A Valentine’s Day Literary Ball

A group effort coordinated by Nancy, Jeanne, Jo, and AC
Judging by the babble of conversation coming from the foyer, many of the guests had arrived and were just waiting for the doors to open. Still, that one final check was vital to a perfect presentation. Sven cast a keen glance over the Lair ballroom. Candlelight glittered off the phoenix ice sculptures flanking the bandstand. The string quartet were in place, warming up.

As for the rest . . . Silver candelabra, nine candles each, one per buffet table, lit–check. Tea lights, one per small roundtop, lit–check. He sniffed appreciatively. Donna had authorized the purchase of beeswax candles, a rare extravagance. Flowers–one large arrangement, mixed, with red roses dominant, on each serving table, one nosegay per roundtop–check. No wonder the room smelled exquisite.

Cheese straws, butter mints, petit fours and cheese/fruit platters, one tray each per table–check. Wine stations, one in each corner, stocked and staffed–check. Bar, one at each end of the room, stocked and staffed–check.

The cabana boys cleaned up nicely, some in their usual attire of tanks and loose pants, others wearing, as he did, the bespoke tuxes provided for Lair staff. By the door stood Demetrius, resplendent in gold-on-silver breastplate, crimson tunic and cloak, and knee-high sandals. An ornate, gold-on-silver scabbard sheathed his shortsword. Marcus and Lucian, similarly dressed, lounged in opposite corners of the room. Security–check. This was, after all, an invitation-only event.

As Sven straightened the napkins on the nearest serving table, Marcus strolled down the table’s other side, eying the food. “Touch anything before the guests do,” Sven warned, “and I’ll cut your hand off.”

“You could try.” Marcus grinned and fingered his sword hilt.

“Sven! Sven!” Paolo scurried across the ballroom, his tie askew.

Marcus rolled his eyes at Sven, who grimaced inwardly. Paolo was a genius with ice sculpture, but his temperament could be a trial. “What now, Paolo?”

“Demetrius says–he says there’ll be primitives here tonight. Are we in danger?”

“Not with us gladiators around,” Marcus said. “Not to mention the dragon perched on the roof.”

“That beast.” Paolo sniffed. “Seriously, Sven–he’s going to let in people carrying swords.”

Fingering his hilt again, Marcus cleared his throat loudly. “That had better not be your definition of primitive.”

Paolo glared at him.
Sven ignored the byplay and adopted a patient tone. “Tonight’s event is for the banditas’ characters and others from American and British literature and for the banditas’ buddies. Many of the literary guests are always armed. Those who carry weapons habitually will, of course, bring those weapons. It’s perfectly safe.”

“What if they drink too much?” Fidgeting, Paolo glanced at the bar. “They might make trouble. If someone is killed, think what that would do to the Lair’s image!”

Zach, the head hockey hunk, shot his cuffs as he walked up. “My guys are on that. Relax, Shorty. Everything will be fine.”

“There’s no need to be insulting.” Paolo bristled. “Really, just because you and Marcus thrive on violence–”
“Paolo, check the wine glasses, please,” Sven said. “Be sure we have enough champagne flutes. And straighten that tie.”

Muttering under his breath. Paolo stalked away.

Zach cocked an eyebrow at Sven. “Don’t tell me you didn’t already check that stuff.”

“He needs something to do.” Sven glanced at the bandstand. The conductor saluted with his baton, and Sven nodded acknowledgment. The quartet began to play. “Time to go. Places, gentlemen. I’ll inform Demetrius and the guests we’re ready.”

Demetrius straightened from his comfortable slouch as Sven approached. Together, they opened the ballroom’s double doors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sven said, “on behalf of the Romance Bandits, welcome. Happy Valentines Day. Please come in and enjoy yourselves.”

The first couple handed Demetrius their invitation, gold-embossed on vellum. The stocky, brown-haired man had a mischievous glint in his eye. He wore a frock coat, and his petite, blonde companion wore blue satin with a bustle. They must be from one of the historical novels on the list.

“Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Sawyer,” Demetrius read.

