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Excerpt | Dark Matter (Elemental Enmity Book II)

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DARK MATTER

Elemental Enmity Book II

Prologue

Books - Elemental Enmity - Book 2Zach, lord of space and void, leaned against the ragged trunk of a palm tree staring at what was supposed to be the forbidding walls of the Order’s secret compound.  He squinted, searching for some sign of movement in the darkness.  His muscles tensed involuntarily.  Where was Luke?

They had agreed to meet back here hours ago.  Knowing the fool, he had probably gone and gotten himself caught.  Realizing that could even be an option made his gut clench with worry but most of all rage.

The compact was not only broken, the humans were waging a silent war against the fae all the while pretending to be allies.  How had it come to this?

His heart sank with a realization he didn’t want to admit.  He had grown lax in his duties, thinking mortals could never really pose a threat to a race that had lived millions of years.

He still didn’t believe them capable.  He was aware the Order had been running their absurd experiments for the past few decades, but they had been centuries away from discovering the key to creating a male Elemental.  From what he sensed here, they were closer than he ever imagined possible.  The situation reeked of treason and treachery.  But who?

The obvious answer lied in the selfish whims of his sister.  He should have listened to his mother and never followed along with Ainessa’s foolish ambitions.  He sighed, running a hand through his hair.  No matter.  His life was set:  an unending punishment for one foolhardy decision.

He couldn’t feel Ainessa here, but that didn’t mean much at the moment.  Everything about this hellish place was off.  The moment he had stepped near the compound his abilities had gushed out of him as if from a severed artery.  The elements swirled wildly around him, disordered and volatile reminding him of days he would rather forget.

At least Styx had not made the journey with him.  He had been able to open a portal to contact his trusted steed, but he wasn’t sure if the message got through before the connection was severed.  He had tried to drift back home with the last vestiges of his strength, but something had tethered him to the island.  Zach had already scoured the jungle for any sign of the bloody machine that had stolen his power.  This was the last place it could be.

The time for waiting was over.  Luke was not coming.

With the stealth of a cougar, he crept toward the walls intent on finding a way over them.  He was still stronger than most humans would ever be, but he wasn’t capable of jumping that high at the moment.  He glanced around one last time before running his hands over the smooth surface checking for finger-holds.  He bit back a curse and shifted his attention to finding another option.  Nothing but a lizard could scale those walls.

His only chance lay in the angled trunk of a palm tree.  He hoisted himself up to the level of the rigid fronds then scanned the compound below.

The Order had indeed been busy.  Nondescript buildings stretched nearly to the cliff’s edge with a large central hub anchoring the rest.  The building was four stories tall, but he suspected most of the structure lay within the depths of the earth.  He narrowed his eyes, focusing in on his target.  Where else would they hide a machine capable of changing the world?  One carefully executed jump and he would be on his way to ending this charade.

Silent as a cat, he leapt effortlessly onto the wall.  In an instant he was crouching behind prickly bushes waiting for the guard to pass.  The man didn’t even turn his way.  The sickly-sweet stench of cheap alcohol drifted around him.  He smirked.  So much for security.

His hope growing with every step toward his mark, he crept between the maze of buildings.  Thoughts of Rayla refused to stay buried.  With the Order handled, he would be able to see her soon.  Leaving her in the borderlands with Finn as her only protection was the hardest thing he had ever done.

Sending her to Ignis was a mistake, especially with Finn’s resolve to bond with Cassie and Heath rising in the ranks of underlords.  He regretted it the moment he had left her, but he would never be able to focus on truly winning her until he was sure she was safe.  His only chance was if he could swiftly resolve this problem and return to her before any real damage was done.

So much had changed in him since he’d first seen her.  Love was a possibility he never thought might be his again.  After their first encounter, he’d convinced himself he had to claim her for the greater good of his people, so he used compulsion to lure her.  Yet when he had seen her in the woods with that look of horror haunting her stormy eyes, something within him had reviled at the thought of taking her forcefully like he had….

His thoughts spiraled downward to another time and place.  An image of raven hair framing a delicate face pushed its way to the surface of his mind.  A slight smile turned the edges of his mouth.  It was so easy for him to see her still.  If only he had done things differently back then.  He would have had more time with her—no he couldn’t think about that now.  Only one thing happened when he allowed himself to visit the past, and he didn’t have time for despair.  Those days were gone.  Faine was a distant memory.  Rayla was his new reality.

He wouldn’t make the same mistakes with her.  It had to be her choice or not at all.  Her heart was still attached to Luke.  No matter how flimsy the connection, he would not live that way again.  Even love wasn’t worth that price.

He slipped through a side-door, quickly disarming the security system.  He wouldn’t even know how to do this sort of thing if it hadn’t been for his prolonged stay among humans.  The fae had no need for mechanical devices, which was probably the reason they fascinated him so much.  He had tired of the drudgery of court long ago and fled to the human realm, finding more than just solace and entertainment among the mortals.

They were an odd race, full of mischief, capable of causing horrendous atrocities, but, all in all, the people reminded him of how goodness can conquer the most miserable of circumstances.  He had taken to downright studying them after the end of World War II.  Under such dire and hopeless odds, they had come together and managed to overthrow the worst tyrant the world had ever seen.  Unfortunately, humanity didn’t know about Nigel Lambert.

Zach had found the Order unsavory from the start.  They were nothing more than a greedy vat of oiled pigs as far as he was concerned, but this man knew no bounds.

He had campaigned against bringing men into the Elemental equation the moment the idea was introduced, but he had been outvoted.  The council had called him biased in the worst way and ordered him to step down as their leader.  What would they think of their decision now?

He descended the first flight of stairs.  A search of the entire floor revealed nothing out of place, just an oversized furnace room and some odds and ends of computer parts.  The second through fourth floors failed to yield anything more substantial.

When he opened the door to the fifth level, his body surged from the pulse of immense power nearby.  Something felt wrong, but he couldn’t name it.

The hallway stretched deep into the earth.  Why did these people insist on building subterranean labyrinths?  They still held the misconception that iron limited fae powers.  It had been a necessary lie to cover a plan gone extremely wrong.  And this place had been built entirely of the metal.  What exactly were they trying to hide down here?

Halfway through the maze, he sensed the presence of an ancient force.  One he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

He shook his head.  It could not be, yet he couldn’t deny his feelings.  How had she managed to obtain such a thing or, worse yet, to bring it here?  He cursed through gritted teeth.  The headstrong twit just might have done it this time.  The Creator could not possibly overlook an attempt as deliberate as this.

The farther he walked the more fear sank into him.  His entire race would be homeless again if he didn’t stop Ainessa.  He would use mortal means to leave this place if he had to.  He didn’t want to abandon Luke to face this alone, but he now realized it was necessary.  With his decision made, he hastened to retreat, only to stop short.

