Barbie's heart skittered with wild hope. She wasn't facing a steely wall of resistance. He was receptive. At least a little bit.
Carole called for quiet, waving her arms to warn there was more. The introductory chord for the next song broke over the hub-bub, bringing a quick silence. It was not the sexy musical treatment Barbie had requested for Nick, more the sentimental traditional version of 'Happy Birthday,' and she gave it a lot of warm heart as she sang it to his mother, moving slowly forward, lifting the wand to release a sprinkling of magic glitter as she completed the song.
'Make a wish,' she softly urged as she bent to kiss Judy Armstrong's cheek and murmur her own personal, 'A very happy fiftieth birthday.'
'Thank you, Barbie,' she replied huskily. 'You've just made it extra special.'
'It's our song, Over the Rainbow,Keith said gruffly. 'You sang it better than Judy Garland, Barbie. Wonderful to have you here.'
'My pleasure,' she mumbled, touched by his pleasure.
'Carole...' Keith turned and signalled his daughter. 'Play that music again. Your mother and I are going to dance to it.'
'Okay if I rewind the tape and play it again, Barbie?' Carole asked eagerly.
'Go right ahead.'
Stepping aside to allow room for Keith and Judy to rise from their chairs and take the floor, Barbie found herself lined up next to Danny who instantly caught her free left hand and squeezed it, drawing her startled attention to him. There was nothing shy in his face now. He grinned at her, his eyes sparkling the open appreciation of a mature young man who was very confident with women.
'Great singing!' he complimented, not the slightest trace of his old stutter marring his speech. 'Great homecoming for me, too, meeting you again, Barbie. You sure have grown into a stunner.' And very desirable...
But it was the wrong man telegraphing that to her. She had never been interested in Danny. She wasn't now. Her gaze darted anxiously to Nick. Did he care that his brother was claiming her like this?
He was watching her, his eyes burning with questions that seared her soul. Why are you here? What do you want? How much is real? Is it hope or vengeance?
The music started again.
'How about dancing with me, Barbie?' Danny asked.
'No!' It was a hard, vehement negative.
Danny's head jerked in surprise to his older brother.
Nick glared at him, his whole body tense, emitting a fierce aggression. 'Not this time, Danny. Barbie is not yours to have. She never was. And I'm claiming this dance. Just step aside and go find yourself another woman.'
Danny gaped at him, stunned by the violent feeling he'd stirred in his older brother. He released Barbie's hand to raise both of his in an appeasing gesture. 'Hey, man! Take it easy! I was only...'
'Butting in, as you did nine years ago, wanting all Barbie's attention.'
'Hell!' His face flushed at the memory. 'That's ancient history, Nick!'
'Not to me it isn't,' came the savage reply. 'Back off, Danny. Now!'
'Okay! Deck's clear. Your play,' Danny babbled as he backed off, still wide-eyed and red-faced at his older brother's hostile reaction.
Nick stepped forward and scooped Barbie into a dance hold, his eyes blazing into hers, commanding acquiescence. Her heart catapulted around her chest as the arm encircling her waist pulled her closer, very firmly possessive in its strength of purpose.
'Hold it right there, you two!' Sue's voice whipped in. 'I'll take that.' She snatched the wand out of Barbie's hand. 'Leon...' She passed it to him. '...I've got to remove the wings and hook up the train of her dress so nothing gets torn.' Which she proceeded to do at lightning speed, Leon standing by to be handed the wings as well as the wand for safe-keeping.
'Sue's right. No more damage,' Leon admonished them.
'You can dance now,' she granted them. 'Or fight. Or carry on like lunatics if you must.'
'Are you quite finished?' Nick growled, the tension flowing from him wrapping around Barbie and holding her still and silent, everything within her tautly aching for positive responses from him.
'Quite!' Sue assured him. 'Leon, now that we've rescued the fairy princess costume, let's get out of the danger zone.'
I'm with you, babe!'
Off they sailed in happy harmony with each other—twin souls who knew how to order their world, leaving Barbie and Nick to sort out whatever needed sorting in their very private business.
Her hand now freed of the wand, Nick took it, interlacing his fingers with hers to seal his grip. 'Tell me this is no game, Barbie,' he demanded, the intensity of his gaze brooking no attempt at deception.
'It's no game, I promise you,' she answered fervently.
His parents twirled past. 'Are you two dancing or what?' his mother asked in amusement.
