Rating: NC-17 (Part 2)
Summary: A lot of things can happen in a New York Gala at the exclusive Waldorf Astoria Ballroom, appropriately transformed into an Enchanted Forest for the occasion.
Dedication: To Brave-Belle who gave me the prompt for the original Addiction story, to ddagent, 3pirouette, and rufeepeach, the people that got me into smut and for the members of both the Rumbelle Chatroom and the RMC (Drafty, Angel, dearie and many, many I’m sadly forgetting), who make my day, keep my head where it should be (in Rumbelle smut, apparently), discuss couture with me and hug me when I have feels.
If you want to see the dresses mentioned in this fanfic go here
A/N: There will be Mad Swan, Regina and Red Cricket, but you will have to wait for the next part. And smut. Possibly with some bloodplay (and no, I have no idea how that happened…).
As usual feedback is appreciated, specially since I’m still writing the second part. Any and all forms of encouragement are more than well-received!
The spacious ballroom located on the third floor or the Waldorf-Astoria was impressive on any given day, the perfect venue for any high class social event, but on that particular night it looked especially spectacular, decked as it was in wood, glitter and gauzy fabrics. The grand chandelier that hung high above the many scattered tables was only one of the many sources of light that gave the room the hazy, dreamy quality that it had on that occasion.
Circular tables were lavishly decorated with gauzy, shimmery fabrics. The walls were speckled with ivy and wisteria, silver branches wrapping around columns, sprouting equally silver leafs that contrasted nicely with the soft golden colour of the walls. The effect was quite striking, and easy to read: for one night and just one the depths of one of the oldest hotels in New York City would play host to an Enchanted Forest. Tinkling, fairy-like music provided an added dream-like quality without necessarily grating on the nerves of the many people assembled there in their finest, chatting animatedly, shaking hands and pulling their lips back in different variations of the same polite, fake smile. The old families of Manhattan mingled together with the business tycoons and a handful of celebrities, all gathered to show their support for The Blue Ribbon Foundation, a charity dedicated to the improvement of the life of the families of the men who protected New York City, the NYPD.
As it was the case with many such events, the people had been gathered in groups. A few tables filled mostly with politicians and lawyers, all the singers and actors gathered to a side while the old crones of the ancient Manhattan lineages gossiped quietly on the other side, their skin like parchment. Finally, in the centre, rested the driving force of the island, the Wall Street Sharks, all sharp suits and sharper teeth, acting like they were not at constant war with themselves. Media Moguls, bankers, oil-extractors with their greasy smiles and hateful charm, tobacco dealers whose doctors had made them give up smoking for their health ages ago… They all seemed so incongruously real against the fairy tale backdrop that surrounded them, no matter what extra flamboyant touch they had allowed themselves for the occasion.
It was still early in the evening, the first guests just beginning to locate the seats they had paid inordinate amounts of money for, when he arrived. He slipped in with no one the wiser, another bloke in a perfectly-tailored suit under a rich overcoat, the only visible difference to the norm being his cane, the gold handle gleaming in the artificial light bathing the room.
He located his table easy enough, smirking in satisfaction when he knew he was, indeed, nowhere near George King, James Charmont or any of the other members of Imp, Inc. The explanation one of the head organizers of the event gave anyone and everyone that came to ask about the particular seating chart was some half-believable drivel about the necessity of letting the big men mingle with each other and play nice instead of closing ranks around the members of their own companies. No one would buy it, of course, but the reality behind the lie was, if possible, more farfetched.
The newcomer circled the table, the place cards giving him the information he needed regarding his future tablemates, absent at the moment. The owner of a veritable Telecommunications Empire, his boring wife and, a little bit to the side, his young and insipid little mistress. The head of a financial consulting group of great reputation and his assistant and, last, the CEO of one of the biggest multinationals in existence on his left and, sitting next to her, her dainty little assistant.
Her gorgeous, kind, cheerful and unbelievably sexy little assistant.
He caressed the name on her card, the many loops of the slanted B making the letter almost unrecognizable, before moving on to his own seat, taking pains not to jostle his leg as he sat down. Two years of actually following his physician’s orders, eating healthier and doing… vigorous exercise had managed to dull the pain to a fainter, steadier throb, but he was still as weary of it as always.
He nodded to the few people that dared make eye-contact with him, gesturing for a passing waiter to bring him a Scotch, neat, before allowing his mind to drift off, as it had been prone to do as of late. He recalled with vivid details their first floundering months together following their first night. That very weekend they had spent it cooped in his penthouse, cooking together, watching old movies and lazily languishing in bed, silk sheets draped loosely around them both. She had laughed at his choice of bedding (“Really, Nick, gold sheets?”), but he had been utterly mesmerized by the actual, real sight of her spread over his mattress, the molten gold of the sheets adding a warm glow to her skin. The moment he had first laid his eyes on her like that he had pounced like some sort of wild beast, the lines between reality and the dream of her in his bedroom, naked and willing all blurring in his mind.
She had spent half of that Saturday and Sunday wearing his shirts and the other half wearing nothing at all, and it had been perfect. Letting her go that Sunday night had been horrible, and he had fought her tooth and nail, but it had been no use. She had gone back home, some dingy apartment she shared with two very unpleasant psych majors, apparently, and the next day her internship at Uni Global had begun.