Ainessa stood before him with an angelic expression on her face.  Two large men flanked her.  Something about them seemed familiar, but he was unsure of exactly what.

She curtsied in greeting.  “How good of you to come, Ammon.  We’ve been hoping you would.”  She lifted her hand daintily toward her chin exposing a silver ring on her middle finger.  It was goblin made.  There was no doubt about that.  Intricate filigree laced up the sides and around an enormous blue stone.  A pinprick of light pulsated at the center like a heartbeat.

Funny that something so small could house the power of creation.  Entranced, he stared for what seemed an eternity.  He felt the pull but fought the heady sensation.  As enticing as it was, one such as he could not ignite the germ.  “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Zach?  I am no longer that person.”

“You will always be Ammon to me, little brother, no matter how many attempts you make to change your name.”

He ignored the sentimental cadence to her voice.  It was just a manipulation tactic.  Ainessa was beyond feeling.  He pointed at her ring.  “I can’t fathom where you got that, but you must return it.  We cannot risk—”

“Not to worry,” she said brightly.  “I have a plan.”

He sighed.  Didn’t she always?

She passed her hand over the ring and it surged to life, lighting the entire corridor.  He gaped at his sister.  He had underestimated her again.  For her to have that much power could only mean one thing.

“Where is Luke?” he cried, reaching out with his mind to locate his friend.  “What have you done to him?”

“He wore out faster than I expected.”  She shook her head dismally.  “And to think he is a lord.”  She cocked her head to the side.  “However did he become one?”

Zach winced.  His show of favoritism had harmed the only person who had really ever helped him.

She lowered a pale finger toward the stone.  The moment she touched it, smoky tendrils snaked around him like demons freshly released from hell’s gates.  He ran but it was no use.  The darkness swirled closer to him, tasting his strength before it attached to his skin.

He screamed his pain, but no one was left to hear him as he collapsed to the dirt floor.  He’d fallen for her trap.  His last thought before unconsciousness claimed him was simply…Rayla.

Chapter One

I stared at Cassie, wondering what had gotten into her today.  She was glowing brighter than the morning, and in the fire realm that was saying something.  She shut the door behind her then faced me, grinning and her eyes shining with excitement.  “Did you hear, Rayla?”

There went my hopes that she wouldn’t bring up the one thing I was dreading more than picking a bondmate at the moment.  “Afraid so,” I said miserably.

She gave me a sympathetic frown.  She’d been trying but failing to cheer me up for days now.  “I guess there’s not much chance Zach or Luke will come, but you should still have plenty of men to dance with.”  She cocked her head slightly.  “Why aren’t you excited?”

What would she be doing if Finn had gone to that island and she was stuck here without him?  She’d be right here with me feeling like she had lost something she hadn’t known existed within herself, that’s what.  Zach and Luke haunted my thoughts every time I closed my eyes.  No one had heard from them in days, eight to be precise, but I was the only person that seemed to be concerned.  “Don’t remind me.”  I placed my hand dramatically against my forehead.  “I think I’m coming down with a fever.”  I would feel a lot better about things if that excuse had even a slight chance of working.

The Ignisian people were holding a ball in my honor.  Only death would get me out of it this time.  The queen wasn’t about to let me ditch this one.  I had run out of excuses as far as she was concerned.

This was her third attempt to get me to come to an event other than dinner.  The first had been a simple welcome party.

I had taken one step into the room and fainted dead away from the raw power of five hundred fae men blasting into me like a gale force wind.  The queen had graciously given me a day to recover before she suggested I join a smaller group on a leisurely hunt.  I faked a gag and told the emissary I was a vegetarian.

I made it clear to him, in no uncertain terms, that I would be forever traumatized by such a dreadful thing.  I had definitely not been lying about that part, just eating meat.  I had already witnessed the execution of plenty of chickens back home.  I should have gotten used to seeing them slaughtered, but it made me puke every time.  Aunt Grace had mercifully given up on me after a few attempts of showing me how to pluck them.

Cassie flounced cheerfully over to my side as if she were a sidetracked butterfly.  “It can’t possibly be that bad having an endless supply of hot men courting you.”

I stared at her in disbelief.  Was that what she thought was going on?  I chuckled to myself.  She had the enviable distraction of being in love with Finn as an excuse, but how could she have been that oblivious?

Our secrets had been what had nearly destroyed our friendship, and I wasn’t about to let that happen again.  Even though I didn’t think it was the best idea, I had to tell her what was going on.  “I wouldn’t mind so much if that was all they were doing,” I said softly, hoping I wasn’t about to ruin her happiness.

She was the most content I had ever seen her.  She was even nearly back to her old carefree self, and I wasn’t about to spoil it by cluttering her mind with my growing pile of garbage.  I had missed Cassie while we were at St. Mary’s College even though, for the most part, she had been right by my side.

She had become something I didn’t think possible for her—withdrawn, depressed, and downright ornery.  I hadn’t been much better if I was being honest.  Finding out everything you thought was real was actually an illusion has a way of doing that to people.  Let’s just say I had let fear rule every part of my life; I vowed I would never again.

Not only had I not known the fae existed when Cassie and I left for college, I had no idea I would be literally hunted for the power I possess.

Cassie’s been able to see the fae her whole life, but she denied it even when I started seeing them myself.  I had narrowly escaped being bound to Jett, well, Jafan is his real name.  And yes, he’s just as uppity as his name implies.  He is lord of Earth, and he makes no qualms in letting you know that.  He’s one scary lord, but that was beside the point, at least for now.

As long as I could bond with Zach or Luke before he finds me, I’d be just fine.  So what if I still couldn’t tell which of them I wanted more.

I figured my drama could wait because, just like the men in this realm, there was bound to be more popping up before all was said and done.

Cassie sat beside me on the bed and stretched her legs out next to mine.  She got settled before she turned toward me with a serious expression hardening her features.  “I know that look.  Spill.”

I didn’t really want to elaborate, but she had asked me outright so I felt obligated to give her the complete truth.  It was part of our new bargain:  if you didn’t really want to know, you didn’t ask.  “It’s all I can do to keep most of them out of my mind.  Compulsion has been harder for me to resist since we arrived here.”  That was an understatement, but she was better off not knowing how bad it really was.

Her brows furrowed.  “But I haven’t heard a single person here call you by name.”

I nodded gravely.  I was confused by that too.  “It seems they have discovered a way around that.”

She looked over at me; her face twisted into a compassionate stare.  It would have been so easy for me to whine, but I couldn’t let myself think that way.  Cassie had been feeling sorry for me a little too much lately, and I didn’t want it to rub off.  Besides, I needed to find a way to get on with my life.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said.  “I wish I knew how to help you, but aren’t you even a little bit excited about tonight?”

