It was nothing like kissing Dare.
She’d always wondered what Cinderella must have felt like, that moment between sleeping and waking where nothing is real and everything is possible. It must have been something like this -- something like finding yourself in an unexpected dream, yet realizing that you are alive and that everything is perfect. And it was. While Dare was passionate, thorough, and soul-binding, he was not gentle.
After that one second of heart-stopping hesitation, she felt his shock seep into urgency, as if everything he wanted to tell her could be translated into these few seconds where they shared more than she and Dare ever could. These few seconds where respect meant more than winning, and where her feelings were more than a means to an end. His arms crept slowly around her, his hands uncertain and unsure.
She pressed closer against him, not caring about her hair, her makeup, her dress... or anyone who might see them. Fate might have made a brutal error in throwing her and Dare together, but *this* was right. She could feel it in every throbbing nerve.
Suppressing the urge to pull him back into her arms and never let him go -- that strange feeling from earlier still butterflying in her stomach -- she traced a hand softly over the side of his face. “For what?” she wondered, even though she was sure she knew.
The rough pad of his thumb rubbed over her swollen lower lip. He shrugged. “For not rejecting me?” The light in his eyes froze briefly. “Or was that a consolation prize?”
“I only give consolation prizes to losers.” She let that sink in, then continued, “That was more of a ‘congratulations on winning’ prize.”
His eyes softened, the gray shining like dove’s down in gleaming morning light. “Congratulations on winning what?”
It took her a moment to answer, a moment of weighing the consequences of what she was doing and a moment of wondering if you could abandon your soulmate... or if all she had was a false hope. Was Julien worth the risk?
Her answer had been hovering on her lips for longer than she’d thought possible, for months before she’d known the question. She leaned into him, eyes never leaving his, and just before she kissed him a second time, he had her answer.
An enchanted setting for an enchanted evening.
Fairy lights twinkled on the walls of the ballroom, twined among nestled flowers and wrapping over towering white pillars. They slowly faded in and out like stars glistening on the horizon. The overhead lights shone dimly over the crystal plates and glasses placed elegantly at each table.
Tierney clutched tighter to Julien’s arm and let the magic of it all wash over her. His hand slipped over her wrist in a gentle caress, his lips curving in a faint smile. It felt so right to be here with him, cupped at his side as if she mattered. She could see the envious stares of the other girls around her. Their gazes locked on their twined fingers, on their closeness. How different to be envied...
“There are Raquel and Elliot,” Julien murmured in her ear, pointing toward a table near the center of the room. “Jihn and Steve are already with them.”
She followed the line of his arm. The two couples were seated at a table of eight -- four more seats, which would soon be filled by Jordana, Adrien, and the two of them. How perfect. That effectively excluded the Collective from attacking Adrien and meant a much more peaceful dinner for all involved. She was sure he’d be grateful.
It didn’t stop the three girls from choosing the table directly next to his. As Tierney and Julien neared, Teresa sneered, her eyes sweeping critically over them and her voice rising to something resembling a shriek. They could very clearly hear her making fun of Tierney’s gown.
Instead of taking offense at her comments -- which they all knew spawned from vicious jealousy -- Tierney rolled her eyes and turned toward the table, her back very pointedly facing the three girls. Beside her, Raquel muttered, “They’re like a pack of lemmings. Do you think if we showed them a cliff, they’d all jump off?”
“Wrong time of the year for that,” Jihn responded, eyeing the three coldly. The spiteful chatter choked to an abrupt end. “Pushing might be involved.”
“In what?” Jordana asked breathlessly, joining them. She and Adrien were both flushed -- Tierney could only imagine from what -- and her hazel eyes blinked guilelessly back at them.
The girls exchanged a tolerant smile. “Nothing, Jordy,” Tierney responded. Before she could reach for her chair, Julien pulled it away from the table, as gallant as a knight of old, and waited for her to take her seat. That gallantry made her shy and uncertain after Dare’s careless callousness. Blushing, she sat.
