"Remind me why we're doing this again," Rose growled, kicking a rock with the toe of her converse and watching with satisfaction as it landed several yards away. For what was meant to be a happy day, she felt decidedly out of spirit.
"Because it's your birthday, and your family wants to see you," Dimitri said calmly, used to being the voice of restraint and reason – especially when it came to anything involving Rose and her family.
"So now they want to celebrate," she continued, side-skirting the real issue.
"Roza if you don't want to…"
"I do!" she hastily interjected. "I just don't want to deal with all the bullshit that goes along with my parents!"
Dimitri shrugged. In the almost two years since they'd publicly revealed they were a couple, he'd had to deal with Abe and Janine on several occasions. Individually they weren't too bad, once you got past the casual – indeed almost incidental - threats of violence, maiming and significant bodily harm. It was when they were together that things got explosive. Their first Christmas together being a case in point.
Janine had been at Court with her charge and had managed to get Christmas Day off. Knowing Rose and Dimitri had it off, too, she was determined to spend the day with them. What they hadn't counted on was Abe flying in for the holiday season and, like Janine, he wanted to spend Christmas with his daughter and her boyfriend. All of that would have been fine, but Janine and Abe loathed each other.
When Rose had first returned from Russia, Abe and Janine had been getting along well. A little too well in Rose's opinion. She was all for her parents maintaining a healthy respect and friendship with one another, but she didn't need to see them flirting and – oh so much worse – making out. However even Rose agreed that was better than how things were now.
Janine had believed her re-acquaintance and burgeoning relationship with Abe to be exclusive. One dinner party, a flirty Drozdov widow, and an enraged Janine watching from her position lining the wall, and everything had gone to hell in a handbasket. Abe and Janine had an enormous fight and had not seen one another since. Until that Christmas.
Both parents jockeying for her time and attention, Rose decided to invite each of them to Christmas lunch in the tiny apartment she and Dimitri shared in the Palace. There were actual cleaning closets that were larger than their apartment, but it was Rose's first home with Dimitri, and they were proud to show it off. They'd also reasoned it avoided them having to choose which of Rose's parents to spend Christmas with. Sadly, things had not worked out quite as well as planned. Janine and Abe would not speak directly with one another, making the entire meal decidedly forced. It all came to a head over dessert, Janine upending a Black Forest Gateaux over Abe and his favorite suit. Since then, Rose had made a point of only meeting up with them together in public, knowing her mother was a lot more likely to contain her fiery temper when others were present.
"Come on," Dimitri cajoled as they approached the entrance to one of Court's finest restaurants. "The sooner we're there, the sooner we can go home and celebrate…"
Rose shivered. Celebrating with Dimitri? She liked the sound of that.
They walked inside, finding Janine waiting in the foyer. A glimpse into the restaurant and Rose could see why. Her father and Pavel were already inside. Janine was fidgeting uncomfortably, not something Rose was used to seeing her mother do. She was dressed up and looked sensational in a soft olive-green dress that showed her milky skin and fiery hair to advantage.
"Hey Mom," Rose greeted, hugging her before standing back so Dimitri could lean down and give Janine a chaste kiss on the cheek.
"The serpent is already in there," Janine grumbled, accepting Rose's hand and walking in with them.
"Darling!" Abe boomed, standing up and hugging Rose effusively. "Happy birthday! You look beautiful!"
Rose smiled. She'd gone to a bit of effort tonight, wearing a dress Lissa had bought her a year or so ago but had never found the right occasion to wear. Tonight had seemed like the ideal opportunity. Abe stuck out his hand to shake Dimitri's, thinking the Russian Guardian did scrub up well.
"Janine," Abe said with a thin veneer of civility. "You're looking tired. I hope you're not working too hard?" he sneered. Rose flinched on her mother's behalf. Every woman knew tired was a euphemism for old. But Janine wasn't one to let anyone know they'd scored a point, no matter how much it hurt.
"Well we can't all sit back and expect someone else do all the hard work and risk their life for us, can we? And how are you, Pavel? Nice to see you again."
She gave the stalwart guardian a lingering kiss on the cheek. Abe's smile became forced. Janine gave as good as she got.
"Can't we just have one fucking meal where you two aren't at each other's throats?!" Rose hissed, glaring at her parents in turn.
"Sorry darling," Abe said, perhaps genuinely repentant. He stood, holding Rose's chair out for her, which left Dimitri free to do the same for Janine.
"I thought we'd have the seven-course tasting menu?" Abe suggested pointing to the menu and the series of dishes the restaurant was most known for. "There are alternatives to the marine courses," he quickly added, pointing to one side of the menu before Janine could complain. She didn't like seafood.
They all agreed, so Abe raised his hand and ordered. None of them said it, but they were all conscious that the waiter would expect Abe, as the only Moroi present, to order for the table.
"Rosemarie? You said you said you'd had some trouble in Seattle when you visited?" Janine said, trying to break the awkward silence. Rose responded, outlining Queen Vasilisa's trip to meet with a newly identified Spirit user, and the unexpected attack on their accommodation while she was there. Believed to be an opportunistic attack and not a premeditated attempt on the reigning monarch's life, it had still given Rose another three molnija.
"And what about you, Dimitri?" Abe asked, keen not to be outdone by his daughter's mother. "How are you finding guarding Lord Ozera?"
