Authors: Layla Hagen
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College
ith nothing left to do, I pick up my white dress, bag, and her robe and put everything on a hanger, then walk to the closet and discover a set of black masks. I grab one and make my way to the front of the room, wondering if the laughter is becoming louder, or I'm just imagining it. One glance at the cup of champagne each girl is holding tells me I am not. There are only four girls left now, and they are all gathered in a circle.
"Someone get Dani's friend a cup," one of them says in a disturbingly high-pitched voice, forcibly reminding me of a lark.
"I'm fine," I say.
"Oh, right, she's not allowed to drink," a redhead who looks vaguely familiar giggles. It takes me a moment to realize they think I'm the same age as Dani, a school colleague of hers. For some reason, I don't want to correct that impression. I have a hunch they are the last people who should know who really invited me here.
Their next words confirm this very thought.
"I bet Sophie'll get some tonight," the lark says, applying another layer of red lipstick on her full lips.
"Why me?" Sophie, the one who cemented my underage status, says with fake indignation.
"Because you're the only one among us who hasn't," the girl next to her chortles. She'd give any swimsuit model a run for her money. "And James's had an eye on you for some time."
"He had his chance last night and
happened," Sophie exclaims, as if she couldn't imagine anything more offensive. With a flash, I realize why she looks familiar. She was the redhead standing next to James last night. I withhold a smile as an unnatural sense of triumph fills me at Sophie's indignation.
"Maybe it's your turn again," Sophie continues, eying the lark. "You did hook up with him last week."
I guess Jess's womanizer comment deserved more credit than I gave it. I take a quick look at every girl. Whether redhead or blonde, full-lipped or not, their one common denominator seems to be that they're all drop-dead gorgeous.
The lark leans back in her chair, twirling one dark brown lock around her fingers. "That was just for old times’ sake," she replies, grinning with satisfaction. "Though I must say I found him much sexier in his rebel days."
And though I'm dying to know more details about those rebel days, the lark is the last person I'd ask.
Sophie just stares at her.
I wonder how long it would take them to jump at each other's throats if there wasn’t an actual law punishing them. Funny how they immediately thought I was a high school girl. Probably because they never outgrew that phase. I clutch my mask forcefully and exit the room, wishing more than ever that Jess were here or that I was home. What was I thinking? What was James thinking? Why did he invite me here? He's already got a group of desperate hyenas, whose beauty nor silliness I match, to choose from.
There are less than a hundred feet between the front door and me. Loren is still there, guarding it, but I'm pretty sure he won't try to stop me from leaving. The taxi back home would cost me a week's salary, but right now, that doesn't sound half bad.
And yet I don't move one inch from my frozen position against the door. There's something rooting me to the spot. Something that tells me this isn't the time to chicken out and flee.
I unhitch myself from the door and put the mask on just as the hyenas burst out of the room. They, too, are wearing masks.
"There you are," Sophie giggles. "We were afraid we lost you."
The lark opens a door to a hall that looks as long as this one and the four of them walk inside. Sophie steps on her own dress and stumbles forward, nearly knocking the other girls over. As she bursts into yet another torrent of giggles, under the disdainful look of the lark, I make a mental note to get lost among the other guests as fast as possible.
ow," I exclaim for the third time tonight when we enter the ballroom.
A high glass arch spans above us, contrasting with the house’s cubic form. It also contrasts with the classical dresses and tuxedos in a whimsical, almost eerie way. There must be more than a hundred people here, not including the orchestra. Finding Dani among the sea of masked men and women won't be an easy task, though there aren't many white dresses in sight. I step away from the hyenas as fast as possible, hoping the mask on my face and the champagne in their blood are a good enough camouflage.
I stand on my toes and try to spot Dani in the crowd, something that becomes increasingly difficult because everyone is regrouping along the edges of the dance floor. I give up trying to advance when I'm so squeezed in between a middle-aged couple that I can barely breathe. The woman must have spilled an entire bottle of a nauseating sweet perfume on herself.
"Red suits you," a voice calls behind me. I'm suddenly very grateful for being squeezed in, because my knees seem to have turned to rubber. But my relief only lasts for a few seconds, because the music starts and everyone around me disperses, moving to the dance floor.
I don't fall. I can't move, either.
When he finally comes into view, my breath is cut short. There is something about seeing his beautiful blue eyes behind a mask that makes every inch of my skin burn.
So it wasn't the tequila last night.
"Dance?" He extends his hand.
"I can't dance." Out of the corner of my eye I see Sophie watching us, crestfallen.
"That makes two of us," he says, though unlike me, he doesn't sound panicked in the slightest. I really can't dance. Especially not waltz. But he doesn't lower his hand, and instead of protesting further, I raise my hand and place it in his. As if in slow motion I see him putting his
other arm around my waist, and pulling me so close to him that I feel his every breath against my skin. This doesn't help the burning sensation. At all.
"You came," he says and his lips curve into last night’s same conceited smile.
"I make a habit of honoring my invitations," I say, surprised by how aggressive I sound. I bite my lip and look away, fixing my gaze on the highest point of the glass arch.