Raquel took the seat next to hers. She set her flowers in front of the sparkling crystal plate. “Tonight is going to be perfect,” she declared firmly, much to the amusement of her brother and her date. “Not even the stupid Collective will ruin it.”
“Though I’m sure they’ll try.” Tierney could feel the heat of their eyes boring into her back even though she wasn’t looking at them. After all, Tierney had stolen Lindsay’s date, hadn’t she? And the audacity of actually accepting his invitation more than merited their wrath, pathetic though it was. Hopefully dinner would be served soon and the food would divert their attention. She was getting sick of being their personal target.
Abruptly deciding to remove the ammunition, she pushed back her chair and stood. “I’m going to the ladies’ room. I’ll be right back.”
A moment of silence reigned while Jihn glared suspiciously at the Collective and Raquel merely looked startled. Tierney swiveled in the direction of the bathroom before she had a chance to say anything. She looked so absolutely content with Elliot at her side, it would almost be a waste to drag her anywhere but where he was.
Distracted as she was, it took her a moment to realize Dare stared at her, and another to remember that if the Collective was sitting at the table right behind them, so was Dare. She stifled a groan and quickened her step. The last thing she wanted was to feel him boring holes in her back the entire night.
Deep in the back of her mind, in a part she didn’t even know existed, she could sense him standing up and walking toward her. Oh, lovely. Panicked, she glanced around the huge ballroom. Where were the bathrooms? She knew she’d seen them on the way in --
Too late. His hand clamped down on her shoulder from behind. She knew it was him even though she couldn’t see his face, sparks skittering up her arm and screaming in every nerve. Who else had this shattering effect on her? But instead of stopping and letting him spin her around to face him -- which was almost getting to be a cliché at this point -- she continued moving purposefully toward the restroom, dragging him with her.
It was only once she’d gotten away from the crowd of people that she stopped. That hand still seared its way into her skin, a brand that she could never remove, because somehow, someway, Fate had linked their souls. Biting her lower lip, she turned to face him. And this time, it was of her own choosing.
“Dare, do you think we could skip the caveman act? Just for a night?”
She was surprised to hear her voice sounding so very tired. So very... annoyed. It was different from the fear and defiance with which she usually faced him. She could see the change in his eyes. Those golden orbs flared with something that looked almost like shock for just a few seconds before he regained his composure.
He didn’t step closer to her like she expected he would have, but that might have been a reaction to her words. Instead he reached out to run a finger down the rhinestone strap of her gown. “Touchy tonight, aren’t we, Tierney?”
“Not with you.”
His eyes flared. “Mouthy, too.” A sour expression curved his mouth just long enough to let her know she’d gotten to him. And then, mostly surprisingly of all, his face darkened with an emotion she didn’t quite recognize. “I’ll put away the club if you’ll put away the claws.”
She blinked. What was this? A peace offering? “What exactly do you mean by that?” she asked slowly.
“Exactly what I said,” he murmured, his eyes scorching a path after his finger.
It was all she could do not to shudder at the tingling contact. Lovely, she thought wildly. Julien gets the courage to ask me out and I accept... Then Dare decides to play some warped version of cat-and-mouse. This must be a retreat tactic to draw her in. She stayed silent.
When several seconds had passed without a response from her, he lowered his lashes and smiled in a manner that was -- almost -- friendly. If nothing else, it was far different from the usual baring of teeth. “What I mean,” he clarified, “is that I promise to be civil... if you promise to do the same.”
Was he serious? She stared openly at him, not even bothering to hide her shock. Civility was something she had never expected from him. “You mean you’ll leave me alone?”
“For a price,” he admitted. His eyes dripped that emotion to which she didn’t want to give a name and drenched her in an irrational fear. Every time he offered this condition, the price was more than she was willing to pay. Why would tonight be any different?
Drawing in a sharp breath, she wondered what it would be this time. “I’m not kissing you,” she warned. “I won’t even touch you.”
