Hleo

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Chapter 32

A table had been set up in the expansive foyer of the East Halton Country Club. Two people dressed in formal eveningwear stood behind it, waiting to take tickets. I drew in a deep, calming breath and walked over to them. After pulling the ticket from my clutch purse and handing it off to one of the greeters, I made my way down the hallway towards the ballroom.

“Hannah, wait.” Ms. Woods stood off to the side. She wore a plum-colored evening gown, and her light brown hair was up in a French twist. It was strange to see my free-spirited teacher looking so elegant, but she cleaned up beautifully.

“Oh hi, Ms. Woods.” I pasted on a smile and walked over to her.

“Everyone needs a mask. You almost made it past me without taking one.” Ms. Woods motioned behind her, and for the first time I noticed a table set up in a little alcove covered with different masquerade masks.

“I’ve had my freshmen working on these for weeks.” She ran her fingers lightly over the closest mask.

“They look professional,” I observed, as I looked them over. The detail and work that must have gone into each one was impressive. They came in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors. There were masks with feathers, some with glitter or sequins, and others had ribbons. Each had its own unique design. I carefully scanned the table, trying to select one that would match my dress.

“I think this one would be perfect. I believe the girl that made it actually modeled it after the mask in one of your paintings.” Ms. Woods picked up an ivory mask that had a soft pink glitter scroll pattern running over it. It was cut to cover just around the eyes and nose and had soft pink ribbons on either side used to attach it to the wearer’s face. The shape of the mask and the scroll pattern did look similar to the one in my painting of the couple escaping up the flight of stairs together.

“Wow, it’s really well done.” I took the mask from my teacher and examined it more closely.

Ms. Woods offered to do it up for me and I turned around so she could tie the ribbons, although I wasn’t sure if I would wear it long. It made it a little hard to see peripherally, and in my dress I didn’t need anything making me less coordinated than I normally was.

“Don’t tell any of the others, but I really think your paintings are the highlight of the evening.” Ms. Woods finished tying the ribbons.

“Thanks, that’s so nice of you. I can’t wait to see them on display.”

“They look great. The decorators have done fantastic work. I’m sure the pieces will bring in a lot of money.”

“I hope so.” I spun around to face her.

“Oh, you look so pretty.” She clapped her hands together. “That mask was a good choice. Now go enjoy the gala.”

“Thanks, Ms. Woods. You look really nice too.” I stepped away from the table as other party-goers made their way over to peruse the mask selection. “I’ll see you later.” I waved and went off to find Katie and Luke.

I had never been inside the East Halton Country Club before, but the ballroom looked amazing. Antique-looking chandeliers hung from a twenty-foot ceiling, their soft glow creating the perfect atmosphere for the event. The room was decorated in elegant creams and beiges. Carved wood paneling covered the walls, and rich gold and cream tapestry curtains were pulled to the sides of the windows that ran floor to ceiling along the back wall that faced the golf course.

The gala designers had added to the enchanted feel of the place with their choices for decorations. Tiny lights surrounded by yards of tulle twinkled everywhere, creating the feel of walking almost in a dream. Round tables graced the perimeter of the space, and the chandeliers and twinkle lights reflected off a large marble dance floor in the center of the room, sparkling like crushed diamonds. A dozen or so couples glided across it to the music that came provided by a full piece band including violin, mandolin and trumpet. My paintings hung on the walls with the other students’, displayed in such a way that they drew the guests’ eyes from anywhere in the room.

Quite a few people already mingled in the ballroom: more fellow students than I had expected, and lots of prominent business people and other residents from the community. I searched the crowd looking for Katie and Luke, Kristen, Heather, or even Ryan. They had all bought tickets to show their support for my artwork. I desperately wanted to find someone I knew that I could hang out with until Ethan showed up. If he showed up. I tried not to think about what it meant that an assassin had been posing as my father’s teaching assistant, or what sort of danger Ethan could be facing if he found her.

“Hey, there you are.” I heard Katie’s voice from behind me.

I whirled around to see Katie, Kristen and Heather approaching me from across the dance floor. I gave them an impressed smile as I took in the sophisticated, polished version of my friends.

Katie’s mother had obviously been able to fix her vintage bridesmaid’s dress as it looked fantastic. She’d paired the deep chocolate color with a gold and dark pink mask that covered her eyes and nose the same way mine did.

“Hi guys, you look amazing.” I pushed aside the ache in my chest over what had happened earlier with Ethan, determined to enjoy this evening with my friends.

“Katie wasn’t exaggerating about that dress.” Heather wore a black-feathered mask, and a sleek black evening gown that sparkled in the light when she stepped forward to get a closer look at Ethan’s sister’s dress.

