“I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at his clasped hands.
“Hey, there you are.” Before I even spun around, Emily wrapped her arms over my shoulders and squeezed. I gave Spencer, who stood awkwardly in the dust cloud of Emily’s enthusiasm, a short wave. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you guys.”
“Yeah, sorry.” I stood back from her, swiping my hair from my face. “But we’re here now. And look at you—” Emily twirled around to show her long blonde ponytail, in a spiral down her back, and the perfect fit of the dress; Mike cleared his throat beside me. “I can't believe how grown-up you look.”
“Yeah, my mom says—” She stopped and looked beside us when Mike and Spencer shook hands. “Oh yeah, sorry guys.” She ducked her head a little. “Um, Mike—Spence; Spence—Mike.”
“So, you’re Ara’s fiancé?” Spence looked at me for confirmation.
“The one and only,” I said; Mike grinned as I linked my arm in his. He liked that. I could tell. And I liked that he liked it. “So, Spencer? You scrub up nice,” I added.
“Yeah, thanks. You’re not so bad yourself, Ara.” He appraised my gown—not in a creepy way, but I think he was just as shocked as I was that it was actually me under all the sparkles.
We looked over the crowd of dancers for a moment. Each one was hidden beneath a mask of feathers or sequins, their hair drawn up in dazzling ringlets or left down to flow over their shoulders. It seemed futile to find a friend among them. Then I spotted a girl at the centre of the dance floor, with a tall, sandy-blonde-haired boy. Her cream and black dress with pink accents of lace took my breath away, fitting Alana’s description of her hand-me-down perfectly.
Mike looked over my shoulder, following my gaze. “Wow. That’s quite a dress.”
“Oh, wow.” Emily sighed, leaning against the railing beside me.
“Yeah. I’m a good matchmaker.” Emily grinned, hiding her piercing, Mike-directed gaze of abhorrence under her mask.
I got the sense then that maybe she really did hate him.
“Well, Miss Ara.” Spencer bowed to me. “I believe you owe me a dance.”
“Very well, Mr Griffin. It would be my pleasure,” I said in a formal English accent, then wrapped my arm over Spencer’s.
Mike walked behind us with Emily on his arm. I felt a little sorry for him, knowing Emily would probably step on his toes deliberately.
We danced, and the flow and magic of the masquerade concealed my pain and emptiness for just a while. Passed from arm to arm, I danced with nearly every guy attending the ball, and when I finally fell back into Mike’s embrace as the first stroke of midnight chimed through the air, my head swirled like a room full of butterflies.
The enchanting tone of the evening burst into a spectrum of colour above us when blue and pink electrified the skies—dissipating into yellows and whites as they dissolved among the stars. Everyone stood still, tilting their faces upward while the clock chimed each agonising toll of realisation.
The music played on, saddening my heart with its desultory notes. All the beauties around us smiled in awe at the colours of the end, while my heart fought to ignore the sombre melody of loss and separation.
Mike pulled me close, pressing his fingers firmly between my shoulder blades. “I love you, Ara-Rose. You know that, don’t you?” he whispered.
Wiping the tears from my lips and cheeks, I looked up at his face, feeling the last chime of midnight pass, taking all my hopes and dreams with it. “Mm-hm.”
The fireworks cracked, echoing off the horizon, but the noise, along with the gasps and giggles of girls, faded into the background when his lips touched mine. The room twirled again, the dancers moving around us, taking step to the rhythm of a sound I could no longer hear because, while I was safe in his arms, there was nothing but Mike and I—no one else in the world. It had always been that way, and I knew then that it always would.
His lips broke away from the kiss with a cool wash of air, the room flooding with noise again as he looked over his shoulder.
“May I?” a gentle voice asked, and a boy stepped into view; tall, yet not as tall as Mike, with soft brown hair—his face hidden behind a black mask, but instantly recognisable.
Mike kissed my cheek and took a step backward, giving away the last dance of the evening to this stranger he’d never met. My heart raced, my breath quickening as the boy stepped into me and took my hand, but it all stopped—all the hope, all the excitement, just trickled away when his cold touch met mine with no familiarity.
The stranger pulled me close with one sweeping touch, my hips against his, my body arching back slightly, his green eyes locked to mine.
“Moonlight Sonata,” he said in a smooth, gentle voice, gesturing toward the piano. “Your favourite piece.”
“Yes.” I squinted against the dark, trying to see him better beneath the mask. “Do I know you?”
He shook his head once and said nothing more.
The song’s harmonies set the pace to his gracefulness, while the elegance in his stance seemed adopted from another era; one hand gently under my shoulder blade, the other extending our arms out widely. He’d danced before. Perhaps on a night such as this. I dreamed of it for a moment; he and I, in another time, another place, dancing this way until sunrise. But the very idea, the very thought of having been in his arms before, came from a place—a dream-like state—somewhere deeper inside. It was as if I didn’t own the thought at all.
I looked up at the boy, his smile showing only by the dimple beside the curve of his lip, and a strange sensation saturated the air around me, a feeling like energy—closing me in, making this dance a secret from the rest of the world.
From the sideline, Mike stood watching, arms folded, leaning in, whispering to Alana and Ryan every few seconds. I wondered if he could see us; if he could see the way this boy held me—if he found it odd that he pulled me close, like he’d held me there a thousand times before. All the laws of nature said he could, but I felt invisible.
He turned his head an inch and looked down at me; his mysterious eyes held a depth of darkness to them that made me feel suddenly very uneasy. “I’m the one doing it.”
