~Chapter Six: Dancing by the Seashore~
I bit my lip, carefully looking over the dress and shoes I had laid out the night before. Already dressed for my dance lesson, which I would have to leave for in just a few short minutes, I spent a long time the night before picking out my outfit for my date with Cesar. Since he was meeting me at noon, and my writing and rhetoric lesson was right before, I figured it would be better to be prepared. I carefully did my hair and makeup already; hopefully after class I could change quickly and would only have to freshen the rest of my appearance.
I sighed nervously and reached for my dark red handbag. I picked a purse that went well with my date outfit while not clashing with the spruce green dress I currently wore.
“Princess?” Kip popped his head into my bedroom. “We should get going now.”
I nodded, glancing one last time at the burgundy dress hanging over my wardrobe door.
* * *
As I walked into the dance studio, I noticed a young woman with blonde hair seated on the bench by the door. “Oh, hello Cynthia!” I greeted her.
She glanced up at me and smiled. “Hello, Elizabeth! How are you today?”
“I’m doing very well, thank you. Just here for my dance lesson with Tony.”
Cynthia rose to her feet. “Ah, I’m waiting for Tony as well. Just have a few things to sort out before the preliminary dance competition tomorrow.”
I nodded, trying to ignore the panicky feeling that had risen in my stomach at her words. I knew fully well that the preliminary contest was tomorrow, since both Kip and Tony had reminded me more than once. But I was still so nervous. Tony had told me that if I didn’t have a partner by the first round, he would dance with me. Since Cesar hadn’t worked out, I was certain that we would plan out our routine today.
Cynthia wrung her hands, glancing towards the back of the dance hall before looking at me once more. “I am so nervous,” she admitted with a shaky laugh. “I know that it’s just the preliminary round, and Klaus is a wonderful lead, but...”
My eyes widened. Cynthia was nervous? I’d seen her and Klaus dance the first night I was here, and yes, Klaus was excellent, but Cynthia had so much style and grace...she looked like she belonged on the stage.
“Oh, don’t be nervous, Cynthia,” I said with a smile. “You dance beautifully, I am sure you two will be wonderful!”
Cynthia looked embarrassed. “Oh, thank you Elizabeth. I am looking forward to see you dance!”
I bit my lip nervously. “Well, I still don’t have a partner, so I’m just dancing with Tony. I hope it’ll be okay...”
“Oh, a lot of people don’t have partners yet,” Cynthia surprised me by saying. “So don’t let that worry you. Lots of the contestants will be dancing with Tony.” Her face broke into an encouraging smile. “It is still so early in the competition, people are still getting acquainted. If I didn’t have Klaus, I know I wouldn’t have a partner yet either.”
Cynthia is so nice! I thought to myself. She really was easy to talk to, and seemed very sincere. “Really?” I breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s reassuring. And it’s true, I haven’t gotten to know anyone very well...” I paused, not sure if I wanted to share this next piece of information with her, but then decided it was safe, “Except for Prince Cesar. But he already has a partner, unfortunately.”
Cynthia’s eyes crinkled with sympathy. “Well, I do know that Prince Kiefer and Prince Vincent don’t have anyone yet...” Cynthia trailed off, peering at me curiously. “What is it?” she asked with a laugh.
I furrowed my brow, then realized I must have made a face when she mentioned Vince. “Oh! Oh, no, sorry, it’s just Vince. He–I guess he rubs me the wrong way? So the thought of dancing with him is just...”
Cynthia nodded knowingly. “He seems rather immature.”
You have no idea, I thought. “Yeah, you could say that,” I replied, giggling.
“Oh!” Cynthia snapped her fingers as if an idea came to her. “Prince Luciano doesn’t have a partner!”
“Oh,” I began, remembering what he’d told me the night before, “I guess he isn’t entering the competition.”
Cynthia looked taken aback. “What? But–but then--”
“Why is he here?” I supplied with a wry smile.
“Exactly!” Cynthia burst out. “I just–I don’t understand–why would you come all this way...”
“I know, right?” I said, my voice rising excitedly. “He told me ‘I don’t dance anymore.’ The–um, my parents were really surprised. I think they were thinking just what we were.”
Cynthia slowly shook her head and blew out a breath. “He seems rather strange, doesn’t he?”
I nodded my agreement. “Yeah! But...”
“But in kind of a cute way,” Cynthia said with a giggle. Then she looked sheepish, glancing around. “Don’t tell Klaus I said that,” she whispered, unable to keep a straight face.
