"You look so handsome," his mother smiled as she finished straightening his bow tie. Long fingers fanned out over the expensive fabrics, and Dougal sighed as she smoothed out his tux for what must have been the hundredth time. "Don't be nervous. This ceremony is a mere formality. The Xylanders like to maintain a façade of humanity."
He'd heard it all before, and it was no more comfort now than the first time. He renewed his study of the wallpaper as she began to pace and continued her lecture. It only made sense for him, the only son of Valdís, all that remained of Nordbo aristocracy, to marry the last of Arcadia's noble lines. Never mind that all the titles meant nothing now. Never mind that Valdís, the dead goddess, and had spent the last few centuries feasting on the souls and essence of the continent's hapless human population. Never mind that Marina Xylander was a soulless bloodsucker that if not fed regularly the flesh and blood of men would slowly wither into a hideous beast... No, this was all about preserving the last vestiges of the dying nobility. Not at all about ensuring safety for his sister and half-sisters from all in this world that threatened them. His mother was just getting to his favorite part: children. His lip twitched, and she tsked him and took his cheeks into her hands.
"Don't make that face, darling boy. She will be a good match for you. You will see."
Dougal twisted away from her. His feature creased in a deep frown, he forced himself not to cry, not to shout, just to breathe. "I'm sure you're right, Valdís," he grumbled.
"Mother—please, son, call me mother," she said. One of her hands slid about his waist as she stepped closer to him.
He stood, stiff, and looked down at her for a long moment. "That's the first time you've ever asked me to," he finally mumbled.
"I know," she sighed then leaned closer to kiss lightly at his cheek. "I'm sorry, sweet boy."
A knock at the door, then Marina's three eldest brothers came in. Dougal's mother left after the briefest of hugs. They clapped him on the shoulder and teased him in their husky, accented voices. Dougal managed polite chuckles and nonchalant shrugs. Just like nothing at all was wrong.
He felt so removed from all this. The brothers herded him to the altar, and he stood there, as rehearsed, with hands clasped in front of him. He did his best to smile when the cameras came out. He returned nods and slight bows to the guests as they filtered in. He disconnected. This was not happening to him. He was the unwanted son, the forgotten child, the good-for-nothing, the professional fuck-up, the nobody. That kind of man did not find himself forced into an arranged marriage with a pretty, young heiress. That kind of man did not suddenly find his whole life altered for the better and yet still find his mind wandering to a dingy apartment, to that woman...
No, not today. He would not think of her today. It was Marina's wedding day. And his, he supposed, but it seemed much more important to make this day special for her. That was the one bit of advice that he had taken from his mother. Give the girl her wedding day, and then—
"Do you smell that?" Stavros, the eldest brother, whispered.
Dougal glanced back at him then around the large, stone chapel. Sniffing, he detected only the fragrant summer flower that Marina had picked, the mingling of the guests' perfumes and colognes, the earthy incense used by the priests. He shook his head. "No. What...?"
But his voice trailed off as one of the many dark suited guards appeared at the end of the aisle and gave some sort of hand signal. The middle brother cursed softly, and the youngest kicked at his shin. Stavros glared at both of them.
"What is it?" Dougal asked.
"A hunter—just one. Won't be a problem."
A strange smile lingered on Stavros' lips, and Dougal tried not to think about it. No way it was her. She had left—gone back to whatever wild corner of the world she had come from—and it had been months, nearly a year since he'd last seen her. That had been in the crisp fall of the Northern Isles, the sun dipping low behind her set her hair ablaze, her eyes as black and empty as ever, she had promised that she was done with revenge, done with hate, done with fighting... Now, it was in the middle of a muggy Arcadian summer, and it was Marina's wedding day—his wedding day.
