Aria placed the cardboard box full of dishes onto the granite island countertop. She readjusted the hem of her tie-dye hoodie and sighed, sliding her hands into the back pockets of her favorite pair of old bootcut jeans.
“This place is gorgeous.” Her sister strode into the kitchen, wearing her own version of Aria’s outfit, and dropped another box of dishes onto the counter.
“Careful, Symph. You wanna break them?” Aria shifted the box more squarely onto the counter and opened it, examining the dishes inside for damage.
“Calm down, Aria. I know how to handle delicate objects,” her sister said as she began pulling dishes out of her box and stacking them on the counter. Aria sighed and started helping her sister unpack, thinking of which cabinets each of the stacks would go into.
The past couple of months had been this way: trying to figure out how to tell her parents Symphony had contacted her, trying to tell them that she agreed to move in with her sister, trying to find the right place… The list went on and, frankly, she was tired. Move-in day had been going easier than she’d expected, though, and besides her sister’s occasional clumsiness, she had no complaints.
“Mom!” Her nephew, Henry, came rushing into the kitchen, flailing envelopes in his hand. “The mail came!”
“Well, thank you, baby.” Symphony reached out and took the day’s mail from her son.
“Is there anything for me?” he asked, peeking over his mother’s shoulder.
“Mm…” Symphony flipped through the envelopes. “I don’t see anything, baby. Sorry.”
Henry twisted his face up as left the room, and Aria smiled as she placed a stack of plates in one of the cabinets.
“I can’t say the same for you, though,” her sister said, pulling one of the envelopes out of the bunch. Aria turned around and saw her sister flipping a heavy stock envelope over in her hands.
“That’s for me?”
“Yeah. Look.” Symphony showed her the front of the envelope, where beautiful calligraphy scrawled out their address and Miss Aria Laurito.
“Who’s it from?” She wiped her hands on her jeans as she joined her sister on the other side of the counter.
“I don’t know. There’s no return address. But look at this.” Symphony flipped the envelope over one more time. A small glob of wax with an elaborate design pressed into it glued it shut.
“Oh.” Aria deflated when she caught sight of it.
“Oh? Aria, that’s the royal seal of Dres Van,” her sister said, staring at it dreamily. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“You can just get rid of it,” Aria said as she went back to sorting the dishes.
“I don’t know what they’re inviting me to, but I don’t want to go.”
“Wha—how do you know they’re inviting you to something?”
“And besides, you’re turning down an invitation to an event? Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”
“Symph, I don’t need the third degree, okay?” She set a stack of bowls in another one of the cabinets.
“You don’t even know what it is! You might want to go.”
“Okay, fine, then open it. But I’m telling you, I’m not interested.” Aria opened one of the drawers and placed the plastic silverware separator inside it. Her sister huffed and slid one of her fingers under the flap of the envelope, trying to carefully remove the wax seal. Aria separated the silverware while listening to her sister fiddle with the envelope for a couple of minutes.
“Oh, for the love of—” Aria walked over to her sister and snatched the letter from her hand, then ripped it open. Symphony stared at her in horror.
“It’s just an envelope, Symph. We’re not going to put it on display and keep it forever.” She thrust it back into her sister’s hands, then went back to sorting the dishes. Her sister glared after her and reached into the envelope. She pulled out a card, bordered in silver and brandishing the same seal as the wax.
She opened it and read it aloud:
“Miss Aria Laurito,
You are cordially invited to attend a party held at Dres Van Manor on the evening of Saturday, February Fourteenth, in honor of Saint Valentine’s Day.
We anticipate your answer in regards to your attendance. Please inform us no later than Wednesday, February Eleventh.
The Lieben Family of Dres Van.”
Symphony closed the card and leaned forward onto the counter with a sigh. “Oh my God, Aria. A Valentine’s Day party at the castle? That sounds so…”
“Terrible,” Aria finished for her.
“What? You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” She closed the drawer and took the box off the counter.
She left the room, ignoring her sister’s calls after her. She passed through the living room with the large bay window and the family room with its white carpets and sheer curtains, through the empty foyer and the hall into the garage. She added the box to the stack she’d been building next to her car. Then, she leaned up against the cool metal of the vehicle and sighed. She should have seen this coming.
