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THE SILVER Bells Christmas Ball was truly a sight to behold. Its splendor never ceased to enchant Cupid. This year it was even more magnificent due to it being held at the King of Frost’s palace in Winter Wonderland, rather than Santa’s Grotto in the heart of North Pole City. Cupid had been to the king’s palace on previous occasions with his fellow Rein Dear, but never for anything as illustrious as this. Festivities were held in the smaller ballrooms, with only the most prestigious of events appointed to the grand ballroom.
The room seemed infinite, a never-ending stretch of gilded ivory columns, grandiose arches, and gleaming marble floors. The rows of diamond chandeliers hanging from the ceiling sparkled like a sea of stars. It was as regal and elegant as the king himself. At one end of the room, the orchestra’s musicians were dressed in white from head to toe as they played sweeping waltzes and holiday carols on their white instruments. On the opposite end of the room, tucked in an alcove atop several steps, sat the king’s white-and-silver throne. It was magnificent and befitting its king, with armrests carved into fierce polar bears. The back fanned out in twisting and swirling branches, and the seat was of tufted blue velvet. It was intricately carved and decorated from clawed feet to the tip of each branch.
Cupid was mesmerized from the moment he stepped foot inside the ballroom. There was certainly something different about this year’s Silver Bells Christmas Ball besides the change in venue. Something in the air made it feel… especially important. There were far more guests than usual, many whom Cupid didn’t recognize.
“Here you go.” Blitz handed Cupid a glass of bubbly pink strawberry champagne, Cupid’s favorite. Blitz was always so thoughtful. Cupid didn’t know what he would do without him. They were as different as night and day, yet their differences seemed to complement each other. Cupid couldn’t think of anyone whose company he preferred more than Blitzen’s.
“Thank you,” Cupid replied sweetly. “You look wonderfully dashing, as usual.” Blitz always looked handsome, but in the auburn frock coat with gold braiding and matching vest, he looked even more fetching. His broad shoulders, tapered waist, and muscular legs had more than one sugarplum faery taking notice. Elves too, for that matter. “I see you’ve yet to set fire to your cravat.”
Blitz tugged at the offending article of clothing. “I feel like this blasted thing is trying to strangle me.”
“I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s only for one night.” Cupid chuckled at Blitz’s pout. Blitz didn’t enjoy dressing up as much as Cupid did. Actually Blitz hated it. He was far more content in his everyday Rein Dear garb of wine-red shirt and black vest. Whatever Blitz wore, he always looked large and imposing. Especially when he stood next to Cupid, which was more often than not. Blitz was taller and larger than the rest of the Rein Dears. Wherever they went, he stood out. Some elves were intimidated by Blitz and his somber expression, but few knew the burly elf the way Cupid did. He was really just a big softie, and he gave the most wonderful hugs.
The two of them stood to one side of the ballroom, sipping their drinks and watching the crowd as they danced or chatted. To think another year was almost gone. In a few days it would be time for the Big Flight. Cupid could barely contain his excitement. It was his favorite time of year.
All at once the guests around them broke off into applause. Cupid’s drink frosted over and he smiled brightly. Rudy and Jack had arrived.
“Fashionably late as usual, I see,” Blitz muttered. He turned his glass upside down and cursed under his breath. His champagne was frozen solid. “For the love of holly. Jack and his blasted games. I thought he’d outgrown them by now.” He placed his frozen drink on a nearby silver service cart.
“I thought so too. I’m glad to see he hasn’t. It’s obviously Rudy’s influence.” It saddened Cupid to know Jack had lost himself for so long. He’d always been a playful and mischievous winter spirit. After the queen’s death, Winter Wonderland lost its heart to the ice, much like its prince. Thanks to Rudy and his love for Jack, the Prince of Frost was becoming the winter spirit he’d once been. “I’ve never seen him so happy.”
“You’re right,” Blitz conceded. “He doesn’t seem as grumpy. Sometimes. On leap year.”
Cupid laughed and teasingly nudged Blitz with his elbow. “Admit it, you think they’re adorable together.”
Blitz huffed and folded his arms over his chest. “I’ll admit to no such thing. Adorable is not a word I would ever associate with Jack Frost. I can think of a few choice words, but I assure you none are remotely close to adorable.”
