A Fine Soirée
“You know what I find interesting?”
“I’d love to know.”
I waved a hand at the book of fairy tales. “This story has no moral.”
“How do you mean?” Leslie’s brows came down briefly, and he smiled a bit.
“Rumpelstiltskin did the girl a favor in turn for favors but never got his final reward. The miller was never punished for lying, but I’ve always found that lying gets you into all sorts of trouble that you usually can’t get out of without telling the truth.”
“I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. However, bad people aren’t always punished, and sometimes, the favors one does go unrewarded.” Leslie closed the book but kept it on his lap.
“How would you have punished the miller?”
“Hmm.” I considered the options. “Well, he would’ve had a big stone to grind wheat and stuff into flour, right?”
“Yes, that’s where the name comes from. Millstone.”
“Well, maybe his millstone keeps breaking until he fesses up.”
“That’s more humanely than how I would punish him,” Leslie decided.
“Oh? And what would you do to him?” I grinned. “Have him eaten by vampires a little every day?”
“No, I think I would just have him fall and get ground up by the stone.”
For some reason, at that moment, that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, and I bellowed with laughter. Leslie laughed too, although probably more at me laughing than what he’d said. I laughed so hard that I cried and had to fan my eyes to keep the eyelash powder from running.
I felt Leslie’s free hand on my cheek, and my laughs quieted. He lifted my face to his and kissed me. It was another soft kiss, a gentle brushing of lips.
“I love to hear you laugh,” he said, and I felt his lips move against mine as he spoke.
I always noticed Leslie’s eyes first, but I took this chance to study his face. It was rectangular but soft, with rounded edges. His nose was straight, with a slight swoop to it and a small, rounded end. I took his full bottom lip between my teeth for a moment and then kissed him back, a little more forcefully than he kissed me.
Leslie made an unhappy sound and pulled back from me. “We’re here.” I hadn’t even noticed that the car had stopped moving. “Are you ready?”
I swallowed hard, and my heart, which was already racing, leapt up into my throat. “Let’s do this.”
Leslie’s door opened, and he glided from the limo. Almost as fast as I turned my head, he was at my door with his hand held out for me. I took it, and he drew me from the car. The limo was in the front circular drive of Benoit’s enormous house. Behind us and in front of us, other couples emerged from limos and flashy cars. Leslie released my hand long enough to drape my wrap over my shoulders. Several people nodded or waved to Leslie. One woman craned her neck over her date to look at us.
“Why are they all staring at you?” I whispered.
“They aren’t. They’re staring at you.” My stomach rolled. Leslie tried, ineffectually, to put me at ease with a smile.
“Why?” I clutched the arm he offered me.
“I told you it’s been a while since I’ve taken a mate. They’re curious.” His free hand rubbed mine where I dug it into his sleeve.
“You know, you can take the terrified human bit too far.”
“I’m not acting.”
I glanced around, trying to absorb the details of the main entrance to the house. The blazing red front doors looked to be twenty feet tall. The house itself was a white brick monstrosity with lots of false windows framed by black shutters. Someone had sculpted the shrubbery into spheres, and large stone lions flanked the entrance. Patrols dotted the rooftop and guarded the entrance.
As we entered the foyer, I glued myself to Leslie. I looked around and got the impression that Guillame Benoit liked things soft and gilded. A giant painting of chubby children and dogs covered most of one wall of the foyer. The frame around it was gold and wider than my waist. The chandelier with tier upon tier of crystal hung over a flowery rug that looked to be hand-woven two or three centuries ago.
The entryway was large enough for six people to enter at once. Five attendants stood ready to take wraps, keys, overcoats, and anything else the party-goers heaped on them. A small woman took my wrap and returned the tentative smile I sent her. Leslie took my arm in his, and we filed past the enormous painting toward a wide arch that stood between two sweeping staircases. The murmurs of conversation echoed up to the high ceilings. They were painted as well.
