And then, she started having fun. The food was amazing, and only the corset kept her from stuffing herself like a human and blowing her cover. Otherwise, she giggled with the girls as they looked over the stock of suitors. She’d intended to wait until she saw a few of her enemies make selections, then swoop in and interrupt them, but she never got a chance. Boys kept coming to her, introducing themselves and asking her to dance. The decorations sparkled, the music was bright and romantic, and the boys were so handsome.
She stayed with the ones wearing masks. It seemed more mysterious and exciting yet somehow safer than gazing into their naked faces. More than once, she employed the lessons she’d learned in fan class to stave off an advance. She felt like she was reenacting a scene from her favorite romance, and as the evening wore on, she found herself thinking about the scenes implied in the chapter breaks.
She noticed other couples wandering off arm-in-arm, and she felt a surge of longing that scared her. She’d come here to get revenge, not a boyfriend. The crowd was thinning; soon someone might notice there was one bachelorette too many. Besides, she was starting to feel dizzy. And hot. Stupid corset.
Stupid thoughts about taking off the corset.
There were still several gorgeous guys looking her way. She had to get out of there.
In the corner of the room, she saw Ester and her friends talking among themselves and glaring at her with open jealousy. She looked her enemy straight in the eye and fanned herself coquettishly. Maybe she’d use the same move tomorrow to reveal herself. Maybe she’d just wear the wig. Or she could march up to them and reveal herself right now.
Behind the girls, the door opened, and some guards stepped in, her parents right behind.
Time to go. She’d do her reveal later. She’d sneak out by way of the garden. It was dark enough, and the cool air would do her good. She stuck her hand in her pocket and gripped the handle of the knife in case someone decided to pursue her.
When she got to the porch, however, someone grabbed her arm. “Wait, please.”
She spun, her hand coming out of her pocket. Then she looked into the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen. The knife slipped from her fingers and clattered to the ground, unnoticed.
“They’re looking for you,” he whispered, and his voice made her dizzy and hot all over again.
“You knew it was me?”
“Of course. I couldn’t believe you came. I’m so happy you did.”
“Happy?” His words were confusing her. Her body was confusing her.
“I’ll explain, promise. Come on.”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the garden. She followed, all her anger and fear washed away by thoughts best left to scene breaks.
* * *
Ellie-as-Shree hid under some blankets in the back of Jorseen’s car while he made an excuse to the castle guards and got admitted. Once he’d passed, he called an all clear.
“This is silly,” he told her as she untangled herself. “Her parents and the guards are alerted. I’m sure they’ll find her.”
“Not if she sees them first. She’ll run. And if she’s under the influence of the asaya spice, then she may have a boy with her. Oh, why did I have to get into that stupid argument?”
“Easy. We’ll find her.”
“You’re so sweet. Stop there!” Ellie pointed to a spot a few yards away from the gardens. “That’s the gardens between the ballroom and the ambassador’s quarters.” She jumped out of the car almost before he’d finished parking, her phaser out and set on light stun.
He scrambled to catch up. “You have a good eye.”
Darnit. “Academy training. Situational awareness keeps you alive.”
“You are as amazing as you are beautiful. I would risk altering the timeline for you.”
She stopped and turned toward him. “I thought Chatwayans didn’t feel strong attractions.”
He gave her a sexy smirk. “There are always exceptions. And you are exceptional.”
It figures she’d get more action in this screwed-up timeline than any other time in her life. “Please, let’s make sure Elie’s safe first, okay?”
* * *
Ellie-in-the-Mask was feeling anything but safe, and she was strangely okay with that. Jirek had stopped beside the fountain near the maze. He was confessing to her about how he’d been admiring her from afar and had asked Ester’s brother to ask Ester about her, and how he’d sent the notes, but when she didn’t write back, he’d thought she hated him.
“You threatened to kill me. You said I wasn’t worthy.” She protested, but her retort was weak and her eyes kept flicking toward the maze. Her parents were looking for her and she needed to hide, but if she hid, he’d come after her.
Then, they’d be alone in the dark. She couldn’t let that happen. Could she?
His face morphed to horror. “No! That’s not what I meant at all.” In between berating himself for not using the universal translator to check the notes, he explained. He’d wanted to get to know her, to see if they could be friends, and if it was worth all the trouble they’d have to deal with if he took her as his mate. He wanted her to come enjoy the party, or barring that, for him to explain. “I wanted to take away your sadness.”
“Aww. That’s so sweet.” She took a step toward him, then clenched her fists and turned away. “This is stupid. I don’t want to spend my life here. This isn’t my world.”
“It could be our world.”
She shook her head, but it was taking everything in her not to respond to his sweet, soft voice. She felt like she was in a Regency romance, the scene where the heroine would run off dramatically, leaving the hero alone and defeated, or rush into his arms as the music swelled along with their passions.
“One kiss, El, that’s all I ask. One kiss and if it’s not right, then I’ll return to the Ball and take Ester as my own, and we’ll never bother you again.”
Her heart hammered in her chest. To have a day without being sneered at, without a half-dozen girls laughing at her by Ester’s command? To maybe make a friend without them being careful not to get caught by Ester or her posse? And to kiss Ester’s crush?
Oh, to kiss Jirek. The thought sent glorious shivers of excitement over her.
“Ellie?” he asked.
In the distance, someone else called her name, but it barely registered against the music of his voice.
One kiss? What was the worst that could happen?
* * *
“There she is! Ellie!”
She and Jirek were standing by the fountain, close but not too close. She had her back to him, and he was stepping toward her, hands out entreatingly. It was like something out of a Regency romance, where the heroine either ran off, crying, or turned to be swept into her lover’s arms.
There was no way Ellie-as-Shree could get to her in time. Ellie raised her phaser and fired.