And they were fixed solely on me.

I was unable to move or make a sound. If my knees hadn’t already been locked, I would’ve been a satiny blue puddle on the floor. Ash’s gaze held mine; his eyes didn’t stray from my face, but I felt him looking at all of me, taking me in as surely as Puck had scanned the length of my dress in a glance. I couldn’t stop staring back. Everything around me—noise, colors, people—faded into the ether, losing all relevance and meaning, until it was only me and Ash in the entire world.

Then someone took my elbow, and my heart jolted back to normal.

“Okay,” Puck said a little too loudly, steering me away, “the gang’s all here. Are we going to this party, or not?”

Ash walked up beside me. He made no noise, but I could feel his presence as surely as my own. He didn’t offer his arm or make any move to touch me, but my nerves buzzed and my skin tingled, just with him standing there. I caught a hint of frost and the strange, sharp smell that was uniquely him, and the memory of our first dance together came rushing back.

I didn’t miss the subtle look that passed between Ash and Puck, either. Ash kept his expression carefully blank, but Puck’s mouth twitched in a faint smirk—one of his dangerous ones—and his eyes narrowed a fraction.

The nurse must’ve seen it, too, for she clapped her hands briskly, and I jumped about three feet in the air. “May I remind you three,” she stated in a no-nonsense voice, “that even though this is a party, we are there for a specific reason. We are not there to spike the punch, seduce the humans, glamour the food, challenge the males to a fight, or do anything pertaining to mischief. Is that understood?” She shot a piercing glare at Puck when she said this, and he pointed to himself with wide-eyed, who, me? look. It did not amuse her. “I will be watching you,” she warned, and even though she was barely four feet tall, white-haired, and shriveled like a prune, she made the threat sound ominous. “Do try to behave yourselves.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The Winter Formal

It was an eerie feeling, walking the hallways of my school after being gone for so long. Dozens of memories floated through my head as we passed once-familiar landmarks: Mr. Delany’s classroom where I’d sat behind Scott Waldron in Classic Lit, the bathrooms I’d spent a lot of time in, crying, the cafeteria where Robbie and I had always eaten together at the last table in the corner. So much had changed since then. The school seemed different somehow, less real than before. Or maybe I was the one who had changed.

Clusters of blue and white balloons led the way to the gym, light and music pouring out from the double doors and windows. My stomach started turning nervous backflips the closer we got, especially when the doors swung open and two students walked out, holding hands and giggling. The boy pulled his date to him for a long, tongue-swabbing kiss, before they broke apart and began creeping behind the building.

“Mmm, smell the lust,” Puck muttered beside me. The nurse snorted.

“They’re not supposed to leave the gym without supervision,” she growled, putting her hands on her hips. “Where are the chaperones? I suppose I’ll have to deal with this. You three, behave.” She stalked away, virtually bristling with indignation, following the pair around the gym and into the shadows.

The coast was clear. Swallowing my nervousness, I looked back at the boys to see if they were ready. Puck grinned at me, eager as always, mischief written plainly on his face. Ash regarded me with a solemn expression. He looked stronger already, his eyes bright, the cuts healed to just faint, thin scars across his cheeks. Our gazes met, and the depth of emotion smoldering within left me breathless.

“How do you feel?” I asked, to hide the longing I knew must show on my face. “Is this helping at all? Are you getting better?”

He smiled, very faintly. “Save me a dance,” he murmured.

And then we were moving toward the gym. The music grew louder and the din of voices echoed beyond the walls. Puck and Ash each pushed open a door, and we swept through into another world.

The gym had been decorated with more blue and white balloons, crepe paper, and glittering foam snowflakes, though we never saw snow in Louisiana. We passed the ticket booth with a group of teens clustered around it, either buying tickets or waiting in line. No one seemed to notice us as we swept by, but my stomach lurched as I caught sight of a familiar figure, smiling as she handed tickets to another well-dressed couple. Angie the ex-cheerleader stood behind the table, minus the huge pig nose Puck had given her last year in a vengeful prank. She seemed perfectly happy, smiling and nodding as if she did this kind of work every day. I tried to catch her eye as we passed, but her attention was on the line in front of her and the moment was gone.

Beyond the ticket booth, blue and white tables lined one side of the room; only a few people sat there, the unfortunate ones who couldn’t get a date but didn’t want to miss the formal just because they were single.

Where I would be, I thought, if I hadn’t been pulled into Faery. Or, more than likely, I wouldn’t have been here in the first place. I’d have been home, with a movie and a half-pint of ice cream.

The room’s other half was a sea of swirling gowns and tuxedos. Couples swayed to the music, some dancing casually with their partners, some so welded together you’d need a crowbar to pry them apart. Scott Waldron, my old crush, had his arms around a stick-thin blonde I recognized as one of the cheerleaders, his hands sliding below her waist to fondle her rear. I watched them dance, their hands roaming all over each other, and felt nothing.

