Authors: Dawn Ius
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You never let me lose my head when you stole my heart.
I love you.
he Tudor ballroom glitters like we're backstage at a Vegas burlesque. It's too muchâthe crystal, the diamonds, the peopleâand there's not nearly enough champagne.
As the music switches to a waltz, I pull Catherine into the middle of the dance floor and begin leading her through the steps, through the crowd of masked faces. Even with years of dance training, it doesn't matter. I always feel out of place at these damn parties.
My girlfriend's spine straightens, her body rigid as she scopes out the room, looking for Medina's most important and influential. She spots our friends dancing toward us and offers a rare smile.
“You look gorgeous, Cath,” Liz whispers when she and Wyatt are within earshot. And then to me, “A masquerade ball. Your mom's brilliant, Henry. I feel like a princess.”
My father would have hated thisâthe endless stream of
feathers, gold leaf, and jewels. I hate it too, but my relentless lessons on etiquette rewind, play back at slow speed: “You certainly look like one,” I reply with a wink.
“Not one of your better lines,” Catherine says under her breath as Liz dances away, giggling, and Wyatt shoots me a glare. Frankly, I'm surprised he's uprightâless than twenty minutes ago he and the rest of the guys were smoking up behind the pool house. I don't blame them. If I thought I could get away with itÂ .Â .Â .
“Deadly bored, aren't you?” Catherine says. The stem of her diamond-encrusted mask pokes into the side of my rib cage. “You should be proud, Henry. I don't know how your mom did it, but the house looksâ”
is the word I think she's looking for: A red carpet flows down the middle of our central staircase like a river of blood, a shocking contrast to the usual white that frosts everything from the leather sofas to the marble pillars.
“I'm not looking at the decor,” I say, and slide my hands down Catherine's back until they're resting on her ass. The purple gown hugs her hips and her blond hair spills down her shoulders in loose curls. She looks like a fucking queen.
“Don't be inappropriate,” she hisses.
“I thought you wanted me to have a good time,” I say, and shift my gaze so she doesn't see my grin.
I catch a glimpse of some juniors circling the chocolate
fountain below. One of them pretends to stick his dick in it and the others hoot. I cough out a laugh.
find that amusing,” Catherine says, her annoyance quickly growing. “How gross.”
“Loosen up, Cath,” I say, threading my fingers through hers. Jesus, even her skin is cool. I let out a sigh. “Let's go check in with my mother.”
At the suggestion, Catherine brightens. “I'll just freshen up first.”
“Oh, come on. Why mess with perfection?” My eyebrows rise and fallâtwiceâand I badly botch a Sean Connery impression. “You're ravishing, darling.”
Her mouth forms a line and she tosses my hand aside. “That isn't the slightest bit sexy.”
. Smart and popular, and she
me, or at least the “me” everyone thinks they know. Plus, she's an Aragon, which isn't quite the same as being a Tudor, but since Mom has put herself in charge of finding me an appropriate match in Medina, Catherine tops a very short list.
She kisses my cheek, leaving me stranded in the middle of the dance floor. Another tune kicks in and I scan the crowd for a new partner. Maybe the senator's wife or the assistant principal of Medina Academy, anyone who will take my mind off the mounting tension. I turn toâ
My heart catches in my throat.
She is a raven among doves. Bloodred lipstick forms the shape of a heart, striking against her stark black hair and the simple disguise in her hand. Something stirs in my gut.
The girl lowers her mask, and I inhale as though sucker punched.
Those eyesÂ .Â .Â .
She blinks and the trance dissolves. I scrub my hands over my face to readjust my equilibrium and start making my way across the room, pushing through the crowd, trying to maintain eye contact. My face is flushed by the time I get to her, and I thrust my palm out with a jerk.
“Henry,” I say. The heart on her lips shifts in an ever-so-slight smirk. I cough out a nervous laugh, and exhaling, add, “I live here.”
I live here?
I will the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
Her stare betrays nothing. If only she would just giggle or shake her head, something, anything, to save me from further humiliation. But she remains emotionless, blank.
She slides her top teeth over her lower lip, scraping off the bottom half of the heart. Sweat beads at the base of my neck.
“Would you like to dance?” she says.
