As the song ended, Linus politely extracted himself from the arms of a lovely but clingy Marksinna in her early teens, and he came over to where I was standing with Ember and Tilda. His cheeks were flushed, but he had a goofy, lopsided grin plastered on his face.
“How are you doing?” I asked Linus as he reached us.
“Good. I mean, I think I am.” He ran a hand through his dark hair and his smile turned sheepish. “Did I seem to be making any mistakes?”
“No, you look like you’re doing really good,” I assured him. “Are you having a nice time?”
“Yeah. It’s a little weird dancing with so many strangers, especially when I’ve never been that into dancing, but most of the people are nice.” He glanced back toward where his parents were seated at a table. “And my parents seem really proud.”
“They are,” I said.
Linus turned back to me, his eyes twinkling. “Are you having fun? You look kinda left out here on the sidelines.”
“I’m having fun.” I smiled to prove it to him.
“Why don’t you come dance with me?” Linus suggested. “Cut loose for a minute.”
“Thank you for asking, but I don’t think I should.” I demurred as graciously as I could. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
“Not even for one song?” His eyebrows lifted as he stared down hopefully at me, making him appear more like an excited puppy than a teenage boy.
I shook my head ruefully. “I’m afraid not.”
“I’ll dance with you,” Ember piped in and stepped closer to him.
“Ember,” I admonished her, but Linus had already extended his arm to her.
She waved me off as she looped her arm through his. “It’s one song. It’ll be fine.”
“That’s the spirit.” Linus grinned and led her out to the dance floor.
I looked to Tilda for support, hoping she would back me up even though Ember had already disappeared into the crowd and it’d be too late to stop her. But Tilda just shrugged, still swaying her hips along to the music.
“Let them have their fun,” she said, smiling as she watched them twirl clumsily away from us.
“Ember is such a rebel sometimes.” I stood on my tiptoes, craning my neck in an attempt to keep my eyes on Linus and Ember as they weaved in between other couples.
“They’re fine,” Ridley said. I’d been so busy watching Linus and Ember that I hadn’t noticed Ridley come up beside me. “I doubt anyone will even notice her dancing. Everyone’s having fun, and most of the royals are getting drunk on wine.”
“Linus actually asked Bryn to dance first, but she declined,” Tilda told him, ratting on me even though I knew I’d done the right thing.
She had a mischievous glint in her eyes—parties like this always brought it out in her. While she hadn’t had anything to drink tonight, Tilda seemed to get drunk on good music and good dancing. Her relaxed elegance made me feel so rigid in comparison.
“You probably should’ve said yes. He could actually use a lesson in dance moves.” Ridley motioned to where Linus stumbled over Ember’s foot, but she helped him keep his balance.
“In private I’ll give him a few pointers,” I said. “But it wouldn’t be proper here. He’s my charge. I shouldn’t do anything that might blur the lines of professionalism.”
“I love it when you talk clean to me, quoting training manuals like sonnets,” Ridley teased, but I found his usual flirtation off-putting since I didn’t know how to respond.
Seeing him with Juni last night forced me to realize that I had some type of feelings for him. That left me unsure of how to act around him, so I’d rather be around him as little as I possibly could. At least until the feelings went away. And they had to eventually, right?
“There’s nothing wrong with being professional,” I told him coolly with eyes straight ahead, staring at the dance floor.
“There’s nothing wrong with dancing either.” Ridley moved so he was standing in front of me, forcing me to look at him. “Come on. Why don’t you dance with me?”
“We’re working,” I replied quickly, making him smirk.
“It’s a party, and everyone’s dancing. And as the Rektor, I am your boss.” He held out his hand to me.
“So this is an order?” I asked, eyeing his outstretched hand and hating how tempted I was to take it.
“If I say no, will you still dance with me?” he asked.
Tilda elbowed me gently in the side. “Just go dance, Bryn.”
Without thinking, I reached out and took his hand. His hand easily enveloped mine, and it sent flutters through my stomach, which I tried to suppress. His smile widened, and as he led me away, I glanced back over my shoulder at Tilda, who smiled reassuringly at me.
Once we’d lost ourselves in the sea of well-dressed trolls, Ridley stopped and I put my hand on his shoulder. I was careful to keep some distance between us, but when he put his hand on the small of my back, he pulled me closer to him.
“This isn’t so bad, right? Nobody’s gawking at us or chasing us with pitchforks,” Ridley said, smiling down at me as we danced in time with a dramatic cover of “Love Is Blindness.”
“Not yet, anyway,” I admitted.
I glanced around just to be sure we weren’t getting any dirty looks, but nobody really seemed to be paying us any mind. But I supposed that, based on the formal way both Ridley and I were dressed, and the fact that there were so many royals here from other kingdoms who didn’t know each other, they didn’t realize that we didn’t belong here, dancing alongside them.
Ember spotted us through a break in the crowd, and her jaw dropped. Instinctively, I tried to pull away from Ridley, but his hand was unyielding and warm on my back, holding me to him.
“So what’s going on with you?” Ridley asked, and when I looked up, his smile had fallen away and his dark eyes were strangely serious.
“Nothing’s going on.” I tried to brush him off with an uneasy smile.
“I feel like you’re mad at me.”
I hedged my answer and lowered my eyes. “Why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know. But you’ve been giving me the cold shoulder all night.” He paused. “You’ve barely even looked at me.”
“It’s not like I spend all my time staring at you,” I said, finding it hard to look up at him even now.