Despite Blitz’s cranky demeanor, Cupid could see the humor in his gray eyes. The orchestra broke off into a cheerful melody Cupid instantly recognized. Oh! It was his favorite dance. He swiftly handed his glass to a passing waiter and grabbed Blitz’s wrist. “Dance with me.”
Blitz looked uncertain. “But this dance is for sweethearts.”
“Well, we’re best friends. That’s kind of like a couple.”
“I, uh….” Blitz’s uncertainty melted into a warm smile. “Okay.”
They headed to the circle of sweethearts forming in the center of the dance floor, among them Jack and Rudy, and Lieutenant Vale and Vixen, who’d emerged from out of the snowy blue. Those two were like a couple of snow bunnies, always scurrying off to do who knew what together. Cupid hadn’t seen them since they arrived together over an hour ago. Vixen seemed to draw out the more mischievous side of the bashful lieutenant, while the lieutenant had the oddest calming effect on Vixen.
Blitz was right, this dance was for sweethearts, but it was so much fun. Besides, there was no one he wanted to dance it with other than Blitz. It was an odd sentiment to have toward his friend, but he enjoyed dancing with Blitz too much to care or give it any more thought. And seeing as how Blitz was currently without a beau, there was no reason for them not to dance together.
Everyone held hands and they danced in a loop. They stopped so Vixen could break from the group and take Cupid’s hand. The two of them danced in a circle before parting. Vixen took Vale’s hand while Cupid took Blitz’s. They whirled, then switched partners again.
Jack was in especially good spirits, twirling Rudy at the end of his turn and making Rudy laugh before they switched partners. The circle continued, this time with small lifts instead of taking hands. Cupid couldn’t help his giggle when Blitz took hold of his waist and lifted him off his feet. The lifts were really meant to be hops, but Blitz could lift Cupid without the least bit of effort. The pairs broke off into a scandalous version of a waltz where they were all but pressed up against each other. As always, Cupid was forced to look up to meet Blitz’s eyes.
“I can see why you enjoy this. It’s fun and very sweet.” Blitz’s hand pressed ever so subtly against Cupid’s lower back when they turned, and the strangest tingle went up Cupid’s spine. That was… unusual.
“Are you all right?” Blitz asked so only Cupid could hear.
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” Cupid smiled. Was his face red? It felt a little hot.
“Your cheeks are flushed. More than usual. Are you tired? Would you like to stop?”
“I’m fine,” Cupid reassured him. He hated that he made Blitz worry. Maybe it was the champagne. He wasn’t very good at all the bubbly stuff. Two glasses was usually his limit. Though now that he thought about it, he’d only had one, and not even a full glass at that.
“All right. But you’ll tell me if you’re feeling unwell?”
“I promise.” Cupid gave Blitz’s arm a gentle squeeze in assurance.
They finished the waltz when Cupid noticed everyone moving on to the next part. Plum pudding! “I forgot about this part.” The very last dance included giving your sweetheart a kiss. That was all very well and good for the other elves in the circle, but…. Cupid turned to Blitz, who shrugged.
“It’s just a small kiss.” Blitz gave him a wink. “I’m sure I’ll survive.”
Cupid nodded. He wasn’t quite certain he would survive. This evening was taking a somewhat unexpected turn. The two of them were very close. They’d snuggled together on the love seat at the White Hart or at the Rein Dear Estates in the lobby. Usually with cups of hot cocoa, and sometimes in front of the fire. It was Cupid’s favorite spot. At times they’d even fallen asleep together. But kiss?
Everyone leaned forward and puckered up. Cupid did the same. Sort of. He stood on his toes and Blitz bent at the waist to meet him. The kiss was a small, quick press of the lips. A spark unlike Cupid had ever felt spread through him when Blitz’s lips touched his own. It took Cupid by surprise and he jerked back, his fingers going to his lips. Blitz’s eyes were wide, and it was clear he was as startled as Cupid. The circle broke off into applause, drawing their attention and snapping them out of whatever trance they had been in.
“There you are, cutie. I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Dasher ruffled Cupid’s hair, and Cupid swatted his hand.
“Stop it.” Cupid smoothed down his hair and glared at Dasher.
