“Ready for the ball, Cinderella?” Topher Brink asks.
Sierra settles into the chair. “What did you just call me?” she asks. He says a lot of things that she doesn’t understand.
“I wasn’t insulting you,” he says quickly. “You were looking at this book earlier, and… hey, would you even understand me if I was insulting you? I guess you guys are kind of lucky that way.” He grins and puts up his thumbs. “Any-who! Bibbidi, bobbidi, boo, right?”
Linda’s dress changes from pink to gold whenever she moves, and she worried at first that it would be more suitable for a high school prom (not that she attended her prom) than a corporate gala. In the limo, some of the doubt fades from her mind when Nolan turns her face toward him and says, “You look like a sunset.”
If that was a compliment, it’s the nicest one she’s ever received. “Thanks,” she says. “You don’t look so bad yourself.”
He responds with a kiss, their first of the evening. She hopes that it won’t be their last.
The party is in a mansion that belongs to one of the Rossum executives, and the ballroom is crowded with men and women who probably didn’t have to look up etiquette tips online before they knew how to behave at events like this. Nolan keeps his hand on Linda’s arm as he introduces her to his colleagues.
“And this is Adelle DeWitt,” he says. “She heads up one of our most… lucrative enterprises.”
“A pleasure,” says Adelle. She’s somewhere in her forties, and everything about her, from her shiny dark hair to her British accent, is crisp and polished. Her dress probably cost more than a year of Linda’s tuition… before her scholarship.
“Pleased to meet you, too.”
After a few minutes of small talk, Adelle addresses her again: “You said that you were a nurse? I do so admire a commitment to helping others.”
“Not yet,” Linda admits. “I’m still in school. That’s how Nolan and I met, actually. I was visiting the hospital where he works, and we just kind of started talking.” She giggles. “It’s the last thing I was expecting.”
“Quite unexpected, indeed,” Adelle says. “I do hope that it’s everything that you’ve dreamed… and that he takes care of you.” She looks Nolan in the eye as she says this, almost as if she’s warning him, and something unspoken passes between the two of them.
As she clicks away on her four-inch heels, Linda is sure that she’s blushing. “I just embarrassed you, didn’t I?” she asks.
“Of course not,” Nolan replies. “You have a lot to learn, but in a way, it’s delightful.”
She wants to believe him, but after that, she still doesn’t trust herself to say much more to the other guests besides, “How do you do?” She sips her cocktail and tries to follow the lines of conversation, and hopes that she doesn’t embarrass either of them by laughing in the wrong place, or, worse, by yawning. He and his colleagues are discussing medical research that’s several levels beyond anything she’s ever studied, and she’s starting to get the same awkward, out-of-place feeling that sneaks up on her when her roommates – who have known each other for years – start telling inside jokes.
She doesn’t even realize that she’s been scanning the crowd until she catches a glimpse of a familiar face, and she breaks free from Nolan’s grip. “What’s wrong?” he asks.
Linda shakes her head. “I thought I saw someone...” She looks again. The dark-haired young man in the corner doesn’t actually resemble anybody that she knows. “I was wrong. Excuse me, I… I think I’d like to get some fresh air.” It’s an understatement: between the heat from too many bodies, the mingling scents of cologne and perfume, and the buzzing in her head that she can’t explain, she feels herself getting queasier with every passing moment.
“Trying to run off?” Nolan asks. The other men in the circle laugh.
“I’m just going out onto the balcony.” She tries to sound playful as she adds, “I promise, you won’t need to send out a search party.”
He smiles back at her, and she hears something like satisfaction in his voice. “I don’t think you’d get very far.”
There’s no reason (she tells herself) for her to wish she could walk faster than her steep gold sandals will let her. No reason at all.
Linda knew that she wouldn’t have the balcony all to herself – the weather is far too nice for that – and she’s not sure whether to be surprised when she sees Adelle DeWitt standing by the railing, a wineglass in her hand. She acknowledges Linda with a nod. “I trust that you’re having a pleasant evening?”