In all honesty, she was surprised she was still getting invitations. She’d ignored the last two, and made up excuses for the two before that. But she’d told her sister the truth: she never planned to go to another party at Dres Van Manor. Not ever.
“All right, tell me.” Her sister walked into the garage and sat on the hood of Aria’s car.
Aria didn’t look at her. “I don’t know what you mean.”
"Please. You don’t turn down invitations to parties. Especially none like this.”
Aria laughed in spite of herself. “I don’t turn down parties. You haven’t talked to Melody in a while, have you?”
“I try hard not to.” The two of them laughed half-heartedly together. “Really, Aria, you can tell me. What’s going on?”
Aria sighed and pushed off from the vehicle. She stuck her hands in her pockets and wandered around the garage for a minute, trying to figure out how to phrase it.
“I’ve been getting these invitations for the last year.”
“Really? Why then, suddenly?”
“Because then, suddenly, I was an Olympic gold medalist.”
“Many times over.”
“Right. Yeah, I get it. And I’m proud of that, don’t get me wrong. And I was excited the first time I got an invitation. Crazy excited. So I went.”
“And you had a bad time.”
Aria wandered back to her car and leaned against it again. “I don’t know, I just… didn’t feel right.”
“Well, I sure don’t know what it was like to be there, but not feeling right in a group of strangers isn’t abnormal. Maybe you should give it another shot, see if there’s someone there you can find to talk to. I’m sure there are plenty of people who’d like to get to know the Ice Princess.”
“Sure, in the superficial way.”
“Come on, Aria, how many people go to these things? A couple hundred? They can’t all be scum. I’m sure you could find at least one person there who you could be friends with.”
“Maybe. But I’d rather just not.”
“Well, fine.” Symphony stood up from her place on the car. “I can’t make you. But I think you should go. You’ve got nothing else to do on Valentine’s Day. Lord knows you don’t have a date or anything.” She turned on her heel and sashayed her way out of the garage.
“Symphony!” Aria called after her. Her older sister didn’t turn around, and pointedly slammed the door back into the house. Aria sighed heavily and pushed herself back onto the hood of the car, placing her forehead on her kneecaps. She waited, breathed, tried to calm herself down. There was a lot left to do and she needed to focus on that. The whole party nonsense could wait.
She stayed there, sitting in the cool silence of the garage for several minutes, or at least she assumed when the door opened again.
“You’re still out here?” Symphony poked her head back into the garage.
“Yeah,” she said through the fabric of her jeans.
“You know, we’ve got an awful lot of unpacking to finish for you to sit around moping.” She dropped another box into the stack.
“My God, Aria. You’ve got nothing to mope about. Not with the party of the year that you’re attending.”
Aria’s head popped up. “What?”
Her sister shrugged. “I might have called and RSVP’d for you to go to that Valentine’s Day party.”
“You what?!” She jumped down off her car.
“You need to get out of this house and go somewhere fun.”
“I’m going to kill you. I’m going to actually kill you.”
Her sister scoffed. “You are not.”
Aria picked up one of the smaller boxes in the garage and threw it at her sister’s head. Symphony ducked and watched it hit the door to the house.
“Okay, maybe you are.” She watched Aria carefully as she reached for the doorknob. Aria reached for another box as her sister pushed open the door and retreated back into the house. Aria followed, and began chasing her older sister around the house, dodging the remaining unpacked boxes and personal belongings scattered across the floor.
“I cannot believe you called and told them I was going to that party!” She jumped over the misplaced couch to cut her sister off at the archway into the kitchen. Symphony stopped short and hid herself behind the other couch.
“On the up side, the guy that answered the phone sounded twenty-something and gorgeous.” She gave Aria a sly smile.
Aria threw a throw pillow at her sister, who dodged, ducking behind the couch. “I don’t care, Symph! I don’t want to go to that party!”
“I’ll help! I’ll help you find a dress and do your hair, everything. Come on, Aria, think of the opportunity.”
“The opportunity? Are you kidding me?”
“You never know what’ll happen! I mean, I met Henry’s father at a party.”
“And how did that work out for you?”
Symphony stuck her bottom lip out in a pout. “You had to bring that up? Come on, I already said I’m sorry and I’m going to do all the work for you.”