“Can’t help it. You’re so adorable.”
“I’m three hundred and sixty-five years old. Nearly as old as you.”
“Don’t remind me. Are you sure you and Blitz didn’t swap birthdays? Because you look more like two ninety-eight than he does.”
“Hey, watch it, old timer.” Blitz narrowed his eyes at Dasher. Uh-oh. Here we go.
“Old? I’m slightly older than Jack. Slightly. I’d like to see you call him old to his face,” Dasher muttered.
“What do you suppose is going on?” Cupid’s question was aimed at no one in particular, but if he didn’t intervene, these two would get into an argument over something silly like they always did. The last thing he needed was to break up another of their roughhousing sessions. Not an easy task considering both elves were so much bigger than him.
“Why would you think something was going on?” Blitz asked.
“There are more dignitaries in attendance than usual. There are even a few monarchs from other kingdoms. Also, when has the king ever attended the Silver Bells Christmas Ball?” Did the king never get lonely in this huge palace all by himself? His only company appeared to be the help, his brother who often visited him, or Jack. It was common knowledge the king rarely left his home. It had been that way since the queen’s death. So very sad.
Dasher shrugged. “It’s rather hard for him not to attend when it’s in his own palace.” He took a peppermint julep from a waiter’s tray with a wink. Ever the flirt.
“You know what I mean,” Cupid said. “Jack’s often mentioned how his father is somewhat of a recluse. He hates parties. Why would he host the Silver Bells Christmas Ball at his home? And why so many distinguished monarchs?”
“It’s a shame he doesn’t leave this place more often. He’s quite something to look at, isn’t he?”
Cupid gaped at Dasher. “Are you mad? It’s the King of Frost.”
“What?” Dasher looked genuinely perplexed. “It’s a simple observation.”
Simple observation? Did the elf have any idea of who he was discussing, as if he were some heartthrob elf from the magazines?
“We all know your ‘observations’ too well by now,” Blitzen scoffed.
“How can you not see?” Dasher motioned across the floor to the throne where the king had taken a seat, his royal white-and-ice-blue robe flowing around him. He certainly was a sight to behold, and Cupid supposed the king was rather handsome. But Cupid would never dare to look at the King of Frost in such a fashion. Dasher must have slipped on some oil in his hangar while tuning up his biplane and hit his head. “He’s… incredible,” Dasher added.
Cupid and Blitz exchanged glances. Oh my. This didn’t bode well. Blitz was the first to speak up.
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“I’m not kidding. I mean, I have no idea how old he is. No one does, but he barely looks any older than Jack, yet more distinguished and regal. He’s not as immature.”
“Well, he is ancient.”
“Blitz!” Cupid gasped. “For holly’s sake, have you forgotten where we stand? What if someone overhears you two?”
Blitz gave him an apologetic smile. Dasher, on the other hand, continued as if Cupid hadn’t said a word.
“And powerful,” Blitz added. “And unobtainable for a vast number of reasons. Setting your sights on the King of Frost is like wishing for the stars. Everyone knows he’s not loved anyone since his queen, who was a faery, by the way. You’re an elf.”
Dasher looked down at himself and frowned. “Is that what I am? I hadn’t noticed.” He raised his head, his expression unimpressed. “Thank you, Blitzen. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
“Suit yourself, but don’t come complaining to me when he turns you into an icicle or banishes you to the Mountain Fortress. While you’re at it, why not court his brother?”
Cupid sighed. Now would probably be a good time for that second glass of strawberry champagne. If these two continued the path they were on, he might even need a third glass.
“Don’t be absurd. Malachi Frost is handsome, I suppose, but he’s not my type. He’s also not into elves.”
“Neither is the king,” Blitz reminded Dasher. Again.
“You don’t know that.”
“And you’re going to be the one to find out?” Blitz shook his head in disbelief. Seeing he wasn’t about to dissuade Dasher from whatever madness had struck him, he gave in. “Just wait until after the Big Flight. It’ll be difficult to find a replacement so close to the day.”
Dasher arched an eyebrow at Blitz. “Your faith in me is underwhelming.”