"Did you and your friend arrive home safely last night?"
Small talk. Fantastic.
"If safely includes Jess throwing up twice on the way home, then yes."
"Quite a party girl, your friend," he says appreciatively.
"What makes you think I'm not one?" I regret the question instantly. Thinking that a former math whiz kid isn't the most hardcore party girl at Stanford is not an absurd conclusion to draw. But his answer takes me by complete surprise.
"Having a steady boyfriend usually means you spend your free evenings and weekends… otherwise."
"You asked Dani to spy on me?"
"Of course not," he says with fake affronting. "I just know how to get the info I need from her."
"What happened to old-fashioned questioning?"
"It's old-fashioned," he answers with a smirk. "I like to consider myself modern."
"Make that lazy and sneaky." I finally unhitch my gaze from the ceiling and look him in the eyes again. They are so much darker than a few minutes ago.
He tightens his grip on my waist. "Fine. Tell me three things about you."
I try to put on my most serious look. "I grew up in London and San Francisco, used to play volleyball in a minor league, and want to work in investment banking." Did he really think I'll make it easy for him?
"Let me rephrase," he smirks. "Tell me three things about you I won't find in your CV. Three dreams."
The next sentence rolls out of my mouth despite my firm resolution to torment him by not really telling him anything about me. Especially not the weird things.
"I want to taste every single recipe in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, get myself kidnapped by elves and locked up in Rivendell, and attend the midnight release of the next book about the wizarding world that I
Rowling will write. If that last thing fails, I want to learn how to fly on a broom, at the very least."
He bursts into a cascade of laughter. But it's not in the slightest mocking or mean. It's warm and heartfelt.
"Your turn," I say, in an attempt to stop him, because we are attracting less-than-friendly stares from the couples around us. "Stop laughing like a maniac and tell me three things about yourself. Three fears."
He laughs for a few more seconds before assuming a solemn face.
"I hate snakes and always keep a light on when I sleep. And I suffer from chronic commitment phobia."
His words hit me like a whiplash. Amazing how lighthearted and playful he throws them at me.
"So I've heard," I say, trying—and failing—to keep my voice steady.
"I wanted to make sure you know it from me," he says in a soft voice. Yet for all the softness, it still feels like whiplash.
"That's very considerate of you."
Why do his words have this impact on me? Why do they have any impact at all? I guessed a while ago how things are. I wish we weren't dancing so I could run away. Put as much distance as possible between him and me. My wish is not far from being granted. Though I haven't listened to many waltzes in my life, I'm sure the orchestra is playing the ending tones right now. I try to distance myself from his intoxicating presence, but his grip on me is firmer than ever.
"I saw how you were looking at me in that bar," he whispers with urgency.
Crap, so Jess wasn't exaggerating. I do my best to put on the poker face she mimicked on our way home, then I remember I have a mask on anyway.
"Why did you invite me here?"
"Why did you come?" he asks, and there is a slight uneasiness in his voice.
"Because you invited me," I answer as sardonically as possible.
"I was curious," he says quietly.
I don't wait to find out what he was curious about. The second the music stops I tear away from his arms and start walking as fast as possible through the sea of people, most still entangled in their partner's arms.
t's only when I reach the bar that I realize I've been walking in the opposite direction from the door. I swirl on my heels, determined to get out of here at any cost before the next song begins.
And then I collide with someone so violently I lose my balance and start losing height. I close my eyes and grit my teeth in preparation for my impending clash with the parquet.
It doesn't come.
A sharp pain in my left arm tells me someone caught me in my free fall. The guy I collided with. He helps me get back on my feet and I open my mouth to thank him but the words freeze in my throat when I meet his eyes. I know those blue eyes. And the lopsided smile.
It doesn't have that conceited, almost insolent air James's smile has, but the full lips and very fine dimple in his chin are identical.
"So sorry. Are you all right?"
"Are you related to… Ja
—the Cohens?" I say, biting my lip.
He looks taken aback for a moment, then his smile widens. "You’re English. What a nice surprise. To answer your question, yes, my mother, Lady Catherine, and Lady Beatrix Cohen are sisters," he says in a formal tone that doesn't match his smile. "That makes me a first cousin to James and Dani. Of course, the paternal side of my family might also be of interest for you. Astounding pedigree. I'm two-hundred-forty-sixth in line for the British throne," he finishes, and I crack up.
"Not bragging about that again, Parker?" Dani says, appearing at Parker's side out of nowhere.
"Just using everything in my arsenal to impress the fair lady here—"
"Serena," I say.
"Serena, in the hope she'll forgive me for knocking her over in the most unceremonious way."
Dani and I both burst out laughing.
"Are you okay?" she asks after we both calm down. There's too much concern in her eyes for her to be referring to my near encounter with the floor. She must have seen me pulling away from James's arms.
"Of course she is," Parker, who seems blissfully unaware of anything, says. "If she isn't, she will be in a few minutes. There's nothing a gin and tonic can't remedy." He signals the bartender to make one.