I considered her question.  Having attractive men fall all over themselves to talk to me, get me things I didn’t even want, or just stare at me with a determined look on their pretty faces should have been flattering.  It would have been in any other circumstance, but underneath all the kindness was the undeniable fact that each one of them was trying to compel me into wanting him.

I pinched my lips together and looked out the window.  My mind drifted to musing about what might happen this evening.  “Sure I am.”  I was able to manage more enthusiasm than I felt, but it still wasn’t good enough.  “It’ll be great.”

Cassie took my hands into hers.  “Come on, Rayla.  When are you ever going to have a chance to go to a real live masquerade ball again?”

A slow smile curved my lips.  This was just the sort of thing we used to dream up as kids.  My heart beat faster as I thought about being swept across a crowded floor in the arms of prince charming.  Two faces fought for dominance in my mind, and I found myself floating wistfully into the daydream.  Even if Zach and Luke couldn’t be here tonight, I would pretend they were.

I barely noticed Cassie stand up.  But it wasn’t until she touched my leg that I came back to reality.

“Will you help me decide which dress to wear?” she asked softly.  “I want to look pretty for Finn.”

I snorted, thinking of the way Finn always stared at her with puppy-dog eyes.  He was all-out gone over her.  I wasn’t sure what happened at home when he rescued her from her father, but whatever it was had them both smitten.  “You could wear a garbage bag and he wouldn’t notice, but I’m in.”

She grinned radiantly and headed for the bath.  My thoughts strayed to what I was going to wear.  I had an entire closet full of enviable fashions, but what was the point?  Who did I have to impress?  I gritted my teeth.  The sentiment of a ball was nice, but reality was much different.

I’d thought I had it bad back at college.  If I had known just how awful this could get I would have insisted on choosing a bondmate before I came here.

I had expected Zach and Luke five days ago, but no one other than me seemed to notice their absence.  I kept telling myself that it was a good thing that they hadn’t returned because I needed the time to decide.  I figured that distance would help me to see who was best for me, but the longer they were gone the more confused I became.  My heart was a tangled mess of uncontrolled emotional strings.  I would follow a line thinking it would lead to a choice only to end up at the beginning again.

To make matters worse, every underlord here had decided that now was the time to move up in the ranks by conquering me for their queen.  Fighting back the onslaught of constant compulsion attempts was not my idea of fun.  I didn’t have a clue why they were even bothering.  What made them think they could do better than Luke had?  He was an actual lord for heaven’s sake.

I had to get out of here before one of these weasels found a way to really compel me and there was only one fae I could trust to help me do it.

I found Finn in the Great Hall.  The room was bursting with the stale stench of crowded bodies.  Our gazes touched briefly, but he looked away faster than I could pin him down.  He started for the foyer at a brisk pace.  I called after him, pushing past a couple of guys that were trying to penetrate my mind.  I had no idea who they were, but the attempt was subpar at best.

I didn’t have time for this.  I threw up walls so thick an atomic blast couldn’t bring them down.  Each man clutched his skull, groaning as though their brains had just exploded.

Served them right.  I skirted around them, trying to keep Finn in sight.  He wasn’t ditching me this time.

I followed him out of the castle and into the frozen tundra that makes up the majority of the fire realm.  The most I could hope for was that he would agree to help me, but the least I would accept from him was an explanation for why he was avoiding me all of the sudden.  He was looking straight forward, his long auburn braid swaying in the wind.

I had to jog to even have a chance to reach him.  The air was crisp from the scent of ice mixed with pine.  I inhaled deeply trying to capture the freshness.

“Hey, Finn,” I yelled.  “Wait up!”  He hadn’t slowed down at all.  In fact, it looked as if he had sped up.  The worst part was he hadn’t even bothered to hide the fact he was trying to get away from me.

I kicked into a full run, pulling my fur jacket tighter around my neck.  My breath swirled around me in a chilly fog.

His sigh echoed off the frosty cliffs looming above us.  He had attempted to explain why a people who control fire had to live in a frigid environment, but it was still a little odd to me.  He said it had to do with balance.  If his people occupied a more temperate clime, they would most likely destroy it from how they use their power.

I loved being around Finn.  He was the only male I had met lately that hadn’t tried to seduce me.  Somehow, fae males have a way of amplifying their charm based on reactions from their prey.  I saw Zach do it in my dorm-room at St. Mary’s and the effects were earth-shattering for me.  He could have had me then if he had only asked.  Sometimes, I wish he had, but that was the part of me that didn’t want to have to choose.

Being here was much worse than I had ever thought it could be.  For the most part, I have been able to overcome the feelings the lordlings constantly inflict on me, but it has gotten rather tiring.

I’ve realized something that I hadn’t before, though.  These men have the ability to make me feel as if I am in love with them without much of a problem.  Unfortunately for them, my mind can still see through their guise even if my heart can’t.  They had a disadvantage where I was concerned because they couldn’t make the connection with me they enjoy with normal Elementals.

Finn was different.  He had never tried to compel me, and I found it rejuvenating to be around him.  I just wished I had the same effect on him.  He always seemed uncomfortable whenever he was anywhere near me, which over the past few days had been not at all.  I needed to find out why.

He glanced at me then grimaced.  “It is not wise for you to seek me out like this.”  His sultry voice always made my insides tighten slightly, but I had learned to ignore the feeling.

I gave him a big sloppy grin and chuckled.  “Being with you is the safest place I can be right now.”

He stopped cold and faced me.  His chest heaved rapidly; his fists clenched at his sides.  “You take much for granted.  Have you forgotten I was sent by my people to claim you?”

Hadn’t he told Tabitha he didn’t want me?  He had said it was only a formality.  I shook off the thought then punched his arm lightly to emphasize I was trying to be his buddy.  “You could never do that to Cassie.  Besides, Luke already tried to hijack my mind, and I’m still here.  Your people will have to understand that I’m not going to bond with just anyone.”  After realizing I had insulted him, I added, “No offense.”

He smiled crookedly, his straight white teeth gleaming in the morning sun, and coughed as though he was fighting back an ironic laugh.  I could see why Cassie liked him so much.  He seemed gruff on the exterior, but, really, he was just a big teddy-bear.

He leaned nearer.  “If I do not fulfill my calling soon, another will be chosen.  Then where will you be, little miss smug attitude?  You think just because you escaped Luke’s paltry attempt you will be able to escape all?  I would not be so naïve, Rayla.”

My muscles tensed when he said my name, but as usual he wasn’t trying to compel me.  I trusted him—well, as much as I could trust a fae.  He was the only royal fae that hadn’t once tried to use me, and that included Luke and Zach.  I didn’t care if it was because he was tired of living under the dictates of the courts.  I found his rebellious streak refreshing.

