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Beautiful Enigma

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Beautiful Enigma

 

Early August, 1881

 

The carriage glided over the wet pavement like a gondola skimming the surface of a black lagoon. Outside, a foggy rain surrounded the street lamps of London with tiny, diaphanous shrouds of light.

The carriage’s male occupant tweaked aside the heavy drapes at the window and peered out with a chuckle. “Ghastly. Lady Longbottom couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate night for her soirée.”

His companion’s response was an indelicate snort that made his lips quirk in a tiny smile.

“There are three hundred and sixty-five nights in a year,” she replied. “And not a single one of them deserves to be wasted on the type of soirée that Luna Longbottom has planned.”

“Come now, love—where’s your sense of adventure?”

All used up at the moment, thanks to the challenge of being betrothed to you. Hermione Granger bit back the first retort that came to mind and said instead, “I’m saving it for something worthwhile. Perhaps a trip to the Pyramids.”

“Ah. Egypt.” Her fiancé nodded and then fell maddeningly silent, gazing past the drapes into the darkness outside.

Pretending to rearrange the folds of her summer-weight, Eau de Nil evening cloak, Hermione studied his profile. Handsome as sun on winter snow, the sight of him seated across from her still startled her.

All of a sudden, in midst of the whirlwind that was a very successful social season, her father had received an offer for her hand. If it hadn’t been so unexpected, if she’d had more time to prepare a sustainable argument against the match… but the suddenness of it coupled with the untimely defection of Ronald Weasley, with whom she’d been keeping regular company, had left her reeling. Before one could say ‘Great Pyramids of Giza,’ she’d been affianced to Lord Draco Malfoy.

“It’s a brilliant match. You’ll be richer than Croesus,” her father had told her. Hermione had merely stared at him, too shocked to respond. As the only child of the owner of Granger Foundries, she was already richer than Croesus. What she wanted now was to help the downtrodden, travel the world, discover a new species—though not necessarily in that order.

Instead, she would be marrying Lord Malfoy in a few months’ time. Her person and her vast fortune would belong to him. It wasn’t an arrangement to be entered into lightly. Her ideas, her thoughts, those would still be her own. But how she acted upon them would be controlled by her husband.

It was for this reason that Hermione had been so smitten with Ronald Weasley. He would have made an excellent husband, pliant, malleable, and not as bright as she. She’d been certain that as his wife, she could steer him in any direction she’d chosen. And she’d almost had him, too.

She still wasn’t sure what had happened. One minute they were moving towards an understanding, the next Ronald was engaged to Lavender Brown. It was almost as if something vulgar had occurred—like the exchange of money beneath a table. The Weasleys were, after all, old aristocracy but poor as church mice. If someone had made them an offer they couldn’t refuse…

Hermione glanced up at her fiancé to find him watching her with those pale, intelligent eyes, the color of moonlight on stone. Here was one who would not be bidden lightly. Draco Malfoy was such an enigma, albeit a beautiful one.

Unconsciously, Hermione’s lips parted and a shiver ran up her spine. She shifted on the seat, unsettled by the delicate tingling between her legs, like tiny, silver fires set alight in her most secret places. It happened every time she was around him.

In the low carriage light, Draco’s eyes seemed to darken, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. But that wasn’t possible—her fiancé couldn’t read minds. At least, she assumed he couldn’t. His family was one of the oldest and most deeply magical in all of Britain. Who knew what secret abilities the man might be hiding?

“Tell me, my lady,” Draco suddenly asked. “Do you think we will see spirits tonight?”

Hermione knew she was being teased, but at the moment she didn’t care. It broke the spell cast by the nearness of him in a dark, enclosed carriage, an aura that seemed to be the perfect blend of masculinity and magic.

“The spirit of the age, perhaps,” she replied seriously, focusing on his question. “The current craze for spiritualism is merely a reaction of society to the possibilities opened by Charles Darwin’s work.”

“Ah, yes. The exciting theory of evolution.”

Was Draco’s tone mocking? Hermione hardly knew him well enough yet to be able to judge.

“Do you hold a low opinion of Mr. Darwin’s ideas?” she asked.

“Not at all. He’s welcome to them. I have my own theories about life, death… and everything that happens in between.” His eyes glittered in the low light and she felt them slide over her body.

Again, Hermione shivered. Her mouth dry, she longed for a glass of the champagne she knew Luna would serve. Or even better, a stiff shot of her father’s Irish whiskey.
She sniffed, preparing to bait Draco in return. “What do you suppose Mr. Darwin would think about tonight’s proposed Tarot readings and séance?”

“I think Darwin’s intelligent enough not to tread in those waters,” Draco chuckled. “Something might rise unexpectedly out of the darkness and bite him on the arse.”

Before Hermione could answer the carriage glided to a stop and their coachman flung open the door, revealing the elegant Georgian townhome of Lord and Lady Longbottom, every bank of windows from ground floor to attic glowing in welcome. There was only one area of the house that remained dark—the large, second-floor double parlor where tonight’s occult proceedings would take place.