Rather than draw more curious and interfering attention, Nick pushed his feet into dancing, gathering Barbie closer as he moved her to the slow beat of the song. She was acutely conscious of his thighs brushing hers, her breasts pressing against the warm wall of his chest. Her heart seemed to be thumping in her ears. She barely heard the music.
He bent his head beside hers and she heard the words he spoke, although they were barely above a soft murmur. 'Are you holding out a new start for us?'
Did he want it?
Panic seized Barbie. She had to give him the right opening, make this chance different to the last one.
'I did it all wrong, using a false name. I know I did. And I'm sorry I messed everything up between us,' she pleaded anxiously. 'My only excuse is...as Barbie Lamb, I felt so...so vulnerable, Nick.'
His chest rose and fell and she felt his sigh waft warmly through her hair. Then came the low, regretful words— 'I moved too fast. I cursed myself for it afterwards. If I'd let you go on as Anne Shepherd, you might have learnt to trust me.'
He was thinking back, not forward. She didn't hear hope in his voice, only sadness for mistakes made, and Barbie felt a dark weight descending on her heart. He didn't believe they could recover what had been lost.
The music stopped.
Nick released her from his embrace, and for one terrible moment, Barbie felt the most devastating despair. It was over. There was no chance. Then he grasped her hand again and into her shattered mind swam his command, 'Come with me!
He pulled her with him, weaving past the party guests who were now responding to the second music track, loudly singing 'Happy Birthday' to Nick's mother. He slid open a glass door which led onto a patio and drew her outside, quickly shutting the door behind them. They walked to the end of the patio, around a corner of the house, into a pool of darkness. 'We should be private here,' he muttered, dropping her hand and moving away a few paces, establishing distance between them before turning to face her.
Barbie was beyond knowing what his actions meant. A fragile hope whispered he was still with her, though standing apart. He wanted to talk, if nothing else, and talking might help. But her mind was incapable of producing anything to say.
'The issue was always one of trust, wasn't it?' he declared, shaking his head as though in torment. I broke it so badly nine years ago...'
'Let's not revisit that time, Nick,' she begged, craving only a future with him.
'I have to make you understand, Barbie. We can't paper over this,' he said vehemently. 'I need you to know you were special to me. Even when you were just a little girl, you had this way of looking at me... your eyes so full of innocent trust... like you believed nothing bad could happen to you because I was there to look after you.'
'It's called hero-worship, Nick,' she said derisively, wanting to stop him from looking back, frightened that it couldn't lead anywhere good.
'No, it was more. No one else ever gave me that sense of...a pure love. It made me want to live up to it. I guess you could say I fed on it, Barbie, until I came to realise how selfish that was. I convinced myself I was giving you something—a broader life— when I forced the break. But what I broke was your trust in me.'
It was true love, Barbie wanted to cry, but she bit her lips, not brave enough to speak that truth.
'I hated having done it, having lost it,' he went on. 'And I knew it could never be recaptured. So when I recognised Barbie Lamb in Anne Shepherd... it hit me hard, the knowledge of breaking your trust. I wanted you to give it to me again, and when you didn't, I began not to trust you instead of facing up to what I'd done and the repercussions of it.'
He spread his hands in an urgent gesture of appeal. T swear this is true, Barbie. I've been in a kind of wilderness of the heart these past nine years. None of the relationships I've had ever felt really important or vital to me. Then, just a week ago...'
He moved back to her, slowly, his hands lightly curling around her shoulders, his eyes darkly watchful, seeking, wanting to know her heart. '...I met a fairy princess,' he continued gruffly. 'And when she kissed me, it was like magic pouring through my whole body.'
'Mine, too, Nick,' she whispered. 'That's why I came dressed like this tonight, hoping it could be so again.'
He sucked in a quick breath and kissed her, and she responded with all the passionate urgency of wanting everything to be right between them, for the magic to burst forth and dispel the shadows that had plagued both of them. The past didn't matter. Only now mattered. Now with Nick. And the journey they could take from here.
It was so good...feeling him wanting her, feeling free to want him right back, knowing she was as special to him as he was to her, the glorious sense of a long, long wilderness ending at last for both of them.
'I'll do everything I can to earn your trust again. Just give me the chance, Barbie,' he breathed into her ear.
'Hold on to me, Nick. Don't let me go.'