“Are you going tonight?” Trish asked. She dropped into the chair next to Tara with a tired sigh. “It’s supposed to be the event of the year. The Council’s bringing some heavy hitters from around the world to rub elbows with the simple denizens of Sunnydale.”
Tara kept her eyes on her textbook. Of course she wasn’t going, and Trish knew that. Tara hated parties. Actually saying she wouldn’t go, however, would cause Trish to poke and prod about why. Smart money was on remaining silent and pretending to study. Too bad the chapter on the foundation of the American novel didn’t hold her attention. Her mind wandered. What would it be like to feel free enough, confident enough, to go to the Slayers Council meet and greet?
“Tara?” As expected, Trish hadn’t given up.
With a sigh, Tara closed her book and glanced up through the protective curtain of her hair. “I’m not g-going.”
Trish rolled her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”
“Then why did you ask?” Keeping the exasperation from her voice was a struggle. Tara managed only because getting mad at Trish was useless. Trish would only smile and go right back to trying to arrange Tara’s social life. “I haven’t gone to a single one of your parties in six months.”
“I live in hope you will one day wake up and see the sexy subs in front of you,” Trish intoned. “And Maxie insists I should be a better friend and get you out of your dorm room. This is the only thing I could come up with. UC Sunnydale isn’t at the top of the social charts, Tar.”
Maxie. Perfect. Tara changed the subject. “How is Maxie? I haven’t seen her for a few days.”
Anything related to Maxie was like waving a bone in front of a hungry dog. “She’s amazing,” Trish breathed reverently. Her eyes took on a thousand-yard stare. “Did you see her last week when she picked me up for our date? The dress...Wow. I mean, wow, Tara. She was so beautiful I forgot how to breathe.”
Tara shook her head and smiled fondly. “She could be in sweaty gym clothes and smelly socks and you’d forget how to breathe. She’s your bondmate, sweetie.”
“That’s right, Tar. All that beauty and it’s mine.” With an ostentatious flourish of her left wrist, Trish showed off her heavy stainless steel cuff. “Which is why you need to go to the Council bash tonight. You need to get one of these - and your own collared beauty.” She wiggled impatiently in the chair. “Come on. It’s one night. Come with us for a few hours. If you hate it, Maxie and I’ll bring you home.”
“No,” Tara repeated, wishing her refusal sounded firmer. Trish always made socializing sound fun and exciting. And Tara was tired of being alone. Most people were bonded by now, and those that weren’t had started looking for alternatives.
Trish had a sixth sense when it came to Tara’s emotions. She hopped out of her chair and dropped to her knees in front of Tara. “Please?” she begged.
“Did Maxie show you how to do that?” Tara stalled for time. She needed to find her backbone or Trish would be helping her pick out clothes for the party. Unfortunately, Trish didn’t take the bait. Tara could feel people staring as they walked by and flushed in embarrassment. “Get up,” she ordered.
“Nope. You’ll have to do better than that.” Remaining on her knees, Trish upped the ante. She leaned forward and placed her hands on Tara’s knees. “Did you know I make Maxie wheedle for permission to go down on me? She’s really good at it.” It wasn’t clear which activity Trish meant. “I know all the tricks, and I’ll use each one until you say yes.”
Goddess, she was relentless. Tired of the constant invitations, Tara caved. “Fine. I’ll go. But for just a little while, Trish,” she added when Trish hopped up and began dancing around the tiny table. “Please stop. After your show of begging, people will think I made you dance for me.”
“Ooh! Good. Do you want that with or without clothes?” Trish was giddy with success and Tara had to laugh.
“Get out of here. If I’m going out tonight,” Tara tried not to wince, “I have studying to do.”
Trish sobered. “I’m glad you’re going, Tara. Maxie and I are worried about you.” Bestowing a quick hug, she gave Tara a final smile. “We’ll pick you up at seven. Wear your best duds and be ready to have a good time.”
A good time. Tara closed her eyes and sighed. Right.
The Council had rented out the clubhouse at the Sunnydale Country Club for the dance. Tara watched the cars ahead of them inch closer to the valet stand. She should have stayed at home.
“I used the child safety locks on the doors. You can’t jump out and run away, Tara.” Trish didn’t even glance into the back seat as she spoke.
Maxie did, though. She turned within the confines of her seat belt and gave Tara a sympathetic look. “It won’t be that bad, I promise. I went to one of these in Charleston a few years ago. The Watchers can be really formal and uptight. The Slayers and Witches are normal.” She paused and tilted her head. “Well, sort of normal. Running around in the middle of the night killing the undead is a little odd.”
Tara sat up a little straighter. Witches. How could she have forgotten that most Witches gravitated toward the Slayers Council? It was really the only legitimate way to use magic. By the time Trish stopped the car and got out, Tara felt slightly more positive about the evening. Talking with other Witches wouldn’t be so bad.
The valet helped her out of the car when it was apparent Trish had eyes (and hands) only for Maxie. “Thank you,” Tara told the uniformed teenager. He blushed and ducked his head, and she caught a glimpse of a black leather cuff on his right wrist. Bonded but not yet collared. Tara turned her eyes away, a little of her enthusiasm slipping away as his marker reminded her again of her solo status.
