TO CLAIM HIS PRIZE

"I'm still partial to the green," the woman zipping her insisted. "It really brings out your freckles."

"My freckles," the red head told her definitively, "will be well concealed. I'm a grown woman for Christ's sake!" Turning to face the mirror, she smoothed down the bodice of the blue dress she preferred. Blue. It was always blue. From the time she was a little girl, if something came in every color of the rainbow, she'd have chosen blue with her eyes closed and for the life of her she couldn't remember why. Catching herself eye to eye, she couldn't deny that it complimented the vivid blue which light up her face like fire. As luck would have it, the garment she now wore sparkled with a vigor as strong as her eyes and as subtle as her smile. "I'll take it."

"Very well," the sales woman consented. She neatly slipped the blue gown back into its garment bag and then went about gathering up the unselected dresses. Of the five, her customer had chosen the most expensive. The commission would be better, but it meant less was left of the gift card purchased and reserved by one J.G. King. As it had been with the women who had come to her shop earlier.

The instructions were the same on each of the 20 cards brought in. $1300 to be spent on an ensemble fit for a queen. Any remainder he "offers kindly to the shop keeper as gratuity for their assistance." Most of the others were easy to persuade into selecting less expensive gowns. Pale colors to match dark skins, rich reds to compliment the auburn haired, stark white to contrast ebony locks. Then this one arrived with her summer sky eyes, perfect for that blue dress. To have chosen anything else would have been criminal.

She stepped out of the dressing room in faded jeans. A dime-sized hole wearing in the right knee, a lump marked in the back left pocket the shape of a cell phone. The sweater she wore was, not surprisingly, sapphire blue, tapered to her waist. In a bit of a retro style the neckline cut widthwise from shoulder to shoulder exposing the valley of her collar bone that accentuated her femininity while the clinging sleeves left little doubt that this petite thing could take care of her herself.

Examining the wall of shoes, she narrowed it down almost immediately. Nothing made a woman feel like a princess more than a strappy pair of high heeled shoes in rich, decadent black. They'd suggest the dyeables, offer to match it to the color of her gown in less than 24 hours, but there was something to be said for not wanting to look like a crayon. Definitely the black, the ones with the stone accents over the bridge and the tiny buckle that sat right over the outside of her ankle.

Silk hose, thigh-high with a black lace garter and matching panties were added to the tally, along with some black elbow length silk gloves and adhesive cups that would lend support with out ruining the open back and halter neckline of the gown. She thought of everything, head to toe. Or so she thought.

"Your mask ma'am?"

"Huh?"

"Your mask. You can chose from pole, ribbon, string, adhesive or one of these." She pointed to a selection of masks with stems much like glasses and tiny combs for hiding in your hair. The invitation did say masquerade, RedHairedDarkness had almost forgotten.

The ribbons would fuss with her hair, the string was a little two 'vinyl Halloween costume' for her, glasses and combs were just out of the question. Adhesive would keep her hands free, but Lord knows what it would do to her skin. No, the pole was going to be the biggest hassle, but it was classic, elegant and they had one that matched the dress perfectly. It was shaped like pursing lips, tiny wings at the temples like the turned up corners of full lips. Tiny stones trimming the brows. Simple, like She was.

"$1267.93," the saleswoman requested after ringing in what amounted to likely the best organized outfit she'd ever seen leave her store. She rang out the sale sliding the gift card through the register attachment disgruntled by her $32 bonus. In revenge, she skimped on the tissue paper she used to wrap the accessories and she wrapped the panties with the garter.

Packing everything carefully into her carry-on, She paused to re-read the invitation.

Your presence is requested by his royal highness, J.G. King, beginning at 6:30pm on the evening of December 31, 2006 at the Gardens of Niagara, Toronto, Canada for a masquerade in honor of the new year. Dinner to be served promptly at 7:15. Formal wear and invitation required. Tardiness will not be excused.

Until she'd purchased that remarkable outfit, she'd thought it all a hoax, but what sort of unscrupulous man would shell out a small fortune to host a masquerade for what evil purpose exactly? It just didn't make sense. After the tenth time she'd checked the outside of the envelope to be sure that it read RedHairedDarkness, State of California, she'd decided to let that enclosed gift card make up her mind. If it worked, she'd go. Otherwise, she'd have a good laugh at the whole thing. The joke was on her as she slid an almost $300 pair of shoes into the bottom of her bag. She couldn't help but let the laughter escape.

