I woke to a cold, hard surface digging into my back. I felt my iPod shift in my waistband and I couldn’t believe what I saw when I opened my eyes. Stacks of parchment, leather-bound tomes, and yellowed scrolls surrounded me. The room was entirely made of white marble, lit by torches, candles, and oil lamps. Holy crap, this is like waking up right in the middle of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign! I leaned up on my elbows, realizing I was stretched out on a long wooden table.
Something moved in my peripheral vision and the ice-cold point of a sword dug into my neck just hard enough to break the skin. I saw the owner of the sword out of the corner of my eye, an elegant man in leather armor. His shoulder-length brown curls fell across his face as he turned and spoke to someone I couldn’t see. “Inform the Queen that the girl is awake.”
Oh my God…I wasn’t dreaming. Panic clawed its way up my throat. I have to stay calm, I told myself. I focused on the walls in an attempt to block out the steel digging into my neck. There was at least one mirror on each of them. Maybe this queen they’re talking about is some kind of narcissist. Go figure.
A tall, slender woman with every right to be narcissistic swept into the room, coming to a halt beside the guard. I could tell that he was prepared to slice through my jugular at her command. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when the queen brushed him aside. “That’s quite enough, Damon. I can handle this girl myself. I will call you if I require your services again.”
I studied her in silence as he bowed out of the room. Even standing still, she was the personification of fluid grace. Her beauty was more exotic than classical. Mahogany waves were left free to cascade down her back and perfect golden skin highlighted the allure of her deep green eyes. I sat up Indian-style, careful not to knock over the lamp at my feet.
“Why am I here?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. A massive lightning strike destroyed the fountain in my favorite garden last night. When I went to see what had happened, I found you in the smoldering rubble.” The full pout of her lips deepened and she fixed me with a slit-eyed glare. She looked like a livid cat who might lash out at any second.
I snorted and rolled my eyes. “Are you nuts? How could I possibly have survived that?”
“The mechanics of how you managed to survive are of little consequence to me.”
“Then why did you have a guard posted here, waiting for me to wake up?”
“Silence!” She prodded me in the chest. “I am Sigrid Clare, Queen over all Daraglathia. This world belongs to me and is in my care. I will ask the questions now. You will answer me.” I ground my teeth and nodded. “Who are you?”
“Lauren Elizabeth Frost. I don’t have a fancy title, and I am of no consequence at all.” I could feel my cheeks burning with anger as my expression soured.
“I would advise you not to take that tone with me, girl. If you were of as little consequence as you claim, you would not have fallen from the sky in a bolt of lightning.” She circled the table and studied me like she thought I was some kind of poisonous snake. Only then did I notice the pointy ears. Holy crap times five! This lady is an honest-to-God Tolkien-style elf!
I shook my head. “You don’t understand. I really am insignificant. I don’t understand any of this. Things like this don’t happen where I come from, and elves don’t exist.”
Her face purpled with rage. “Damon! Take this impertinent little liar to the dungeon. I need time to think and she needs time to reconsider her story.” She turned to glare at me again. “I want you to know that I do not tolerate lies.”
Somehow, I felt no fear as the pale elven guard grabbed my arm and hauled me toward the door. When we were almost there, the queen spun and held up her hand. “Wait! I have a better idea. Leave her with me a while longer, Damon. She will show me what I want to know, whether she likes it or not.”
Dread slithered through me as Damon retreated and a placid smile curved Sigrid’s lips. “Give me your memories.”
Before I could argue or think of some way to defend myself, a searing pain shot through my skull. I couldn’t stop myself from screaming as the room dissolved around me.
“Get up, brat. Your dad came in here over an hour ago to wake you up. It’s Thanksgiving Day and we have things to do.”
I was awake, but I didn’t budge. I kept my breathing even and my eyes closed, the perfect picture of peaceful sleep.
“Get up, Ren! I’m going to be your stepmother someday; I’d suggest you learn to give me the respect I deserve and do what you’re told.”
I yawned. “Sure, whatever. And don’t call me Ren.” I rolled over, stretched, and grabbed my pillow. I pressed it over my face, making it clear that I had no intention whatsoever of moving while Michelle was still in my room.
I couldn’t help grinning into my pillow when she let out a short scream of frustration and swished out into the hall. Her whine drifted back into my room as she stomped downstairs. “Nicholas, honey, she’s refusing to get up! I swear I can’t do anything with that girl.” I rolled my eyes again, hard enough that they hurt. How ridiculous is that? She’s only three years older than I am.
“Fine, honey, thank you for trying.” I heard him trudge up the stairs and stared at the ceiling as he stuck his head in my doorway. “Why can’t you be nicer to Michelle? She’s my girlfriend and I love her. Couldn’t you just try to get along with her?”
“Sure, Dad, I’ll give it my best shot.” Not. She’s rude, ignorant, and not remotely good enough for you. She spends your money like crazy and does nothing to help out around the house. I’m sure all of those are great reasons for me to try to get along with her.
Dad shook his head and the sprinkling of silver in his hair caught the hall light. I guess my tone gave me away. “I assume that this is you worrying about me, and I appreciate it, but I’m a grown man. I can take care of myself.”
“In most cases, I’d agree with you, but I think you’re a little naïve when it comes to Michelle.”
“Drop it. Please get up and get dressed. Neal and Richard (describe) are having Thanksgiving dinner with us, and your grandparents are on their way.”
