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       Reign, p.12

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  Brody ran his hands through his hair. Clearly, he was torn. Of course he didn’t want to cause a scene and embarrass his parents.

  Daphne smiled like the cat who ate the mouse. “I’m surprised you didn’t know. I’m almost certain I heard your mother mention it to you.”

  He looked defeated and turned to Mina. “I’ll fix this…I’ll—” The ballroom doors opened and everyone began to press forward into the room. Mina was caught in the hustle and bustle of activity and became separated from Brody. She found herself off in a corner near one of the verandas and desperately scanned the crowd for him.

  But with every male wearing a tux and a similar mask, it was impossible to pick him out.

  Mr. Carmichael stepped up on a small stage near the seated orchestra and pleasantly welcomed the guests. He held out his hand and Melody joined him on the dais. Brody walked up the steps next to her. Mr. Carmichael continued, “We’re so thankful for your support of our theme this year. I have to give a warm round of applause to the wonderful gem who put this together—my lovely wife Melody.”

  Melody smiled, tossing her head to the side, and waved to the room. Applause followed, dying down when her husband started to talk again. “I also have to say that I’m extremely proud of our son, Brody, who has become quite the eligible young man.”

  The room filled with feminine cat calls and Brody shoved his hands into his tux jacket, staring at his feet. His face reddened and his dad playfully punched his shoulder. Brody gazed across the crowds, and Mina knew he was searching for her.

  “We’d like to begin the evening with the first dance. So ladies, look to your cards—and gents, find your partners.” Brody moved to step off of the stage, but Melody grasped his hand. “Brody, wait.”

  He turned expectantly.

  His father said, “You can’t skip out on the first dance with your mother.”

  Brody’s smile was genuine. “Oh, I hadn’t realized. It would be my pleasure.” He extended his elbow and led his mother onto the floor. Soon more couples joined them.

  Mr. Carmichael cued the conductor and the music began. It sounded like a slow waltz. Mina looked to her card and saw a name she didn’t recognize. The good thing about wearing a mask was that her partner might not find her.

  A slight tap on her shoulder crushed all her hopes. “Are you Miss Grimes?” the portly man asked. A graying mustache poked out from beneath his silver mask. An aroma of old musk surrounded him, and Mina guessed he must be in his mid-fifties.

  She sighed and turned to give him her most polite smile. “Yes, that’s me.”

  “The two lovely young ladies over there directed me to you.” He pointed to Lara and Daphne. “I believe this dance is mine.”

  She inwardly cringed but put her hand over his and let him guide her to an open area on the floor. It was worse than she imagined. Within the first few measures, she had already stepped on his toes twice. Her partner was very patient as she struggled to find the rhythm.

  “Easy now. The waltz is the backbone of all dances. It’s three-quarter time. If you can learn this, you’ll be very well off,” he said gently.

  “Okay,” she mumbled, feeling better that Brody wasn’t the one to watch her fail.

  “Right foot forward, to the side, and feet together.” Her partner continued to give her tips. “Now left foot back, move to the side, feet together. Imagine an invisible box and your feet can only move along the outline of this box. Do you see it? Now listen to the orchestra. Do you hear it? Can you feel it?”

  After a few more measures of counting and listening, she finally heard it. When they made two full rotations of the waltz and she didn’t step on his toes once, she beamed up at him. She did have to count 1-2-3 in her head the rest of the dance, but she laughed and did a little fist pump when the song was over. “Yes!”

  “You did wonderfully.”

  “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this means to me. You’re an excellent teacher.”

  “That is only because you were a quick study.” The music started to transition to another number, and her partner bowed low, excusing himself to find his next pupil. Mina almost laughed when he moved on and tapped his chubby finger on Lara’s shoulder.

  She gave him a horrified stare. Her face curled up into an ugly snarl, but she followed him onto the floor.