Draco descended from the carriage first, offering his hand to help Hermione alight. “You look wonderful,” he told her, his eyes moving past her cloak to the evening gown she’d chosen, de Berri blue draped in a sheer overlay patterned with peacock feathers. Her necklace was gold and lapis lazuli, a nod to her interest in Egyptology, and a single gilt peacock feather adorned her upswept curls.

“Thank you,” she murmured. “As do you.”

Lord Malfoy was elegantly attired in pearl grey. A gault-colored vest and ascot covered in twining vines of Eau de Nil that matched Hermione’s cloak peeked from beneath his cutaway. Tucking her hand proprietarily into the crook of his arm, he led her toward the front door.

And the enigma continues. Her fiancé had only ever touched her in the most appropriate of ways—a hand correctly placed to serve as guide, a chaste peck on the cheek, his fingers lightly holding hers during an evening stroll. As a betrothed couple, they were allowed a measure of time alone, yet he had never once tried to kiss her.

Hermione wondered if it were possible for him to feel as she did—that if they ever truly kissed, mouth upon mouth, they would have no will to stop. She glanced up at him as they arrived at the door and couldn’t keep her gaze from travelling to his lips, from lingering on the shadows that touched their perfect corners…

Draco looked down at her quick intake of breath. An unexpected, boyish grin lit his face for just an instant, revealing yet another facet of this man she didn’t know, and then vanishing into aristocratic coolness as the Longbottoms’ butler opened the door.

Hermione stood in the doorway, stunned by the thoughts and emotions washing over her. She’d never anticipated being engaged to a man who had the effect on her that Draco Malfoy did. The pull was stronger each time she was with him; she could feel the balance tipping, feel the power it could give him over her, dangerous power. And what she could do about that, she didn’t yet know.

It wasn’t the sort of thing that could be easily worked out in the middle of a party, but if anyone could successfully ponder and scheme while smiling and dancing, Hermione Granger could. The sooner she formulated a solution for managing her fiancé, the better.

Twitching her skirts away from the toes of her evening slippers, Hermione swept into the Longbottoms' receiving room on Draco Malfoy’s arm.

*

In a fashionable gown that was more silver than grey and caught the light as she moved, Luna Lovegood Longbottom came forward to take Hermione’s hands and kiss her cheeks.

“I’m so glad you are here for tonight’s events,” she whispered. “The spirits adore it when there is a skeptic present.” Luna’s eyes twinkled, their blue shading toward violet against the amethysts she wore at her throat and ears. “Spirits can be quite playful, you know. I can’t wait to see what they make of you. And your fiancé.” She arched one brow and moved away to greet Draco, who was shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with Neville.

Neville and Luna had been the first of their set to marry and their home had quickly become a gathering place. As an established married couple, they could chaperone their own social events, freeing their friends from the watchful eyes of mothers and dowager aunts. As a result, more drinking went on at these soirées, dancing couples held each other closer, and more than once a courting pair had been found in a compromising position, to everyone’s delight. Whatever happened at the Longbottoms’ Georgian mansion remained at the Longbottoms’ Georgian mansion; this new-found freedom was heady stuff and jealously guarded by all concerned.

No one seemed to enjoy it more than Hermione’s best friend, Pansy Parkinson, crossing the room to meet her in a swirl of Florentine yellow peau de soie and winking, garnet jewelry. Lady Pansy had toyed with nearly every eligible bachelor the ton had to offer and at the beginning of the social season, become engaged to Viscount Harry Potter. They were, according to Pansy’s effusive reporting, a match made in heaven and very much in love. Harry was also the wealthiest young man in all of Britain, outside of Hermione’s own fiancé. Smiling at the cynical direction of her thoughts, Hermione hugged her friend.

“How goes the betrothal?” Pansy asked. Of Hermione’s circle, only Pansy and Luna knew that she was less than certain that her engagement to Lord Malfoy was the proper thing to happen in her life.

“It… I…” Hermione stumbled over her words, at a loss to explain her confused feelings for Draco. “Truthfully, Pansy—I’m not sure.”

“Well, there is no doubt that you’re affianced to the most beautiful man in the room. It isn’t his fault that he’s as high-strung as one of my father’s thoroughbred race horses.” Pansy dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s all those generations of Malfoy ancestors who insisted on haring off to marry their French cousins for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It must have added to the problem—blood so pure it probably runs silver-blue through their veins. Even for me, Draco feels a bit… difficult to handle. But I’ve no doubt that if anyone can tame him, you can.” Pansy squeezed Hermione’s hand. Then, “My darling, please excuse me. I haven’t had a chance to congratulate Astoria on her engagement to Seamus Finnegan. She’ll be exiled to Ireland once they marry, but I hear he has the most divine pile of an old castle, all golden sandstone on a cliff overlooking the sea…”

Pansy rushed away, leaving Hermione tangled in the thoughts her words had engendered—thoughts of taming Draco Malfoy as if he were a sort of wild thing. But then wasn’t she a bit of a wild thing herself, her mind often racing and swooping like swallows over the earth, her body longing to follow in a dance of exhilarating freedom. She glanced across the room to where her fiancé, a brandy snifter in one hand, stood talking with Harry, Neville, and Theodore Nott. Hermione found that Draco was once again watching her intently. And once again, she shivered, her lips parting, her body tingling at the flick of those silvery little tongues of desire.

