Key 1

Stepping off the elevator, she placed a bright smile on her face. The elevator let out into a large, cozy cafe that had an amazing view through all the windows surrounding most of the cafe. A few feet from the elevator was a stand for an attendant to greet guests. The man, coppery hair slicked back to a level that was nearly offensive, stepped forward, smiling and bowing. "Might I ask what party you are with? Or do you not have a reservation, Miss?"

Clearing her throat, she made sure her expression didn't give any of her real feelings away. "I'm here with the Frost party," she answered smoothly.

The man blinked, his mannerisms instantly growing much more respectful at this news. "Yes, of course. Please, follow me, Miss," he gave her a sweeping bow. Turning on his heel, he grabbed a menu, before starting off to some stairs on the left side of the cafe. She followed behind, resisting the temptation to wring her hands in a show of nerves.

Up the stairs was a much more private loft from the rest of the restaurant. Sitting at a table in the middle, surrounded by a bubble of privacy, were two men. Her gaze took in that no other tables were filled in, within a three-table distance from the two men. Her nerves began to boil up and she desperately wanted to turn right around and retreat. Especially when the men noticed that the waiter was bringing their guest to their table. Her eyes widened as she realized just who was sitting down at the table. H-he's here?! she shrieked in panic and disbelief in her mind. No...I-I can't...

"Here we are, Miss," the waiter bowed her toward the table.

Smile still carefully in place, she nodded her head to the man. "Thank you." The older of the two men move from his chair and around the table. Pulling out the chair meant for her, he waited for her to sit down. Doing so, though she wanted to be doing anything but sit down, she murmured her thanks once more. She smoothed her hands down the front of her lap, motion hidden by the table, fighting even more nerves. Once she was settled, she ordered a cup of jasmine tea from the waiter, who took her order, left the menu, and returned down the stairs. While he did so, the man who'd helped her be seated returned to his own seat.

"So," the younger man began clearing his throat. He had dark green eyes, dark blonde hair, and a very handsome face. But she didn't have to glance up at his face to know what he looked like. She knew by heart. The world really is a cruel place, she thought achingly. Of course he would be here for this meeting! "I guess it's my job to break the ice and make the introductions?" he chuckled half-heartedly.

She forced herself to look up, meeting his gaze. "Yes, I-I guess so. I'm sorry... It's just I've never done this before and..." Great, now you are just babbling! Shut up! She snapped her mouth shut to stop the stream of words that wanted to escape.

"Trust me, this is a learning experience for everyone involved," he chuckled good-naturedly. "Moving right along here. My name is Luke Frost, and it's my job to play chaperone for you two today," he grinned. "The guy next to me is my oldest cousin, Aiden Frost. I could make a list of his traits, but I guess just saying he's a nice guy will have to do for now."

"It's nice to meet the both of you," she forced herself to sound cheerful and nothing like she really was. I am definitely crying myself to sleep tonight, she thought in the back of her mind. "I'm Christine Venta."

Aiden spoke up, finally. "It's wonderful to meet you," he smiled as he dipped his head in a nod toward her.

Luke coughed awkwardly. "So, uh, I guess we should get this marriage meeting rolling, don't you think?"

Christine closed her eyes for half a second. Marriage...she repeated softly, feeling like she was going to suffocate under her panic and sorrow.

"I feel like I should let you know about a few key points. Not very many, but they are very important. In fact, I'd say they are essential for you to know and agree to for this arrangement to work out." Aiden's strong, sure voice seemed to cut through the awkward atmosphere.

"Key points?" Christine blinked, staring at him in curiosity.

"Yes...How many rumors have you heard about me over the past two months or so? What's being spread around the gossip mill? Don't worry, you can be honest with me."

Blushing, Christine played with her fingers in her lap, unable to look up into his face. "P-people have been saying you have a illegitimate child. That you're just as...free as your brother, if not more so...T-that the mother is of an offensive race, which is why you want nothing to do with her, o-officially." She swallowed upon repeating some of the gossip she'd heard flying around of late in the royal society. And those were the...polite ones.

Aiden's face twisted into a heavy grimace. "Of course that's what these imbeciles think," he grumbled. Taking in a deep breath and exhaling on a long sigh, he shot her an apologetic smile. "I apologize. It's been a long, tiring week, since my return to the Other Realm. Moving along, I'm happy to report only one of those rumors is true. I'm nothing like my brother and I am not ashamed of Willow in the slightest. But I do have a daughter, yes."