"It's fine, thank you, Abe." Always taciturn, Dimitri was particularly quiet tonight. Abe thought he looked nervous.
The four of them made their way through the courses, enjoying the fine wine selections that accompanied each course. While Rose's parents had put aside the open hostilities and antagonistic barbs, things were still far from relaxed.
"So, what did you get for your birthday, darling?" Abe asked, smiling at Rose genially.
"Lissa and Christian gave me a book of massage vouchers," Rose crowed, looking elated. "One every week for a year! AND I get to clock off an hour earlier on Fridays to attend!"
Rose and Dimitri, like the rest of the guardians guarding Queen Vasilisa Sabine Rhea Dragomir and her consort Lord Christian Ozera, worked at least twelve hours every day. As their primary guardians, for Rose and Dimitri it was often more like sixteen hours. As recompense, they sometimes got Saturdays off if the Royal couple were staying at Court and didn't have an event to attend, and wherever possible they finished by 8:00 am on Fridays, making that Rose and Dimitri's date night.
"That's very thoughtful," Janine said. "Unless they do it, people often don't appreciate how physically taxing it is to stand for hours on end, day after day, no one considering you might need a meal, a stretch, a sip of water or a toilet break." She didn't mean to be unpleasant, just voicing a truth Rose and Dimitri understood all too well. However, Rose did notice Abe's eyes flicker to where Pavel stood impassively to one side, his eyes constantly scanning the room while his charge and guests sat and enjoyed wine and a sumptuous meal.
"Yeah. It was really nice of them to think of me, and I'm looking forward to cashing those vouchers in," Rose said, moving the conversation along before things got difficult. Again.
"And what about you, Dimitri? What did you get my little girl for her twentieth birthday?" Abe asked, knowing that referring to Rose as 'his' pissed off Janine immensely.
Rose blushed, her eyes meeting Dimitri's before slipping her hand into her clutch.
"He gave me this," she said solemnly, taking her hand out and showing her parents the large ruby ring Dimitri had proposed with two minutes after she'd turned twenty. She'd said she wanted to have a two in front of her age, and Dimitri had taken that statement literally!
"Is that…?" Janine gasped, her eyes flicking from Rose to Dimitri seeking confirmation.
"It's an engagement ring," Dimitri confirmed with a shy grin. "I asked Roza to be my wife, and she said yes!"
"Oh, sweetheart!" Janine said, standing up and coming over to hug Rose and admire the ring. "It's beautiful!"
"Congratulations you two!" Abe said, beckoning a server over and ordering the establishment's finest bottle of champagne. He waited until the four each had a glass of sparkling before he proposed a toast.
"To Rose and Dimitri. We wish you every happiness!" Everyone sipped their champagne, and Rose was relieved to see that despite her parents having zero experience with matrimony, their announcement had apparently been received positively.
"Now I know the tradition is the bride's family pay for the wedding, and given your mother has no money to pay for anything, I'll happily foot the bill! Whatever you want!"
Rose expected her mother to explode at that hugely offensive comment, but really, she ought to have known better. Janine just smiled archly.
"That's very generous of you, Abe. I'm sure Rosemarie and Dimitri appreciate it!"
And that's when Abe recognized the tactical error he had made.
Rose didn't need their now defunct bond to know that Lissa was envious that Dimitri had popped the question before Christian. Even though Rose didn't have the ring on at work, and had kept her excitement about the engagement to an absolute minimum, Lissa's overly bright smile and enthusiasm told Rose what her words didn't. Her best friend was jealous but doing her best to hide it.
"Are you going to have a big wedding?" Lissa asked casually after offering her congratulations. Knowing Lissa had been planning her wedding from the first grade onward, and that as the Queen of their world, anything Lissa had would completely eclipse her wedding, Rose replied that they'd not yet discussed it, but they'd probably have something small at the records office.
"I know you two don't earn a lot," Lissa said. "If it's a matter of money, I can help you out…"
Rose tensed, feeling that no matter how kindly meant, Lissa had crossed a line. Everyone knew guardians were paid next to nothing, but it was humiliating to be reminded of the difference in their stations. She didn't need her best friend to pay for her wedding!
"Thanks, but Baba said he'll pay for whatever we want," Rose announced before standing against the wall at the side of the room, looking everywhere other than at her best friend, charge, and monarch.
At almost the same time, Dimitri was with his charge in the palace kitchens. Christian had recently decided he was interested in Spanish cooking, and so much of the day the two men spent in the kitchen, Christian experimenting with new dishes.
"Engaged! That's great!" Christian said, clapping the much taller and older dhampir on the back when Dimitri told him. "When are you planning it?"
Dimitri shrugged. He, more than anyone, knew guardian's lives weren't really their own.
"Whenever Rose wants, and we can get a few days off." Dimitri paused before saying the next thing. "I know we won't have time for a proper honeymoon, but I'm hoping for a day or two just the two of us. I don't often get a chance to show Rose how special she is to me; I'd like to spend a couple of days pampering her."
"Oh yeah – I bet you want to pamper her," Christian teased salaciously, before looking up at his guardian and witnessing a profound sadness lingering in his eyes.
"Sorry, man. You're right. You two never take time off together," Christian admitted, feeling bad that he hadn't considered Dimitri and Rose would have to be back on duty a day or two after their wedding. "Leave it with me. We'll work something out."