“Bryn. You know what I mean,” he insisted firmly, and I did.
I hadn’t meant to put a wall between us, but I really didn’t know how else to deal with things. He was apparently with Juni now, and even if he wasn’t, he was still my boss, and a tracker getting romantically involved with a Rektor was definitely a bad move, one that could cost us both our jobs. It opened up too many possibilities for corruption, manipulation, and nepotism.
So there was no way Ridley and I could ever be together, even if he wanted to. Or even if I wanted to, and I didn’t. Not really.
I finally willed myself to look at him, meeting his mahogany eyes, even though it made me flush with heat when I did. “I’m not mad at you. I promise.”
“If I did something to upset you, you can tell me,” he said in a low voice, distressed at the thought that he’d done something to hurt me. “That’s, like, the foundation of our friendship. We’re always honest with each other.”
“I am,” I lied as convincingly as I could.
“Good,” Ridley said, not because he believed me, but because he didn’t know how else to push me.
“Is this why you asked me to dance?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood. “So you could interrogate me?”
“No. I asked you to dance because I wanted to dance with you,” he said simply. “You’re a good dancer.”
With that, he extended his arm and I stepped back away from him. Then he pulled me close, twirling me as he did, and I stopped with my back pressed against his chest. His arms were wrapped around me, and his breath felt warm on my neck.
We stayed that way for only a second, our hips swaying slightly, and my heart pounded so loudly I was terrified he could feel it, but I didn’t want to pull away from him. I actually wanted to stay that way forever, with the orchestra swelling, and the singer reaching her crescendo as she warned about the blindness of love. Under the dim candlelight of a chandelier in a crowded ballroom, with Ridley’s arms strong as they crossed over me, my body bound to his, I closed my eyes, wishing the moment would last forever.
But it was only a split second, and then he had my hand, and he spun me around again. This time, when he pulled me back into his arms, I extended my leg, the way the dance required. He dipped me down so low, my hair brushed against the floor, and my eyes stayed locked on his as he pulled me back up.
I stayed in his arms, my body pressed against his, feeling breathless and dizzy, and I knew it wasn’t just from the dancing. I stared up at him, and I’d never wanted to kiss anybody as badly as I wanted to kiss him then.
But instead I found myself blurting out, “It’s too bad Juni couldn’t be here.”
“Yeah.” Ridley sounded out of breath himself, and he blinked, clearing his eyes of whatever had been darkening them. “Yeah, it is.”
The song ended, so I pulled away from him and smoothed out my dress. I wanted to rush off the dance floor, retreating back in the shadows to stand with Tilda, but Ridley hadn’t moved. He stood in front of me with a puzzled expression on his face.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing.” He tried to smile at me but it faltered. “Thanks for dancing with me.”
Ridley turned and walked away, leaving me alone in the middle of the dance floor.
Even though I hadn’t drunk much at the anniversary party, I awoke the next morning feeling hung over. I would’ve been happy to spend the entirety of the day snuggled deep within the recesses of my blankets. It was barely after daybreak when Ember came pounding up the stairs to my loft and threw open the door.
“Unless my building is on fire, go away,” I told her as I buried my head underneath the pillow.
“Don’t be such a grump. I have good news.” Ember hopped on the bed with such force, it bounced me up. When I landed, I peered at her skeptically. “I’m leaving.”
“Why are you leaving?” I lifted the pillow from my head and rolled onto my back so I could look up at her. “And why is that good news?”
“I got my next assignment.” She beamed at me. “I’m heading out to get a new changeling.”
“Congratulations,” I said, but thanks to my sleepiness it came out a bit weaker than it should’ve.
Like me, Ember preferred being out on missions to being cooped up here in Doldastam. So even though it would be less enjoyable for me to be stuck here without her, I was genuinely happy for her.
“Thanks. I just came to say good-bye, and then I have to get going.”
“You’re leaving right now?” I pushed myself up so I was sitting, and glanced at the alarm clock on my nightstand. “It’s not even seven in the morning. When did you get the assignment?”
“Like, twenty minutes ago. Ridley called me to the Rektor’s office and gave it to me,” Ember said. “He did not look excited to be up this early. I think he drank too much wine last night.”
“Wait.” I rubbed my forehead, trying to clear my head. “None of this makes sense.”
Usually we got our assignments a few days to a week before we left. It gave us time to go over the changeling’s file and get to “know” them before we met them, and we got our travel arrangements in order, like booking hotels and plane tickets, if needed.
On top of that, it had only been a few days ago that the King and Queen had ordered all the trackers to stay in Doldastam until after all the guests had cleared out. Some of the guests were leaving tonight, but the majority of them weren’t heading out until tomorrow morning.
So, barring some kind of emergency, I didn’t know why they would send out a tracker before Monday afternoon. It didn’t make sense.
“Ridley said that the King had called him early this morning saying that they got a tip, and they needed someone to get this changeling in right away,” Ember explained.
Ember pursed her lips and gave me a hard look. “You know I can’t tell you that. Our missions are confidential until after we return.”
As a matter of privacy and safety, we were never allowed to tell anyone where we were going or who the changelings were. It was to prevent things like what had happened with Linus, as well as the fact that the royals didn’t always want it getting around how well-off (or how not-so-well-off) their offspring had been in the human world.
“I know, I know.” I waved it off. “But what was the King’s tip? What’s so important that he roused Ridley in the middle of the night to start organizing your mission?”