Rural California was a long way from Toronto, Canada and a royal highness was as elevated as one could be from diesel truck mechanic, as her father had been, but what the hell? It would have made any parent proud to have a child marry in to royalty, she imagined. A masquerade ball on New Year's Eve beat driving a bus, for sure. Any time off was a blessing. Having everything at your fingertips only made it harder to refuse, she thought as she stroked the snowy white fur of the cape she'd laid on the edge of her bed. The plane tickets were on her dresser. Whoever this guy was, he'd thought of it all.

Just outside her window she heard the impatient wail of a taxi cab's horn. She opened the window and shouted out, "Go on and start the meter, I'll be out in a minute." It was the only expense she'd been expected to cover herself having not had anyone available to take her to the airport, not that she'd have shared her plans with anyone. They'd have told her she was crazy and convinced her it wouldn't be smart for her to go. So she kept to herself. She'd have driven her own car, but the idea of leaving it in the extended parking bothered her. Spending twenty-some odd dollars on a cab wasn't too much, considering.

The cape only barely fit in the suitcase she had crammed full, but releasing the zipper around the edge gave her another inch of room to keep everything from compressing beyond recognition. Now She remembered why she'd spent a few extra dollars to get the expandable luggage. One last glance at her bedroom before she shut out the light and sighed. "Here we go," she told the shadows as she rushed out to the cab.

When one checks into a pre-reserved room at the Sheraton Fallsview, they anticipated they'd be looking out over one of the most fantastic points of interest in the history of North America. What one does not expect is to pull back the slates of vertical blinds and quite literally have their breath stolen away by the view.

For more than just a few minutes She looked down at the churning water, huge chunks of ice dotting the surface of the lake, racing toward the lip of the falls and careening over without a car for their own safety. It hypnotized her as nothing she had ever seen before. The rumbling in her stomach the only thing which could break her concentration. She hadn't thought she was hungry, the butterflies were too intense to leave room for hunger, but maybe she was wrong.

She dressed quickly and joined the other patrons in the hotel dining area. A breakfast buffet promised her any of a number of delicious fresh foods, including an omelet bar where you could order any number of combinations for any sort of taste or preference. The orange juice had been freshly squeezed and the sausage the best she ever tasted. Slowly she savored the plate she'd assembled. Mostly fruits, a slice of wheat toast to settle her stomach and the sausage which most definitely would not settle her stomach, but she was a firm believer in a breakfast that included protein, so she downed three links, just as the FDA recommended and then added a fourth for luck.

Back upstairs she filled the whirlpool where she intended to spend no less than one hour relaxing, preparing to meet her mystery host, working up her nerve. Sinking in up to her chin, she let the hot water and its soothing streams do their job, perhaps even too well as the world around became one big dream.

The winter gardens were only a couple of blocks away and while she'd never been their before, she could see them as vividly as though she had been raised within them. They reached to the sky, maybe beyond and She saw herself racing over the stone pathways along the trickling stream that grew gradually the further she ran. Her head felt light, full of bubbles as though champagne had gotten confused when she'd drank it and gone up rather than down. Loosened tendril of hair played at her face until she laughed them away and how she laughed. In all her waking moments She had never remembered feeling so happy, so free, so alive. Meeting with a pond, she sat by its edge to catch her breath. Beside her koi surfaced and dove, then surfaced again as they played. The bubbling water like a song. She wanted to dance. She wanted to find the source of the music in her head and let it embrace her. Trolling one finger through the water, she was startled by a hard chill which jolted her awake.

Frigid water was the only dream element that had followed her back into consciousness. She shook with tiny chills as her toe flipped the drain switch. Frantically she turned the hot water knob and waited as the water evened out and began warming her once more. When the chattering teeth and bluing skin disappeared, she crawled out of the tub, wrapped herself in the large white robe embroidered with the gold S trademark and slipped between the bed sheets where she could trap whatever heat her body had managed to retain until she felt toasty warm through and through.

When her phone rang, She jumped from having forgotten where she was. "Hello," she managed quickly trying not to sound too recently aroused from sleep. It was the front desk with a wake up call at 4:30 in the afternoon. 4:30! "Thank you," she said shocked at the time. How on earth had she managed to fall asleep once more? Had the desk not called she likely would have missed the entire affair she'd traveled so far to attend.

For a minute, she lie there facing the ceiling, a smile she could neither explain nor remove bending her lips. When she'd left California she hadn't imagined this kind of anticipation or excitement for that matter. She thought she'd be more defensive, more prepared to fend off a dirty old man, more abrasive to avoid contracting with anyone who tried to sell her real estate or the like. Rather, She was quite the opposite. She felt calm and accepting, ready to find love at first glance and willing to embrace any opportunity afforded her.

