“I know but—” James cocks his head. “Is that…thunder?”
“Of course it’s not thunder. It’s gorgeous outside.” Chloe rolls her eyes as I finish cleaning up the spill. “Honestly. Let’s just get going.”
She takes a club from her golf bag and twirls it in her hands as she heads onto the green. Then she snaps her manicured fingers for us to follow, and we do. With a sigh, I hike her golf bag onto my shoulder and set off down the grassy slope. Of all the days for Phil the Caddy to be sick, it had to be today. Or any day. And of course my boss doesn’t care if I leave my post at the café—not if Catherine’s daughter needs a caddy.
Once we’re out in the sunlight, Chloe drops the ball on the grass and squints into the distance. Then she pulls back and swings. The balls arcs high into the air and plops down five hundred feet away, in a sand trap.
“Oops,” she drones. “Elle, fetch that for me, would you?”
The thunder is getting louder, even though the sky is crystal clear. I wonder if Carmindor is looking at the same sky. And then, with a pang, I wonder why I care.
“Elle!” Chloe screeches. I start after her but the noise is so loud now, and I swear I’ve heard it before. A deep rumbling, like a dragon. Or…no.
Suddenly, one of the gardeners setting out the sprinklers for the evening yelps and throws himself to the side. Over the bushes to the parking lot, emerging like the great pumpkin in flight, flies an orange and yellow truck. It hits the ground with enough force to carve a dent in the immaculate grass and tears across the greens toward us, the bright-green fender smiling with a mouthful of leaves and twigs. And with the truck, blaring from the open windows so loud I can hear the speakers pop, is the Starfield theme.
“Ohmygod, what is that?” Chloe gasps.
James blinks. “A food truck?”
Cal beams. “I think it’s called the Magic Pumpkin.”
The truck skids to a stop in front of us. The windshield wipers flick on against the leaves, and Sage gives a whoop from the driver’s seat. “That was SO AWESOME!”
I drop the golf bag and run up to Sage and throw my arms around her. “I’m so sorry!” I croak, hugging her tight. “Catherine took my phone and I couldn’t explain and—I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
She returns the hug, smelling like the place where I belong—pumpkin fritters and day-old coconut oil. “I missed you too! You wouldn’t believe who I picked up today.”
“I told you not to pick up hitchhikers,” I say.
She shrugs. “I’m trying to turn over a new leaf—”
Just then a black-haired young man falls out of the passenger door and all but kisses the ground. He rights himself quickly, leaning against the truck. Even though he’s a little green, everyone immediately recognizes him.
Chloe’s blond friend gasps. “Ohmygod…”
“Is that…” James says.
Chloe stands a little straighter, her eyes wide as saucers. “Darien!”
At the sound of his name, Darien Freeman quickly pulls back his shoulders and jerks his head toward her. There’s a subtle shift in his face—a rehearsed set to his lips, a levelness of his eyebrows—that makes me think of the masquerade. A mask.
He turns to me. “Elle—”
“Darien!” Chloe cries again, as she drops her club and hurries over to him. “Ohmygod it is you!” She looks around at her friends, her smile broadening in an I Told You So sort of way. “James—James, get this on video!” She slaps him on the arm to get him moving, and he pulls out his phone. She flips her hair back and rushes up to Darien. “Darien! I didn’t know how you would find me—was it the petition? You know I started that petition…”
“I can’t believe she was telling the truth,” Erin whispers to James, who nods, shocked. They’re literally speechless. I never thought I’d see the day.
My heart is in my throat when I tell it not to be, it’s speeding up when I tell it not to expect much. I don’t know why he’s here—he knows Chloe isn’t the girl he danced with—but of course he’s succumbing to her charms. Who wouldn’t?
“It took a while. I—I just wanted to formally apologize,” he says.
Chloe feigns shock. “Apologize? For what? And how did you find me?” she asks, touching his biceps, leaning toward him. To her, flirting comes as natural as breathing.
