Soundtrack: Chains, Nick Jonas
Katie was alone on the terrace when I stepped through the doors. My stomach twisted in a fit of nerves the second I saw her, and I ducked into the shadows behind the french doors. Now, not only was I awkward and shy, but creepy, too. I couldn’t bring myself to step out into the light, though. What if she turned around and saw me? What if she recognized me behind the old motorcycle gear and two-sizes-too-big-for-me leather boots I’d pilfered from my father’s closet? I removed the helmet and checked the mask over my face, testing its security and position under my sunglasses, then relaxed once I’d reassured myself my face was still mostly hidden.
The music spilled out through the open doors, a soft, slow number that existed in perfect harmony with the beauty and peace of the dark terrace. The setting was like a world all our own. I let my gaze rove over her in a way I wouldn’t have had she known I was there—committing her every feature, every curve to memory. I fought the urge to remove my sunglasses to get a better look at her. I needed that extra layer of protection, even if for my own comfort. She was like a princess with the moonlight shining down on her, giving her blonde waves a silvery tone and lighting her skin as if the moon was a spotlight designed just for her. Even though she was facing away from me, looking down at the pool area, I could almost picture her soft, full lips with their pink pout, her gray-blue eyes with their exotic tear-drop shape, her button nose, and high cheekbones. She was perfection. And I was unworthy.
I shouldn’t have come; I didn’t belong here. Doubts crowded in on me, and I shuffled back toward the entrance to the ballroom. Maybe I could escape quickly, and she would never know I’d been here. My too-large boot scuffed the ground, and I froze, hoping she hadn’t heard.
She whirled with a startled smile, probably ready to greet whoever she found there. Her smile faltered when she saw me, but was back in full force when she spotted the helmet in my hand. “Hi!” She called and lifted her hand in a small wave.
“Hi,” I repeated. I hadn’t intended to use a lower register, but my voice sounded deeper, more gravelly. Maybe it was from a subconscious effort to disguise any defining detail about myself. I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t one of the cool kids. Sure, she’d invited me, but Brad had driven the point home that I just didn’t fit in with Katie’s crowd. She was so far out of my league, we weren’t even playing the same sport.
Katie tilted her head to the side, giving my person a slow perusal from head to toe and back again. I needed to say something, anything, to distract her from what was clearly an attempt to identify me.
“Like what you see?” I bit my tongue the second the words were out of my mouth. What was wrong with me? I didn’t talk like that.
Katie smiled that slightly crooked grin of hers. “And what if I do?”
Her words sent a little thrill through me, chasing away the worst of my nerves. Maybe I could pull this off. I was pretty well disguised, after all. Maybe, just for tonight, I could pretend I really was this devil-may-care biker. I could talk to Katie—flirt with Katie—like I couldn’t do when I was just me. I set my helmet down, checked the position of my mask over my face again, and pushed my sunglasses a little higher on my nose. Then I took a step toward her. “Well, then I would say the feeling is mutual.”
Her smile softened into an almost self-conscious smirk, and she lifted a hand to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She smoothed the other hand down the fabric of her dress. “Who are—”
“Want to dance?” I cut her question off before she could ask it, avoiding the awkward place it would have left us when I tried not to answer. I held out my hand like I expected her to say yes.
She didn’t disappoint, crossing the terrace in graceful steps and placing a small hand in mine. I pulled her into my arms in a move I’d only ever seen in movies—and never imagined I’d actually use myself. She seemed to melt against me, molding her body to mine, and laying her cheek to my chest.
Then she took a deep breath and released it on a soft sigh. “You smell really good,” She whispered the words against my jacket. It was all the invitation I needed. I tightened my arms around her and began a gentle sway to the beat of the music. Katie followed my lead, moving with me as if we were one person, fluid, coordinated, perfectly in time with one another.
When the song ended and another began, I didn’t skip a beat, just shifted into a new sway, a new set of slow moves with her in my arms. I would dance like this all night if Katie let me, but I wanted more. I wanted to live this fantasy to the fullest.
I wanted to kiss her.
I was a man on a mission, expertly guiding our dance steps toward the shadows until I had Katie safe within the darkness behind the patio doors. I slowed my dance moves and softly pressed Katie against the brick wall behind her. I couldn’t see her face through my sunglasses, and I took a chance that it would be dark enough to hide my features if I lifted them out of the way, setting them on top of my head. With the glasses out of the way, I still couldn’t make out the details of her face. Hopefully, that meant that she couldn’t make out mine either.
Emboldened by that idea, I slipped my half-mask down under my chin. The air was cool on my face, sending little prickles of awareness across my lips as I imagined pressing them against Katie’s. Finally, I worked up the nerve to make my move.
I dipped my head and laid the softest of kisses across her mouth. I wanted more, wanted to show her in my kiss exactly how I felt about her, but I didn’t have the guts for that. So, I moved slow, came in for a second soft kiss, and slipped my tongue out to tease over her lips. She parted them on a gasp, and I took that as my cue to deepen the kiss.
Kissing Katie was like coming home, it was comfort and sweetness and exhilaration all at once. I swirled my tongue over hers, and she reciprocated, giving as much as she was taking. When I finally pulled back, she nipped playfully at my bottom lip.
“You’re a good… dancer.” She broke the silence, but her soft voice didn’t break the mood.
I chuckled at her compliment. “Back at ya.”
Eventually, the beat picked up, and unable to justify holding her close anymore, I let my arms fall away from her. I was quick to move my mask back into place and pull my sunglasses down over my eyes before I took a step back.
Katie’s expression was almost regretful as she removed her hands from behind my neck and I widened the space between us. “Do I know you?” she asked, eyeing my person with more than just passing scrutiny.
The idea that she could figure out who I was set off a firestorm of nervous energy in my veins, and I shoved my hands deep into my pockets to keep from fidgeting. “No,” I told her, and I wasn’t entirely lying. She didn’t really know anything about me.
“What’s your name?” She stepped forward, and I instinctively took a step backward.
“Eli.” I gave her my middle name, also not a lie.
“Eli…” she repeated, watching me consideringly. “Are you sure we haven’t met? You seem so familiar.”
I had to get out of there before she figured me out. “I, uh, gotta hit the road, but thanks for the dance, princess.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I spun on my heels and all but ran for the terrace doors, snatching my helmet up and shoving it onto my head as I fled. I zig-zagged through the crowd inside the ersatz ballroom, and was out the front door and racing down the marathon of steps in no time flat.
“Wait, Eli!” Katie’s voice sounded from somewhere behind me, somewhere too close for comfort. I was only about halfway to the bottom, and I lost my concentration—and my footing. My foot slid out of my boot, and I stumbled down a handful of steps before catching myself.
I froze, unsure if I should go back for my boot or just keep going. The click-clacking of Katie’s heels on the stone steps as she descended after me made up my mind for me. I righted myself and took off again, limping my way down the stairs two at a time. Dad’s motorcycle seemed a hundred miles away, but I finally made it. I swung a leg over and kicked it upright in one smooth move. The engine turned over easily, and revved dramatically when I took off. I tried hard not to look at Katie on my way by, but my gaze drifted to her without my consent. She stood at the bottom of the steps, her expression both sad and confused, and for a moment, I considered staying, telling her the truth, risking my heart for the possibility that she might feel the same way about me as I felt about her.
But at the last second, I caught site of Brad coming down the steps behind her, and his arrival on the scene knocked me back into my place. Katie and I were from two different worlds, and I’d made a huge mistake forgetting that.