A/N: Hello beloved readers and reviewers! As promised, here is the long-awaited collaboration between myself (StarGazers) and rednightmare. We have been working on this for some time and still are not finished. This here is just the first little chunk of a growing mass between Red and I.

This is holiday themed. So...think Christmas in June! (Yaaay!) And it was born out of the question: How would each of our OCs (Louisa & Woeburne) celebrate Christmas? The following is the insanity that ensued once that question was asked. [Yes - this is both of us and NO, no one is plagiarizing our material!]

This story is AU for both of us because - obviously - neither of our OCs exist in the same universe but that did not stop us from having gratuitous amounts of fun piecing this ditty together. We also hoped it would stretch our abilities as authors, since it is very hard to write a POV for a character that is not yours. Red and I also hope that through this piece, other authors are encouraged to challenge themselves by forming cooperative collaborative relationships to create totally new works that they love.

We can both honestly say we love this piece - if for no other reason than it made us laugh our heads off! So many parodies have sprouted from this story alone. Some that may be written, some we can only fantasize about. (Like, LaCroix involved in some Freudian-style therapy session with Beckett at the helm. Mwahaha!)

This is set around 2012 or 2013, FYI.


A/N 2: Hey! Rednightmare here. Just an extra note to say how excited we've been about sharing this piece. In case anyone is interested in coordinating a VTMB collab or engaging in roleplay, I've created a forum here in the Vampire: the Masquerade category. We've had some issues with bugs, so performance may be spotty until FF gets the kinks hammered out of its forum system, but feel free to give it a try if you'd like.

One helpful thing to know going in is that StarGazers and I fully intend Tis the Season to be a collaborative story rather than a turn-based roleplay; the whole point was to have fun trying on each others' characters and settings in a respectful but risk-free environment. It follows that the page breaks in this story don't necessarily indicate a change in author. We hope that you'll find things streamlined - as we hope that, rather than guessing who-wrote-what, you'll have a fun and holistic reading experience. Thanks! -rn

It was an inconvenient stroke of luck, depending on who was telling the tale. For those in the Northwest, the situation was a menace provoking unnecessary anxiety and fudging a pristine, agreed upon schedule. Those from far South of Rainier viewed it as a blessing of sorts, an extension granted by acts of a higher power to cover bases for the twentieth time and tie up non-existent loose ends.

In reality, it was a flight delay.

A two hour flight delay out of LAX to accommodate a wintery storm blowing through.

So instead of departing at six o'clock and landing at eight thirty to arrive for an event scheduled for an hour later, Sebastian LaCroix and his youngest Childe flew out at eight sharp. They touched down at SeaTac International around ten forty-five with a gloomy-looking driver and knee-bobbing assistant to greet them. Serena Woeburne's immediate thought was what a detestable habit knee-bobbing was. Her second: How long until her Sire barked at the woman to control herself. He didn't need to, so it turned out. The woman caught their eyes and snapped into a diligent focus. They strode toward one another, blending in with the other greeters and Holiday guests of the baggage claim department. The knee-bobber thrust a hand out to Sebastian first, then Ms. Woeburne.

"Prince LaCroix, always a pleasure," she said in her most diplomatic tone. To Serena, she introduced, "Jocaste. Jocaste Vassiliadis. Personal assistant to the Prince."

"Pleasure. Serena. Serena Woeburne." Then she let the woman's hand go and watched her eyes widen.

Jocaste darted wide orbs between Prince and protégé. "Y-you're not Joelle Lefevre?" she asked with a stammer.

"Obviously not," LaCroix answered as he walked away to fetch his bags. Serena fell into place behind him, Jocaste at his side. She was fumbling with a cell phone.

"We were expecting Ms. Lefevre. No offense," she shot at Serena. "What am I to tell our Prince?"

"I believe your Prince is well aware of the circumstances behind Ms. Lefevre's absence. Ms. Woeburne is more than an apt replacement," was Sebastian's answer.

"I see. Very well," Jocaste said as she punched buttons, put the phone to her ear and snapped fingers at the driver. He answered her beck and call, taking Sebastian's bags. "Patrice, it's Jocaste. Small change of plans," the assistant spoke while striding away from baggage claim. Driver and LaCroix following her lead.

Serena grabbed her bags from the conveyer belt and trailed Sire and guide. To be honest, the Foreman had been surprised when LaCroix informed her of her sudden, mandatory attendance on this trip. Even she posed the question – in her mind of course – why Joelle couldn't be bothered to go. The preening Toreador cockatoo relished jet setting alongside her stony, Ventrue employer and it wasn't as though Ms. Woeburne was first favorite with her post-Chicago status hanging somewhere in the ether.

"Yes. Serena," Jocaste paused and glued her eyes on the Foreman, "Your last name. With an 'e' or without?"

"With." A common question from those wholly unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes Childe of Prince Los Angeles.

"Woeburne. With an 'e'. Stay on the line, I have another question," Vassiliadis ordered as they stopped behind a black BMW, flashers blinking. The assistant forked open the front passenger door and ducked inside.

Bags in the trunk, the driver held a door open for Sebastian. No one held the door open for Serena. The frustrating upsets of the evening made it easier to overlook. Sliding into the car beside her Sire, she listened to Jocaste Vassiliadis ramble off a schedule. Ms. Woeburne was beginning to question the organization of this city or, at least, Vassiliadis' management abilities.

Jocaste zeroed her attention on the back seat after closing her door. "This flight delay has put us in a bit of a bind. You were expected some time ago," Jocaste stopped and motioned for the gloomy man to drive. With the same hand, she tucked a rebellious strand of dishwater blonde hair behind her ear and continued, "The intermission ended five minutes ago. By the time we get to McCaw Hall, they'll be halfway through Act II."

It was like she was speaking a foreign language. Serena looked at her Sire, her Rosetta Stone for this situation. Sebastian looked bored, borderline irritated. He sighed, "Just take us to the house. She'll understand. We'll go another evening."

"Oh, um…" Jocaste hesitated before quoting Sebastian into her cell. Woeburne watched the assistant's face fall. Obviously Patrice did not agree. "Okay. Yes. Thank You." Her answers were a familiar breed of curt. Vassiliadis frowned at LaCroix. "I would love to take you to the house, but, you see…She's expecting you to be there. We'll drop you off and take your bags. Someone else will drive you to the house after it's over."

Serena watched a special kind of anger flash across Sebastian LaCroix's face.