“A shame.” His eyes dipped over her, taking in the elegant dress and the stunning figure draped beneath it. “You look... ravishing.”
He had to be playing with her. What other explanation was there? Maybe he’d found out about her and Julien... and this was just another chance to ruin any happiness she might find. But why would that matter to him? It didn’t affect him, didn’t have anything to do with him... It occurred to her that he was almost being nice at the moment, just like he’d promised. Civil. It somehow made the tension singing between them more charged.
Uncomfortable with that realization, she replied simply, “Thank you.”
He smiled. “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Then he turned and walked back to his table, where the Collective watched his every move. No doubt he’d be hearing about this from Lindsay all night.
Tierney let out a long breath, begging her nerves to stop screaming. It was then she realized that he’d never named his price... and goddess only knew what he would ask her for later. She’d already agreed to do the spell, which meant she had little else to give him. Spidery warnings whispered through her blood and reminded her of her earlier feelings of trepidation. Could that have anything to do with this?
Shaking those feelings away, she continued toward the restrooms. It didn’t do any good to dwell on it; this was only a prom for goddess’ sake, not a funeral. One expected bad things to happen at funerals -- bewildered screaming relatives, sullen guests... But she supposed that was a bad example, since funerals were depressing anyway. She needed to focus on something happier, like her relationship with Julien.
Her newly founded relationship, one she never would have thought possible before Raquel’s insistence. The girl had instincts like a deer -- the first hint that something was there, and she froze in recognition. Granted, she usually picked up on things that were slightly less important than life or death, but the analogy worked nonetheless.
Once inside the nearly empty bathroom, she stopped in front of a gleaming white sink and stared hard into the mirror. After tonight, the image she could still see lurking underneath the beauty would return, leaving her with nothing from this whole experience... Nothing except things she’d already known.
She sighed deeply, twisting the tap until cold water gushed from the faucet. Then she remembered that splashing her face with any liquid would ruin her make-up. Grimacing, she shut it off. And instead of heading back to their table, she took a few moments to regain her composure.
Remember Julien, she told herself firmly. The thought brought an immediate rush of pleasure. Yes, think of someone who values you for who you are. Who has valued you since he’s known you. Her lips quirked involuntarily. Raquel was right. No matter what happened or who interfered, tonight was going to be perfect.
That hope singing through her blood, she glided out of the restroom, her head held high and her shoulders set proudly. She would not let him get to her. Wouldn’t even think about him...
“I’m starving,” Raquel announced as soon as Tierney sat down next to her. Her fingers played with one of the roses from her bouquet, and Tierney couldn’t help but notice how often her eyes strayed to Elliot.
She was startled when Julien reached to touch her hand. As she blinked up at him, he ran his thumb lightly over the juncture of her wrist, then covered her hand with his. His accompanying smile was both shy and sweet. Raquel froze beside her.
“What is he doing?” she demanded, her voice low enough that only Tierney should have been able to hear her.
But Tierney wasn’t paying attention, at least not until Raquel smacked her in the arm. She glared at her friend momentarily. Then she noticed the questioning expression on her friend’s face. “What?” she whispered back, though loathe to drag her concentration away from her new -- boyfriend.
Cheered by that realization, she didn’t notice the bewildered look on Raquel’s face until her friend asked, “Are you aware that Julien is holding your hand?”
“He is?” Tierney gasped, glancing down in shock. Raising innocent eyes to meet Raquel’s, she said, “I wonder how that happened.”
Apparently her feigned innocence was a little too unbelievable. Raquel scowled. “Very funny, Tier. What’s going on?”
“We’re dating,” she replied, pleased with how calm her voice sounded. She couldn’t stop some of the buoyancy from leaking through. With Dare out of her thoughts, it was easy to realize how happy she really was. “We discussed it in the car.”
Raquel’s face split into a huge grin. “I was right!” she chortled, her eyes gleaming with barely suppressed triumph. “I told you he liked you!”