I laughed with her. “I won’t, I promise.”
“Lady Cynthia?” Tony’s deep voice interrupted our gossip session.
“Oh, yes, Tony, I wanted to ask if Klaus and I could squeeze in an additional practice session before the preliminary tomorrow,” Cynthia asked.
Tony smiled and nodded. “Certainly. Would 7 this evening work?”
Cynthia nodded. “That would be perfect! Thank you so much, Tony.” She turned to me. “It was lovely running into you, Elizabeth. Good luck tomorrow!”
I grinned. “You, too! See you then!” Maybe we could hang out sometime! I thought. I really miss Catherine, and Cynthia is super nice. As she left, I turned to Tony. “Good morning, Tony,” I began, feeling awkward. “Since I still don’t have a partner...”
“Let us work on a routine for tomorrow then,” Tony finished with a kindly smile.
I nodded, feeling grateful. “Sounds good.”
As we walked to the practice floor, Tony said, “Today I think we should expand on the Foxtrot. I think if we practice enough, we should have a solid routine for tomorrow.”
He turned and clapped for the phonograph to start playing the music. “First, a quick review.”
We assumed closed position and counted out the beats.
“That’s it. Quick, quick, slow. Quick, quick, slow.” After practicing the basic Foxtrot, Tony changed the variation. “Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Hesitate.”
I found that I liked that pattern better. After we had circled the large dance room a few times, Tony lightly tapped my shoulder, signaling that he wanted me to stop.
“Excellent Princess,” he said, stepping away from me. “I think you are ready to learn an advanced pattern of the Foxtrot which is called the “Twinkle.”
I bit my lip to hide my laugh. What a cute name for a dance!
“Now, the Twinkle,” Tony continued, not seeming to notice my reaction, “Is very simple, and actually quite similar to a box step in a Waltz. It goes like this.” He took my hand again and we re-assumed closed position. Taking a step forward and cuing me to take one back, he counted “Slow, quick, quick, quick,” I stared down as we formed a box with our feet. It was really similar to the Waltz!
After we practiced that routine for several minutes, Tony paused again. “Very good Princess,” He said approvingly. “Now let us try something called a “Promenade.” This goes along with the Twinkle, and has the same counts, though instead of traveling in a circle, we will travel towards the center of the room. We move to an open position...”
Tony tapped my shoulder and we shifted slightly, my left hip touching his right. “And we each step forward this time, making our way to the center.”
As we tried it, I fumbled a bit, almost stepping on Tony’s foot. “Oh, I’m sorry!” I exclaimed as I stumbled.
Tony chuckled. “It is perfectly all right, Your Highness. This step takes much getting used to, and I’m afraid it is going to get a bit more complicated. The promenade transitions from a closed position to an open, and then it will be closed again,” Tony demonstrated, “For the ‘quick, quick’ steps. But to make it a continuous Twinkle, so that the dance won’t end abruptly, we can continue to Promenade like so...”
My head began to spin as Tony demonstrated the Reverse Twinkle Promenade, which consisted of standing side to side for the slow step, then holding right and left hands and swinging your free arms out for the last two counts. To repeat the move you turned around and joined hands again, moving in the opposite direction. This could be combined with the box step Twinkle and the rest of the Foxtrot combinations for any choreography you wanted.
It took me several tries before I was able to Reverse Promenade without over-stepping and ramming into Tony. Once I got the hang of it, though, I loved the swinging steps it involved.
“Splendid, Your Highness!” Tony declared after we’d practiced for a long while. “Let us now choreograph our routine for tomorrow. Judging by how well you’ve taken to the Twinkle, I suggest we do the Foxtrot. Would you be comfortable with including the Reverse Promenade? I think if we had that we would have a strong dance.”
I smiled and nodded. “It will be fun! Let’s do it!”
* * *
Looking in the mirror, I chewed my lip nervously as I adjusted my headband for what was probably the fiftieth time. I had been so focused on memorizing the choreography for the preliminary competition tomorrow that I had forgotten all about my date during dance practice and even my math class. But during my writing and rhetoric lesson I remembered, and hadn’t been able to concentrate. I hope everything goes well and I don’t come off like an idiot, I thought nervously. As I brushed a stray bang from my face, I noticed that my lipstick was now half-on, half-off. I grimaced and saw a dark red stain on my teeth. “Argh!” That’s what I get for gnawing on my lips, I thought crankily. I reached for a tissue and wiped furiously at my lips, then brushed my teeth.