“Isn’t this amazing?” Maxie beamed as they entered the two-story grand entrance to the clubhouse. Several groups of people milled around the large space while others streamed through a set of double doors at the far end. “The one in Charleston was bigger, but the Council goes all out for these no matter where they are.”
Maxie was correct. The scene had an old-world charm. Although most of the guests were in business casual, there were others in tuxedos and ball gowns. Trailing behind Maxie and Trish, Tara nodded to a few of the guests who smiled a welcome her way. She relaxed a little with each smile. No one had given her hemp skirt and combat boots a second glance.
The crowd was much larger in the clubhouse meeting space. Tuxedos and gowns were outnumbered three to one by slacks and jeans. “See anything you like?” Trish didn’t even have the grace to move close and lower her voice. She shouted her question over the hum of voices and the strains of a string quartet.
“The table decorations are very nice,” Tara answered with mock sincerity. She ignored Trish’s rolling eyes and Maxie’s giggle at her response. She wasn’t here to pick up a submissive. She wouldn’t mind talking about magic, though. Scanning the crowd with more purpose, Tara realized Trish knew her parties. There were some very good-looking women here. Slayers, from their physique and predatory gates. Not even heels and dresses hid their vocation.
She was not looking for a sub. Besides, Tara might wear her cuff on the left but she didn’t think any of the Slayers would bend knee at her command. Some of them were submissives; sleeveless dresses did little to hide dynamic markers. Despite their submissive status, though, they all had a striking air of self confidence and power. Shy witches wouldn’t stand a chance of Dominating them. Taking a few more steps into the room, Tara eyed a much less physically impressive group of brightly-clad men and women. None of them appeared out of place for a party. The hippy quotient was simply higher than in any other area in the room.
That’s when a red-haired blur tackled Tara to the floor. “Oh, hey. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going. Are you all right? You didn’t hit your head or anything, did you?” The woman scrambled up and held out her hand. “Do you need a doctor? We have several here tonight.”
The rush of words dazed Tara more than the fall.
“You are hurt. Oh, Goddess. Hang on; I’ll be right back.” The girl sprinted off leaving Tara sprawled on the floor.
Slowly, Tara sat up. She was going to have bruises in the morning, but she was fine. Which she would have told the other woman if she’d stuck around. Climbing to her feet, she brushed off her clothes. “And I thought the party would be boring,” she muttered.
“Please do not let any of the children hear you say that,” a man said behind her. “They already believe this affair is an attempt to torture them.”
Tara spun with a gasp of fright and almost found herself on the floor for the second time that evening as she stumbled over her own feet.
The man lunged forward and caught her under the elbows. “My dear, are you alright?”
It was too similar to the redheaded woman’s question. This was crazy. Tara giggled and the man smiled in confusion. He apparently didn’t think clumsy women were amusing. “I’m fine. Really. You just startled me.”
“Rupert Giles.” He took Tara’s hand and bowed over it. “Welcome to the Slayers Council Winter Social. Since we have established your good health, would you like me to introduce you around? I must admit I know rather a lot of people.” Rupert’s eyes twinkled behind his glasses
“Um…” Tara’s eyes darted frantically around the room. “I came with friends.” Only she didn’t see either Trish or Maxie anywhere. Why had she agreed to come tonight?
Straightening, Rupert scanned the room as well, perhaps sensing her unease. “Is something wrong?”
“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Giles.” Mentally shaking herself, Tara placed her hand in the crook of his elbow. “My name is Tara Maclay, and I’d be honored if you’d escort me around the party.” She tilted her head in his direction. “As long as your Dominant doesn’t mind,” she said.
His free hand reached up to brush the collar showing above the sharp points of his tuxedo shirt. “My dear Lady Lydia is quite aware of my habit for finding beautiful young Dominants and luring them into danger with my irrepressible charm.”
Tara giggled. Rupert was funny – and charming, as he’d mentioned. “You don’t mind if I ask to meet Lady Lydia first then?” Better safe than sorry when swanning around the room with someone else’s submissive. “I’m curious. You mentioned danger. No one said I might be risking life and limb to attend.” Then again, she had been knocked to the floor already.
Rupert’s laugh turned heads. “The Council has few dull moments. Not all of them are demon related, Miss Maclay. We are, after all, an organization dedicated to Slayers. They are daring young women with truly amazing skills - and a penchant for mischief.” Leading her around the tables, Rupert set a course for a small group conversing near the overloaded buffet table.
Eyes wide, Tara noticed each of them had plates so stuffed with food that a stray breath might blow the contents onto the floor.
“Good evening, ladies - and Xander.” Rupert didn’t bow as they approached the group. He merely stopped and waved at Tara with a flourish. “This is Tara Maclay. She challenged me to prove the party was not as dull as she believes. May I trust in your assistance?”