He had feared, that very Monday morning, that Belle would not find a place in her life, a life that was clearly just taking off, for him. He had been moody all day, all of his doubts and insecurities scurrying back once the shield of Belle’s very real and very smooth skin had left him. He had spent the entire working day second-guessing himself, worried about the possibility that it had all been a dream- albeit the most explicit and wonderful dream he had ever had- or that common sense had caught up with his Belle and she had wisely decided to reconsider the idea of chaining herself to an old cripple for the rest of her life… Because he had been very clear on that, at least. He wanted forever.
He had been barking some meaningless order at an male intern or Mary Margaret, sometimes he had difficulties telling one from the other, when a call had come from the lobby, where a very disgruntled security guy- Leroy, of course, who else- was apparently getting very vocal with a very stubborn woman demanding to see Mr Gold. He had almost told Mary Margaret (or a look-alike intern, he wasn’t really sure) to get rid of whoever that was, when Leroy had casually mentioned the woman was holding a cup of coffee and a Starbucks paper bag.
He had told him promptly that if said woman was not in his office in five minutes his job would vanish into thin air, as if by magic.
And suddenly there she had been, all shy smiles and softness, dressed in a women’s suit tailored to perfection (oh, and what ideas it had given him) and a soft, periwinkle-blue blouse. She had greeted Mary Margaret with enthusiasm, sidestepping with grace the question of who the fuck she was to Gold, and seamlessly stepping into his office, where she deposited his coffee and muffin on the brand new wooden desk.
“I’m sorry to barge in like this… I wasn’t really sure you’d want me in your office” she paused to give him a tiny smile and a coy look from under her lashes, shrugging “But I wanted to see you. I’m sorry if I’m out of line”
Had he been honest with her he’d have said he had heard nothing after ‘wanting her in his office’ (which he did, oh, dear Lord, he did so much). He shushed her with a gentle kiss, which promptly got out of hand when he tasted the chocolate she usually drank on the afternoons. After that there had been no way to stop himself from getting the reassurance he had craved all day, only having enough presence of mind to keep as quiet as possible as he, bad leg and all, took her against a wall, marvelling at the way she seemed to welcome his desperate touches and frenzied kisses. Afterwards, draped both on a corner of his leather couch, half-dressed and temporarily sated, she had run her fingers across his hair, a rueful smirk on her face.
“Is it awful of me to say that this is exactly what I envisioned would happen when I got here?” she had whispered into his ear, her blush reaching the column of her neck “I must admit it still hasn’t quite sunk in that what I’ve wanted for so long is now real. That you love me”
The notion had been so utterly ridiculous, so far-fetched, that he had let out a rather booming laugh at the mere idea, pulling his Belle as close as possible.
“What an incongruous notion, my dear” he had purred, practically rubbing his entire side against her like some overgrown cat cuddling up to its master “We’ll have to do something about those silly little doubts of yours… By the way, how was your first day?”
“Eventful. I was really disoriented and people seemed to really try and be as unhelpful as possible” she had frowned, he had had wanted nothing more than to ritualistically slaughter all those unhelpful bastards “And I got to meet Mal” he had expected a deeper frown, if not actual tears. What he got instead was a beautiful smile “She’s wonderful”
He had known there and then that was not good.
He had never expected for her to hit it off with Mal, of all people. His Belle was bright, he knew that, and an asset to whoever was lucky enough to have her as an employee, but Mal was prickly, wary and naturally distrusting of everyone that approached her with a smile and a sunny attitude. But of course, of course, Belle had been the exception. With her bravery, patience and her uncanny ability to read people she had managed to last as the notorious Mal. E. Ficient’s assistant for more than the average period (2 months).
So he had had to compete, from the beginning of their relationship, with the ever-present figure of the CEO of Uni Global (he had once mentioned in spite to Belle that Uni stood for Unicorn, the name of Mal’s pet pony as a child). Belle had from day one established a set of rules he fought against, namely:
a. No moving to his expensive Upper East Side penthouse.
b. No phone calls during working hours (Mal would either kill her or tease her mercilessly).
c. No talking to Mal about her.
d. No buying her expensive gifts (unless, and this was an addendum that had cost Gold countless evenings of careful discussion, he got to enjoy the present too).
e. No fighting with her father (they had met shortly after they had started dating, or courting as he referred to often, and Moe hadn’t really warmed up to the “perverted old suit that thinks it’s okay to prey on my little girl”, as he called him).
He had broken, over the course of two years, most of their rules once. Rule C, specifically, he had shattered into a million pieces one fall afternoon when he had met with the blonde CEO to discuss their… sharing, for lack of a better word, of Belle. He had complained about Mal taking too much of the girl’s time on purpose to piss him off, especially when she requested the girl’s presence for evens he was attending, when he wanted her on his arm. She had nodded, with an unapologetic smirk, and they had settled, once and for all, their own rules of Belle-sharing. When said woman had found out they had both been put, rather unceremoniously, in the dog house.
He had had to go all the way to Brooklyn, to her crappy little apartment, to get her to talk to him again.
“You are blowing this out of proportion, dearie” he had argued while gingerly sitting down on an old maroon couch, trying not to wince as it almost gave out from under him. Belle had been pacing in front of him and had paused at those words.
