Balthazar Page 32

Instead, he rose from the snow, forcing Charity to stand, too, until they faced each other again. Balthazar repeated, “Not Skye. Don’t let Redgrave set you on her, Charity. Don’t do to her what he did to me or … or what I did to you.”

Charity said nothing. She never moved, even as he got back in his car and drove away. In the rearview mirror, he could see her remaining there, utterly still, until she was erased by the snow that surrounded her.

The next few days were … awkward.

Skye was as good as her word. She didn’t text him during study hall, didn’t exchange glances with him during history class, and spoke only to answer “present” during the homeroom attendance roll. It wasn’t that she froze him out; in every way, she was calm and polite.

Balthazar managed to remain polite, but he wasn’t at all calm.

There she was, walking down the hallway with That Lump. Or exchanging notes with Madison in study hall, Madison all giggles; probably they were talking about Keith, or the dance, which he already profoundly regretted agreeing to chaperone. The next weekend, she wanted to go riding again, but suggested evenly that it made more sense for him to be at something of a distance, the better to scout around for intruders. “That way I won’t be a distraction,” she said, as if everything about her wasn’t maddeningly distracting.

He kept guard over her house at night, which he felt was in no way like stalking. Except, that was, for that moment every evening when she walked to the window, just before turning out her light. It was her silent way of affirming that she knew he was there—her only acknowledgment of the bond between them that survived their silence. The silhouette of her body against the bedroom light always stayed with him throughout the long hours before dawn.

Teaching at Darby Glen High began to feel like a job. Watching her began to feel like a mission. Countless little details distracted him (Tonia Loos’s endless flirting in the staff room, Madison Findley’s numerous questions about her impending term paper on John Alden), but nothing ever took his mind away from Skye.

Balthazar was beginning to think that nothing ever would—that even if he walked away from her in Darby Glen after the immediate crises were resolved, Skye would always claim a part of him.

One night, after hours of tossing around in bed and trying desperately not to think of Skye, he finally fell asleep—and dreamed of her.

They were back at Evernight Academy, though no longer strangers to each other as they had been then. Together they rode on the grounds, which were green and warm as summertime:

“You’re too slow,” she called, glancing over her shoulder. Her deep brown hair, free from the helmet she always wore, framed the curve of her face. As Skye urged Eb onward, she said, “Catch up!”

“I’m coming!” He spurred on Bucephalus, thinking idly that it had been too long since he rode him. Why didn’t he take this horse out every day? Bony and awkward he still looked, but he was fast. Fast enough to catch Skye.

She and Eb vanished into a glade of trees, and Balthazar followed, eager to find her again. When he found her, he’d take her into his arms and kiss her again. This time nothing would stop them. Nothing would get in the way.

Once they entered the clearing, he saw Eb standing still, bridle aside, so he could munch on the grass. Balthazar dismounted, expecting to see Skye somewhere nearby. Perhaps she was hiding, turning this all into a game. He felt himself starting to smile. “Skye?”

“Find me!” Her voice rang out joyfully from deeper in the glade, and he dashed toward the sound. The branches seemed incredibly thick—and the sunlight was dimmer here, less steady than it had been but moments before—yet it didn’t matter, not if he were about to find Skye.

Finally he pushed aside the last branch and saw a small grove. In the center stood Skye, her ruffled sundress fluttering in the sudden strong breeze. Her bare feet were pale against the vivid grass. She simply stood there, waiting for him with a smile on her face, and Balthazar took a step toward her—

—just as Redgrave appeared behind Skye, and slipped his arms around her waist.

“Only her friend,” Redgrave whispered as he stroked Skye’s hair away from her face. She simply glanced back at him, as eager to be with him as she’d been for Balthazar a moment before. “Only her protector. And yet you dream about her dancing for you barefoot in a meadow. How incredibly pathetic, Balthazar. Your erotic imagination might at least have become a bit more creative in the past few centuries.”

This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be. Why wasn’t this real anymore? “Let go of Skye,” Balthazar said. The words were difficult to force out. “She doesn’t want you.”

“I’m the master of this dream now,” Redgrave said as he traced his fingers along Skye’s bare arm. “So I think she does want me. Don’t you, my dear?”

Skye’s response was to turn to Redgrave and kiss him, as passionately as she had ever kissed Balthazar. But Redgrave wasn’t pushing her away the way Balthazar had. Instead he was responding to her, delighting in her, and the sight was sickening to behold.

This isn’t real, Balthazar thought. He knew that, didn’t he? He attempted to step forward and break this up—to fight for her if he had to—but his feet wouldn’t move. Glancing down, he saw that he stood in mud, or quicksand … something dark and liquid that had begun to drag him down.

Redgrave’s laughter made him look up again. “I’ve half a mind to make you watch this in real life, Balthazar. It could be even more enjoyable. And you know I can do it, don’t you?”

Balthazar awakened with a start. Panting, he leaned against his headboard and put his face in his hands. The fact that his sire was invading his dreams again to torture him was bad enough.