Finally I carefully re-applied lipstick, blotting it with a tissue to avoid it rubbing off. I decided to take the tube with me, just in case. Sighing, I did a once-over one more time, before looking at my watch. If I didn’t go right then, I would be late. Luckily Cesar is meeting me just outside the castle, I thought. Otherwise I’d risk getting terribly lost.
I grabbed my purse and headed out of my bedroom, down the hallway, and descended the grand staircase. “Good afternoon, Your Highness,” The dog palace guard greeted me as I exited the main doors.
I turned to face him and curtsied. “Good afternoon!”
“Good afternoon, Elizabeth.”
My heart began to pound at the new voice, and I turned and saw Cesar standing there with a sheepish grin. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, I just got here.”
I smiled and laughed. “Oh, no, it’s fine.” I could feel my cheeks heating up as I took him in–he looked especially handsome in a grey dress shirt and black pants. I dropped my gaze, not wanting to stare.
“Oh,” Cesar said, looking as if he’d just remembered something. I then noticed that he had one hand behind his back. “I almost forgot! This is for you.”
He brought his hand around and I saw it was holding one of the most beautiful roses I had ever seen. Its thick green stem had been clipped of thorns, and it had full, pale pink and yellow petals. “Oh!” I breathed, taking it from him carefully. “Cesar,” I said softly, raising my eyes to meet his, “It’s so beautiful! Thank you.” I glanced down as I lightly rubbed the soft petals with my fingers. “How did you know roses are my favorite?” I asked with a laugh, remembering the long-stemmed red rose he had given me my first night in the Flower Kingdom.
Cesar smiled and shrugged. “I just saw it and thought of you. A rose for a rose.”
I crinkled my brow and laughed, not sure if I could take his compliment seriously. Looking into his hazel eyes, though, I saw nothing but sweetness and sincerity. Suddenly I realized he was starting to look a bit nervous, (maybe afraid I’d thought what he’d said was stupid?) so I smiled and said, “That’s really sweet of you, Cesar.”
Cesar seemed relieved. “Well, then, Elizabeth, where would you like to have lunch?”
I froze. I had no idea where any restaurants were, and this was supposed to be my kingdom. Cesar was bound to notice, and if he noticed, that meant others would surely figure it out, too! My cover would be blown, and then what would happen? Could I get thrown in the dungeon for impersonating the Princess, even if it was her idea in the first place? Calm down, I told myself, taking a deep breath, praying Cesar didn’t notice. “Oh, well, I’m not really particular, so...” I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I had seen any restaurants in Samba Square. There had to be some, right?
“...Do you like seafood?” Cesar suddenly asked, breaking the pensive flow of my thoughts. “Because when I was at the wharf the other day, I saw a little restaurant that looked nice.”
I sighed with relief. “I love seafood, that sounds perfect.” I’m so glad he suddenly thought of that, I mused.
“Shall we be off then?” He asked with a smile, offering me his arm.
I blushed, shyly taking his arm with the hand that wasn’t holding the rose. I had only ever seen guys offer girls their arms in old movies!
As we walked along, I was at first nervous in matching my pace to his since our arms were linked. After a minute or two, though, I relaxed. This isn’t hard at all, I mused, glancing down at the hand that grasped his arm. In fact, this is really nice.
It got even nicer when Cesar put his free hand on top of the hand I was holding his arm with and smiled at me. “How has your day been so far?”
Ignoring the flutter in my chest, I replied, “Good. Tony has been teaching me the Foxtrot, and today I learned a lot–the Twinkle, the Promenade, Reverse Promenade...”
Cesar grinned. “The Foxtrot is my favorite dance.”
“Really?” I asked with a smile.
“It’s a lot of fun. And...well, besides the Waltz, it’s the only dance that I can actually do okay,” he admitted.
“What?” I asked incredulously, leaning back slightly to look at him. “But you’re a great dancer!”
Cesar looked embarrassed. “Well, thank you, but really, I don’t know all that much. The Foxtrot and the Waltz are very similar, and aren’t took difficult. Plus, you can do a lot with them when you add in the variations.”
“Yeah!” I agreed. “That’s what Tony was saying, and I noticed that today when we were working on our piece for tomorrow. We’re going to Foxtrot.”
“I can’t wait to see it!” Cesar said enthusiastically, causing me to blush.
I ducked my head, feeling embarrassed, yet flattered. “What are you and your partner going to do?”