“Blowing it out of proportion?” she had almost screamed, incredulity lacing her tone “You drafted a contract! And signed it!” a pause, and more incredulity mixed with accusation “You had it notarized!”
In retrospective he could see she had had a point.
It had taken absurd amounts of grovelling, and some really unpleasant moments of open, raw honesty, to get her to forgive him. He had hated it, being so straightforward to her about the depth of his feelings, the agony of his doubts, but she had been as gentle with him as always, not dismissing his insecurities but rather chasing them away wordlessly with caresses and small, significant gestures.
Some other rules he had managed to circumnavigate. Rule D, particularly, had suffered over the years. That was how, on the eve of their two-year anniversary, Belle could safely say she was probably the woman with the biggest La Perla collection in New York City. The first time he had casually left one of the white rectangular shopping bags for her to find after sleeping over at his house she had put up a fight. He had merely pointed towards her ripped rose panties lying on his Persian rug.
“Dearie, I broke it, it is only right that I replace it” he had pointed out before turning back to his copy of the Times and his morning cup of coffee. She had had no other choice but to agree. A couple of hours later the new lacy white pair of boyshorts had found a similar fate to that of the rose pair and Belle had not said a word when a new La Perla bag had appeared out of nowhere.
Belle had fit into his life like she had always been there, a vital part of it, the heart of his existence. She had gotten along swimmingly with Mary Margaret, going far beyond the usual politeness the boss’s boyfriend might show towards his secretary and becoming true friends, finding common ground as assistants to veritable ogres and as polite, petite women who could, surprisingly, drink most burly men under the table (He had never know a hotter sight than that of his Belle downing half a bottle of his best Johnnie Walker blue label in one smooth go).
She had also befriended Ruby Lowell, wiz kid of Acquisitions, that seemed at first glance like some sort of brunette bimbo but that hid, underneath her flirtatious façade and slightly racy wardrobe, an animalistic sort of instinct and a certain ruthlessness in business that no one would suspect at first glance. She had latched onto Belle the moment Mary Margaret had introduced them, and they had since been like long lost sisters reunited. He was glad both girls seemed not to pester Belle about her relationship with him, so he had let them be. The more they bonded the more reasons his girl had to come to Imp Inc.
After a year she had moved alone to an apartment in Manhattan, which had been an improvement, and without college in the way they had had much more time in their hands. Though a solitary person by nature Gold found it astounding how comfortable he felt having Belle occupy most of his spare time. He didn’t just not mind it… he craved it. Not only the sex, though that was spectacular in a way that bordered on religious worship, but also the day-to-day living. Cooking together, sharing the paper and discussing the news, going to a bookstore, watching an exhibit at the Met, it seemed so natural to be always two that it unnerved him at times, the power his little Belle had over him.
She had still adamantly demanded to live by herself in her own apartment, and instead of getting into a row with her over it, he had decided to go about it another way, enticing her to first spend the weekends at his penthouse (it did help that his bed was twice the size of hers and that he had a white fur rug directly in front of the fireplace of his sitting-room she absolutely adored and that, by extension, he now cherished too). He had suggested, after several times she almost fell asleep with him on a Sunday night after he had taken great pains to exhaust her completely, that she should leave a change of clothes and some toilerettes just in case. He had bought another laptop only to claim it was a spare one he had laying around so she would have a computer use when taking some work home, relishing in the sight of them in his studio, he on the desk and she on the couch, working in companionable silence.
He had begun to stock up on her favourite foods and buy books according to what he knew she liked. And every day she had been about to go only to stop by the bookcase and drop her purse in favour of some reading material he had felt a small stab of victory wash over him. Three months after getting her own apartment Belle had all but moved in with him, and even she had quietly accepted it. She had still kept her apartment, but his house had become her home.
Theirs was not always an idyllic existence. They fought casually over some difference of opinion or the other, but had had some major fights (the first one having been the “Contract Fiasco”). Another one, particularly unpleasant in Gold’s memory, had been when he had found out she had talked to his physician about his leg. How she had managed to con the old idiot into talking about something that fell under the well-known doctor-patient confidentiality clause he still didn’t know. And she had kept it a secret too, until she had slipped once when they had gone out for a walk and had had to return earlier because his leg had been killing him.
“Nick, you need to exercise more, I’ve told you that” she had huffed while gently applying a cold compress to the injured knee, one of her hands petting his hair like usual “Or check out one of the many courses of physical therapy the doctor is always trying to cajole you into trying…”
At first her words had seemed harmless, natural. Seconds later their meaning had sunk in and he had frozen beneath her touch.
“You… talked to my doctor?”
The words had come out clipped and deceptively soft. Her eyes had widened instantly, a guilty look overtaking her features, and she had backed up from him.
“I… I…” she had floundered for an explanation, trying to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t make him as angry as he had looked he was about to become “Nick, I only wanted to help, I swear”
He had totally lost his temper with her then, screaming about boundaries, privacy, betrayal and God knows what else, his Scottish brogue thickening till Belle had shouted back that she couldn’t understand a word he was saying. She had stormed out, either hurt or angry, and he had downed two bottles of mead directly afterwards. The monstrous headache that had greeted him the day after had been nothing compared to the coldness of his bed. He had held onto his anger, knowing that for once, and likely for the only time, he was absolutely in the right.