Finn was determined to choose his own mate.  He had made it clear he wanted that person to be Cassie.

She wanted the same thing.  I did too.  So what was the problem?  “You and I can help each other,” I said.

He folded his big arms across his bigger chest.  “Is that so?”

I gave him a vigorous nod.  “You don’t want to claim me, and I don’t want to be claimed.”  I lowered my voice as if the cliffs had ears.  “No one besides Cassie has to know that though.”

A confused expression settled on his face.  “What do you mean?”

I leaned conspiratorially toward him.  “You can act, can’t you?”

He grunted, waiving a dismissive hand in front of his nose as if I were a pesky fly.  “That would never work.”

My face screwed up in confusion.  I shoved my hands at my hips.  I had spent a lot of time considering the pro’s and con’s of my plan, and I hadn’t been able to come up with a single reason why it wouldn’t work.  “How come?”

He avoided looking at me even though I was staring straight into his tawny eyes.  He clenched his jaw a couple times before he said, “This whole thing is much more complicated than you want to know.”

I felt the corners of my eyes narrow in concern.  “I doubt that.”

He scrubbed his hand down his stubbly jaw.  “I know it seems as if you have found a simple solution to our rather large problem, but…”  He hesitated a little too long for my liking before he blurted, “I am not immune to you.  Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Chapter Two

Had I understood Finn correctly?  Was he really implying he felt drawn to me like the other lords?  I shook my head and placed my hand lightly on his arm.  He yanked it away.

Despite the gloves I wore, I cradled my hand against my chest as if I had touched a hot pan.  I stared up at him not believing what I was seeing.  Behind the fury reflecting in his eyes was unmistakable heat—for me.  “You can’t be serious.”

He looked away again.  “It takes all my will to avoid you.  Since you have come into my realm, your call has…intensified.  I am doing my best, but I won’t be held accountable for my actions if you continue to pursue me.”

I let out a disgusted huff.  “What about Cassie?”

He set his jaw tighter then sighed.  “She is your best friend.  I advise you to keep away from me…for all our sakes.”

I matched his stance, folding my arms across my chest.  “You’re telling me you would actually bond with me—right now—if I was game?”  A dark expression crossed his amber eyes killing the hope I still had.

“Do not tempt me, girl.”

I frowned at him, backing away.  I thought I had an ally in Finn.  How could I have been so wrong about him?  “Zach said you would protect me.”

He moistened his bottom lip and stared at my mouth distractedly as though he was imagining how I would taste.  He pulled his gaze away from me but not soon enough to give me any comfort.  His voice was gruff when he spoke.  “He was aware of the dangers when he left you here with me.”

I was losing the only hope I had of leaving this place to find Zach and Luke.  I couldn’t understand why nobody but me was worried that they hadn’t returned as planned.  I kept my voice solid trying my best not to let the insecurity I felt seep into my words.  “Zach and Luke are in trouble.  I can feel it.  They need your help!”

Finn opened his mouth as though he was about to speak then closed it tightly.  He shook his head warily.  “Zach is fully capable of taking care of himself, as is Luke.  I suggest you do the same.”

“But—”

“Leave!”  His bellow echoed off the cliffs in a thunderous roar loud enough to startle wildlife miles away.  The sharp reverberation of cracking ice mirrored the rents spreading through my heart.

I felt shock inch across my face before I narrowed my eyes at him.  It was more out of hurt than anger, but he didn’t need to know that.

He just glared back.  His expression held no amount of compromise.

I turned and ran toward safety, as if there was such a place here.  The castle loomed in front of me like a haunting figure in a ghostly dream.

The whole structure was made from giant slabs of grey stone.  The battlements rose high above the portcullis, the picture of intimidation.  It even had a drawbridge and a bright mote of swirling lava that singed my nostrils.  The place held an eerie, ancient quality that was at the same time breathtaking and horrifying.

I ignored the temptation to stop and gawk at it again.  I hadn’t been able to really explore the castle because every time I had dared come out of my room, someone had tried to compel me.

People stared as I passed through the enormous double doors and into the spacious foyer.  Tears streamed down my cheeks unguarded.  I no longer cared what any of these people thought of me.

I raced through the great hall toward the stairs that led to my room.  Sweat trickled down my back and beaded on my forehead.  I longed to shed the heavy coat I wore, but I learned not to take it off until I was within my chamber.  Every time I had given into my discomfort and removed my coat in public, I had gotten unwanted attention from whatever male was around me.  It was as though the strange dappled fur protected me somehow.  I pulled it tighter.  I could use all the protection I could get at the moment.

My feet wouldn’t move fast enough.  I took the stairs two at a time and jogged down the hall wishing I could just poof myself into my room like Professor Dumbledore.  I sped around the corner, lungs heaving in protest.  I was almost there.

A groan escaped my mouth before I could stop it.

Two men blocked the passageway to my rooms.  These two in particular were trouble on steroids.  I let out a sigh that could have crumbled Alcatraz and bit back a curse.  I didn’t need this right now.

Levi was bad enough to ignore with his solid physique and light honey eyes, but he wasn’t as big of a threat to me as Heath who epitomized tall, dark, and lethal.  His deep eyes could pin me in a trance that was nearly impossible to escape.

He was slightly shorter than Finn, yet every bit as muscular.  His hair was a deep chestnut that looked walnut unless the light caught it just so.  He had a small dimple high on his right cheek, but only when he smiled broadly.  His lips were a little too thin for my liking, so why did I find myself staring at them whenever he was near?  Although I had tried several times, I couldn’t deny that even among the fae he was a beautiful man.

The worst part was he made me nervous.  I kept telling myself it wasn’t in a good way hoping one of these days my body was going to believe me.  One look from him, and I felt myself align with him as though no other man existed in his universe.  I didn’t care what my traitorous body wanted.  I had other ideas.

“Hello, Rayla,” the men said in unison.  A vague compulsion slid up against the barriers in my mind.  How two hopeful underlords thought they could control me when the champion of their realm hadn’t been able to do it was beyond me?

Well, to be fair, Finn hadn’t actually tried to compel me.  I prayed he never would.

I gave a half nod, pushing back with my mind.  I felt Levi withdraw immediately, but Heath was still lurking somewhere.  “Excuse me, please.”  I moved forward a step.  Levi didn’t even look at me before he set off down the hall.  His shoulders were slumped as if in defeat with his head hung between them.

When I spun back around Heath was firmly planted in front of me.  A single dark brow rose as if to say just try to go around me.  I leveled a steely expression at him.  My voice came out ragged.  “Move out of my way.”  I was in no mood to deal with amateur flirtation of any level.

