Louisa thought that her idea for a masquerade for her Coming of Age Ball was a stroke of genius. She knew she was very much unlike her older brothers when it came to choosing a mate for life. While Kane had been immediately smitten by his Queen Alexandria’s unabashed candor, Kolton infatuated with the ginger-haired beauty Eliza, Kade struck dumb by his demure and loyal servant girl turned princess, Louisa had an inkling that none of those would do for her. For some reason—and as if she had inferred it all along—she knew something different was in store for her.
And she would know it when she found it. It was like a sixth sense.
While her mother looked oddly at her when she had suggested a masked ball, she was only too pleased to oblige since the last input on one her Coming of Age balls had come from the present King, Kane, and it was minimal at best. Finally one of her children seemed content to give their input about what they actually wanted in their ball.
With the information that Louisa’s wish was for a masquerade, she sent off the invitations stating that it was strictly “no mask, no access”. Both women were sure that there would be much talk about the odd request both before and after the ball.
Now they were in the Grand Ballroom with Louisa dancing with another charming male. The man had a nice smile and a pleasantly rumbling voice, but Louisa couldn’t seem to focus on the words he was actually saying. He could have been talking about the weather or airing his political views on the latest Middle Eastern turmoil, but she would have been none the wiser.
No, it was not with this shifter that she was meant to be.
When she didn’t ask him name after their dance, he seemed put-out, but he walked away gracefully only to dance with another female within minutes.
As was the usual, no one would know Louisa was a princess. Even when she’d gone to boarding school years ago it was under an assumed last name. Louisa Reifenberg was called Louisa Crane, an unassuming name if there ever was one. Not even her closest girlfriends were aware of her true identity. It was imperative that they did not, for what if they slipped and let it out? She was sure that once Catelyn and her twin Cherie found out, they would be as shocked as anyone.
Taking a moment to grab a refreshment, she plucked a Madeleine from a plate and nibbled at one corner. Taking a sip of the punch, she was nearly kicked in the gut by an alluring, unusual scent. The briny fragrance of the sea. When she was going to school on the east coast, she had often gone on daytrips to wade in the soft surf and sandy beaches of Cape Cod and Nantucket. The even more remote shores of Martha’s Vineyard were a little harder to get to, but so worth the wait when you were lying on your back and looking at the soaring cliffs behind you.
She had fallen in love with the sounds, smells, and sunshine of a warm day at the beach with good friends and even better memories.
But why did it smell of the ocean? There was no salt water nearby, and the lake’s clear blue was as fresh as you could get.
As soon as it wafted past her nose, the scent was gone with another turn of the crowd as people danced past, laughing and having a good time. That was important to Louisa too. If she could only make one person truly happy with being her mate—or at least one male—she would at least give everyone else a night to remember.
But already, she missed the smell of the sea, and she wandered off in a different direction, away from the punch bowl and the delicate little dainties that many were nibbling on before dinner was to be served.
Her brother Kade came around with Meredith after finishing a dance and nodded to her. “Anyone promising?”
“No. At least not yet.” She frowned. “But the night is still young and I have a feeling something wonderful could happen still.”
She hoped fervently that something would. So far, the evening was a bust, but as she had said, the night was still rife with promise.
If only the promise would hurry the fuck up already.
Kade passed by, and she nodded over to Kolton, her other older brother. Kane and Lexi were in their usual spots as they watched the festivities, right next to her mother and father, Margot Reifenberg happily chatting with Queen Alexandria as her foot tapped to the rhythm of a waltz.
As usual, her father looked bored, but Kane was keeping him entertained somehow, and no one was looking as she slipped outside onto the balcony for a bit of fresh air.
With all the hot bodies behind her, the coolness of the night air was relaxing, and she sucked in some much-needed oxygen into her lungs that wasn’t simply inundated with the scents of strange shifters, expensive colognes, and flowery, cloying perfumes. Natural scents were more her thing, whether it was the crisp air of the morning or the clean fragrance of water as it lapped about the bow of a boat along the lake.
The spring air was always a treat, the odor of fresh blooms closing up for the night before tucking tail and drooping for a snooze. She was glad to have been born in the springtime, the symbol of new beginnings where everything seemed so much brighter and more alive. Green popped up where snow once covered the ground, hiding the dingy brown of dead grass and fallen foliage. Thankfully, there were quite a few fir trees on the island, so the deep greens kept the winter blues away.
Leaning against the concrete bannister, she became alarmed at a movement in her peripheral vision. She turned quickly and watched as a shadowy figure came out from the corner, masked for the ball. She heaved a relieved sigh as the person came forward and smiled.
Tall—maybe 6 feet and 6 inches—he gave her a wide smile, bowing low before putting out his hand. With some reluctance, she thrust hers out as well, intent on shaking his, but he bent down low and placed his lips on the back of it. With his head bent toward her, she could see the light blond strands of his shortly cropped hair before he lifted his head and she was met with cool grey-blue eyes. They reminded her of icicles as they glinted in the cold winter sun.
“Alaric Soilleir, at your service, milady,” he introduced himself in a deep husky timbre. It somehow still held some unknown power, though there was also a beguiling mischievous twinkle in his eyes through the dark scarlet hue of his mask.
“I would give you name as well, but as you know, it’s just not done at Coming of Age balls,” she told him truthfully. What was the point of being discreet in who the princess was when you gave your name out willy-nilly?
“Understandable,” he chuckled lightly. “And no matter. The masquerade was a bit of a switch, though. I wonder why.”