I was dressed and in the dining room fifteen minutes later, but I wasn’t happy about Dad siding with Michelle. I made my feelings clear when I refused to acknowledge her presence. Maybe if I ignore her, the universe will be kind and remove her from this reality. Dad gave me a pained look and I ignored that, too, keeping my eyes on the front door instead.
Everything felt better the second my grandparents walked in. “Granny!” My smile was broad and genuine as I swept the tiny, snowy-haired woman into a ferocious hug. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Me, too, sweetheart. You look good.”
My smile stretched as far as my lips would go. “Thanks. So do you, as usual.” I winked at her and turned to hug Grandpa Alex. “Hey, Pop.” I wrapped my arms around his frail frame and had to blink back tears. “How’re you holding up?”
“I’m doing fine, babe.”
We both knew it was a lie. Lung cancer was eating away at him with every breath he took. I led him to one of the recliners in the living room and dropped a kiss on top of his thick, wavy, steel gray hair before gravitating back to my granny. We slipped into the kitchen, and for once I was glad Michelle didn’t offer to lend a hand. I needed unspoiled time with Granny Betty.
As soon as the door swung closed behind us, she squeezed my shoulder. “How are you holding up, dear? I know it has to be hard for you at school right now. This is the South. People always run their mouths when there’s the slightest bit of fodder for ridicule. Now, on top of that, you have to deal with that girl living here.” Her nose wrinkled in disgust and she shook her head.
“I’m doing fine, Granny.”
She gave me a sympathetic smile. “You can’t lie to me, baby girl. I’m your grandmother.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “I’ll make it.”
“I know you will. You’re a resilient young woman. I want you to know that Grandpa Alex and I are very proud of you.”
“I’m not strong, Granny. I wish I were, but I’m not.”
She tweaked my nose and kissed me on the cheek. “Yes, you are, baby girl. You just don’t know it yet.”
My boyfriend, Neal, and his father Richard arrived while we were cooking. Even with the kitchen door shut, I could hear Dad carrying on with Richard, who had been his college roommate. He was still very much a big kid in so many ways. I was moving a tray of croissants to the dining room table when I overheard whispers.
“Hey, Chelle, did you do your macroeconomics homework last night?”
“No. I was too busy explaining to Nicholas that I need a new iPhone.”
“He’s going to get you one?”
“Probably. He hasn’t denied me anything up to this point. I don’t know why he would now, as long as his precious baby girl doesn’t start messing things up for me.”
I shook with silent rage, but I couldn’t stop listening. Neal’s soft laughter made my skin crawl. “Can you blame her? You’re three years older than she is, and you’re sleeping with her father.”
“Like you can say anything. You’re only dating her so you can have your foot in the door at Nicholas’s company when we graduate.”
“I hate that you have to spend so much time with that old fool. We never get to have fun anymore. I miss having you in my bed.”
I almost threw up. I couldn’t stand to hear more and retreated to the kitchen. I was crying before the door shut behind me. Granny Betty pulled me into a hug. “I heard them too, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.”
I buried my face in her shoulder. “If I try to tell him, Dad will get angry and say I’m just jealous. He’ll never believe it.” I did my best to stifle a sob and hiccupped.
“This may sound harsh, especially since I’m his mother, but your father is too much of a stubborn jackass to be reasoned with. He’s been that way his whole life. The idiot will have to learn his lesson the hard way. He always has. Now, go wash your face with some cold water. We don’t want Michelle and Neal to know they shook you up.”
After the meal, I settled in the living room to watch football with Grandpa Alex. I didn’t know all the mechanics of the sport, but I still enjoyed watching it. More important than that, it was time spent with my grandfather. There was also the bonus of knowing that Michelle wouldn’t be caught dead in the room while the game was on. The thought made me smirk and Grandpa Alex patted my hand.
“Don’t let the hussy get to you, sweet pea. She isn’t worth getting angry at, and she’s not going to stick around.”
I smiled over at him and his pale blue eyes twinkled back at me. “How do you know, Pop? They’re practically engaged. She’s not going to let him out of that too easily.”
“That girl has the attention span of a gnat. She’s going to get bored once your dad’s infatuation shifts back to his business. He’ll have deals to make and employees to oversee. She’ll accuse him of neglecting her and move on to some other rich, lonely idiot, or maybe a young, good-looking one. The important thing to remember is that, sooner or later, she’s going to leave.”
“She’s going to try and take him for everything he’s worth before she leaves though, isn’t she?”
“Probably, but I know my son. Your dad’s married to his company before anything else. He’ll be working on an important deal soon. Even if she does manage to get away with a hefty chunk of change, the deal will bring plenty back in.”
“Don’t you think you might be underestimating her attention span just a little?”
“No. You’re giving her too much credit.”
I leaned over and kissed Grandpa Alex on the cheek. “You’re the best, Pop.”
The intense pain in my skull returned as the memory fell away. It took me a second to register that I was sobbing.
“I’m not sure why you’re clinging to such trivial memories of your strange world, girl, but there is bound to be a real clue embedded somewhere in this sentimental nonsense.”
My eyes were too tear-blurred to see, but I could sense the sneer in the queen’s voice. “She is useless to me in this condition. Take her to the dungeon to recover.”
I felt Damon pick me up, the pain in my head spiked, and I vomited on him as I passed out.