Who was I kidding?  He had flirtation down to an art-form.

He gave me an exaggerated frown before he came within inches of my face.  “Why are you so grumpy all the time?”

My heart set into a jig at his nearness.  I felt the need to move back a step but I didn’t want to encourage him into thinking all he had to do was look at me in order to control me.  I cocked my head to the side and leaned against the wall.  It was not because he made my knees weak with just a glance.  I studied the hard lines of his face.  Every angle led me to the next and soon I was back to those lips I could munch on for hours.

I was still trying to decide if this was really how he looked or if it was an enhanced version.  I stared at him a little too long, feeling a slight blush rise up my neck when he did the same.  Definitely amped up.  With a great amount of effort I managed to straighten my spine.  “Maybe it’s because every time I turn around I have to see your ugly face.”

He let out a gusty laugh, not even acknowledging my absurd insult.  The heat coming off him overwhelmed my senses.  He inched nearer before he placed a hand on the wall next to my face.  Waves of his scent hit me like an inferno.  Images of dark, hidden places invaded my mind.  A lazy grin slid onto his lips before he spoke.  “If you’re so eager to get rid of me, why don’t you compel me to leave, Rayla?”  My name came out a mere whisper but the soft sound held the strings to my will.

I pulled at my collar, wishing I had a bucket of slush handy.  I needed to cool off and it wasn’t because I was sweltering in my coat anymore.

My insides tingled from having him this close.  Even though I would never admit it to him, I was straddling the sharp edge of surrender.  If I didn’t get away from him soon I was bound to give in.

Thank the heavens and the stars Finn had come for me instead of Heath.  I wasn’t sure how things would have turned out if he had.

I willed myself to step closer to him even though I needed to get away.  He had the audacity to grin at me as if he had won.

The strength of the elements seeped into my skin.  “What a great idea, Heath.”  Merely saying his name like that made my head soar on a cloud of dizziness.  I put what I hoped was a little compulsion into my words to get him to move away from me.  I didn’t dare do much more than that because I was still pretty new at this.  With my luck my compulsion would rebound on me and I would be stuck with him forever.

I still had no clue what I could do with my power.  Neither did this moron.  The unknown seemed to scare off most of the hopefuls after one failed attempt, but the idea that I just might be an imminent supernova apparently didn’t bother him.

A confused expression crossed his features briefly before he stepped aside.  With an exaggerated flourish, he swept his arm toward my door.  “I am at your service, my lady.”

I hadn’t missed the possessive inflection he’d used in addressing me, but I made myself ignore it.  I was so sick of people calling me that.  My lady, as if they owned me.  Cassie told me they only did it out of respect for me.  Supposedly, the use of a generic term meant the speaker was in no way trying to compel me.

Well, I had endured other kinds of compulsion within the last few days, and I would take the blatant attempts over the concealed anytime.  Some of these people were pretty adept at mind penetration and a subliminal compulsion was harder to identify than an outright attack.

Heath had been the first person to use one against me, on my first night in the castle no less.  I had been in absolute awe of everything I saw, including him.

He had been sitting to my right at one of the many banquet tables in the great hall.  All he did was touch my hand—a brief kiss of skin, nothing tender or unusual about it.  When I glanced at him I thought I saw a strange flash of light behind his iris just before he asked, “Care for some peas?”  He hadn’t used my name, but his compulsion blasted through my barriers.

I snapped out a sultry “Yes,” before I’d had a chance to really consider if I felt like eating them or not.  He smiled at me then.  It was a slow spreading affair that consumed the majority of his handsome face.  All of the fire people had the same tawny colored eyes, but his seemed deeper somehow like liquid bronze.  I had gotten caught in those eyes one too many times as if hypnotized by the dancing flames of a roaring campfire.

It was about to happen again if I didn’t get my butt into my room.  “Thank you,” I said, taking a wide berth around him.  I didn’t even glance at him, but I could feel his eyes on me as I hurried through the doorway.  I leaned against the door as it thudded closed needing the support all of the sudden.

His chuckle carried through the heavy barrier, sending a shiver through me.  He was testing me again.  I wasn’t sure how, but I could feel it.

“Where have you been hiding?” Cassie asked with a grin.  She let out a tiny laugh until she saw my expression.  Just like that, she slanted her head at me knowingly.  “What’s wrong?”

Was I really that transparent?  I was going to have to work on my acting, especially now that I knew how Finn felt about me.

The man she was trusting to sort out her Elemental status just might be too distracted by me to give it his best effort.  How could I break her heart by telling her the truth?  I settled for giving her the second reason I was upset.  “Heath’s trying to compel me again.”  It was true.  I could feel it, but he was being much more subtle about it.

She studied the door as if she had x-ray vision then turned toward me with a half-cocked smile.  “You could do worse.”

“Yeah, you think?”  I gave her a short, upward nod.  “You switching teams or something?”

She made a whooshing sound like a slashed tire gushing air.  “Don’t be absurd.  Finn could squash Heath with one look.”

I nodded.  There had to be a reason Finn had managed to stay champion of the fire realm for the past thirty years, and I was praying it was because he was much stronger than Heath.  It made me wonder though.  I had been told that if the wild hunt didn’t produce results within a certain amount of time a champion was supposed to step aside for the younger generation.

How could they call them that?  No one in this horrible place had the decency to age at all.

Finn hadn’t gotten around to bonding with one of the poor Elemental’s from the hordes the Order had to offer.  I smiled.  Now he wouldn’t have to.  I was going to have to ask him why he didn’t just bond with Cassie now.  That would solve at least one of our problems.

I gave her a feeble smile, dumped my coat on the chair in the corner then walked over to the ginormous bed in the center of the room.  My fingers curved weakly around a solid iron post.  I steadied myself to tug my boots off.  My sweaty socks clung to my skin, bur I managed to get them off eventually.  I tossed them away trying to ignore the stench.  With that out of the way, I flopped on the bed, face first.  If Cassie hadn’t been with me I would have stripped down to my skivvies.  If it weren’t for how chilled I felt whenever I went outside I would have sworn my inner body temperature had risen since coming here.

I was absolutely useless.  How was I supposed to just sit here when Zach and Luke were facing the Order without any real back-up?  Then there was the matter of what had been done with my family.  I was worried sick about them.  Cassie had already told me that they had been taken to the island, but why?  Were they being tortured while I sat here doing nothing to help them?

It was clear to me that none of the fae took any human seriously, even the mysterious members of the Order.  They really should be more careful if you asked me.

