In my living room, I’d given Julien the required information and let him have at it. He’s trying to locate my relatives as I bang on the keyboard in agitation while on the couch.
“You can take a break if you like.” He says, not looking up from his screen.
“I’m sorry. It’s just frustrating, is all.” I say, closing the laptop.
Andrei Petrescu has become my passion, and trying to locate him has become a nightmare. I know he’s real… I know it.”
“What about you, any luck?” Sitting next to me, I take a peek at his screen.
“No, and actually… I think that your dad may have been living a double life. Are you sure that Richard Van der Berg was his real name?”
“Of course, and he worked for Schwab Asset Management, is survived by his daughter and wife...”
“Funny, that when I called, they said that they’ve never had an employee by that name that worked there… ever.”
“They must have been mistaken then.”
“No… birth, or medical record, credit card, bank account, marriage certificate. I think that there’s something that your mother isn’t telling you. I mean, this is crazy. Are you guys under witness protection or something?”
“Okay, so now you’re being offensive and borderline freaking me out.”
“I’m sorry, I just can’t believe that there’s no paper trail for him.”
“This shouldn’t be that hard. Maybe we need to dig a little deeper.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to dig up, but we can meet tomorrow.” He says, rubbing his neck and stretching.
“Tired?” I ask, literally wanting to ease the discomfort that he’s feeling. Well, that’s strange, and so not me.
“Not really, I just need a break.”
Feeling compelled to seize the moment, I take a small breath and go for the gamble. “Well… I was thinking of going to the Kincaid masquerade ball, and I sorta don’t have a date.”
“I wasn’t invited, and I have to finish researching your dad’s non-existent history.”
“Oh c’mon, it’s not that serious. If we don’t find anything, I’ll live.”
“Okay, um... I don’ have a mask.”
Quickly producing one from underneath the pillow, I hand it to him. Yeah, so what? I planned this.
“I have an extra one.”
“It’s not my scene…”
“Are you really going to let me go by myself? It’s not safe.”
My playfulness gets the desired effect, an infectious smile. I don’t know how I never noticed him. He’s so… Edward Cullen, but way sexier.
“Well... since you put it that way, I’ll think about it.” He says, preparing to leave.
“I’ll make sure that you’re on the list, just in case,” I add, seeing him out.
Leaning against the door, I can’t stop smiling. “What in the entire hell am I doing?” I say, shaking my head in exasperation, as I make my way up the stairs to get ready for the ball.
It’s packed, everyone who was invited and then some is in attendance. Briana’s left me to go chase after Brent. Standing on the landing of the stairs, I watch the dancers below. Dax joins me.
“You look beautiful.” He says, handing me a drink. Clad in a simple black, low cut, free-flowing maxi dress with black heels, his arm circles my waist.
“Thanks,” I state, moving from his embrace. He’s handsome as ever in his suit and black half mask. I let him apply mine. We’re both silent as his gaze slowly wanders over all of my assets. “Maybe later, you’ll save a dance for me.”
“Sure.” Another long watchful pause, and I receive a brief kiss on the cheek before he leaves. If only things could have been different. Taking a sip of my drink, the bubbles tickle my nose, and I get the sensation of being watched.
My gaze is drawn to a guy with a white and gold Venetian phantom of the opera mask. He’s watching me from the sea of dancers. I know who he is, and I can’t help smiling. Mr. Edward Cullen.
Handing my drink to a passing server, I make my way slowly down the stairs. He’s waiting for me at the bottom, offering his arm. “I’m glad that you came,” I say, accepting it.
“Yeah, me too. You look amazing.”
“You don’t look too shabby yourself.” In fact, he’s freaking stunning.
“Yeah, well... I tried.”
“Oh, please. You know that you’re gorgeous.”
My shameless flirting knows no bounds, which is another so not me moment.
“Thanks, may I?” He asks as a slow song comes on.
“Yes, you may.”
I’m pulled close, and my arms circle his neck. His hands on my waist, he leads me into a dance. I’m aware of the attraction, the pull. For some reason, I feel secure and protected when in his company. Those dreamy brown eyes watching me, the butterflies are having a field day in my stomach.
“I shouldn’t say this, being as how I just met you, but I don’t know… I like you.” I say.
