The Big Surprise
The noise and bustle of the kitchen paused as they stepped inside.
“Goddess! Mr King,” Deb greeted them, wiping her hands on her apron as she approached. The head cook’s eyes softened as they rested on Serafina, her round cheeks flushed from the heat of the stove. “What brings you here?”
Serafina cringed at being called ‘Goddess’ by the woman who taught her how to cook and hugged her when her mother had died, the only person other than Ian who had. Hugs being something else along with dolls, stuffed animals, and pets the Elders considered detrimental to her evolution as the White Goddess.
“The birthday girl is hungry,” King told Deb, tossing a wink at Serafina. He’d been in a good mood all night, almost light-hearted. Why did that make her so nervous?
“Are you now, lovey—er, Goddess?” Deb quickly corrected herself, making Serafina smile. “I know just what you’d like.”
“Is it shepherd’s pie?” Serafina asked hopefully. It was a zero-carb week and she hadn’t gotten any at dinner last night.
“It sure is.” Deb flashed Serafina a smile. “Why don’t you go have a seat in the sunroom where it’s nice and quiet? I’ll heat some up and bring you a plate.” She forced herself to raise her eyes to King’s. “Can I bring some for you as well, Mr King?”
Serafina sent him a look of warning. “You’re not having any of mine.” King was always doing that when he took her to the diner in town. He’d say ‘grown men don’t eat M&M waffles’ and then eat half her order.
King chuckled at her fierce look. “Seems like you’d better,” he told Deb.
Serafina smiled and nodded at the cooks and kitchen staff as they passed, looking from her to King with alternately devoted and fearful eyes. There wasn’t space in the busy kitchen to walk side by side and Serafina could feel King at her back like a wall, high and impenetrable. Normally that made Serafina feel safe but her head was pounding and right now all she felt was annoyed. Between King, Ian, and the crowd of guests, she just really needed some space.
The sunroom was empty and quiet, the rattan chairs and battered wooden table bathed in pink and gold light from the setting sun through the windows. Soon it would be dark and services would begin. The Elders would present the White Goddess to the crowd and the big surprise would be revealed. The thought sent a shiver of dread running through her.
“It’s cold in here.” King scanned the walls of windows surrounding them. “This room isn’t properly insulated.”
“It feels good.” Serafina grabbed two handfuls of her big pouffy skirt and dropped into a chair. “This dress is hot.”
King’s eyes ran over her bare arms and shoulders. “Is it?”
Serafina nodded. “All the beading and layers make it heavy. I guess the girl who picked it out for you didn’t think of that.”
“Excuse me.” King’s biceps bulged under his jacket as he crossed his massive arms. “I’ll have you know I picked that out myself.”
His offended tone made Serafina smile in spite of her nerves and pounding head. “It’s beautiful but next time take the help. I’m pretty sure this is a wedding dress.” She laughed.
King gave her a strange look but whatever he was about to say was forgotten as she took off her crown. His dark brows slammed together.
“Ah...” The throbbing in her head immediately receded. Serafina exhaled a breath of relief.
King’s eyes went to the glittering crown on the table. “That’s not comfortable either?”
“Sorry.” Serafina gave him an apologetic smile, not wanting him to feel bad. “It’s giving me a headache.”
King picked up the headpiece with a frown. “It’s so light.”
“I’m probably just not used wearing a crown. Seeing as I’m not royalty,” she joked lamely.
King’s lips curved into a smile. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Huh?” Serafina furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”
King gave her a weird look, like he was surprised she didn’t get it. “A queen is royalty.”
“Huh?” She scrunched up her face in confusion.
“King, queen...” King shook his head. “Didn’t you read my card?”
Serafina had no idea what he was talking about. “It wasn’t there. Elder Roselina just told me everything was from you.”
King didn’t look pleased, but he glossed over it. He picked up the crown and examined it before looking up at her. “I had this made just for you.”