“I’m doing my best,” Linda replies. She breathes in, already starting to feel more like herself.
Adelle nods. “We all try to be our best, don’t we?” She lets out a sharp little laugh. “Especially tonight.”
The words spill from Linda’s mouth before she can hold them back. “Do you ever feel like you don’t fit in somewhere?”
In the light that pours through the stained-glass doors, she can see Adelle arch one perfect eyebrow. “I was rather expecting you to comment on the weather, or ask if I think my nail polish will still be in fashion next spring.”
“I don’t usually pay attention to that sort of thing. Nails, I mean, and, um, fashion. Not the weather; obviously I pay attention to that…” Linda stares at her feet again, wishing the flagstones would open up underneath them and swallow her.
“Do you, perhaps, wish that you were here with somebody else?” Adelle asks.
Linda looks up, thinking, yes, thinking, how did you know? But she can’t explain where those words came from, so she isn’t going to betray her own foolishness by saying them aloud. “No,” she says. “Why would I? Nolan is an extraordinary man.”
“That seems to be the popular perception,” Adelle says drily. “And you’re the sweet, awkward, naïve young thing whom Prince Charming has rescued from humble beginnings, in order to show you the ways of the world. It all makes sense now.” She takes a long draw from her glass.
“Excuse me?” Linda stares at her. “What brought that on?” She considers the possibilities. “Are you jealous? Is he, like, an ex of yours, or something?”
Adelle coughs and sputters, and Linda gasps, “I’m sorry!” Her mind goes blank for moment or two before she remembers how to help a choking victim, but Adelle has already recovered. “Are you okay?”
“I’m afraid that you startled me, my dear,” Adelle says. “I promise that the relationship between Dr. Kinnard and myself has always been entirely professional, and I don’t wish that it were otherwise. I should, in fact, apologize to you. You seem like a very nice girl, and I should not have spoken to you that way. I hope that you’ll forgive me.”
Linda nods, taken aback. “I do. Thank you.” She pauses – how do you end a conversation like this, anyway? “I should, um, get back inside. He’s probably looking for me.” She tries to ignore the tension in her shoulders as she speaks.
“I don’t doubt it,” Adelle says. “And to answer your earlier question…”
“There are situations in which I might not, as you put it, ‘fit in.’ However, I try to avoid those circumstances whenever possible. Should they arise, it is usually a sign that I’ve made a serious miscalculation.” Adelle stares out into the smoggy darkness. “Enjoy the rest of the night.”
“You, too,” Linda replies, and turns toward the doors.
Later, on the dance floor, Nolan holds her close and murmurs, “I’ll take care of you.” She feels the warmth of his hand on her waist like the last sunbeam of a dying day.
When he asks her to come home with him, she agrees.
Sierra is home. She swims in the pool and dresses in the clothes that have been laid out for her. She goes to art class, and feels her shoulders stiffen when she reaches for the black paint, but doesn’t choose another color. She sits next to Victor at lunch, and tells him, “I was looking for you.” She can’t remember where she was looking, and does it really matter? “I’m glad that you’re here.”
“I’m glad that you’re here, too,” he says, smiling at her.
After lunch, she sits on the couch with a book. She likes looking at the pictures. In one of them, a girl is on her knees, washing the floor while birds fly all around her, with no black clouds hanging over them. Another picture is full of people dancing in pretty dresses, purple and pink and gold and blue. They all look happy.
“May I sit here?”
Sierra looks up from the book to see Echo standing over her. “Of course. There’s plenty of room.” She turns the pages of the book while her friend watches. “She’s running out the door,” Sierra says softly. “Maybe she wanted to get away from somebody inside.” He blocked the door, and grabbed her arm, and… She squirms. Maybe the next page will explain, or the next one.
Echo points at another picture. “Her prince looked for her everywhere,” she says. “Even when she looked like somebody else, or was wearing different clothes, or had a name that he didn’t know, he could still find her.”
“Is that a good thing?” Sierra asks.
“Do you think so?”
“For some girls,” Sierra says. “And for some princes. But it isn’t a good thing all the time.”