The weekend had passed, the anger in his veins simmering down into loneliness and weariness. He hadn’t been able to sleep well at all, tossing and turning and finally avoiding his monstrous bed altogether, choosing instead to pass out drunk in his study. Then he had moved to his office, taking some extra suits and other essentials, and had made almost to the end of the week when he had gotten a call from Mal.
“What the fuck did you do?” she had hissed in greeting. He had bristled at being addressed in such a manner.
“Mal, you sound worried. I’m afraid you’ll have to spell it out for me, dearie. I’m not a mind reader” he had snidely replied. The woman had huffed.
“You broke our little Belle, you insensitive idiot!” she had snarled, noticing with satisfaction that that has shut him up quite nicely “I just had to send her home after the third time I found her crying in the bathroom. She hasn’t slept all week and I had to force-feed her something two days ago. I don’t care what happened, I don’t care who the fuck fucked up or who was right or wrong. You will fix this. You will grovel at her dainty little feet cause we both fucking know you don’t deserve her and that you can’t afford the luxury of being right. Just… beg, and do it quickly. Cause if she is this bad I cannot even begin to imagine the sorry state you’re in”
She had hung up after that, ever the Drama Queen, leaving him feeling defeated but accepting. After all, she had been right. He was lucky to have Belle and he’d do anything, even begging apologies for something that was clearly not his fault, to keep her in his life for as long as he could.
He had then gone finally home, having decided that he would give her some time to herself and would go to her house first thing Saturday morning to straighten the whole mess out. He hadn’t been happy with the idea, but his temper had calmed at the notion of having Belle back, of having her with him again.
When he had heard the knock somewhere around midnight he had been puzzled, but not alarmed. Still dressed in his suit, catching up on some forgotten work, he had gone to answer thinking he had likely imagined the sound but as soon as he had gotten close enough to the door he had heard the gentle sniffling that he knew meant Belle was on the other side. He had hastily pulled the door open, taking in the red-eyed, drawn little thing drenched to the bone (he had barely registered it was raining), hair plastered to her face and neck and shivering slightly.
“Belle, what the devil…?” he had, in the face of her rather sorry state, forgotten temporarily all about grovelling or fighting. He had moved to usher the girl in when she had shied away from his touch. The movement had hurt rather deeply till she had spoken.
“I’m sorry” she had stuttered, rather obviously fighting back tears “I was wrong. I did it with the best of intentions but it was wrong and underhanded and I am so sorry. And I’m sorry for fighting, and for being too prideful to apologize the instant I knew I’d done wrong and for Mal talking to you… She shouldn’t have done that. I promise I’ll never go behind your back on things like this again…” she had seemed to deflate after the initial onslaught of words, pausing to discretely wipe her eyes “Nick, I’m so, so sorry. I know it’s not enough but it’s all I can give you”
He had tried to usher her in again, feeling words and emotions choking him, when she had finally broken down sobbing, apologizing all over again through hiccups. He had crushed her to him then and there, kicking the door closed and muttering over and over that he forgave her, that all was right again, that she should please stop crying before he lost his mind. They had ended up tangled in his bed sheets, she wearing one of his pyjama tops and he the bottoms, too exhausted to do more than hold each other fiercely, Gold relishing in the way his entire front was pressed to her back, one of his arms circling her waist, holding her in place lest she dare think of moving for any reason at all. She had stopped shivering somewhere around the time he had tangled his legs with hers and he had believed her to be asleep when he had murmured against her hair:
“You know, dearie… I would have gone to you had you not come to me”
She had shifted closer then, turning her head to meet his gaze out of the corner of an eye.
“I know” she had answered, voice soft “But it wouldn’t have been fair”
It had been clear to him then that he would never be able to let Belle go.
After that major hitch the rest of their first year had been perfect, including those times when they had had to dine with Moe French and Gold had had to pretend he hadn’t caught the numerous references the florist made to his age. It hadn’t been easy.
Belle had been doing so well at her job Nick hadn’t minded much the time she spent at Uni. Global, feeling rather generous with Mal and a tad sympathetic. But then the news had come, sudden and real and impossible to ignore. Mal had been unsuccessfully trying to expand the company’s business interests in Japan and, in order to take a new approach on things, she was sending Belle to see what could be done.
Belle. In Japan. Belle. Away.
When she had told him he had tried to act as nonchalant as possible, and see the good side of things. Mal was clearly exposing Belle to the full extent of her little Empire as a tentative first step towards grooming a possible successor. And Belle deserved that like no one else. And the fact that Mal trusted her spoke volumes by itself.
“It’ll be for a month…” Belle had hesitated as she relied the news to him over dinner at the penthouse “… It’s an optional trip”
Of, course, wonderful little creature that she was, she had given him a saying, an opportunity to object, if he chose to do so. And the temptation had been great, the words coming readily to his lips, flooding his mouth. But he hadn’t, of course. That Belle had given him the chance had been wonderful, but had he actually gone through with it would have poisoned their relationship. So he had chosen that particular moment in his life to be brave and selfless and send her on her merry way, dismissing her concerns with gentle reminders that he had been able to survive without her for over forty years, so there was nothing for her to worry about.
