Aurora Keys has dreamed of the Vanderlind Castle ever since she was a little girl. But the fiercely private Vanderlinds keep the massive structure strictly off limits to visitors. Until one night, the wealthy family throws a party—not just a small soiree, but a huge black-tie affair. No one from the town of Tiburon, Ohio, is invited—not even the mayor. But Aurora’s best friend, Blossom, has a foolproof plan for the two of them to sneak in.
At first, everything goes smoothly: the girls enter the castle undetected, and there is free champagne. But then the handsome Jessie Vanderlind sweeps Aurora into his arms, crushing her to his chest and whispering, “I knew you’d come back to me.”
Aurora understands it is a case of mistaken identity, but she feels connected to him somehow. And the boy is so beautiful, she believes she would be happy if he never let her go.
Once Jessie realizes he is mistaken, his smile quickly changes to a scowl. “You must leave,” he tells her in a low, urgent voice. “Immediately. Come! I’ll find a way to get you out.”
Unbeknownst to Aurora and Blossom, they have snuck into the home of one of the most prestigious vampire families in the world, and it is doubtful the two young women will ever be allowed to leave. Aurora’s resemblance to Jessie Vanderlind’s lost love just may be the only thing keeping them alive.
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“As soon as we’re out of here, that’s it,” I hissed at my friend. “I’m never going along with one of your stupid ideas again.”
“You always say that, Aurora.” Blossom chuckled quietly as we inched along. “But I’m sure I can get you to go on another one. In fact, I bet you I can.”
I huffed a little but decided not to argue, given our precarious position. I didn’t want to fall just because I was annoyed with her. “Just keep moving,” I growled.
Vanderlind Castle was having a party. Not just a regular party, more like an old fashioned ball with men wearing tuxedos and ladies in gossamer evening gowns. No one I knew was invited. In fact, no one in the whole town of Tiburon, Ohio, seemed to be invited. Not even the mayor. We only knew about it because of the immense orders that had been placed at the local florist and the feast that had been requested from Blossom’s mother’s catering company, Belle Soiree. The food had been picked up by servants of the castle, so even Mrs. Coster hadn’t had so much as a peek through the front door of the massive mansion—something her daughter and I were both hoping for.
Most of the guests arrived by water. Blossom and I had been sitting alongside the Tiburon River when we saw the first boats drift past. The decks were filled with elegant ladies and gentlemen, twinkling in the twilight with their diamonds and finery, talking quietly, and sipping red wine from crystal goblets. It was like something out of a dream. More specifically, it was like something out of one of my dreams. I lived with my mom in a drab little house, but when I slept, my dreams were frequently filled with grandeur.
We walked along the river bank and out onto the public pier to watch the boats dock at the Vanderlind Castle. Servants wearing a deep purple livery and white gloves helped the guests disembark. That’s when Blossom said, “We should sneak in.”
“Yeah, right,” I replied. “We’d stand out like two zits on Gwyneth Paltrow’s forehead.”
Blossom laughed. “I mean, we’d dress up first.”
“And how are we supposed to sneak in? Run across the lawn in our heels while carrying a ladder?”
“No.” Blossom set her jaw. “We’ll wait until all the guests have arrived, then we’ll climb from boat to boat. If we keep low and inch along the outside, nobody will see us. And besides, they’ll expect party crashers to come through the front door, not from the dock.”
I had always wanted to see the inside of the castle. Literally, always. Ever since I could remember. I didn’t know what it was about that building, but it seemed so romantic to me even though, compared to some of the photos I’d seen of castles in Austria and Germany, it wasn’t very pretty. It was a huge fortress of gray stone, and there were four turrets, one at each corner. It didn’t have many windows, just those small chinks in the stone that were supposedly for archers to use when the castle was under siege. There was an enormous arched door in front, but the Vanderlinds never had it open. They’d had a normal-sized door installed within the large wood one.
“Do you really think we could get in?” I asked, laying the palm of my hand to my cheek.
Blossom mirrored the gesture to mimic me, laying her hand on her own cheek. She hated when I did that with my hand—said it was too goodie-goodie. She was doing her best to break me of the habit through mockery. “Yeah, Aurora, I really do.”
It wasn’t a bad plan. As the guests entered the castle, their boats were moored along the shore, forming a long chain. As more boats arrived, they were tied to the first. They began to stack up three or four boats deep, making a veritable flotilla. There were so many yachts, several of which were quite large, that a few of the boat chains reached the public pier. All we had to do was climb on one at the very edge then inch along the outside, clinging to the rail, transferring from boat to boat until we were able to just walk into the castle from the Vanderlinds’ dock.
