Besides, he would probably just ignore them, or tell them to go away. But when I peeked at the corner again, I saw Ash smiling at the girls, achingly handsome and charming, and my stomach roiled. He was flirting with them.

The song came to an end and Puck drew back, frowning slightly, as though he knew my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I fanned myself with both hands, feigning breathlessness, but really drying the tears that stung my eyes. Ash was still there in the corner, chuckling at something one of the girls had said. My throat closed up, and my chest felt tight.

“You okay, Princess?”

I wrenched my gaze from Ash and the girls, swallowing hard. “A little hot,” I confessed, smiling as we edged our way off the dance floor, back to the tables. “And maybe a little dizzy.” Puck chuckled, his old self again, and pulled out a chair for me.

“Sorry. I just have that effect on people.” I smacked his stomach with the back of my hand as I sat down, and he grinned. “Hang on. I’ll get you something to drink.” He vanished into the crowd, making his way toward the refreshment table at the far wall. I hoped he wouldn’t spike the punch with something that would turn everyone into frogs. Sighing at the thought, I let my gaze wander around the gym, deliberately keeping it from straying to the far corner.

“Hey.” A body moved across my vision, blocking my view. A wide-shouldered body, in a perfectly tailored black tux. I glanced up past the vest and lapels and bow tie, and met Scott Waldron’s smiling gaze.

“Hi,” he greeted cheerfully, as my stomach did a backflip. Was I seeing this right? Was Scott Waldron, football jock extraordinaire, talking to me? Or was this another of his tricks, meant to embarrass and humiliate me, just like last time? I had to admit, he was still really cute—wide shoulders, wavy blond hair, adorable smile—but the memory of the entire cafeteria, roaring with laughter at my expense dampened my enthusiasm a bit. He wouldn’t play me like that, ever again.

“Uh, hi,” I returned cautiously.

“I’m Scott,” he went on in the confident, self-assured way of someone who was used to being admired. “I haven’t seen you around school before. You must go somewhere else, right? I’m the varsity quarterback for Albany High.”

He didn’t even recognize me. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed. Would he be talking to me now if he knew who I was? Would he remember the shy, geeky Swamp Girl who’d crushed on him for two years and waited by his locker every day just to watch him pass her in the hall? Did he ever regret the horrible prank he’d pulled all those months ago?

“You wanna dance?” he asked, holding out his big, football-callused hand. I glanced toward the drinks table to see that Puck had been cornered by the nurse, who, from his half annoyed, half contrite expression, appeared to have caught him doing some kind of mischief. Probably spiking the punch, exactly as I’d feared. A high-pitched giggle came from the corner I wasn’t looking at, and my stomach turned.

“Sure,” I answered, putting my hand in his. If he heard the bitterness in my voice, he didn’t let on as we swept out to the dance floor.

Scott put his hands very low on my waist as we swayed to the music, standing closer than I was really comfortable with, but I didn’t protest. Here I was, me, Meghan Chase, dancing with the esteemed Golden Boy of Albany High. I tried to be excited; a year ago, I would’ve given anything for Scott to look at me and smile. Had he asked me to dance, I probably would have fainted. But now, feeling his hands on my hips, seeing his face not six inches from mine, I thought only that Scott seemed very young. Still handsome and charming, there was no mistaking that, but the intense fluttery feeling I used to get whenever I looked at him was gone.

“So,” Scott murmured, running his hands up my back. I shifted uncomfortably, but at least they didn’t slide in the opposite direction. “Did I mention I’m the varsity quarterback already?”

“You did.” I smiled at him.

“Oh, right.” He grinned back, wrapping a curl of my hair around his finger.

“Well, have you ever been to any of my games?”

“A few.”

“Yeah? Pretty impressive, huh? Think we have a chance to make Nationals this year?”

“I really don’t know much about football,” I admitted, hoping he would drop the subject. Apparently, it was the wrong thing to say. He immediately launched into a full explanation of the sport, citing all the games he’d won, his teammate’s flaws and shortcomings, and all the years he’d carried the team to victory. That led to his plans for college, how he’d gotten a scholarship to Louisiana State, how he’d been voted Most Likely to Succeed, and the brand-new Mustang his dad bought him just because he was so proud. I plastered a smile to my face, made appropriate noises of appreciation, and tried not to let my eyes glaze over.

“Hey,” he said at last, as I secretly hoped he was wrapping up, “you wanna get out of here? I’m meeting a bunch of people at Brody’s house later—his old man is out of town, and there’s gonna be a party after the dance. Wanna come?”

Another shock. Scott was inviting me to a cool kids’ party, where there would be drinking, drugs and other activities parents frowned upon. For just a moment, I felt a twinge of regret. The one night I got invited to a party would be the one night I couldn’t go.

“I can’t,” I told him. “I’m sorry, I have other plans tonight.”

He pouted. “Really?” he said, and his hands slid past my hips, definitely farther than I was comfortable with. “You can’t break them, even for me?”

