Theater of Origins
I looked at myself critically in the mirror.
Everything about this event had been orchestrated between Alistair and Lucienne, from the guest list to the refreshments to the entertainment. My appearance was high on that list as well. Lucienne had somehow managed to find me a dress that conveyed exactly what her director husband had decreed it needed to convey.
“She needs to be desirable without being slutty, elegant without being stiff, youthful without being immature.”
Alistair was bouncing little Angeline on his lap as the first snow of the year fell on the Adirondacks back on the mortal realm. The baby was almost as fascinated as the cats, who were perched on the windowsill in utter frustration that they were being prevented from catching the big white fluffy things sliding down the other side of the glass.
“What color do you think?” Lucienne asked me, watching me closely with that bright blue gaze that saw so much.
Which is probably why I’d mumbled, “Blue.”
“Blue will be lovely against your skin, Catherine. I don’t know why you’ve never worn blue all that often.”
Blue. Tristiano’s favorite dress was blue—ice blue, in fact. Just like Dominic’s eyes. So yes. Blue was most definitely my color. Described my mood, too.
The dress was cobalt blue silk, a vintage dress with off the shoulder sleeves and a tight, fitted bodice that laced in the back, a basque waist, and full skirts fluffed out over several crinolines that hit a bare inch above my ankles. The décolletage was more revealing than I normally liked, but it did compliment the curve of my breasts—which in a happy surprise were starting to regain some of the size they’d lost while I was ill—and would definitely attract attention. The dress was extremely simple, and more dramatic as a result.
No way to disguise anything in a dress like that.
I’d painted my face for the first time in forever too, following Alistair’s instruction to paint like Séraphine, my character in Harlequin. So I based and powdered my face into matte perfection and then emphasized the sweetness of the character—because I was definitely playing a character—with pink blush and lip stain. But I rebelled against the rest of the look and painted my eyes more like I had for Odette. The feline swoop of eyeliner behind full lashes plus a smoky blue-gray eye shadow popped my own blue eyes into greater prominence. I left my hair loose, twisting it away from my left side with an Art Deco jeweled clasp and letting my curls swing free over my bare right shoulder.
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t look like Séraphine or Odette or even Cat. I looked like Catherine, a strangely quiet Catherine who knew there wasn’t enough blush in the world to keep her from looking pale.
Not tonight. I couldn’t figure out if we were setting a trap or springing one.
Only a week had passed since Benjamin Franklin, the ruler of Magic’s dominion, had informed me that once again I’d managed to do something that should be impossible. I was pregnant with twins, and each twin was fathered by a different man. The first twin was older by a week. Tristiano’s baby. His daughter, in fact. The second twin was Dominic’s son. Both my babies were begotten when the transformation from mortal mage to true immortal set my biological clock into alarm mode and, apparently, managed to violate basic human anatomy at the same time.
I hadn’t figured out how to tell them yet. I hadn’t told anyone.
Bad enough that I was in love with two men. Even worse that I had a husband and a consort. Now I had to explain to them somehow that they were both going to be fathers. I couldn’t even do that until after this event, the grand bit of strategy we’d concocted to see if we could somehow eliminate Cruelty before he eliminated us.
The only thing Cruelty would want more than me was me and infant twins, so he could hold both Desire and Time in his hands. Two dominions under his control after just one small threat to me. I didn’t dare tell anyone I was pregnant before the party because the more people who knew, the greater the odds that the news would leak out from behind someone’s shields. And considering that my appearance at this event would set off a whole slew of immortal men into the heightened emotion and physical chaos I’d once likened to the rut, no one would be interested in getting past my shields.
That being said, I would much rather have been in a turtleneck or a nun’s habit instead of this fragile-looking dress that made me look fragile too.
Armor would work.
“He has to want her so much that it overcomes his natural sense of caution,” Alistair had said, his dark eyes glittering with malicious anticipation.
Easy for him to say. He didn’t have to set himself up as a glorified blow up doll for a herd of horny immortals.
I turned to check the back of my gown, eying the hem critically to make sure everything was even, and then slipped into a pair of heels. I looked…pretty, and younger than my thirty-two years. I ran my hands down the front of the silk bodice and took a deep breath.
“Catherine, you are the loveliest woman I’ve seen in six hundred years. My cherished girl, you are exquisite.”
I turned toward the door to the sanctum. Tristiano stood there, dressed in the most elaborate costume I’d ever seen him wear. He’d abandoned his usual fool’s motley, and instead wore a full on Carnival costume, the traditional harlequin pattern fashioned in gold embroidery on his black velvet doublet. He was wearing black leather pants that fit his long legs like a glove—no doubt of his ability to father children in that get up, by the way—leather boots that looked soft enough to pet, a traditional three-pointed hat, elaborately embroidered with more of the gold thread, tight black leather gloves and, strangely, a large ring with a golden stone on the ring finger of his left hand. I’d never seen him wear jewelry before.
Harlequin formal wear. Who’d have thought such a thing existed?