Nodding her head mechanically, keeping her smile in place, Christine's mind began to spin with questions. If that's the case, why isn't your daughter living with you now? Why are you attending a meeting to set up an arranged marriage?

"Even so, I am need of a wife and son," he continued on. It was almost as if he'd read her mind, though the fact that she'd be thinking such questions shouldn't have been very hard to predict. At his words, Christine fought down the urge to shift uncomfortably in her seat.

At that moment, the waiter returned with her cup of tea. Thanking him, she took a sip before placing it back on the table. The waiter paused, gauging if any of them wished to order anything else. But when it was evident they did not, he quietly left to attend to other tables. Returning her attention to Aiden and inclining her head towards him to continue, he did so.

Clearing his throat, his turquoise eyes remained steady on her face. "I'm sure you are wondering about several things, at this point. Go ahead and ask. I'll answer all your questions."

"W-why are you wanting to marry me?" she burst out, her curiosity too much for her to keep it down any longer.

His lips twitched, but it wasn't quite a smile. "Well, the first reason is the love of my life doesn't love me back. The second is because I need a son, I need an Heir. The third is because, going through the profiles I was sent, you seemed like my best bet."

"B-but I don't come from one of the G-Great Houses, or even one of the more influential royal families," she reminded him with a frown.

"No," he shook his head slowly. "But you are known to be much more open-minded than most, kind, and a very capable woman. All of these qualities I require more than some woman who will bring with her a large dowry. Trust me, I don't need any more money, nor do I need any more lands. My family is wealthy and influential enough without giving me more of a headache to manage." At his words, he reached up to rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

"There is more I need to tell you as well. First off, do not expect anything like love out of this relationship-if indeed it works out and you agree to my terms. As I said earlier, another woman already holds my heart. If I did not have the responsibilities that I do, I would be with her now. But as I said before, the feelings are one-sided. As well, I will be spending the weekends in the Human World with my daughter and her mother...Hence my need for a woman such as yourself, who I believe is capable of accepting such a sort of relationship."

Luke's voice cut through her shocked, speechless daze. "Um, I'm sorry about that. My cousin tends to be a little too straightforward sometimes. He's a very serious dude, so that gets the best of him every now and again."

"Luke, there is a time and place for everything. It happens to be the time to be honest and upfront about everything. Do you really think I should just lie to her right off the bat, with the type of relationship I hope to have with her?"

"No, I don't. But maybe you could take it down a few notches because...have you stopped to look at her? Christine, do you need a moment? You look really pale," Luke murmured in concern.

Closing her eyes tightly, she fought back the rush of happiness that came over her. Luke's worried about me?! she thought for just a second. Shaking her head and straightening her spine, she forced herself to man up. Aiden's making it pretty clear that all he wants out of this relationship is a suitable son and wife. And he also seems very confident that I might be just that woman...But am I?

Biting her lip, her mind began setting down terms and plans that could work for them both. Her family was a royal house, but just barely. It had long ago lost most of its power, as well as it's riches. Even so, she was well liked by many of the more common folk, since her family lived at a much more middle-class level. They had some money, enough to at least put up a pretense of nobility. But Christine had been forced to actually get a job, working as a business partner to a large conglomerate company. Her job usually consisted of meeting with clients and closing deals. It brought in a decent income and it was what she and her mother lived off of, mainly.

She also had a older sister, Veronica, who'd married into a more prominent house, but her sister had cut herself off from the rest of her family. Her brother-in-law would check up on them from time to time, but he mostly did so for appearance sake.

If she agreed to and took up Aiden's offer, she would have to be his wife, just as would be expected. And she'd have to have sex with him, even if it honestly hurt her heart to think about it. But, as a royal family, it was required and expected of her, if she married him. And he already had a lover? No...not quite, it sounded like...But that didn't mean at some point Aiden wouldn't possible cheat on her with this woman he loved. Did that mean she was allowed to have flings on the side as well?

Raising her head, she began to speak, voice calm and cool. This is only a business arrangement, she reminded herself. A meeting between two parties to work out a deal which will be beneficial to both. "Let me know if I have this right. You wish to marry me as a front. You need a son, as well as a woman who can keep up with you as a equal partner in your duties. But you will still be seeing both your daughter and the woman you have feelings for, correct? And it is part of the deal that I have no problems with this?"

