For those curious, yes, this is the same Callen and Daniella from Seducing the Ice Queen. They were haunting my thoughts again, so I decided to let them tell a little more of their story. This short story takes place before the events of the book.
Ice Queen’s Ball
Lady Daniella glided across the ballroom, pausing to touch fingertips and exchange pleasantries with some of the most distinguished ladies in the realm.
She maintained her poise despite the whispers and speculation circulating around the room. Most predicted a wedding announcement was coming. Her father was the Duke of Calloway, and he was far too wealthy, too well-connected, and too powerful for his only child and heir not to be sought after.
Even if she was an ice queen.
A mask she wore out of necessity as so many watched and waited for her to make a mistake. A mask she hoped she could stop hiding behind once she was married and the gossips turned their gaze elsewhere.
Lady Daniella inclined her head to a mother and her daughter. While Daniella was the same age as the other girl, she felt so much older. Perhaps because the weight of the Calloway duchy had already been on her shoulders for more than a decade.
Her father always said that which didn’t break under pressure grew stronger.
If that were true, Lady Daniella should be stronger than tempered steel.
She swept her gaze across the room again. Henry, the Duke of Westlake’s eldest son, and the man she’d been engaged to earlier that week, still hadn’t arrived. And they had planned to announce their engagement that evening.
Odd he hadn’t arrived yet. Stranger still, her own father had disappeared from the ballroom. Had something happened? Had Henry decided to withdraw his offer?
Relief flooded her, and Daniella was ashamed by her reaction. It was an excellent match, one that would bring stability and prosperity to her lands and the Westlake lands. And with the royal family in such disarray, it made the match even more desirable.
That she didn’t love Henry was of no consequence. They would be partners.
As Daniella scanned the crowd again, she startled as a pair of strong hands brushed over her shoulders. Turning, she found herself trapped in Lord Callen Westlake’s golden gaze.
Words escaped her as the heat of him sunk through her dress.
“I understand congratulations are in order,” he murmured, his voice too soft for anyone else in the crowded ballroom to hear.
“Nothing is official.”
“Then my brother is a fool. I didn’t think you abided fools.” Mischief twinkled in Lord Callen’s tawny eyes.
“I must or I would’ve sent you away already.”
His grin widened. “As you haven’t, perhaps I can convince you to share this next dance with me.”
She knew she should tell him no and escape to the ladies’ sitting room until her father returned. But she didn’t want to escape to the ladies’ sitting room. She wanted to dance with Lord Callen. Just this once.
She arched a haughty brow, an expression she had been practicing. “Are you going to offer me your arm and escort me to the dancefloor, or perhaps you were going to remove a frog from your pocket instead?”
Surprise then delight passed over his face. He bowed to her then offered his arm.
Daniella accepted, and he swept her out onto the dance floor. While she’d had numerous dance partners during the balls she’d attended, none of them compared to his graceful elegance or the way he focused on her so completely it was like there was no one else in the room but her.
Lord Callen was warm and strong beside her, surrounding her as he guided her through the steps. The scent of him reminded her of sunlit afternoons, stolen cookies, and laughter.
She wanted the dance to last forever.
But nothing good ever lasted, a bitter lesson she’d learned all too well.
As the final chords drifted to an end, Lord Callen smiled down at her. “Would you…go for a walk in the gardens with me? They’re well lit, lots of chaperones, but…I…wanted to ask you something.”
She had never seen Callen blush before, never seen him so uncertain of himself. In an uncharacteristic expression of friendship, she touched his hand. “Of course. Is something troubling you?”
“No…well, maybe…Let’s walk.”
She inclined her head and laid her hand on his sleeve. As he turned to lead her out into the gardens, Daniella glimpsed her father striding towards her. He no more than inclined his head to the myriad of people that whispered something to him as he passed.
Lady Daniella forced her face to remain impassive even as her stomach tightened. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Perhaps the Duke of Westlake had called off the engagement.
Her stomach unclenched, and a whisper of hope bloomed in her chest. That would free her, allow her to… Allow her to what? Be sold off to the next promising young man?
She glanced up at Callen tall and strong beside her. Unless…
Lord Callen bowed to the Duke of Calloway. “Your Grace.”
“Thank you for protecting my daughter. The wolves are out tonight.”
Lord Callen stiffened under her fingers, though his ready smile never faltered. “My pleasure, Your Grace.”
“If you will pardon us, I need to speak with my daughter a moment.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Lord Callen bowed to the duke then placed Lady Daniella’s hand on her father’s sleeve.
Before she could say another word to him, Callen disappeared into the crush of the ballroom. She turned back to her father. “What’s happened?”
“Not here.” The Duke of Calloway laid his other hand over hers and led her out of the ballroom.
Few tried to engage the duke in even the merest of pleasantries as he escorted her to a small room deep in the house. The music of the ball was a distant echo, and she could hear the croak of the frogs. The sound almost coaxed a smile from her.
Despite his years, her father was still tall and broad. His hair, as pale as hers, showed no grey or white, but the softening at his middle and the lines around his eyes belied his years. He’d never looked as old as he did when he turned to face.
Burying her fear, Daniella kept her voice neutral. “Father, what’s happened?”
“You will not be marrying Lord Henry, next Duke of Westlake.”
Daniella didn’t allow her relief to show. “We may not have suited all that well anyway. Perhaps-”
“Not because he called it off.”
She paused, the dread in her stomach blooming and threatening to choke her. “Then why, Father?”
“Prince Eli Dracasan has offered for you.”
Her eyes widened. “No!” The word escaped her before she could stop it, and Daniella pressed her trembling fingers to her lips.
“I cannot refuse.”
Daniella sank to a chair, the world spinning around her. This couldn’t be happening.
Cold. Ruthless. Amoral Prince Eli.
He would trample anyone beneath his boot in his quest for the throne, including the gods themselves. Every day with him would be a battle. And she would have to…produce an heir with him. She pressed a hand to her stomach.
“I am sorry, Daniella.”
She thought of her dance with Callen, of her promise to walk with him in the gardens. It nearly brought her to tears. But tears solved nothing. She was a Calloway. She would do her duty to her family, to the people that depended on her, and to Tamryn.
Even if it meant marrying Prince Eli.
Standing, she straightened her spine. “I’m certain you will negotiate the best possible marriage contract. We should make our rounds through the ballroom, then I would like to retire. I’m certain His Highness will have his own plans to announce our marriage.”
Her father looked relieved. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Of course.” Lady Daniella rose with cool grace, her ice queen mask never wavering even though she wanted to cry, to scream, to weep.
How she wished her mother were still alive or her sister, someone who would hug her and share her pain. But she was alone, as she had always been.
As she would always be.