There were three texts waiting for me as I walked out the door.
Somehow I hadn’t noticed them before.
I closed the door behind me and then stopped to type a text to my sister.
I’m here, Audrey. What do you want?
I stared at the text for a moment, realizing that it sounded a lot sharper than I’d intended it to.
Another text from Audrey popped up.
Danielle! Where are you?
So I just went ahead and sent the text I had already typed.
A moment later, Audrey replied.
Thanks for finally answering. I thought you had overslept.
There was a pause and then another text.
Do you have the ring? You’d better not forget it.
Of course I have the ring, I wrote back quickly.
But even as I pressed send, doubt tugged at my mind.
I began to rummage around in my purse—I couldn’t find the little black ring box anywhere.
Another text came through.
I’m sorry to be pesky. But I know how forgetful you are. Love you.
I stared at Audrey’s text in irritation and then went back into the house.
I found the little black ring box sitting on the kitchen table, and I snatched it up, feeling its soft velvet surface under my fingers.
I opened the box, just to make sure the ring was actually in it, and then I snapped it closed and dropped it into my bag in irritation.
I paused and made myself take a breath. It wasn’t the ring’s fault that I’d forgotten it—and it wasn’t Audrey’s fault, either. My sister wasn’t really a bridezilla—in fact, she’d been good-natured and patient throughout almost all of the wedding preparation.
It was just in the last few days that she’d been stressed out. And I really couldn’t blame her—she just wanted things to go well so that everyone—bride and groom included—had a good time.
As I hurried back toward the door, I paused for just a moment to check my reflection in the mirror in the hall.
My sister, who was usually so calm and businesslike, had gone full-on Renaissance fair for her wedding, and as her maid of honor, I was dressed up in full maiden of yore regalia. My long blond hair, which I’d been growing out for the last six months, had been done up in braids and ribbons, and I’d been allowed to do my makeup any way I’d wished, as long as it was “natural.” But I couldn’t say the same thing about my dress. I was wearing a long and elaborate rose-colored gown that might not have been so bad if it weren’t for all the bows and ribbons that had been attached everywhere.
And the puffy sleeves.
I really didn’t like the puffy sleeves.
But it was my sister’s wedding, and she liked the dress, so I was going to do my best to be happy wearing it.
I hurried outside, slipping just a little in my flower-adorned sandals, and got in my car.
The wedding site was way out in the middle of nowhere, and luckily my phone gave me good directions. Even so, I was running short on time, and the parking lot near the site was filling up fast. I knew Audrey was basically ready to walk down the aisle, and our mother was with her, but she still needed her maid of honor—if for no other reason than to steady her nerves. I parked quickly and jumped out of the car.
The wooded area where the wedding tents had been set up was vast, and I hurriedly pulled a scrap of paper with directions out of my purse.
My phone couldn’t help me where I was going.
I ran across the parking lot, slipping in my sandals again, and I soon reached the wide dirt path that wound its way into the woods.
I hurried onto the path.
My sandals slapped at my heels as I ran along the hard-packed dirt, and my elaborate hairstyle was so full of bobby pins to keep it in place that I felt as if I had a metal helmet clanking against my head.
Luckily, the directions my sister had given me were good, and I was able to find all the landmarks and turn onto the right twisting dirt path. I’d missed the rehearsal due to a sudden spring cold, so I was going to see the actual site and the tents for the first time.
I fished my phone out of my purse and looked for a photo of the site that Audrey had sent me and held it up in front of me—it appeared to be in a little valley. Then I put my phone back in my purse and hurried on.
As I ran, I kept an eye out for Gabe. He was the best man for Kevin, the groom, and I wondered if I might run into him along the way. Gabe would surely need to arrive early, just as I did, and I wouldn’t have minded talking to him for a few minutes alone.
Gabe and I had once gotten along very well—we’d even been headed to a wedding site of our own. And then we had argued, and things had come to an end. But time had passed, and I’d found myself thinking about him again.
I wondered if he’d been thinking about me, too.
The path before me suddenly branched off into two, and I stopped to consult my directions.
My little scrap of paper seemed to indicate that I should take the left branch, but as I looked at the two paths, the left one was just plain dirt, and the right one had little glowing lights that ran along the ground—the right one was definitely more festive-looking.
I consulted my paper once again. It still seemed to show that the left side was the correct path to follow, but as I stood staring at the directions, I could hear laughter and music floating up to me distantly. The sound was coming from the right-hand path.