Nodding firmly, Aiden's bright eyes held no hint of judgment. "Yes, that is correct. Of course, if you wish, after a son with ice abilities has been born, I will not mind if you seek company elsewhere. I trust you know that discretion would be required, of course. But once the vows have been made, divorce is not an option," he rumbled.

Staring at him, Christine could see the layer of pain and regret hidden behind his calm, collected mask. He's just like me, isn't he? Neither of us want anything to do with this...But we both have our hands tied. I'm not a gold digger, but I need money. My inheritance has run out and Aaron has already told me that he won't be providing anymore financial support...Gods, Dad, why did you do something so stupid? Not for the first time, she wanted to punch her deceased Father...just once.

Dad had given up the vast majority of the family coffers to Aaron as a dowry gift for Veronica. Her father had thought Aaron was a good man who would take care of his in-laws. But three days after Aaron and Veronica had said 'I do', Dad had passed from major heart failure. It hadn't been very surprising though. Dad and Mom hadn't had children until later on in life, so he'd been nearly seventy by the time he'd passed. All of this had happened a little less than a year ago and Aaron's support of Christine and her mother had steadily decreased. The checks had been growing smaller and smaller, until Christine had been forced to dismiss their once very small staff to only one maid. And she mostly only kept the maid on to help take care of her mother and their humble townhouse while she was working.

Shaking her head slightly, she stared right back at him. Clearing her throat, she wrapped an air of pride around her shoulders, using it as a form of defense. "You can take this however you will, but for me go along with this marriage, I will need money, as soon as we come to an agreement. A-also, I'd like to have a engagement period of one year."

He frowned slightly before his frown began to clear. "Ah, yes. I know a little of the problems your family has been going through. Still..."

"I-I don't need a whole lot," she stuttered out, already sure he was going to tell her to leave right this minute. "J-just 7,000 jen a month." That should cover the cost of Viki's salary, our daily necessities, bills, and payments to all the different insurances. Plus, it'll be nice to have a little spending money, as well as some I can start saving. And I'll finally be able to donate to a few of the charities I use to, she thought happily.

Aiden's face grew thoughtful. Luke looked more than a little awkward, like he'd love to be anywhere but here. But could she really blame him? This had certainly turned out a lot different than she had ever expected. The Lord of Winter remained deep in thought for a minute and she could only assume he was running through various financial lists, mentally crunching the numbers. After another minute, he shot her a quick smile. "If I agree to increase the amount to 15,000 jen a month, will you agree to lower the time until the wedding to six months?"

"Gods!" Luke cursed in alarm.

Her jaw dropped. That's more than double of what I asked for! "I...I..." she swallowed, forcing herself to regain her composure. "Yes," she responded in a much calmer voice. "I would be okay with that."

Nodding his head once, Aiden shifted, leaning back in his chair. His turquoise eyes studied her as he crossed his arms over his chest. He really is a very handsome man, Christine thought heavily. But it didn't matter, she was already in love with another man. And that other man was sitting right across from her. While he was looking away, his body language awkward and uncomfortable, Christine couldn't help but risk a peek at him.

Luke Frost. The one and only guy she'd ever liked. She'd had a crush on him since she was in elementary school, going to the Royal Academy. She was two years younger than him, at twenty-two. As well, he'd never even knew of her existence, until today, that was. Sighing sadly, she let her gaze move back to Aiden.

His bright, intense eyes told her that he'd just seen everything. Blushing furiously, she lowered her head, dropping his gaze. Oh, gods, now what am I supposed to do? I'm in love with his cousin, not him...

"These are just the terms I've thought up, so far. Now that you know the situation, do you agree to at least think about my marriage offer?" Aiden's voice held no hint of what he'd just witness.

"Yes," Christine murmured, pushing back her embarrassment and blush. "I have a few more things I would like to think about as well."

Rising to his feet, Aiden nodded. "Fair enough. I want to make sure we are both in complete agreement with this relationship, as well as equals in it." His gaze sharpened slightly. "If you honestly feel like you cannot agree to my offer, I won't be offended. Truly, it's an odd agreement. Make sure you think long and hard about it, Christine." For the first time, he said her name. Swallowing, she nodded.

"Thank you."

"Please, let me walk you out," Aiden murmured.