Springing from the bed like a school girl preparing for a prom date, she busied about. So much to be done; hair, make up, dressing, deep breathing, perhaps a stop at the honor bar. Usually spiky and wild, She decided to smooth back her short platinum blond hair and hold it in place with a pair of antique combs she'd found at a garage sale. The final result was all elegance.

Do up the eyes, she thought. Play out your best feature and keep everything else very simple, fresh and light. Foundation smoothed over her fair skin, a breathable bisque mask that made her face porcelain. Girlish freckles faded away making room for a woman to flourish. A hint of pink on her cheeks, her lips an almost muted flesh tone.

Her lower lids she coated with a white crème blush, as she did her shoulders and the valley of her cleavage. It brightened, highlighted those spots while giving them a subtle sparkle. To her lids she applied a smudge of cobalt shadow highlighted by a silver streak at the crease and a flared line of midnight black separating the patch of color from her lashes. Priming them first, she doubled their thickness and increased their length before applying three coats of mascara. Standing back she batted her glamorous lashes and then opted to ad one thin black stripe of liner on the lower lashes before calling it perfect.

Applying the adhesive cups she'd purchased proved her biggest challenge. She was sure she'd have need for a good aloe base lotion before this night was over. The rest of her under thing gave her little disagreement and when at last she slid into the floor length blue gown which seemed to have been made for her, She was more than satisfied with the finished product. A dab of Lady Stetson and she was ready to go. It was earthy, rustic and captured her spirit.

Part of her wished she had brought a clutch, but the hotel had been kind enough to hold her key at the front desk and she liked the feeling of being free of any unattached accessory. Fastening the silver clasp of her cape, she paused to admire its uniqueness. Like 1930's ice tongs, or some specialized cartographer's tool, two silver crescent moons joined at their tops by a thick metal triangle, the center of which held a gold emblem. The same emblem pressed into the wax which had sealed her invitation.

The walk between the hotel and the gardens was brisk, but enjoyable. If she had said she didn't enjoy the stares, She would have been lying. Those who passed her wondered who she was, what she was. Little girls looked at her in awe as if she were a real live princess before their eyes. Women wanted to be her, men wanted to be with her and so as not to disappoint them, she walked with her chin held high with purposeful strides and all the grace of a ballerina.

At the garden gate, she was greeted by three men each of significant stature and dressed to the nines in fine tuxedos. "Invitation please," said the first who in his arms held a clipboard.

Handing over her invitation, she stated her name clearly, "RedHairedDarkness."

A second of the tuxedo clad men smiled and the third offered his arm. She accepted and was led to a table where two other women sat. Releasing her arm, he pulled out her chair, removing her cape before she sat.

"Rachel Wade," said a petite brunette with a tight feather cut and clad in a full peach gown layered with crinoline. She extended a well manicured hand which She accepted as she offered her name.

"RedHairedDarkness, Mary Beth," she introduced the third woman at the table. In total their were only nine of them. "That's Penny, Nina and Jess. Over there, Donna, Elaine and Maxine. Rumor has it King invited 20 women. So far, we're all that's shown and it's 6:23 already."

"Lateness will not be tolerated," RedHairedDarkness reminded herself. "What's this King's up to?"

"Some say he's a wealthy heir on a mission to find a wife," Mary Beth chimed in.

"Funny," Donna said having shown up at their table with no warning, "I heard he was an oil tycoon who wanted himself a slave girl."

"Every woman here's heard a different story," Penny offered. "I heard he's an old man in search of a companion, some one to leave his fortune to.

"He can leave it to me," Jess agreed.

"I heard he was terribly handsome, but impotent," Maxine told the group.

In vehement disagreement, Nina shouted "Impotent? I heard he can't get enough of it and has buried his last three wives straight from their wedding bed."

"I know he's very fond of children," Elaine told them. "I heard he's looking for a woman to bear his heirs."

Like a blaze of fire, she came in, a long red dress that hugged a broad pair of sashaying hips like a second skin. Tall, lean, dark skinned, dark hair. She intimidated with just a look. "Ladies, you may all go home, the future Mrs. King has arrived." She entered promptly at 6:30 and behind her the doors were locked. No late comers would be tolerated. Gaining admittance from here on out an impossibility.

The new arrival sat by herself, away from the rest of them who had all moved their tables together and were busy chattering about all they had heard. Before they knew it, dinner was being placed before them on fine china, real silverware accompanying the dish and a cut crystal goblet the servers filled with wine.

"Where's Mr. King," a couple of the girls asked.

"Mr. King will not be joining you for dinner." There were copious moans. "But he wishes for me to extend his deepest requests."

