with my hands!"
He laughed then and said, "Well, I have never seen a tomboy who looked as good in a dress as you do."
Feeling that strange electric spark he caused in her she mumbled, "Thanks."
They reached her room and when she moved toward the door he stepped in and blocked her. "Which hockey team is your favorite?"
"Dallas Stars. They are my home team."
He leaned against her doorjamb, "I could record some games for you, if you wanted to watch them."
"Really?" She looked at him and clapped her hands. "That would be great. Thank you!"
He smirked then, "For a price."
"A price?" she repeated, her eyes wary. "What price?"
He pushed off the doorjamb and took a step toward her. Immediately her heart began to thump in her chest. Retreat was her first instinct but she held her ground. This was some kind of game he was playing with her and she was not about to come out the loser again. With the next step he took he was within a foot of her. She had to tilt her head now to see his face. Memories of how he had held her in the infirmary slammed into her making her skin tingle. He lifted a hand to her hair and began to toy with the curly red strands. Her body immediately forgot how to breathe.
She was beginning to wonder if holding her ground had been the wisest choice and considered moving away, stepping back, and admitting defeat, but her feet would not move. It was not just her stubborn pride. It was curiosity … and desire. The words he had said flooded her mind. 'All I have to do is touch you and I could have you … and you know it.'
"I want," he said softly, causing her pulse to jump, "something special." His thumb brushed her jaw and she felt her lips part. Deep in her brain she was screaming to run but her body was held in his spell.
"What's that?" she said, her voice deep and husky.
Moving forward he placed his lips near her ear and whispered, "Carrot cake."
"What!" Alex said, shocked. She pushed him back and saw am amused grin spread across his face.
"Carrot cake," he said again and laughed. She looked at him and realized he had been toying with her the whole time. Anger bubbled to life inside her and she aimed it directly at herself. It was so easy for him to undo her. It was completely unacceptable.
"Carrot cake? Really?"
"Yes, carrot cake. Gabriel seems to love your cakes. I want one too but I don't much care for chocolate. So, we trade. Hockey for cake."
"I'll think about it," she said, moving toward her door. When he did not move she glowered at him in obvious irritation. "Move," she said not bothering to hide her frustration.
"Don't be mad, little witch," he said softly then chuckled.
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"Because, I was teasing."
"I don't like getting teased," she said, crossing her arms across her chest, "and I hate games." She saw his eyes dart down to her chest and realized too late that the defiant move caused her breasts to strain tighter against the snug bodice of her dress.
"Games can be fun," he said darkly. Alex opened her mouth to reply but her breath caught. A strangled sound came from her throat and her eyes rolled back in her head before she collapsed backwards.
His arms came around her instantly. He scooped her up as if she weighed nothing, calling her name quietly and stroking her arm. It was only then that she opened her eyes, looked directly at him and began to laugh.
"What … oh, not funny," he said, dropping her unceremoniously to the ground with a painful thump. "You know what they say about little girls who cry wolf."
As he stalked off she called behind him, "I'll have your cake ... you better have my games!"
His response was to flip her off, but she could hear him laughing. Lying on the floor she laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.