Tierney blushed. “I know. You were right. I was wrong. I’m admitting it.”
“It’s about time,” Raquel answered. She winked at her brother from across the table.
Tierney cast a surreptitious glance in Adrien’s direction, only to find him staring at Julien and Tierney’s hands with a grin on his face. Raquel was evidently not the only one who knew how they felt about each other. Sudden suspicion crept over her. “Did you say something to him?”
“To who?” Raquel responded, her large violet eyes widening angelically.
Tierney knew her better than to believe the guilelessness flooding her features, which was almost as sincere as her own feigned innocence had been only a few moments ago. “Your brother,” she answered dryly. She raised an eyebrow and waited.
Her friend’s blameless façade crumbled under Tierney’s accusation, which didn’t stop her from trying to evade the question. “About what?”
“About Julien and me and... well, you know!”
Looking distinctly uncomfortable, Raquel hedged, “I might have.” She shrugged. “Does it really matter? You’re dating now and I know Adrien wouldn’t say anything to Julien -- if I did tell him anything, I mean -- so...” She let her voice trail off while doing a perfect impression of one of Michelangelo’s cherubs. “It all worked out, didn’t it?”
Tierney sighed. “Raquel, you’re incorrigible.”
Elliot stole her friend’s attention before she had a chance to reply, his hand closing over her elbow, so Tierney turned toward Julien, who was talking animatedly to Jordana. He must have felt her move, because he gave her hand a light squeeze before continuing his story.
She flushed with pleasure. Her earlier feelings of trepidation were only a distant memory now, nestled against Julien as she was and secure in the knowledge that he found her worthwhile. She sent a beaming smile around the table, only to find Adrien grinning smugly back at her.
“Only a matter of time,” he mouthed silently.
She couldn’t hear him because of the distance separating them, but she was glad he was at least trying to be subtle. She rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose at him. He nodded, leaving any comments he might have at that statement. It didn’t stop him from winking at her.
About to stick out her tongue in retaliation -- and, yes, she knew exactly how childish that was -- Julien shifted in his seat, clasping her hand more tightly against his. “Tier, you were at Adrien’s a few weeks ago when we all got in trouble, weren’t you?”
Grinning, she asked dryly, “Which night?”
“Good point,” he sighed. Then his dimples flashed. “The one where Raquel locked us all out of the house. You remember. We snuck down to the beach--”
“And the Collective stole your clothes?”
“That’s the one,” he confirmed. The sparkle in his gray eyes warmed them to sifting silver, just for her. They shared a conspiratorial smile. “Jordana doesn’t believe me. Want to tell her what happened?”
She propped her elbows on the table, mouth curved wickedly, and leaned forward to confide, “They were absolutely horrible all night. You know, loud and obnoxious and wouldn’t leave us alone -- the usual. Almost the whole football team was there. So in retaliation...”
“They locked us out,” he interrupted, looking aggrieved. The puppy dog eyes he threw at Jordana didn’t work. She stared back at him unsympathetically, fully aware of just how bad they could get when they were all together. Once he realized it wasn’t working, his expression cleared.
Rolling her eyes, Tierney added, “Only after they barricaded us in the living room with Martin Dryfus. He kept trying for a ménage à trois.” She paused a moment while they shared an equal moment of disgust. “Anyway, after we finally got out of there, they’d all gone outside, so we just... locked the doors. And once they were locked, we realized the Collective was lurking across the street.”
This time Julien really did manage to look victimized. “As soon as they saw us come out, they weren’t across the street anymore.”
“Where were they?” Jordana seemed amused in spite of herself. She knew exactly where they’d gone, but it was more fun to make him say it.
“In Adrien’s yard,” he replied mournfully. “I thought there were laws against trespassing.”
“There are.” Tierney’s face reflected no sympathy, but she squeezed his hand just the same. His eyes flared briefly. “But in order for those to work, you usually have to call the police, not run screaming for the beach, which they did.”