I stiffened, and he actually seemed to get the hint, sliding them back into neutral territory. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “But I really can’t. Not tonight.”

He sighed in genuine regret. “All right, mystery girl, break my heart.” Taking my hand, he pressed it to his chest and gave me a coy, little-boy smile. “But at least let me call you this weekend. What’s your name?”

And there it was.

I could tell him. I could tell him, and watch the smile fade from his lips as he realized whom he’d been seducing so earnestly. Watch that cocky grin turn to horror and disbelief, and maybe just a little regret. I wanted to see regret. He deserved it, after what he’d done to me. I just had to say two words, two simple words, Meghan Chase, and the Golden Boy of Albany High would be laid lower than the bottom of my heels. All I had to do was say my name.

I sighed, softly patted his chest, and whispered, “Let’s keep it a mystery, okay?”

“Uh…” The grin faltered, and he blinked, looking so confused that I almost laughed out loud. “Okay. But…how will I get in touch with you? How will I know who to call?”

“Excuse me.”

My stomach fluttered. I felt the smile stretching my face even before we turned around, though I tried to look severe and angry. It was no use. Ash stood there under the dim lights, solemn and beautiful as he extended his hand to me. “May I cut in?”

Knowing Scott, I expected him to refuse, to tell the competition to back off. But perhaps he was still off balance, or maybe it was something in the prince’s steady gaze that made him take a step back. Still looking a bit confused, like he didn’t know what had just happened, he wandered off the dance floor and into the crowd. And I suddenly had the feeling that would be the last time I ever saw Scott Waldron.

I suppose I should’ve been happy, but all I felt was relief that he was gone. Ash smiled at me, and I forgot to be angry, forgot to be distant and coy and aloof as I’d planned. Instead, I took his hand and let him draw me close, breathed in the frosty scent of him, and was whisked away to our first dance under the stars, the first time I held his hand, looked into his eyes, and was completely lost.

Dancing with Ash was exactly how I remembered it.

The song was slow and sweet, so we swayed back and forth, barely moving, but the look on his face, the feel of his hand on mine, was all heart-achingly familiar. I laid my head on his chest and closed my eyes, content to touch him, to listen to his heartbeat. He sighed and rested his chin atop my head, and for a moment, neither of us spoke; we just swayed to the music.

Until I decided to be an idiot and open my mouth.

“So, you seemed to be enjoying yourself back there.” I couldn’t keep the accusation from my voice, even though I hated myself for sounding like a freaky-possessive girlfriend. “Those girls found you very interesting, I suppose. What were you talking about?”

He chuckled, sending a tingle down my spine. He laughed so infrequently, and it was a deep, marvelous sound when he did. “They invited me to a party after the dance,”

he murmured, pulling back to look at me directly. “I told them I was already with someone, so they spent the next few minutes trying to convince me to…ditch?…whomever I was with and join them. It was a rather interesting conversation.”

“You could’ve just told them to go away.” I’d seen that cold, don’t-botherme-or-I’ll-kill-you glare. No one in their right mind would continue pestering the Ice prince once that chilling gaze was turned on them.

“That wouldn’t have been very gentlemanly.” Ash sounded amused. “And it was advantageous for me to have them stay. There was enough glamour in that one corner to choke a dragon. Isn’t that why we’re here?”

“Oh.” Relief and embarrassment colored my face. “Right. It is. I just thought…never mind. I’ll shut up now.”

Ash looked down at me, cocking his head with a puzzled frown. “What exactly are you accusing me of, Meghan Chase?”

“I wasn’t accusing.” I hid my face in his shirt, mumbling through the cool fabric. “I just thought…with how easy it is to manipulate human emotions…that you, I don’t know. Might find something more interesting than me.”

Wow, that had come out stupid and psycho possessive. My face burned even more. I kept my head down so he wouldn’t see my crimson cheeks, and I wouldn’t have to see his reaction either.

“Ah.” Ash brushed my cheek with the back of his hand, catching a loose strand of hair between his fingers. “I’ve seen thousands of mortal girls,” he said softly, “more than you could ever count, from all corners of your world. To me, they’re all the same.” His finger slid below my chin, tilting my head up. “They see only this outer shell, not who I really am, beneath. You have. You’ve seen me without the glamour and the illusions, even the ones I show my family, the farce I maintain just to survive. You’ve seen who I really am, and yet, you’re still here.” He brushed his thumb over my skin, leaving a trail of icy heat. “You’re here, and the only dance I want is this one.”

My heart skipped a beat. His nearness was overwhelming, his face and lips just inches away. We stared at each other, and I could see the hunger in his eyes. I trembled in anticipation, my lips aching to touch his, but a flicker of regret crossed his face and he silently drew back, ending the moment. Sighing, I laid my head against his shirt, my entire being buzzing with thwarted hope, a heavy disappointment settling in my chest. I heard his heart thudding against my cheek, and felt him tremble, too.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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