He had lied, of course. And he had known that form day one, but he had hoped he’d fair better than he thought he would. He couldn’t hold onto Belle to soothe his every insecurity and self-doubt. So he had helped her pack, driven her to the airport and kissed her softly goodbye, promising to e-mail her back every time she wrote to him.
For a man who had been a bachelor almost all of his life it had turned out to be ridiculously difficult to adjust to long periods of time alone. He had quickly gone over the stack of books he never could really find the time to read, finding every two pages an interesting paragraph or a funny bit of dialogue he knew Belle would have loved.
Cooking had needed a bit of adjustment as well, since he had caught himself the first two weeks making too much to eat by himself or, worst of all, cooking dishes he didn’t particularly care for but where, of course, Belle’s favourites.
He had forgone Starbucks altogether, a wise choice. Mary Margaret, looking particularly terrified and close to tears, had found him a temporary replacement that was tolerable, especially after Gold added a finger or two of whiskey. His secretary had taken the girl’s departure almost as hard as the businessman, but for entirely different reasons. He had finally stopped harassing her over every tiny mistake she made when he had gotten a message from Belle, craftily worded: “Mary M. seems on low spirits as of late. She won’t write about what’s bothering her, probably some stilly fight with James. You try and look after her, please?”
He had gritted his teeth and behaved from that point on.
The only bright spot he had discovered with the trips was that he had seen they affected Belle as much as they did him. Sometimes he had gotten messages when he knew that in Japan it was the middle of the night, silly short things about the weather or something she had seen during the day, followed by a quiet, longing ‘I miss you’ that had him tearing into his dresser to fish out the small jewellery box that contained something he had purchased days after she had appeared on his doorstep after their big fight. It was a lovely thing, Art Nouveau with its soft curves and engraved details, a big, round white diamond with a faint blush of peach-pink surrounded by a circle of diamonds and moon-shaped sides in a halo setting. He had gotten it from a private collector, a vintage piece that screamed ‘Belle’ even though it had been crafted years before she had been born.
He would stare at it, transfixed, numb and wanting. Two years, he’d recall, and it all still seemed like some fucking dream, like he was still sitting down, pretending to read the paper while he waited for his Belle to bid him goodbye forever. He’d think about how he should wait till the initial rush of adrenaline and joy at having Belle be his would vanish but as he pondered about the last two years in the enchanted setting of the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom he came to the conclusion, both incredible and real, that such a feeling would never die.
He had been waiting, that dark, pessimistic part of him, for him to become disenchanted or, more likely, for his Belle to finally come to her senses. But it hadn’t happened, and he was tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. He was ready to face this not as some fleeting moment of happiness but as a genuine chance at forever.
He willed his hand to stop shaking. The tremors had appeared roughly a week after Belle had been gone, and had, thankfully, gotten less noticeable as time wore on. The sweating had stopped around the second week alone, but the bouts of insomnia seemed relentless. He had known the cause was psychological… Clearly he was not physically dependent on Belle (though certain parts of him begged quite loudly to disagree), but his subconscious had more than noticed her absence and had decided to deal with it by passive-aggressively giving him fucking withdrawal symptoms. The jitters had not been as surprising as the bouts of muscle pain (it hadn’t helped that he was sleeping like he was cramped inside a box, whenever he managed to actually fall asleep and not merely pass out drunk). He had even thrown up, though he mostly blamed the alcohol for that last part. As for his mood he had never been an easy-going person but if Mary Margaret’s apparent desperate cry for help to Belle was any indication, he had gotten a lot worse during the last month.
Though the insomnia still lingered, along with some twitching, the rest of the symptoms had faded away after a few weeks, mostly out of sheer will to overcome this pathetic problem of his. He thought he’d be happy with it, he certainly did not enjoy looking less than perfectly in control of himself, but he felt oddly bereft and awkward. Now that his body had stopped mourning the temporary loss of Belle like it was some sick little puppy bereft of its master’s presence, he could finally go back to his normal routine, only it sported a rather large, gaping hole in it.
‘Restraint is overrated’ Gold snarled mentally, downing another glass of scotch before flagging the nearest waiter to request another ‘I don’t want self-control, I want Belle’
And Belle he would have. She was already in New York, her flight having landed hours ago, after which she had had to meet with Mal before hurrying to change for the Gala. He had tried to cajole her into doing that at his penthouse, but she had wisely texted him that she doubted he’d be of any help getting her into clothes and not merely out of them.
“Well, well, look what the cat dragged in” the mellifluous voice caught him by surprise, but he didn’t let it show. He glanced casually to his left where a statuesque blonde in her forties, impeccably dressed in draping, sparkling Elie Saab, had suddenly appeared. He raised his glass at her, smirk firmly in place.
“Ah, Mal, I see they let you use the front door every now and then” he replied, his voice soft and casual “Good for you”
Mallory Evans Ficient was a striking woman, all sharp angles and even sharper instincts, and few people could claim to be able to string two words together when in her presence. She smiled at her favourite frenemy, the deceptively well-mannered Nicholas Gold, before taking a sip of her vodka martini in such a way that her lipstick did not smudge. She had not always not-hated the
Scotsman, but over the years they had managed to build a truce that had, somehow, developed into an amicable relationship, with a certain degree of trust blended in for good measure.
“Seems someone is in a bad mood” she purred, a wicked smile about her face “What’s the matter, Gold? Feeling lonely?”