The McCaw Center was a monolith of glass and steel, lit up with Christmas colored lighting and walls plastered with Nutcracker posters, opera singers and other Fine Arts accoutrement. Serena felt inadequately attired for the setting as she caught sight of lingering female patrons in floor length gowns and cocktail dresses, their stiletto heels making staccato clicks when they walked. Prepared for business, Serena was garbed in one of her tailored lady's suits: a darker shade of grey to match the gloomy atmospheric conditions of the Emerald City. Her heels were just high enough so as not to fray the hem of her pants. She didn't really have time to be concerned with appearances these days or at the moment, as their party began ascending a flight of stairs.

Jocaste led them to the doors of a private box. Serena could hear the chords of the Arabian Dance from the other side. Vassiliadis gripped the handles of the double doors and exhaled.

"Prince Chambert loves the Nutcracker. She is also a strickler for punctuality. I need not tell you how quiet to be," she instructed before opening one door with silent precision and disappearing inside.

Woeburne followed LaCroix inside, suddenly and uncomfortably paranoid about the noise she made. The box was dark, illuminated only from the lights of the stage below. Serena made out five figures sitting in plush chairs: three in front, two in the back with two empty chairs remaining. Jocaste was kneeling to side of one figure in the front, someone perched in the middle chair.

The Prince.

Prince Louisa Chambert of Seattle. She watched Jocaste murmur something into the Prince's ear. Chambert's head barely turned. Woeburne watched a manicured hand lift and flick upward in sync with the Chinese Tea Dance that started up. Vassiliadis backed away and stood. It was only then that the Foreman noticed her Sire had already taken his seat. Jocaste touched her shoulder and jerked a thumb to the seat behind LaCroix.

"Sit!" she whispered a hiss. The assistant disappeared while Woeburne sat.

After Clara, Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince exited the stage following bows, the house lights came up and somewhat blinded Serena. She blinked away multicolored blotches hampering her eyesight and watched the bodies around her move. Her Sire stood and walked back to the double doors. Woeburne just made out the buzz of his vibrating cell. Everyone else was stretching in their seats and making idle conversation while the massive crowd below filtered out. Serena fought the desire to drum her nails; she was anxious to meet Prince Chambert. Someone was leaning over the Prince's chair arm, Chambert's face hidden as a man in front of Serena stood.

"Marvelous entertainment! Not quite the Royal Ballet but they did beautifully," he stated with a British accent.

Oxford, Serena thought. He definitely sounded like the sort that came from there.

"Nothing is quite like the Royal Ballet, Alex," a distinctly female voice lilted. The accent was hard to place, as though the vocal chords had come to accommodate many dialects over the years. All that was discernable was a definitive French undertone. Not as stereotypically French as Joelle's drawl. It was something softer, feminine and young, "But I would like to think ours is premier in the nation."

"Of course it is, Louisa!" asserted the woman beside her.

Ms. Woeburne felt the same strain of paranoia that assaulted her when she entered the box. She did not know much about Prince Louisa Chambert, at least not anything to make herself panic over. What she did know was common knowledge among kinsmen and Kindred, things anyone with minimal curiosity could find out. Louisa was from France. Where within France was a mystery. She was old, but how old was uncertain and varied depending on who you talked to. Louisa was a centurion: a Prince with one or more hundred years beneath her belt in a single city. Within Ventrue society, she was attached to legendary status for various acts of greatness and wars won.

Gossip described her as an icy Imperator and one of the original Camarilla presences on the West Coast. It seemed she had a penchant for arranging Princely positions to worthy clansmen along the Pacific. Her on-again, off-again hated of Christopher Houghton was an amusing rumor in Los Angeles. Besides those things, nothing else was known to Woeburne. Sire, consorts, Childer…all seemed nonexistent and unimportant. It left Serena regarding Louisa thusly: Chambert was a distant monarch whose presence elicited more anxiety than most. She was a phantasm with lethal tendencies, a loyal following and firm grasp of politics. When Woeburne lived in New York, in those formative years as a Kindred, Louisa's name had been one of those whispered with great respect, sometimes fear – as though saying it out loud would cause the despot to manifest before them.

Ms. Woeburne tried to leave much to the imagination so as not to mar their first encounter. First impressions were everything; first impressions with a Prince were more so. LaCroix's reappearance at her side was a balm for her nerves. She stood and offered him a small smile, "Is everything alright, sir?"

He glanced at her and nodded. "Nothing to be concerned about. Let me introduce you. Don't worry about remembering the names," he whispered. Sebastian drew her closer to the small group with the palm of his hand to her rigid shoulder blades.

Prince Seattle was not standing but speaking into a cell phone with her face turned into her chair, obscuring the view. Excluding her, Woeburne met three other Princes and one Seneschal from all over. Portland, New Orleans, Charelston and Quebec. Three Ventrue and one Toreador. Kisses to hand and cheek were exchanged. They made brief discussion of the performance until Chambert rose. Back to them, she smoothed the gown she wore. Then she turned and smiled at Woeburne.

"Serena. What a pleasure it is!" the Prince took four steps and drew Serena's face down to kiss her cheeks. "You have no idea how long I've waited to meet you!"

Woeburne expected many things of Prince Chambert: silencing presence, mechanical Ventrue attitude, reservation. What she had never imagined was her being a teenager.

Louisa loved it! She didn't usually, but this time she did. The shock that glared in Ms. Woeburne's eyes was priceless. The way the woman fought to wipe it clean and resume her stalwart disposition was amusingly reminiscent of how she had handled situations like this when she was around Ms. Woeburne's age. Not that Louisa had had many others like herself to encounter. The woman's unassuming appearance, business chic, was a welcome sight to who LaCroix usually had at his side for functions such as these. And unlike certain younger siblings, Louisa had a feeling she would like Ms. Woeburne. Their Sire looked bored, a nervous kind of bored that said something to the extent of I'm tired of being here but I don't trust you not to do something outrageous.

"Why don't we get going? I believe the exodus has passed," Louisa said as she walked passed Woeburne and the others to exit the box.

Louisa, her Sire and sibling parted ways with the other four at the bottom of the stairs. She walked toward the executive car deck, fishing a ticket out of her purse. Louisa thrust the ticket at the valet and turned to her guests while he fetched the car.

"I'm surprised you all showed. I was sure you would have driven straight to the estate," Louisa said.

"We wanted to. It seems your assistant was under the impression you would have preferred us here," Sebastian explained.

Louisa's shoulders gave an apathetic shrug. "Didn't really matter to me. Ah! Here it is!" She beamed as the valet drove up in a cerulean Maserati.

