It's almost New Year's Eve and 2015 is coming to a close. Apart from celebrating with a nice glass of red wine and watching the amazing fireworks over Sydney Harbour, I thought I'd share the New Year's Eve masquerade ball in my latest release, BloodVault. It was such a fun chapter to write. And I love the key logo my cover designer, Patti Roberts, designed. Unfortunately, the coloured version only appears in the digital copy of the book. To avoid spoilers, I had to omit several paragraphs, but those who've read BloodVault will know what they are. For those who haven't, there's only one way to find out what you've missed *wink* In the meanwhile, enjoy this segment.
‘Whatcha think?’ Kari’s entry into my room was like a whirlwind. She twirled causing the skirts of her midnight-blue gown to billow. She’d tamed her short, spiky Nordic-blonde locks into some semblance of order with a matching ribbon, the ends trailing down her low-cut back.
‘You look gorgeous!’ If Jake didn’t notice her tonight, he was blind.
Her tinkling laugh rang out as she put her glittery blue-feathered mask in place, twirled and curtsied. ‘Now let’s see you.’ She grasped my hands and pulled me from my dresser chair.
Judy had stocked my French wardrobe the same as she had in Sydney. I had a plethora of the latest designer dresses. One caught my eye, a beautiful red gown with velvet black trim and off-the-shoulder bodice that perfectly hugged my curves. It contrasted perfectly with the voluminous scarlet taffeta skirt.
I chose it in honour of Alec, whose clan tartan was black and red.
I’d curled the ends of my long hair, gathered a section and pinned it at the back.
‘Ooh….’ She cooed and clapped. ‘And your mask?’
I opened my palm to reveal a red-lace mask, trimmed with rhinestones and held it to my face. I, too, did a little pirouette.
‘Alec won’t be able to keep his eyes off you,’ she said.
‘I already have trouble doing that,’ Alec drawled, his deep voice sending little tingles scooting down to my nether regions. He leaned against the door, arms folded, gaze raking the length of my body, his eyes twinkling behind his tartan mask.
I wanted to purr.
He looked utterly delicious in his clan kilt – the red-and-black Munro dress tartan and black velvet jacket with silver buttons. The cropped jacket emphasised his broad shoulders, and the smile he gave me hinted at later pleasures.
‘Why can’t I go?’ Dominik stood at his elbow, his jaw dropping as he gazed at Kari.
Since coming to live with us, Dominik had practically become Alec’s shadow, following him around and even mimicking his mannerisms. If Alec twirled the ring on his finger, so did Dominik, even though he didn’t own one. And if I didn’t lock the door to our suite, he’d be there all the time.
‘Two reasons: first, you’re too young, and second, it’s an Elders and prefects ball only.’ Alec ruffled his hair as he stepped past him into the room.
‘Life’s not fair, Dom.’ Alec took me in his arms, spun me around and dipped me low to the ground. I’ll enjoy untying that bodice later, his voice whispered seductively through my mind.
Make sure the door is locked first.
He chuckled as he lifted me up, and formally offered me his arm. ‘May I escort you, my lady?’
Jake stuck his face in the doorway. ‘Ready to go, kid—?’
His jaw dropped seeing Kari. I enjoyed his stunned look. Surely he’d seen her in evening dress before? Recent balls she’d forgone. What had stopped her? He swallowed and offered her his arm, his eyes never leaving her face. I gave her a wink over my shoulder as Alec and I went to the door.
We started up the stairs to the ballroom; soon the guests would arrive. Several rooms on this top level had been opened for their comfort and convenience. One was a banquet room for the donsangs, where they could eat and meet other humans. Cook and her helpers had excelled. Earlier in the day, I’d peeked at the bustle of activity in the kitchen. The food was a feast for the senses: tiny triangular white sandwiches, a range of colourful salads, roast meats of every kind and delicate mouth-watering pastries and desserts only the most hardened dieter – or vampire – could resist.
In the driveway, fairy lights blinked on the trunks and leafless branches of the trees, while a million tiny bulbs twinkled in the windows and the front doors of the chateau. The candelabras in the entrance hall had been polished to a mirror sheen, the candles’ flames dancing and swaying on the ebony surface. Illuminated garlands twisted their way up the staircase that led to the ballroom.
