He was being dragged to this thing. He knew it. His friends knew it. It still didn’t stop them from dragging him to it, but he was sure he was about to despise every minute of it and Ray promised himself he’d make no effort to hide that. And that he’d drag his best buddy, Derek, to the most boring book release in return. Yeah, that’ll show him, giving him a taste of his own medicine.
But in the meantime, Ray was still being dragged to this thing. He wasn’t even entirely sure where he was being dragged to. It was Halloween, but he’d been told it wasn’t really a Halloween party. It was more like a masquerade, more like a solid excuse for chicks to play mysterious and make it easy for Derek to score. In what concerned him, Ray had drawn the line at having to wear a stupid mask. He already felt silly enough for even going in the first place.
He ran a comb through his hair to smooth it out and put on a beige jacket. This was the most effort he was willing to put into dressing up for the so-called masquerade. Christ, he couldn’t wait to come back to his cozy apartment, cook himself some pasta and finish the book he’d started earlier today. Yeah, so maybe life as a librarian was “boring as watching grass grow”, as Derek liked to put it, but Ray enjoyed it. He was a loner and he was fine with the quietness in which he constantly found himself. Unlike Derek. Loud, outgoing, reckless Derek. Their friendship, like most true friendships, was an absolute mystery.
Ray sighed and grabbed his keys, walking out the door and heading out to meet his destiny.
“Dude,” Derek greeted Ray with extended arms and an incredulous look glued to his face. “It’s a masquerade. The point is to wear masks. It’s Halloween, Raymond.”
Ray rolled his eyes and glared at his best friend.
“Yes, mom,” he mocked Derek using his full name. “I know it’s Halloween.” He drew the quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “But do I strike you as the kind of guy who puts on masks?”
Derek pursed his lips and Ray could see his eyes narrow through the ridiculous golden mask he was wearing. Eventually, Derek cocked his head to one side like he was watching a clumsy puppy and threw his arm over Ray’s shoulder.
“Oh, Raymond,” he sighed.
“Stop calling me that,” Ray shot him a tight smile.
“Sweet little Raymond,” Derek ignored him. “I’m trying here, but you need to help me out, man.”
“Tying to what?” Ray rolled his eyes. “Not tripping over your tongue while chasing off miniskirts tonight?”
“Funny,” Derek grinned, not bothering to deny it. “On the contrary, Raymond.”
“For the love of God, stop calling me that before someone hears you,” Ray tried to reason with him, but Derek cut him off, clearly on a wave.
“What I’m talking about, my friend, is that we need to get you a life. You need to loosen up a bit.” He paused and let go of Ray’s shoulders after a solid pat on the back, then he rubbed his palms together, smiling excitedly. “Now, let’s see, let’s see. Where do we start?”
“Can I go now?” Ray groaned, even though he knew the battle was long since lost, and he had to admit this constant bickering with Derek always delighted him in some weird, twisted way. Because this wasn’t at all the first conversations they’ve had on the subject.
Derek didn’t seem to have heard him.
“You go get us some drinks,” Derek appointed him. “Something strong. And when I say strong, Raymond, I mean vodka kinda strong, not root beer. In the meantime, your good buddy Derek is gonna find you a lady for the evening.”
Ray pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m not a teenager who drinks root beer, stop talking about yourself in third person because it’s weird, and do I even stand any chance for you to stop calling me Raymond?”
“Nope,” Derek smirked. “Go get vodka.”
Ray finally gave in, since he was hopeless against Derek. He’d known him for years now, and if there was any certainty about him, it was that he was unstoppable when it came to fun nights out.
He walked to the bar and sat in line to get drinks. It looked like it was gonna take a while, since the favorite hobby of college students was occasional alcohol poisoning, especially now that it was Halloween. Ray sighed. He hoped that maybe a touch of alcohol in his system would improve his mood, if only for Derek’s sake, who really wanted to have some fun. But for now, this really wasn’t his cup of tea. He was surrounded by long legs coming out of ridiculously short skirts, by girls whose masks hid more than their clothing did, and by the men who looked at them like hungry wolves. There were little occasions when he’d felt more out of place, Ray thought.
He ran a hand through his hair and sighed, his eyes turning slightly, absent-mindedly to his left.
And then he saw her.
Later on, he’d wonder what exactly about her had caught his attention. Ray wasn’t the kind of guy who checked girls out on a regular basis. Maybe it had been her discreet presence. Maybe it had been the bored way she was sipping her drink. Maybe it had been the clear white, simple, backless dress she was wearing, revealing enough to be sexy, without exaggerating it, like every other girl in the room. Maybe it was the way he could tell she was beautiful –not hot, truly beautiful, in the most literal meaning possible— even underneath the intricate silver mask covering her face.