“That’s good because I like you too.” He responds. There’s no hint of mischief or humor in his expression.
“I think it’s more than that. I’m attracted to you.”
“Well then, it’s a shared attraction because I feel the same way, and… I think that we both need a…”
“Cold shower.” I finish, matter-of-factly.
“I was going to say a drink.” He says with an amused smirk.
“Oh… yeah.” I respond, mortified.
And there it goes again… that incredibly endearing devious smirk that has my body responding in ways that I’ve never felt before.
Taking my hand, he leads me over to the bar, where Dax is chatting it up with Madison. My used to be arch-enemy and now captain of the cheer squad. “Hey, I didn’t know you were coming. I thought that you would sit this one out, as you’ve been doing of late.” She says.
“No, I just decided at the last moment.”
“Well, that doesn’t look like a last moment dress.” She says, throwing shade.
We both belong to the “shady bunch” family, so I give her two small twists to showcase my wares. “You like?”
“It’s too tacky for my tastes.”
Eyeing her outfit, it’s elegant. But I can’t help feeding her what she fed me. “I like yours. It’s a bit “prommie” though.”
“Ladies… you both look nice.” Says Dax, trying to diffuse the situation.
Let me be the mature one…
“Dax, this is Julien, Julien… Dax, and that over there is Madison.” I state.
“Julien, it’s been a while.”
“Yeah, it has.” He responds, removing his mask. I’m not the only one to notice the tension between the two, as Madison moves about uncomfortably.
How do they know each other?
“Are you the designated “on standby, friend zone” guy-friend?” Asks Dax, handing us drinks.
I should have known better.
“I don’t know… what are we doing?” Inquires Julien of me.
“Well… I thought that per our recent conversation, we were attracted to each other.” I state, playing along.
“Yeah, we were.” He adds.
“So, I guess… we’re a couple?”
“Yeah, I guess we are.”
I know him, and inside he’s fit to be tied. On the outside, he’s cool, calm, and collected.
“Well, it’s nice seeing you again, Julien.”
“Enjoy the party.” He says, leaving with Madison on his heels. We’re both silent, neither of us knowing what to say, and then I shrug, which causes him to laugh.
“You have an amazing smile.”
“You know, with all these compliments, my head is gonna be like “poof.” He says, gesturing with his hands, as to the inflated size of his ego.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. It’s like… I’m all confused, unsure, and…”
I’m pulled into his arms as his lips gently meet mine. It takes only a second for me to get over the shock. My arms go around his neck, and I melt into his embrace. This feels so right that I don’t want to let go, and I’m more than a little bit miffed when he ends the kiss.
“I’ve wanted to do that since the first time that I saw you.”
“A year ago.”
I’m not at all creeped out about it. I’m speechless at the romanticism of it all when he comes into view ending Julien’s hold on me.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here with Nikki.”
“Yeah, I heard… your fiancée,” I reply, with a touch of sarcasm.
“Yeah, we’re getting married. One day I woke and decided that I wanted to marry her.”
“There’s a lot of that going around, impulsive actions.”
“I know, but that’s what makes it so exciting.”
“How did you two meet again? I mean, I never saw her at your house.”
He doesn’t have time to respond before the she-devil interrupts us.
“Hi, is my future husband bothering you guys?”
In a dark, mysterious way, she was pretty before, but now she’s all light, chipper, and most definitely model material.
“Duchess?” Wow… you’re still as beautiful as ever, one would think that the fall from grace would be rough on one’s ego.”
“I actually didn’t fall. I decided to part ways.”
“Yeah, but it’s hard to walk away from the limelight. I was thinking depression… followed by a little bit of suicide, would be your outcome.”
“Well, that’s harsh.”
“Yeah, well do unto others as you would have them do onto you.”
What the hell is wrong with her?
“This is getting kind of bleak and dreary. You want to get out of here?” Asks Julien.
“Yep, sure do.”
Parked outside of his home, I take in my surroundings. “It’s beautiful…” I state as the lone light pole illuminates the grounds—a cottage, a mile into the woods, away from the main house beside a brook. Unlocking the door, he turns on the light, and I’m amazed at the modern furnishings. “Wow…”
“Welcome to my humble abode.”
“This is your place?”
