What's That Sound
This Isn't The 1800s
Your Average Girl
Don't Make Me Go
Dress-Up Game
Alone With the Enemy
Some Strange Magic
You Only Live Once
What Are You?
A Wrong Turn
A Deal's a Deal
The Secret Inside
Helicopter, Helicopter
Mind Your Manners
A Maze and Delight
The Lost Seed
A Secret Escape
Getting Hot Inside
Seriously, What The
Got a Bad Feeling
Let's Try Something
Breathing is Overrated
In the Meantime
Nice Day for a Drive
Can't Turn Back
Mind Your Manners
I woke the next morning feeling groggy like I hadn't slept at all. My eyes stung as I rolled out of bed and slapped at my alarm. Alarm. Wait. It was the weekend, so why was my alarm going off?

That's right. It took me a couple moments after I'd climbed out of bed to remember. I was supposed to go with my mom to some sort of brunch with the society ladies, as she called them. It had sounded so boring I'd managed to forget all about it.

Except that I must have been the only one who thought it sounded dull, because when I shuffled out into the kitchen after my shower, Mom was already standing there in her new sundress and heels, scolding me for being late. Good thing there was no hair and makeup production today. I barely had time to get dry and pull on the dress Mom had picked-out for me before she was shuffling me into the car and we were on our way.

All the yards on this side of town sprawled up into the hills beyond their perfectly manicured hedges and iron gates. But the house where we were going was perhaps the grandest of them all. It was built in a large "U", wide enough it could have wrapped three of the other mansions into its center. Even its gate was taller and larger than the rest, and an entry guard waved us through as it opened. Beyond was a long driveway lined with neat bushes. Where the front walk started, the hedges had been carved into the shape of two giant serpents, coiled and ready to spring at you from either side.

Creepy. I stopped to comment on them, but my mother pulled me ahead to the door.

The man who answered was middle-aged and finely dressed. He was wearing a suit and had his hair slicked-back. I'd never seen anyone like that in real life. In fact, the ensemble made him look rather like--

"Good day, madam, young miss." He nodded his head in courtesy, then gestured to the hall behind them. "Come in. I shall take you to the parlor."

Yeah, that was it. Like a butler.

Man, this place was fancier than any place else I'd ever been. The wide entry was lined with marble busts and the floor had been polished so slick I had to be careful how I stepped. From down the hall, I could hear the soft murmur of polite laughter.

The other guests looked up when we entered the parlor. The room was filled with ladies in various lengths of summer dresses, faces perfectly made-up and perched on the edges of plush seat cushions. A few smiled when they saw me, a demure gaze that barely lasted a moment before it passed and they'd turned back to conversation. I had to be the youngest person there by a decade. I already knew--this was going to be boring.

While my mother started chatting, I hung back around a long table laid-out with an array of beautiful dishes. There were fruit platters, trays of cheeses, and even pineapples carved into the shape of animals. The centerpiece was shaped like a large serpent. Kinda had a theme going on, didn't they? A little odd. But oddest of all was what it was doing. The serpent was carved so it appeared to be attacking a creature that looked much like a cross between--I kid you not--a cat and a wolf. Sound familiar?

Glancing around, I tried to see if anyone else was disturbed by the strange table decorations. The only one looking my way was a woman with sandy hair and smooth skin. Her gaze was cool but broke into a small smile when she saw that I was eyeing the table decorations.

"Simply lovely, isn't it?" she asked, beside my shoulder in an instant. "Though I do say I wish the serpent had come out with just a little more life, don't you?"

I didn't know what to make of that comment, so I said, "Sure, yeah, it looks like it would have taken a lot of skill to make." I was still trying to figure out if it was a coincidence that the fruit was carved like Chance's animus. The lyoken.

The woman's smile faded but she said, "Please, let me introduce myself. I am Elenora Whitley, matron of this estate."

Whitley? Wait. That name sounded familiar for some reason, but I couldn't place why. All I could assume was that my parents had mentioned it at some point.

I introduced myself as best I could, tried to be polite, and let myself fade back into the furniture as Ms. Whitley drifted away. Having to pretend to be fancy and maintain poise stressed me out. I was glad when she was gone and I could grab a plate and eat it by myself near the door.

I was just starting to enjoy myself when a mocking whisper said from behind, "You're supposed to eat the food, not pulverize it,"

I swiveled so fast I nearly whacked Mercurius in the face, cracker crumbs spraying across the floor.

"Heh," he said, brushing off his pants. "How positively vulgar."

The heck. Aside from Mercurius, it was all ladies at the event. Weird that he'd happen to show up.

"What are you doing here?" I asked. Maybe the accusation came out in my tone a little stronger than it should have, but oh well. A few of the ladies turned our direction, but I tried to pretend like I didn't notice.

Mercurius, meanwhile, looked like he was trying not to laugh, what with the way his lip twitched at the corner.

"I shouldn't have to answer such a question," he said, smirk growing, "But for your sake, I'll tell you. Didn't you know? I live here."

I choked on the cracker I'd been chewing, coughing and reaching for my tea.

Now I remembered. Whitley. That was the last name my parents had mentioned at dinner when they'd first talked of setting him up on a date with me.

I should have seen it coming. Of course it would be his place my mother would drag me to.

- - -

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© Hopeful Romantic ,
книга «Just a Kiss».