I burst out into super unattractive, snorting, laughter. “You got that from Rupert’s reports on all those romcom movies, didn’t you?”
“I might have, yes.”
I wrinkled my nose as I tried to stop laughing—I couldn’t cry from laughing, or I’d smear my makeup! “If you really wanted to get me to swoon you could just stand there and smolder.”
“Are you implying you love me for my looks and not my ‘great personality’?” Killian’s voice was dead serious, but his onyx eyes had the faintest red glow to them, so I knew he was having fun. “And they say it’s men who value outward appearances!”
I almost started snorting all over again, but the doorbell rang, and I froze.
Drake Hall couldn’t have a normal, cheerful doorbell—certainly not. It had to have this deep, chiming tone that sounded like a church bell that you could hear from nearly any room in the mansion.
“It sounds like the first guests are here.” I almost wiped my sweaty palms on my dress, but stopped myself at the last minute. “Are you ready to go greet them?”
“No.” Killian raised both of his eyebrows at me. “That’s what I have a First Knight for!”
“You can’t possibly make Celestina receive all the guests at your party,” I said.
“I’m the Eminence,” he said. “Who is going to tell me I can’t? Besides I’m very busy.”
I snapped my fingers and pointed at him. “There you go, much better.”
His grin turned a touch debonair. “Does that mean your butt will finally be available for viewing now?”
I sighed deeply. “I’m going down to greet your guests.”
“Fine.” Killian shrugged. “Just make sure you position yourself right there.” He pointed to a red dragon painted across the marble tile of the front foyer. The dragon just so happened to be placed so my back would face him if he stayed up here gawking.
The first guests entered through the door, Celestina gliding forward to meet them.
I recognized Elite Bellus and his wife, the Adept of House Bellus.
“Okay,” I agreed.
Killian blinked in surprise. “You’re finally giving up?”
“Not at all,” I assured him. “Because you’ll be there with me.”
Killian raised an eyebrow. “And how do you propose to accomplish that?”
“Like this.” I leaned over the stair banister and shouted, “Elite Bellus, Adept Bellus, we’re so glad you could make it!”
The wizard couple looked up to the second floor where we stood.
“Well played,” Killian growled.
I smugly smiled. “Thank you!”
“Adept Medeis, how good it is to see you again!” Elite Bellus called back to me.
I patted Killian’s forearm. “Come on. Let’s get going.”
“If you insist.” He grabbed my hot, sweaty hand, his fingers instantly cooling mine when they intertwined.
Together, we went down to the main floor with big smiles, ready to greet guests and enter the political ring.
The party proceeded smoothly—better than what I had imagined anyway.
Since the guest list had suddenly expanded, a caterer was called in to help relieve the kitchen staff, and the food was phenomenal—particularly since they had a werewolf, fae, and vampire on staff, assuring the food tasted as exquisite as it looked and smelled.
Celestina had hired a stringed quartet to play in the Drake Hall ballroom. One of the parlors had been converted into a game room—and no, I don’t mean for gambling or anything. When I sashayed through there earlier in the night I saw a few fae playing checkers, some vampires engaged in a rousing round of old maid, and a huddle of werewolves and wizards playing Clue.
The gardens were open—Celestina had ordered a number of propane patio stand heaters so the fae and werewolves could stand outside and admire the gardens and green spaces in comfort. I saw a few wizards escape out there as well, probably driven out by the heat.
I also had the great pleasure of being near a group of werewolves when they heard a few of the Drake dogs bark happily, and it was hysterical.
I was still snickering to myself as I picked my way around the outside edge of the mansion, waving to the patrolling Drake vampires.
Yeah, I was one of the wizards who had been driven out to the gardens by the high temperatures inside. Rather than immediately venture back in, I was looping around, intending to re-enter at the front doors and give myself a chance to cool off in the crisp, bordering on freezing, night air.
Fall and winter were intermingling now, so there was frost on the frozen ground, but it felt amazing.
Just as I reached the well illuminated entrance, I saw someone familiar waiting on the sidewalk that bordered the driveway.
“Leila?” I called.
Leila—her black hair pleated into a gorgeous braid and wearing a purply-blue that brought out the violet hue of her eyes—slowly turned around and smiled. “Hey, Hazel! Great party—especially the food!” Her happy expression and her supernatural beauty—which looked even more fae-like in the darkness of night—were an odd juxtaposition. You usually didn’t see fae so…open. Though she looked so beautiful it probably was a good thing. If all the fae walked around like this it would be a lot harder to be wary of them.
