Twice Tempted Page 49

Marty and Gretchen entered the main doors to the ballroom. My father and I followed, and when we appeared in the entryway, organ music swelled, snatching away my gasp.

It wasn't the ballroom's new look that took my breath away, though the aisle formed from towering pillars of white roses and the massive antique chandeliers ablaze with hundreds of candles had transformed the room into a gothic dreamscape. It was all the faces that turned toward us. There had to be two thousand people, the sea of black tuxedos broken occasionally by splashes of color from women in formal gowns.

Had Vlad invited the entire town? I wondered in disbelief.

That thought vanished as I caught a glimpse of the groom. Vlad stood on a raised white dais, a canopy of intertwining iron vines rising several feet above him. He wasn't wearing a tuxedo. How like him not to blend in. Instead, his ebony jacket had thick braiding around the shoulders, reminding me of what kings wore in official ceremonies. It buttoned to his neck, the high collar framing his strong, chiseled jaw line. His pants were also black, but the cloak that draped over his shoulders and pooled at his feet was scarlet. Its edges were trimmed with ermine, and a wide gold chain held it closed, a gold and jet pendant the size of Vlad's fist hanging from the center.

In short, he was magnificent.

I walked down the aisle, barely noticing anyone else. Even the pressure from my father's hand faded away. Vlad's hair was brushed completely back, revealing his slight widow's peak. The absence of those dark waves made his lean features, strong brows, and high cheekbones that much more striking, and his coppery-colored eyes seemed to penetrate into my very soul.

Come to me, they silently commanded. Even if I wanted to refuse, I didn't think I could.

I was twenty feet away when fire snaked up the iron canopy, winding through all those intricately carved vines. My father stopped, his grip tightening to hold me back.

’’Leila - ’’

’’It's all right,’’ I said. I'd never fear fire with Vlad near.

Then I let my arm slip from my father's grip, walking those last few feet alone. The canopy continued to blaze but not a stray spark dropped to the ground. By the time I climbed to the top of the dais and took Vlad's hand, the iron had lightened from the intensity of the flames, until it looked like the metal canopy above us had turned into molten gold.

To say I'd always remember this moment would be an understatement.

I was so dazzled it took me a second to realize the dais had stairs behind it, too. A gray-haired man in a long white garment climbed up to us. Then he made the sign of the cross while intoning something in Latin. Once he was finished, everyone sat in near perfect unison. That sort of coordination told me the majority of our guests had to be vampires.

I had no idea you had so many friends! slipped through my mind before I realized how it sounded.

Vlad's mouth quirked. Then, the minister? officiator? began speaking in English so I finally understood him.

’’Dearest friends,’’ he said with a heavy Italian accent. ’’We are here to witness the joining of this man and this woman in the bonds of holy matrimony.’’

With my abilities, I'd relived a lot of weddings. I'd also relived enough divorces to know the vow we were about to make had more than a fifty percent chance of failure, but that didn't intimidate me. I'd faced longer odds before, and Vlad was well worth the fight.

He smiled at that: knowing, challenging, and oh so sensual.

’’No fight,’’ he murmured. ’’We are forever now. This first ceremony is only so that you and everyone else know it, too.’’

First ceremony? I wondered, but then the officiator said, ’’May we have the rings?’’ and I froze. With all the activity today, I'd forgotten we didn't have rings. Now what?

To my surprise, Gretchen ascended the dais escorted by Mencheres. The long-haired Egyptian must be Vlad's best man. He handed something to Vlad, and my sister took my bouquet while pressing something into my hand.

I looked down, relieved to see twisting bands of gold forming an unusual-looking ring. Then curiosity had me glancing at Vlad's closed hand. What sort of ring had he gotten me?

’’Put the ring on her hand,’’ the officiator stated. ’’Will you, Vladislav Basarab, take this woman, Leila Dalton, to be your wife . . .’’

The words blurred into white noise when I saw the wide gold ring Vlad slid onto my finger, a jeweled dragon emblazoned on its surface. I didn't need Vlad to tell me that this was no replica. I could feel it throbbing from the essences of the ancient princes who'd worn it before me, Vlad included.

He hadn't given me an ordinary diamond ring. He'd given me the royal seal of the Dracul line, resized to fit my finger.

I didn't hear the officiator finish, but Vlad said, ’’I will,’’ first in English, then in Romanian. The instant roar from the audience startled me out of my shock. Wasn't the cheering supposed to come after both of us said our vows?

Then it was my turn, and I slid the ring onto Vlad's hand while vowing to love, honor, and cherish him. No roar sounded after I was done speaking. In fact, the place went absolutely silent when the officiator stated that if anyone objected to our union, they should speak now or forever hold their peace.

To my relief, neither my father nor Marty said anything. Otherwise, someone in this groom-oriented crowd might have ’’forever’’ silenced them on the spot.

Then came the words I never thought to hear - man and wife - followed by a soul-searing kiss I would never forget.

This time, the cheers were deafening.

Chapter 29

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