He tried not to let his annoyance show, but his hand chose that moment to twitch, almost dropping his half-full glass of Scotch. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.
“Please, Nick, like I don’t know your leg is jolting bad enough that it’s making the table tremble” she eyed her martini glass, the contents quivering as the surface it was on moved “Though it is to be expected. I’m rather amazed you’re not climbing the walls, bag leg and all”
He smiled, but not a pleasant sort of smile.
“You certainly made sure to be as much of a nuisance as possible, dearie. Eager to watch me squirm? I’m afraid, though, that it won’t be so easy. We have and agreement and I have no qualms about fulfilling my end of the bargain”
He spoke with practiced ease that belied all of his inner turmoil, wishing he was holding his cane so he’d have something to squeeze other than the very fragile glass in his hands. Mal snorted, lounging back on her seat with a knowing smirk dancing across her face.
“Like it’s not killing you inside that after taking her away for a month I demand she accompanies me to this little shindig” she paused, taking a sip of her drink “And you know the rules. If she’s with me you are restricted to minimum contact”
Nicholas nodded, once again regretting ever coming up with that rule. At the time all he had thought about was how he wanted Mal to leave Belle alone when he’d take her out to some event where she’d most likely be present. He had never thought the rule could be turned around and used against it. So now he was stuck with minimal contact and maximum wanting.
The four-letter-word answer he had on his lips died with the arrival of some of the other guests. Mal made a comment under her breath about the amount of alcohol that she’d need to survive the evening while staring at the red-headed bimbo in the tight red dress practically draping herself over the pouchy man leering at her breasts.
“By the way, have I thanked you yet for messing with the seating arrangements?” though Mal had a wide, fake smile plastered over her face for the benefit of the newcomers Gold relished in the poison behind her words.
“It was my pleasure, dear” he answered, all sharp teeth and smugness, eyeing the empty seat next to Mal with anticipation colouring his features “My pleasure indeed”
“I cannot believe we made it” Mary Margaret’s teeth chattered as she pulled her white wool coat tighter while trying to simultaneously fish out her invitation out of her silver, beaded clutch “Not after my heel got caught in a crack back in 32nd and 5th. By the way, Ruby, you’ve got some strength in you”
Ruby Lowell smiled, pleased, while gazing at her manicured nails, the vivid red spotless.
“Well, personally, I cannot believe we talked you out of wearing pastels” she replied, a wolfish smile on her face “Which, by the way, you’re totally gonna thank me for later, when James’s jaw hits the ballroom floor”
The Reem Acra hiding behind the wool coat was navy blue, with silver details and, to MM’s constant worry, strapless. She tried not to fidget with the bodice as she raced to the elevators, her two friends in tow.
“You are not one to talk about signature colours” the raven-haired girl huffed, eying her friend’s barely-hidden 2011 couture Elie Saab, a Greek-inspired vision in red “And, by the way, I don’t want to know how you got it. Granted it is last season but still, Ruby!”
“I told you I had contacts, Mary M. And, more importantly, so do you. You simply chose not to make use of them. Learn from Belle over here. I mean, she hit the fucking jackpot and all she had to do is mention Maleficient’s name”
The third woman, a brunette in a cream-coloured, floor-length coat, pushed the other two into the waiting elevator with little grace.
“Can we please hurry along? Mal’s gonna kill me if I don’t show up soon” she held her smartphone up for the others to see the amount of messages her boss had left her. Ruby and Mary Margaret both rolled their eyes, nonplussed.
“Like your anxiety is over your boss” one of them snarked. Belle blushed and looked away, unwilling to rise to the occasion, concentrating on pressing the button for the third floor rather viciously.
“Well, moving aside from Belle’s incredibly-passionate and enviable love life, we need to get our heads together for Operation: Mad Swan” Ruby commented, checking her make-up. It was exaggerated but, then again, that was the idea for the evening. An Enchanted Forest.
“Well, I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain. I got her in a dress, didn’t I?” Mary Margaret looked inordinately pleased, a bit like she had cured cancer or solved world hunger “And braided her hair. I hadn’t been able to get Emma to do that since she was ten”
The elevator stopped on the third floor and, as the women got out, they unceremoniously bumped into the object of their conversation, Detective Second Class Emma Swan of the NYPD, the brightest star of the Major Case Squad Division at 1PP. From a complicated background, a ward of the State almost since birth, Emma Swan had seen her fair share of foster homes and abusive foster parents. She had been tossed around till she had settled in a rather unfortunate home in Brooklyn when she’d been eight, sharing beatings and starvation with a lot of other children who she had chosen to protect, ever the white knight to the needy. She had met Mary Margaret in the hallways of the apartment, discovering that they were neighbours and striking a quick friendship with the ever-sunny raven-haired girl with the easy smile and the mothering touch. Mary Margaret had disinfected every single one of her scrapes and cooked most of the food she had eaten in her childhood, and mostly followed her around with an extra sweater in winter and a cool glass of lemonade in the summer. They were as different as night and day yet they had managed to remain friends for over twenty years.
“I feel stupid, Eminem” Emma grounded out as soon as she spotted her friend, calling her by her childhood nickname “Honestly, pale pink? Do you know me at all?”