I had been going along with Blossom’s harebrained schemes ever since Mrs. Lehman’s third grade class. Blossom had gotten me into more trouble than I cared to remember, but as my mother always said, “You’re the one that goes along with her ideas. If you’re going to be friends with her, you have to learn how to tell her no.” The thing was, I didn’t want to say no. Not usually. Or at least, I never thought to say no until it was too late. But this idea in particular appealed to me. Even if we got caught, we’d at least get a glimpse of the inside of the castle before they kicked us out. I knew I’d probably end up regretting it, but at that moment, I really wanted to give it a try. “Let’s do it,” I told her.
We hopped in my ancient gold VW bug and headed back to Blossom’s house to get dolled up. Because of her catering business, Mrs. Coster attended a lot of events where she had to look nice, so she had a bunch of fancy clothes. Blossom said, “I’m sure my mom won’t mind if we borrow a few things.”
I knew from experience that really meant, “My mom won’t mind as long as she doesn’t find out.”
“Where is your mom?” I asked as Blossom unlocked the front door to let us in.
“Who knows?” She rolled her eyes. “Probably out on a date with her new boyfriend. I’m sure I won’t see her until tomorrow morning, when she’ll try to sneak in the house like she’s actually been home all night.”
Mrs. Coster’s closet was almost as big as my room at home. There were enough shoes to keep a dozen debutants happy for months and gowns in every color. “She’s a bit of a shopaholic,” Blossom explained as she pawed through the dresses.
Blossom was the prettiest girl in our high school. Or at least, the prettiest by high-school-boy ratings. She was five foot four, blonde and blue eyed, with a cupid’s-bow mouth and a quick laugh for any joke, just as long as it was made by some jock or a guy that was viewed by the general female population of Tiburon High as being desirable. When she was around boys, she acted like a complete bubble head, and that behavior kept her in dates whenever she wanted them. But away from guys, she was daring, sarcastic, willing to laugh only if you made a very good joke or if she was mocking you. She had a split personality—part cheerleader and part Oscar Wilde.
I, on the other hand, was the kind of girl who boys probably wouldn’t appreciate until college. At least that’s what my mom always told me when I was sitting home, dateless and feeling like a loser, on a Friday night. I had black curly hair that tended to frizz, green eyes, and a bit of a pointed nose. My shape was what used to be called an hourglass figure: all boobs and buns, with very little tummy. If Marilyn Monroe’s figure were still in vogue, I’d probably have had more dates, but as it was, I had trouble finding a wardrobe that could accommodate my curves. My shape was not in style.
“Here, this’ll look great on you.” Blossom yanked an emerald green wrap gown off its hanger and tossed it to me. “It’ll bring out your eyes.” She selected a sky blue shift for herself with the same purpose in mind. Blossom might have been the same size six as her mother, but I was a good few dress sizes larger than that. The wrap dress barely hugged all my curves, and my boobs were practically popping out from the low-cut neckline.
“I can’t wear this,” I said, pulling at the material, trying to get more coverage.
Blossom cocked an eyebrow as she appraised my cleavage. “We’ll borrow one of my mom’s brooches to keep you in there,” she assured me.
By the time we applied makeup, shoes, and accessories, we looked pretty good. I’m not sure we were elegant-ball-at-a-castle good, though. Probably more like high-school-prom good. “Are we seriously going to do this?” I asked while experimenting walking in heels that were much higher than I was used to and a size too small.
“Why not?” Blossom tossed a blonde curl over her shoulder and gathered up another bunch of hair for its turn around the curling iron.
“What if we get caught?”
“We’ll just tell them my mom sent us over to make sure everything was satisfactory. I mean, who’s going to questions us? Maybe a couple of servants or something. I’ll just flash my mom’s business card, and I’m sure everything will be fine.”
And that was how it always went. Blossom’s schemes always seemed so plausible. They sounded so flawless when we were sitting in her bedroom or at a cafe somewhere hatching the plan, but things looked a lot different when you were barefoot, going hand-over-hand from yacht to yacht with a borrowed pair of strappy sandals dangling off your wrist.
The thing I learned about a bunch of yachts moored together was that even the gentlest ripple made them all bob and bump together. I seriously did not want to lose my grip and plunge between the boats. I was not that strong of a swimmer, and I didn’t want to get squashed. But as we got closer to the castle, I became more and more determined. This was probably the only chance I’d have in my life to see it. I was almost desperate to get inside.
