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“MUST YOU look so pained?”
Eirik released a long-suffering sigh before turning away from his brother. He loved Malachi, but at times he was awfully tempted to send the winter elf off a snowy cliff.
“I look pained because I am,” Eirik muttered as he made himself comfortable on the expansive window seat.
“For Kringle’s sake.” Malachi snatched Eirik’s book from his hand, much to Eirik’s exasperation. “Your only son is getting married in three weeks. The festivities begin this evening.”
“You needn’t remind me,” Eirik grumbled, stealing his book back. Why wouldn’t his brother leave him be? All he desired was to be left alone with his books. Was that too much to ask? He’d hoped leaving the safety and warmth of his palace for his son’s vacation home in Svalbard, Norway, would be enough for his family, but apparently it wasn’t.
Ordinarily, all Eirik had to do was give the order and he would be obeyed. He was the King of Frost, after all. His blasted family however—especially his brother—had a terrible habit of ignoring him, stating they were doing so for his own good. What they needed was to mind their own business. That, and a good frosty kick up the backside.
Much to his growing annoyance, Malachi dropped down onto the cushioned seat beside him. “Eirik.”
The soft-spoken word and the concern in Malachi’s near-black eyes—eyes very much like his own—had Eirik groaning. He hated when his little brother looked so blasted miserable.
“He’s your son,” Malachi reminded him gently, as if Eirik had somehow forgotten.
Eirik gazed out the grand arched window overlooking his personal royal garden. It had been gifted to him along with this library by his son, Jack. The vast fields of flawless white called to him. “I am aware. What is your point?”
“My point,” Malachi replied with a sigh, “is that it will break Jack’s heart if you hide yourself away like you always do. You cannot confine yourself to these walls for three weeks, only to emerge for the ceremony and then disappear again.”
“Why not?” Eirik shook his head at his brother. “Do you honestly believe Jack expects me to take part in those ridiculous Rein Dear games?” Three weeks of Christmas-elf mischief, extravagant balls, frivolous parties, and—Kringle help him—socializing. It was enough to make him want to hop on the first glacier to the Antarctic.
Malachi rolled his eyes. “No one expects you to take part, not even Jack. Christmas miracles rarely occur where you’re concerned.”
Eirik’s scowl was promptly ignored.
“But he does expect to see you. You are his father, and the king. This is the most important moment of his life. He needs you. Please, Eirik.” Malachi reached out and placed his hand on Eirik’s knee. “I know I’m asking a great deal of you, but I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t Jack.”
Eirik took a deep breath. He had failed his son on more than one occasion. They hadn’t always seen eye to eye, and it had taken some time for Eirik to comprehend Jack falling in love with Rudy. Eirik never expected his son to lose his heart to an elf, much less a Christmas elf. In truth, Rudy was a perfect match for Jack, and were it not for their love, Eirik would have lost Jack to the ice long ago. Rudy had proven himself to be valiant and steadfast, a noble addition to the Frost monarchy. Eirik couldn’t disappoint his son. Not this time.
“Very well.” Eirik nodded. The thought of venturing outside for extended periods of time and facing the numerous guests due to arrive at any moment made him feel somewhat sick to his stomach, but he pushed away his growing unease. “I will do my best.”
“Thank you.” Malachi beamed brightly at him, and Eirik rolled his eyes.
“You are very annoying.”
Malachi chuckled as he stood. “And you’re a king among elves.”
“Now you’re simply looking to get your nose frozen off,” Eirik muttered, turning his attention back to the window. Off in the distance, tiny dark specs came into view, and he groaned. “Oh look, something more annoying than you is arriving.”
Malachi laughed. “I’ll inform Rudy. Do behave yourself.”
Eirik grunted, his attention on the eight biplanes flying in perfect formation.
The library doors closed, and Eirik snapped his fingers, causing the window’s glass-paned doors to open. With a wicked grin, he blew out a burst of cold air and sent it toward the first biplane in the formation. The plane’s ocean-blue color conjured up images of the vexing elf pilot’s eyes. They were the very same brilliant hue. Eirik frowned. He’d never met a more infuriating creature.
Eirik twirled his finger, his lips curling into a grin as the gust of wind rolled the plane. Hearing the elf’s curses on the breeze made Eirik chuckle. The plane righted itself, and Eirik flicked a finger toward the left wing, laughing softly when the plane tilted right. He did the same to the right wing, forcing the plane to tip left. The wind relayed the elf’s creative swearing, much to Eirik’s amusement.
As the planes approached the airspace around the palace, Eirik pulled on his boots, stood, then picked up his white frock coat from where it lay draped across the wingback chair. As soon as he’d fastened the buttons between the silver braiding, he swung his white fur-lined cape behind him, securing it to his shoulders. Rounding his shoulders, he left the library and headed for the front gate where Jack, Rudy, and several palace staff waited for Kringle’s beloved Rein Dears.
The sound of rumbling propellers met Eirik’s ear, and he stopped beside Jack, who jumped at the sight of him.
“Father.” Jack stared in surprise. “You’re outside.” Rudy gently elbowed him. “I mean, um, good afternoon, Father.” Jack bowed, Rudy following suit beside him, his smile wide.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Your Majesty. How are you today?”
“I am well, thank you.” At least Rudy had manners. Shame the same couldn’t be said about the rest of Kringle’s chipper little elves. How they didn’t get exhausted by all the good cheer and smiling was beyond Eirik. It certainly exhausted him just thinking about it.
The noise from the biplanes was soon replaced by the chattering of Christmas elves, though one voice rose above the others. It was slightly huskier, grumbling, and brash. Dasher Rein Dear had quite the reputation. From what Eirik had gathered, he was fearless, roguish, and loose with his affections. A number of Eirik’s toy soldiers were intimately familiar with the bold Christmas elf.