Right. Because she’s the one who wanted him anyway. Not me. Maybe in some other universe. But here—not me.
But then he tilts his head and glances over. At me. And the mask begins to slip away, little by little, until I can see something familiar underneath. He smiles at me. “I just came to return something to Elle.”
“Elle?” Chloe echoes.
He holds up a slipper made of starlight.
“Well, ah’blena?” he asks, offering it to me.
Ah’blena. There’s only one person who’s ever called me that, who’s ever wanted to.
My heart rises into my throat like a balloon.
In front of Chloe and her friends, in front of James who pretended to love me and Cal who learned to love herself, and Sage who taught me that being who you are is okay, I slip a foot out of my boat shoe (ugh, country club rules) and set it before me.
He kneels and gently takes my heel, and then slips my mother’s starlight slipper right onto my waiting foot.
SHE STARES DOWN AT ME, HER messy braid of dyed-red hair spilling over her shoulder. She pushes up her boxy black glasses and steps forward, hesitant, like I’m playing a trick on her. A light brushing of freckles dot her cheeks. I noticed them before, but now I want to connect them like constellations, a starry sky on skin that is slowly but surely turning red. Glowing.
Not Princess Amara, not the girl from the convention who broke my nose (still blaming her, don’t argue), not a stranger I can’t trust. I don’t know how I imagined meeting her—really meeting her, without a mask or a costume or a facade—I don’t even remember what I thought she might look like. How I imagined her. How I thought she’d be.
Because this is the only Elle I could ever imagine. She’s the only possibility that could have ever existed. I won’t say that she is perfect, or that she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen, but the moment her gaze finds mine, she’s the best parts of the universe. She’s a person I would love to spend a lifetime with on the observation deck of the Prospero.
She swallows hard, her lips tightly together. The damp grass begins to seep into my jeans and I hear Lonny’s distinctive “keep back, please,” behind me, but I don’t want to get up. I want to stay locked here in this moment. I wait, wondering if she could—ever—forgive me. The Carmindor me, the actor me, the human me—Darien Freeman and Carmindor combined.
Finally, so quietly I almost can’t catch it—although I don’t need to, I’m watching her lips and read the words in the air—she speaks. Says what I never thought I’d hear from her.
“I hear the observation deck is nice this time of year, Carmindor.”
HE DOESN’T ANSWER FOR A MOMENT, but then he laughs. It’s soft and deep, like a velvet cake wrapped in creamy mousse. Eventually he replies—like I hoped he would, like I wished he would, my heart soaring up and up and up into space, “Only on the south side of Metron.”
He doesn’t look like Darien Freeman. He looks like any guy with dark curly hair, wearing a Starfield shirt that’s a little too small, faded jeans, and old Vans. He looks like someone who could play Carmindor if given the right color uniform, or someone you could meet at the mall.
There’s a scar on his chin that Carmindor doesn’t have, and a purpling bruise spreading around his cheeks, which—oh right. I guess that was my fault. He’s rubbing the back of his hand against one of his eyes like he has something in it. Like tears, maybe. Oh, Nox’s ass, is he crying?
“I thought you’d hate me,” he says, standing up. “I didn’t write that last text message—it’s a long story but I didn’t write it. But I didn’t own up to it either. I was scared. I thought if I told you who I was you’d hate me.”
“Oh you big dork!” I wrap my arms around him in a hug. He puts his arms around me too, and buries his face in my hair. “Stop crying, you’re gonna make me cry.”
“I’m not crying,” he strangles out, clearly crying. “Just to clear the air, I won’t always look this good. So if you’re just charmed by my killer abs…”
I press my hand against his stomach. “We both know they’re airbrushed.”
“How dare you. I won’t look as good is what I’m saying.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t fall for your charming looks.”
He hesitates. “So you can forgive me? For lying to you? For—”
I press a finger to his lips. It’s a good question. One I don’t know the answer to, but I remember our waltz, and his coming to my defense, and I think…“I think I could forgive you if…”