She couldn’t see what the future held for the two of them, but she had a decision to make about how to handle the here-and-now. Should she walk away, find other friends to speak with, other groups with which to mingle, and avoid her fiancé? Easily done, and somewhat of a relief.

Or should she join Draco and insert herself firmly into his life, spend the evening at his side, making her presence and her opinions known? There really wasn’t a choice, if she was ever going to know this man and create some sort of a balance between them. Locking eyes with Draco, Hermione snagged a glass of champagne and crossed the room.

He responded to her arrival with a long, solemn look, his expression unreadable. Then the tiniest smile touched the corners of his mouth, enough to reach to his eyes, but not enough to be seen by anyone who wasn’t watching for it. It was beautiful, private, and gossamer as a spider’s web. Hermione felt captured in it, unable to turn away and not really wanting to.

“Lady Granger.” Draco’s voice was low, the use of her title a bit ironic. “I am glad you decided to join us. As bridegrooms-to-be, Harry and I were just comparing notes.”

Hermione sipped her champagne and struggled against the web. How was it that in spite of her best intentions, this man always managed to throw her off?

Watching him from beneath her lashes, Hermione asked, “What sort of notes were you comparing, Lord Malfoy?”

“We were wondering which of us will have the bigger wedding. With best friends—such as you and Pansy are—marrying within a month of each other, we supposed there might be a friendly competition to see who will have the wedding of the decade.” Draco moved to stand beside her, his fingers closing around her elbow to position her against his side and then remaining there, skin against skin.

Hermione’s quick smile hid her reaction to his touch. “There’s no competition, really,” she said. “I’m planning for our celebration to be of the smaller, quieter sort. But Harry—be warned. I do think Pansy wants her moment in the sun to be as long-lasting and gloriously extravagant as possible.”

Harry grinned and swatted at Neville, who had begun to loudly hum the wedding march. “I would expect nothing less. If that is what my future countess wants, it’s what she’ll have. And what are you on about, Longbottom? It’s already happened to you.”

Hermione laughed with the others but her mind was on Draco as, hidden by the folds of her gown, he took her hand, his fingers parting hers and sliding between them, linking them in a way that felt so secret, so intimate, in the midst of the crowded reception room. Hermione felt her pulse leap.

“Let’s walk,” Draco told her. “Gentlemen.” With a nod to his friends, he led Hermione toward the staircase.

*

The din of the party below them faded as they entered the wide hallway at the top of the stairs. Though labeled a “townhouse,” the Longbottoms’ home was a large, Georgian mansion, deeded to them upon their marriage by Neville’s grandmother. Hermione, who did not care for the heavy, affected furnishings that were currently fashionable, loved Luna’s house, especially the room they were now entering—the double parlor where Luna would hold tonight’s occult activities.

In the dim lamplight, it was like entering a world from long ago, a room that had slept for a hundred years. The walls were deep olivine, the windows draped in faded, pumpkin-colored velvet, the furniture styled in the elegant, Palladian lines of an age long gone. Everywhere, gilt mirrors reflected the lamplight, their frames twisted into golden branches and twining, leaf-covered vines. Two of the mirrors nearest the door were framed in tree limbs clustered with long, golden thorns.

“I love this room,” Hermione murmured.

Draco chuckled. “Even knowing it is the setting for what you consider tonight’s silly nonsense?”

“Yes. Even then.” She smiled. “But why did you bring me here? Everyone else is still downstairs.”

“It seems the perfect place for a bit of privacy. There’s something I need to discuss with you.”

Still holding her hand, Draco led her toward the center of the room, where a large, circular table had been set up for the Tarot readings.

“I wanted to show you this,” he told her, reaching for something lying at the table’s edge.

As Hermione, curiosity aroused, stepped forward to see what it was, one of the long French doors that led to the balcony snapped open and a damp wind swept into the room, belling the draperies and bringing with it the smell of London’s great river.

“On nights like this…” Draco began, crossing the room to latch the door, “when the wind is wild and the storms come one after the other—there’s a power in the air. A sense of anticipation, as if anything might happen.”

“Do you feel it?” he asked as he moved back toward Hermione, his face alight with an enthusiastic grin.

“I… I adore storms,” Hermione replied, captured once again by his brilliant smile, so seldom seen and so different from the coolly aristocratic face he usually showed her. She rather liked that boyish grin and wished it would stay awhile; sometimes she almost forgot that for all his elegant sophistication, Lord Malfoy was twenty-two years old and nearly a year younger than she was.

Hiding the confusion his mercurial change of mood had caused, Hermione asked, “What is it you wanted to show me?”