“You need more than our help, Giles.” The only man in the group (Tara assumed he was Xander) winked at her. “Even zombies are livelier. Remember last week at Chez Summers? Those guys knew how to dance...and shed the occasional body part, too. Do you see any of that going on here?”
Rupert’s sigh was pained. “Ignore him, Tara, please. Xander has always been a thorn in my side, forever ruining my attempts at a sober and serious conversation. It is my honor to introduce you to some of our guest Slayers this evening. Raquel Saenz from Mexico City. Jennifer Reynolds from Green Bay. And Elspeth Davies from Swansea, England.” Leaning close to Tara, he whispered conspiratorially, “Ellie is my favorite, but you cannot tell the others.”
The Slayers all burst into laughter. “I’m the favorite of the moment because I brought an entire suitcase of Bovril.” Elspeth held out her hand to Tara. “As soon as he drinks it all, he’ll forget he even met me.”
Tara noticed the calluses on Elspeth’s palm as she took the other girl’s hand. “I don’t know. Mr. Giles seems like a very nice man. He’d remember your name, at least.” Then her better nature took over. “I’m sorry, Mr. Giles. That was rude,” she told him softly, glancing quickly up at him. Her face grew warm, and she ducked behind her hair.
“It’s of no concern, my dear. Really. This lot are exceedingly brash and outspoken. I am used to their teasing and the numerous slurs on my character.” Rupert’s smirk indicated he might actually enjoy them. “Now, there are many more people for you to meet. Including my Lady Lydia. I relish the thought of you inquiring about her feelings regarding my escort duties.”
Before he had a chance to resume their trek through the room, another tuxedo-clad man hurried to Giles. They shared an intense, whispered conversation while everyone pretended not to watch.
“I apologize, Tara.” Giles’ previous levity was conspicuously absent. “Remember our conversation regarding mischief? I fear I cursed the evening and must now deal with a developing situation. However, I do not leave you to fend for yourself. I will summon…”
“Giles, I love you like a brother,” Xander interrupted, causing Rupert to wince. “Tara needs to stay here with us. We’re more her speed. I promise we’ll do the introductions - only we’ll pick all the interesting people.” He didn’t back down at Rupert’s glare. “We got this; trust me.”
Glare fading, Rupert nodded. “Very well, Xander. I will allow you to take over my escort duties. However,” and he pointed a finger at Xander, “you will not lead Tara astray. One incident this evening is all I am willing to handle.” Expectations complete, Rupert bowed once more to Tara. “It has been a pleasure, Ms. Maclay. Please let me know if there is any other service I might provide.”
As he walked away, Elspeth muttered, “I’m English, and he’s too stuffy for me. All those big words make my head hurt.”
“So, Tara, now that you’re hanging with us...” Xander wrapped an arm around Tara and spun her back toward the tables and chairs. “Who would you like to meet first? Over there,” he pointed to a large contingent of older men and women in formalwear, “are the rest of the Giles clones. Not all of them have accents, but they do share a thing for Tweed.”
Tara had liked Giles. She wouldn’t mind talking to others like him. She didn’t say anything, though because Xander had already turned a little to the right. “Or more Slayers. Other little Ellies and Raquels from around the world.” As he pointed out a cluster of young women dining at tables across the room, one of them glanced up. Xander stiffened. “Or my personal favorite, the Witchy Crew. I say that not because I like being accidentally turned into the man all women in Sunnydale want. No. Really. It was horrible.” He mock shuddered. “I say they are my favorite because my very best friend is a witch.”
Definitely the witches. However, Tara didn’t want to impose on Xander. He’d been enjoying the party with his Slayer friends before Mr. Giles had brought Tara over. “Thank you, Xander. I can find my way there.”
His eyes grew wide and his shoulders slumped.
Tara braced for impact. She’d seen Maxie try the same trick with Trish, and she wasn’t going to get sucked in by the act.
Xander’s chin dipped. “Please, Tara?” Peering up at her through his lashes, he said in a pathetic plea, “You wouldn’t want me to get in trouble because I didn’t take care of you the way I promised, right?”
No wonder Trish gave in every time Maxie did this. Tara glanced away from Xander. Took several deep breaths. Rocked back and forth on her toes. And the whole time, she could feel his eyes watching her. “Xander.” Why was her voice so weak?
Jennifer chuckled. “Be strong, Tara. Don’t give the rest of us Dommes a bad name. If you give in to him, he’ll expect all of us to do it.”
Was she implying people managed to ignore Xander’s expression? If so, then it must be possible. Tara squared her shoulders and gripped her resolve. “Xander, I don’t need an escort,” she said firmly. See? She could do this.
Then she made the mistake of bringing her attention back to Xander. His eyes were so soft. And Tara hated to see the defeated slump in his posture; it made her want to pull him into her arms and take care of him.
She barely heard Jennifer mutter, “Well, she almost won. I’ll have to let everyone know Buffy’s the only one he can’t beat.”
“Oh, sweetie, don’t look like that.” Tara patted Xander’s arm and watched his eyes grow the slightest bit more hopeful. There. That was better, but…not good enough. “If it’s so important to you, of course you can introduce me to your friend.”