“Yeah, my father lost interest in being a father after my mom passed. He gifted me this place. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“No, it’s fine. I like having my own space. I get to do what I want when I want how I want.”
“Well… it’s nice.”
Glancing at his watch, he leaves me waiting at the door as he quickly disappears around a corner. Reappearing, he has a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. “C’mon, we’re going to miss it.” Leading me back outside, it doesn’t take long for a campfire to be ignited. He barely has the drinks poured when a streak of light shoots past us.
“Just wait...” He says, taking a seat next to me.
“Knocking my shot back, the burn on the way down doesn’t last long, when a mass of lights illuminates the night sky as they zoom by. “This is amazing!” I exclaim, almost knocking his drink out of his hand when I turn to him.
His smile slowly disappears, and confused, I’m concerned… my smile dropping.
“I’m sorry,” I state.
“No, it’s not that. Your eyes sparkle when you’re excited. It’s an amazing sight.” And I am genuinely amazed at all of this. Too much is happening and so fast. “Thanks, you have a nice setup here. I wish that I had somewhere that I could go, to get away from it all.” I say, changing the subject.
“You’re welcome to come here anytime. I’ll give you the code to the house.” Woah, what is really going on? I’m throwing myself at some random classmate. He’s offering me the key to his home, and I’m… I’m about three shots away from mentally breaking down.
“No, I couldn’t.”
“I want you to. It would be nice to have someone to talk to. It gets kind of lonely at times.”
Can he be even more amazingly charming and sweet?
“You don’t even know me.”
“I trust you.”
Those are the last words that I remember upon waking in a bed that I’m unfamiliar with. A glance around the room, and I’m still confused. Rolling over, there’s a body hidden underneath the covers. “Damn,” I whisper. I hope that I didn’t lose my virginity last night because I remember nothing, aside from the meteor shower and his last words that warmed my heart. – I trust you.
A throbbing pain in my ankle has me reaching under the covers. My hand makes a connection with a bandage. I’m trying to take a peek at it when he flips onto his side, pulling the coverlet up to his chin.
I’m watching him as he sleeps, and I’m officially turned on. It’s something about a guy’s vulnerability when they’re asleep that makes them so attractive. His eyes open, and my heart skips a beat. I say a mental prayer in the hope that I didn’t give the goodies up yet. I want to remember everything when it does happen.
“Were you watching me sleep?”
“I was,” I say, unashamed.
That sleepy-eyed smile... high pitched scream!
I’m pulled into his embrace, and my body stiffens. “What’s wrong?”
“My mom...” and on cue, my mobile rings.
“Shit...” I have thirty missed calls.
I have to move the phone away from my ear, as her shouting is too loud and It’s too early.
“I know, I know, I should have called.”
“I stayed at a friend’s.”
“Briana isn’t my only friend.”
“Fine, his name’s Julien.”
“What? Rivers… Why?”
“So that’s it?”
“I’ll see you in a few.”
Disconnecting the call, I let it drop back onto the nightstand.
“Is everything okay?” He asks, getting out of bed.
“Yeah, my mom’s bugging.”
Noticing the pain again, I check my ankle. “What happened?” I inquire about the bandage.
“You were bit.”
Removing the bandage, my ankle looks puffy, and I see teeth marks. “By what, a dog?” I ask alarmed.
Trying hard, I’m unable to recollect anything after the shooting stars.
“It will heal in a couple of days.”
“Do I need to get a rabies shot?”
“No, it was my dog.”
“I am so suing you.”
“It’s your word against mine, and you don’t even remember what happened.” He replies playfully.
“Terrible,” I state, reapplying the bandage.
“There’s another shower in the other bedroom.”
“So, you could have slept in the other bedroom.”
“I didn’t want to create more work for the maid.”
“Yeah, that’s why you didn’t sleep in it,” I state, trying to hit him with the pillow. Easily dodging my hit, he draws me to him. My legs around his waist, my hand goes to his face. His kiss is soft and sweet.
“I still have everything that I came here with, right?”
His chuckles deep and incite a sexual stirring below.
“I didn’t take advantage, although it was tempting when you begged me to.”
“I did not!” I reply, throwing the pillow at his back as he exits the room.