There is a certain set of things you say to dignitaries. It doesn't take a fusty ladies' school or a fustier Agoge to guess at them, and you oughtn't strain yourself too hard; they are normal sorts of hellos. Here is a list of some common ones: good evening, most honored, it is a pleasure; happy to receive you, may I take your coat?; very glad to be here, yes; it is rather bitter out, isn't it; your home is superb, your jewelry is superb, your city is superb; your everything is. Yes, you know these gestures, and you know their halfhearted truth. The specifics become irrelevant after so many years kissing rings and hanging up shawls. It is all rather bitter and it is all absolutely superb.

A decent bailiff is used to good manners, and hers are taciturn, but very polite. She can usually manage without much footwork. There is only one irritable detail Serena is always certain to ask beforehand, however, in anticipation of meeting a Prince or a Primogen: handshake or bow? Some of the old ones are stuck in monarch formalities, some of the newer ones would like to play like they are, and several frankly don't have the finger dexterity or the humanness to touch anyone's body any more.

So it was odd, you know – when she posed this usual question to Sebastian, sitting beside him in the jetplane, her hairspray and Listerine, his steam-clean and unmemorable cologne. She asked plainly, folded her newspaper over a knee, and got this:

"Hmm? Oh. It doesn't matter," he'd said. He was sulking. "Do what you want."

Ms. Woeburne has always been a better shaker than bower. She is the sort to incline, bob, salute.

And she probably said one of those proper-etiquette things when the Prince of Seattle kissed her cheeks like a society debutante inside a teenage silhouette. Superb was the de facto word. Eyes of a superb, inquisitive deep water blue, oddly childlike in their color, pupils unmistakably dead. Superbly colorless blackbird hair. A superb gown: not a virginal white, but a sweet-cream pale, geometrically modern, scalloped in the back deep enough to see only the pinch of two shoulder blades. It did not appear she wore makeup; at least, there was no telltale red smear stamped upon Serena's face. With the lip prints cooling, Ms. Woeburne bristled at a stranger's liberal use of her name.

"You were late enough to have reason to skip the showing, in any case. It's never the same that way, when it's unbalanced – not as it might have been. And you've missed the best part of the production. I'm sorry for that," the woman told them. It was dim and somnambulant in this hollow lounge. Scarlet stairs spilled down metallic architecture behind them, an evocative suggestion, more than some interior designer could intend. Shadows disrupted the ghost of reflections on thunderous marble floors. Serena got a distinct sense Chambert was speaking this last sorry-bit only to her.

"Still very worthwhile. I was surprised to be going. Pleasantly so," Ms. Woeburne lied. She wished the Prince would stop speaking to her. But these were the niceties that accompanied having lineage, as downplayed as hers was. Louisa had the quality of a lamplight. Beneath black sleeves and silver cufflinks, Serena's shirtsleeves looked irradiated in these wintry, romantic lobby lights. The ancilla as a whole was unfortunately funereal. Her dark hair was too long and too tired. It had grown back to the hue of old, stagnant coffee in this damp place; cappuccino, night cap, no sugar. Her sockets wore circles beneath the blur of spearmint green. A sort of apology for herself: "I wasn't aware we'd be attending. According to Ms. Vassiliadis, it's one of your favorites. "

"Yes, it is!" Chambert smiled. She spoke a little overloud. "Too bad you couldn't enjoy it in full."

"It is the weather, Louisa." The weather impermeable. It does not blink for your African gold or ivory horns. It is a thing you cannot change. In this frozen gloom – the gravedust smudge of this weather, as it is – Los Angeles looked very especially blond.

The first Childe stared at him a half-second – a contemptuous, icicle pause.

"Obviously," she said. She took Ms. Woeburne lightly by the forearm with a glove. Three fingers and a pinky; it was a helpful, bigger-sister touch. "By the way, I don't know anything about you. Do you like the snow?"

"It's all right. A nice change of climate." Too many changes, too many climates: LA to Chicago to California to Washington. Ms. Woeburne spoke from the back of her teeth – the tinny syllables, the clacking consonants. She felt hostile at being abandoned to this conversation. A glance behind her, sharper than usual, found Mr. LaCroix – he walked deliberately three steps after them and frowned, disgruntled, at the sheen of black shoe leather on damp cement. They were not watched with any sort of progenitor pride. They were not watched at all. Two discordant figures, varyingly female; the younger-elder's neck was deceptively delicate; the older-younger's brunette was a somber bounce crossing 'T' over her spine. Serena dulled the scowl he did not see. "It is a handsome city."

"We'll take a taxi," Sebastian dourly cut.

Seattle looked threatening. "I would find that very rude."

And they were outside now – in this fresh bite of Northeasterly air, sometimes scale pines and applewood, now fishy and cool. Moss and clams, hardshells and Guinness, some pepper-red sauce that flounced in the air like Italian dining. The temperature thawed just enough to bleaken the snow into a slurping lurk of exhaust, drainage and unhappiness. More of it in the forecast, though. A few hours would whitewash the muck away until it, too, muddied with waste, and so-on-and-so-on, something perennial. Prince Chambert released Serena to attend to the car. Sebastian brooded. Ms. Woeburne stood there on the slick clatter of promenade concrete in front of McCaw with hands at her sides, lapels dappled with flake stains. It was a choleric gray overhead and a lazy sort of night-cold. The mesh awnings were dripping on her. She stepped out of the way.

Louisa blue-eyed it all.

"Here. You sit," she beckoned to Ms. Woeburne. Her left hand curled the dress train safely above the gutter mush. Her right stuffed a fold of bills in the valet's hand. "After you," said the Prince.

Well, you know, what else could she do? Serena thanked her, descended the curb, and she sat.

She sat with no hesitation – sat how she would follow most orders, mundane as they generally are. But don't read too deeply into this confidence. There is a feeling Serena gets, you see, about open doors – a feeling that is never warranted but occasionally sharp – a sort of sinking in the torso, like a kidney has come loose, like Alka-Seltzer in ale. There is a Prince holding possibility ajar: an invitation, from power, for power. She cannot refuse it – she wouldn't, anyway; she is a Ventrue, much like most – but she also remembers. It is hard to forget déjà vu like that – when the last time a Prince held open your door, perhaps in the fog of a rainstorm Queens, he had you recruited, had you killed.

It is never a car wreck. It is often an acquisition. She wondered if the same was also true for the others he had made.

Serena sat down. It was a comfortable automobile – lurid paint, a tint like metal in mist, but roomier inside than its riche curves suggested. The upholstery was charcoal and she blended with it in a way that struck her as funny. Ms. Woeburne, camouflaged in monochrome, watched through the window as Louisa thrust up one arm to summon her driver, a curt motion that insisted in a familiar way. LaCroix didn't bother waiting for ceremony. He forked open the opposite door and plunked in. Prince Los Angeles sat with the heaviness of someone annoyed – someone who was preparing to be more annoyed, but not deeming this distraction worth the effort of bickering about it. His shoulders were military and his lips were pursed. The cushions seemed to creak beneath him as the car resettled with them both inside.