When I had been in the tunnels with Roger Wayne back at school, he had said something that had bothered me then but doubly so now.  He had blatantly told me the Order hadn’t reached the point where they didn’t need the fae to accomplish their designs.  I’d taken that declaration to mean they were working toward that end.  Maybe whatever Luke had seen on the island was dangerous to the fae.  Maybe he and Zach had walked into a trap?

I cringed at the thought.  Even though they couldn’t be killed, I had been around these immortals long enough to know they still had emotions like humans.  They experienced physical pain, too, although they tried not to show it.

I had seen a guy get pulverized by a giant chunk of ice just two days ago.  It hadn’t taken long for a group of brownies to scuttle from the castle and levitate the thing off him, but they had exhausted all of their power in doing it and had to carry him back to the castle on a stretcher.  He was groaning the whole time, but not as much as the four brownies supporting his weight.

Brownies are a short people.  None I had seen had been over three feet tall.  They all had pale orange skin with a light dusting of white fur that covered their bodies.  They looked virtually identical from the back.  The only real distinction between male and female, other than obvious things, had been the slight difference in skin tone.  The males had dime sized freckles only a bit darker than the rest of their skin.  The females had a uniform skin color.  Both genders wore their hair long and braided, as was the custom of the royal house of Ignis.

As it turned out, the brownies are one of the lesser fae races that came to earth for asylum after the first five nations claimed the planet.  They weren’t allowed to share in the elemental power enjoyed by the royals, but they had been fast learners of earth magic.  They can manipulate matter, just not to the heightened degree of the five houses.  It takes a bunch of them to accomplish the same task a royal could do with one thought.

After hearing Luke explain how cold and lonely his existence had been before he found Earth, I realized how someone might be happy to just have a home.  Even if all they ever did was serve other people, it was better than wandering the vast expanse of space for eternity.

I hadn’t seen any other fae races in Ignis, but Finn told me there were countless numbers of them.  They all served some purpose so the royals could take care of watching over humans without having to grow food or worry about technological advances and such.

I was still having a hard time accepting that the fae actually believed they were serving humans by causing calamities or interfering behind the scenes when the balance of power was weighted too heavily to one side.  Finn had told Cassie many things he wouldn’t even think about telling me.  I wasn’t sure if he realized she would tell me anyway, but either way, his thinking was weird to me.

I heard the clomping of Cassie’s shoes hitting the stone floor before I felt a light touch on my back.  I hadn’t even felt her sit down.  My new bed was the most comfortable thing I had ever slept on.  Even Cassie’s memory-foam mattress couldn’t compare.  I was weightless when I was on my bed.  I should have been able to rest rather soundly under ordinary circumstances, but being here was anything but normal.  It didn’t help that I kept having nightmares.  Every night since coming here, I had fallen asleep with the hope I would get some rest, and every night I had been vastly disappointed.

I rolled over and looked at Cassie’s concerned face.  Here I was feeling sorry for myself when she had it way worse than I did.  All I had to do was pick a guy to spend a few hundred years with.  It shouldn’t be that difficult, especially considering whom I have to choose from.  Cassie’s future wasn’t so certain.  She didn’t know how much of an Elemental she really was and neither did anyone else even though they had spent the last couple of days trying to figure it out.

All they could tell was that she was part Elemental.  She had the genetic markers, but her DNA was different than anything they had ever seen.

The doctor implied that she wanted to sample my blood, but I wasn’t about to subject myself to that kind of scrutiny.  What if that little troll, Gibbit, had been right?  What if somehow I was part fae?  What would they do with me then?  I had joked with Finn and Cassie about them having a baby eventually and Finn had grown very somber.  He told me in no uncertain terms it wasn’t possible for a fae lord to father a child.  My brain kept telling me he was right, but in my heart I wondered.

Cassie leaned up against the headboard and patted the mattress next to her.  I crawled over and sat down.  I pulled one of the soft pillows out from behind my back and started fiddling with the fringe.

So many things here were similar to the human realm.  The chairs and dressers were intricately carved to old-world perfection.  Ancient tapestries that showed heroic scenes of damsels in distress with warriors heroically saving the day covered the chilly stone walls.  I wondered how many modern conveniences had been introduced to the human realm by the fae.  I also wondered why they seemed to cling to old styles.

“Did you find Finn?” asked Cassie.

I flicked a glance at her.  I was not about to take away the only hope Cassie had by telling her the truth.  “No,” I said dismally.  I wasn’t really lying to her.  The man I had followed outside didn’t resemble her kind, loving boyfriend in the slightest.  Maybe he was temporarily possessed?

She shrugged and smiled compassionately at me.  “Do you want me to talk to him for you?  I know you don’t like being alone with him.”

Her tone implied that I was the one avoiding him.  I would be from now on.  I smiled lamely at her.  “That might be better.  Thanks.”

She sniffed.  “Have you heard any news at all about Zach and Luke?”

I banged my head against the headboard a few times for emphasis.  “No one will tell me anything.  If I didn’t know better, I would think they are hiding the truth from me.”

She looked distractedly out the window as if she wished we were talking about a more pleasant subject.  I couldn’t really blame her.  “Maybe they just don’t know anything yet?” she said hopefully.

I turned toward her so I could see her better.  “If that’s true, why wouldn’t they send someone to investigate?  Why would they sit here and do nothing?”

“I wish I had an answer to offer you.  I’ll see what I can find out, though.”  Her face brightened.  “Are you excited about the ball yet?”

I groaned.  “You just had to remind me, didn’t you?  I explicitly remember telling you not to.”

Why were they throwing a ball for me anyway?  A friggin’ ball—the kind with elaborately uncomfortable dresses and even more uncomfortable dancing.  I didn’t know the first thing about how to behave at a ball, and I didn’t care to, either.  It wasn’t as if these people were giving me a choice.  I could try to refuse, but I was pretty certain Finn or, worse yet, Heath would carry me down there kicking and screaming if they had to.

I only had a few minutes until my ladies in waiting would rush in to help me get ready.  I wished I could figure out how they managed to change my clothing without ever taking anything off me.  Cassie had already informed me that they would be using old-fashioned methods with me tonight.  It, too, was a sign of respect.  So not only was I going to have to let multiple women watch me dress, I was going to have to allow them to put their hands all over me.

A knock sounded at the door.  “They don’t waste any time, do they?” I asked Cassie.

She grinned, jumping from the bed and over to the door so fast she was almost a blur.  Sure, she was stoked.  She was going to be dancing with Finn until the wee hours of the morning.  I had no idea who I would be obligated to dance with tonight.  Unless a miracle occurred, one thing was certain, it wouldn’t be Zach or Luke.

Chapter Three

Before I could even sit up straight, six women entered my room.  I knew at some point I was going to get used to the beauty of these people, but it hadn’t happened yet.

All six had waist-length flowing red hair; all six had tawny eyes and flawless skin; and all six were staring at me as though I was the newest wonder of the universe.