There was bustling about and a loud shout of, "Bullshit!" just before two of the girls left.

RedHairedDarkness sat quietly attempting not to get sucked into the litany of complaints she over heard as she picked at her meal. While not what she'd consider delicious, the meal was visual one of the finest she had seen. The meat was somewhat game, venison she suspected. What she could only compare to a risotto had a tang to it she couldn't really place and what should have been almond slices blended with the green beans, didn't taste like almonds at all.

Before they could even finish the meal, another three women remarked their dissatisfaction and left. Where the others seemed to grow frustrated with the lack of host and sudden decline in that with which he lavished them, RedHairedDarkness grew intrigued. Her desire to see him, meet him, understand him now greater than ever.

Precisely at 8:00 the table settings were cleared away and another announcement, "His royal highness, J.G. King invites you all to take to the dance floor." The band struck up a lilting tune and the five remaining women looked around for their host. When again he disappointed most of his attendees by not showing, Nina left the party.

Trays were brought around with fresh glasses of wine, all of which were accepted gratefully. She watched as the nameless woman in red sat, still separated from the three who remained. She didn't seem anxious in the least. With her only Rachel and Elaine remained. They bargained with the clock.

"I'll wait until 10:00," Elaine said. "Then I'm heading down to the falls for the New Year's party there."

"You're waiting that long?" Rachel moaned. "What about you RedHairedDarkness?"

"I've got no where better to be," she said shyly.

"It's all a hoax," Rachel decided. "The whole thing was about him seeing whether or not women would do as he asked all in the name of a little bit of money."

"I don't even think their really is a Mr. King," Elaine admitted. "I think this whole thing is just a joke and we fell for it."

"Well I'm not going to sit around here waiting to be made an even bigger fool of," Rachel said gathering her bag. "I'm leaving now."

"Me too," Elaine agreed. "It's 9:45 anyway, what's fifteen minutes matter."

When they left, the stranger approached RedHairedDarkness, "Darling, it's senseless wasting your time here. Why not go to the party with your little friends."

"Either way I ring in the new year with strangers. At least in here I'm warm." At the trite response, the woman once again took her seat. RedHairedDarkness finished her wine and found herself swept up by the music which continued to play. Her feet hit the dance floor and she began to sway about as if she had a partner, even when she didn't. Despite the snickers she could hear, she continued to ride the melodic notes of the stringed instruments, stopping only when the doors to the dinning area were thrust open and a shrill breeze caught her open back.

Gasping she turned to face him. If he wasn't really royal, she'd never have guessed it. He stood straight as an area, his shoulders square his lithe figure streamlined by breeches and knee high leather boots, a sparkling blue waist jacket with tails, the color from which carried into his feral blonde hair. J.G. King had arrived.

"Good evening ladies," he purred, not at all upset at the fact that only one tenth of his invitees remained. RedHairedDarkness's heart sank a little when she saw him approach the lady in read. He took her hand into his. She smiled victorious. RedHairedDarkness despised her confidence. "My dear," she leaned into him, lips pursed, eyes closed but for tiny slits. "Thank you for coming."

She dipped at the knee, "My pleasure your majesty."

Watching intently, RedHairedDarkness's heart pounded as his lips pressed firmly against the back of her hand. She found herself envious of a woman whose name she did not even know. In an effort to hide her jealousy, she quickly snatched up her mask and held it over her eyes. "You may leave."

"What?"

RedHairedDarkness's head echoed what her ears heard the lady in red exclaim, but Mr. King's voice remained as calm and liquid as it had begun. "Thank you for coming, but you may leave." Without sticking around to discuss it further, he walked away from her. He came to Her's side, picking up her hand and applying his warm lips to the silk which covered her knuckles. The observation of this act enough to cause the blazing ball of fire to heed King's request and leave.

"RedHairedDarkness," he said to her, "I'm so glad you stayed."

"It's rude to leave a party without thanking your host, Mr. King," she replied.

His smile disarmed her. "Please, call me Jareth," he insisted pulling the mask away from her face that he might get a better look at her.

"Jareth? I've heard that name somewhere before." RedHairedDarkness mauled it over. "The Goblin King, from a fairytale they told me when I was a kid." Without really conceding to do so, she found herself swaying in the box hold of her companion's arms. "J.G. King," she whispered. "But you can't be. He was a fairytale."

"I assure you I am very real."

"He stole children in the night."

"I collected the children that were wished away to me."

"He was lecherous, seductive, ..."

His fingers spanned her back as Jareth drew her to him, "Is this more what you had in mind, love?"