“Perhaps if you weren’t discussing getting under the robes of one of the most powerful seasonal spirits in existence, I might have more confidence in your ability to charm. You’re going to end up an ice cube.”
“And why is that?” A deep, throaty voice brought them all to still.
“Your majesty.” Cupid bowed along with Blitzen. He almost choked when he noticed Dasher just standing there. “Dasher!” Cupid whispered hoarsely. Had the elf gone mad?
Dasher tilted his head to one side, seeming to study the king, who was staring at Dasher as if he were some strange, otherworldly creature. Several awkward seconds ticked by before Dasher bowed gracefully. “Your majesty.”
“So you do have manners,” the king said, arching an eyebrow at Dasher.
Cupid straightened and remained silently beside Blitz. It was quite possible they’d be down one Rein Dear for the Big Flight. With Dasher there was no telling what might come out of his mouth.
“My apologies, your majesty. I was momentarily distracted by your beauty.”
Cupid suppressed a groan, and beside him, Blitz coughed. The king’s eyes widened in shock before his expression darkened. “You’re far too bold, elfling.”
Dasher’s lips lifted on one side, as he met the king’s pitch-black eyes. “With all due respect, your majesty, I may be young in your eyes, but what I lack in years, I make up for in experience.”
Holy holly, it was worse than Cupid could have imagined. Was Dasher actually discussing his sexual prowess with the bloody King of Frost? Should Cupid say something? Intervene? What if the king had them all arrested? Judging by the indignant look on the king’s face, they’d be getting off lucky with imprisonment. Where was Rudy when you needed him? He would know what to do. Most likely give Dasher a good kick in the backside.
“I should have you thrown out into the snow for your insubordination,” the king growled. A chill swept around them, and Blitz gingerly wrapped his arm around Cupid, holding him close against him. A few guests had taken notice, and Cupid prayed Dasher wasn’t about to start an incident. Mayor Kringle only held so much sway with the King of Frost. They were in Winter Wonderland, not North Pole City. Here the Frost monarchy ruled unconditionally.
“Then throw me out.” Dasher took a step toward the king, who remained where he stood. The king lifted his chin and straightened to his full height. He was at least a foot taller than Dasher and far more imposing. His eyes frosted over, and to Cupid’s astonishment, Dasher remained unmoved.
“You insolent, impetuous elfling. You dare defy me as if I were some common elf? I could crush you without lifting a finger.”
“I hear a lot of what you could do, and yet….”
Cupid held on to Blitz. This was it. They were all doomed. How could Dasher put the whole of Christmas in jeopardy simply to flirt? Was his head full of pinecones?
The king’s eyes returned to their usual darkness. “Tonight is a special occasion. Consider yourself fortunate I am feeling merciful.” He closed the distance between him and Dasher, and Cupid watched with slacked jaw as the king took hold of Dasher’s chin. His voice was grave when he spoke. “Cross me again, elfling, and you shall know the true power of winter. I am no one’s conquest, least of all some puny little Christmas elf.” With that the king spun on his heels and stormed off, his long robe swirling in haste to catch up to his brisk pace.
The silence stretched until it was broken by Dasher’s somewhat shaky laugh. “I think he likes me.”
“Have you lost your berries?” Blitz hissed. “What the holly was that?” He put his fingers out as if he were about to strangle Dasher, but somehow restrained himself.
“Didn’t you see? He likes me.”
“Likes you? He was seconds away from causing a blizzard in here!” Cupid turned to Blitz. He was genuinely concerned for their friend. “Perhaps all the excitement has gone to his head.”
Blitz scoffed. “Maybe he’s just a loon.”
“The both of you can go roll down a snowy hill.” Dasher stomped off, and Cupid watched him go.
“Plum pudding. What’s gotten into him? Since when has he been so interested in the king?” He turned to Blitz, who was attempting to look indifferent, but Cupid could see in his eyes how worried he was for Dasher. Their friend had been lucky this time, but what about the next? Perhaps Cupid should have a word with Rudy. Dasher was behaving odd, even for him.
“I think he’s just in need of a good romp in the snow.”
“Blitz!” Why must his friends be so scandalous? Vixen was always telling him he was a prude. Was he? He was rather certain he wasn’t. He was just a little more reserved with that sort of thing than the other Rein Dears. Honestly it was always romp in the snow this, sugarplum faery that. His brethren needed to find themselves a good hobby that didn’t include jingling someone’s bells.