Belle and Ruby giggled behind Mary Margaret, both familiar enough with the blond to know she’d put up the obligatory fight and then cave in to the meeker Mary Margaret. Why she did that was still a mystery to both of them.
“Oh, come on, Emma, you look lovely. Look, Dr Whale cannot keep his eyes off you” she pointed towards a good-looking yet shady blond-haired man. It was forensic-wiz kid John Whale, renowned for his excellent autopsies and his absolutely creepy approach to flirtation. Emma was glad that she did not investigate homicides and so had little to do with him.
“Dr Sea-Rapist? He ogles everything with two X chromosomes, so that’s hardly a compliment” true to her word Whale’s eye shifted from her to Ruby, who grimaced and pulled her shawl closed, her body language rearranging itself to scream ‘Don’t even think about it’ in the general direction of the doctor, who ducked his head and moved on in search of greener pastures, side-stepping Belle quite nicely, knowing just how spoken-for she was.
“So, we are all in different tables?” Ruby commented, frowning. Emma nodded, having checked.
“Well, it’s not like we’re gonna remain sitting for long. It’s all about the canoodling and the mingling today, remember?” the cop scowled, clearly not looking forward to being paraded in front of everyone as one of the prizes of the NYPD. As a detective Emma was flawless: a record amount of cases solved, no sanctions or IA investigations, never a reprimand from her superiors and, as a female officer, she was strong and competent while remaining feminine and caring. A single parent too, who had managed to raise a charming, intelligent and well-adjusted little boy while keeping the city streets clean and safe. She was perfect PR material, if one overlooked the fact she hated to be PR material.
“Yes, which reminds me” Mary Margaret planted herself in front of Emma “Pull your shoulders back, don’t speak with your mouth full and, please, for the love of all things good and kind, do not put anyone in any kind of choke hold”
“Yes, mother” Emma replied, all aplomb and innocence, before her eyes darted to the side, barely registering the back of a man’s coat and a hint of a burgundy scarf, her smile turning into a frown. Belle and Ruby smiled secretively before the group separated, going to their respective seats.
Mallory caught sight of the cream coat Belle was wearing as soon as the girl was a few feet away from their table. She smiled, admiring the subtle hints of outlandish colour in the girl’s make-up, contrasting with some of the other guest’s more gaudy appearance. The loose bun at the back of her head let the natural curls of her hair show and even in a heavy coat she looked lovely. A mothering sort of pride stole over her, unfamiliar but not necessarily unpleasant, but she carefully filed it away. Belle was more of a friend than a daughter-figure, but she was still her protégée and so Mal allowed herself every now and then to feel protective of her, particularly when Gold was concerned.
“Belle, darling, so nice of you to finally come” she said aloud, not turning to look at her employee. Belle smiled, all cheer and politeness, and her eyes scanned the table, warmly greeting everyone before her breath hitched when her gaze landed on Gold, who was studiously not looking at her.
“I’m sorry I’m late. It took forever to change and I’m still a bit jetlagged” she apologized flawlessly. She placed her clutch on her chair before pulling her coat off, causing Mal to stifle a snort of laughter rather ineffectively.
“It’s quite a striking effect, Belle dear” she managed to let out “You’re practically…”
The blond CEO paused to look for an apt ending to her sentence but a rough Scottish brogue beat her to it.
“… drenched in gold”
The sudden stab of desire that ran through Belle the moment she heard his voice almost made her knees buckle, but she discretely braced herself on the back of her chair to remain upright. She momentarily regretted her choice of attire, but it had seemed such a playful, teasing idea at the time… Now, looking at his face, at the myriad of emotions tearing at each other in his eyes, it all seemed rather cruel. His whole body seem suddenly tense, as if ready to pounce, one of his hands gripping a tumbler of scotch so tightly she feared it might break under the strain and he’d hurt himself.
The dress by itself was gorgeous, all liquid metal clinging to her skin and falling past her waist, shaping the contours of her body with elegance. It draped itself across her left shoulder, leaving the right one bare and it shone in the many lights of the room, like it was actually made of gold turned into fluid fabric. She wore no jewellery except for delicate diamond studs.
But it was not only the gown that was impressive. Ruby had acquired some shimmery golden powder that she had applied subtly to Belle’s face, neck, shoulders and arms, giving her usually alabaster skin a golden glow. Her eyes sported heavier gold eye-shadow and the only other colour in her was the red of her lips.
She was, quite literally, drenched from head to toe in gold, gold, gold, like the statue of some beautiful goddess, ready to be worshiped.
And Gold was more than ready to worship her. Or throttle her for dressing like that when she was well aware he had to keep his hands to himself. Hands that had been nowhere near her for a month. He suddenly ached, something inside him cutting off his oxygen supply, urging him to move towards the brunette, to grab one of her wrists and drag her out to have his wicked way with her, Mal and her mind-games be damned.
“Oh, God, is that Atelier Versace?” the red-headed bimbo asked, her eyes greedily focusing on the dress. Belle nodded, managing to sit down while pretending she couldn’t notice Nicholas following her every movement like he was eyeing some sort of prey “The 2008 collection, right?”
“2009, actually” the brunette replied, accepting at the same time a glass of champagne from a rather admiring waiter that took his time leaving. Mal chuckled, Gold seethed and Belle tried to make polite small talk with the safest person at the table, an elderly man that managed a financial consulting group, charmingly called Jasper Adams.