Louisa’s lips twitched, and she wanted to open her mouth and explain. Something about the older man made her think he was a gentleman and not a cad, though he had an almost impish grin that made her want to burst into laughter somehow.
“I’m sure there was good enough reason,” she replied amiably. “Maybe to add to the mystique of the last Coming of Age Ball for this generation of royalty.”
He studied her silently for a moment and blinked once before nodding. “Perhaps.”
“Father, I was—”
The voice was familiar, but what really knocked Louisa nearly off her feet was the smell. Like fresh ocean waves breaking upon shore, she remembered it vaguely from before at the pastry table and turned her whole body as a light tug plucked gently at her solar plexus.
The man stared back at her. With darker blonde locks artfully tossed over one side of his head, he blinked from the older gentleman, Alaric, to Louisa’s gently popped-open mouth. A tongue came out almost surreptitiously to wet his lips, and his eyes flickered lighter, from their cornflower blue to an icy grey that matched his father’s.
Whatever he was to say to his father fell off and was forgotten, though he did speak, bowing deeply to Louisa before she curtseyed back.
“The name is Rionnag Soilleir, milady,” he told her as he straightened his back and a hand drew out in offering to hers. “And I would like to ask you if I may have this next dance.”
A new tune was just starting, and it would be easy to slip back inside and take to the floor. Louisa’s whole body trembled at his voice, and the pulling sensation she felt grew as her feet moved forward.
“Of course. I would be happy to.”
She thought she heard a chuckle from behind her as she stepped back inside, her fingers laced with Rionnag’s before he drew her into his embrace and their bodies swayed on the dance floor. The were silent, and she felt Rionnag’s hand caress the small of her back. The closer they got, the more the twinge in her chest ached to be even closer—closer almost to obscenity.
Halfway through the piece of music, she stole a quick, quivering breath before looking up into the pale blue of Rionnag’s eyes. He had already been gazing down at her.
“What is this?” she asked softly. “Why do I feel so strange? Like something is tugging me toward you and I can’t move away.”
He hummed, stroking up and down her back comfortingly as he took in his own breath of air. “It’s the mating pull—the true kind. The one that royalty has not felt for centuries, being cloistered and relatively alone on this island. The ones they force with a potion that…”
He trailed away, frowning.
He shook his head. “It’s no matter. The true pull of a mate is incomparable to the one made with the moonflower.”
She pondered that for the rest of the dance, her mind all of a flutter until the last strains of the music faded away to polite claps and appreciative nods.
Rionnag bent low over Louisa’s hand and placed his soft lips on the gentle curve between her forefinger and thumb. Leaning in, he whispered into her ear. “Have fun tonight, little mate, for after this evening, no man’s hands will touch your body in any sort of intimate way, and certainly never hold you as close as I will for the rest of our lives.”
He paused as if amused before continuing. “Good to see you again, Louisa.”
With that, Rionnag left a shocked princess gaping after him as he wandered toward the exit to the hallway.
Louisa danced until supper, but she couldn’t say she enjoyed it. No other touch gave her the thrill her mates did, though she said all the right things and listened when she had to. By the time dinner was served, she was wondering where the man had wandered off to. She hadn’t seen him since their departure a couple of hours before.
“Who are you looking for, Louisa?” Lexi called as she came over to her side at the table. Though the queen pretended to be only making small talk with a guest, they realized most people were enjoying their meals too much and not listening to what was going on around them. The food at the palace was of a fare far above any they had ever tasted before.
“Nothing—I mean, no one.” She smiled tightly at her oldest sister-in-mating. “I was just wondering when dinner would be over.”
Lexi’s lips tugged up in a knowing smile before they parted. “I suppose that means you’ve made your choice.” The woman almost looked smug.
Rolling her eyes inelegantly, Louisa snorted. “Well, I won’t say one way or the other. I want it to be a surprise to everyone, not just guests.”
Lexi looked a little put-out, but she shrugged her shoulders and moved away after giving her a cheery goodbye.
Louisa sat there, nibbling her Duck L’Orange as she waited for the minutes to tick by until the announcement.
“Honored guests, it is with a bit of sadness that I announce the impending mating of my last child and only daughter, Louisa Reifenberg. I know it is customary for the current reigning king to do the honors, but in his stead, Kane has allowed me to speak.”
Louisa moved forward, her eyes scanning the crowd on the sly, looking for Rionnag amongst the throng. Sighing, she hoped he was there somewhere in the crowd. If they were true mates, surely the pull to be close would bring him out of wherever he’d been hiding for a good portion of the evening.
“My daughter, Princess Louisa Reifenberg,” Xavier announced. It caused her to finally take off the fine silk mask she’d been adorning, her eyes blinking into the crowd as a small smile teased at her lips. “Louisa, have you made you selection?”
Selection? It had been made for her, and she almost scoffed.
“I have,” she said clearly, her face once again moving from left to right and taking in faces she had paid little to no attention to since meeting her mate hours ago. “Would Rionnag Soilleir please step forward?”
There was silence as people looked around them, trying to figure out which lucky male was going to be made a future prince. Suddenly, a figured melted from the crowd and walked slowly towards the raised platform, limbs like liquid mercury in a thermometer. Upon meeting the steps, he seemed to slide up them fluidly, one by one. Every motion was poetry, and Louisa felt her heart skip as he strode flawlessly towards her.
He bowed and started to untie the back of his mask before bringing it down from his face. He lifted it up, a lopsided grin turning his already handsome face into one of true beauty.
Louisa gasped quickly as her eyes flew open wide at the man before her.
“You,” she whispered out. “It’s you.”
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