“What? It’s obviously been a while.”
“I really don’t want to discuss Dasher’s love life,” Cupid muttered. He needed to find the nearest waiter and have some more champagne. He couldn’t even recall the last time he had a good frolic. Maybe that’s what was making him so grumpy. Hmm.
“Or in Dasher’s case, lack thereof.”
“Oh? And when did you last have a good romp in the snow?” Did he really want to know? Why the holly had he asked such an inane question?
Blitz took a step back. “Uh, well, I, um. Hey, look. Cake!”
“Where?” The moment Cupid turned his head, he realized his mistake. Why, that sneak! Cupid darted after Blitz, who dashed off with a laugh. For all of Blitz’s speed and strength, Cupid had the advantage. Whereas Blitz could easily be seen among the crowd because of his height, Cupid was able to get lost among the taller elves. Blitz would have trouble spotting him, and that’s when Cupid would launch his silent attack.
Darting behind a pillar, Cupid peeked out and spotted Blitz attempting to conceal himself behind a large flower arrangement. He might as well have been trying to hide behind a twig. Cupid crept out from behind his hiding place and dashed behind a guest’s expansive silk ball gown. Goodness, it was like a small hut. It could easily house several elflings. Turning his attention back to Blitz, he frowned. Plum pudding! Where had he gone?
Cupid cautiously left his hiding spot and headed for the flower arrangement where Blitz was moments ago. Just as he ducked behind it—as if Blitz had somehow shrunk himself in order to fully conceal himself—someone wrapped a strong arm around his waist, and Blitz’s hot breath tickled his skin as he whispered in Cupid’s ear.
The butterflies returned to Cupid’s stomach and he remained very still. A tiny voice in his head told him he didn’t want to be let go, but good sense prevailed. Cupid pulled away with a smile. He pretended not to notice Blitz’s puzzled expression. Cupid had never pulled away from him before. He had no idea why he was doing it now, but he had to.
Blitz opened his mouth to say whatever was on his mind, when the room broke out into applause. The king stood before his throne, ready to address his guests. Whatever it was, it had the king smiling, which was an occasion in itself.
“Thank you all for joining us on this most festive occasion. I’m sure you’re wondering why the change in venue this year. You’ll find out very soon. But first I’d like to thank you, the illustrious citizens of our great kingdom. The Frost monarchy owes so much to you. When the time comes, my son will become king. At one time the thought filled me with uncertainty. The war took so much from us all, especially my son.” The king turned to the end of the stage and held a hand out. “But in the last few years, I’ve seen how wrong I was to doubt him.”
Jack joined the king at his side and embraced him. It was good to see the two close once again. For so long there had been a rift between them. Rudy would often confess his worries to Cupid, his fear the king would never approve of his love for Jack. At first the king was furious, but over the last few years, he’d come to see what Rudy meant to Jack, and how he’d underestimated the fiery Christmas elf.
Jack turned to the quiet room. “As my father said, thank you all for coming. Our great kingdom would be lost without you. The last few centuries have been difficult. Losing my mother—your queen—was a fierce blow, one I didn’t believe I would ever recover from. Although my heart still mourns the loss, it remains beating with warmth, all thanks to one very special elf.” Jack smiled down at Rudy. “Will you join me up here, sweetheart?”
Rudy smiled and took Jack’s hand, allowing him to help him up to the stage beside him. The ballroom was in complete silence as Jack spoke to Rudy for all to hear. “For years you’ve been a beacon in the snowstorm. The warm, bright red light guiding me home. I lost my heart to the ice all those years ago, and thanks to you, it was thawed. I never knew how much I needed that heart until the day I gave it to you.”
Jack lowered himself onto one knee, and the room collectively gasped. He drew a small gilded box from his ceremonial military uniform and opened it before Rudy.
“Rudy, will you do me the great honor of being my husband, and one day ruling at my side as prince of the Frost kingdom?”
Tears welled in Rudy’s eyes, and he nodded fervently. “Yes!”