Pulling out her purse, Christine set down what was due for her bill, plus a little extra for a tip. Aiden said nothing as he came around to take her arm in his, escorting her to the elevator door. She stood in front of it awkwardly for a few moments, before turning her head to smile at him softly. "It was a little unorthodox, but thank you for the nice tea break."

Aiden's own lips lifted as well. "Really, I should thank you. I honestly expected you to walk out almost as soon as I started talking."

She chuckled, but there wasn't a whole lot of humor to it. "Yes...well, sometimes desperate times call for a little bit of flexibility and an open mind."

He leaned his head closer, half whispering in her ear. "I meant what I said earlier. If you...if feelings you have for another would get in the way of this arrangement, I do not want to see you unhappy."

She gave him a bitter, wry smile. "But isn't that exactly what you're doing to yourself, Aiden?" She, as well, finally used his first name. He blinked, seeming taken aback by her words. "Have you thought of how this own arrangement might hurt you?"

He let out a long sigh. "More than you can know...But as the head of my family, it is my duty to uphold the traditions and do what is expected of me."

"Whereas for me, it's my job to provide for myself and my mother."

Aiden frowned. "Does the lord Torres not help you in your time of need?"

Christine smiled, but it was a thin smile. "Well, I really must be going. Don't worry I won't breathe a word of what we discussed. And I will be thinking about it..."

He took her cue to drop her brother-in-law. "Right, thank you. How does another meeting, say three o'clock this Tuesday sound?"

She nodded her head. "Lovely. I look forward to seeing you then, Lord Frost." She held her hand out for him to shake.

Slowly, he did so, his face showing he noted her shift to formal titles. "I as well, Miss Venta."

Turning, she stepped into the elevator, keeping a smile on her face as she waited for the doors to close. Aiden's expression echoed her own, a polite, pleasant smile on his lips. Once the doors closed and the elevator began it's descent to the ground floor, she let out a loud gasp of shock.

Oh, gods...That all really did just happen, didn't it? Now she had to figure out what answer to give the man. And she only had three days to come up with it!

Her phone began to ring. Taking in a deep breath, she pulled it out of her purse and glanced at the caller ID. Grimacing, she had the thought to ignore the call. But even if she did, they'd stubbornly keep calling until she eventually gave in. Sighing heavily, she hit the green button to pick up the call. "Aaron, to what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Oh, please, little sis!" he purred in a overly friendly voice. "There's no reason to be so salty. In fact, I've just learned some very interesting news. News I think you'll be dying to hear," he snickered.

Feeling a shiver of fear run down her spine, she tried not to let it show in her voice. "Oh?"

"Yes," he hissed impatiently. "I expect you at my home, in my study, within half an hour. Is that clear?" he growled.

Swallowing, Christine desperately wanted to tell the vile man no. But he was a lot stronger than she, with many more powers and abilities than she had as well. It wouldn't be hard for him to force her..."Perfectly," she fought to keep her tone polite. "I needed to go to that side of Tempus anyway," she sighed.

She could just see the oily smile on his face. "Wonderful. I'll see you soon, little sis."

Shuddering, she pulled the phone back from her ear as he hung up on her. Glaring down at her phone, she put it back in her purse, sighing again. Why does the universe hate me right now? she wondered darkly. The elevator doors dinged, announcing her arrival to the lobby of the high-class skyscraper that held a variety of businesses. From restaurants, to law firms, to a few small shopping malls, and even a walk-in clinic. The Avermin Building was a big center of activity on the south side of Tempus. Stepping out into the lobby of the building, her heels clicking against the marble floor, she mentally calculated her new route.

It was a little past four in the afternoon now. Before, she'd planned on just going home and helping Viki prepare dinner. Now, she had an annoyance to deal with. One she was sure would leave her pissed off and upset. Meetings with Aaron tended to do that to her. Tossing a few strands of her long, straight blonde hair over her shoulder, she began striding toward the entrance. Outside on the busy streets, she glanced up at the sky. A little cloudy, but from the taste of the wind, it didn't look like it was going to rain. Returning her attention to the ground, she hailed a taxi. The second one, a lime green and white striped car, stopped for her. Opening the backseat door and sliding in, she glanced at the driver. "1007 W. Oak Ridge Ave, please," she instructed as she closed the cab door and buckled up.

The driver grunted an affirmative before pulling away from the curve and starting off. Closing her eyes, she tried to calm down. But worry over both what Aaron wanted to discuss, plus the Lord Frost's marriage offer kept swirling around in her head. She wanted to reject it...So badly did she want to reject it.