Aria sighed and grabbed another throw pillow. “Yeah, you are, because I can’t cancel now. You don’t go back on your word with the Lieben family.”
“Oh, come on, Aria, they aren’t that bad.”
“Says the woman who’s never met them.”
“No, seriously, stop. Now get over here and hug me.” Symphony stood and held her arms out. Aria remained where she was, her lip slightly curled.
“Come on,” Symphony urged, waving her fingers toward herself. Aria rolled her eyes and dropped the throw pillow back on the couch. Symphony tilted her head and gave a smile loaded with innocence. Aria dragged herself across the room and put her arms around her sister.
“See?” Symphony said, squeezing her tight. “Much better.” She let Aria go and sighed, raking her gaze around the incomplete room.
“Why is it with all your money and success we can’t get movers that put the couches in the right spot?”
* * *
Aria inhaled deeply, standing outside the ballroom door. She straightened the rhinestone collar of the silver ball gown her sister had picked out for her and flattened the sheer skirt. Her sister had also curled her neon-red hair and pulled it back into an elegant up-do. She patted its edges, making sure it was still in place.
“Madam?” the butler acting as doorman said to her. She came to her senses and turned her attention to him.
“Oh, I—” she cut herself off. You’re in a castle, Aria.
“I apologize,” she said. “I’m ready to go in.”
“Yes, madam,” the butler said with a slight bow. He pulled open the door and revealed to her the ballroom, crowded with people.
Large Greco-Roman pillars lined the inside, and windows covered nearly every inch of the balcony above. Fantastic hand-embroidered emerald curtains were pulled out of the way by golden décor ropes. Massive chandeliers hung from the thirty-foot, hand-painted ceiling, lighting every inch of the room, and marble tiles weaved together to create the elegant dancefloor, littered with couples that moved in practiced time to the orchestra playing in the back.
Aria stood in the doorway for longer than she should have, surveying the ballroom she’d only been in once before, until she became aware of herself and moved to the side of the room, near the French doors that led outside to the massive Dres Van Manor garden.
She stood alone, in between couples and groups of people talking over their half-empty wine glasses, scanning the room for any signs of a familiar face. Finding none, she grasped her elbows, counting the hours she would have to stay here before it would be appropriate for her to bow out and head home.
She turned at the deep voice that spoke her name, and straightened her back when she saw who it was.
The crown prince and only heir to the Dresvanese throne, Prince Joshua Lieben, stared at her with a blank, regal expression, his black eyes unflinching. She took a split second to rake her gaze over his formal outfit: black dress pants, white button-down jacket, a black belt, and his princely blue sash draped over his shoulder.
She looked back up into his eyes and curtsied. “Your Highness. Thank you for inviting me.”
“Not at all.”
She removed herself from her curtsy and met his eyes again.
“It is I who should be thanking you for attending this evening. A ball is not possible without guests.” As he spoke, a lock of his ebony hair fell in front of his eyes, but he made no move to put it back into place.
“I suppose that is true,” she said, not able to stop the smile that crept up onto her face. “In which case, I am happy I could help make this evening possible.”
The prince raised his head slightly, his expression not changing in the slightest.
At the exact moment that Aria began to panic that she’d said the wrong thing, another party guest called out to greet the prince. He turned for a nanosecond before giving Aria one last empty glance.
“Right. I have other guests to greet. Excuse me.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” she said, dipping into another curtsy. When she raised her head again, the prince was gone, off chatting with some of the other guests he probably was better acquainted with. It took every ounce of self-control she had not to throw her head back and groan, but she did both internally while she passed behind a few of the pillars, putting distance between herself and His Royal Highness Prince Joshua Lieben.
My sister’s gonna get it when I get home.
She trudged away from the spot, sticking to the wall. She began walking past groups talking, casually eavesdropping on their conversations to see if they were discussing anything she found interesting. Gossip, shoes, and the trashing of other guests floated in and out of focus in her ears as she wound through them on her way to the food table at the far side of the room. She helped herself to a couple of finger sandwiches on a tiered serving dish, and she ate them as she wandered outside to the patio between the ballroom and the garden. Walking slowly along the edge, she ran her fingers over the top of the vine-wound fence, staring out at the walls towering on the edge of the manor’s property.