When we went through the arch, I leaned close to Leslie and said, “This house must have a hundred rooms, like a hotel.”
“Guillame prefers the large and flashy in everything but women.”
Though I couldn’t have cared less, I asked, “What kind of women does he prefer?”
“Demur and beautiful.”
In the next room, foot traffic came to a standstill. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well, at least I won’t have to worry about him.”
Leslie looked at me and ran his finger down my cheek. “Don’t be so sure.”
I began to swim in his eyes, so I looked away, looked for anything. This hallway was as wide as the foyer and lined with white sculptures, mostly of nude women, on gold pedestals. There were matching doors on each side, one for each restroom. Near the front of the line, I spotted Selene and Justin speaking to a man at a podium.
Just as I said, “I hope they haven’t been waiting long,” a female vampire with an old southern accent boomed, “Oh, dear God. Leslie? Leslie Wells? Where have you been?”
She wove her way up the line to us. She was unhealthily thin with a large pile of brown curls pinned on top of her head. Her lips and fingernails matched her blood-red dress, which was clingy in the extreme. She did her best to look at me without directly looking at me. I stood straighter and reasserted my clamp on Leslie’s arm.
“Sue Margaret,” Leslie said cordially. “How are you? You look lovely this evening.” They mock kissed each other on each cheek.
“Why thank you, Darlin’. You look just as scrumptious as always. I’m so glad you decided to stay in Florida for the winter. I hope you’ll be throwing one of your fabulous parties.” She batted her eyelashes at him before turning to me. In my heels, I was about four inches taller. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your date?”
“Sue Margaret Wilson, this is Lily Wells, my mate.”
Leslie put an unmistakable emphasis on the word. Everyone in the room, and probably outside the room (these were vampires), could hear him. She looked at me, absorbing every detail. I had a strong, irrational urge to jump on her and tear out her hair.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Wilson,” I said as genially as I could.
“Charmed.” She gave me a brief smile. “You’re quite a lucky human, Lily. Leslie here,” she turned to look at him, “is a catch. He’s been single for, oh how long has it been, Leslie? Longer than I’ve been a vampire. She must be very tasty. Oh, I forgot.” She put a hand on his forearm. “You quit drinking from humans.”
Brushing her hand away, Leslie said, “You didn’t forget, Sue Margaret.” With a huff of breath, she stalked back to her place in line. “Lily, if you need to use the restroom, there’s one right over there.” He pointed and leaned down to kiss me in that same soft way he had in the limo. He whispered in my ear, “Just in case you’d like to vomit after that sickening performance by Sue M.”
I laughed quietly and made my way to the restroom. I didn’t really need to go, but I thought it might be a good idea to freshen up my lip gloss and go back over what I had observed.
The bathroom was bigger than our kitchen and dining room combined, and it had several stalls like store restrooms did. In front of the large, gold-framed mirror, several females, both vampires and humans, primped and reapplied makeup. I hid in a stall. I wanted to roam the house, but I knew that wasn’t a good idea. To calm and center myself, I replayed the evening from the moment I stepped out of the limo and tried to recall everything I saw.
As I was cursing my inability to remember what the woman who took my wrap looked like, I heard Sue Margaret say, “I appreciate your hospitality. I’ve enjoyed these weeks in Florida.”
“We’re always glad to have old friends visit,” another vampire said. Her voice was soft and sweet. It made me feel safe, which was incredibly dangerous. I tried to peer through the crack in the door, but I could only catch a flash of blonde hair, much lighter than mine.
“You look unhappy, Ms. Wilson. Is there something I can do?”
“No,” she grumbled then sighed dramatically. “It’s just…he took a mate.”
“Oh.” Miss Sweet Voice sounded both understanding and sympathetic.
“You should see her. She looks like she crawled through a briar patch.” Sue Margaret chuckled. “She’s pretty though, and young. I’ve never seen him with someone who wasn’t.”
“From what I’ve been told, I would expect so.”