Something I couldn’t figure out flickered across Cesar’s face when I asked that, and he was quiet for a moment. Then he sighed. “The Samba.”
“Samba?” I repeated. I’d seen that dance on TV before. It was fun, light, full of rhythm and bounce...and it always looked kind of hard. I was impressed. “Wow! That sounds fun!”
Cesar laughed dryly. “It–it’s not,” he began, slowing his steps. “I honestly don’t know if we’ll be ready for tomorrow. A basic Samba is actually pretty easy, but our dance has a lot of advanced footwork, twists, and dips. And it is kind of long, especially for the preliminaries.” He shook his head. “I’m very nervous that we won’t be able to remember it all.”
I crinkled my brow. “Can’t you cut some of the harder steps out then, and make it shorter?”
Sighing, Cesar ran his free hand through his hair. “I want to. Tony even advised that we do at practice this morning. But Adriana is insisting that we go with this choreography–she came up with the whole thing. I barely knew how to Samba before we started–I just don’t think we’re ready...”
My heart sank. Cesar seemed really troubled by this. I squeezed his arm. “I’m sure you’ll be great,” I whispered, trying to be comfort him. “You’re a wonderful lead! Besides, it’s only the preliminary contest! I’m really nervous, too...”
Cesar glanced at me and smiled. “You have nothing to worry about.”
I smiled back sincerely. “Neither do you.”
Cesar squeezed my hand and we continued walking. “Both of us will be fine tomorrow.”
I nodded. “How has your day been so far?” I asked. “Besides the dance lesson, I mean?”
Cesar took a deep breath. “Well, I had history and botany lessons this morning with the tutor, and then I went riding. I took the shoreline trail.”
“You like horses?” I asked him. “I remember now that I saw you with a horse the other day...”
He grinned and nodded. “I do. Riding really relaxes me, you know? I actually brought my horse with me. I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her for several weeks,” he admitted with a sheepish shrug. “Kind of stupid...” he muttered.
“No!” I protested. “I would do the exact same thing! I’m sure she would have been lonely without you. Does she like it here?”
Cesar laughed. “She has taken to your kingdom very well. She especially likes to munch in the apple orchards.” He watched me thoughtfully, then slowly broke into a smile. “You like horses too, I take it?”
I nodded enthusiastically. “I love them! They are so wonderful and intelligent, and they can really understand you, you know? In a way sometimes people can’t...” I trailed off, feeling embarrassed for babbling.
But Cesar just nodded, his eyes shining. “Exactly! Horses are so magnificent.” Then he snapped his fingers. “We should go riding together! That would be so much fun!”
I bit my lip, excited that he wanted to spend more time with me. And riding together would be wonderful. The kingdom was so beautiful, there were bound to be all sorts of breathtaking trails. I had never had the chance to ride outside of a ring before! Then I felt nervous. Cesar was clearly a far more advanced rider than I was. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, or get myself or Aurora hurt. “That would be great! Um, but I’m afraid I’m not that advanced of a rider, so I don’t want to hold you back or anything...”
“If you were to accompany me, it would be nothing short of wonderful,” he whispered.
I blushed, ducking my head shyly. “I would love to.” Then I glanced back up and took in our surroundings. The salt air, the blue surf hitting the sand...“Oh, look we’re here!”
Cesar led me to an adorable restaurant that was decorated with seashells and paintings of the ocean and marine life. The weather was so nice and the air smelled so good that we chose a table on the large outdoor patio.
I reached for my chair, but Cesar stepped forward. “Oh, please, allow me,” he said, and proceeded to pull it out for me.
“Why, thank you,” I said with a giggle before sitting down. I pulled the napkin out of its starfish-shaped ring and laid it on my lap as daintily as I could.
After the waiter (a five-foot tall lobster in a full tuxedo!) took our orders, I glanced around. “I really like it here,” I said with a content sigh, trying not to look too obvious as I took in the scenery that I had only seen briefly once before.
Cesar smiled and glanced around. “So do I. I feel really at home near the ocean.”
I thought back to my first night in the castle, remembering that Kip had told me Cesar was from the Marées Kingdom. Hopefully Cesar hadn’t talked too much about this with the real Princess... “Oh, yes, isn’t your kingdom by the sea?” I asked, hoping that I’d guessed right. Marées did mean “tides,” I was pretty sure.
