She had to act. Something told her she’d have better luck on the dance floor.

“Shall we dance again?” she asked the girls, pulling them back into the crowd.

The revelers had stamped the grass into mud. The musical arrangement had grown more intricate, a quick waltz, and the dances had changed, too.

Luce followed the light, fast steps, picking up the more complicated arm movements as she went along. Palm to palm with the gentleman in front of you, a simple curtsy, and then several skips in a wide circle around your partner to face the other side; then a swap with the girl to your left. Then palm to palm with the next young man, and the whole thing was repeated.

Halfway through the song, Luce was out of breath and giggling when she stopped in front of her new partner. Her feet suddenly felt welded to the mud.

He was tall and slender, wearing a mask with leopard’s spots. The design was exotic to Lucinda—there were no leopards in the woods around her city. It was certainly the most elegant mask she’d seen at the party. The man extended his gloved hands, and when Luce slipped hers cautiously inside, his grip was firm, almost possessive. Behind the holes around the leopard’s eyes, there came a gentle glow as emerald-green irises locked with hers.

FOUR

SOME CONSEQUENCE YET HANGING IN THE STARS

“Good evening, lady. How nimbly you dance. Like an angel.”

Luce’s lips parted to respond, but her voice caught in her throat.

Why did Cam have to crash this party?

“Good evening, sir,” Luce responded with a quiver in her voice. From all the dancing, her face was flushed, and her braids had tumbled loose, and one of the sleeves of her dress had slipped off her shoulder. She could feel Cam’s gaze on her bare skin. She reached to right her sleeve, but his gloved hand crossed hers to stop her.

“Such sweet disorder in your dress.” He drew a finger across her collarbone and she shivered. “It inspires a man’s imagination.”

The song changed keys, a cue for the dancers to change partners. Cam’s fingers lifted off her skin, but Luce’s heart still pounded as they danced away from each other.

She watched Cam from the corner of her eye. He was watching her. She knew somehow that this was not Cam from the present chasing her backward through time. This was the Cam who lived and breathed in this medieval air.

He was easily the most elegant dancer on the green. There was an ethereal quality to his steps that did not go unnoticed by the ladies. From the attention he was getting, Luce knew he was not from this city. He’d arrived specially to attend the Valentine’s Faire. But why?

Then they were paired again. Was she still dancing? Her body felt stiff and rigid. Even the music seemed to stutter in an endless in-between beat, which made Luce worry that she and Cam would have to stay rooted to these spots, staring into one another’s eyes forever.

“Are you all right, sir?” Luce hadn’t expected to say that. But there was something strange in his expression.

It was a darkness even his mask could not conceal. This was not the dark of evil doings, not the terrifying way he’d appeared in the cemetery at Sword & Cross. No, this Cam’s soul was crippled by sorrow.

What could make him look like that?

His eyes narrowed, as if he sensed her thoughts, and something in his face shifted.

“I have never been better.” Cam tilted his head. “It’s you I’m worried about, Lucinda.”

“Me?” Luce tried hard not to show how he affected her. She wished for a different kind of mask altogether, an invisible one, which would prevent him from ever again thinking he knew how she felt.

He raised his mask to his forehead. “You’re engaged in an impossible endeavor. You’ll end up brokenhearted and alone. Unless—”

“Unless what?”

He shook his head. “There is so much darkness in you, Lucinda.” The leopard mask lowered again. “Come back around, come back around.… ”

His voice trailed off as he began to dance away. For once, Luce wasn’t through with him. “Wait!”

But Cam had disappeared into the dance.

He was striding in slow circles with a new partner. Laura. Cam murmured something in the innocent girl’s ear, and she tossed back her head and laughed. Luce fumed. She wanted to jerk simple, bright Laura away from Cam’s darkness. She wanted to grab Cam and force him to explain. She wanted to have a conversation on her terms, not at momentary, melodramatic intervals between jig steps in the middle of a public festival in the Middle Ages.

There he was again, coming toward her in perfect control of the steps, as if influencing the tempo of the music. Luce couldn’t have felt more out of control. Just when he was about to come before her again, a tall blond man dressed entirely in black deftly pushed him aside. He stood before her and made no pretense of dancing.

“Hello.”

She sucked in her breath. “Hello.”

Tall, muscular, mysterious beyond all possibility. She would know him anywhere. She reached for him, desperate to feel some connection, to feel the sweetest flush at the touch of her true love’s skin—

Daniel.

Just as the music was about to dictate that they change partners, it slowed—almost like magic—and morphed into something slow and beautiful.

Flames from the candles positioned all around the Faire flickered against the dark sky, and the entire world seemed to hold its breath. Luce stared into Daniel’s eyes, and all the movement and colors around him faded away.

She had found him.

His arms came toward her, circling her waist as her body melted into his, buzzing with the thrill of his touch. Then she was deep in Daniel’s arms and there was nothing so wonderful in all the world as dancing with her angel. Their feet kissed the ground with the lightness of their steps, and the flight was so obvious and innate in Daniel’s body. She felt the buoyancy in her own heart, too, which she felt only when Daniel was near.