“Tom and Becky,” the woman corrected, smiling.

Demetrius returned the smile and added a nod. “On behalf of the banditas and in honor of the late Mr. Twain, welcome.”
Assured matters were well in hand, Sven turned away. What–was that a flash of–oh, yes, blast it, tail feathers!–disappearing behind the band stand. That obnoxious Golden Rooster had crashed the party. He was bound to flirt with all the women–in the smarmiest possible way–and annoy all the men. He had to go.

Several couples were already on the dance floor. He spotted Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Rochester, and the Sawyers in the brightly clad assemblage. Amber O’Neill and Kevin Hennessey, from Aunty Cindy’s The Wild Irish Sea glided past.

Sven stalked toward the musicians, but Marcus passed him. “On it,” the gladiator said.

“Quietly,” Sven reminded as guests strolled into the room.

Marcus threw him an I’m-not-an-idiot look. He and Lucian flanked the bandstand. The two gladiators disappeared from view, probably peering behind the skirting. A moment later, they straightened, frowning.

Blast! The rooster had evaded them.

Turning to survey the room, Sven noticed an attractive couple entering. He needed a moment to place the tall man with dark auburn hair and a mischievous grin. Beside him walked a curvy brunette whose hair waved down her back. Her blue eyes sparkled. Where had he seen them? The man wore U. S. Army dress blues– Ah, yes, Max and Sophia from Tawny’s Breaking All the Rules. Sven mentally checked them off.

Behind them came a tall, dark-haired, handsome man and tall, gorgeous blonde woman–British security consultant Derek Stone and book restorer turned amateur detective Brooklyn Wainwright, from Kate’s The Lies That Bind. Sven would bet both of them were armed. Perhaps Paolo wouldn’t notice.

Where was that idiot bird?
Across the room, the dashing Golden Rooster adjusted his bow tie as he eyed the room full of lovely ladies. Sure, there were lots of handsome fellas here too, but none of them had his swagger or way with the ladies. He spotted a blond beauty sipping a drink at the edge of the dance floor and made his way toward her.

“Hello, there,” he said up at her. He would have waggled his eyebrows if roosters had them.

“Hello. Lovely party, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but not near as lovely as you.”

“Why, thank you. You’re looking handsome too. Nice tie.”

He stood straighter. This was going well. “A lovely lady like yourself must have an equally lovely name.”

“She does,” said a tall, dark-haired man who came to stand close to the beauty’s side. “Elly Jackson, my wife.”

From Trish’s book, Elly: Cowgirl Bride, the rooster realized. He grimaced inwardly, being unable to do so outwardly because he had a beak and not a mouth. But surely all the women wouldn’t have such vigilant companions.

“Oh, Will.” She swatted at the man’s arm, a playful scolding. “We’re just chatting.” She smiled up at him, and the Golden Rooster knew it was time to scan the room for another beautiful creature, preferably one unattached and ready to shake a little tail feather.

First, however, a diversion was in order. Something to draw away those pesky, hulking males on the staff.

Watching the door a few minutes later, Zach grinned despite the report in his earpice. The rooster might be making trouble, but the new arrivals were just what he needed for rooster takedown.

Jake ‘Bad Boy’ Badoletti and the rest of the New Jersey Ice Cats of Anna Sugden’s Bad Boy, Good Man entered the Lair. Their team jerseys draped enticingly over their broad shoulders and rugged physiques, while their formal pants clung to muscular thighs. They gaped at the dancing couples in historical costumes. Bandita VA hadn’t told them this shindig was freaking fancy dress.

Bad Boy tugged at his tie and ran a finger beneath his shirt collar. “How long did Coach say we have to stay?”

“At least one hour.” Team-mate, Tru Jelinek, squinted at a tall, curvy redhead in a toga and grinned. “One tug and that outfit is history. I can find a way to pass the time.”

“Yeah, and what are you going to be doing for the other 59 minutes and 50 seconds?”

Tru punched Jake in the shoulder. “You’re just sulking because the lovely Maggie refused to come with you.”