Taking a sip of water, Cesar nodded. “Yes. It’s actually a small island. It’s really beautiful, with crystal water, dolphins and seals leaping out of the sea right outside your window! Our kingdom is also well-known for its ships. We build some of the finest vessels around, ones that will stay afloat in the toughest storm while still equipped with the most state of the art accommodations.” He smiled shyly. “One of my father’s ships even has a small stable aboard, that’s how I was able to bring my horse with me.”
I rested my chin in my hand. “That sounds amazing!” I paused and frowned, thinking. “Wait–you said one of your father’s ships–just out of curiosity, how many does your family have?”
Cesar raised his eyebrows and thought for a moment. “Goodness, I’m not sure,” he muttered. “We have quite a few. There are small ones for pleasure sailing and racing, and then rather large ones for transporting cargo, and then some average sized for quests.” Seeing my surprised look, he smiled. “I’ve been on quite a few adventures with my father.” Then his eyes clouded, and he looked away, staring out at the choppy waves. “My whole family is...adventurous...” he whispered softly, suddenly seeming very sad.
My heart sank. What had caused his sudden change in mood? Before I could ask what was wrong, music started up on the patio. Cesar lifted his face curiously, looking around. A few couples at the nearby tables had risen to their feet and began dancing in the center of the patio.
Cesar’s glum featured brightened, and he glanced at me and grinned. “May I have this dance?” he asked, extending a hand to me.
I stared at him in surprise, glad to see that he seemed to feel better but still a bit nervous at the thought of dancing in public. “In front of everyone?” I whispered.
He shrugged. “Why not? It’s not as if we’re the only ones who will be dancing. Besides,” he added, “It will be good practice for tomorrow, for both of us.” Seeing my hesitant look, he coaxed with a teasing smile, “C’mon, it’s a Foxtrot...”
I closed my eyes with a laugh, giving in. “Oh, okay, fine.” I took his offered hand and rose to my feet.
Cesar led me by the hand to an open space in the courtyard, and we assumed closed position. He paused, listening carefully to the beat of the music. “Let’s try slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, hesitate?” He murmured to me.
I smiled and nodded. “Got it!” I found myself tapping out the beat on Cesar’s shoulder with my fingers.
He flashed a dazzling smile. “That’s it! Here we go!”
We traveled across the patio effortlessly to the music. I found myself grinning as I glanced around. Ballroom dancing was so thrilling and fun, and with Cesar as a lead it was so easy! I noticed some people at a nearby table watching us as we glided by, and I actually felt proud! I knew we were doing a good job, so my embarrassment disappeared.
At Cesar’s signal, we began a continuous Twinkle, and I found myself grinning. I love this step, it’s so fun!
Cesar smiled down at me, then brought his face down to my ear and whispered, “We make the perfect team.”
My pulse quickened as his breathe tickled the side of my face, and I felt myself smile. Then my heart sank as my thoughts darkened. Cesar at least had a partner. My mind began to race as I wondered who I could partner with. I’m the hostess and yet all the princes are getting taken! How can I keep my promise to the princess if I don’t enter the final competition? Without a partner, a real partner, not my dance instructor, won’t I be disqualified? And...I love dancing with Cesar...but he won’t be my partner...I’ll have to stand on the sidelines and watch him dance with someone else...I quickly shook my head, trying to rid myself of my heavy thoughts and just enjoy this dance. I didn’t want to come off as whiney. It wasn’t Cesar’s fault. It wasn’t even mine. It was the real princess’. What did she have to go and turn Cesar down for anyway? I thought bitterly. Don’t think about that, I quickly scolded myself. There’s still a few weeks ‘til the final competition. You have plenty of time to find a partner.
Soon enough the music ended, and Cesar led me back to our table. All during lunch we talked. I asked him about his interests, his kingdom and how he was enjoying his stay; and Cesar in turn asking me about my hobbies and life. I tried to respond honestly without letting my secret slip. I wanted Cesar to know the real me, and yet not find out who I really was. It was a fine line, but he didn’t seem to think anything was off, which I took as a good sign. He probably doesn’t know the real princess all that well, I reasoned. Cesar was so easy to talk to, and so nice...
After we had finished lunch, Cesar glanced out towards the beach, then at me. “Would you be interested in taking a walk, Elizabeth?”
I smiled and nodded. “I would love to!”
We strolled leisurely down the wharf, descending the wooden steps towards the inviting golden-white sands of Rumba beach. I inhaled deeply, enjoying the crisp ocean breeze and the slight mist of water in my face.
“Everything I’ve seen so far in your kingdom is beautiful,” Cesar commented.