“This.” Draco turned back to the table. The grin had vanished but his voice was still curiously eager. “As your fiancé, I wanted to speak with you about it before hand.” He had picked up a piece of parchment. Scrolled across the top were the words “Tarot Readings for 7 August 1881.” Below that was a list of names. “I would like to have Luna do a reading for us tonight. To give us a glimpse of what is—and what will be.”

Hermione knew her mouth had fallen open in a most unattractive way, but several heartbeats went by before she could close it. Was her charming fiancé teasing her yet again? To ask to put their names on that list… He couldn’t mean it, not when he knew how much she detested it all.

“You can’t be serious,” she told him, struggling against an icy wash of disbelief. “You know I don’t hold with such superstitious, ridiculous rubbish.”

“Of course I know that. And as your betrothed, I have only the greatest respect for your very strongly-held opinions. That’s why I am asking your permission ahead of time.”

“But why put our names there at all?”

“Perhaps I’m curious,” Draco replied. “Or maybe, just maybe… I’m a true believer.” In the low lamplight his face was all angles and planes, his eyes veiled. Hermione felt as if the room could tilt out from under her with very little help. Once again, he’d caught her off balance and she had no idea who he was.

From the doorway came the sounds of a crowd approaching, of friends laughing excitedly. Luna danced into the room, her guests trailing behind her.

“Hermione.” Draco’s eyes held hers, his voice low and intense. “I think— no, I know—that you have a burning curiosity about… many things. As do I. Why not let that curiosity extend to the things that will happen tonight?” Unseen by the gathering crowd, Draco took Hermione’s wrist between his fingers, his thumb tracing a delicate, shivery pattern over her bare skin. “Please, humor me this evening. It would be respectful towards our hosts to have Luna do a reading for us.”

“Of course.” Hermione nodded automatically. At this point she was too confounded to do anything else. After all, occult fun was the whole point of the Longbottoms’ party. And for some reason, whether curiosity or something more, the Tarot reading seemed important to her fiancé.

Sighing because there was no help for it, Hermione took her place at the Tarot table. Her skin still tingled from the touch of Draco’s fingers and suddenly, awareness dawned. Draco hadn’t been drawing a random pattern along her wrist. He’d been tracing their initials, over and over, layering them into her skin one atop the other—D&H…H&D…D&H.

*

While Pansy glided about the room extinguishing the lamps, Luna lit a single candle in the center of the reading table. Seating herself across from Hermione, she reached beneath the table and brought out a box of age-blackened wood, carved all over with strange writing and occult symbols. The box fairly hummed with arcane magic.

As the room faded into dimness, Luna lifted the lid and took out her Tarot cards. Hermione knew that the deck was 16th-century French, very old, very eldritch. Each card glowed with its own witch-light, each symbol winking and sparking as if scattered with dust from the stars.

As the room grew quiet and Luna prepared to read for Daphne Greengrass Nott, pregnant with her first child, Hermione allowed her mind to wander.

Her eyes lingered on the Tarot deck, glittering in the candlelight. Draco’s family was as old and deeply magical as Luna’s cards, with ties that reached back into medieval Europe and beyond. Pansy’s words about the Malfoys periodically marrying their French cousins wound into Hermione’s thoughts. She wasn’t French. She was solid, British bourgeoisie. So why was Draco marrying her? Mystery upon mystery and she was tangled in the midst of it, bound to a man who grew more enigmatic each time he was with her.

Hermione’s own magic had always been of the practical sort. She reveled in going about the streets with a basket of healing potions on her arm, distributing its contents to the homeless. Or hiding her wand in the folds of her skirt and causing coins to appear at the feet of beggar children. Of course, she’d learned plenty about the more occult arts during her years at Madame Elinore’s Academy for Magically Gifted Young Ladies. She’d chosen to reject divination as being too nebulous, too imprecise. Too hard to control. But she couldn’t deny that it had held a strange attraction for her, one she’d decided to purposefully ignore. How odd that the pull she felt from Draco was very similar in its way—strong, elemental, and deeply powerful…

“Hermione?” Startled out of her thoughts, she realized that Luna was speaking.

“Our turn,” Draco whispered beside her. Then, “Luna, if you please—Hermione and I would like to request a Tarot Love Reading.”

Rustling and murmurs of curiosity arose from the group seated at the table and those standing around it watching. There wasn’t a person in the room who hadn’t been completely taken by surprise at the recent betrothal of Draco Malfoy, scion of the old aristocracy, to Hermione Granger, daughter of a non-magical, nouveau riche industrialist family.

This was going to be interesting, and no mistaking it.

*

In the end, the watchers would get far more than they bargained for out of this evening, yet none of them would be able to say exactly what that something had been.

As the sound of thunder rolled across the heavens, Luna reached into the black box, retrieved a silver cloth and spread it on the table before her. “Sometimes,” she began, glancing first at Draco and then at Hermione, “The stars seem occluded, yet the reading is a significant one. I think that is the case for the two of you tonight. Silver will help to draw the proper energies. And for further focus, we will use only the Major Arcana.”