“I didn’t ask her.” Bad Boy ignored his friend’s shocked expression. “This is a team gig. No more dating until we win the Cup, remember.”He clenched his jaw and looked for a way to change the subject. “Check out those ‘I’m so dark and dangerous’ dudes lining up at the bar. Which agency do you reckon they work for?”

“Any one of those three-letter gangs – FBI, CIA, DEA. Bet they wouldn’t look so tough with a pair of skates strapped to their feet.”

The gathered players laughed.

Hockey Hunk Zach appeared at Jake’s shoulder. “Hey guys, thanks for showing. I need your help at the rink.”

Jake brightened. “This place has ice? Hot damn!”

“Yeah, but I got a problem. The pesky Golden Rooster has been teasing Ermingarde, the Lair’s dragon and lured her out to centre ice. I need you all to help me move her.”

Bad Boy and Tru exchanged puzzled looks, then shrugged. Whatever. It for sure beat the he … heck out of small talk and dancing to that crappy classical music.

The hockey contingent hustled toward the rink as Donna crossed toward the door.
“Lady Arianne Chambers,” Donna called to a familiar face. “Is your brother the duke going to join us in the lair?”

“William?” Arianne tugged at the green satin of her sleeves. “I don’t think so, but he would enjoy it. Ever since he married his American heiress, he is quite the, how do you say it? Party animal.”

“Give him our best,” Donna said. Heading back to the dance floor, she exchanged greetings with Joan’s and Suz’s guests from The Patrician’s Fortune and The Surrender of Lacy Morgan.

“Oh, my,” Julia said on a breath, “Have we stumbled into Cupid’s Temple?”

Damon pulled her against him and smiled as she nestled in when he kept his arm wrapped around her waist. All humor disappeared as he took in the scene. They were in a cave of sorts filled with all manner of strange people. Half clad men, slaves he would assume, though having been one himself he did not sense the underlying despair of such, dashed among sedans filled with lounging women. “More like Bacchus to my way of thinking.”
“I don’t know about Bacchus, but this saloon has one hell of a bar,” said the man dressed in long lean, leather clad pants with some sort of weapon strapped to one thigh and a large knife attached to his other calf leaned back against the mahogany topped bar, a hat slung low over his eyes, curly blond hair hanging down to his shirt collar and a wicked smile on his face. “And the women aren’t too bad to look at either.”

“Just as long as you’re just looking, Quinn. Although I do enjoy the scenery myself,” the russet-haired beauty by the cowboy’s side said as she watched one of the scantily clad cabana boys stroll by with a tray of drinks.

The man named Quinn growled and pulled the woman up against his side. “Just remember, kitten, that I only share you with one person.”

The woman gave a low, sensual laugh. Leaning past her man, she smiled at the other couple. “This is Marshal Quinn Halliday and I’m Lacy Morgan. You must be almost as new as we are to the Bandit Lair.”

“Lair?” Damon didn’t like the sound of that. As spy for a Roman Senator, he’d been in his fair share of lairs and none of them had boded well. He eyed the strangely dressed couple. He looked dangerous, she looked ready.

“Love,” crooned Julia, leaning against his chest and looking up at him. A look. That’s all it ever took and he was hard as a post.”“I think this is a celebration of some manner.”

She leaned forward, stopping one of the servants and snatched two glass cups filled with a frothy orange liquid. Julia took a sip then gestured to a man who’d stepped out from behind the woman named Lacy. “My, who is your barbarian friend?”

Lacy laid a hand on the other man’s chest, giving him the same sensual smile she’d given Quinn, who didn’t seem to mind the intimate way she touched the newcomer. “This is Marshal Dakota O’Keefe, Quinn’s brother.”

Dressed and armored almost exactly as Quinn, the dark haired man looked nothing like his brother. His long dark hair hung to his shoulders and his features spoke of not only a different father, but an entirely different heritage. He looked deeply into Lacy’s face, then fixed his soul searching gaze on Julia. “Very pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

At that moment a determined looking woman in a corsett and bucket boots stomped by, followed quickly by a servant who appeared to be carrying a large tray of steaks. “Paolo, do keep up. With all these people at the ball, we have to keep Ermingarde the dragon fed, or she’ll be having roasted guests for her dinner. And you know the Goddess Sangria hates it when she does that!”