And while she chattered away, charming the old shark with an easiness that was Belle’s alone, Gold allowed himself to breathe her in fully. It was difficult to get past the gold all over the place, particularly when a dark voice inside, gleeful and maniacal, chanted that she was marked as his everywhere, all that gold proclaiming his ownership of the woman to all the covetous, unworthy men in the room who saw his beauty and desired her for their own.
The Scottish CEO usually squashed that voice inside whenever it appeared, knowing Belle did not deserve to be thought as a possession but he felt no guilt this time around. The blasted woman had gone away for a month, had returned only to go straight to work for Mal and had worn the most teasing gown in existence while at the same time completely aware that he was not allowed to touch her. She deserved, at present, no consideration on his part.
So he sat, washing down the pasta they had finally served with more Scotch, and watched Belle till he had his fill, breathing in her presence, feeling his jolting leg subside and his muscles relax. Mal was but a slight obstacle, unimportant in the great scheme of the evening, which would end with him buried so deep inside his Belle there would be no separating them again. He only had to be a good boy for a couple of more hours and then he’d have the entire weekend to get re-acquainted with his favourite person in the world.
She was all soft curves and warmth, steely eyes and a sharp gaze that hinted at a will or iron and a perceptive nature. She kept mostly quiet, exchanging words with Mal, laughing at times, fending off the inane chatter coming from the red-headed bimbo and, every five minutes or so, sneaking glances at him from under her gold-flecked lashes. He, on the other hand, made no attempt at hiding the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, eye-fucking Mallory Ficient’s assistant. Adams seemed to be studiously ignoring the whole thing, as was his meek, polite young assistant, who apparently was also his grandson. Others, however, seemed genuinely unaware of the blatant way in which the CEO of Imp Inc. was undressing the beauty by his rival’s side.
Mason Whitlock, the Telecommunications tycoon with the fake Southern manners and the bright idea of bringing both his wife and his bit on the side to the same event, managed to both ogle Mal covertly and Belle openly, calling her a “little woman” and making unsubtle comments about how he was a big, important man who knew how to properly care for dainty, pretty little misses. His white-blond wife seemed to be too focused on getting drunk to care but his mistress, the woman in the red dress with the fake breasts and red hair, was glaring daggers.
“Well, Miss Belle, I think it’s just commendable for young fillies to get out and experience a bit of the world, get all their ‘working’ urges out before settling down” he leaned over the table, which was blessedly big enough for him to get nowhere close to Belle, and gave her an oily smile, apparently not noticing how the girl back away as much as her chair allowed her to “But the time will come soon when you’ll get bored and tired with your job and at such a time it will be nice to have a strong, well-off man to support you the way a beautiful little miss like you deserves to be…”
Whatever the Hell he was going to say got cut short when the businessman howled in pain, quickly clutching his left foot and cursing a blue streak. Mal sniggered, Belle was torn between looking relieved and casting accusatory glances at her beau and said beau smiled pleasantly, surreptitiously hooking his cane to the back of his chair.
“… It is a very pleasant weather we’re having” Adams cut in, trying to dispel the sudden tension with some good, old-fashion weather-talk. Mallory rolled her eyes, delicately placing her martini glass on the table before smiling at Whitlock in a predatory manner.
“Look, Mason, I don’t particularly like you, but I’m starting to feel really sorry for you so I’m going to tell you what’s going on. Your first mistake was propositioning an employee of mine in my presence. Your second mistake was doing so in front of her very influential significant other” she pointed with one of her perfectly-manicured hands at Gold, who lounged in his chair, casually sipping scotch like he wasn’t suddenly the main object of the conversation “Who is currently sexually frustrated and very pissed off that I’m contractually cockblocking him, so I’m guessing he’ll take it out on you and blacklist you till kingdom come. So if you wish to have anything resembling a business by the time this evening is over you will not even look at Belle again”
Adams choked on a mouthful of pasta, Mrs Whitlock let out a drunken snort and Adams Jr. looked at Belle in awe.
“Is all of that true?” he asked, curious but not in a bad way.
“I wish some of it weren’t” Belle replied, referring mostly to the ‘contractual cockblock’ comment “But yes, that’s the general gist of things” she smiled, getting up and taking another flute of champagne from her waiter/stalker “If you will all excuse me I see a friend calling” she glared at Mal “Behave, Mal, if you please” Belle sighed at the look of complete and utter innocence her employer gave her, then turned her gaze to Nicholas, who looked a bit too smug for her liking. She went to the back of his chair and softly tugged on a lock of hair at the back of his head, a common habit of hers “That goes for you too, by the way”
All the people seated at the table got a good look at Nicholas Gold as he shivered in pleasure at the gentle tug, eyes closing and lips spreading into a half-smile.
“Don’t I always, dearie?” he replied, his voice like rough velvet, turning his head to a side to look at her as she went to the other end of the room, where he could see Ruby and Mary Margaret waiting.
“… Well, yes, it is nice weather. A bit chilly for this time of the year but I’ve always been rather partial to the cold” Mal offered, looking at Jasper Adams with a smile, which the old man returned with relief.
And all the while Gold smiled, and smiled, and smiled.