I carefully navigated the stairs so I could join her on the sidewalk. “Leila—you look gorgeous! And yeah, the caterer really went all out. Did you try any of the raspberry mousse?”
Leila shook her head. “No, I stuffed myself on an affogato—I’m a sucker for coffee, and I love ice cream.”
I clapped my hands in glee. “Then you need to try the tiramisu! It’s to die for.”
“I wish I could! Unfortunately, I’m just waiting for one of the boys to bring my truck around.” Leila made a face. “It’s time for me to go home.”
“I hope you had a nice time—no one bothered you, did they?” My shoulders started to rise—I probably looked like an angry kitten arching its back, though. (I felt extra short next to her willowy frame.)
Leila laughed. “Not at all. Everyone was very welcoming—I had a great time talking with Felix and your Great Aunt Marraine. I even snuck out to see the dogs.”
“Was that why they were barking? I was near some werewolves when they started up, it was the best thing ever! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a werewolf look so sour.” I tilted my head. “But are you certain you don’t want to come back in for some more food? I’m serious, the tiramisu is that good.”
Leila’s smile faded a little. “Thanks, but I’m good. Look…I wanted to talk to you a little about the Night Court. I know I mentioned when you dropped by that I have some fae blood in me. Fae don’t attack me, but I have no intention of ever pledging myself to a Court, and I can’t say I’ve ever really enjoyed any interaction I’ve had with their kind.”
Hmm… “Their kind,” was it? That was pretty telling considering she was gorgeous enough to be half fae. Apparently it was an unwanted association.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I hope they behaved themselves tonight?”
“Oh, it’s fine!” Leila’s smile was back. “I’m way too small a fish for any of the fae who are here tonight. Just being near them is a little…uncomfortable?”
“I think I know what you mean. When I first came to Drake Hall my nerves were shot in about two weeks after being around vampires all the time when I feared them so much.” I slightly narrowed my eyes as I studied Leila.
Fae were known for meddling, and depending what Court her fae blood came from, I could see someone feeling it was their duty to bring her into her heritage, whether she wanted it or not.
No wonder she tried to avoid them.
I had missed it when she drove me to Magiford, but now that I got the chance to really study her, I could see in her eyes and the set of her eyebrows and mouth the same quiet desperation I’d nearly drowned in when I first became Adept.
I better change the topic. There’s no sense making her hash out her personal problems on the front stoop. I’ll invite her over sometime to see House Medeis, or she can come visit the dogs again.
I glanced back at Drake Hall, desperate for a new conversation topic. “I’m glad you came, though! I wish I had seen you earlier. We could have done a dessert tour together.”
I grinned, and Leila returned my smile, but it was only for a moment.
“I actually wanted to talk to you, and I think now is as good a time as any.” She glanced up at Drake Hall and down the driveway, but there was still no sign of the valet with her truck.
“It seems like it’s pretty inevitable that the Drake Family, House Medeis, and the Night Court are going to clash.” Her words were almost musical as she rushed to speak. “I’m assuming it’s going to be in a certamen duel, because I don’t think the Night Court could last against the negative publicity of a war. Either way, I imagine you’re planning to focus on specifically taking down Queen Nyte and Consort Ira?”
“We’ve been told if the leaders of a Court topple, the Court itself won’t keep fighting,” I carefully said.
“It’s true,” Leila said. “Fae swear an oath to their king or queen. But the fight will be harder than it sounds because Queen Nyte and Consort Ira will order their people to protect them.”
I sighed. “I was afraid of that. Of course I’d like to avoid conflict, but if it’s inevitable, I want to have the least number of casualties possible—for both sides.”
Leila relaxed minutely. “I hoped that would be a concern for you. Then as someone who knows the way fae think, I suggest you sucker punch them.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Fae are diabolical. Vampires at least follow codes of conduct, but fae are like quicksilver, always adjusting for their own selfish good. They are ruthless and awful, and the only way you’ll really be able to surprise them is by using something they think they know against them,” Leila said. “You nailed the Night Court in the Curia Cloisters because they took it for granted that no one would help the Drake Family. And it was effortless for you to get the fae who attacked you on my parents’ property because they still didn’t grasp how powerful House Medeis is. But Queen Nyte knows, now, what vampires and wizards together are capable of, so you can’t count on that being your surprise play. You need to take something that they believe with every ounce of their being, and twist it on them.”