We took our seats on the dais next to Luc and Judy. Swathes of entwined green and lavender silk – the D’Antonville colours – hung from the canopy and pooled on the floor. Five gold sashes lay draped across the arm of my chair. I knew their purpose, as Alec had briefed me earlier.
My mother, resplendent in a rich jade-green dress, acknowledged each guest as they were announced. Her silver-streaked auburn hair was caught back in a chignon and crowned with a white-gold tiara of intertwining leaves and flowers adorned with a single emerald. Her eyes shone behind her butterfly shaped mask.
She leant across and whispered in my ear. ‘You look stunning, dear.’
‘As do you. Nice bling.’ I grinned at her tiara.
‘Your father’s gift at your birth.’ She beamed and placed her hand over his. Luc drew them to his lips and kissed her fingertips.
Earlier, my father had approached Alec and formally apologised, ending several days of tension between them. The entire household breathed again, now they were reconciled.
This night, the Elders discarded their gold cloaks for formal attire. Kwome, Grey Bear and Zhao wore their traditional dress, while Maira came in an exquisitely embroidered gown with a fringed hem. They bowed to us and then mingled. They, and a few more of the most prominent prefects, were the only Brethren who stayed in the chateau grounds. Even with multiple guest rooms and cottages, the chateau wasn’t made to accommodate over four-hundred extra people, especially as many Brethren were accompanied by their donsangs.
The ballroom was a sea of colour. Elegant women in dazzling gowns of electric blue, silver-grey, apricot, sunny yellow and turquoise swept the room, greeting friends and chinking glasses. Lavender eyes glinted behind feathered, lace and rhinestone masks shaped like butterflies, cats and flowers, some covering only the eyes, others half the face. The men, likewise, many in tuxedos with long-nose masks or in traditional costume, added to the magnificence of the occasion.
‘Have I told you you’re the most beautiful woman here?’ Alec whispered in my ear.
I turned to face him, my mouth barely a breath away from his, and inhaled his intoxicating scent, drawing it deep into my lungs. ‘Not yet, but you can if you like.’
His heart-stopping smile had my insides twisted tighter than the flavours of my favourite candy cane – and just as sweet.
The announcer struck the tiled floor three times with his brass rod. ‘My lords, ladies and gentlemen. Sieur Marcus Antonius Pulcher. Arch Elder and High Lord of the Brethren.’
The crowd knelt as Marcus, in black bow tie and gold mask topped with a crown, entered. We stood as he took his seat next to Luc.
Alec spoke. ‘Brethren, welcome to our New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball. This year, we have double reason to celebrate. First we welcome our new Ingenii, Lady Laura, whom many of you have already met.’ They bowed, and I inclined my head. Karl, standing near the front with Milena, cheekily gave me a wink.
I couldn’t help smiling back.
....‘Let the festivities begin.’
Alec led me from the dais, and we swayed to the romantic strains of a Strauss waltz, weaving in and out with other couples. I floated on an idyllic cloud beneath the blue and gold rococo ceiling that gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers. The troubles of the last few days were forgotten as I lost myself in his arms and was drawn into the lavender depths of his eyes.
.... Luc strode to the dais. ‘Madames and monsieurs, the fireworks start in one minute. Please make your way to the balcony.’
Several-hundred people surged onto the wide verandah that ran the length of the upper floor, its white tiled floor and stone balustrade gleaming in the light of a full moon. The cool air hit my face and bit my cheeks. Unlike many of the donsangs, I had no wrap. Alec removed his jacket and draped it over my shoulders as we made our way through to the front the crowd. He stood behind, wrapping me in his warmth, as the countdown began.
‘Ten, nine, eight … two, one. Happy New Year!’ Everyone cheered and clinked glasses, others were locked in passionate embraces.
‘Happy New Year, darling.’ Alec lifted my chin to meet his lips just as the first explosions sparked in the sky. Those fireworks couldn’t compare to the touch of his mouth on mine. Behind my closed eyelids, I was vaguely aware of splashes of light and colour, and the “oohs” and “aahs” of the crowd.
If the Brethren had questions about our relationship before this evening began, they certainly wouldn’t have now.
‘Hey, you’re missing it.’ Kari thumped my arm.