Serena did not turn her head. One green iris flicked to its pink corner and looked at him.

"Sir," she said.

Sebastian might have been gritting down on a strip of rope with a hot iron at his back. There was no interest in conversation. He had that lock in his jaw he got when the Primogen were being meddlesome at a quarterly; both of his shins looked cramped despite the ample space. This different humidity had thickened the browns in his mane, now more goldenrod than filigree. The stare, too, was darker than was usual; indigo and pitch; it was a dappled vial of ink. "Hm," he grunted.

"Is something the matter?" It was a diplomatic way of noting she was doing most of the talking.

"Nothing is the matter."

An index to her cheek, a thumb beneath her chin; Serena rested one elbow on the armrest and considered that unbending weather outside. Prince Chambert had clipped back into the building for a moment, someone to schmooze with, some cheeks to pucker and smack, something fond or menacing to be said – but you could see her through the façade panes, slipping between A-lines and American cuts, dress a streak of not-yet sullied snow. The Foreman dotted an unfortunate sting of mascara out of one duct. Her lips were a blueberry crimson and tense, but not like his were; this was the expression of keeping one's nerves, and perhaps some amusement, at bay.

"Really," she noted.

Here it came. The tone of being disliked; the twitch of twanging a tripwire, knowingly, because there was nothing he could punish her about, and nothing worth wasting his time. There was the hiss of diminutive ess-es on the end of her M. "Is there something on your mind, Miss Woeburne?"

"No, sir. Not specifically. Well, not pressingly. It's just." Miss Woeburne's eyebrows gave a neat, heel-down hop. "You seem a little short."

In their sidelong way, the Prince glared. He was too much empire pout to yell tonight.

Louisa returned. The chauffer had stood with folded fingers just outside his cockpit door, waiting for her wave, and got it. He ducked in and said nothing to either Kindred. Chambert, too, approached her Maserati at something that could not possibly have been called a trot – could it? She did not so much stride as step. Not a sashay – nothing so flamboyant – but the sort of walk one does with great confidence, a bit of self-satisfied excitement, a cat with an eye on a fishtail. Too much confidence; a showmanship spryness, like oiling a pistol before a duel where you know your opponent will see. Ms. Woeburne tucked her glasses into a pocket of sports coat.

"Finally," Sebastian muttered.

More spring than walk, more speed than swoop, there she went; past the steering wheel, around the fender, to the passenger door, and, it occurred to Serena too suddenly, right by it. The Prince of Seattle did not pay that option a passing glance. She reached out with great, pleased aplomb, tugged open the same door she'd held for Ms. Woeburne, and skitter, swoop, here she was. Right here, actually. Ms. Woeburne all but slid into her Sire's side, elbow bumping his ribs, so as not to be sat on; he made a gargling squawk of discontentment; Louisa, nonplussed, slammed them shut and smiled.

"There," she announced. The crush of a jasmine was strong. "All finished. Sorry I've kept you waiting. But that is what they say: fair is fair. Let's be away, Liam, please."

Leg-to-leg between two Princes, Serena could've wished an Anarch summit had kept her home.

The kick of the exhaust bit sharply. There was a lurch and a hiccup; the wet wheels bucked; Serena startled in her seat just enough that Mr. LaCroix barked another snort. He loathed being touched, resented close contact when it was not invited; she had never known him to invite it. Her anemic knuckles gripped for a seatbelt that wasn't there. The Foreman had accidentally stepped on his foot; he yanked it out. She tried valiantly to be small in shoulder pads.

It was an obvious game going on here – wicked, unsporting, juvenile, everything politicians tended to be with one another. Don't bother guessing at the fine print and the ancient history. It was clear there was an illness between them. Serena would not have guessed she was being used as a surrogate body – a phantom arm to push, prod, poke, disturb him.

"Sorry, I'm sorry," she mouthed – meant to speak – but nothing came out.

Mr. LaCroix shoved the both of her knees away.

Louisa did not seem to be bothered by the Childe's proximity at all. Both gloved hands were on her lap, one atop the other; she twisted them to look at each palm. They had gotten soggy, and so the woman set to pulling each satin shell off with stiff, miniature tugs. Each stripped from a filed, polished nail, clear and shapely. She'd worn no rings this evening. It had seemed excessive and Sébastien had probably never looked at her hands.

"Beautiful," she remarked. Then, at Woeburne's curious look and the snake-spit of her Sire's, Prince Chambert elaborated: "Seattle. She is beautiful, if you please, not handsome. I wouldn't like mine to be a male city. I say we are two ladies by the sea."

Talking now, at this tight vantage, in the false light of this car, Serena's fine hairs rose. A ghost of purplish powder from her cheeks had come away on Louisa's mouth.

"Of course," Woeburne said. It was fairly horrible.

"You're very agreeable! You might want to work on that, or, then, you might not. It's not my place to tell you what to do. I'm being sentimental, naturally, but one is entitled to a little of that, I think, after so long without it. Now." Both long gloves had been peeled and deposited neatly beneath the hand heels resting upon them. Advice from Princes was something you adapted to. Chagrin from Princes was nothing to take to heart and everything to heed. None of them were particularly leggy or strapping, crowded there in the backseat of a muscular car; these were the noblesse and the infanta between. "Since Sebastian has told you maybe a little more than absolutely nothing about what is going on, let me see if I can't amend that. Are you looking forward to Christmas? I very much enjoy holidays," Chambert told her, not bothering waiting for an answer, pulling a swarthy fork of hair neatly behind one ear. It slipped back out again as soon as it had been stowed away. "I enjoy the holidays, Serena, because I enjoy parties. I am very social; I like people, that is, people whom I like. And Christmas, skipping Halloween, is my favorite season of them all. Let me tell you: I have planned a chef-d'œuvre this year. Maybe my very best one yet. But..."

She studied the cleanly buffed claws on one hand, false absence, dropping them again. There was a tempest seething from the left crunch of this backseat too much to be looked at. Ms. Woeburne could not even bother feeling insulted by the familiarity of Serena. She was too on edge about the bicep pushing his, the thigh nudging hers.

"But," she echoed, because there was no way in hell Mr. LaCroix would humor that bait.

"But, California being what it is, my Sire will not be attending. This is, I think, the fifth year in a row you've rain checked us, Sebastian. It doesn't trouble me. I understand. But there are several of our mutual friends here – and from quite far from here – that are feeling a little neglected. So, out of politeness, I've arranged for an early…" Chambert savored a word that must have been delicious. "Function."

