Stargazer Page 35

“Honey, we never thought that. We never blamed you for what happened with that boy. You know that, right?”

I hadn’t turned to look at her. Somehow it was easier to have this conversation while we weren’t face-to-face. “I know.”

She seemed to be more nervous than I was. “Bianca—there might be one subject we should discuss tonight.”

“What?” Had she guessed that I was keeping a secret about Lucas?

Even that I was slipping out to see him?

I imagined a dozen different possibilities in the few seconds before she said, “Do you and I need to have another talk about sex?” Oh, my God.

“I know you’re aware of the facts of life,” Mom plowed ahead, even though I was sure my entire body had just turned beet red with embarrassment. “But when you’re getting close to someone, particularly someone more experienced, like Balthazar, it becomes a lot more real.

Maybe you have different questions.”

“It’s kind of early to be thinking about that,” I said hastily. Leave it to Mom to share the only information I didn’t want to hear. “We just started going out.”

“If you say so.” She sounded amused, but she patted my shoulder and mercifully didn’t mention the subject again while we finished getting me ready for the ball.

I had just slipped my feet into pointy-toed silver shoes when we heard the knock at the door, and then my father and Balthazar greeting each other with loud hellos and a clap on the back, which was how they’d started behaving with each other lately. I’d noticed Dad and Lucas acting that way, too, last year; maybe guys needed to puff up a bit when it came to greeting their daughters’ dates—or their dates’ fathers.

Mom brushed a stray eyelash from my cheek and hugged me. “Go out there and knock ’em dead.”

As I stepped into the front room, both Dad and Balthazar fell silent.

Dad smiled and rocked back on his heels, clearly proud of me. Baltha-142

zar’s face didn’t change, but there was something in his eyes, an appreciation, that sent a small thrill of feminine power shivering through me.

My dark-green satin dress was strapless and tailored closely to my body, dipping low in the back. It flared slightly at mid-thigh, so I’d be able to dance. My mother’s silver-and-opal necklace from the 1920s hung around my neck, and the matching earrings brushed against my throat. Mom had put my hair in a low bun, folding braids over and between each other and finishing it with a single jeweled clip. Last year I had felt beautiful; this year there was more, too. For the first time I felt as if I looked like a woman, not a girl anymore.

My parents shooed us on our way quickly enough, and Balthazar held my arm to steady me as we made our way downstairs. When my new shoe slipped on one of the worn stone steps and I wobbled, he slid his arm around me. “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” I glanced up at him and realized how close his face was to mine. His arm was still wrapped tightly around me. I knew I ought to pull away, but I also knew that he wanted me—and I couldn’t help liking that he wanted me. It was the first time I’d ever felt that being a woman gave me a unique kind of power.

“Your hair looks beautiful this way,” Balthazar said. His dark eyes searched my face. “Women used to wear their hair like that more often. I always liked it.”

A small smile played on my lips. “So this is a trip down memory lane?”

For some reason, that broke the spell. He straightened. “I’m happy with the here and now. Come on. Let’s dance.”

Once again, the great hall had been transformed for the occasion, though in an entirely different style. Candles still burned next to ham-mered brass mirrors, reflecting mellow, flickering light throughout the room; but this year, the walls and tables had been decorated with thousands and thousands of flowers, all different kinds, but all of them snowy white. Even the dark stone floors were scattered with petals, so that the entire room was soft and bright.

As Balthazar walked me toward the dance floor to the strains of the orchestra tuning up, I saw several girls casting admiring glances in his direction, tall and sophisticated as he was in his evening suit. The thought of them being turned on by him was sort of a turn-on in itself.

Maybe everyone wants to arouse some jealousy from time to time. Then I caught sight of someone who was definitely not impressed.

“Satin.” Courtney raised an eyebrow as she looked at my gown. Her own was deep gold, low-cut, and stunning—though I still liked mine best. “Brave of you to wear that. It wrinkles like an old garbage bag the second you sit down.”

“I’ll just have to make sure that we dance the entire night,” I said brightly. “That way we won’t sit down at all.” We swept past her as she sputtered for a retort, without success.

Last year I had enjoyed the ball, but this year I loved it. My heart wasn’t breaking for Lucas any longer; I was completely sure of our love for each other. Even though I would’ve preferred him to be my date, I also realized that he probably wouldn’t enjoy this as much as I did. No, I could let go completely and live in the exhilaration of Balthazar whirling me through the steps of all the old-fashioned dances. Violins and pianos and harps played all around us, and the girls’ brilliantly colored dresses shifted from pattern to pattern, formation to formation; it was a little like being inside a kaleidoscope that kept spinning every second.

“Your waltzing has improved,” Balthazar said about halfway through the evening. His broad hand splayed against my bare back. “Did you practice?”

“In my room, I gave it a try. And put up with Raquel laughing at me the whole time.”

“It was worth it.” He leaned closer to me, so that his lips were nearly brushing my ear, and whispered, “Now?”

I glanced around the edges of the room; most of the chaperones were missing, no doubt patrolling the grounds where most couples would sneak off to be together. “Now.”

We shifted to the edge of the dance floor and then walked away, laughing together as if we were just taking a quick break. As we started up the stairs of the north tower, a couple of guys in tuxes shifted past us.

They stared at me for a very long time, it seemed. Once they were gone, I said, “Do you think they suspect anything?”

“Because of the way that they were looking at you? I think they were envying me.” Balthazar sighed. “Little do they know. Come on.” Nobody else was around as we reached the level of the guys’ dorms and kept going. Inwardly I cursed the clicking of my high-heeled shoes against the stone stairs, telltale evidence of a girl on the move; but all the same, we made it to the door of the records room. I hesitated, then knocked; Lucas and I couldn’t be the only ones who’d figured out this was a good place to be alone, and the last thing I wanted to do was walk in on a couple in a clinch. When no one answered, Balthazar said,

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