There was nothing so wonderful—except maybe his kiss.

Her lips parted in expectation, but Daniel just watched her, drinking her in with his eyes.

“I thought you’d never come,” she said.

Luce thought about escaping through the Announcers in her backyard, about chasing down her past lifetimes and watching them burn up, about the fights she and Daniel had had over keeping her safe and alive. Sometimes it was easy to forget how good they were together. How lovely he was, how kind, the way being with him made her feel like she was flying.

Just looking at him made the tiny hairs on her arms stand up, made her stomach flip-flop with nervous energy. And that was nothing compared to what kissing him did to her.

He raised his mask and held her so tightly against him she couldn’t move. She didn’t want to. She pored over every lovely feature of his face, her eyes lingering the longest on the soft curve of his lips. After all this buildup, she simply couldn’t believe it. It was really him!

“I will always come back to you.” His eyes held her in a trance. “Nothing can stop me.”

Luce rose on her toes, desperate to kiss him, but Daniel pressed a finger to her lips and smiled. “Come with me,” he whispered, taking her hand.

Daniel led her past the edge of the green, past the ring of oak trees that encircled the revelers. The high grass tickled her ankles and the moon lit their way until they entered the chilly darkness of the forest. There Daniel picked up a small, glowing lantern, as if this was all part of his plan.

“Where are we going?” she asked, though it didn’t really matter, as long as they were together.

Daniel just shook his head and smiled, holding out a hand to help her hop over a fallen branch blocking the path.

As they walked, the music faded until it was hard to discern, mingling with the low hooting of owls, the rustling of squirrels in tree branches, and the soft song of the nightingale. The lantern rocked on Daniel’s arm and the light wobbled, reaching for the web of bare branches curling out toward them. Once, Luce would have been nervous about the shadows in the forest, but that seemed like millennia ago.

As they walked hand in hand, Luce’s and Daniel’s feet traced a narrow pebble path. The night grew colder and she leaned close to him for warmth, burrowing deep into the arms he wrapped around her.

When they arrived at a fork in the path, Daniel paused for a moment, almost as if he’d lost his way. Then he turned to face her. “I should explain,” he said. “I owe you a Valentine’s gift.”

Luce laughed. “You don’t owe me anything. I just want to be with you.”

“Ah, but I received your gift—”

“My gift?” She looked up, surprised.

“And it touched me to my core.” He reached out and took her hand. “I should apologize if I have ever made you wonder about my affections. Until just yesterday, I didn’t think I would be able to meet you here tonight.”

A crow cawed, soaring overhead and landing on a wobbly branch above them.

“But then a messenger arrived and gave all the knights in my care strict instructions to attend the Faire. I fear I rode my horse to near exhaustion in my haste to find you here tonight. It’s just that I have been so eager to repay you for your most thoughtful gift.”

“But Daniel, I didn’t—”

“Thank you, Lucinda.” Then he produced a leather sheath that looked like it might hold a dagger. Luce tried not to look too baffled, but she had never seen it before in her life.

“Oh.” She laughed under her breath and fingered the doily in her pocket. “Do you ever get the feeling someone’s watching over us?”

He smiled and said, “All the time.”

“Maybe they’re our guardian angels,” Luce murmured jokingly.

“Maybe,” Daniel said. “But happily, right now, I think it’s just you and me.”

He guided her to the left-hand path; they took a few more steps, then turned right and passed a crooked oak tree. In the darkness Luce could sense a small, circular clearing, where a vast oak tree must have been chopped down. Its stump stood in the center of the clearing—and something had been placed on it, but Luce couldn’t see what yet.

“Close your eyes,” he told her, and when she did, she sensed the lantern moving away. She heard him rustling around the clearing, and she came very close to peeking, but she managed to hold out, wanting to experience the surprise just the way Daniel had intended it.

After a moment, a familiar scent filled Luce’s nose. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Something soft, floral … and absolutely unmistakable.

Peonies.

Still standing with her eyes closed, Luce could see her dreary dorm room back at Sword & Cross, made beautiful by the vase of peonies in her window that Daniel had brought to her at the hospital. She could see the cliff’s edge in Tibet, where she’d stepped through to witness Daniel doling out single flowers to her past self in a game that ended too soon. She could almost smell the gazebo in Helston, which teemed with the peonies’ feathery white blooms.

“Now open your eyes.”

She could hear the smile in Daniel’s voice, and when she opened her eyes and saw him standing before the tree stump decked with a vast bouquet of peonies in a tall, wide copper vase, she covered her mouth and gasped. But that wasn’t all. Daniel had threaded peony blossoms through the slender branches. He’d made vases of the pocks in all the surrounding trees’ stumps. He’d strewn the ground with the peonies’ delicate, snowy petals. He had woven a wreath for her hair. He’d lit dozens of candles in small hanging lanterns all around, so that the whole clearing glowed with a magical brilliance. When he stepped forward to place the wreath on Luce’s head, she—and her medieval self—nearly melted.


Tags: Lauren Kate Fallen Fantasy
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