“But she’s human,” Sue Margaret snarled. “She’s ruining my plans.”
“Oh, don’t be upset, Ms. Wilson,” Miss Sweet Voice soothed.
“Maybe he would take multiple mates.”
“I don’t think so.” Sue Margaret cursed. “Do you even remember Leslie’s last mate?”
“No, but I haven’t been a vampire very long, and Guillame doesn’t share work with me.” From this, I deduced that Miss Sweet Voice must be Mrs. Benoit, or one of many Mrs. Benoits.
“I don’t remember,” Sue Margaret said. “Not that he hasn’t bedded his share. I hope he gets tired of her and doesn’t turn her. All I’ll have to do is wait, and I can do that.”
I dug my nails into my fisted palms. I shouldn’t care who Leslie bedded. He probably couldn’t even count them, and the thought brought me back to the kisses we shared. I wondered if he was playing some kind of game with me.
“Maybe Mister Wells has developed unusual tastes in his old age,” Miss Sweet Voice said, and they laughed.
“He’s probably the original Anglo-Saxon,” Sue Margaret said dreamily. “What I would do.” There was more laughter, but it cut off a little abruptly. “What is it? You have a funny look on your face?”
“Nothing. I just…smelled something.”
The subject of their talk changed to jewelry and shoes. As they chatted, their voices slowly faded. When I was positive they had left, I came out of the stall. The bathroom was empty, and I took a good look at myself in the mirror.
I was pretty, I thought. I had scars, but I wasn’t horribly mangled or anything. I was tall and muscular. I looked ridiculous with my hair and face all done up, but my curves might make a vampire like Sue Margaret jealous. I touched up my lip gloss.
“Not your business,” I reminded my reflection when I thought about Leslie’s past. I exited the bathroom and went in search of Leslie.
When I approached the man at the podium, he motioned me into a room with deep red carpet. At the center of the room sat a sizable urn of fall-colored roses atop a gold pedestal, and a mural of cherubs decorated the dome ceiling. I had never seen so much decadence.
There were a few clusters of people. Others milled about or walked into the next room. I found Leslie on the left, out of the way, standing with Justin and Selene. Justin looked like he was on high alert, and I smiled at him to try to set him at ease. Selene gripped his arm tightly.
“My, aren’t you two getting a lot of looks,” Selene commented and winked at Leslie. She gave me a moment to rub Justin’s free arm. “Justin, let’s pay our respects.”
She patted Justin’s shoulder and led him into what I decided would have been a dining hall had the house been owned by humans. The theme of rich wood, crystal, and gold leaf continued in there as well. Leslie smiled and nodded at a few more people, before I attempted to drag him out of the way to have a private conversation. He cooperated and pressed me into the corner, blocking me from view with his body.
“You’re not going to panic, are you?” he asked.
“I am panicking. Sue Margaret has it in for me.” I cast quick glances around his body and over his shoulder.
“She wouldn’t dare.” He took my hands in his. “She knows I’d kill her if she hurt you.” Gulp. “She’s just sore because she’s not Mrs. Leslie Wells, especially after she’s put out all the signals.”
“Yes. Give her a test-run did you?” I looked up at him sharply. I just couldn’t imagine the Leslie I was getting to know, and becoming more and more attracted to, doing anything social with that woman.
“Lily.” He grinned. “Are you jealous?” I looked away from him. He captured my chin and turned my face toward him. “That’s very sweet of you but completely unfounded.” He looked at my bottom lip as if he might kiss me again.
“She was going on and on about what a big deal it is that you have a mate. Perhaps you should’ve warned me that people were going to have this big of a reaction.”
“Perhaps, but I doubt you would’ve believed me.” His eyes flicked up to meet mine and held. “Let’s go in. I’ll introduce you around.” He took my arm in his and led me out from the corner.
“She also said she thought you were the original Anglo-Saxon. What does that mean?”
Leslie roared with laughter but never got a chance to answer my question.
END CH7 P1