One of them stepped forward.  “I am Lysanne.  Please follow me.”

For half a second, I considered refusing her.  I could pretend I was sick, but they would only bring the physician who would no doubt poke and prod until she found something she could use to get me into her lab.  The experience wouldn’t be any different with these women.

I slunk off the bed and fell in line.  Lysanne led me to my dressing chamber.  It was bigger than Aunt Grace’s entire house back in Castlerock, Utah.  I never, in a thousand years, would have expected I would miss the place this much, but there was a certain comfort a small residence could offer that a sprawling palace would never be able to compete with.

I shed my clothes and waited for the primping to begin in nothing but my underwear.  I had already bathed today, and I refused to take another dip in the Grecian style tub so I asked Lysanne for the fae equivalent of a shower.  I wasn’t sure I would ever get used to it, but it did save time.  One minute, I was sweaty and my long hair fell limply around my face.  The next, I was squeaky clean with bouncy brown curls tumbling over my shoulders.  I slid a ringlet through my fingers and stared at her.  What was wrong with my hair the way it usually was?  She smiled defiantly at me.  I had bigger things to worry about tonight.

Lysanne’s assistant strode toward us, stopped in front of me, bowed formally then she went to work slathering oil all over my body.  My skin tingled before it began to glow slightly and I’m not talking about a fake glimmer shimmer.  My skin was actually lit up from the inside.  “What is that?” I asked in awe.  The woman wouldn’t answer me.  That was another thing that bugged the potatoes out of me.  They never talked much.

Another woman worked on my nails while Lysanne set off to find just the right gown for the evening.  She hung five dresses on the wall when she came back.  The first was silver silk with simple flowing lines that reminded me of a cascading waterfall.  They got more and more extravagant from there.  One of them looked like something off Star Trek with metallic shoulder-pads better suited to a linebacker.  I shook my head firmly, and it was hauled off in a hurry.  The next was completely beaded from bodice to hem.  I picked it up and studied the fabric.  Heat flooded my face when I realized it was completely see through.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, it weighed about thirty pounds.  I made her take it back right away.

I moved down the line and looked over the blood-red gown.  Each puffy sleeve was as wide as my head.  The bodice narrowed to a tight fitting V, and the skirt belled out like something a princess would wear.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Lysanne had stolen the thing from the set of Gone with the Wind.  Even though it was stunning, I didn’t think I could pull it off.  I shook my head slightly and it was hastily removed.

The last in the group had a bit of promise.  It was the color of sprouting grass with the same iridescent quality as the gown I had worn to my bonding ceremony.  I could have stared for hours at the prisms it cast against the adjacent wall.  I walked over to it and stroked the soft fabric.  It slid through my fingers like water.  The cut was daring, but not overly immodest.

Lysanne was giving orders to some of the other women, so I took the opportunity to slip it over my head on my own.  I didn’t like feeling as if I were a child that needed to be dressed.

She rushed up to me.  “Please, my lady, let me help you with that.”  Before I could blink the dress was covering me, perfectly pressed.  She lowered her eyes and asked, “Do I displease you in some manner?”  It was hard to miss the devastation in her tone.  “Would you like another to assist you?”

I placed a hand on her forearm.  She flinched slightly.  “It’s nothing like that.  I must be a huge disappointment for you.  It just seems silly to have you do things for me I am accustomed to doing myself.”

Her entire face looked tight as if she really wanted to interrupt me; I doubted she ever would.  She waited for me to finish before speaking.  “I am honored to serve you.  You must understand.  I have won the right to be here tonight.”  There was a bit of leather behind her words.  Was she saying she actually battled somebody to help me get dress?  She smiled wistfully.  “I see the rumors are true.  You are different than most Elementals, both in ability and in politeness.”  She lowered her gaze from mine.  “I would speak plainly to you.”  She scanned the room before she said, “If you will allow it?”

I startled from her words.  Could I trust this woman?  Was it possible she could help me?  “I encourage it,” I replied breathlessly.

She sat on the bench beside me.  “I come to offer assistance, my lady.  I have heard you do not wish to be called that, but I will not use your given name for security reasons.  I am told a certain princess had a brief conversation with you before your inauguration.”

I immediately became guarded.  For all of Ainessa’s attempts at befriending me, I couldn’t shake the image of her first meeting with Cassie.  She had been more than a little tyrannical.  If this woman was in league with her, I needed to be very careful.  “Yes, I did.”

Lysanne leaned toward me.  She took my hands gently between her own.  “She does not represent the vast majority of women in our realms, even though she claims to.  She is cunning and can make you think you are serving yourself when in fact, you are serving her.  I have firsthand experience in this regard.  Most of us want to find harmony with our brother courts.  She wants power, nothing more.  Do not trust her.”

I nodded slowly.  “Who can I trust in this place?” I whispered.

Her eyes darkened.  “No one—not even me.  I come to you with my own agenda.  I think it forthright, but some might not.  I will leave it to you to consider.”  She nodded toward the door.  “Walk with me?”

I waved for Cassie to stay where she was as I followed Lysanne out of the room.  She was having fun.  I had no desire to take her away from the excitement.  Lysanne led me into an adjoining chamber.

It was my favorite room in this suite.  I imagined this was what a ladies chamber would have looked like in the sixteenth century, only with a few more bells and whistles.

Two comfy crème couches faced each other in the center of the room.  Between them glowed an open fire pit over which hung an enormous chandelier made entirely of ice.  A linear band of gold flowed around the outer edges in stark contrast to the intricate branches of lacy ice that hung down several feet.  It looked like pictures I had seen of a coral reef, only this was upside down.  It reflected the glow of the fire while radiating a blue light of its own.  The colors it cast over the space were the soft blues and ambers of a sunrise.  To my amazement, it had never dripped in all the time I had stared at it.

This room abutted an atrium full of thriving plant life.  To my surprise, she walked past the sofa and out into the garden.  It was hard to tell I was in the middle of a frozen wonderland when I was in this oasis.  The Ignisian people rarely traversed the glaciers or ice-capped mountains surrounding their home.  I had been told that in spring and summer, certain parts of the country became lush with plants, but most of the realm was a wasteland year-round.

She stopped at the reflecting pool and sat on a bench.  The fish were active today.  A vibrant variety about the size of coy, their scales gleamed florescent shades of pink, purple, blue, and yellow.

The school crowded the edge of the pond, wagging their tails like a bunch of Labrador puppies.  Lysanne reached into a pot at the side of the bench and scattered colorful flakes over the top of the clear water.  The fish went crazy fighting for the morsels.

I waited for her to talk, knowing if I said anything it would only drag the conversation out longer.  Her gaze rested at the center of the frenzy but seemed to focus on nothing in particular.