Luna’s hands were busy, sorting through cards and gathering some of them onto the cloth. “We need to see three things clearly and simply—what is now, what will be, and what lies over all. You need not believe.” She gave Hermione a gentle smile. “Merely open your mind to possibilities.”

Luna’s fingers hovered over the cards, now fanned in front of her and glowing with their strange, otherworldly light. Withdrawing her first card, she placed it on the table to her left and flipped it over. The High Priestess.

“Mystery enfolds mystery and much remains hidden,” Luna murmured. “Like lightning surging from west to east, like the moon from behind the cloud veil, the time for revelation has come.” It startled Hermione to see a cryptic look pass between Luna and Draco, too oblique for Hermione to interpret.

Turning over the second card, Luna placed it to her right as a collective gasp rose from the group of their friends. The Tower—symbol of destruction, foreteller of doom, the card most feared in any Tarot spread. But Luna merely smiled a small, satisfied smile, as if it surprised her not at all. “If the Tower falls, the world changes. It is not an end, but a challenge.” Hermione glanced at Draco again. His face remained impassive, but his eyes seemed to darken in the candlelight, and he shifted in his chair.

A third time Luna reached for a card, deftly flipping it over and placing it in the center of the other two. A winged angel stood with his bare, right foot in a river, his left upon a rock. In his hands he held flasks of fire and water, which he poured one into the other. Temperance.

“The blending of two opposites, fiery red into watery blue, creating otherworldly violet. It is alchemy, but more than that it is foundational magic, old and deep. ‘For behold, I make all things new.’ When mysteries are revealed, when the Tower burns, there can be transformation. Or rending. The choice will lie with the two of you.” Luna skewered Draco and Hermione with her wide-eyed stare. Like a blind man seeking an answer, Draco’s hand reached out, his fingers curling around the Temperance card.

As if to echo the portents of the Tower, lightning ripped the black sky outside, followed by a boom of thunder that shook the room. The storm hurled itself against the long French doors, flinging them wide with a blast of chill air and a shattering of glass. Lightning cracked and party-goers screamed as both the candle and the Tarot deck winked out. The room descended into darkness and chaos as people jumped from their chairs, trying to escape the whirling winds and flying debris rushing in through the broken doors.

Hermione turned quickly to Draco but he was no longer seated at her side. Instead, she felt eyes on her back, boring into her, commanding that she turn, that she look. Slowly she shifted her head and upper body. Someone—something—was standing just behind her. Tall and impassive, the height of a man, with vast wings that seemed spun from starlight and moon shadow arching above its back.

“Inanimarata,” hissed Luna, and all movement ceased, the party guests frozen in whatever position they’d occupied at the moment Luna spoke. Hermione sat frozen, too, but only from shock, her eyes fixed on the unknown entity. As she slowly rose from her chair another bolt of lightning clawed the sky and in the instant it flashed, she saw Draco’s face, pale and incandescent. The vast wings belonged to him. For one moment, he gripped her shoulder and his eyes bored into hers. Then he turned and ran from the room, his wings lifting him through the shattered doors and into the storm-laden sky outside.

“Draco!” Hermione ran after him, stumbling over her skirts, but by the time she reached the balcony the sky was empty except for the roiling, black clouds. “Draco!”

“Come back inside.”

Hermione whirled to find Luna in the doorway. “But—Draco. You saw him, Luna! He… he turned into the angel on the Temperance card! He flew.” Hermione shook, her teeth chattering with chill from the sluicing rain and the shock of her fiancé’s transformation. “How… why… he turned into the angel,’ she repeated, her voice plaintive with the need for explanations.

Luna took her arm and drew her past the wrecked doors back into the drawing room. Breathing a quick drying spell, she spun Hermione around and pointed her in the direction of the hallway. “Go downstairs and wait for me in the library. I must see to my guests. Then we need to talk.” She gave Hermione a gentle shove. “There is much to discuss.”

“He was an angel,” Hermione said again. “I saw his wings.”

“No,” Luna replied. “Not an angel, Hermione—Draco is a Veela. But more than that. Your fiancé is the Veela King. And you, my darling, are to be his queen.”

*

Half an hour later, Hermione sat across from Luna in the Longbottoms’ library, an untouched tea service and a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the low table between them.

Luna had quickly righted her upstairs parlor, un-spelled her guests, and left Lavender to conduct the evening’s séance. Now she sipped from her tumbler of whiskey, while Hermione raised hers with unsteady hands and downed several large, unladylike swigs.

“Our friends… how much will they remember of what happened tonight?” Hermione asked.

“Very little,” Luna replied. “Because I Obliviated them, and then I lied. They believe that Draco received a rather deep cut from the flying glass and that the two of you chose to return home.”