Meanwhile, two men, one with a deadly glint in his eye, slipped into the main ballroom of the lair. Marcus recognized them from Donna’s upcoming release, Redeeming the Rogue. One nodded at Donna as he said, “Good Lord, Phineas. You should have told me it was going to be a Valentine’s ball. I’m not dressed for some hoity-toity ball.”

“From the interested glances of those ladies, Rafferty, I don’t think they care much how you’re dressed. In fact, some might prefer you wore nothing at all.” Phineas laughed and waved at the ladies across the dance floor before tugging at his sleeve to produce a bouquet of paper flowers.

Rafferty shook his head, the motion pushing his long dark hair from his eyes. “I’m here on business, not to play witness to your sleight-of-hand. Barnell’s mistress is wearing a green gown.” He scanned the crowd. “This must be a fancy dress party. There’s Romans, and some strange men with sticks, and – is that a dragon? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, someone is hanging from that chandelier! Do you see anyone in a green gown, Phineas?…Phineas?”

Rafferty glanced to his side but Phineas had already disappeared to entertain some adoring fans with his magic tricks.

Scowling, Zach and the Ice Cats stalked back into the Lair. “That bird must have radar,” Zach muttered. “At least Ermingarde has calmed down and is off the ice. Thanks, guys.”
“Anytime.” The Ice Cats cruised toward the refreshment tables.

Zach started to follow, but those newest arrivals by the door looked very young to be on the guest list. As he started toward them, he saw Marcus already en route. Zach left the problem to the gladiator.

Sydney Banks and Jinx Scribner, Jo’s characters in her young adult manuscript Blood Warriors, had decided to crash the Banditas’ Valentine Ball. They had slipped past armed guy at the door when a guest’s question distracted him.

“Oh my holy heck,” Jinx said, gazing around at the gaudy decorations inundating the spacious Lair.

“Shhh, they might kick us out.” Sydney punched Jinx hard with her elbow and nodded toward the open bar. “You know we’re underage.”

Jinx grinned impishly. “No matter, I’m a teetotaler.”

“Uh oh, we’re in trouble.” Sydney nodded toward a huge dude striding toward them with a hard glare and sure purpose.

The young gate-crashers darted behind an ice sculpture, barely missing the couple standing in front of it. Tall and dark-haired, the man clapped a hand to the broadsword at his side.

“They’re gone, Geoff.” Her blue eyes thoughtful, Lady Maud Sommerville touched her husband’s arm. “I suspect they’re fleeing that man in the tunic and breastplate. He seemed to be hurrying toward them.”

Her husband cocked an eyebrow at her but released the sword hilt. “Better to take precautions than not, sweeting. Especially after that maniacal bird nearly tripped you. No one knocks you down.”

There had been a time when someone did, someone he still he wished he’d had the privilege of killing. Their eyes met in shared memory, and he squeezed her hand. “Never again,” he said softly.

“Excuse me.” The man in the tunic and breastplate stopped beside them. “You’re Sir Geoffrey and Lady Maude Sommervillle, from Nancy’s novel The Shadow Knight, are you not? Have you seen two very young people?”

“They ran past us, heading toward the rear of the chamber,” Maud said.

The man bowed and left them.

Two couples strolled up as the gladiator left. “That was Marcus, wasn’t it?” Ana Burton-Bromley asked Lady Maud. “Jeanne told me about him.” She wiggled her eyes in an appreciative manner, her eyes following the handsome gladiator.

“I do believe so,” Lady Maud agreed in her soft voice, a twinkle in her eye.

“Ana, perhaps you’d be so kind?” Matthew, Marquess of Sheene moved to Ana’s side, his Lady, Grace, on his arm so that he could greet his fellow nobleman. Though several centuries apart in time, courtly manners dictated that they be properly introduced.

“Oh, sorry,” Ana said. “Maud, Geoff, this is Matthew and Grace, and you know my husband Gates.” She gestured lightly to each of the people in question. Gates rolled his eyes at her casual manners.