He hadn’t yet put on his gold-embroidered black silk mask. Usually, when it was just us, he didn’t bother with the mask at all. But whenever he was going to be encountering the rulers of the other immortal domains, he wasn’t Tristiano. He was the Harlequin, one of the most powerful entities in existence and one that other immortals tended not to cross.
Only a couple of other immortals knew the Harlequin as Tristiano, or that he was possessed of a very real humanity that sometimes humbled me, the mortal-born mage who shared his dominion. But for tonight, I wanted the Harlequin at my side and that’s who I had gotten.
Not going to lie either. Right now, he looked like a gift to all womankind but that gift was all mine. I was a little smug at the thought.
“Next to you I look plain,” I said honestly.
“That’s impossible,” he said, crossing the room to pull me against him. “My God, Catherine, you are breathtaking.”
Tristiano had a gift for making the simplest statements into the most spectacular compliments. My body instinctively curved against his and he tightened his arm around my waist. He trailed his free hand down the side of my face, and the leather gloves were so perfectly fitted that I could feel the warmth of his fingers. He kissed me lingeringly, and then released my lips with flattering reluctance.
“Please tell me what the two of you are going to do,” I begged for the hundredth time in three days.
“You need to be as surprised as everyone else or our ploy won’t work,” he replied for the ninety-eighth time in three days.
“I’m a professional actor. I’m sure I can manage to sell surprise quite well.”
“Not to immortals, my precious girl. As you well know.” He let me go, but walked around me slowly as he took in every detail of my appearance. He’d always liked doing that, and usually that deliberate examination was enough to make me shiver.
“Well? Will I shame my consort?”
“Every man there will be captivated.” His eyes glittered as he added, “And will not be allowed to get too close to you, either.”
When the Harlequin started to get uber-protective, small things like mountains or small towns were usually leveled as a result.
Tristiano pulled off his hat and set it on the table. He had the kind of dark good looks that immediately made me think of Italy, but upon second glance he didn’t look Italian at all. That didn’t add up, especially since his startling green eyes were offset by an extremely sensual mouth. As he fastened his mask, I added a couple of spritzes of lavender and opened my jewelry box. My favorite Faberge bracelet went on my right arm, but I looked through the rest disconsolately. Nothing really jumped out at me. I sighed and closed the box again.
“You know, Catherine, I owe you a very deep apology.” Tristiano’s voice was already undergoing the transformation that would take him from the man I knew and loved in private to the Harlequin.
I glanced at him in surprise. “An apology? What for?”
“I’ve never given you a gift.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I haven’t,” he insisted.
“Only a sanctum or two,” I reminded him.
“I meant something personal, from a man to the woman he loves. So I found out from Lucienne a general sense of what you’d be wearing, and selected something to accompany it.”
He stepped behind me and kissed the curve of my shoulder as something cool fastened around my throat.
“She said that your dress was simple at first glance, but that you needed something spectacular to enhance it. I thought perhaps this would be flattering.”
I put my hand to my throat and turned back to the mirror. The Edwardian-era choker clung to my neck without being uncomfortable, and the glimmer of the stones in the light confirmed that this wasn’t some reproduction. The sapphires and diamonds were real, twining around my neck in a constant chase of blue fire and white that covered most of my throat. Only the wealthiest people in the world could have afforded that choker when it was made, and was even more valuable now when it was over a century old.
“You must be joking,” I said weakly. “This had to cost a small fortune.”
“I have several fortunes and none are small,” he replied, slipping his hands over my bare shoulders. “I’ll have to accustom myself to losing sight of several inches of your lovely throat, but seeing this on you causes me to remember why it is that men give the women they love jewels.”
“And why is that?”
“Because only an extraordinary woman can ignite the beauty of a gem.” His eyes met mine in the mirror. “These jewels were meant for you, Catherine. Before I put them on you, they were rather boring…uninspiring. But now, enhanced by the pearl-like sheen of your skin and the fiery blue of your eyes, these jewels are glowing with supernatural glory. You are a goddess, my exquisite, treasured girl, and I am just a lone worshipper, kneeling at your feet—”
I turned swiftly and kissed him, and we flashed over to passion almost immediately. I was about to say to hell with the stupid event and the stupid trap and the rest of the stupid immortals, but the Harlequin pulled away from that kiss, not Tristiano.
“They’re beautiful,” I said softly. “This necklace is perfect.”
“The jewels will never be as lovely as the throat they grace,” he replied gallantly, bringing my hands to his lips. “And now I want to buy you more because I understand that the only way sapphires live up to the promise of beauty within their depths is for me to drape them on the porcelain perfection of a goddess’s skin.”
“You’re getting very good at compliments,” I noted, kissing him again.
“I have the best inspiration imaginable.” He stepped back and donned his hat, making his transformation into the Harlequin complete. “Come, Catherine. We have to make an appearance at your irascible Marquis’s party.”
Yes. We did. I swallowed back a twinge of fear.
“Catherine, listen to me.” His voice had gone very serious. “I will be right there by your side and no one—no one!—will be foolish enough to get too near you in my presence.”
I nodded anxiously. The Harlequin held out his hand and I slid mine into it. Without a word, he flipped us both into the dominion of Desire.