The ballroom erupted into cheers and applause as Jack slipped a ring onto Rudy’s finger. Without hesitation, Rudy threw himself at Jack, and the two nearly toppled over, causing the guests to laugh. Cupid gave a sniff and did his best not to shed a tear, but what the holly, it was just the sort of occasion for it. He was so happy for Rudy. Perhaps the rumors circulating last Christmas regarding Jack proposing hadn’t been rumors after all. Jack stood and drew Rudy into his arms before kissing him. A roar of cheers and catcalls swept through the room. The excitement was palpable. There hadn’t been a royal wedding in centuries, much less one directly connected to the Frost monarchy.
Rudy and Jack thanked everyone and left the stage. The room was buzzing with talk of the wedding. When would it be, where would it be held, what would the couple wear…. It went on and on. Cupid and Blitz joined the rest of their Rein Dear brethren as they circled Rudy to offer their congratulations.
Cupid gave his dear friend a big hug. “Congratulations, Rudy! I’m so happy for you!”
“Thank you. I was wondering why the Silver Bells Christmas Ball was being held here. Jack said his father wished to be present when he asked for my hand in marriage.” Rudy wiped a tear from his eye. “I still can’t believe it.”
“Really? Jack adores you. I’m not surprised at all. And who better to rule at his side?” His friend and captain was always too modest. Rudy deserved all the wonderful gifts he received in life. He was the most selfless elf Cupid knew.
A crowd gathered around them, all eager to talk to the happy groom-to-be. Everyone wanted to know what type of wedding Rudy wanted. While poor Rudy was ambushed on all sides with questions on everything from wardrobe to menus, Jack’s cousin Vale turned to Blitz with a smile. “Will you be bringing your family?”
Blitz beamed proudly. “Of course. My parents would love it.”
“Also, Ruse would be very displeased with you if you didn’t bring her,” Cupid teased.
Blitz let out a snort. “Displeased? My sister would have my baubles if I allowed her to miss a royal wedding. I think Sage might enjoy himself. Plenty of sugarplum faeries for him to court.” He shook his head in amusement. “That elfling. I swear, one of these days a sugarplum faery is going to sweep him off his feet, and then we’ll see who’s feeling brash.”
Vale chuckled and turned his attention to Cupid. “What about you, Cupid? Will you be bringing your family to the wedding?”
“Oh, um, my mother passed quite some time ago. She was my only family.” A lump formed in Cupid’s throat, but he did his best to keep smiling. Vale’s expression became sympathetic.
“I’m so terribly sorry.”
“It’s all right. Will you excuse me?” Cupid bowed graciously before turning and walking off at a brisk pace. He needed some air, and all of a sudden, it felt rather stuffy in here.
“Are you all right?” Blitz’s hand landed gently on Cupid’s shoulder to stop him.
“Yes. Just being silly.” Breathe. Everything’s all right.
“Everyone’s families will be in attendance. Even Vixen will have Vale at his side.” Cupid swallowed hard. It still hurt terribly even all these years later. “I’ll be alone.”
“That’s not true.” Blitz cupped Cupid’s cheek. “You’ll have me. I’ll be at your side.”
Cupid couldn’t help the way his heart swelled. “You’re too sweet.”
“Humbug. I’m not being sweet. When have I ever not been at your side?”
It was true. Ever since their days at Claus College and then the Rein Dear Academy, Blitz had been at Cupid’s side. They’d been like two peas in a pod. Still were.
Blitz drew Cupid into a warm embrace. “Besides, Ruse loves you. So does the rest of my family. My parents have all but adopted you.”
Cupid smiled at the thought of Blitz’s sweet mother. She was always fussing over Cupid, even more than she did over Blitz. Whenever they visited Blitz’s family, she’d feed him far more than he could ever hope to eat, insisting he be well rested, and the slightest sniffle was cause for a healthy broth. Cupid stood on his toes and kissed Blitz’s cheek. Blitz’s dopey smile made him chuckle.
“What was that for?” Blitz asked softly.
“For being you. Thank you.” The music kicked off in a sweeping waltz. Blitz bowed and held his hand out.
“May I have this dance?”
Cupid smiled brightly and nodded. “I would love to.” He was so very lucky to have a dear friend like Blitz. He hoped things never changed.