She shook her head again. “I didn’t know that.” Now she felt even guiltier for not wanting to put it back on. “I love the crystals for the moon and the grass and everything.”
King looked amused. “Those are diamonds and emeralds.” He pointed to the etching of the stream. “These are sapphires. The eyes of the wolves are onyx and amber. Do they remind you of anybody?”
“Us?” Serafina blinked up at him in pleasure and delight. When she was younger, she used to pretend King was her father even though everyone, from the Elders to her mother to King himself, assured her he was not. But that’s why they called it pretend, right?
“That’s right, sweetheart. You and me.” King took her hand in his much larger one.
Where are you? Ian suddenly barked through their mindlink, making Serafina jump just as King’s hand wrapped around hers.
King frowned and squeezed her hand tighter. “What is it?”
She gave him a weak smile. “Nothing.” In the sunroom, she told Ian. We got here a couple of minutes ago. I forgot to tell you, sorry.
King’s eyes were trained on her face. “Are you nervous about tonight?”
It’s okay. Ian’s voice calmed a little. Just make sure you tell me if you leave.
The double conversation was frazzling her. “Not nervous, exactly. More overwhelmed,” Serafina admitted under King’s laser-focused gaze.
He nodded understandingly. “It’s only natural. Your whole life is about to change. But for the better.”
Serafina nodded automatically before his words registered. “Wait, what?” Her whole life was about to change? How?
“Sorry to interrupt.” Deb stepped through the open archway from the kitchen holding two steaming bowls of shepherd’s pie. A girl in a long white apron hovered behind her with a tray holding a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses.
Serafina’s stomach rumbled as Deb put the bowl down in front of her. “Smells amazing.”
Deb’s smile was warm. “You enjoy, lovey.” She didn’t correct herself this time. “You don’t eat enough. I’m sure that will change, though.”
Serafina looked up at the strange note in Deb’s voice to find her looking at King. Even weirder, he was looking back at Deb—‘the help’—meeting her eyes like a real person. It wasn’t like him at all. King had a serious superiority complex.
“It will.” King’s tone held a gentle assurance Serafina had only ever heard directed at herself before. What was going on tonight?
Instead of moving away, Deb shocked Serafina by placing her hand on Serafina’s shoulder, sliding it down to her upper arm and squeezing Serafina against her side firmly. Not quite a hug, but just as taboo.
Serafina looked up at Deb in shock even as warmth flooded through her. Deb was still smiling, but her eyes were sad. Everyone was being so weird tonight. Off. Including herself. It was the whole big surprise thing. It was probably something Serafina hated and Deb knew it. And King, who had shown up for it for some reason. And the Elders, who had decided to make it a secret in the first place.
Serafina hadn’t really cared about the surprise, to be honest. Until now it had only bothered her on principle. Because of Ian and because anything the Elders made this big a deal of was always a big fat drag. Knowing them, the big surprise was something stupid and dramatic like an outdoor service with fireworks over the cliffs or releasing some poor animal into the room for the White Goddess to ‘tame’ under their guests’ astounded eyes.
They did it with birds one year, setting a bunch of them loose and flying panicked through the main hall. Serafina had managed to settle them on the perches set up on the stage, but not before they pooped all over the guests. That one had been Elder Brandon’s idea.
Now Serafina found herself wondering if the big surprise wasn’t a whole lot bigger than she’d thought.
King was on his best behaviour, thanking Deb and offering a polite nod to the girl when she placed the pitcher of lemonade in front of them. Trying not to scare her. Acting totally unlike his usual self, in other words.
“It’s been an honour and a blessing,” Deb said in a tone that made Serafina’s heart beat faster, not in a good way.
Serafina laughed weakly. “You sound like you’re never going to see me again.” An ominous foreboding passed over her.
Deb smiled. “I pray that I do.”
“Goddess. Mr King. All the best.” The girl ducked her head and followed Deb out of the room.