Ray’s eyes lingered on her for a second longer before shaking his head slowly and turning around. It wasn’t like he was gonna go talk to her or anything. He didn’t do well with females. On that note, he had to make sure he didn’t mention it to Derek, or he’d make him approach her. And he knew well enough how that was gonna go and how he was gonna mess up and end with a drink in his face. Most likely.
He pursed his lips and dared to cast another glance in the girl’s direction. And as if feeling Ray’s gaze on her, she slightly raised her eyes and, for the briefest of seconds, two pairs of eyes met in a dim lit room. One green, one as blue as the summer sky. And then she shot him a small half-smile.
Ray let out a breath and turned his head quickly. Boy, could this go all kinds of wrong. He was a socially awkward librarian and she was stunning and excruciatingly out of his league. High school had taught him that much. And college. And the years after that. Basically, 26 years of being a nerd who found himself on an alarming number of disastrous dates.
The line was moving painfully slow and Ray felt absurdly self-conscious. Suddenly, that drink didn’t sound like a bad idea anymore.
Ray flinched, but thankfully, the voice didn’t belong to him. He lacked the guts. He subtly turned his head to take in the scene happening a few feet away from him. The words had been slurred and the speaker was a guy who was stumbling on his feet, but it seemed that, even though he was so drunk Ray was pretty sure he didn’t remember his own name, he was able to be appreciative enough when it came to that girl’s looks. Or maybe Ray was giving him too much credit. Perhaps he just went for what he assumed would be an easy target, sitting alone at the bar.
The girl didn’t give any sign to have heard him. The guy tried to lean on the counter, nearly falling down in the process.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he slurred.
“I’ve already got one,” the girls spoke, and Ray smiled a little at the sound of her soft voice. It somehow suited the way she held herself.
The drunk leaned a little towards her, but she stood her ground, lifting her chin and fixating him with her gaze. Had he been sober, Ray was pretty sure the poor bastard would’ve backed down.
“Then how about you give me your number?” he suggested, and Ray admired the way the girl kept that smile glued to her face, like she wasn’t intimidated at all, but her stiff body posture told him she wasn’t exactly comfortable with the closeness.
“Sorry,” she replied. “I still need it.”
Ray stifled a chuckle. Beautiful and witty. Double combo.
The guy still didn’t catch the hint and, seeing as he wasn’t getting any visible results, he threw an arm over her shoulders and Ray saw the smile slowly fade from the girl’s lips.
“Aw, come on, doll-face,” the drunk smirked. “My car’s just outside. We can head back to my place and have some fun, just the two of us.”
“Sorry,” she repeated. “I’m actually here with someone.”
“She’s with me.”
This time, Ray realized and nearly choked on his tongue, the voice belonged to him. What. The hell. Was he thinking?
The drunk turned around and checked him out, but Ray’s eyes were fixated on the girl. Their gazes met and he found himself unable to drop it this time.
“Say what, mate?” the guy slurred, frowning, and Ray simply prayed he wouldn’t pick a fight. He really didn’t want to make a scene. And while his fighting experience was hardly worth mentioning, he was pretty sure even his skinny ass could take out a guy whose sense of balance was highly disturbed.
Ray cleared his throat and managed to pull off a smile for the girl. Her lips slowly curved into a smile of her own and he knew exactly why he stepped in.
“I said the lady’s with me,” Ray said more confident this time. “Is there a problem here?”
The drunk looked from Ray to the girl and most likely decided he couldn’t rely on his reflexes well enough to engage himself in a fight he couldn’t win, so he shot Ray a dumb grin.
“Not at all, pal,” he said. “Just a misunderstanding, then. See ya around.”
He didn’t wait for an answer before turning to leave, clumsily patting Ray on the shoulder. That left Ray and the girl alone. He gulped. He hadn’t planned on so far. He took a step closer and smiled tightly. The girl, however, didn’t seem shy at all.
She cocked her head to one side and watched him curiously, and Ray shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Since when do heroes come with side-parted hairstyles?” she spoke in the same soft, velvet voice, looking at his hair, and Ray found himself barking a laugh. It was true, a haircut was long overdue and he never got around to it, so styling it felt like the most valid option at the moment.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Since when do damsels in distress come with such a snarky attitude?”
She chuckled, a gentle sound that made Ray’s lips curve into a smile involuntarily.
“Do I strike you as a damsel in distress?” she narrowed her eyes at him playfully.
“Not at all, doll-face,” he mocked her, using the nickname the drunk had called her earlier. “I just thought I might be of service as the hero on call.”