“Ana, I think they wanted the full introductions.” Gates winked at Geoff, and Ana caught the sly grins. It was an “I know that you know that I know” kind of moment between the two men. Since they were both in security, they both probably had dossiers on everyone in the Lair.

“Oh, sorry. I’m not sure who has precedence, but I think it’s you, Geoff. So, I’ll start over. Sir Geoffrey Sommerville, Lady Maud, may I present my friends Matthew, Marquess of Sheen and his Lady, Grace, from Anna Campbell’s Untouched. And you know me, and my husband, Gates Bromley, of course from Jeanne’s Deadly Little Secrets.”

Geoff laughed as did Grace. “You’ve made a hash of it, Ana,” Matthew mock-growled the words in his deep voice, then laughed his wonderful rich laugh. “But no matter about titles and precedence, we’re among friends and in the Lair, so titles hardly matter now do they?”

“No, I guess not,” Ana grinned, unrepentant. “Did you see that dragon as you came in?”

“I did indeed see the dragon,” Geoff admitted. “They were rare, even in my time. Wherever did they find her?”

Ana looked speculative, and Grace smiled to see it. “Now Ana, I don’t think one will fit in your home. This place is rather a big larger than any of our estates, you know.”

“And we don’t have time to housebreak a dragon,” Gates said, smiling as well. “I think we have some work to do in Jeanne’s next book.”

In another part of the Lair, Zach overtook Marcus near the back door. “Never mind those kids. We can catch them later. First, let’s get rid of that bird. I just saw him trying to peer up a guest’s skirt. Lucky for him, her heavily armed date didn’t notice. I know how we can cut him out of the crowd.” Zach explained, and Marcus nodded.

“I have the perfect tool,” the gladiator said. “Give me five to bring it from our villa.”

Zach nodded. He tipped Sven off to the plan, and the two of them circulated among the guests. Gradually, some of the female guests–only the ones in floor length gowns–drifted toward the bar at one end of the room. Zack grinned to himself. If this didn’t draw that arrogant rooster, nothing would.

After a few minutes, he noticed the women looking down, smiling, glancing at each other. Lovely, red-headed Julia nodded to him. A faint sound of clucking carried over the music. The rooster had taken the bait.

Marcus had also arrived. The gladiator stood at the end of the bar holding a net, or retiarius, down by his side.

The women’s dates edged toward the bar. Their hands slipped into their dinner jackets or down to their sides, only to reappear holding a variety of firearms. They leveled their weapons on the crowd at the bar as Marcus edged closer.

“Now,” the gladiator called.

The women wheeled away, leaving the rooster exposed to their armed companions. Half the women pivoted with weapons drawn, as well.

With no way out–too bad for him chickens couldn’t fly–the rooster froze. Marcus flung the heavy net, and it settled over the bird. As the guests cheered, he bundled the annoying feathered party crasher up in the hemp and carted him out.

Mission accomplished. With peace restored, the party roared on through the night.

We have a special AHA bookmark to give away today. Tell us, do you have plans for Valentine’s Day–either celebration or avoidance? If you could bring any person, real or fictional, alive or dead, to the party as your date, who would it be, and why? What’s your favorite formal or dressy outfit, and when did you last wear it?

(The comment link is below today’s AHA updates.)

The healthy heart tip for February 8 is: Visit http://www.shopheart.org/ for gift ideas that benefit the American Heart Association.

And just in case you missed it….

Sign Up for the Go Red BetterU Program and Receive Two Free Romance Novel E-Books

From Feb. 1 through May 31, 2011, receive one free romance novel e-book when you sign up for the American Heart Association’s BetterU Program and one after you complete week six of the program. And look for the Eat Smart for Your Heart limited-edition magazine (that features this offer) on newsstands and in a grocery store near you.

To sign up for the BetterU program, visit http://www.goredforwomen.org/betteru/index.aspx.
(Go Red For Women is trademarked by the American Heart Association, Inc. Romance novel downloads provided by Belle Books.)

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