I looked at Mike again—having a thumb war with Spencer—and my heart hurried a little. I wanted him to come, to tap this boy on the shoulder and ask for me back, hold me safe in his arms, but the boy squeezed my hand gently, tightening his hold on my back.
“Our dance is not yet complete, my lady,” his wet lips whispered onto my brow. “It would be incredibly bad manners to leave a man in the middle of the dance floor. You wouldn’t want to be rude, would you?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude,” I said softly, and something inside me screamed, wriggling about, warning me to move away. But I stayed in his arms, smiling his smile as we passed each dancer, softly nodding my head in greeting. It felt unnatural.
When the music ended, the boy stopped and clapped gently. “Thank you, my lady.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, but made no haste to move away from him. I stood, staring up at him, like a stuffed animal. “Please tell me who you are.”
Another song began; he bowed low, holding his arm across his body. “Care to dance the encore first?”
“I—” I swallowed, shaking my head as a name came to mind. “Jason?”
“Très bien, madame.” He stood taller, his lip creasing in one corner, leaving the smile to come only from behind his eyes—the way David smiled when he read my mind.
“You look so much like him.”
Jason exhaled and offered his arm; “Walk with me?”
“Just to the balcony,” he said, cupping my hand into the crook of his elbow.
We passed right by Mike and my friends, who didn’t even look up as this stranger led me away from the dance floor.
“A perfect night.” I leaned on the marble railing, watching the other dancers in the final act.
“Perfect for one’s last,” he said softly.
“I shall not repeat myself, girl. It’s rude not to listen.”
“I heard you. I just wondered what you meant.”
Jason smiled, seemingly to himself. “I meant that if this were your last night, it would be a grand way to spend it.”
“Yes.” I looked down at the dance floor again. “I suppose so.”
“Do you know why I’ve come?”
I shook my head. “Are you here because of David?”
“In ways.” His eyes focused on something distant, while the same malignant smile as before settled onto his dark-pink lips, sending shivers down my spine. Bad shivers.
“What do you mean by that?” I stood up straight.
Jason turned and leaned his back on the ledge. “I mean—you hurt him. Badly. I suspect he’s grieving at this time.”
“What would you know about it?”
“I know you gave him your heart, then denied him your life.”
“That’s none of your business,” I said, turning to walk away.
But his hand lashed out and caught my arm, spinning me into his chest with a breathtaking jolt. “On the contrary, my dear, it is.”
“What are you doing?” I wedged the ball of my palm into his chest. “Let go of me.”
When a few curious glances flicked our way, Jason placed his hand firmly on my lower back and forced my arms into position. “Dance with me.”
“I’ll make you.” He held me firmly, spinning around to the soft piano, like we were just two masked teens in love.
“What do you want, Jason?”
“I think you already know what I want.”
“I’ve never been one for guessing games.”
“Let’s just say—” his eyes, under the cover of the black mask, became small with a smile, “—I’m not here for pleasure.”
The pulse between my collarbones seemed to shoot out backward, filling me with a sudden urge to run. I cast my eyes to the dance floor, but Mike was gone. The space he stood before—vacant. “Well,” I said, sounding amazingly calm, “if it’s not pleasure, it must be business. What business do you have here?”
“The concluding of an age-old quarrel among brothers—one you, so unfortunately, have found yourself recompense of.”
Jason’s head moved at a fraction of an inch, the green in his eyes occupying the corners. “Someone is looking for you.”
I followed his sideways gaze to see Mike running through the crowd—panicked, touching the shoulders of various individuals—obviously desperate to find me.
Look up, Mike, look up.
“I’ll kill him, Ara. If he comes for you—he will die.”
“Why?” I gasped. “What do you want with me?”
“It’s nothing personal, really.” He tilted his head. “Then again, perhaps it is.”
He sighed. “I’m going to hurt you to hurt my brother.”
My mouth fell open with a huff. “Don’t you dare touch me.”
“Oh, I’m going to do worse than touch you.”
“No!” I sunk my knees down, slipping free from his hold, but he grabbed my arm, hoisting me to my feet and started walking toward the dark chamber gardens. “Let me go, Jason,” I ordered, “I’ll scream.”
He just smiled wickedly, keeping his eyes on our destination. “You won’t scream. Because I’ll kill them—all of them, Ara. I will take every last life that resides in this miserable gathering, and I will save you until the end, so you may watch as I tear apart each one of your friends and eviscerate your replacement lover.”
“No. You have no right to do that.” I tugged hard against him. “I won’t let you hurt them.”
“No.” I scratched at his hand, trying to unwind his fingers from my arm, but they tightened—his nails digging in to my flesh. “Let me go!”
As we neared the step, my darting gaze of desperation flicked around the room, passing over the smiles of distracted couples. But each face was unfamiliar. No one knew me. No one knew I was being kidnapped. And not one of the faces was David. He was supposed to be here. He was supposed to come. The last dance on the hour of midnight. That was the deal.
The haunting piano stopped below us, and the gentle clicking of applause filled the air as Jason pulled me along—attempting discretion—and to my amazement, succeeding.
We stopped by the stairs, waiting as a few couples emerged from the darkness, straightening their clothes, looking a little flushed. Jason smiled at them knowingly, pulling me in to conceal his tight grip within the closeness of our bodies. I tried to push my hips away from his, but he hooked his foot around my ankle, leaning closer to whisper against my brow. “If you bring attention to yourself, young lady, I will dig my fingertip into your skin and cut your bone in half.”