Evernight Page 28

Below me I could hear laughter and talk and soft strains of music; the dance had already begun, and I was running late. With luck, Patrice would be right about keeping guys waiting.

The second I reached the bottom of the stone steps and walked into the candlelit great hall, Balthazar turned, as if he’d somehow sensed I was coming. Just one glance at his eyes, at the way he was staring at me, made me realize Patrice had definitely been right. “Bianca,” he said, stepping closer. “You look amazing.”

“So do you.” Balthazar was wearing a tuxedo, classic, the way Cary Grant dressed back in the 1940s. As handsome as he was, though, I couldn’t help glimpsing the great hall behind him and sighing, “Oh, wow.”

The hall was hung with bowers of ivy and illuminated with tall white candles that had been set in front of old, hand-hammered plates of brass, so that they reflected even more light. On a small stand in the corner sat the band, not a bunch of rock’n’rollers in blue jeans and T-shirts but classical musicians in tuxes even more formal than Balthazar’s, playing a waltz. Dozens of couples danced, in a perfect pattern, like a scene from a picture two centuries old. A few of the new students stood against the wall, guys in suits meant to be campy or cool, girls in short dresses with sequins; they all seemed to be aware that they’d misjudged the occasion.

“I just realized I should have asked you this before—Can you waltz?” Balthazar offered me his arm.

I took it as I said, “Yes. Well, mostly. My parents taught me all the old dances, but I’ve never done them with anyone else. Or anyplace but at home.”

“First time for everything.” He led me further into the great hall, so that the candlelight shone more brightly all around us. “Let’s begin.”

Balthazar swung us into the dance as if he’d rehearsed it; he knew exactly where we belonged and exactly how to move. Any doubts I had about my waltzing ability vanished immediately. I remembered the steps well enough, and Balthazar was a wonderful lead, his broad hand against the small of my back guiding me expertly. Nearby I saw Patrice smile at me approvingly, before she was whisked away in the next move of the dance.

After that, the dance stretched into one long, happy blur. Balthazar never got tired of dancing, and neither did I. Energy flowed through me like electricity, and I felt as if I could’ve danced for days without slowing down. Patrice’s smiles and Courtney’s disbelieving stare told me that I looked beautiful, and more than that—I felt beautiful.

I’d never realized just how wonderful that kind of dancing was before. Not only did I know the steps but everyone else did also. Each couple was a part of the dance, everyone moving in time, all the women extending their arms at just the right angle, just the right time. Our long, full skirts all twirled with us, creating colorful swirling rows ahead of the guys’ black shoes, everyone’s steps precisely on the beat. It wasn’t confining—it was liberating, the freedom from confusion or doubt. Every move flowed from the one before it. Maybe this was what it was like to dance in the ballet. We were all moving together to create something beautiful, even magical.

For the first time since I’d arrived at Evernight Academy, I knew exactly what to do. I knew how to move, how to smile. I felt comfortable with Balthazar and basked in the warmth of his admiration. I fit in.

I’d never seen how I could be a part of the world of Evernight, but the path stretched before me then, broad and deep and welcoming—

“If that crew had gotten their claws into you—a sweet girl like you—I didn’t want to have to watch.”

Lucas’s voice echoed in my mind, so clear that he might as well have whispered into my ear. I stumbled, and the rhythm of the dance was lost to me in an instant. Balthazar quickly steered me off the dance floor with his arm across my shoulders. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “I just—it’s so warm. I think I’m getting overheated.”

“Let’s get some fresh air.”

As Balthazar guided me through the dancers, I realized what I’d nearly done. I had been proud to be a part of Evernight—a place where the strong preyed upon the weak, where the beautiful looked down on the ordinary and where snobbery was more important than friendliness. Just because they’d stopped picking on me for one night, I was ready to forget what bastards most of them were.

Only remembering Lucas had brought me to my senses.

We stepped out onto the grounds. No chaperones lurked outside. Apparently Mrs. Bethany and the other teachers expected the late-fall chill to keep most students indoors, and when the cold air hit my bare shoulders and back, I could see why. Before I could start shivering, Balthazar took off his tuxedo jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders. “Better?”

“Yeah. I just need a second.”

He leaned closer, clearly concerned. Balthazar was such a gentleman, such a good and decent person. I wished he’d asked someone else to the dance, a girl who would appreciate him. He said only, “Let’s walk for a while.”

“Walk?”

“Unless you’d prefer to return to the dance—”

“No!” If I went back in there, maybe the spell would fall over me again and cloud my mind. I needed my head clear until I could understand what I’d nearly done. “I mean, no, not yet. Let’s go.”

The stars were brilliant overhead. It was a cloudless night, perfect for stargazing. I wished I could retreat back to the room at the top of the turret and look through my telescope at stars far away instead of all the confusion that surrounded me here. Behind us, the music and laughter of the dance slowly faded as we walked deeper into the woods.

At last, Balthazar said, “Okay, who is he?”

“Who?”

“The guy you’re crazy about.” Balthazar’s smile was sad.

“What?” I was so embarrassed, both for my sake and his, that I tried to bluff my way out of it. “I’m not seeing anybody else.”

“Give me some credit, Bianca. I’ve had enough experience to tell when a woman is thinking about another man.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, abashed. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I can take it.” He put both his hands on my shoulders. “We’re friends, right? That means I want you to be happy. I’d rather you were happy with me—”

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