Worse that Redgrave knew what Skye really meant to Balthazar—and had figured it out faster than Balthazar himself had.

“I hate this hellhole,” Nola Haladki said.

Balthazar gave her a sympathetic glance. They stood on the sidelines of the auditorium, which was now draped with various pink and red decor, while Snow Patrol blared from the DJ’s booth and couples did that weird twitching thing that for the past forty years or so had passed for “dancing.” He missed the waltz. “By hellhole, do you mean Darby Glen High in particular, or the Valentine’s Dance in particular?”

“Both.” Nola took a swig of the sherbet-and-Sprite punch from her blue plastic cup. “I’ve been getting my certification for physical therapy online. This summer I’m doing the hands-on part of the training, and then I am so out. Of. Here.”

“You’re going after what you really love,” he said. “Good for you.”

Nola gave him a sidelong glance. “Listen, kid. You’re fresh out of college. You probably still think you can ‘inspire students’ or some crap like that. But I’m telling you now, if you think it’s going to be all Freedom Writers all the time, you’re living in a dream world. This business sucks. Get out while you still can.”

As gravely as he could, Balthazar said, “I doubt I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”

“What’s that you won’t be doing?” Tonia Loos came skittering up on her high heels, which, like her skintight dress, were brilliant red. “Balthazar, you look amazing in that suit. Too bad you can’t wear it to school so we could enjoy the view every day…. Oh, hi, Nola.”

“You both look wonderful tonight, too,” Balthazar said. Which was true: Although Tonia’s getup was a little loud for his taste, she was undeniably attractive in it, and Nola had abandoned her usual fleece track jackets for a gray satin sheath that gave her a classic elegance.

Nola gave him a grin and a nod; Tonia draped herself on his arm. “You’re a smooth talker, you know that?”

“I’m gonna see if any of the kids got around to spiking the punch yet,” Nola said, with the definite implication that, if they had, she’d help herself to a glass before making the students dump it out.

“You know,” Tonia said, looking up at him from beneath a veil of thickly mascaraed lashes, “later on, when the crowd’s started to die down, sometimes the teachers dance.”

“I doubt they’ll play many songs I know.”

“You’re always so mysterious! Never talking about yourself. Like, for instance, what kinds of music you enjoy. What songs would you know?”

Balthazar considered Tonia carefully before answering. “If I answer one of your questions, will you answer one of mine?”

“Ooooh, a guessing game. I love games.” Tonia’s grin widened.

“I tend to like older music,” he said. “Classical, mostly, though I have a soft spot for fifties stuff. Elvis, rockabilly, that kind of thing.”

“I bet the DJ would play some Elvis. At least the remixes.” Tonia was obviously very fixated on the idea of their dancing together later that night. Balthazar resolved to have something very important to do at the end. “Okay, your turn. What do you want to know?”

Balthazar kept his voice very gentle, because he suspected that, with her, the words would have to be harsh: “Why is a woman as attractive as you so insecure?”

Tonia didn’t answer at first. Then she raked her nails through her hair, as if that could calm her down. “Wow. You’re—blunt. Really blunt.”

“I’m trying to be honest.”

“If you’re not interested—or there’s someone else—there is, isn’t there? Should’ve known the women of this country wouldn’t let you wander around unattached.”

Balthazar nodded and tried not to think of Skye. “Will you tell me why?”

“You only see the final result. But in high school—really, my whole life up to now—I didn’t have this.” She made one gesture that seemed to take her in, head to toe. “Do you know, I lost fifty pounds the year before I came to Darby Glen? I thought it would change things. But nothing ever changes.”

He was too familiar with loneliness not to recognize it in another. “You’re not the person you were before. I’m not talking about the weight; I mean—you get to change. Mature. Grow up.” It was a journey Balthazar would never be able to take; no matter how many centuries he lived or how much wisdom he acquired, his heart would always be young. “Trust the person you’ve become. Take pride in it. And see who chases you.”

Tonia finally smiled a little. “Maybe you should be a guidance counselor instead of a history teacher.”

“You never know.” Before fate was done with him, who could guess what else he might have to become?

The song shifted to something slower, almost mournfully sweet. The lights dimmed slightly, and the room filled with a rosy glow and dozens of tiny white scattering beams reflected throughout. For one brief moment, even the high school auditorium seemed to be beautiful.

Laughter echoed from the doors as another group of students came in. Balthazar turned, knowing even as he did so that he would see Skye there.

She stood at the edge of the group, tethered to them only by Keith’s meaty hand around hers. Skye wore a more elegant dress than the showy stuff most of the girls favored; in this light, her dress appeared to be some delicate shade between champagne and rose, made out of filmy stuff that left her shoulders and most of her legs bare while wrapping her body in soft petals. Her dark, burnished hair was gathered into an artfully messy tail that fell to one side of her neck. There was no pretending that she wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the room.

Skye’s gaze locked with his. In that instant, he saw just how much she didn’t want to be with Keith … how she’d dressed for him, so that he would see her and want her.

And he knew she saw how badly he wanted her.

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