  Mina couldn’t hold back a chuckle. She actually felt sorry for her previous partner. If all of the others on her dance card were like this, then maybe she could make it through the night. And as long as Prince Charming danced with her and fell in love with her, then this quest would be over. Was it too much to assume that she was Cinderella in this tale? It sure felt that way. Lara Steppes and Daphne Ziester were obviously the stepsisters.

  An annoying giggle came from a pair already on the floor. Mina had to bite her tongue as she watched Daphne claim Brody for the next dance. This piece was slower, and she watched as Daphne wrapped her hands around his neck, forcing him to dance closer than he wanted to. An angry burning jealousy bubbled within the pit of her stomach, and Mina had to turn away and count to ten to calm herself.

  Brody had asked her to come. He was here with her.

  But Mina didn’t have much time to dwell on that. Her next dance partner, a younger man—in his late twenties, she’d guess—found her. She politely asked him how he knew who she was. He looked a little embarrassed but explained that he knew everybody’s name in the room except for her. And he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her since she entered the hall.

  Mina fell silent after the compliment. She wasn’t expecting one from a complete stranger.

  As they danced, Mina saw that her first partner was right. After learning the waltz, it was easier to learn another dance. Her new partner helped her through the turns and didn’t seem to mind that she didn’t know what she was doing. He seemed charmed by her innocence. The dance ended.

  Finally, Brody came to claim her for their first dance. His hair was messed up and there was a smear of lipstick across his cheek. The sight made her uncomfortable, except that she knew he hadn’t left the dance floor the whole time. He’d just been the victim of Daphne’s parting gift.

  Brody gripped Mina around the waist and pulled her to the middle of the floor. “How are you surviving?”

  “I’m actually quite enjoying myself,” Mina laughed.

  Brody frowned. “That’s unfortunate. You should be just as miserable as me, since we haven’t been able to dance together.”

  “What do you call what we’re doing now?” she teased.

  He had to stop and look down. “Uh, dancing.”

  “And are you miserable?”

  “No, I’m not,” he admitted.

  “Then quit complaining.” They continued to dance, Brody leading, Mina attempting to follow. He joked and she laughed, but something felt off. Maybe it was the building tension she felt—a tremble of trepidation that sent shivers down her arms.

  The song was almost over when a mirror ball was turned on and the room alit with dancing lights. A woman and her partner stopped dancing to comment on the display.

  “Hey, those shoes are amazing! How much did it cost to get them to light up?” the lady in the blue dress asked.

  “Light up?” Confused, Mina looked around at the faces as the crowd slowed to watch her. Lifting the hem of her dress slightly, she gasped aloud. Her glass slippers pulsed with a light that grew brighter and brighter.

  “Mina, what’s happening?” Brody asked.

  “No, not here! Not now!” Mina turned to run off the floor.

  Brody called out after her, but she didn’t stop, didn’t slow down. She just kept running. Tears started to fall as she realized the implications of what she was doing. She ran through the foyer, toward the exit, aiming to get out of the building and onto the golf course behind the club. Somewhere where there were less people.

  She never made it. Her shoes sparkled and the lights flickered faster. She picked up the hem of her dress and bare
ly made it down the first few steps when Brody burst through the doors in a panic, as if he too realized what the Cinderella story really entailed. He would lose her.

  And—with the Story in charge—he might not find her.

  “Mina!” Brody yelled from the top of the stairs.

  She stopped running. “Stay back, Brody.” Mina stood on the bottom step, holding her hands up warning him away.

  “Don’t go,” he said. “Please.” He looked heartbroken.

  “I have to. I have no choice.” The tinkling sound grew more intense, and a piercing white light surrounded her, cutting off her view of Brody. One minute, she saw him mouthing her name and reaching for her. The next—he was gone.

  Chapter 19

  Mina refused to move until her eyes adjusted from the flash of light.

  Right before she’d transported, she heard a loud sucking noise followed by a small pop. She could only imagine what being pulled through time would do to her nervous system. Her limbs tingled from the rush of returning blood as if her whole body had fallen asleep. Tall spindly forms began to come into focus around her.