"Oh. All right. Well. I'm afraid I'm not exactly prepared. I understood this was going to be a business trip," Ms. Woeburne said – annoyance for her, too, towards the soundless Prince at her opposite side. They had left the ballet thoroughfare behind now, and Seattle's thick, snout-heavy skyscrapers rose quickly. There was a breadth to the air that made their yellow lights yawn wide as lighthouses in a blizzard, as villages in a Russian snow. "Else I would have packed a little more diversity into my-"

"Nothing lavish," Louisa promised. "No soiree. No waltzing. Just an intimate dinner between old friends. You aren't required to attend, Serena. But, of course, I'd be delighted if you did."

The double-talk of Elders; Ms. Woeburne knew better than to dismiss this as anything else. You accept your invitations in this world. You do not brew venom where a snake is still smiling at you. "Thank you, Prince. I'd be glad to. Provided it's clear with Mr. LaCroix."

"I can't imagine it wouldn't be," she dared.

Mr. LaCroix neither cleared nor denied nothing. He sat squashed in that little spot, compressed by a tool and a mistake, with the silver spoon roiling to a sword inside his mouth.

Chambert looked long at the three of them there – a bloodline, a progenitor, a largest and smallest descendent on this crippled spruce of a family tree. They were narrowly high and wicker-thin, a quaking aspen – a species with hardly any branches, because the sprouts were too zealously pruned. Louisa had met a few of those fragile baby twigs who followed her. Crabapples in Europe; pinenuts in Africa; one North American fig marching in suit. They got more platonic and more sullen as these decades carried on. Replaceable parts, that was the concept; exchangeable bodies; unremarkable minds. It was a manifestation of Sébastien as he strove to whet himself down – to grow more modern, to shave the excess, to make that blade in his jaws a perfect and stainless steel. He was so obvious. So blatant and stern you might pity him, perhaps, on those generous days when you felt more alone than you did spited. You could tut and reflect upon that line of faces, upon a honeydew girl named Charlotte to the cut of a tin corporal whose compounds could have been a prison. "Mister" she addressed him. It was too predictable. It was something you could flinch at: the lack of instinct, the threadbare connector, the schedule of them. It was a negative space, an absence of sentiment – chosen for a task only, and chosen, perhaps, because there was none of that feeling stuff. There had been more passion between a toaster oven and a piece of pumpernickel. Louisa might have laughed out loud at that. Which was which? Could you make a stalwart toaster out of prickly soldier tin?

"Pumpernickel is nice enough. But what I'd really love right now," Seattle mused, "is some gingerbread."

Ms. Woeburne chuckled at that. It was a modest laugh, a lidded, confused laugh, more grin to show than stomach to back it up with. You could see her teeth for a moment – the human set, the inherited pair. Incisors, cuspids, slicers, crushers. There were four teensy-tiny ones in front – perfectly identical, peas in a pod, too analogous to be healthy, too even to look as they ought to be. And, on either side, two unkind spurs – the same ones Louisa felt in her own mouth, that LaCroix bit in his.

"And I imagine you didn't profit from this 'masterpiece' of yours," slapped a voice – the one that preceded them, the root of the small triad curse. "Didn't sell entry, or a court seat, to the highest bidder? My name was not made into a lobbyist conversation piece, I-"

"I don't particularly want to talk politics with you right now," Louisa decided. She leant her head back to the cushion, roamed her eyes through the drear of the new-winter windows, and despite everything, let herself smile.

There is nothing so suffocating, so homicidal to conversation with one Sebastian LaCroix than to cut him off. Cocooned in sweet-crème and her own authority, Chambert could settle into the opulence of her car without a second thought. She had no need to worry about the consequences of her biting actions. Woeburne was beside her.

Serena had never felt more solid in her life than the moment Seattle guillotined Los Angeles' undesired commentary. Superb head reclining like a contented cat, Prince Chambert enjoyed the privilege of using Ms. Woeburne like a Berlin wall between herself and Mr. LaCroix, who seethed beside his youngest. Squashed such as they were, Ms. Woeburne could unfortunately feel the muscles of her Sire's body tightening, could see that lock jaw cramping teeth together. In the silence around them, Serena was sure she heard one of his molars crack beneath the pressure.

Was this what Pompeii felt like before Vesuvius? The sensation of rumbling earth, temperatures rising before the inevitable eruption that turned every living thing to ash shadows on the ground? Serena was too made of stone to look at either side of her – directly, that is – to determine how close to destruction they were coming. The cat-of-a-Prince at one side, satisfied smile on her face that Woeburne couldn't place; was she that happy at abbreviating Sebastian's complaint? Or could Serena detect Seattle's pleasure sprang from something else? Bodies in the car? Nutcracker sugar plum symphony serenade between her frontal and temporal lobes? Ms. Woeburne didn't know, didn't pretend to know, the mind of a monarch. What she understood, absolutely, was that each ticking of her second hand needle accentuated the atmosphere in the car. And not many second had gone by.

Mr. LaCroix's face turned in a sharp angle. Volatile Persian blue pierced Serena's temple. The Foreman almost winced until she realized, from one hesitant peripheral look, that he was not glaring at her. Sebastian LaCroix glowered through her. His rage was pinpointed for the person on Serena's other side. Prosperous West Berlin barely flinched, didn't notice for child-like eyes concentrated on the heavens with their snow-laden, dismally grey clouds instead of her eastern counterpart with his incendiary stare.

Ms. Woeburne's stalwart concrete began to fissure from the inflated egos at either arm. LaCroix, she knew, would not soften his expression until it was recognized by the appropriate recipient; Louisa, she ventured to guess, would not indulge his insulted pride. Illness between them made more into cancer by avoidant mannerisms. A cancer whose tumors pushed migraine throbs between Woeburne's eyes, hot aches into her scapula.

A tenth second ticked. Somewhere, a cell phone buzzed like an ill-timed jester – tragically comical. It wasn't until Sebastian emitted a sharp growl that Ms. Woeburne felt permitted to lean forward and extract the cell phone from the same pocket she'd tucked her glasses into. Her fingers fumbled, knocking phone into lens with a tink-tink-tink that humored no one besides the sweet-crème Cheshire regent. Another sharp snort from LaCroix and the phone was free…free and still as the grave. Tragically comical indeed, Woeburne moaned internal. She wasn't sure she wanted to raise her body back into the Cold War air behind her. No man's land was comfortable, undemanding if she just sat still. And then something happened.