“Oh my god, we look amazing!” Says Brie, examining herself in the mirror.
Backstage in the Auditorium, it’s a throwback to the Victorian period. We’re with twenty-plus girls, dressed in period ball gowns, waiting to go on stage.
“Did you hear?”
My ankle’s bothering me. It’s still a little sore, but I’m able to walk just fine.
“All twelve of the sons are here.” Says Brie.
“Whoop de doo,” I state uncaringly.
“Yeah, but I bet you didn’t know that your Romeo was one of them.”
“Yep, did a little investigating, and Romeo’s the sole heir to the “Rivers fortune,” and it is a vast fortune, says my father.”
“I knew that he had money, but I didn’t know that he was one of them.”
“I am so getting me, “one of them.” You lucked up twice, and you better not let this one get away from you.”
“Welcome all to the Debutante ball auction.” We hear loud and clear over the PA system. A man and woman collaborate on hosting, as the helpers make sure that corsets are correctly tied, hair’s perfect, and gowns are immaculate.
”We’re auctioning dates with a few of the most sought after debutantes so that we can make this a memorable event for all. The gown’s that they’re wearing will be donated to those who want to attend but can’t afford the proper attire.”
“All funds will go towards the purchase of additional gowns and attire for the less fortunate, and any remaining funds will be donated to a local charity.”
Feedback from the microphone causes us to cover our ears as they complete the introduction. “This year’s debutante ball will be historically themed, the Victorian, Edwardian, or Georgian era, and gothic period pieces are allowed. We don’t discriminate.”
“In return, you get a guaranteed date of your choice to the ball. If you win the bid.”
“Let us begin!”
Taking my hand, Briana leads me to the front of the line.
“Hey!” Says a brunette as Brie elbows her out of the way.
“May we have the first two ladies, please?”
“It’s now or never.” She says, smiling from ear to ear.
Following her out onto the stage, there are more guys in attendance than I expected.
“Ah, Miss. Briana Doyle and Duchess Van der Berg.”
There’s a commotion at the front. Brent has stepped in between Dax and Julien.
“You’ve marked her!” Dax’s eyes appear to be glowing a bright yellow for just a few seconds.
“Did you see that? I ask.
“Yeah, it must be nice to have two of the twelve fighting over you.” Responds Brie.
“Is there a problem?” Asks the host.
“Not here.” Says Brent.
He and Julien are silently eyeing each other before I hear a light growl from one of them.
“There’s no problem,” Dax replies, retaking his seat.
“Good, shall we carry on?” Inquires the hostess.
“Miss. Duchess has on a lovely dove grey Victorian piece and Miss. Briana is wearing a dark blue Edwardian gown.”
“We’ll start the bid off with a thousand dollars each. “
A few blue slips of papers are raised, followed by a few gray ones. Dax, seated at the front with the twelve, presents his gray marker.
“That must be them,” I whisper to Brie.
“Yes, the crème de la crème.” She whispers back.
“Let’s narrow this down a bit. We don’t have all day… four thousand dollars?”
My eyes fall to each one in turn. They’re all attractive, like superior quality.
“I know, right?” She replies smartly.
They seem to be doing a thorough inspection of us, and I wouldn’t say that I like it. My attention’s drawn to Julien, seated a few seats down from the rest.
“Good, Six thousand?”
His gray marker’s raised. Catching my gaze, he has a sexy smirk.
“Terrible.” I mouth, with a small smile.
Dax seeing the exchange, has a deep scowl plastered on his face before his is also raised.
They both raise their markers at the same time.”
“And, ten grand?”
Once again, it’s the same result.
“Okay, so the limit has been reached, and it’s now lady’s choice.” States the hostess shoving the microphone in my face. Oh shit, I wasn’t aware that I would have to choose if no one outbid each other.
Oh well, it is what it is…
“I choose Julien,” I say, quietly.
There’s a round of applause.
“Mr. Rivers has won the bid for Miss. Van der Berg and for Miss. Doyle…”
With a chilling gaze directed my way, Dax raises his blue marker.
“Oh, the bid is still ongoing for Miss. Doyle, is that eight?”
“It’s ten.” Says Dax.
No other bids, she closes
“Mr. Kincaid has won the bid for Miss. Doyle.”