  Trees.

  Where had she ended up? When? Teeth chattering uncontrollably, Mina wondered how the whole time travel thing actually worked. Had she gone into a hyper sleep? Broken down into energy particles, beamed somewhere else, and rematerialized like on Star Trek? The sheer thought of it all scared her. She was just grateful to be alive and in one piece.

  She tried to take a step, but her body seized up in pain and she had to grab onto a nearby tree for stability. Her hands were cold as ice, but she tried to continue moving. She didn’t know how much time she had, but she figured she needed to find Jacob and Wilhelm. This whole curse had started with them, so maybe if she could find them and warn them about the Fae plane, she could convince them never to set foot there. Maybe, just maybe, she could end the curse before it ever began. Then the brothers would never catch the eye of the Fae or the Reapers. And her family would be safe.

  But what if Schumacher’s shoes didn’t take her to the right time? What if she didn’t land in Germany—or anywhere in the vicinity of where she needed to be to save the Grimm Brothers? She tried to keep herself together and not fall into hysterics. She really should start thinking things through before she agreed to these plans.

  Wait, she had thought them through. She said no! Look how well that didn’t work.

  She blinked and studied the mossy pine forest around her. Her eyes had adjusted enough that she could try and make it out of the woods to look for a road. If she could find a highway, it might lead to a town where she could get more information.

  A few steps told her it would be a difficult journey. Her glass slippers were impossible to walk in, and the heels kept sinking into the soft earth.

  She gathered the skirt of her dress, watching her step carefully. She made it to a clearing and looked up into the night sky, hoping to see the North Star.

  “Oh crud.” Mina was on the verge of breaking down. The night sky was alit in a glorious display of stars, but—unlike her stars on Earth—these were moving and shooting across the black expanse. Something that wouldn’t happen on her plane. At least not to the extent that it looked like a never-ending display.

  Which meant she was on the Fae plane.

  Mina found a stump and sat down to take off her shoes. It may not have been the smartest thing to do, but she could move faster without them. Gripping the glass slippers in one hand and holding up her dress in the other, she started walking.

  The moonlight shed a bit of light in the woods. Mina had no clue what direction she was heading, since she couldn’t find a single point in the night sky that would stay put long enough for her to get her bearings.

  Suddenly, an immense shadow flickered on the ground as something passed over her. She froze in her steps and waited, counting to thirty before she continued on. When the shadow passed over her a second time, she ducked underneath the canopy of the nearest tree. Mina tried to calm her nerves and scan the sky for the owner of the shadow, but her silent predator made no sound. Staying beneath the branches of the trees, she kept moving. She needed to either find shelter or lose whatever was tracking her. The size of the shadow filled her mind with the worst possible man-eating-beast scenarios.

  Her canopy came to an end. She’d have to run without cover to the next copse of trees. Gripping the shoes close to her chest, she counted to three and took off running across the meadow.

  She heard it before she saw it. The screech of her pursuer was the only warning, a sound so terrifying it made her body tremble. She looked up to see an immense red-gold griffin bearing down on her from above, its front claws outstretched to maim her. She threw up her hands to protect her face just as something dark darted out from a nearby tree and knocked the griffin out of the sky. Mina felt the barest touch of the griffin’s wings across her back as she dove to the ground.

  Her rescuer swooped back into the clearing—another griffin. The much larger red-gold griffin veered right and pulled up into the sky again, driven off course by the smaller griffin. Its feathers were gray, fading to black along the hindquarters. The dark griffin flicked its feline tail, while its bird-like head screeched at its airborne enemy. Then, it landed right in front of her. Up close, the griffin was terrifying—a four-legged beast with the hindquarters of a powerful lion and the giant flesh-ripping talons of a bird. Enormous gray and black wings extended from the powerful predator’s back.

  Mina was frozen in terror, lying on the ground in front of the black griffin. Its scorching breath heated her face, and she tried to not show fear.