"I have learned through precious experience that there are three things civilized persons do not discuss in polite company," Louisa began with a sudden perk of her head and straightening of her shoulders. Seattle was grateful for the immediate extra space Serena's slouching body provided. She ticked the subjects off with manicured nails as she spoke, "Politics. Religion. And sex." Woeburne saw Louisa's finger rub expensive satin. "The act, mind you," she explained with a pointed look at Woeburne, "Not the antiquated expression for gender. Something about thighs and breasts ruffles feathers, though I am not so easily undone. These modern nights think themselves so clever and inventive with their fifty shades of bondage-riddled, over climaxed, silicone enhanced drivel better suited for papier-mâché than mental expansion. No, I've bore witness to more jaw dropping material. The stories I could tell you…" Seattle murmured; her stare went into the distance of satisfying memory. A warning growl snapped both Childer to attention. Serena's to LaCroix, Louisa's to reality. "Though! I honestly am not troubled by the discourse of any given topic; I have found those three cause the most absurd reactions in people!" Chambert tittered. Giggled.

And just like that, Vesuvius grew cold and brooding once again. Just like that, the temperature dropped. Just like that! With an excuse she didn't have to fumble for, Serena observed Louisa stave off what could have become a right fit of LaCroix's. Loyalty solid, Ms. Woeburne was unsure if impressed was an appropriate feeling to have toward the détente issued by Prince Great Northwest – a flimsy ease of tensions she'd found so amusing. There had been an unsettling aspect – a Puckishness, dare Woeburne think, adolescent – about the way Chambert had handled the situation. Set it up, more like, Serena thought.

Set it up only to tear it down. A toddler's sport. This was the twisted game Princes played with one another to seek egotistical satiation. Gone were the medieval nights of marching troops and Chinese gun-powder ammunitions to the indiscriminate, territorial boundaries that defined one domain from another; gone the twilight of good old-fashioned warfare to determine the better regent. Now was the time of technological dominance: hacking, spyware, emails "accidentally" sent to the wrong address. Modern nights were made by petty scraps, full of proverbial pissing contests between testy crowns for little more than intangible bragging rights and fodder for gossip. So was the dance between Seattle and Los Angeles. And Seattle won. Serena imagined Seattle won often.

Regardless of her opinion of Chambert's tactic, Ms. Woeburne was not dissatisfied with the result. Sebastian returned to the realm of sulking, sucking barbed teeth behind tight lips. Unspoken sentiments scrambled somewhere between teeth and tongue. Again, Serena would not complain. An unsteady peace returned to the car. Each Prince looked out their respective windows; an eerie similarity in the way they rested their hands in laps itching for more room, the way their distinctly manicured nails drummed melodies or schedules only they heard. Serena straightened, finally, but found her fingers off their rhythm, not quite in sync.

The next time anyone spoke, the city skyline was shrinking in the rearview mirror. Woeburne watched the tip of the Space Needle dip beneath the rise of the highway when Chambert said, "Besides…I don't need your name to broker conversation with anyone." And with that, she snapped her fingers; in front of them, Liam switched on the radio with a snap of his wrist and drowned out potential retaliation to the tune of O Holy Night.

Louisa admitted to herself that scooching into the back seat, thrusting Serena up against dear, old Sébastien, had been thoroughly entertaining, but now she had had enough. She was not a backseat passenger ever. If she could help it. Originally, she had intended to drive them back with her own two hands. It went without saying how quickly LaCroix squashed that idea when she'd called him before their flight was meant to take off. Her plan had been to catch him just before he strode into the terminal, when he would have been too distracted to refuse her idea. Inclement weather put a damper on her plans all around.

"You acquire a driver or a different car. Those are your only options," he had hissed into her ear.

In French, of course.

He refused to reveal even the slightest hint of intimacy between the two of them to this youngest sibling of hers. Past experience taught him better than that. Queer looks, puppy-dog expressions yearning for explanation and probing questions LaCroix would rather ignore than entertain. An exhausting deluge of history to unravel. Malicious altercations that had taken chunks out of root and baby sprig honeydew. No, their relationship and its intimate nature had been a secret since the Childe before this youngest one. And that only because the nameless Childe before Woeburne entertained so brief an existence in this life. Still, known or not, the communion between she and he existed. Intimacy enough for him to use those kinds of phrases: quick snips of sentences heavy-laden with paternal demand for respectful obedience. Phrases that made Childer, centuries or decades old, snap to. Luckily Liam was only a speed away at all times, hired more to comfort nervous Primogen than personal preference.

So speed dial had been pushed. Liam drove and out of "tit for tat", she'd slinked her lithe frame into the backseat with them instead of sitting in front or putting Serena Woeburne there. Cramped shoulders were grateful for the turn onto West Galer where mansion after mansion slid past either passenger window. Louisa afforded a glance sideways at her youngest sibling, watching the unfortunately average woman in her funerary best take in the extravagant show of wealth. These were nothing. Nothing to Ventrue who bled wealth. But the show was not quite over. Louisa heard Liam flick the signal and turn the car onto a private drive. A few numbers punched into a jutting keypad – her birthday – and they were in.

It was an expansive plot of land. Five acres of pristine green – manicured as her nails and covered in a thin film of dying snow – trees down the drive and a thick, brick privacy met them as iron-wrought gates swung inward on mechanical clanks. Barren Pacific dogwood flanking a lengthy drive down smooth stone brought the focus on a palatial, châteauesque style decorated with spruce green wreaths, red ribbon and clean, crisp white Christmas lights. And that is when she saw it: the slight expanse of the Foreman's mossy eyes, the minute cinch of a throat muscle. This was not Hendon estate, nor South African manor, nor Los Angeles penthouse. This was Old World mentality, New World construction and staunch French influence. This was the home of a monarch, the home of something inadequately dubbed 'Prince'.

"I had it built just as soon as I arrived over a century ago," Louisa answered the question she suspected floated around Woeburne's head. "Took them nearly five years! But, I think it was worth it. The plot used to be much smaller," she explained as the car came to a stop. "Bought the two on either side and one in the back in the early thirties. Poor dears, tough times. They didn't need the land anyway and their houses!" She groaned, "Atrocious, nouveau riche, Italianate monstrosities."

"Must have been quite the eyesore," Woeburne struggled to reply. And not a "loss for words" kind of struggle, either, but more the politically correct, don't-want-to-step-on-toes hesitation ancilla like her exhibited. "But your home is superb."

Now that was an easy response.

Legitimate, too. Louisa could see in the sibling's face the sense of awe inspired by her home, the land it sat on. Things Ventrue acquired with money earned by determination and hard work, separation from one's root.

"It is quite, isn't it? The wall went up when those architectural faux pas went down. The trees we bought after St. Helens. They add life to the property," Louisa humored, albeit as a horrible pun.