I looked down self-consciously, and smoothed the skirt folds a little. “I’m just glad it fits.”

“Where’s Ethan?” Kristen’s strapless periwinkle gown swished as she scanned the room. She had matched the dress with a silver and light blue mask that swept up on the one side in a slight wing.

“Um, he had a family emergency. He dropped me off here and is going to go deal with it and get back as soon as he can.” I glanced toward the doors, wishing he would come through them, although he was probably still on his way to the university.

“What? You’ve got to be kidding me.” Katie threw her hands in the air. “Did his eyes at least pop out of his head when he saw you?” She sounded disappointed for me.

I lifted my shoulders. “He seemed to think I looked nice, but I’m not sure it had the effect we were hoping for.” The moment our eyes had first locked on each other at my house, and the way his pulse had pounded beneath my fingers, played through my mind. The words “she’s just a job” tarnished the memory and my stomach lurched as the truth hit me once again.

“Then it’s his loss. Let’s not worry about it; we’re here to have some fun, right?” Kristen dismissed Ethan’s actions with a flippant wave of her hand.

“Right.” I pushed back my shoulders as I followed my friends back to their table. Besides Luke and Ryan, Kristen’s date, Logan Thomas, an ex-boyfriend of hers who now attended Hartford University, and Kevin O’Connor, a friend of Heather’s from the debate team, were already seated. Ryan had invited a freshman named Trish O’Malley to accompany him.

The guys were all dressed in modern style black tuxes. They were playing some sort of table football with the salt and pepper shakers, while Trish sat beside Ryan, a huge smile on her face beneath the yellow and green mask she’d chosen to match her yellow dress.

“Oh!” Luke cheered, giving Logan a high five as a square napkin football went sailing through their makeshift condiment goal post.

“What’s that, 7-2 now?” Logan asked.

“It’s the stupid mask; it makes aiming impossible,” Ryan grumbled, pushing the red and black winged mask he’d selected up onto his forehead.

“We’re doing fine in ours,” Luke shot back, pointing at Logan’s silver mask and tapping his dark blue one.

“Whatever.” Ryan looked annoyed until he saw the four of us. “Hey Hannah, where’s Ethan?” he asked as we settled into the empty seats.

“On his way.” I didn’t feel like explaining his absence again.

We grabbed some punch and appetizers and hung out at the table for a little while.

“Let’s dance.” Kristen stood up and tugged on Logan’s arm as lively music pumped in the background. He appeared happy to oblige, and the rest of us followed suit. We were on our way towards the sparkly marble floor when the fast song that had been playing came to an end and a slow song began. I glanced again towards the entrance of the ballroom, since I was without a dance partner at the moment, but they remained shut. I bit my lip as the other couples paired off and took to the dance floor. Logan pulled Kristen in close, while Heather and Kevin maintained a polite distance from each other. Ryan and Trish were close, but seemed a little shy with each other. Katie stopped for a second to look at me, and motioned that she and Luke would go wait with me at the table if I wanted, but I waved them on. Just because my life was crashing down around me didn’t mean my friends shouldn’t have fun and enjoy the festivities.

I wandered over to take a closer look at the artwork. All the paintings had been hung on the wall carefully, and special lighting installed over each piece accentuated it, giving the impression of an art gallery.

The decorators had placed my favorite painting, the one of the guy and girl escaping together up the stairs, between the other two. As I took the three pieces in, side by side, I couldn’t help but be pleased with how they had all turned out. I leaned in closer to the one of the balcony scene, scanning the figure of the guy and the girl together, enjoying a private moment, and then let my gaze fall on the painting of the group dancing. The time I’d taken to make sure the brushwork was accurate; that the shading and lighting were realistic and that there was appropriate depth to the pieces had been well worth it, but as I stepped back to take in all the pieces at once, I was drawn to the middle picture. My flash of inspiration, it had a spark to it that somehow made it more special than the other two. Could it be a real person? A protected from another era at an event similar to this one? A shiver worked its way up my spine.

“What a talented artist.” I had been completely lost in thought, and hadn’t heard anyone approaching. I spun around to see Adam standing beside me. He looked incredible. He wore a black, custom-fit tuxedo, designed to look as though it came from the same time period as Ethan’s. His hair was cut shorter than it had been when we ran into each other at the coffee shop, and he had on a beautifully handcrafted gold and green mask that accentuated his deep brown eyes.

“Thank you.” I tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, after this heartless beauty rejected my offer for this weekend, I agreed to escort my roommate’s girlfriend’s friend to this soiree to keep my mind off of her, but, lo and behold, here she stands before me, torturing me with her loveliness.” Adam threw me one of his devastating smiles.

