The Globe Academy took advantage of every opportunity to put on a show of fortune and circumstance. The Christmas Ball was no different. The Pre, Elementary, and Middle school buildings all had their own decorations, artificial snowmen glowing in the dark, reindeer popping from behind trees, familiar Christmas carols drifting with the freezing wind.
The high school had been transformed into a fantasy winter wonderland. Crystal snowflakes dripped from every protrusion, reflecting the thousands of strings of fairy lights woven into every nook and cranny of the courtyard. The Nutcracker played from invisible speakers, nearly drowned out by the giddy laughter of hundreds of teens swarming into the ballroom through the lobby.
“I didn’t know there was a ballroom,” Holly whispered, her eyes wide as she attempted to soak in every detail of the exclusive academy. Chiara shrugged, suppressing a shiver beneath Jay’s thick overcoat. She had tried to refuse his offer, but he had insisted and she bashfully acquiesced. Holly had put up more of a fight and Oliver had to shove his coat over her shoulders as she tried to run away. Now, though, she hugged it tightly around her.
“Me neither.” She glanced back at Jay and Oliver. The boys followed them closely. Their faces had morphed into their public visages, Oliver’s practiced wink flashing in every direction and Jay looking mildly disgusted by everything he observed. He raised his eyebrows, however, to Chiara’s quizzical glance. “Why aren’t there a million girls trying to get pictures with you?”
“Does that happen?” Holly gasped, spinning to walk backwards and join the conversation. Oliver caught her as she tripped over the silky skirt of her gown. She blushed heavily, yanking her arm from his hand and punching him. He laughed.
“On a regular basis, yeah.”
“But not today.” Chiara nodded to the crowds around them. They were given an unusual amount of space in which to move, which was a relief. Girls and boys alike gave them a wide berth, gaping as usual, pulling out cell phone and grabbing photos with obnoxious flashes of light, but no one lunged forward to grab a Collective member for a selfie.
Jay shrugged. “They’re probably disappointed.”
“Why?” Holly prompted. Oliver waggled his eyebrows at her.
“Because our dates are prettier than they are.”
Chiara stiffened ever so slightly, snapping her eyes forward again. She could have sworn that Felicity Reacher looked away as they made fleeting eye contact.
There was murder in those mascara hooded eyes.
“But we’re not -”
“Calm down,” Jay chuckled, rolling his eyes and sliding up to Chiara’s side. “A date to the Christmas Ball is just someone you go with. For the past three years, the boys have been our dates! People put too much pressure on this stupid dance.”
Chiara cast him a dry glance. “So you admit that it’s stupid?”
Jay shrugged. “Didn’t I before?” He took Chiara’s hand and hooked it into his elbow. She pulled away, but he held her fast. “Put on a face, like you’re above everyone.”
“Like what you do?”
“Yeah. And hold onto my arm. We’re going to make a show.”
Chiara looked down at her hand, clenched in the crook of his arm where he held it securely. Slowly, she released her fingers, letting them lie limp on his elbow. He nodded.
“Good. Show me your sour face.”
She met his eyes balefully. He chuckled.
“That is perfect! You look just like an Up. Now come on; after tonight, no one here will bother you again.”
Chiara felt her stomach roll as Jay gently guided her towards massive double doors on the fourth floor that she had always chosen to ignore. No one had dared attempt anything dangerous since the Collective became her personal bodyguards on campus, but there was no end to the deadly glares and whispers. People spit at her feet and referred to her as Downs at every turn. Chiara was relieved that she no longer had to be watching for death threats, but the general disgust towards her was getting exhausting.
Maybe this would be nice. Maybe it was time to put on a show of what she could do.
She wished all was well with Brody. He would have wanted to be a part of this.
Even Chiara could not hide her shock as they stepped through the double doors.
The ballroom arched high above their heads in a glistening dome, a crystal chandelier hanging from the highest point and blasting light in every direction. Candles in every corner played with the shadows on the marble floor, seeming to dance in perfect timing with the live orchestra in their corner as they played the Nutcracker in ethereal echoes through the whole room. Tables lined the back walls, laden with an impossible amount of food and beverages. Solemn servers in black suits and white aprons served eager teens on delicate china plates and in crystal goblets. A handful of couples were already on the dance floor, bouncing to the sophisticated rhythm of the classical pieces being played.
Chiara held her breath.
Somehow, she felt as if every eye was on her and her alone.
“You’re above them,” Jay breathed in her ear as he took his coat from her shoulders, draping it over the arm of a waiting, white-coated server. Chiara cleared her throat, adjusting her face. “Your smile should be an honor given to few. They should feel lucky you looked at them.”
“Do you have to think about that all the time?” Chiara muttered through her teeth as Jay guided her down the shallow steps to the marble floor. “I’m literally going to be trying not to trip on this crazy dress the entire time!”
“Well, you’re doing great so far.” Jay shrugged, sending a wink back over his shoulder. Chiara glanced back. Oliver was leading Holly to the food table, her eyes wide with eagerness. She giggled under her breath.
“They’re actually really cute together.”
“Yeah, I’d say he’s smitten. Thankfully, Holly doesn’t have to worry about making the same impression that you do.”
Chiara raised a suspicious eyebrow. “You saying that she’s embarrassing you?”
Jay frowned incredulously. “No. Well, I can see why you would think that.”