Nonplussed, Jordana asked, “So how did the Collective get their clothes? And whose brilliant idea was it to skinny-dip anyway?”
Adrien chose that minute to interrupt. “We didn’t have swimming trunks. I wasn’t about to swim in jeans whether they were there or not. Besides, we thought we lost them.” He grinned, violet eyes sliding to where the Collective watched their table longingly. “It’s easier to get rid of leeches.”
Everyone at the table seemed to be in agreement with that statement, or rather, none of them openly denied it. Julien let that hang in the air a moment before he continued. “To make a long story short, they took our clothes and left -- and I don’t mean they wandered down the beach a little bit. I mean they went home with them. We had to run home at midnight, completely naked.”
“We had to cross Main Street,” Adrien added, just in case Jihn, Elliot, and Jordana weren’t aware of this fact. “You can imagine what happened.”
“You didn’t get arrested?”
Jordana blushed profusely as this question slipped from her mouth -- the thought of them running sans clothes down the busiest street in the town somewhat mortifying -- and the two red dots of color stained her cheeks almost the same color as her dress. But it was a legitimate question. Hazing of the nude variety had become a common practice in their town. The police officers -- not to mention the spying elderly ladies -- generally didn’t take too kindly to offenders.
Swapping amused looks with the other males around the table, Adrien shook his head. “We got lucky. Grant’s dad was on duty, so he just warned us to wear clothes next time. I don’t think he wanted to give citations to the whole team. Might damage our performance or something.”
“The only performance problem you were likely to be having was from the cold, Aid,” Raquel teased. “But I doubt any of the other football players complained.”
Just then, one of the waiters pushed a cart next to their table, signaling that dinner was starting. He looked about their age, maybe sixteen or seventeen, and had the sullen attitude of someone who knew he wasn’t going to make any tips that night. He obviously attended the other local high school, because no one at the table recognized him. Tierney could tell.
A lock of blond hair falling belligerently into his left eye, he asked, “Who ordered the chicken?”
Dinner seemed to last forever.
She was painfully aware of every movement Julien made, of each time he touched her elbow or leaned close to whisper something in her ear. Her blood raced at each impending moment of contact, enhanced and amplified by the awareness that they were being watched.
And they were.
It wasn’t something she was imagining, which made her all the more paranoid. Every time she looked around, eyes were on them. On the strong fingers twined with hers. On the way his eyes sparkled when he watched her. On the secret smiles they shared, which weren’t really secret at all.
But the funniest thing about it was that the stares were not malicious. Simply watchful. People eyeing the way they cared themselves and the way they seemed to just... fit, like a best friend locket she and Raquel had bought in fourth grade to seal their camaraderie, the two pieces perfectly matched and perfectly complemented by the other.
The eyes were making her nervous. By the time Julien and Adrien finally finished their second piece of dessert (neither Jihn nor Elliot had been interested in theirs, which made the cake fair game), she could hardly sit still.
Julien noticed this and smiled. “What’s with the fidgeting?” She shrugged instead of replying, causing him to bestow her with a long look from his intense gray eyes. “Well, they should be announcing prom king and queen soon. We’ll dance then.”
She nodded, willing herself not to pay attention to the attention they were receiving from the student body. Even Julien’s hand on hers seemed somehow constricting. Leaning forward, she asked Jordana, “Do you think they’ll start soon?”
Without bothering to ask, Jordy grabbed Adrien’s wrist and twisted it until she could see the face of his silver watch. “In about thirty seconds,” she answered cheerfully.
As if on cue, the loud squeal of a microphone being adjusted sounded from the stage at the front of the ballroom. Mr. Rogers, their principal, cleared his throat loudly into the microphone, causing the majority of the students to cringe. “We’re, ah... Good evening, Jansen High. I hope you’re having a wonderful time at this year’s senior/junior prom. Let’s, ah, try to refrain from spiking the punch this year. As you know, each year the dancing is lead by the prom king and queen, who the seniors have already elected. So, ah, let’s get this started, shall we?”
