Stargazer Page 45

“You have to internalize that so your body knows what to do the second your eye sees the arrow. Your brain can’t even come into it.” I sat cross-legged on the floor next to the game mat, watching him in dis-179

may. “You’re a good dancer, Balthazar. How come you’re so bad at this?”

“This isn’t dancing. These days, it’s merely—rhythmic twitching.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it, because the game doesn’t have a fox-trot setting.”

Balthazar glared at me, but there was some humor behind it. He let me play, too, and took my victory in stride.

Afterward, we went upstairs to my parents’ apartment, where I was spending the winter break. When my mother opened the door, the warm scent of cinnamon and apples wafted out to welcome us. “About time you made it.” She squeezed Balthazar’s shoulder, then gave me a kiss on the cheek. “We’ve been waiting for you two.”

“Look at that tree.” Balthazar grinned at the seven-foot-tall fir my parents had set up in the corner. Strewn with tinsel and decorated with the clumsy pipe-cleaner and cardboard ornaments I’d made over the years, the tree looked appropriately festive, but to me it didn’t seem any different from any other Christmas. Balthazar was more impressed. “It’s been a long time since I opened presents under a tree.”

“Since you were alive?” I asked.

“We didn’t have Christmas trees then,” he said, as Mom helped him out of his jacket. “That was a German tradition that didn’t spread worldwide until—oh, two hundred years after I died. It’s a good custom, though. I think it’ll last a long time.”

“Me, too.” Dad stood in the door of the kitchen, and the apron wrapped around his waist was promisingly smeared with chocolate. “I’m just relieved nobody decorates them with candles anymore.”

“Real candles? Like, with fire?” I couldn’t believe it.

Mom mock-shuddered. “Real flame, near real trees that were drying out fast. You wouldn’t believe how dangerous Christmas used to be.”

We settled in for a cozy night. The chocolate on my father’s apron proved to be icing for a cake he’d made as a treat for me. We drank hot cider from mugs and blood from glasses, a Christmas ritual. For the first time in my life, the juxtaposition struck me as strange, but with Mom, Dad, and Balthazar having such a great time, I couldn’t dwell on that too much. Christmas music played on Dad’s stereo, popping with that pecu-liarly enjoyable static only vinyl records have. All my blues were forgotten for a while.

Later in the evening, Balthazar got on his knees to inspect the packages under the tree. He’d already promised to bring my gift tomorrow.

I’d bought him a sweater—not exactly the most awe-inspiring present ever, I know, but he needed some more up-to-date clothing, and besides, the warm oaky brown of the wool had reminded me of him in some way that was hard to define. But when Balthazar picked up the first package with his name on it, I frowned: It wasn’t mine.

“Wait a second,” he said. “There are a few for me down here. Several. Bianca, you didn’t spend this much money, did you?” I shook my head.

“We plead guilty,” Dad said. He hugged my beaming mother around the shoulder. “You’re practically part of the family, Balthazar. We wanted you to be as much a part of the celebrations tomorrow as anyone.”

“Thanks.” Balthazar looked really touched, not because he was going to rack up on the gifts Christmas morning but because they’d taken him in. Maybe I should’ve felt the same way, once I saw what it meant to him, but I didn’t.

Instead, I thought once again how Mom and Dad liked Balthazar almost too much. As good a person as he was, that wasn’t what my parents were responding to. No, they liked him because he was my Vampire Boyfriend, i.e., the person who was going to make their daughter into the perfect vampire they’d always planned for me to be.

I’d always planned on fulfilling their hopes. But seeing how badly my parents wanted it—the fine edge of desperation beneath their smiles—made me wonder what it was they were so afraid of.

Afterward, as the evening grew late, not only did my parents let me take Balthazar into my bedroom, but Mom even shut the door behind us—something they’d never done the two times they’d allowed Lucas to come in here with me.

“My parents are nuts about you,” I said. “You see that, too, right?”

“They wouldn’t be so enthusiastic if they knew the whole truth about where I take you, and why. Let’s not disillusion them yet.” Balthazar went to the window to study the gargoyle. Icicles dangled from its stone wings. “He looks cold out there.”

“I ought to knit him a scarf or something.” I curled up on the window seat and touched two fingertips to the cold glass.

“You even take pity on creatures made of stone.” Balthazar settled next to me on the window seat, with one arm around my shoulders and his leg alongside mine.

I glanced up at him, uncertain. He said, “If your parents came in—”

“I know. We should look—comfortable.”

“Exactly.” Balthazar watched me hesitate, a small, knowing smile on his face. “You feel like I’m taking advantage of the situation.”

“It’s not that. I know you wouldn’t.”

“You’re wrong. I would.” He leaned closer to me, so that our faces nearly touched. “You’re as much in love with Lucas Ross as you ever were, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy being this close to you.”

I couldn’t seem to concentrate. For some reason I couldn’t look away from his mouth. He had a square jaw and a fine fuzz of stubble. “It just seems risky, I guess.”

“The only one taking a risk here is me, if I get too attached to you.

It’s not risky for you, as long as you’re not confused either.”

“I’m not.”

“Of course you aren’t.” A small smile played on Balthazar’s lips.

I pushed myself up from the window seat. My knees were shaky.

Balthazar stayed put, though the smile never left his face. I blathered,

“So, I guess you’re, uh, in a good mood these days. Like, you seem cheerful—not goofy cheerful or anything, just cheerful.”

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