“Thank you for that, by the way,” she smiled whole-heartedly, and Ray learned it was so damn easy to get enraptured by the clear blue of her eyes. He’d never seen prettier blue eyes than hers. They looked like the summer sky on the clearest of August mornings.
“Don’t mention it,” Ray returned the smile and dared to sit next to her.
“Are you going to offer to buy me a drink, too?” she teased, and Ray chuckled.
“Nah, as you’ve carefully pointed out, you already have one.”
She pursed her lips and looked at him between her lashes, her blue eyes holding him in place like a marble statue and his breath caught in his throat.
“I could use another,” she prompted him, then leaned a little forward so that she could whisper. “Take the hint, dude.”
Ray let out a breathless laugh. “Okay then. May I buy you a drink, miss?”
She smirked. “I thought you’d never ask. Why, of course, mister.”
Ray ordered two martinis and turned to her. “I’m Ray, by the way.”
She giggled, the same soft, clear, articulate sound that tickled his ears. Sitting there, in her white backless dress, with her silver mask looking like a contemporary Cinderella, she looked more like mirage. Pretty, witty and straightforward.
“You do look like a ray of sunshine,” she remarked, and Ray pursed his lips, but made no comment.
“What about you?” he question, seeing as she didn’t look like she was gonna introduce herself. “What’s your name, doll-face?”
She rolled her eyes, but kept her smile plastered on her face. “Not telling.” Ray’s eyebrows shot up and she laughed again. “Why, it’s called a masquerade, Ray of Sunshine. Where would the mystery be then?”
Ray watched her curiously for a few seconds. “How’s that fair? You already know my name.”
She simply shrugged. “That was your mistake. It’s more fun for you, though.” He looked at her expectantly, and her smile widened. “You get to choose how to call me.”
He simply watched her, not saying anything, and he realized she was coming up with a game he was willing to play just to keep her in sight. She intrigued him. And he was a hard man to intrigue, because seeing as he liked to read and reading was what he did for a living, he’d developed some sort of ability to read people. But her, he couldn’t decipher. It was like his senses were blurred and all there was in sight were a pair of clear blue eyes beneath a silver mask framed by golden curls. And he found himself wanting to lift his hands and remove that mask so that he could take in her delicate figure.
Their martinis arrived and she took a sip out of hers, never taking her eyes off his, and he remembered she was in the middle of making a point.
“You get to be creative,” she continued. “You get to make me be however you want me to be.”
None of them smiled, the entire conversation now happening between two pairs of intense eyes staring deep into each other, each trying to read into the other. “That sounds an awful lot like wishful thinking to me,” Ray commented.
“We get to evade reason from time to time,” she replied. “One night a year. The night when the lines are unclear.” Her lips curved into a mischievous smile. “Would you be willing to give in to wishful thinking for one night, Ray of Sunshine?”
Ray wasn’t sure what she was implying. But he realized he didn’t care. For once, his brain shut down and his body took control. And his hands twitched to long and tuck a strand of her blonde hair beneath her ear. His eyes were unable to leave hers. His lips could not stop smiling. His reason was reluctant, but there was no space for reason in the little space the intensity of this girl’s persona managed to crawl. She had the means to get under his skin and she did exactly that.
“Lead the way,” he spoke, clear, with more certainty than he’d ever spoken.
The girl smiled widely. “This should be fun.”
Before he got the chance to speak again, he saw a group of people approaching them.
“Hey,” one of them spoke, and Ray realized she was talking to the girl. The girl. He did need to come up with a better nickname. “We were just heading back home. Ethan’s gonna call us a cab. You coming?”
The girl looked from Ray to her friends and the same wicked smile from earlier lit up her face. “Nah. You guys go ahead. I’ll stay a little longer.” She spoke without taking her eyes off Ray, and he knew it was an invitation. He returned her smile and the deal was sealed. They were indeed going to have some fun. And while Ray was a little frustrated by the whole mystery surrounding her, it gave him a sense of excitement he’d never felt. The excitement of not knowing what was about to happen next.
The girl’s friends looked between them curiously, but eventually said their goodbyes and left them alone. The girl turned her blue eyes back to him and Ray found himself speaking without thinking. Unprecedentedly.
“Sky,” he whispered, and she just raised an eyebrow. “Your eyes look like the sky is trapped in them.” She waited for him to continue, still confused, and only then did he realize where he was going with this. “You said I get to choose how to call you. Can I call you Sky?”
She smiled so wide her eyes glimmered and he realized how well suited their nicknames were. The Sky and the Ray of Sunshine.
“I love it,” she said, and then she took him aback by daringly taking his hand and pulling him off his seat. “Now shut up and dance with me, Ray of Sunshine.”