All the best? Deb prayed that she would see her again? A ripple of fear made Serafina suddenly want Ian beside her. Ian? she called, pressing her lips against a suddent urge to cry. I thought you were coming? What’s taking so long?
King watched Serafina closely as he poured a glass of lemonade and pushed it towards her. The lemonade was cold and sweet, but not too sweet. Serafina hid her face in the glass, waiting for Ian to reply. He didn’t.
“Mm.” King nodded approvingly around a large bite of shepherd’s pie. “I see why you didn’t want to share.”
Serafina managed a wobbly smile. Ian? Something weird’s going on. Under King’s watchful eye, she picked up her fork and started to eat. Why wasn’t Ian answering? Ian? she prodded him. Where are you?
King was in a talkative mood and told her all about his home in Montana as they ate. Getting personal details out of King was usually like pulling teeth but he went on about Garnet Range, as he called his mountain estate, how nice it was, who lived there, and all the cool things it had like a swimming pool, movie room, and an art studio in a cuploa overlooking the hundreds of acres of forest surrounding the house.
He sounded very proud of it. Serafina felt bad for being distracted. “Sounds amazing,” she told King truthfully. “Maybe I’ll get to see it someday.”
Not surprisingly, King had finished eating first, his chair pushed back from the table as he watched her make her way through her shepherd’s pie. It was delicious, but Serafina barely tasted it anymore. She was eating as an excuse not to talk while she tried to reach Ian, who still hadn’t replied.
It wasn’t like him. Serafina was anxious for him to answer for her own reasons, but now she was getting worried. Ian blocked her sometimes as a joke, or if they were arguing, but he’d been so adamant about staying close to her tonight.
“Serafina...” King began slowly. She looked up from her bowl to see him looking at her intently. “Some of the things you’ve said make me wonder...”
Serafina! Ian’s voice exploded in her ear. She choked on a bite of mashed potatoes she’d been leaving for the end. Are you still in the sunroom?
“Are you okay?” King refilled her glass and pushed it towards her.
Serafina took an obedient sip and nodded jerkily. Yes, still here. A few small coughs escaped her and she took a few more sips under King’s watchful eye.
Good. Ian’s reply was immediate. Stay there, okay? I’m on my way.
“Serafina,” King began again. His voice was low and serious and his brows dipped into a deep ‘V’. “I need to know, what exactly did the Elders tell you about tonight?”
Serafina, answer me, Ian insisted when she took too long to repond.
Yes. Okay. I’ll stay here, she told Ian, struggling to stay focused under King’s expectant gaze.
“Um...they said it’s a special service for my twelfth—for the White Goddess’s twelfth year and symbolic ascension to womanhood,” Serafina recited, flushing in embarrassment at the reference to her womanhood—super creepy—in front of King. “And that there’s going to be some big surprise.”
“A big surprise,” King repeated in disbelief. His face darkened with anger. “All this time, the past few weeks, that’s all they told you? There’s going to be a surprise?”
Serafina nodded, blinking at the string of curses that spilled from King’s lips. “You know what it is, don’t you?”
“I’m going to kill them.” King’s tone was flat, like he really meant it. “I wasn’t going to kill them before, but now—” He broke off, his jaw clenching hard enough to flex the muscle under his dark beard.
“King.” Serafina’s heart began to thump. “Please. Everyone’s been acting so weird. Tell me.”
King let out a long breath. “Come here.”
He shoved his chair back and gestured for Serafina to approach him. She obeyed, putting down her fork and moving to stand between his legs in front of him. Even sitting, he towered over her.
King took her hands and looked down at them, his thumbs running gently over her racing pulse. “They were supposed to prepare you.” Anger flashed in his eyes before they softened, searching her face with the wonderment he sometimes had when he looked at her.
Serafina’s pulse stuttered under his fingers. “Prepare me for what?”
Their eyes held. King’s voice was gentle. “We’re getting married tonight.”
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