“And where is he, really?” In the lamplight, Hermione’s eyes were huge. “I saw him flying off into the storm on his own wings. You haven’t Obliviated me yet, so this must be something I need to know.”
“Yes.” Luna, her voice soft and faraway, gazed past Hermione’s shoulder as if looking at some dreamscape only she could see. “But how much is mine to tell, and how much should be Draco’s?”

“Since my fiancé isn’t here but you are, I am counting on you, Luna.”

“Then I suppose I’ll begin where it began for me.” Luna shifted in her chair, her silver-grey gown rustling as she moved. “In mid-June, Draco came to me with a secret. He knew that my interest in magic went beyond what is common to us as witches and wizards and he felt I would understand.”

Luna’s voice trailed away. She remained silent for so long that Hermione finally blurted, “Understand what?”

“His situation. At eighteen, he had been chosen as the next Veela king. Then, on his twenty-second birthday, he took part in an ancient ritual that revealed to him his future mate. That woman is you.”

Hermione’s mind whirled with visions of winged angels and falling towers. Why should she be surprised at anything she was hearing? Her life had felt surreal ever since Draco Malfoy had offered for her hand in marriage. “His mate?” she asked, bewildered. “That sounds rather primitive. I am his fiancée. And I wasn’t even aware that the Veela had a king.”

“’King’ is a poor word choice. He’s actually something of a High Priest, a sort of chief necromancer of an occult knowledge that stretches back to ancient Egypt. When he knew you were to be his mate, he asked me to do a Tarot reading for the two of you. A reading for a king and future queen would be significant, so I searched for an auspicious time, for a proper alignment of stars and planets.”

Hermione’s quick mind leaped forward like a racing greyhound from its gate. “Then—tonight’s party was really just an excuse to get me here for the reading.”

Luna nodded. “We knew you wouldn’t agree otherwise. I am sorry for that bit of deception, but Draco needed this. Guidance from the stars is part of Veela magical practice.”

“He’s kept it all so carefully hidden until now.” She felt as if she were floating, drifting on a cloud of unreality. “Why… why did he choose to reveal his wings to me tonight? And why did he run away?”

“That,” said Luna gently, “is something you will have to ask Draco yourself.”

Hermione set her glass down. Rising on feet that were a bit unsteady, she crossed to the library window and stared out into the storm, fingers gripping the wine-colored brocade of the draperies.

“I’m going to have to go after him, aren’t I?” she asked softly.

Luna made no reply, but there wasn’t really a need for one. Hermione already knew what she must do.

She turned back to Luna and their eyes met. “You know where Draco is.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.

Luna inclined her head. “Chalmonyx. An ancient Veela ruin in the Vosges Mountains.”

Hermione sighed and her lips curved into a wry smile. “At least he had sense enough to choose somewhere interesting.”


*

Wrapped once again in her evening cloak, Hermione stood in the middle of the Longbottoms’ library staring at her sapphire and moonstone engagement ring. With birthstones for both June and September, the ring Draco had given her was unique and very beautiful.

But more than that, Hermione now knew it was a Portkey spelled to transport her to the place where her fiancé had gone. According to Luna, in order to activate the spell Hermione must tap the center gemstone three times, kiss the ring, and then speak the name of her destination.

Gathering courage and curiosity around her like her cloak, she smiled at Luna. “I think the saying is, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound?’” Luna smiled back, giving her a quick hug for luck.

Three taps and Hermione raised the ring to her lips, the sapphires glittering like blue fire against the moonstone’s cool radiance. As she kissed it, a tingling sensation spread through her belly and arced downward. Suddenly, Hermione felt a keen sense of Draco’s presence—a connection to her betrothed stronger than anything she had yet experienced, coupled with an intense yearning to be wherever he was.

“Chalmonyx,” she breathed. The tingling turned into a powerful tug, and she was gone.

The disorienting whirl of Portkey travel ended with Hermione lying on her back beneath the dark sky. Apparently the evening storms had been a British-only event, for the sky over the Vosges was clear and rich with stars—stars that seemed to be lazily swinging from side to side.

Hermione struggled to sit up and then rose unsteadily to her feet. It was possible that two tumblers of whiskey, one Portkey, and a glass of champagne added up to a bad combination.

But least she was in the right place. Chalmonyx. It fit into the dark landscape as if it had somehow been carved from mystery and midnight, its ruin standing black and deserted on a high bluff.

Dress and cloak trailing over the dew-covered grass, Hermione walked to where the bluff ended in a steep cliff. Darkness covered everything, but the half-moon gave enough light for her to recognize forested mountains.

Far below in what must be a valley, a river meandered, gurgling like laughter in the dark, its water spangled with moonbeams. As Hermione stared down at it, an unexpected sense of vertigo gripped her and she wobbled, swaying precariously close to the cliff’s edge.

“If you are thinking of jumping, I beg you to reconsider.”

Taking a deep breath, she turned around slowly. Draco stood a short distance away. Even in the silence, Hermione hadn’t heard him approach. He was still dressed in the elegant suit of clothes he’d worn for Luna’s party and there was no evidence of wings sprouting from his shoulders.