While he cleared his throat and fumbled with the note cards clutched in his hand, Tierney rolled her eyes. “I honestly don’t know how he manages to make it out of the house each morning. The man is scared of his own shadow.”
“Except when he’s handing out detentions,” Julien agreed ruefully, squeezing her hand. Something different gleamed in those bright silver eyes now, something almost smug. Like he knew something she didn’t. He winked at her.
She shook her head, ignoring that suspicion, and turned back to face the principal. The whole thing was pointless anyway. Everyone knew Jordana and Adrien were going to win.
“Let’s see--“ he mumbled, still shuffling the cards. Then a smile lit up his face and he pushed his glasses higher up on his nose. “As I announce each couple, please come up to the stage.” He cleared his throat again. “Our first couple is Bentley Kerslen and Tiffany Wilson.” After waiting for the applause to die down and for them to climb onto the stage, he continued. “Justin Timmons and Savina Rendon. Rob Sheflin and Molly Palmer. David Volpe and Kristin Gibbins. And, ah, last but certainly not least,” Tierney rolled her eyes, wondering why he had to drag this out when they all knew who was coming next, “Julien D’Angelo and Tierney Anderson.”
Her mouth fell open. But what about--? She didn’t have time to wonder why Adrien and Jordana’s names hadn’t been announced, because Julien was already pulling her toward the stage, the smug grin on his face as wide as a banner. He led her up the steps. When they stopped next to David and Kristin, she managed to gasp, “Julien, why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was a surprise,” he whispered back, handing her a long stemmed red rose, courtesy of the student council. “How does it feel to be the only junior on prom court?”
“Extremely conspicuous,” she hissed, but plastered a smile on her face anyway.
Mr. Rogers was already talking. “This year’s results were far from close. In fact, the overwhelming majority of you voted for, ah, the same couple. And so, I would like to introduce this year’s prom King and Queen--“
She must not have heard him right...
“--Julien D’Angelo and Tierney Anderson!”
The applause was deafening. Julien slipped his arm around her waist, courteously leading her to the very front of the stage. Her rose bit into her palm where she gripped it, a single thorn having escaped the florist’s notice. And in a daze, she let them crown her with a sparkling tiara.
She was too stunned to worry about tripping when Julien led her down the stairs and out onto the dance floor. When he stopped, the spotlight washing over the two of them, everything shrank back into black and white reality. She, once one of the ugliest girls in school, was in the middle of the ballroom, dancing with one of the two most popular guys in school and reigning over the prom as *Queen*. With her boyfriend. Who was also prom King.
Maybe dreams really did come true.
Relaxing finally, she let him raise her hand to his lips, let him kiss the tips of her fingers gallantly as though they really were the king and queen of some medieval ball. He slipped his hand into hers, his fingers curling firmly around her slender wrist and drawing her close while her pulse quickened. She could feel the soft exhalation of his breath against her throat. His arms curled to rest just above the small of her back, hesitating as if he was afraid to pull her any closer.
Something desperate railed inside her, knowing that with Julien she would have found happiness, if only Fate had not been so cruel as to throw her to the one person who didn’t want her and never would. She ducked her head shyly as tears sprang to her eyes, more determined than ever to make this work. Resting her head on Julien’s broad shoulder, she thanked the Goddess that he liked her for who she was, and not what her outer appearance showed. He dropped a light kiss on her forehead.
Around them, music swelled, a song Tierney didn’t quite recognize. It didn’t matter. The same magic bursting in the air filled each chord and threatened to overwhelm her. Distantly, she noticed other couples slowly joining them as the song neared completion.
A perfect night, just as Raquel had said.
She nestled closer to her date, his hand drifting over the soft skin of her back and pulling her closer, as if they could somehow meld together. Contentment slipped over her like a net. Only to be shattered in the next second as she was spun around to meet angry golden eyes.
“I changed my mind.”