There's a certain amusement in her voice that puts me on alert. Her eyes crinkle at the edges and I'm sure she's laughing at me. I should back off, but damn it if I don't enjoy a challenge.
I hold out my hand and pull her close. She presses the stem of her mask into my palmâour skin touches. And for one disconcerting moment I've forgotten the steps, lost the ability to dance at all. She reaches up and holds my shoulder as we move across the floor.
My fingers itch to snake through the long tangles of her hair. I focus on the steps instead, the twirls and dips, working hard not to stumble.
Son of a bitch
. I'm all jacked up, my world spinning forward and back, suddenly off-kilter. I can't take my eyes off her haunting face, but even without looking, I know everyone is watching us.
She twirls just out of reach and I yank her back. Whispering in her ear, I say, “Who are you?”
The music stops and a smattering of applause breaks the spell before she can answer. Next thing I know, she's disappearing into the crowd without so much as a backward glance.
I blow out a breath.
Catherine's fingers suddenly intertwine with mine. “And who was
?” The slight lift in her voice reveals her jealousy.
I grit my teeth and swallow a knee-jerk response, because I'm pissed offâconfused, maybeâby my reaction to
“Henry? Did you hear me?”
“I don't know,” I say, letting go of Catherine's hand and loosening the collar of my tuxedo. It's one thing for my girlfriend's insecurities to bubble over at school. Another entirely
to make a scene here, where the sheriff's wife stands just a few feet away, ears perked and ready for gossip.
Catherine's eyes dim. “She must be new.”
“Seems that way.” As a new waltz begins, I make a motion like I want to dance again. But it's not Catherine I'm thinking about as I pull her close, and from the corner of my eye, I spot the girl. She catches me staring and I count the seconds, breaths, heartbeats, before she slowly lifts her disguise.
As Catherine twirls around, she sees the girl too and freezes midstep. “That's her with your mother and the architect for the creative center,” she says. “What's his name? Terry? Travis?”
“Thomas,” I mutter, not glancing back. “Thomas Harris.”
Catherine clucks her tongue. “She's a bitÂ .Â .Â . harsh looking, don't you think?”
The comment is classic Catherine. Classic Medina, I guess. The whole damn town is crammed onto a tiny pedestal, pushing and shoving, jockeying for position as they claw their way to the top.
“I guess we should introduce ourselves,” I say.
Catherine fakes a smile. “Of course. But only for a minute, right?” She rubs her hand along my biceps and squeezes. “Charles and Marie are sneaking a bottle of champagne out to the dock. I promised we'd join them.” She drops her voice
to a whisper. “I can't wait to slip out of these shoesâthey're killing me.”
Catherine's long gown hides five-inch heels, an effort to disguise her height. At six-foot-two, I tower over her. “Trust me, a million other places I'd rather be too.”
Which is turning out to be a bold-faced lie.
The closer we get to the girl, the louder my mother's cackle echoes over the white noise of laughter, small talk, and music. Life without Dad and my brother hasn't been easy for her the past yearâhell, it hasn't been easy for either of us. But somehow she's managed to rise from the ashes of grief like a fiery phoenix, this evening's gala the final step to full-on resurrection. Me? I'm still buried under the wreckage.
Catherine hangs on to me. This new girl has shoved her right out of her comfort zone. I feel guilty about itâbecause even though I shouldn't be staring, I am.
What's left of the painted heart on the girl's lips cracks on our approach, revealing a small gap between her teeth.
“Hello again,” I say, warmth spreading across my cheeks.
She nods, stares. My face goes hot and I'm at a loss for words.
Catherine's fingers move from my elbow to my shoulder, and tighten with a possessive squeeze. She crooks her neck, leans into me, and her blond hair spills over my tux.
“I don't know what's gotten into my boyfriend tonight.
Must be the alcohol in the punch.” She smiles, but even from my view it looks more like a sneer. “I'm Catherine.”
The girl's lips part and I catch a flash of something silver in her mouth. My throat dries to sandpaper. Is that a tongue piercing? Jesus. Everything about this girl is sexy as hell.
Catherine clears her throat, squeezes too tight. “And you are?”
“Anne.” The girl smiles a little. “Anne Boleyn.”