Vanderlind Castle was actually a real European castle that some crazy rich ancestor had shipped to America stone by stone about a hundred years ago when the Vanderlinds first moved to Tiburon. There was no moat, but there was a traditional English rose garden and there were rumors of a dungeon. Whether there actually was a dungeon was left to speculation because the Vanderlinds weren’t very social. If they left their home at all, it was usually by an old fashioned stretch limousine with tinted windows. The castle had a huge iron gate around the property, and accessing it by the Tiburon River was discouraged by the lack of a dock. Unless the family was expecting company, then a portable one was affixed to the back of the building.
Once a year, the Vanderlinds had a garden party in the rose garden for the locals. Tea and finger sandwiches were served, and there was usually a string quartet playing something classical. What there usually wasn’t a lot of was Vanderlinds. And there was absolutely no access to the castle itself. Port-o-potties were rented for the occasion. Still, it was a friendly gesture from a wealthy family that apparently just wanted to be left alone.
That was why the ball being thrown at the castle was discussed in Tiburon so avidly. No one was invited, and everyone was dying to go. It also came as a surprise that the reclusive Vanderlinds had so many friends. Mrs. Coster took on extra staff to get the food ready for the event. There wasn’t to be a formal, sit-down dinner, but she estimated the guest list to be at least two hundred.
Finally, after what seemed like a good thirty minutes of clinging to bobbing boats by my fingernails, we gained footing on a yacht that was moored next to the back patio. We hastily slipped on our shoes, and then we were able to step onto solid land. Or more accurately, the castle’s back patio, which was so crowded with people that no one seemed to notice our arrival.
Quickly, I snatched two empty champagne cups off a table and handed one to Blossom. She made a face and tried to hand it back to me. “I don’t want someone’s used drink.”
I smiled at her through clenched teeth and said, “They’re our drinks, and we’ve just finished them.” For someone so scheming, she could sometimes be a little dense.
“That’s right.” She caught on immediately, lifting her chin to signal a waiter with a full tray of drinks. “Thank you,” she said, beaming at him as she picked up another coupe of champagne.
“You’re friends of?” the waiter asked with a slight bow. He was also dressed in the purple so dark it was almost black.
Blossom coughed a little as she sipped at the bubbly. “The Vanderlinds, of course,” she said, trying to cover.
“Madame Vanderlind?” he pressed. He had a weird accent I couldn’t place.
“No, the son,” I interjected before Blossom could reply.
“Very good.” The waiter clicked his heels together, bowing a bit lower and executing a sharp spin that had the tails of his uniform jacket flying before he continued to attend the beverage needs of the real guests.
“Where did that answer come from?” Blossom asked, slumping slightly with relief.
“Look.” I nodded toward the castle. Through a large wall of glass, we could view the interior of the room that was accessed from the patio. It was an obvious modification from the original castle, but it provided the family with an excellent view of the river. In the vast room, there was a receiving line with all sorts of swanks waiting to pay their respects to a dark-haired boy who looked to be about seventeen. To his right and left were a slightly older man and woman, who appeared to be in their early twenties. Probably all siblings, I figured. They were in front of a large gift table piled high with ornately wrapped presents. “I think it’s one of the Vanderlind’s birthdays,” I whispered.
Blossom squinted through the crowd. “Aurora, it’s him,” she gasped. “It’s my dreamboat.”
Two weeks earlier, we had been at the library on a Thursday night, the one night a week it stays open past six. Blossom was desperately behind on her Grapes of Wrath paper and hoping against hope that the library’s copy hadn’t been checked out. We were trying to make heads or tails of the Dewey Decimal System when we stumbled across the world’s hottest guy browsing in the classics—ruffled dark hair, skin as pale as porcelain, full lips, and gray eyes as bottomless as the Loch Ness. We were both staring at him so hard as he flipped through The Great Gatsby that Blossom literally walked into the back of me. “Who the hell is that?” she whispered, although probably loud enough that he could hear.
There was something about his appearance that tugged at my memory. Something my great grandmother had said from her wheelchair at the old age home during one of her clearer visions into dementia. “Their eyes. So gray. So lost. They all have gray eyes,” she’d said, clutching my hand. “I tell you, Lettie. Every single one of them has eyes as gray as the North Sea.” Lettie was her younger sister, the beauty of the family, who ran away from home as a teenager and was never heard from again. I was supposed to look a bit like her, just without the beauty part. My great grandmother, along with her sister, had worked as a maid at the Vanderlind Castle for a short time when she was young. Of course, that was before the Vanderlind family cut themselves off from the world. Granny left the post abruptly right after Lettie ran away, and she would rarely talk about her time there until her senility set in. And then, for some reason, it became a source of fixation.