I told her this was a bad idea. Sitting at home alone on Valentine’s Day was still better than being out with hundreds of people and not being wanted. She sighed, deciding it was probably best for her to return home, when:
“Miss Laurito,” her name was called again by a much cheerier, but still distinctly masculine voice.
She turned and found herself face-to-face with a six-foot-two man in a tuxedo, with blue eyes that moved like the currents of the deep ocean and hair the color of newly-dried dirt. His nose was long and pointed, and his cheekbones practically kissed the corners of his eyes. The most genuine smile she’d seen all night led to a jaw that could cut through a diamond, and Aria found herself staring at the way the ballroom lit up his figure from behind.
“I hope you are enjoying the party,” he said, holding one of his hands out to her. She looked down and saw a glass of burgundy wine. She reached out and carefully grabbed the stem of the glass.
“I… yes, of course.”
He tilted his head, his eyes glittering with knowledge of her lie. “I must tell you I was surprised to hear you would be attending tonight.”
“Uh—What?” she asked before covering her mouth with her hand at how stupid she must have sounded. She wasn’t one for formal speech, but when in Rome…
The man before her laughed lightly. “I do apologize, I should have introduced myself properly first. I’m sure you don’t remember me. My name is Jan, I’m the head steward here at Dres Van Manor. I receive all of the RSVP’s directly.”
Aria’s eyes widened more and more as he continued to speak, and her fingers closed tighter around the glass she was holding to keep it from falling out of her hands. She couldn’t decide what was more humiliating: the fact that he figured she would forget him, or the fact that she actually had.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you,” she said.
“It’s quite all right, Miss Laurito,” he told her, still laughing slightly. “I had no expectation of you remembering me after we only met briefly on one occasion.”
“Still, I feel awful.”
“That is very kind of you, but there really is no need.”
Aria stared into his dancing eyes and smiled, turning her face away from his piercing gaze.
“May I ask what changed your mind about attending this evening?”
“Actually…” She debated for a moment on whether or not to tell him the truth. “It was my sister. She RSVP’d for me and only told me after she’d done it.”
“I see…” He trailed off, gazing dreamily out into the garden. “That certainly explains things.”
“I apologize, Miss Laurito, I only mean that I’ve seen you perform many times, and I found it rather odd for someone with a personality such as yours to be out here on your own.”
What? She gawked openly at him, unsure of how to respond to what he’d said. A dozen things ran through her head, and she tried to grasp one of them to continue this conversation, but she failed.
He continued to smile at her with perfectly aligned teeth.
She closed her eyes and turned her face down. “I—I’m so sorry, I just… I was not expecting you to say that.”
“Please do not worry about it. It’s part of my job to be observant. Possibly overly so.”
“I’m just surprised you were able to deduce that. Many performers have a personality on the ice that doesn’t match who they are elsewhere.”
“Yes, I am aware of that. But something told me you were not one of those performers.”
Her eyes darted back and forth across his face, still lit up from the ballroom chandeliers, and she fully smiled for the first real time since arriving at the Manor that evening.
“Thank you,” she told him with the most sincerity she could muster.
He narrowed his eyes as he studied a spot of air over her head. “I’m not quite sure how my statement merited any thanks, but you are welcome nevertheless.”
A handful of minutes passed as the two of them shared an oddly comfortable silence. Aria sipped at her wine leisurely, then pulled at the corner of her eye, trying to discreetly shift her contact lens back into place.
“If you’re tired, Miss Laurito, we can prepare a room for you.”
“What?” She looked at him.
“Most of the guests that attend these parties remain at the Manor overnight. Since it is so late, you should feel free to do the same. I can have a room ready for you in a matter of minutes. It’s much safer than going home at this hour.”
“Oh, well, thank you very much, but I don’t have anything—”
“Please, Miss Laurito,” he turned his face to her, “leave all of that to me. After all, it is my job.”
Aria stared at that smile, glittering like the magnificent ballroom, and turned her head. “Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Of course, Miss Laurito. I will look forward to seeing you in the morning.” He pushed himself off the fence and walked back into the ballroom without a backwards glance.
Aria watched him leave, replaying his words in her head.