I decided to follow the branch on the right, just in case. Maybe Audrey had made a mistake in the directions.
I stepped onto it, preparing to run again, but suddenly I was overcome by a sense of peace, and my feet slowed to a stroll. I admired the lights along the path as I walked. They were little glowing orbs that seemed to float just above the ground on both sides of the path, and they all glowed in beautiful jewel tones—rich reds, deep blues, brilliant greens, dazzling yellows. I peered a little closer, wondering how the floating effect was achieved.
I continued on down the path, and I found myself looking around in wonder. Somehow, the air seemed just a little sweeter, and as I looked up at the bright blue sky just visible through the trees, I found myself thinking that Audrey had chosen the perfect date and place.
May really was a perfect time for a wedding.
Soon I began to see people up ahead of me, and I could hear the distant sound of conversation.
I must have chosen the right path after all.
Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name.
“Dani! Dani, stop!” cried a familiar voice.
But when I turned to see who it was, there was no one on the path behind me. There was, however, a disturbance in a thick growth of bushes nearby—someone or something was shaking the branches and leaves violently.
I stepped a little closer, and then someone called out to me again.
The voice was different from the first one and unfamiliar.
I turned to see a man running toward me.
He was tall and blond, and he looked very worried.
“My lady!” he said again.
“What’s with the ‘my lady’ stuff?” I asked as he reached me.
Then I took in the belted tunic he was wearing with breeches and boots—definitely Ren fair style.
“Oh,” I said. “You must be here for the wedding.”
The man’s face lit up. “Yes, my lady. My name is Virgil. Your sister sent me to find you.”
I frowned a little as I looked at him. “She sent you? I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”
Virgil looked embarrassed. “I’m a new member of the queen’s guard. But I’m quite capable, I can assure you.”
He held out a hand. “This way, please, my lady.”
“The queen’s guard?” I murmured to myself. It seemed to me that my sister was laying things on pretty thick.
I glanced up at Virgil as the two of us started walking along the path, and I saw the tip of a pointed ear poking out of his long blond hair—Audrey must have talked him into wearing prosthetics.
“She’s really gone all out for this wedding, hasn’t she?” I said.
Virgil glanced at me a little nervously. “Do you mean your sister, my lady?”
Virgil cast his eyes down. “It’s not really for me to say.”
I sighed. So Virgil was going to stay in character as a member of the queen’s guard, and we wouldn’t even be able to make small talk. But at least I knew for sure that I had chosen the right path to follow.
I was glad I’d followed my instincts and ignored the directions.
There was a shout and more violent rustling from the bushes behind us, and I turned quickly.
“What was that?” I said.
Virgil’s face hardened. “Nothing to worry about, my lady. My men will take care of it.”
I was surprised for a moment by just how serious he looked, but I supposed he was committed to his role.
I allowed myself to be led away.
As we walked along the path, Virgil kept glancing over at me.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
Virgil’s fair skin went slightly pink.
“It’s just that your gown is most becoming, my lady,” he said. “And if I may say so, you truly are as beautiful as everyone says. And the accident that clipped off the tip of your ear has done nothing to mar your beauty.”
He frowned. “Although I thought it was just the one ear—but it looks like it was actually both.”
“My ear?” I said, puzzled.
Virgil’s blush deepened to red.
“I’m sorry, my lady. I was too free with my words. I shouldn’t have commented at all.”
Virgil’s posture became very stiff and formal, and I found myself thinking that Audrey’s friends were weird.
He continued to lead me along the brightly lit path through the trees, and soon we came out into a clearing.
The clearing sloped down into a little valley, and the valley was filled with white tents and lights in all colors of the rainbow that magically floated in the air. People with long, flowing hair, dressed in elaborate costumes, were hurrying back and forth between the tents, and on the far side of the valley, I could see that a white archway covered in flowers had been set up over an equally flower-laden altar.
I paused for a moment to take in the spectacle below. Audrey and her wedding planner had really outdone themselves—I hadn’t paid much attention when Audrey had shared her plans with me, and I realized now that they’d really known what they were doing.
There was nothing tacky or clichéd about what they had done—it looked like a real-life fairy tale.
Virgil had paused also and was looking back at me.
“My lady?” he said.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m coming.”
Virgil hurried on, and I followed him down the hill into the little valley.
He led me on to a tent in the center—the largest and grandest one of them all—and he stood by the entrance to the tent as if he were afraid to move the flap aside and enter.