Several months ago, however, something had changed. According to gossip among his toy soldiers, Dasher seemed uninterested in their advances. One had gone as far as to say that perhaps Dasher had finally met his match, while another teased that Dasher might have fallen in love. Eirik doubted it, considering Dasher’s inability to keep his distance from Eirik, despite Eirik’s insistence. Dasher wasn’t in love. He was clearly too busy being a pain in Eirik’s backside.
“I don’t care if he can turn me into an ice cube. I’m giving him a piece of my mind.”
Eirik held back a smile. Well, Dasher could certainly try.
Rudy hurried down the steps and joined his Rein Dear brethren. There were hugs all around. He laughed as he faced Dasher. “That was quite some flying. What in the name of Kringle creation were you doing?”
“I wasn’t doing anything! It was your blasted beau.”
Jack joined Rudy at his side, his frown deep. “Me? What on earth are you blabbering on about?”
“You were toying with my biplane,” Dasher accused, poking Jack in the chest.
Oh, but this was far more entertaining than Eirik had expected. No one ruffled Jack’s feathers like Dasher. Eirik remained just outside the grand archway as Dasher followed Jack up the main stone stairway, heading in his direction, so absorbed by his grievance with Jack that he hadn’t noticed Eirik. Dasher always noticed Eirik.
“I did no such thing,” Jack insisted.
“As if I’d believe you.”
“When have I ever held my tongue where you’re concerned?”
“Point taken, but if it wasn’t you, who was it?” Dasher reached the top step just as he said the words. He wasn’t paying attention to where he was going and came to a halt mere inches from Eirik. Heads in the clouds, these Christmas elves. It was a wonder they didn’t float away. Dasher’s mouth hung open, and Eirik tapped his fingers under the elf’s chin to aid him in closing it.
“You look like a fish,” Eirik muttered, ignoring the way Dasher’s full lips spread into a wide smile that reached his ocean-blue eyes. Not that Eirik paid attention to that sort of thing. They were simply hard to miss against such fair skin. As was the pink that came into his cheeks. Dasher seemed happy to see Eirik. What a strange little elf.
After that nasty ordeal with Cupid’s brother Gunne, where Cupid had come to Eirik for help in reuniting Jack and Rudy, Eirik had warned Dasher to stay away. Dasher’s words to him that day burrowed deep beneath Eirik’s skin, forcing him to feel emotions he’d long buried. They haunted him.
“Your heart still beats, Your Majesty. You’re simply afraid to let it beat for someone else.”
The audacity of the elf! To presume he knew Eirik, or his fears. That for a moment he understood what Eirik felt in his heart.
“Hi,” Dasher said softly.
Eirik arched an eyebrow. Dasher seemed to have lost all thought function until someone cleared their throat. Snapping himself out of whatever trance he appeared to have been in, Dasher quickly bowed.
“I see you still have quite a ways to go on those manners.” Eirik turned to head back inside. Much to his irritation, Dasher scurried up beside him.
“Maybe you can teach me?”
“Perhaps instead we could test your cold threshold.”
Dasher chuckled. “Admit it, you missed me.”
Eirik let out a snort of disgust. The elf was delusional. He came to a halt, his frown deep as he looked down his nose at Dasher. “Why are you following me?”
“Why are you allowing it?” Dasher’s smile was wicked.
The Christmas elf posed a good question. Why was he allowing it? “My purpose here is to support my son and help him celebrate his marriage. I will not permit anyone to cause him or his groom-to-be any grief. Consider yourself very fortunate.”
Dasher bowed gracefully. “You are most magnanimous, Your Majesty.”
Oh, for Kringle’s sake! The elf was absolutely hopeless.
“Dasher!” Cupid called out from several feet away. “Our rooms are this way!”
“Coming!” Dasher turned back to Eirik, his smile still in place. He bowed before Eirik once more. “Until we meet again, Your Majesty.” When he straightened, he placed his hand over his heart. “I will keep you in my thoughts.”
Eirik rolled his eyes, and Dasher darted off.
The toy soldiers accompanied the Rein Dears, helping them with their vast number of trunks and belongings while several palace staff escorted them to the royal wing where the bedchambers assigned to the Rein Dears were located. Their laughter and chatter reverberated through the halls.
Malachi stood beside Eirik, his gaze on Dasher. “Persistent, isn’t he?”
Was that amusement in his brother’s eyes?
“Exasperating is what he is,” Eirik grumbled as he observed the spectacle before him. “Good Goddess, it’s as if they’re moving in. How can creatures so small have so much luggage?”
Malachi chuckled. “Says the winter spirit with his own caravan.”
Eirik sniffed, unamused. “Are you comparing me to a Christmas elf?”
“Dasher seems quite taken with you.”
Eirik narrowed his eyes at his brother, who wouldn’t meet his gaze. “From what I hear, he’s taken often.”
Malachi arched an eyebrow at him. “Rather quick to judge, aren’t we?”
Eirik opened his mouth to reply but found he had no words. Was his brother defending Dasher? Eirik could only assume this new esteem for Christmas elves stemmed from his family’s sudden penchant for the annoying little creatures. First Jack, then Eirik’s nephew Vale. That one had certainly knocked Eirik for a loop. Vale was the most levelheaded Frost in the family. What was it about those blasted Christmas elves that had the Frost males tripping over their own boots? Before Eirik could utter a word, Malachi bowed, excused himself, and was off.
What the holly was going on around here? It was as if everyone had gone mad but him. Spinning on his heels, he marched down the corridor toward his library, where there would be no annoying family members or pesky elves with personal-boundary issues. Eirik grunted. These three weeks were going to be trying; he just knew it.