“This is a town charity function but our school was invited, so it was the event I was talking about when I told you I was busy.” I lifted a hand and motioned to the activity going on around us.

“That’s perfectly fine; no explanation is needed. I’m just glad I chose an evening of trying to make an ex-boyfriend jealous over staying in.” Adam nodded toward a couple making out in a dark corner of the ballroom. “I see her strategy paid off.”

I grinned, and realized that we were slowly moving closer and closer to the dance floor.

“So, would the most beautiful girl in the room share at least one dance with me?” Adam reached out and grasped my waist, guiding me onto the marble floor as he took my hand in his.

His fingers were warm and strong, like Ethan’s. My jaw tightened. I wouldn’t think about Ethan, not now. An adorable, charming guy who seemed genuinely interested in me held me in his arms. Ethan could go off and play bodyguard; what did I care?

Still, I couldn’t help wishing it were Ethan’s hands that circled my waist, and twirled me with expertise.

“You’re quite the dancer.” I forced my attention back on

Adam. He was leading me in actual dance steps, not just shifting back and forth from foot to foot like most of the other couples on the dance floor.

“I’ve picked up a few moves over the years.”

“Yes, because you’re so old.” I laughed.

“An old soul,” he replied, and he pulled me closer, staring deeply into my eyes through his mask.

My heart beat faster, and my palms grew sweaty; hopefully Adam wouldn’t notice.

I caught a glimpse of Katie peering over at us from the other side of the dance floor. Even through the mask, I could tell that her eyebrows had shot up. Kristen and Heather followed her gaze and looked over as well. I just smiled and gave them a little wave. I would introduce Adam and explain who he was after our dance. I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do when and if Ethan showed up. Nervous butterflies began to dance in my stomach.

“So …” I wanted to keep the moment from getting too intense. I hadn’t expected this, and I wasn’t sure how to react if he tried anything, but I couldn’t think of anything more to add. Of course there were a thousand thoughts slamming around in my head, ranging from do you really like me? To what about Ethan, what if he does care? But no way in a million years was I going to share any of those with Adam.

“You know, you really are beautiful,” Adam commented, a new seriousness in his voice replacing the usual carefree charm.

“Thank you.” I glanced down at my dress, a little nervous about where this sudden display of sincerity was leading.

“No really, you are. You have a sort of classic, timeless look to you. You don’t see that very often today, too much makeup and fake tans.” His tone shifted back to charming.

“I don’t really have the skin for a fake tan; it makes me look like a tangerine,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.

Adam simply drew me closer, until our faces were inches from each other. I took a deep breath. Stay calm, Hannah. Was this really happening? Was I really in some sort of fairytale, where I ended up with the mysterious, charming prince?

We danced in silence for a few minutes, and I tried to just enjoy the moment. As Adam gracefully turned me around, the door to the banquet hall opened and in burst Ethan. Adam and I were on the opposite side of the room, a crowd of people between us, but our eyes locked. He looked upset, and seemed to grow more so as we gazed at each other. Adam spun me, and the spell was broken. Guilt churned in the pit of my stomach, but I forced it away. After all, I was just Ethan’s job.

“Come on,” Adam declared. Before I could protest, he grabbed my hand and pulled me swiftly towards the back exit of the hall.

I wanted to say no, to tell him that I was meeting someone and I should really stay. Even though Adam was charming and nice, and one of the best-looking people I’d ever met, I couldn’t make myself care about him the way I cared about Ethan. It was crazy because I was just someone Ethan was supposed to make sure stayed alive until some unforeseen moment in the future, but I loved him, and I didn’t want to be with some other guy just for the sake of being with someone.

We wove our way through the crowd towards the hall doors, the dim lighting of the ballroom and the mask I had on making me feel a bit dizzy. I cast a glance over my shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of Ethan so he would see where I was going and not worry, but the mask made it impossible to get a good look. He was simply lost somewhere in a haze of people, twinkle lights and tulle.

We pushed through the doors and out into the back hallway. I had to squint as the fluorescent lights hit my eyes. Adam tugged me by the hand down the hallway and into a darkened stairwell that led to a back exit of the country club. We stopped at the top of the stairs and he pressed me up against the wall. For a second we just stared at each other; he had me cornered, and looked at me intensely. His arm was around my waist and my heart raced as he moved in slowly. He’s going to kiss me. But his face turned and his lips rested right by my ear as he whispered, “Hannah, I have to admit this has been pretty fun.”

I pulled back, completely confused by his words. He pushed his mask up onto his forehead. The expression on his face had completely changed. Now he looked arrogant, almost smug. This new look scared me a little, and I tried to make sense of his words.

