So, can’t lie, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for, and at the same time, it annoys my because now I need to know what happens next…
An Undead Christmas Carol. J R Manawa.
The Pauper Princess
Somewhere in the depths of the grand chateau, an ancient cloak with a deep chime tolled the hour as Nadine picked up her pace to the end of the hall and hopped down the stairs with as much speed and class as she could muster in killer heels. At the top of the last flight, she paused and took a deep breath, slowing her pace before she descended toward the Egyptian entranceway.
One of the worst things about focusing on not falling as you descend a flight of stairs in a tight dress that isn’t your own, wearing unfortunately high heels and working very hard to muster every inch of elegance within your being, is that inevitably, something will go wrong.
Nadine could have argued that the fresco on the ceiling had also stolen her attention, but the truth is that she was focused on her feet the entire way down, and she seriously doubted that a neck arched forward to watch her toes was an elegant one at all. It didn’t matter, any stray whiffs of elegance were lost as she took a step too wide, pushing the stretch in the dress a little too far, and suddenly she was all momentum, knees over feet, sliding downward on the plush navy carpet like her shins were some kind of skewiff toboggan.
She stopped herself before she fell all the way, but it was immediately hilarious that she had been so desperately preoccupied with looking cool that karma had kicked her in the ass and sent her tumbling anyway, so she burst out laughing.
A pair of arms reached down and scooped her up easily. “Are you okay?”
Nadine choked instantly on her laughter as she looked up. She had paid zilch attention to whether anyone was waiting from below. Though she knew Caleb had said he would be, at nine o’clock, she had almost fully convinced herself that he was making a mockery of her and was not even here.
That she would turn up, the pauper dressed as a princess, at some awkward private ball to which she was not really invited.
But of course it was Caleb, smelling of musk and spice and something darker, like ancient stone and dry wood, not that Nadine could have put a word to it. It was delicious, mysterious and dangerous.
His strength had shocked her into silence, though there were a thousand different sentences running through her mind as she stared at him, the first one that came out, even before hello, was, “You know, my feet have to be on the ground if I am going to use them at all,” she inhaled, and then the torrent came, “unless you intend to carry me all evening. It will of course save me the embarrassment of not being able to dance, in this dress. Or at all if I’m completely honest. Assuming we are expected to waltz or something. Though I think waltzing is German, I have no idea how they dance in Paris. I’ll shut up now.”
He didn’t say a word, he waited patiently for her to finish. As she spoke, her eyes took him in entirely, the straight shouldered black jacket with silver buttons that looked almost military was was definitely either Vivian Westwood or Alexander McQueen, not that Nadine could have known for sure, but it paired stupidly well with the high collared plain white shirt underneath and the messy bun that his wavy auburn hair had been folded into, except for the few strands that had fallen loose, most likely as he had leapt up the stairs to rescue Nadine from her tumble. His eyes were darker around the sockets than she remembered, like he hadn’t slept well in a few days, but it looked good on him, and this thought made Nadine cringe internally, even as it came to her.
His amber eyes read into hers and a little smile tickled at the corners of his lips as he watched her absorbed his appearance. He put her down slowly, and reached his right hand up to tuck back the wayward strands of hair behind his ear. His left hand remained at the small of her back.
She swallowed, now embarrassed that he seemed content not to react, or even say a word in counter to her outburst.
“Shall we?” He asked gently, extending his left arm and gesturing for her to take the last five steps down to the ground from where they were perched, blocking the stairway.
It was only then that Nadine realised there were at least two other couples waiting behind them, with patience and grace; all of the things that Nadine had just publicly demonstrated she was not.
Unsure of her stability, she took the rail in her left hand and let Caleb guide her down. “We better not start making a habit out of that,” Nadine said, softer, after they reached the bottom and walked forward, away from the other couples in their own dashing suits and elegant gowns.
“Of you being there to catch me when I fall after doing something rather ungraceful,” she elaborated.
“Oh, yes well, I guess I can understand that,” he grinned, “I’m sorry, your verbal diarrhoea caught me off guard back there.”
They walked down the hall together, Caleb still with his hand at her waist. His contact made Nadine feel uncomfortable, and yet comfortable all at once as they made for the tall ballroom doors looming at the end of the hall. Fashioned of warm brown wood, crusted with golden filigree, and crowned with winter fauna and fairy lights, they were everything that an entrance portal to a winter ball should be.
Caleb looked straight ahead. He hadn’t known what to think at all, or even where to look, when Nadine came to the top of the stairs. It was the first time he had seen her since he caught her in the snow on the edge of Berkeley Square and invited her to this ridiculous ball.
Now he thought it had been callous and rash, exactly as Levi had said; that he was acting out the monster inside of him. Because, because, the sight of Nadine at the top of the stairs looking up at the ceiling with her red hair tumbling down over her shoulders, and her hand on the balustrade opening up the curve of her neck and the line of her collarbone, so exposed by the off-the-shoulder cut of the black form fitting dress she wore, had hit him like a glass wall that shattered around her and poured down broken shards everywhere, little cuts she would have to endure with every step closer to him that she took.
Until she bled out entirely.
She didn’t see him. She looked down at her feet and began her descent, so focused, so forced in exuding the grace she had recognised was required of her to exist in such a building, at such a time, for such an event.
Caleb pursed had his lips, because she was not wrong.
So he watched, and said nothing, until she fell and he jumped to help her, hardly registering how quickly he moved to her, the fact that he still held her off the ground, or the fact that other members of his so called ‘family’ had begun to descend the stairs behind them.
And now he was walking her down the hall to her doom, unable to look at her for his shame.