The guests had all taken their seats. A hush of anticipation settled on the chapel. Dougal stared at his mother in her seat on the front row. She smiled at him and clutched Aideen's hand in both of hers. His sister would not meet his gaze. He did not bother looking to his half-sisters or their partners. They were no more familiar to him than the faces across the aisle or farther back. The chapel echoed with the bride's march, and the doors to the narthex opened. Marina was a vision of white and lace and veils. Dougal watched her father lead her, step by step, up the aisle. His mother's words came back to him: stand still; stand straight; look at her, and don't look away. He did his best to do just that, but as she approached, his hands began to sweat, his chest to tighten, his head to spin. He looked to his mother, but she only smiled and nodded back toward Marina.
Her veils obscured her face, and Dougal had to wonder if she could even see him. His gaze strayed to the pews packed with guests—with strangers. His friends were either human or without pedigrees going back to the dawn of time, without limitless resources and contacts. They weren't even the sort that the guests here would turn their noses up at; they were the sort that the guests wouldn't even see. Invisible—that's what Dougal had been as well, but now he was marrying Marina, now he was set... soon his family would be as well.
That was what Dougal was trying to convince himself, anyway, when his eyes came to rest on a woman with long blond hair and black eyes. Everyone else in the chapel was focused on Marina, but this woman stared at him. His gut clenched and twisted. Looking back to Marina, he tried his best to shake the feeling that woman—no, she couldn't be Aislinge. Aislinge was gone. Marina was here, now.
The march stopped as her father gave her hand to Dougal. Gloved in delicate lace, it felt so small, so fragile in his. He helped Marina kneel before the bishop then knelt beside her. The service began with the triple invocation of the Holy Mother. Dougal understood one word in twenty grumbled by the aged bishop, but he had rehearsed the service so many times with his mother that he'd wager he could perform the rite just as well, if not more enthusiastically than the bishop. For a time, he lost himself to the rhythm of the bishop's gravelly Arcadian and waited for the proper cues.
Just as he turned to lift Marina's veil, "Fuck off!" a familiar voice growled.
He whipped around to see the blond woman shoving at a guard. The man grabbed at her, but he only caught her hair as she ducked away from him. The blond slid off her head to free a short tumble of bright red hair. "Aislinge," Dougal whispered. More guards moved toward her. He stood. Marina grabbed for him and hissed something in Arcadian. The first guard lunged for Aislinge.
"Don't touch her!" he shouted then rushed down the aisle.
She ran toward him, oblivious of any danger as she laughed and threw her arms about his neck. The guards reached for her, and he twisted her away.
"I knew you could dance," Aislinge purred in his ear.
Everyone was staring as they stood, arms about each other. Marina had thrown back her own veil, and her dark eyes glared at him. He could only stare back, wide-eyed, and mumble, "What are you doing here?"
"I came for the wedding," she grinned.
"You can't be here. You have to go."
Frowning, she tilted her head. She spared Marina a glance before shrugging. "Fine," she grumbled. He could recognize the twitches and tightness in her features. When she turned back to Marina and bowed, he knew what it meant. She straightened and started to push past him. He grabbed at her arm, and she stopped to look at him through the tumble of her hair. "Well, Dougal, which is it? Go or stay?"
He glanced to his mother and sister. Her face was purple, her blue eyes bulging. Aideen only frowned and blinked at him.
"Stavros!" Marina shrieked.
"Give her to me, brother," he said as he came toward them.
Aislinge pressed her lips against Dougal's ear and whispered, "Come with me."
"Do you love her?"
"Do you love me?"
He hesitated. Stavros grabbed for her. Dougal pulled her away from Stavros, and she laughed.
"Tell your blushing bride that I'm sorry for stealing the first dance and the first kiss," she grinned.
Dougal frowned at her. Then, her lips were over his, her teeth nipping at his lip, the sweet taste of her mouth flooding his own. Stavros and Marina and Valdís and more voices than he could possibly discern all began to shout and rave and curse at once. "Wait for me," she said then kissed him again.
She started to pull away, but he caught her arm. "Do you promise?"
Smiling, she nodded. "Congratulations, little Marina! He's all yours," she shouted.
The chapel erupted into shouting and commotion as Aislinge played a brief game of cat and dogs in suits with the guards. Dougal did his best not to smile as she went sprinting through the doors. She was gone, and Marina was crying.