“What are you talking about?” I tried to free myself from him, but he twisted both of my arms behind my back, locking my wrists together with incredible force.

“As it turns out, I need to come clean with you about a few things. I’m not really here to date you.” Adam’s voice hardened to match his new look. I was too shocked to respond. What in the world he was saying?

“More like to kill you. It’s a shame really. You were so friendly, so ready to welcome me into your world. I expected you to be a bit more cautious. On the rare occasion one of you ‘chosen’ people finds out who we are, you start to act like death is lurking around every corner. Which I suppose it is in most cases.” His laugh was cold. Terror tightened my throat until I could barely breathe. I struggled in his arms, but he only tightened his grip on my wrists. I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was happening. Adam was the one Ethan was here to protect me from, and I had practically handed him a knife and told him to have at it.

Horror washed over me. “You’re one of the Bana.” I managed to whisper, staring into the dark eyes that were hard as steel.

“So, Ethan has been breaking the rules. I thought so, but to have you confirm it, well, you have no idea how gratifying it is.” Adam chuckled, and then tilted his head towards the hallway, as though he’d heard something I hadn’t. “It’s time that you and I got going.” He yanked on my arm and started to drag me down the stairs.

“It’s Ethan, isn’t it?” I fought against his iron grip. Adam didn’t reply, just kept pulling me down into the shadows of the darkened stairwell. I may as well have been a rag doll for all the resistance I was able to offer. We were already to the bottom and heading out the door before I had to presence of mind to yell.

“Ethan, help!” I cried out as loudly as I could. I wasn’t sure if it was Ethan looking for me, or some random partygoer that Adam had heard, but I hoped whoever it was would respond to my desperate plea.

“Now, now Hannah, if you’re going to start yelling your head off, I’ll have to knock you out,” he threatened. We were halfway across the parking lot, heading for the woods that surrounded the East Halton Country Club. The moon was full in the sky, casting a luminescent glow over everything. Somehow that made the woods look that much darker and more foreboding. I craned my neck to look back at the door, desperate for someone to come and rescue me, but no one appeared.

Adam had me by one wrist now, and I was practically running to keep from being dragged behind him as we slipped into the woods. I fought against the sheer panic trying to overtake me. Was this really going to be the end? I had just started to get excited about the idea of having been marked for greatness of some kind. Would it all be over before I even found out what I had been meant to do?

Adam dragged me in and out of the trees. Branches slashed across my arms and face, and caught on my dress, tearing at the delicate material. It was almost impossible to see because I still had the stupid mask from the gala on. I wanted to grab it and rip it off so at least I could get some sense of our location, but Adam held me far too tight, and moved much too fast to give me even a second to do that. How were we able to move so quickly? And why weren’t we stumbling over bushes and trees more than we were? Then it dawned on me, we were on the path that led from the Country Club to the center of town, specifically to the library. A brief wave of hope washed over me. Maybe Adam wasn’t going to just kill me in the forest like some kind of animal. Maybe I had a little more time.

We were almost out of the woods now. Moonlight streamed through the branches as the trees thinned out again. I had so many questions: where were we going? What was Adam’s plan? And why did he have to kill me? But I could barely keep breathing, let alone get any words out. Adam seemed to be just fine, not tired from the pace in the least; if anything, he was maybe a little annoyed that I was slowing him down.

As we reached the edge of the woods he slowed for a moment, cocking his head to listen. A wicked smile spread across his lips. “Right on schedule.”

“What is?” I demanded. Why couldn’t he just tell me what was going on? What did it matter if I would be dead soon anyway?

“Ethan. He’s smart, but it took him a minute to figure out which direction we went,” Adam replied, and we made our way to the front of the library. I frantically scanned the street. The light from the lampposts illuminated the area and I searched for someone I could call to for help, but there wasn’t a soul around.

“You want him to find us?” I was completely confused. If I were going to kill someone, I wouldn’t want their protector to be on my heels. What could Adam possibly be thinking?

He just laughed as we climbed the familiar stone stairs. I turned for one last look behind me and caught my reflection in a storefront across the street. I gasped at the image looking back at me. It was the painting I had created for the dance; the scene was exactly the same. I was the mysterious girl in the beautiful dress and mask. My hair was curled and flowing down my back the way I had painted it, and Adam was the handsome figure grabbing the woman’s wrist and pulling her up the wide stairway. The streetlamp gave the image its sepia tone, and the fact that it was a reflection in glass explained its haziness.

I finally understood why the expression on the girl’s face, my face, had felt so wrong.

Because it wasn’t love; it was fear.

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