But, thinking realistically, could she afford to?

She had a job she made money from, yes. But she wasn't willing to sleep with clients-or her bosses-so her paychecks were less than some of her co-workers. Not to say it was a requirement, exactly. But it was normally expected, by a lot of the men-and women-in her office. Christine had never really been able to understand it. Why did it matter if she was willing to act like a slut, to whore herself out? The thing that should matter was that she did her job, did it well, and didn't bring any losses to the company. Unlike a few others she could name, she didn't just hang out at her desk or in the break room all day.

The driver's gruff, gravely voice broke through her thoughts. "We're here, Miss. That'll be 69 jen."

Wincing at the price, Christine removed the bills from her purse, handing them over. Opening her door, she stepped out, closing the door as the taxi made a U-turn to drive off. Sighing, she pushed open the gates of the half-mansion that had a stereotypical gothic look to it.

Walking down the drive that led up to the mansion entrance, she was met by the ghostly butler, Roberts. The man bowed stiffly to her before pushing open the front door, his body half see-through, but mostly solid. "It is good to see you again, Miss Christine."

"You too, Roberts," she murmured as she stepped inside the mansion.

"Master Torres is waiting in his downstairs study, Miss," Roberts reported as he closed the door behind her.

"Thanks," she flashed him a quick smile before starting off down the hall to the right of the center stairway, directly across from the front entrance. Six doors down and to the right was the door she was looking for. Knocking on it, she waited until she heard a male grunt, letting her know she could come in. Twisting the door knob, she pushed the door in, stepping forward.

Inside the study, Aaron Torres was sitting behind his large cherry wood desk. He was thirty-four years old and five' eight", short for a guy but the same height as Veronica and only one inch shorter than Christine. His skin tone was olive-brown, his hair a very dark brown, as well as his eyes. It was evident he had a Filipino heritage. But he was an aswang, so it wasn't shocking. As a vampire, shape-shifter, ghoul, magic-user, and were-beast that was still believed in and feared actively in the Philippines to this day, was it any surprise his family were considered royals?

"Ah...How are you, little sis?" he asked in a sickeningly sweet voice as she entered his study and moved to sit in a chair in front of his desk.

"I'm fine, Aaron...So, what did you want to talk to me about?" she inquired quietly.

Aaron's fingers began to lightly play over the surface of his desk as he let a lustful eye roam over her body. "I heard a interesting rumor from a little bird today...Something about you sitting down for tea in a public place with the Lord of Winter. Christine," he purred, pupils dilating as he licked his lips. "Why did you never mention that you were such...good friends with a man so...important?"

Growing pale, Christine fought back a gasp. How did he find out so quickly? "I... I was just having a chat with him," she barely kept her voice from shaking. Gods, help me...

"Oh? Were you?" He smiled, revealing razor sharp teeth. Leaning forward, he got closer, until his face was nearly touching hers. "I don't believe you," he whispered in a cold, soft voice. "Little sis..." He reached out a clawed hand, running it down the side of her face. "Ah..." He smiled, able to smell the fear coming off her. "So fragrant...so succulent you are, my sweet little Christine...You should know better than to lie to me...Do you want a repeat of your daddy's funeral, sweet child?" he asked.

Shaking her head quickly, she jerked her head back. Memories she'd been fighting for a long time to forget tried to surface...Her father's funeral...When she'd still believed Aaron wasn't as bad of a guy as the rumors had said he was...When he'd been three inches away from raping her, before her sister-his new wife-had walked in on them.

Shuddering at the memories, she closed her eyes, unable to keep looking at him in that moment. "I-it was an arranged marriage meeting!" she burst out in confession.

Silence hung in the space between them long enough that she opened one eye halfway to peek at him. His face was twisted in an expression of pure joy, an almost pleasurable level of it. He raised a hand to his face, beginning to laugh. His shoulders shook with his laughter. "Did he?" Aaron crowed. "Oh, this is hilarious! Absolutely hilarious!" he gasped out through his laughter. "That the way to complete our mission would be given to me...Handed to me on a silver platter...!"

Swallowing, Christine frowned fiercely. "What are you talking about? What mission?"

He was grinning widely, a wild look in his dark eyes. "Why, the destruction of the Frost family, little sis...And you are going to help me with my mission."