We have reached the end of my Nanowrimo prep. Some people might be plotting their project. Me? I write seven stories in seven days. Because, well, I'm sometimes an odd duck. *quack*
This story was a lot of fun. A little background. Over the summer I entered Avon Romance's FanLit contest. A whole lot of other awesome writers did. Some of whom still talk to me. I know, weird right? Oh, by the way, you can preorder the winning chapters here in an awesome novella and I recommend that you do because A Duke to Remember will be memorable. ;)
So, I was despairing over my final chapter in the contest and beloved husband Shawn said, "You should do X." Which I thought was awesome, but not the sort of thing anyone would expect or be looking for so I filed it away. Now we're here. In my random seven stories week. I pulled this out. Enjoy!
The dress was the finest she could ever recall wearing. Oh, she’d had lovely dresses in the past, but nothing like this. Nothing so clearly designed, from the least stitch to the imported lace edging the short sleeves, to draw a man’s attention. A particular man. A certain man she longed for more than anything.
No one knew that she did not wear the dress for the man who would be announced as her intended at tonight’s ball. They would assume. Her hair had been swept up and secured by a strand of pearls that matched the length around her neck. The style was loose enough to incite whispers that it hinted at being unfurled. For her betrothed, of course.
Let them think what they wished. She had no desire to give herself away. Enough was enough. Tonight, she would take what she wanted. With that in mind, she searched out the remains of the perfume she’d worn all those years ago. There was not a lot left, but he would remember the instant he caught a whiff of it.
She could hear the party downstairs. All of the people her parents had invited were waiting for her to descend. To descend in a dazzling manner and leave their mouths hung open by the pure vision of loveliness she presented. Her fingers brushed away her maid’s hand as she tried to adjust the bodice of her dress. If one more adjustment was made it would ruin the look she envisioned.
“I believe I am ready.”
Her maid said nothing, but hurried to open the door. Slippered feet made no noise as she made her way to the ballroom. The guests fell quiet and she appreciated their attention. One arm on the rail, she flowed down the stairs and was greeted by the man she wasn’t here for tonight. Even if he was her fiancé.
“You look lovely,” he said as he offered his arm. She took and allowed him lead her across the room to her parents. His murmured appreciations for her appearance were received as her due. Of course she was lovely and of course no one else present could compare. How could they when she was cloaked in the surety of her love for one man? Physical accoutrements mattered little to her, aware as she was of the love one man bore her. Well, two men, but one would have to learn to live with dissatisfaction.
A few yards separated her from her parents when he approached. Her fiancé’s hand on her arm tightened, but she shook it off. He would be angry, disappointed, but he would live. In front of her stood her future. She knew by the flare of his nostrils when he caught her scent. He would know she wore it for him.
“Felicity,” Maxwell said in that low baritone that made her insides go weak.
“Maxwell,” she replied. Her voice gone breathless from the nearness of his body to hers. Too near for propriety’s sake, but she cared not for propriety tonight.
Her fiancé faded into the background where he belonged. He would know he had lost. The greatest prize he might have won had been within his grasp, but she’d chosen another. Her own prize. As Max led her out onto the dance floor a waltz began and she smiled.
“I thought I would have to come find you upstairs.” Max’s voice made her shiver. It made her wish he had come upstairs to find her. As they spun around the floor he tugged her closer. Too close not to be whispered about, but she no longer cared about such things. As a future duchess she could do as she pleased.
“Perhaps I should slip away,” she offered. “And let you come find me. Like when we played hide and seek as children.”
Their steps stuttered as they were both caught up in the idea of such activities, and what they might lead to once they were alone in the dark. His smile grew as he let his gaze slide downward. She knew what he saw and drew in a deep breath to hold his attention.
“Shouldn’t some announcement be made?” he asked. “It would hardly be proper to slip away at your engagement party. To another man.” For a moment, surely she imagined it, he sounded upset. Even disappointed, but that couldn’t be right. Since he returned he’d been amenable to all her ideas. Everything he’d done had been for her.
“If we make an announcement, we’ll never be able to slip away.” She drew her lips together in a pout as her lashes fluttered.
Max grinned as the music stopped. He swept her into his arms and brought his mouth to hers in a kiss that left her clinging to his broad shoulders.
“Never underestimate me, my dear,” he said once he released her from the heat building up between them. “Come, let us make our announcement and accept our congratulations. Later, I shall show you how a duke and his duchess takes their leave.”
Elizabeth felt weird as she watched Felicity’s program finish up. The worst part of the job was the end. The client was somewhere between fantasy and reality and often, more often than not, awoke disoriented and annoyed at being brought back. Felicity was an especially trying case and she worried over the talk they must have once the sensors and tubes finished disconnecting from her body. A glass of water sat on the table next to Felicity’s chair and Elizabeth watched her empty it before speaking.
“That was amazing. So much better than the other time.”
Elizabeth smiled, hopeful this would be easier than she’d anticipated.
“Can I do it again?”
“We need to talk first. Please, come sit at the table.” Felicity took her time, stretching and adjusting her clothes and hair. Elizabeth did not roll her eyes as the cameras in the room would record it and she would be reprimanded. She sat in her usual chair and pulled up Felicity’s account on her tablet.
“What was different? I’d swear the duke character was real.”
“Excellent,” Elizabeth said. “We’ve been experimenting with a new interface. One that can merge two experiences into one.”
“Wait,” Felicity said before Elizabeth could explain further. “You mean there was someone else there? Oh, fuck no. The duke, my Maxwell? He was some…lab rat? How dare you!”