And then the murmurs began, starting from the table where the Dateless sat, spreading to the dance floor and the corners of the room. People were staring at us, shooting furtive glances over their dates’ shoulders, heads bent low to whisper to each other. My face burned and my steps faltered, wanting to beat a hasty retreat from the room to the nearest bathroom stall. Mr. Delany, my old English teacher, looked up from where he stood guard over the punch bowl and frowned. Breaking away from the table, he strode toward us, squinting through his thick glasses. My heart pounded, and I turned to Puck in a panic.

“Mr. Delany is coming toward us!” I hissed. Puck blinked and looked over my shoulder.

“Huh, it is old Delany. Jeez, he’s gotten fat. Hey, remember the time I put itching powder in his toupee?” He sighed dreamily. “That was a good day.”

“Puck!” I glared at him. “Help me out here! What do I say? He knows I haven’t been in school for months!”

“Excuse me,” Mr. Delany said, right behind me, and my heart nearly stopped.

“Is that…Meghan Chase?” I turned to him with a sickly smile. “It is you. I thought so.” He gaped at me. “What are you doing here? Your mother told us you were at a boarding school in Maine.”

So that’s where I’ve been all this time. Nice cover, Mom. “I’m…uh…home for Christmas vacation,” I answered, saying the first thing that came to mind. “And I wanted to see my old school one more time before I went back.”

Mr. Delany frowned. “But, Christmas vacation was several…” He trailed off suddenly, a glazed look coming over his face. “Christmas vacation,” he murmured. “Of course. How lovely for you. Will you be coming back next year?”

“Um.” I blinked at his sudden change of mood. “I don’t know. Maybe?

There’s still a lot of things to work out.”

“I see. Well, it was nice to see you, Meghan. Enjoy the dance.”

“See you, Mr. Delany.”

As he wandered back toward the punch bowl, I breathed a sigh of relief.

“That was a close one. Nice save, Puck.”

“Huh?” Puck frowned at me. “What do you mean?”

“The charm spell?” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Come on, you didn’t cast that?”

“Not me, Princess. I was about to turn his wig into a ferret, but then he went all sleepy-eyed before I could pull it off.” Puck sighed, gazing at the retreating English teacher in disappointment. “Pity, really. That would’ve livened up the party. There’s so much glamour here, it’s a shame not to use it.”

I looked over his shoulder. “Ash?”

The Winter prince gave me a faint smile. “Subtlety has never been Goodfellow’s forte,” he murmured, ignoring Puck’s scowl. “We’re not here to cause a riot. And human emotions have always been easy to manipulate.”

Like mine were? I wondered as we continued across the gym floor. Did you just cast a charm spell to manipulate my emotions, like Rowan tried to do? Are my feelings for you real, or some sort of fabricated glamour? And do I even care if they are?

At the tables, Puck stepped in front of me and bowed. “Princess,” he said formally, though his eyes were twinkling as he held out a hand. “May I have the honor of the first dance?”

“Um.” For a moment, I balked at the idea, on the verge of telling Puck that I couldn’t dance. But then I felt Ash’s gaze, reminding me of a moonlit grove and swirling around the dance floor with the Unseelie prince as scores of faeries looked on. You’re Oberon’s blood, his deep voice murmured in my head. Of course you can dance. Besides, Puck wasn’t exactly giving me a choice. Taking my hand, he led me toward the floor. I glanced at Ash in apology, but the prince had moved to a dark corner and was leaning against the wall, looking out over the sea of faces. And then we were dancing.

Puck danced very well, though I don’t know why this surprised me. He probably had loads of experience. I stumbled a few times at first, then closed my eyes and imagined my first dance with Ash. Stop thinking, Ash had told me that night as we swirled across the floor in front of several dozen fey. The audience doesn’t matter. The steps don’t matter. Just close your eyes and listen to the music. I remembered that dance, the way I’d felt with him, and the steps came easily once more.

Puck gave a soft chuckle. “Okaaaay,” he murmured as we spun around the room, “I seem to remember a certain someone swearing that she couldn’t dance at all. Obviously I must’ve been with her twin sister, because I was expecting you to step on my toes all night. Been taking lessons, Princess?”

“Oh…um. I sort of picked it up while I was in the Nevernever.” Not entirely a lie.

As we moved around the dance floor, I caught glimpses of Ash, standing alone in the corner with his hands in his pockets. It was too dark to see the emotion on his face, but his gaze never left us. Then Puck pulled me into a twirl, and I lost sight of him for a moment.

The next time I glanced in Ash’s direction, he wasn’t alone. Three girls, one of them the skinny blonde who had been melded to Scott a few minutes ago, had trapped him and were very obviously flirting. Smiling coyly, they oozed close, flipping their hair and giving him sultry looks from beneath their lashes. My hand fisted on Puck’s lapel. It took all my willpower not to stomp over and tell them to back the hell off, but what right did I have? Ash wasn’t mine. I didn’t have any claim to him.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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