Instead, he simply held out a hand.
“Your sister awaits, my lady.”
I glanced at him for a moment, and then I pushed the flap aside and stepped in.
Inside, there was a crowd of beautiful girls in equally beautiful dresses, and a soft, golden glow lit up the tent, making it nearly as bright as the day outside. The air smelled sweetly of perfume, and I could hear the murmur of soft voices as the girls fussed around something in the center of the tent.
As I entered, however, the conversation immediately stopped, and all the girls turned as a group to look at me.
I realized that none of the faces before me looked familiar.
“Hi,” I said uncertainly. “Is my sister here?”
The crowd of girls parted to reveal a young woman seated at their center.
She had long golden hair, and she was wearing a crown of flowers and a flowing white gown.
She was also stunningly beautiful.
I watched as her lovely features twisted into a frown that was somehow even more beautiful.
“Who are you?” the woman demanded in a clipped yet musical voice.
“I’m Danielle,” I said. “I was looking for my sister—but I must have stumbled into the wrong wedding by accident.”
I took a step back. “I’m sorry I intruded. You’re a beautiful bride, by the way.”
The woman rose. That one simple movement was fluid, graceful, and somehow mesmerizing.
“Guard!” she screamed.
Virgil stepped back into the tent, his eyes downcast.
“Your majesty,” he said.
“Look at me,” the woman commanded.
“Who am I?”
“You are my queen, your majesty.”
“Am I? You seem to have forgotten that. What is my name?”
“You are Queen Leandra, ruler of all the Fae,” Virgil replied.
He was visibly shaking now.
Queen Leandra pointed a finger at me. “Now look at this creature.”
Virgil meekly turned his eyes toward me.
“Why did you bring her here?” the queen demanded.
“I—I thought she was your sister, your majesty.”
Queen Leandra fumed. “My sister? You dare compare this lowly thing to her? This is a human being. This is not my sister.”
Another young woman suddenly rushed into the tent. She was breathtakingly beautiful like the queen, and she was wearing a rose-colored gown that was superficially like mine.
“Leandra!” the young woman cried.
She ran over to the queen—I assumed this was the missing sister.
“What is it, Iona?” Leandra said. “What’s wrong?”
“Humans,” Iona replied. “They’re having a wedding nearby, and our wards don’t seem to be keeping them out. Several have stumbled close to the tents but have been scared off. One actually attacked some of our guards and has been taken into custody.”
“And then there’s this one.” Leandra pointed a finger at me once again. “She got in here with no trouble at all. She could have killed me.”
“What?” I said.
Leandra stared at me with fury in her eyes. “You and your conspirators have ruined my wedding!”
She turned to scream at the hapless Virgil.
“Guard! Do your job and put this miserable creature with the other one!”
Virgil turned toward me, and I decided to run for it.
But as soon as I pushed my way through the tent flap, I found myself surrounded by a group of tall, blond guards that looked a lot like Virgil.
They led me away.
I was marched over to a tent on the other side of the valley—far away from the queen—and then a pair of ridiculously fancy handcuffs were slapped on my wrists.
But even though the cuffs looked more like jewelry than a form of imprisonment, they felt solid and unbreakable as I twisted my wrists against the metal.
I was pushed into the tent, which was dark inside, and my handcuffs were soon attached to a chain, which was then wrapped several times around a large, sturdy pole in the center of the tent. Then I was pushed to a sitting position with my back against the pole. The chain was wrapped around me several more times and then secured somewhere out of my sight.
Then the guards departed, leaving me in the gloom.
But the tent wasn’t completely dark—a vaguely orange glow shone through the white cloth walls—and I wasn’t entirely alone.
I could tell that there was another person on the other side of the pole who was chained and seated as I was.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“Dani, is that you?” said a familiar voice.
It was a male voice—low and a little smoky—and I thought for a moment.
“Gabe?” I said.
“Yes, of course, it’s Gabe.”
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“I was following you,” Gabe said. “You were headed the wrong way, as usual, and I was trying to stop you. And then a bunch of guys in elf costumes jumped me.”
I thought back to the disturbance in the bushes I had seen—that had probably been the queen’s guards grabbing Gabe.
“You were trying to help me?” I said.
“Yes,” Gabe replied in exasperation. “I was trying to help you, Dani. And as usual, that ended up getting me in trouble.”
I sat for just a moment, letting his voice wash over me—I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and yet I still felt a little tingle when he said my name.