“I know our engagement has been nothing like what you might have imagined.” Draco moved over the grass to meet her, a teasing smile quirking his lips “But that’s no reason to take such drastic action.”

“As if you, or any other man, would ever be worth that.” Hermione laughed in spite of herself. “But if I were of a mind to jump, would you not save me? After all, you are a winged being. At least, I thought you were.” The connection she’d felt when she’d kissed Draco’s ring had not faded. If anything, it had strengthened, leaving Hermione comfortably bold in his presence.

The alcohol singing through her veins was merely an added bonus.

“I came here to meet my fiancé, the Veela king.” Hermione twitched the short train of her gown like a dramatic actress. “Could it be that I am mistaken about who you are? You seem to have no wings. And no castle.” She waved one hand toward the ruin, standing black-on-black against the night sky.

Draco gazed at Chalmonyx, his smile once again vanishing in one of those lightning-fast mood changes Hermione had come to recognize. “I see Luna told you the truth,” he said.
“She told me some things, yes. And some she left for you to tell.”

“You know what I am, then. Yet… you chose to come here anyway.” His tone was impossible to read but Hermione thought she could almost detect a hint of… awe? Amazement?

Inclining her head yes, she watched Draco and waited for him to say more. But as so often happened, he remained maddeningly silent.

It was one cryptic silence too many for a girl who’d reached the limit of her tolerance—for both mysteries and alcohol.

Hermione suddenly sat down on a large rock near the cliff’s edge. Could things get any more preposterous? Here she was in the middle of the night, in the French equivalent of the middle of nowhere, half way to a state of intoxication, and all the way betrothed to a man who was not just a wizard but a full-fledged, magical creature.

In a situation like this, there was nothing to do but laugh. And cry. At the same time.

Giggling, sniffling, and hiccoughing, she looked up at Draco. “What happens now?” she asked. “All I ever wanted was to help the poor, see the Pyramids, and marry a man I could lead around by the nose.” She ignored Draco’s snort of laughter. “Instead, I find I am the mate of a winged fiancé who trusts in Tarot cards to decide our future and wants to turn me into a queen. I’m the daughter of an industrialist, for pity’s sake!” Hermione’s voice rose to a wail. “There isn’t even a social protocol for this type of situation!” She pounded one small fist on her knee.

Looking alarmed, Draco sat down on the rock beside her, uncurling her fingers and patting her hand. “You aren’t about to swoon, are you?” he asked.

“Of course not! Swooning is a trick clever girls use to get the attention of gullible men.”

“I’ve heard crying is just as effective.”

Hermione gulped back a sob, swiping at her wet cheeks. She was staring at her fiancé when his teasing smile vanished, replaced by something that nearly startled her out of her inebriated state.

The coolly aristocratic Lord Draco Malfoy suddenly looked like a lost, bewildered little boy.

Still holding her hand, he gazed into the darkness, eyes wide with reflected moonlight. “When… when I learned you were my mate,” he began. “I was pleased. Not only are you beautiful, but I knew you were the curious, intelligent sort. I had hoped you might view our life together as one big adventure. I never realized you would be so unhappy.”

“Draco, I’m not unhappy,” Hermione told him. “I’m just terribly, terribly confused!”

“I would break our engagement if I could.” He looked at the ground, seeming suddenly embarrassed. “But I can’t. When I showed you my wings in the Longbottoms’ parlor, then flew away, it was part of the Veela courtship ritual. And when you chose to follow me tonight, it meant you had accepted my suit. According to Veela law, we are now sealed as mates.” He gave her a small, rueful smile and shook his head. “A ridiculous thing to happen, isn’t it, to two people in the enlightened 1880s.”

“There are many ridiculous things that happen in the 1880s. One of them is spiritualism.” Hermione’s attempt to be serious was thwarted by a soft, alcoholic hiccough. Undeterred, she let her eyes roam over Draco’s face, her gaze coming to rest on his lips. “Another is the silly, aristocratic social mores that have kept you from kissing me. Do you know how long I’ve waited for you to kiss me, Draco?”

It was Draco’s turn to ball his hands into fists. “There’s more to it than social convention, Hermione.” His voice was low and tense. “Do you really know why I’ve never kissed you?”

“I suspect it’s because… like me, you imagine that once we begin, we might not be able to stop,” Hermione blurted. “But tonight, I’m willing to risk it, if you are.”

Draco stared at her as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, his eyes lit from within with a deep longing. Suddenly he smiled and touched her cheek. “Have you been drinking, love?”

“No. Yes. A little. Luna and I were going to have tea, but Neville’s liquor cabinet has the most divine bourbon, imported all the way from America…”

Draco threw back his head and laughed, pulling Hermione into his arms. “Damn it all to hell,” he muttered, lowering his mouth to hers. “I can’t fight this… can’t fight you any longer.”

Then he was kissing her, the taste of fine brandy on his tongue mingling with the taste of fine bourbon on hers.