“I think he’s a Vanderlind,” I’d said quietly, tugging Blossom away by the arm.
“Really?” She whipped her head around to check him out in greater detail, but he was gone.
For the next couple of days, Blossom mentioned the handsome Vanderlind boy about every twenty minutes, calling him her “dreamboat” and wondering how she could run into him again. He was remarkably good looking in that chiseled statue sort of way. Fortunately, a few days later, one of the best players on the varsity football team started calling Blossom to chat. Football season had just started, but the team was doing reasonably well, so she refocused her energies and let the whole dreamboat thing drop.
“We should go say hi.” Blossom gripped my hand with the intent of dragging me over to the receiving line.
“Are you nuts?” I hissed at her. “That’s the last place we need to be. Forget about Dreamboat. We need to work on blending in.”
Even as the words left my mouth, I felt the handsome book-lover’s eyes tick in my direction. He stared at me. I stared back. I wanted to look away. I knew I was being indiscreet, but he was just so handsome. It was like gazing at an old photograph of a silent film star. The older brother noticed our connection. He leaned to one side and whispered something to the young woman on his left. Her eyes quickly found me in the crowd. “Not good,” I mumbled to myself. “Come on,” I said to Blossom. I didn’t have time to explain what was happening, so instead I said, “I need to find the ladies room.”
Say what you will about Blossom, she may have been boy crazy and as changeable as the weather in March, but she was a loyal friend. Announcing a need to use the ladies could not be ignored, no matter how many attractive men were floating around the room.
My heart was pounding in my chest like the beat of some rave song at a hip club in New York as we made our way across the large room in the direction of what I hoped was some sort of bathroom facility. I was alarmed, but getting caught wasn’t really the thing that had me in a panic. I hadn’t said anything to Blossom when we saw him in the library, but right as I was pulling her away, the gorgeous junior Vanderlind had looked up and made direct eye contact with me. I don’t know what it was about the guy, but when our eyes met, I felt something in my body twang like there was a harp string running through me and someone had plucked it.
Seeing him again, when his eyes met mine, I felt that same tingling vibration. It was exhilarating and painful and made me excessively nervous all at the same time. I was not the kind of girl who believed in soul mates or love at first sight or any of that kind of nonsense, but there was something about the boy that made me yearn in a way that I couldn’t explain. I took a large gulp of my champagne and tried to calm down.
The room we were standing in was probably called the great hall or something like that. It was enormous, after all. So big, in fact, it couldn’t be illuminated by just one giant crystal chandelier. There were actually two chandeliers, and they were both the size of a NASA reentry capsule returning a crew of astronauts to earth. I had always pictured the inside of Vanderlind Castle as dark and as gray as the stones that formed its exterior, but that was not the case. The interior walls were made of bricks that were a pale sand color with flecks of gold. I had to assume that wasn’t part of the original castle. Nor was the electricity or the large glass wall with sliding doors that led onto the patio and the river. But who could blame them for wanting to modernize?
Blossom finished her glass of champagne and signaled another waiter. “Slow down,” I told her in a low voice. “Don’t get too crazy.”
“Why not?” she shrugged. “I thought you said you had to use the ladies.”
“I do. I’m just not sure where it is,” I replied, which was a half truth.
A waiter approached us, his tray filled with goblets of red wine. When Blossom extended her empty coupe glass toward him, he took a half step backwards and said, “You don’t want this, I’m sure. Better stick to the champagne.”
“That was rude,” Blossom said as the waiter turned to serve other guests.
“He’s probably right. Does red wine even taste good after champagne?” I wondered, placing my hand to my cheek.
Blossom gave me an annoyed look, glancing meaningfully at my hand until I lowered it. “Let’s mingle,” she said, scoring a glass of bubbly off another waiter as he went by. I’d lost track of how many glasses she’d already drunk.
The party guests were all dressed very elegantly. Mrs. Coster’s gowns were nice, but mere rags compared to the elaborate finery most of the guests were wearing. The men were all in tuxedos, many of them cut in the old style. There were boutonnieres, pocket squares, several top hats, and a few men even carrying walking canes. The women were dripping with jewels and clad in gowns that seemed to move like rippling water. The whole scene reminded me of the song Puttin’ on the Ritz. It was like we’d snuck onto the set of a high budget movie.
“Is it you?” a low voice said very close to my ear, practically making me leap out of my skin. “Colette?”
I gave a startled gasp and jumped back an inch, nearly spilling my champagne. It was him. The beautiful boy from the library. And he was peering into my face with such a serious, penetrating look that it made my heart skip a beat.