About to tell her to go away, I saw red tears glistening in her eyes. She swiped at them. Next to her, Jake appeared shell shocked – rubbing the back of his neck, eyes wide as he stared at the fireworks. Milena hung onto his other arm, a smirk on her face. Karl’s expression could’ve curdled milk. He turned and pushed his way out through the crowd.
What’d happened? Although I could guess.
‘Back in a minute.’ Alec went after him.
I missed the sudden loss of his warmth and pulled his jacket tightly around me. Kari rested her head on my shoulder. ‘What’s wrong? Want to tell me?’
She sniffled and shook her head. Above us, the sky exploded in brilliant hues, and the smoke and the partly burned paper casings from the fireworks floated down to us. Kari whispered, ‘She kissed him.’
I didn’t have to look to know which she Kari referred to. What was Milena up to? Poor Kari. She’d dressed to impress, hoping tonight she might win a kiss from Jake. Milena stole that moment. How cruel of her, and then Karl had stormed off.
From behind, a familiar pair of arms encircled me. ‘I asked Karl and O’Toole to meet us in Luc’s office, right after the fireworks.’
‘I’d like you there. After all, this doesn’t concern just me.’ He kissed the top of my ear. ‘Time we ended this boys’ club.’
I angled my head up at him. ‘If you’re not careful, you’ll become one of those sensitive new-age guys.’
‘Have to keep up with the times.’
We both chuckled.
‘How was Karl?’ I couldn’t care less if Milena overheard.
I glanced at her. It was hard biting my tongue, especially seeing how she clutched Jake’s arm. Didn’t she care he was Kari’s escort?
The last of the fireworks burst above us in a dazzling shower. The smell of the pyrotechnics lingered in the air as the music began and groups drifted back into the ballroom. Kari lifted her head from my shoulder and strode away. Jake didn’t follow.
I was sorely tempted to slap him in the back of the head but resisted.
Alec waltzed me into the centre of the room. ‘Let them work it out, Laura.’
I sighed. I hated seeing Kari so unhappy, but she was an adult, and older then me by a few-hundred years.
On the dais, we joined Luc and Judy.
My mother’s face was flushed from dancing. She plucked a drink from a passing waiter. ‘Another successful ball.’ She fanned herself with an exquisite Venetian fan. ‘To think how that wretched woman tried to sabotage it.’
‘She lost.’ I raised my glass, and we toasted.
Alec leaned close to Luc. ‘We need to talk. Heard the scuttlebutt?’
Luc lifted an eyebrow. ‘Like what?’ Alec repeated some of the comments we’d heard earlier. Luc shut his eyes and growled low in his throat. ‘Ah! Let them talk.’
‘Will it cause problems? I need to know.’ Alec glanced at me before returning his attention to Luc. ‘I asked Karl and Derek to join us in your office.’
Derek? Was that O’Toole’s first name?
‘Why?’ Luc’s brows snapped together.
‘In your office.’
Luc opened his mouth then closed it again. Alec twisted the serpent ring on his finger and waited. My father inhaled deeply and gritted his teeth while Judy placed her hand over his. He gave a curt nod, fished a key from his pocket and tossed it to Alec. ‘You’re princeps. You want a meeting; we’ll have one.’
Yes. I wanted to do a fist pump. Instead, I smiled and sipped my drink.
‘I’d like Marcus there, too.’ Alec took my hand. ‘Let’s hope this won’t take long … an hour, maybe, and we’ll be back.’
Jake joined us. Was he required? Or was facing a possible angry Luc preferable to being caught between two women?
As we left the ballroom, Alec approached Marcus, who stood with three others, laughing and drinking near one of the refreshment tables. From the dark red stain on his lips, it wasn’t wine he swirled in his goblet. As Alec whispered in his ear, I looked around for the other men.
Cal and Sam both had dance partners, yet their gaze never strayed far from Judy and me. Even at an occasion such as this, and within the relative safety of the chateau, they were still on guard. Where was Terens? There he was, towering above everyone else, a chequered harlequin mask on his face, weaving through the crowd to sit next to Judy. Guard or companion? Maybe both.
This was going to be an interesting meeting, I thought, as we traipsed down the stairs and through the library to Luc’s office. How was he going to react to Alec and me sharing the family secret with Karl and O’Toole? We might see another sort of fireworks.
And then there was Karl. He was already angry because of Milena. How would he take this latest news?
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