“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said at last. “But thanks for looking out for me. And I was hoping I’d run into you here—just not like this.”
“You were?” Gabe said. I could hear genuine astonishment in his voice.
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Even after the way we left things?”
“Yes.” There was more I could say, but it didn’t seem necessary.
I moved a little, and my chains clanked. “So where are we?”
“I overheard some of the guards talking,” Gabe said. “Queen Leandra of the Fae is marrying Aden, the Lord of the Summer Woods, here today, and apparently the spells they use to keep human beings away aren’t working.”
“I heard something like that, too,” I said. “Though I didn’t hear who the groom was.”
I paused. “Do you believe it?”
Gabe rattled his own chains. “I think we have to.”
“So the Queen of the Fae is getting married in May,” I said. “It’s sort of like a Mae Wedding—you know, M-A-E.”
Gabe chuckled. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve actually missed your corny jokes.”
It was my turn to be astonished. “You have?”
“Yes, Dani. I’ve missed you. I’ve even missed the things that used to drive me nuts. In fact, I’ve especially missed the things that used to drive me nuts.”
I felt a little rush of warmth when he said that.
Gabe went on. “You know, Dani, I’ve realized that I spent a lot of time trying to change you. You’re scattered and forgetful sometimes. But that’s who you are. And the good qualities you have far outweigh the less-than-perfect ones. I should have seen that a long time ago. I should have valued you just the way you were.”
“Uh, thanks, I think,” I said. I turned my head in the orange glow, wishing I could see his face. I’d waited a long time to hear Gabe say something like that, and even though the delivery wasn’t ideal, I felt like the sentiment was real.
I just wished I could see his eyes to be sure.
“And I’m sorry I was irritable before,” Gabe said. “This isn’t your fault. There’s no way you could have known those elf guys, or Fae guys, or whatever they are were down here. You saw a likely looking path and you took it. Anybody could have made that same mistake.”
It definitely sounded to me like Gabe was being sincere, and my heart gave a little flutter.
This was the Gabe I’d always hoped to find.
“So you don’t think I’m trouble?”
I could hear a smile in Gabe’s voice. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re the good kind of trouble. And you’re exactly who you should be.”
I felt another rush of warmth. I wanted to turn toward him—to hug him, to kiss him. But all I managed to do was rattle my chains.
And suddenly I thought of my sister.
I groaned. “Audrey’s going to kill me. I’ve got Kevin’s ring.”
My purse, on its slender, flower-entwined strap, was somehow miraculously still dangling from my shoulder.
“And I’ve got Audrey’s,” Gabe said. “I’ve lost track of time, but I have to imagine we’re late by now.”
I glanced around the gloomy tent. “So how do we get out of here?”
“The first thing we have to do is get out of these handcuffs,” Gabe replied. “They’re sturdy, but they looked pretty old-fashioned. If I had a pick, I might be able to unlock mine.”
He paused, and I could hear a smile in his voice again.
“Do you remember that survival skills class we took?”
I smiled myself in response. Gabe had talked me into the class—it had been part of his campaign to get me to be more responsible and less “scattered,” as he put it. But the class had actually turned out to be pretty useful, and I had learned a few things that had come in handy in my own life.
And I had learned how to pick a lock on handcuffs.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve got a hairstyle full of bobby pins. Maybe we can use those.”
My hands had actually been cuffed behind my back, so I began to brush my head against the back of the pole. Maybe I could dislodge a few of them.
“See if you can scootch down a little,” Gabe said. “If you can brush up against the chains, you might be able to dislodge them a bit better.”
After much maneuvering on my part, I was able to loosen a few of the bobby pins, and eventually they fell to the ground with a soft thud.
Gabe quickly scrabbled around on the ground near the pole with his manacled hands.
“I’ve got one!” he said.
I swept my fingers over the ground, too, and eventually I felt my fingers brush against the cool metal of a tiny bobby pin.
I picked it up carefully, and I got to work on my own shackles.
I could hear Gabe’s bobby pin clinking against the metal of his handcuffs, and before long, there was a tiny click.
“I’m free,” he said softly.
His chains rattled as he worked his way free, and as he stood up, I felt my own handcuffs spring open.
I worked my way out of my chains and stood up also.
Gabe hurried over to me and wrapped his arms around me.
Then he stepped back, and I was able to look him in the face for the first time since I’d been brought into the tent.