That look made Louisa consider silly things while Liam put the car into park and shuffled out of the driver's seat. She wondered whether Ms. Woeburne had finances of her own, the means to break away easily if need arose. Seattle was not ignorant enough to believe Sébastien had embraced yet another inheritance-rich Childe. Too many complications came with that in modern nights. His pruning of emotional expression and preference for tin quality corporals accounted for lack of independent wealth too, she imagined. Lack of independence period. Forced dependence reaps some fragile, Stockholm loyalty and love.

A rush of cold air broke the Prince from unproductive thoughts and she slid out of the cramped back seat. Louisa gave a graceful stretch of her arms, arched her lower back forward for a satisfying crack of tense vertebrae. Ms. Woeburne crawled out behind her while LaCroix all but flung himself out of the car from the other side. She heard him mutter something in French and shut the door a little too hard for her liking.

"Ne pas endommager mon bébé avec votre mauvaise humeur," she threatened.

He shot her a sour look as he rounded the back of the car. "Je vais faire ce que je veux," was the hiss she received.

"Pas dans ma maison." That was her final warning for the evening before she gave Woeburne – who displayed the confused, obvious look of a mono-lingual tongue – a hostess' smile and used the same three-fingered press to lead the woman into her home.

Louisa strode into the comfort of her private domain, thrusting her free hand in various directions to accompany her information, "An even twenty rooms in the main house. Twenty-five if you count the guest house across the way. Kitchen, dining room, library-" she paused. Sébastien abandoned the one-sided conversation after 'library', striding up the stairs with fingers tugging angrily at his tie. Louisa almost chortled at the panic-stricken quality Ms. Woeburne's eyes took on as she watched her Sire leave her behind without so much as a sympathetic look back. She patted the girl's hand. "He does that. Doesn't really need the tour – been here so often in the past, you see. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes! Library, study, two half baths and office suite on the main. Entertainment room, gym facilities, full bath and two guest rooms downstairs. Master suite and other guest quarters on the second floor. Servants quarters on the third."

"A-and my room shall be where?" the Foreman stuttered more as a result of taking in information than being alone in Seattle's presence.

"Second floor, West wing." On cue, Jocaste Vassiliadis rounded a corner with a clipboard in hand and lapdog smile plastered across her face. "We call it the Queen Anne room. Prince Chambert believed you would like it." Vassiliadis motioned to her sovereign. Louisa afforded a curt nod of agreement and walked toward the stairs. Her assistant and Woeburne followed while the former continued to save her employer breath, "Your bags are already in there. I took the liberty of having refreshments brought up as well."

"I wasn't sure of your taste. Guests can be so fickle, but none more so than clansmen, so there is one cold and one warm," Louisa specified as she climbed with the stairs with chiffon in one hand, railing in the other and sibling three steps behind.

"Everything in the house is state-of-the-art. Window panels close by themselves at precisely a quarter to six, so don't let them frighten you. You have a private bath, towels and adequate toiletries provided. Hamper is in the bathroom closet. Dry cleaning is to be hung on the right side of the same closet. The staff with take care of the rest. Should you need anything, simply tug the rope by your bed. Someone will come to help you," Jocaste concluded as all three landed on the second floor.

"Thank you," was Woeburne's appropriate response to the barrage of knit-picky rules. Louisa had already turned her back on the two of them when this infanta posed her a final question, "If I may, should I need him, where shall Mr. LaCroix be located?"

Louisa quarter pivoted to share a knowing look with Vassiliadis. It was lost upon Woeburne in its brevity of a second. Or so she assumed. "Mr. LaCroix stays on the eastern wing of the house, though I wouldn't suggest disturbing him for the remainder of the evening."

Woeburne merely nodded. A soldier's bob of the head.

Louisa smiled and shook her head. "I am so sorry for you that he was in so poor a mood," she lamented on Serena's behalf. "The man can pout with the best of them and I am honestly surprised he held his temper like he did. I assure you, he will be in a better mood tomorrow."

Louisa turned and strode five steps, snapped her fingers then spun to fully stare at the two. "Speaking of tomorrow. Jocaste," the assistant cracked to attention like a whip, "Schedule a few hours for Ms. Woeburne and myself. She has accepted my invitation to our little affair but, I fear – if I may – she hasn't the proper attire for it. We shall go shopping. Liam will not be needed. Make that happen, oui?" Another knowing look to her terrier. A quick, Jack Russel nod of compliance. "Wonderful! Well, bonne nuit, Serena. Dormez bien," Louisa offered before continuing her journey to her room and a long, hot bath.

Queen Anne indeed. The room with its curving shapes, cushioned seats and wing-backs was reminiscent of Hendon in the way it screamed late Baroque English reign. The Foreman thought it was an interesting, if not painful, contrast to the thunderous French influence of what else she had seen of the manor. The walls were the same sweet-crème shade of her dress while the trappings had been dyed rich jewel tone greens. Superb was not quite the de facto word Serena thought of: opulent was. But she didn't indulge in the opulence the way she had when Sebastian LaCroix first deposited her at Hendon. There was no time for wonderment when voice mail messages ate up space on her cell phone and unanswered emails glared at her from the bright screen of her laptop. Ventrue don't fawn over fabrics or furniture the way Toreador do. They enjoy their comforts in the same manner they enjoy their iron clad schedules and lucrative businesses. Ms. Woeburne would enjoy Prince Chambert's generosity no differently than she enjoyed the Empire Arms.

Well, the bed she might enjoy more. Some expensive hybrid of pillow top-memory foam heaven, Serena told herself she would be a fool not to revel in it. Ms. Woeburne decided, without doubt, she deserved this bed after the longest, tensest drive since the night Sebastian ousted her to Chicago. Risking her existence fighting Sabbat or Bach would have been more comfortable than being sardined between two Ventrue moguls spitting political quips and French intimidations over her head.

That same dogmatic French she could hear lilting down the halls from the opposite wing of the house. Her instinct was not to move. That had somewhat worked in the car, not moving unless she had to. Serena carried that same self-preserving mentality with her as she eased out of the bed to appropriately change her attire, wash up and respond to that which needed her attention. No secretive emails from one, Sebastian LaCroix, to shed more light on his sullen disposition this evening. Should she expect so much? Her post-Chicago tenure at his side was tremulous at best, not aided any by her questioning said frame of mind after his offhanded assertion that nothing was wrong. But she knew. Everyone knew.