Filled with both panic and exhilaration, Her's breath came in short pants. Her breast were crushed against his broad chest. His hold on her inescapable. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing," he admitted. "Nothing which you are not willing to give."

"I have no children."

"I know." His hand slid up from her waist, the hot tips of his leather clad fingers searing her skin. "I invited twenty innocents here tonight, all with the intention of singling out the ones not worthy of what I can offer."

"Innocents?"

"An innocent is one who has neither been wished to me nor made a wish to me, but who stood witness to the act. Your memories have been altered to eliminate the events from your mind and I won't be the one to tarnish a loved one in your eyes. Suffice it to say that I watched you over the years. As then, you are still more intrigued by me than fearful of me. You embrace magic and fantasy. You strive to believe against all odds and even against hope. I was wise to choose you."

RedHairedDarkness swallowed hard. "Choose me? Why choose me?"

"Because you stayed. When everyone else thought more of rumors than of me, you stayed. Of them all, you are the one for which I had the greatest desire."

Perhaps it was the wine getting to her, but she embraced him fiercely in return, throwing back her head and giggling like a school girl. "I'm dancing in a ballroom with the Goblin King. Now I know I'm drunk. Wanna know something?" she asked him, her finger tracing the stiff jaw line of his perfect ivory face. "When I was little, I had the biggest crush on you."

"Crush?" Jareth asked.

She nodded. "I used to imagine what it would be like if you were real. How your arms would feel around me, what it would be like to look into your eyes, feel your lips on mine. You have a powerful effect on impressionable young girls Jareth."

"You're not so impressionable now."

"And yet you have the same effect on me," she confessed to him.

"Come," he said stopping their dance. "Walk with me. The winter garden is one of the most beautiful places in your world. You should see it."

Strolling her through the gardens, Jareth couldn't resist pulling a few small flowers for her hair. "And so you see," he said as he tied up his explanation of why he'd come here and what it was he wanted, "in my world a man of my age is expected to settle down some. To find a woman to give him heirs and the women of my world do so disenchant me."

Skeptically, she narrowed her eyes at him, "And that age might be?"

"Age is irrelevant when you are expected to live forever."

"So, are you asking me to marry you?"

"Not right away. I thought you'd come back with me for a time, be sure my world was to your liking and if you were so inclined afterward, then yes, I would like to take you for my wife."

Her knees grew unsteady as he talked of taking her for any purpose. "What is it like in your world. "Like this," he told her producing a crystal on the tips of his fingers and lowering to before her eyes. "Much like these last few days, you will have the finest of all things, everything your heart desires. You will be a queen and you will be treated as one. I will give you all of me, my love, my wealth and my immortality."

What she saw in the crystal both pleased and amazed her. No woman alive would be unimpressed by the display. When they came across the trickling water, She could not refrain from laughter. "Jareth," she said wiggling free of his arm and facing him.

"Yes love."

"I will return to your world with you, on one condition." He waited for her response, eager to here the caveat. "You must catch me first!" With that she broke out into a soft run, mad laughter escaping her like a gleeful child at play. When he took chase, she found her merriment all the greater.

Following the path to where the stream of water widened, she found the pond from her dreams and she lie by it, exhausted, waiting for her pursuer to reach her. Much more time passed than she thought necessary and she distracted herself with the melody of the fish swimming just by her head. When far too much time had passed, she got to her feet, fearfully that he had lost interest in the chase.

She found him just behind her as she stood a rich smile on his perfect mouth. Before she could speak a word, he gathered his treasure into his arms an upon her full lips placed his own as gently as the koi in the pond kissed the surface of the water to collect their food. She felt dizzy and melted into him, confident he would support her.

Breaking the kiss, Jareth's mouth ventured to her ear. "I believe I have caught you."

"So you have."

Music filled the room around them, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Her's eyes seemed fixed on his mouth as she watched him sing. Her feet seemed not to touch the ground as they danced.

Just when I'm ready to throw in my hand;
Just when the best things in life are gone;
I look into your eyes.

There's no smoke without fire.
You're exactly who I want to be with.
Without you;
What would I do?

And when I'm willing to call it a day;
Just when I won't take another chance;
I hold your hand.

There's no smoke without fire.
Woman I love you.
Without you;
What would I do?

Greedy hands gathered up the lapels of his fine coat. "If I have anything to say about it, you'll never need to know," she responded to his rhetorical canter in a throaty tone before pulling him to her and claiming him with her hot mouth. In that moment she knew, every day would be as magical as these last few had been, as glamorous as this evening and her mind spun when she imagined what the nights had in store for her.

This piece has been especially written for RedHairedDarkness by Westendwordsmith.