Her cheeks rose in a small smile.  “You know what I most envy about humans?”

The thought that this woman would envy humans at all bewildered me.  She was beautiful in every respect.  I wasn’t sure where she fit in with her people, but I gathered she was a leader.  When she didn’t continue, I said, “What’s that?”

“Every one of them has a future.”  She turned to look at me.  Her amber eyes held an ageless sadness.

I felt sorry for her, and I wasn’t even sure why.  I wanted to tell her that she had just as much of a future as any human, but she didn’t really.  Her life would always be as it was.  Any change that would come would just be a different version of what she already had.  I couldn’t offer her painted lies.  “Yes, they do.”

The intensity in her expression deepened.  “So do you.”

“I know,” I said.  I wasn’t sure where she was going with this.

“Some Faeresians hate humans because of this.”

“You don’t?”

She shook her head mournfully.  “I cannot say I haven’t felt the pain of hate at times, but I am here because of choices I made.  I refuse to blame humans for my actions.”

How very adult of her.  I wasn’t sure where the resentment in my tone came from, but no fae had ever just shot the breeze with me.  “What is it that you want from me?” I asked sharply.  They all wanted something, and this woman was no different.

“That person we were discussing earlier desires to switch the roles of women and men in our realms.  She will not openly admit it, but it is her goal, nonetheless.  I see a need for us to work together.  I ask only this:  the prophecy is cryptic, but I believe part of it refers to your ability to reject bonding altogether.”

I brightened at the thought that she might actually tell me what I had been so desperate to find out.  “Will you tell me what it says exactly?”

She laughed softly.  “To do so would be to influence you to your detriment.  However, I will share one thing with you.  It says that the choice must be yours.  Many of us are staking our happiness on that choice, my lady.  I know it is a heavy burden I lay at your feet, but I am asking you to choose no one.  I think it is the only way we can achieve a lasting peace.”

I was confused.  “How would that help you?”

“Only when we are forced to realize there is no salvation will we truly be able to live.”  Lysanne stood and paced in front of me.  Her every movement was a study in grace.  She stopped, looking down on me.  “We fight because we think there is something to fight over.  If you were to refuse the throne, we would have to seek an alternative to our problem.”

I had no idea what she was really talking about, and it was clear to me that she wasn’t going to speak in more than generalities.  “I see,” I said.  “I will take that into consideration.  I haven’t decided at this point what I will do, but I can assure you I will not enter into any decision lightly.”

She nodded and gave me a ghost of a smile.  Had she ever really smiled before?  Was her life so bleak that this was the best she could come up with?  When I thought about it, though, I realized my return gesture was probably just as shallow.

“We had better return.  You will be missed otherwise.”

I followed her back to my room in silence.  She didn’t even say anything as she placed jewels in my hair and around my neck.  Her show of respect didn’t go unnoticed.  She left the room for only a moment and returned with a pair of sparkling emerald-studded heels.  She slipped a shoe onto my foot and it auto-adjusted to my size.

“Cool,” I breathed.  I stood, expecting to wobble a bit, but I was as stable as if I were wearing hiking boots.  I raised my wondering gaze to hers.

She smiled.  This time it almost lit her eyes.  “I never said there weren’t advantages to being fae.”

I laughed, practicing walking even though I didn’t have to.  She came up behind me.  “Turn around,” she said.  She picked up an upside down mask and pressed it against my face.  Just like the shoes, it shrunk to fit my features perfectly.  I walked over to the mirror, unable to believe I was the person who stared back at me.  The mask only covered my eyes, but I didn’t look like me.  It gave me a sense of autonomy.  I was suddenly grateful to the queen for letting me hide in plain sight.

I whirled back around and straight into a mist of perfume.  It smelled of musk and made me a little dizzy.  I frowned.  “I wish you would have warned me before you did that.  Au de BO would be better.  It appears I don’t need any help attracting men around here.”

She smirked.  “My lady, you could smell like a cesspool and they would still flock to you.  Besides, this may mask a bit of your overwhelming charm.”

“My what?”

She raised a brow as if I should have known this about myself already.  “Your power radiates from you like a small sun.  It is almost intoxicating at times.  None of us are immune to it.  Some of us are just better at covering up our awe of you.”  Her eyes became distant.  “That particular princess we were talking about has been the only female of our kind to seek to attempt a bonding, but with power like yours, I understand her reasoning for wanting to.”

She didn’t look at me as I backed away from her, making an excuse that I needed to find Cassie.  I didn’t feel powerful at all, but these people acted as though I was the ultimate Energizer Bunny.

I finally found Cassie.  She was holding a diamond choker to her throat.  It sparkled against her pale skin.  Her dress was silver and she had a gold crown woven into her hair.  Her mask was black and covered half of her face.  Her pale eyes were nearly glowing.

She caught a glimpse of me in the mirror and smiled.  “You look absolutely stunning.  I love your dress.  Who are you supposed to be?”

I narrowed my eyes.  “What do you mean?”

“Didn’t they tell you?  Each costume represents a mythical figure.”

The first thing that popped into my mind was that dress with the absurdly big shoulder pads.  Who was that supposed to be?  “Lysanne didn’t mention it.”  I turned around to ask her, but Cassie and I were alone.  “Who are you tonight?”

Her smile had a ting of embarrassment to it.  “Belisama.”  When I stared at her dumbly, she said, “She was a goddess of fire, not a well known one, but I thought it was…fitting.  What do you think?”  She held the choker higher.  “This one…or,” she lowered the necklace and raised a diamond pendant that fit snuggly against her generous cleavage.

An easy smile settled on my mouth.  I waggled my eyebrows at her.  “I guess that depends on whether you want Finn to look you in the eyes at all tonight.”

“Rayla!” she sputtered.

I pushed her shoulder lightly.  “It’s true and you know it.”  Before she had a chance to contradict me, I continued, “You look beautiful, by the way.  I guess you didn’t need my help after all.”

She smiled impishly, lowering the choker to the table.

She pulled up her tangle of hair, and I moved behind her glad to be able to help in some way.  I gave her a teasing look in the mirror as I dipped the pendant lower against her breasts before I fastened the clasp.

She mock-glared at me in the mirror.  “Oh, like you’d be any different if Zach was here for you to impress.”

I felt the blood drain from my face.  My taunting smile fizzled.  Missing Zach and Luke was the least of my worries.  A few days ago I had been so caught up in which of them I would choose that I hadn’t considered I might never get that option.

She whirled around, her dress swishing after her.  “I’m sorry,” she said softly.  “I can be the biggest idiot sometimes.  I didn’t mean to make you think about him.  Maybe he’ll surprise you?  Stranger things have happened.”

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