Louisa Chambert, Prince of Seattle, knew and had twisted fun with it. What benefit could there be to riling an already agitated LaCroix? His bailiff couldn't fathom an answer. Her blood-bound loyal nature desired answers, though. More to the point: she felt she deserved them after being abandoned to the attentions of their hostess for so long a time. Sebastian had never given her so free a reign to interact with another despot. There had always been coaching, rehearsing of lines, refinement of etiquette involved or, at the very least, a supportive intervention when it seemed like she'd exhausted her participation. Not. This. Time.

Serena closed her laptop and pinched the bridge of her nose. The thought of spending hours with Chambert tomorrow was already exhausting her. There was a honey-sweet thin layer over the woman's interactions thus far. It was a similar vein to how Joelle treated Woeburne, but where Joelle was doing it on purpose, something about Louisa's seemed staged. This was not how she normally behaved, that much was certain. It was careful manners – tapping ice for thin spots behaviors – of a stage actress. Ms. Woeburne wondered how saccharine the French lady would be tomorrow evening.

A Vesuvius eruption of Old World, masculine French made Serena jump. The chair toppled back and her knee knocked the desk. She hissed but focused eyes and bit bottom lip toward the eastern wing. A hesitant peak out of her room and down the hall afforded her nothing but daunting, dark distance. There was no return argument she could hear. No enraged, barking femininity to counter the explosion. Nervous, if not paranoid of being seen, Ms. Woeburne tucked herself back into her room.

Louisa pressed her foot against the ignition and wove herself and Woeburne through easy-going traffic on I-5 South. The poor girl gripped her arm rest a little too tight, but Louisa had obliged her sense of safety enough by slowing down twice. She wasn't going to do it a third time. Serena would just have to trust her driver's reflexes and impeccable driving record. Louisa didn't entirely blame her driving on Woeburne's rattled nerves. She had practically pounced the woman as she came down the stairs – a quick snag while Sebastian was distracted – and stuffed her into the car without too much explanation.

"He hates it when I drive, you see, so I had no other option. He would have raised such a fuss if we waited to tell him what we were doing. He's such a bore sometimes. You know, I'm not even sure he knows how to drive?"

"He's always had a chauffeur as long as I have known him," Serena admitted.

"Uhg! I can't even imagine," she moaned. Louisa caught Woeburne's skeptical look and huffed, "There is no greater thing than independence, Ms. Woeburne. Remember that. Even if all you do is drive yourself, at least you don't have someone barking at or leeching off you all the time."

"I will keep that in mind," Woeburne obliged.

"Do that." And she pulled off on the next exit, much to the relief of her companion. "And whatever you do: Do not answer your cell phone. Once he figures out we're gone, he'll blow them both up. I'll take care of it. Now! Let's find you something to wear, yes? Something to match your eyes, perhaps? Can't dress in lady's suits forever. Hmph," she scoffed to herself, "Nothing ladylike about them, is there? I hate clothes that make women look like men or make women feel that's how they ought to look. That's why I never wear them if I can help it."

She lectured on attire not to criticize, but in the hopes the sadly average woman would dress in something other than charcoal. LaCroix might enforce her behavior of a tin soldier, but the woman didn't have to look like one. From the wince that scrunched Ms. Woeburne's face, she could tell this wasn't her first discussion involving wardrobe. It wouldn't be the last, either. Her own experiences were evidence enough: Lyon, Dijon, Oxford, Moscow, Austria, Istanbul, South Africa, America. So many. Louisa slowed the car as they pulled onto more populated thoroughfare then turned into the parking lot of a couture dress shop.

Louisa drummed her nails as they waited for the attendant to bring out just about every dress in Ms. Woeburne's size. The woman distracted herself by flitting anxious looks to the cell phone Louisa had snatched from her grasp that poked out of Louisa's purse. The attendant came back, hangers pushing bruises into the pink of her fingers. Prince Seattle crinkled her nose and shook her head, "No sleeves. Nothing too short. Take some of those back." The employee nodded then Louisa lifted a finger and said, "Except that one. I'll try that short one."

Standing, she urged Ms. Woeburne into one of the dressing rooms and stood on as much precedent as Sebastian did when it came to undressing blood 'relatives'. Louisa saw herself as the helper as she yanked the grey sport jacket off the woman and tossed it over the crook of her arm. Woeburne was abashed and Louisa kind of liked that. "You don't have anything I don't have but I shall go, for your comfort. Let me know when you need me to zip you in," she pointed out as she shoved a dress of champagne, one-shouldered chiffon into the woman's hand.

Louisa kept tally of which dresses suited the Foreman the most. The woman had promise when draped in something that didn't mirror clearance-section JCPenney. True to Ventrue nature, miniature monarch had her sibling redress in everything she'd approved of until they came down to five dresses: the one-shoulder champagne, sleeveless organza of metallic chartreuse, another sleeveless in turquoise satin, gold V-neck and a royal purple silk halter. Louisa walked around the woman, studying her close while she wore the gold dress with dramatic neck plunge.

"I don't believe this would be entirely appropriate," Woeburne complained. That was code lingo for: Sebastian LaCroix would never approve and/or promptly disown me. She fidgeted. Stiff as stone no matter what she wore.

"Are you implying I – a Prince and Prince of this domain – would allow you to wear something I would not find appropriate?" Louisa asked with fake severity, a cruel sense of teasing if you will.

Poor Ms. Woeburne became instantly flustered, fumbling over words, "No! I would never…I mean…you see…Rather, I am not entirely comfortable in something so revealing."

Louisa stood beside the woman, looking at the both of them in the mirror and drew her hand up to her chin. The back of two fingers rested there; the picture of ideal thought. "You are so stiff, my dear Serena. If I may be so bold," Louisa began in a way that, should anyone know her well, never led to anything but trouble. "You should really find a means to relax. I used to be like you and I found that-" Louisa paused to make sure they were absolutely alone before lowering her voice, "a fantastic screw did marvels for me!" Woeburne's eyes went saucer-wide. Louisa smirked with a wink to Serena's reflection before taking one of her sibling's wrists with the delicate touch of two fingers as she moved to stand in front of her. "Between us girls – of course! – a roll in the sheets is a great way to loosen those muscles and throw your cares away. With an experienced man, naturally. There are quite a few coming to this little fete of mine, if you want me to introduce you."

Woeburne's paranoia was kicking in as she darted looks around. They were the only ones in the store, which didn't actually help. Her response was abject stuttering, "I beg your pardon, Prince, but I don't…I could never…I-"

"Oh! How rude of me! These are modern nights, aren't they? If you prefer women," Louisa said slowly, "I know a few that I believe could fit the bill." She grasped Woeburne's hand and gave it a squeeze. "I am just concerned, my dear. You are so very tense and I would hate that tension to interfere with your enjoyment while you're here. And it is no trouble, really. It would be my pleasure to help you." Louisa grinned.