Chiara looked to the voice and grinned at Dante’s unveiled glee as he wove his way through the crowd to them, shaking a girl Chiara did not recognize off of his arm as he went. Dante bent to kiss Chiara’s hand, smiling all the while.
“You look just like a princess!”
She laughed, shaking him off good-naturedly. “Thank you!”
Dante nodded to Jay. “You look like a princess, too.”
Jay rolled his eyes as Chiara laughed again. “Appreciate it. Come on, let’s get our ladies some hot apple cider.”
Dante moaned in pleasure, leading the way down the table. Oliver and Holly had already disappeared.
“That stuff is addicting!”
Chiara reached to pick out her own crystal goblet, but a server beat her to it, quickly pouring her a steaming drink from a silver ladle. Jay and Dante exchanged a whisper as Chiara turned back to them, blowing across the top of her drink. She raised her eyebrows when they stopped.
“Nothing important.” Jay glanced about the crowd, his forehead tight with the beginnings of a frown. “I thought they weren’t going to have cameras this year.”
Chiara scanned the crowd and caught sight of four photographers, all floating about the room and snapping photos of various groups of smiling teens. Dante grunted his agreement.
“Yeah, not after last year’s senior prank. That got out of hand. Not to say it wasn’t funny, but your mom was furious when -”
“And she’s not going to be any happier if she sees me in the photos, especially with you guys.” Chiara met Jay’s concerned gaze. “What do you suggest?”
She whirled, shocked at the high register of the voice. Another familiar figure threw herself into her arms, nearly spilling a glass of clear liquid across Dante’s suit. Chiara sniffed and her nose wrinkled.
“Ana, have you been drinking?”
Analisa pulled away giggling, swirling her glass beneath Chiara’s nose. The girl’s eyes were glazed and her cheeks flushed nearly the same shade of pink as her frilly cupcake dress.
“Jus a…jus a little! Iss Chrissmas! A girl’s gotta…have fun cause it’s Chrismas! No homework!” She winked clumsily at Jay. “Right, Newhall? Chi…Chiara doesn’t have to…get all shtrict with…English and stuff.” She thrust the glass in his face and he backpedaled a step. “Want some?”
He shoved it away, shooting her a crippling glare. “How dare you smuggle illegal substance on campus?”
Analisa sniffed, rolling her eyes and pulling back her glass. “Well, fine, you coulda jus said…you didn’t want any. Didn’t have to…get all personal.” She stumbled away, giggling again. Chiara released a low groan in her chest, clenching her jaw.
“She still has a long way to go,” she breathed. Jay sighed lightly.
“Don’t worry about her. She’ll get caught eventually. I’m still thinking about the cameras. Why don’t you and Dante head out onto the balcony and get out of sight? I’ll get us some food and join you in a minute.”
Chiara slowly nodded, looking out over the room again. “Where are Holly and Oliver?”
Dante shook his head, hooking her hand through his arm and guiding her across the room as Jay staid to order.
“Oliver will be taking care of her. They’ll get the hint eventually and find us.”
“I don’t want Holly to feel abandoned.”
Dante raised his eyebrows at her. “Do you think Oliver will let her feel abandoned?”
Chiara allowed herself a rueful chuckle, shrugging and clinging to Dante as he split through a group of chattering friends who fell silent.
“I guess not. He’s good at making people feel wanted. I just don’t…I don’t want her to get her hopes up.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that, Cheech. The four of us all keep each other accountable when we can, and especially when it’s important.” He nodded meaningfully at Chiara. “When it comes to you and Holly, we count it important. I’ll be the first in line to beat Ollie up if he hurts Holly.”
Chiara felt a warm glow settle in her stomach and she clung to it, feeding it. These boys were good to each other, and the trust that they would continue to be good to her, and now to Holly, was growing stronger and easier to accept.
She took a sip of her apple cider.
“Watch your elbow!”
Chiara thrust her arm down again, holding the goblet close to her. “Sorry,” she mumbled. Dante had already spun to face the speaker. His eyes narrowed.
“Miss Reacher, you might want to watch where you put your big head.”
“Dante,” Chiara breathed. Felicity sighed, slowly turning from her tight circle of flawless girls and a stunningly handsome young man in a shiny black suit. She patted Dante’s arm and he yanked away.
“One day, Mr. Vaughan,” she entreated softly. Her pitying voice fooled no one and Chiara glanced up to cast her a baleful glance. Felicity met her eyes coldly, the jeweled eye shadow surrounding her gorgeous eyes extremely distracting as it caught the light of the chandelier. “You will see this fake for who she is.” She reached forward and flicked a disdainful finger through the glittering white, gauze material of Chiara’s flowing skirt, a sharp contrast to Felicity’s satin black gown. “A gold-digging commoner.”
Chiara felt Dante tense around her and she clenched her hand around his arm.
“I don’t want attention,” she breathed in his ear. He inclined his face to her. “I’m just going to go to the balcony. This was a bad idea.”
She swept past him, sliding through groups of whispering friends, clutching her apple cider to her chest, desperately trying to look small.
The balcony was small, not a place for much socializing and therefore nearly uninhabited. Chiara wrapped her hands around her arms as a chill breeze pierced the gauze sleeves of her dress, staring at the back of the head of the sole figure leaning against the rail.
Dark, cinnamon curls brushed the pressed collar of a bright white suit jacket.
This was a set-up.
Brody glanced over his shoulder and his eyebrows shot up.