  The powerful beats of the golden griffin’s wings thundered in the air around her as it tried again to attack her from above. But the black griffin screeched and opened its wings wider, claiming her as its own.

  Mina was too terrified to scream or run. She just stayed low and waited for the ensuing battle over who got to eat her for dinner.

  The golden griffin wouldn’t back down and kept calling out in challenge from the sky. Twice more it feinted toward her, veering away at the last moment, trying to draw out the black griffin. The third time, the predator flew even higher, tucking its wings to its side with its talons extended, prepared to attack.

  Mina watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the black griffin’s feathers grew lighter and it shifted into a smaller form. Before her eyes, the tail disappeared along with the wings, until a young man stood before her, protecting her. He turned his face upward and held his strong arms outward, challenging the griffin.

  When the giant griffin saw the man, he squawked in fear and pulled up. Ungainly and clearly disappointed, it flew away into the moving starry sky with its tail between its legs.

  “I’m sorry about that,” the young man spoke up. “The griffins are allowed to hunt these grounds freely. When, they’re hungry, they tend to forget their manners and will fight over food. Sometimes they need to be reminded that a Royal is never to be undermined.” He kneeled down and gave her a brilliant smile, offering a hand to help her up. “Are you okay? You shouldn’t be out in the Fates’ woods unescorted. It’s much too dangerous. And, Milady, where is your coach?” He looked around and waited for her to explain her sudden appearance.

  Mina was powerless to answer him and unable to comprehend who stood in front her. It was Jared.

  No, that couldn’t be right. The eyes were the wrong color.

  “Y-you saved me?” she answered breathlessly.

  His eyes lit up and crinkled with laughter. “So you can speak. For a minute there, I thought I had saved a mute. But mute girls don’t exist except in Fae tales.”

  He was beautiful. The moon highlighted his strong chiseled jaw. His dark hair wasn’t as long as she remembered but cut shorter along the sides. His eyes were full of joy, and she could see the hint of teasing mischief that lurked there. As he helped her up off the ground, his warm hands held onto hers just a second longer than was necessary. Her heart was in utter turmo
il as she tried to process the voice and personality that were coming out of the young man. It had to be Teague, but he wasn’t trying to kill her. He was being polite, bewitchingly charming even, which was more Jared’s style.

  He pulled her up and she crossed into the moonlight. It was his turn to be left speechless.

  “I know you,” he stated emphatically.

  Mina felt a tremor of cold dread run through her veins, and she stepped back from him in fear. Teague didn’t let her move away, but grabbed her hand and pulled her closer. Mina cried out, thinking he was going to try and hurt her like before.

  She leaned away from him. “Let go of me. Please, let go.” She whimpered and pushed against his chest when he came too close.

  “Why do you fear me? I will not harm you.” He immediately let go of her hand and stepped away, giving her space. Clasping his hands behind his back, he continued to study her, every emotion showing on his face.

  “Do you know me?” Mina whispered, doubtful.

  “Yes…and at the same time, no.” This time he seemed like the one who couldn’t believe his eyes. “I’ve dreamt about you. I didn’t think you were real, but here you are.” He reached out to her but caught himself and stood up straight. His hands went behind his back again.

  It was odd, but she felt reassured by the way he was holding himself in check. She wasn’t afraid anymore. Mina watched as his eyes devoured her every inch of her. He held himself impossibly still and swallowed nervously the closer she came to him.

  Teague wore a high-collared shirt tucked into black pants and black polished boots. A ring of silver leaves embellished the collar. “I’m sorry,” he said, bowing. “Let me introduce myself to you. I’m Teague, Prince of the Fae. And you are?”

  She faltered for an answer. “No one of importance. Someone you would be better off forgetting.”

  “Oh, it’s a game. I see. I’ll play along. You can tell me when you’re ready.” He reached across the space between them and found she wasn’t afraid. He ran the back of his finger down her cheek, then turned his hand over and cupped her face.

 
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