Felicity surged to her feet. Elizabeth’s hand hovered over the security icon on her screen, but Fee made no move towards her.
“If I may remind you of the contract you signed,” Elizabeth told her calmly. “In it, you agreed to experimental sessions. In return, we allow you three free sessions a month. We’ve broken no laws, Fee.”
“I cannot believe this! Maxwell. My Max. He wasn’t mine at all. Who did it? Oh, holies. It wasn’t you was it? That’s…ewww. That’s disgusting.”
Elizabeth tried not to take offense. It wasn’t as if she were able to portray a masculine image well. She also couldn’t distance herself from what she knew of the person. Fee was terrible. She never would have been able to portray any affection. Being called disgusting still hurt.
“That had better not happen again.”
Worked up to a full tirade, Felicity was silenced by the door sliding open. Elizabeth glanced away from the man entering.
“Oh, gross. Was this him? This - ”
“That is enough, Felicity!” Now Elizabeth pushed the security icon on her tablet. Once the two men in grey suits slid in past Max she turned her attention back to the client. “Please escort Ms Stratford out of the building. She is on a 30 day suspension and will require three mandatory psych sessions before being allowed to return.”
Felicity shrieked, but before she could do anything the security men were on either side of her. When one touched her she shook off his hand and stalked out. Max had stood, quiet, through the whole thing.
“Max?” Elizabeth asked once they were alone. “Are you ok?”
Poor Max. He was the best programmer they had here. He worked too hard and rarely socialized. Elizabeth knew he’d formed a crush on Fee. Which was why she’d tried to discourage him from this experiment, but he’d pulled rank. Kindly, but still, she knew when a person pulled rank.
“I’m fine, Elizabeth.”
He was lying. Elizabeth had the job she did because she was good at reading people. His shoulders had a droop not normally evident and he made sure not to meet her eyes.
“Do you want to talk?”
“No, I should go make notes. Will you send me the interview?”
“Are you sure?” Elizabeth forced her feet to stay. Well, if Max was silly for crushing on an idiot client like Felicity what did that make her? A fool, surely, for working with Max for three years and never asking him out.
“Send me the interview,” Max repeated. Once she’d nodded he left.
Elizabeth left the room and went back to her small office. Felicity’s case file needed updating and she would need to find a replacement for her in the beta program. Once her suspension was up she would be allowed back to the business, but she was out of the beta program. Thankfully, she could couch the ban in words corporate would accept. Only she needed to know the ban was because of what Fee had done to Max.
Maxwell was thankful he had his own office. What had he been thinking? His fingers typed his report, but his brain berated him.
What had he been thinking? He’d already asked himself that.
“What was I thinking?” he asked his equipment. The words echoed in his lab and again he thought of decorating it. The last programmer in here had left snarky inspiration posters hanging and Max hadn’t bothered removing them. They were amusing.
He should put the whole incident out of his mind, he thought. He still believed the programming was sound. The algorithms to link people might need work. Although, likely it would be best to make sure no one could meet the person they were paired with in the illusion. Max typed his report on autopilot and considered whom to recruit to help with the softer bits of the program. So many of the psychs they hired were annoying. No brains. All empathic intelligence and too flighty to help with code.
“Elizabeth.” He whispered her name before he cursed because his fingers had typed the wrong thing. He liked Elizabeth. They were friends, or so Max thought. Only, lately he’d been more aware of her than normal. She’d cut her hair and he’d noticed the way the shorter curls framed her face. Last week she’d changed her eye color and all day he’d stared at the sky out his window and wondered why it was such a pale blue in comparison to Elizabeth’s eyes.
He shook his head. Part of why he’d gotten involved with Felicity’s illusions was to try to put Liz, she’d said to call her Liz once, from his mind. The experiment had been a failure. As was this report. He deleted it and put thoughts of all women from his mind.
A knock at his door interrupted him as he put together a list of potential partners for this job. “What?” he mumbled as he hit the button to open the door.
Had he conjured her? Liz stood in the hallway, street clothes on, and he found himself struck dumb. Short skirt, his brain screamed. Bare legs. Oh, dear. Was that cleavage? Max stared. He cursed himself for an idiot. Then he stood, and then he instantly thought better of it and sat.
“Max?” She stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry. I’m interrupting.”
“No,” Max said and stood again, body under control. “No, please. Come in. I was going to send you a message.”
“Oh?” she asked. and were her cheeks darkening? Heels clicked as she stepped into his office and the door slid closed behind her. “I wanted to be sure you were ok. After, you know, Felicity and all.”
“What? Oh, yes. Being called gross.”
“She called me disgusting,” Liz offered.
“I know,” Liz said with a smile. “And you’re not gross.”
“Are you sure?” Max teased. He was on his feet still so they moved, drew him around his desk and closer to her. Liz didn’t speak as he stepped closer. “Is that the only reason you came by?” he asked.
Elizabeth shook her head.
"Felicity is a bitch and I like you. I don’t want you hurt by someone like that.” Her head tilted and she took his hand in hers. “Or anyone. Am I out of line, Maxwell?”
With corporate policy. She could be in trouble for initiating non-platonic contact, if he wanted her to be in trouble.
“Not if you have dinner with me.”
Now they were even. He could be in trouble for coercing her to fraternize outside of the office.
“Well, I don’t want to be in trouble,” Elizabeth said. Her eyes were still the same shade of blue that put the sky to shame. “Tonight?”
“Why wait?” Maxwell asked. Then, despite all the corporate training screaming at him to stop, he kissed her.