“Hermione.” He spoke her name like an incantation, a life force that he needed in order to breathe. In a flash of clarity, she realized it was the same for her. “Draco,” she whispered as something deep and elemental awoke within her, something far beyond the realm of the practical magic she’d always embraced.

His lips moved over her face, kissing her eyelids, her cheeks, her neck, and then hungrily taking her mouth again and again. Draco pulled Hermione into his lap. Quickly, she hitched up her skirts and straddled him instead, so they were kissing face to face. Shocking behavior, she knew, but all she wanted was to get as close to this man as she possibly could. Would her fiancé be scandalized? Apparently not. He responded by groaning her name and then lowering his mouth to the mounds of her breasts where they rose enticingly above the low-cut bodice of her gown.

Arms wrapped around Draco’s neck, Hermione felt it when the back of his cutaway magically parted and his wings erupted. Seated astride him as she was, she couldn’t help noticing that his wings were not the only intriguing part of her fiancé’s anatomy. They were simply the parts visible at the moment.

As she watched, the wings unfurled into tall, pale columns, sweeping upward and outward into great, luminous arcs.

Eyes alight with wonder, Hermione rose to her knees, stretched her arms up as far as they would go, and slowly, carefully, drew the tips of her fingers down Draco’s wings, her touch swirling and caressing. A hiss of breath escaped from both of them at once. Draco held Hermione’s hips, steadying her, his face buried against the fabric of her gown.

Sinking back onto his lap, she continued drawing her fingers over what looked like pale leather yet felt like velvet to her touch. Draco watched her from beneath his lids with an intensity Hermione found easy to interpret—because she knew the same look was in her eyes. Need. Hunger. Desire like living fire.

Her skin tingled from the touch of his wings, a feeling that flowed to her most secret places, pressed tightly against his crotch. “Draco,” she whispered, shifting her hips and pressing harder.

With a strangled oath, Draco reached up and withdrew Hermione’s hands, holding them hard within his. “If we don’t stop now, love, then I am certain you will be correct in your belief that we won’t be able to.” His voice husky, his breathing quick, he reluctantly slid her from his lap.

Wrapping Hermione in his arms, Draco held her close at his side, the wings arching over both of them. “I am determined that we will have a proper wedding on November 17th, as we have planned. And a proper wedding night.”

As her breathing slowed and her pounding heart quieted, Hermione’s brain unfogged enough to take in the meaning of his words. “Then… we can actually go home? We don’t have to stay here? Or live somewhere far-off and Veela-ish, like Transylvania?”

“I should hope not. I have a business empire to run. We’re going to live in London, like the rest of the civilized world. Did you really imagine I was going to carry you off to some mountaintop Veela love nest and keep you there forever?”

“You do have wings.”

“No, Hermione. We’ll only come to Chalmonyx to oversee the occasional ceremony or sacred day. The role of the king and queen is mostly titular in this day and age. We can go home right now, if you like. In fact,” he grinned, “I think that’s probably a very, very wise idea.”

Hermione considered this revelation in silence.

“Look at me,” said Draco, turning her so that he could see her face and tipping her chin up. “I plan to disrupt your life as little as possible. I want you to be happy.” As his wings slowly folded and disappeared he rose to his feet, pulling her up with him. “Now, give me your engagement ring.”

“Why?” Hermione quickly covered her left hand with her right. “Are you attempting to end our betrothal? I thought you said…”

“What I’m attempting to do is adjust the Portkey to take us back to the Longbottoms’, where I plan to sober you up with strong coffee. If I return you home in your current state, your father will murder me, fiancé or no. There, that should do it.”

Tucking the ring into his pocket Draco took Hermione in his arms again, lowering his mouth to hers for a long, searching kiss. His hands slid beneath her cloak to glide down her bare arms, encircle her waist, and press her hips tightly against his. “When we are married,” he murmured into her mouth, “I plan to take you on a honeymoon to the Pyramids that you will never forget.”

“Mmm.” Hermione’s voice was breathless. “I wonder what will make it so memorable. Could it be that you have appendages besides your wings that I haven’t seen yet?”

“You might be surprised.”

“I doubt that. Last fall when Pansy and I visited Paris, we took art lessons with nude male models for sketching. It was quite educational.”

Draco looked nonplussed. “I am hoping there was a sketch-but-don’t-touch rule in place.”

Safe in the circle of his arms, Hermione smiled but remained enigmatically silent.

“Don’t ever stop surprising me,” he suddenly whispered in her ear. “It’s one of the things I’m always going to love about you.”

“Did you really imagine I would plan to do anything else?”

“No.” Draco grinned.

“And do you suppose that once we are married you might consider being less vexatious?”

“No to that as well.”

Hermione’s lips curved in a small, secret smile. He’d actually been quite talkative for most of this evening. And even short answers trumped cryptic silences. In her opinion, it was a very fine start.

Draco slid the engagement ring out of his pocket and back onto Hermione’s finger. Holding her eyes with his, he raised her hand to his lips. “London,” he breathed, and they were gone.

FIN