His face was still a little rugged and weathered from all the time he spent outdoors, and his eyes were still warm and brown, and his dark hair still curled a little at the ends.
He smiled at me in the amber-tinted gloom of the tent, and I could see a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before—one that was open and vulnerable and trusting.
“Your hair’s all messed up,” he said, and he ran a hand over it.
“Oh, Gabe,” I said. And for just a moment, I leaned against him again.
Then I remembered we were trapped.
With Gabe’s arms still encircling me, I glanced around.
“We’ve got to get out of here without being seen,” I said. “And I bet there are guards all around this tent.”
Gabe glanced around also. “I bet you’re right. Stay here.”
He turned and walked stealthily toward the tent wall. Then he crouched down and lifted the cloth ever so slightly and peered out.
I walked over to the opposite side and did the same.
I could see the feet of at least three guards from my side of the tent.
I stood up and found Gabe standing beside me.
“So much for staying put,” he said.
“I was never good at that,” I replied.
Gabe smiled wryly. “I know. So I assume you saw guards just like I did?”
“Yes—I think we’re surrounded.”
Gabe nodded. “I think you’re right. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here.”
I glanced over at the pile of chains we had left behind.
“I have an idea,” I said.
Soon we had gathered up all of the chains, and we had tiptoed up to the flap that served as the entrance to the tent. I didn’t know if the flap was tied shut or not, but it really didn’t matter. I doubted it was tied tightly—tents weren’t meant to hold prisoners.
“What do we do now?” Gabe mouthed silently.
“We throw the chains out,” I whispered. “Then we run the other way.”
Gabe’s eyebrows rose. “That’s it? That’s your big plan?”
“Yes,” I said. “Do you trust me?”
Gabe stared at me for a long moment. Then he smiled.
“Yes,” he said quietly.
I smiled back.
“Then on the count of three,” I said. “One—two—three!”
We both heaved our pile of chains out through the front flap of the tent.
“We’ve escaped!” I shouted at the same time. “You’d better come in here and get us!”
Then I turned and ran toward the opposite end of the tent.
Gabe ran after me.
We reached the far wall and ducked under it just as the first guards were entering the tent.
We scrambled free of the tent, and I hurried over to the nearest post.
“Help me with this,” I said.
I began to push at it.
Gabe saw what I was doing, and he pushed along with me.
Within a matter of moments, the post collapsed, and the roof of the tent began to fall. Soon the big, white mass was writhing as the guards struggled to get out.
Gabe stared at the tent. “They all ran in after us, and you trapped them inside.” He turned to me in wonder. “That really was a good idea.”
I grinned. “I know. Come on—we’d better run.”
I turned and ran toward the trees.
Gabe caught up with me and grabbed my arm. “You’re going the wrong way! The path is this way.”
He veered sharply to the left, and I ran alongside him.
Soon we had scrambled up the hill, and I could spy the dirt path with the brightly colored lights up ahead of us.
I glanced behind me. I could see a crowd of blond-haired guards following us. Our guards had clearly worked their way free of the tent—and from what I could see more had now joined the group to help them.
Gabe glanced back also.
Then we both ran even faster.
We ran along the path with the colorful lights until we broke free of the trees. Then we nearly collided with two people who had suddenly appeared in front of us.
I stopped just in time, and Gabe skidded to a halt beside me.
I looked at the newcomers—a man and a woman—warily, but they seemed to be a normal human couple. They weren’t tall, willowy, or golden-haired, and they didn’t have pointy ears—instead they looked like typical tourists in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers.
I glanced at the path behind us with the brightly colored lights.
It had disappeared.
The tourists stared at us in irritation.
“Sorry,” Gabe said. “We’re late for a wedding.”
At that moment, both of our cell phones lit up and began to buzz insistently.
I glanced back at the vanished path once more. “Do you think we’re safe?”
Gabe breathed out heavily. “I think so—there’s no sign of pursuit.”
The tourists glared at us and moved on.
My phone continued to buzz.
I glanced at the first of a long line of texts.
I clicked on it.
Where are you? Audrey demanded.
I looked up at Gabe. He was looking at his phone, too.
“We’re in a lot of trouble,” I said.
“Yep,” he replied.
“They’re never going to believe us,” I said.
“No—no, they’re not.”
Gabe smiled and held out his hand.
“Let’s go and get in trouble together.”
I took his hand.
“What are we going to tell them?” I asked.
“Let’s just tell them that I got lost,” Gabe said. “And you came and found me.”
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