I tucked a strand of hair that had escaped my headband behind my ear. “Thank you,” I replied. Suddenly I heard a loud splash. Turning my head to look out at the waves, I saw a grey figure leap out of the water. “Is that a dolphin?” I breathed, slowly walking towards the water til I was practically standing in the tide. When the shape re-surfaced and did another spectacular leap, I laughed. “It is!” I turned to Cesar. “Oh, isn’t it pretty?”
“It sure is,” Cesar said, staring down into my face with a small smile.
Suddenly the wind picked up and blew my bangs haywire, blocking my vision. I tried to fix them without poking myself in the eye with the rose Cesar had given me that I was still carrying, when I felt his hand on my face. “Here, allow me,” he said, carefully brushing my bangs aside with his fingers.
I felt my cheeks grow warm. “Th-thanks,” I managed to say.
His hazel eyes were staring into mine intensely. “Elizabeth, I...”
“Yoo-hoo! Oh, Cesar!”
I felt myself jump at the sudden foreign voice calling out to Cesar. I saw him look at someone behind me, his eyes widening before he blew a frustrated sigh out under his breath. “Oh, not now...” he muttered so quietly that if I hadn’t been just inches from his face I surely wouldn’t have heard it.
I looked at him curiously before turning around to see a young woman in a frilly orange dress approaching us. Princess Adriana. I glanced back at Cesar, who gave me a small, frustrated smile in reply. I noticed with surprise and delight that he still hadn’t stepped away from me, or removed his hand from the side of my face.
The moment was over all too soon, however, when Adriana reached us. Cesar took a step back from me and gave her a tiny bow. “Good afternoon, Princess Adriana,” he greeted her. I noticed that he didn’t seem all that pleased to see her.
Adriana brushed a lock of her long, red-gold hair over her shoulder. “Good afternoon, Cesar,” she said. I noticed with a pang of jealousy how she practically cooed his name. At least Cesar didn’t appear to reciprocate the feeling.
Then she turned her attention to me. “Well, hello, Princess Elizabeth,” she said, lifting her eyebrows as if she was shocked to see me. This was supposed to be my kingdom, after all. Maybe it was seeing me with Cesar?
I curtsied in reply. “Good afternoon, Princess Adriana. How are you today?”
“Oh, I’m splendid, thank you,” Adriana said. “I’m just so excited for tomorrow’s competition, aren’t you?” Before I could reply, she went on, narrowing her heavily lined eyes slyly, “Just who are you dancing with, by the way?”
“W-well, I...” I stammered, ashamed that she had caught me off-guard, “I’ll just be dancing with Tony this time around,” I was frustrated to have to admit.
“Ohhh,” Adriana sighed in what I supposed was sympathy, but if you asked me it sounded rather fake. “What a shame. Well, I suppose it won’t matter too much for this little old contest, right? I’m sure no one will take too much notice, will they? As for me, I just knew I had to choose Cesar, because he’s clearly the best dancer here, and I don’t want to look bad with someone not up to my potential...don’t want to shame my kingdom, after all.” Then she clucked her tongue and looked me up and down, as if she saw something she didn’t approve of. The nerve! “Though I guess that’s not all that counts, I mean, it doesn’t really matter if you mess up, right, Princess Elizabeth?”
I bristled in spite of trying to keep my cool and felt my face grow hot. Of all the witchy–Suddenly I felt an arm slide around my waist, and I glanced up to see Cesar give me a reassuring smile before casting Adriana a rather cold glance. “Elizabeth won’t be anything less than stunning on the stage tomorrow. Let’s just hope we can keep up with her, right Adriana?”
“Oh, of course,” she replied with a little laugh. “I’m sure you and Tony will be just fine. Practice makes perfect, right?”
I inhaled sharply, unable to believe how rude this princess was being. I knew she was just trying to get to me, so I bit my lip to keep from voicing the rather nasty retort that was forming on my tongue.
Cesar took a step backwards, and since his arm was still around my waist, so did I. “Well, it was nice seeing you, and I will be sure to come early tomorrow to get in another practice round. However, Elizabeth and I were in the middle of a walk, so...”
Adriana’s gaze hardened as she took in Cesar’s arm around my waist, then glanced down at the rose I was holding, seeming to deduce that we were on a date. “Well, don’t make it look like you can’t bear to spend time with me,” she said snidely, “This competition is all about creating good relations and all, but if you’re just going to hang around the Princess who’s sponsoring it...”
Cesar’s jaw stiffened, and he turned on his heel, gently guiding me to turn as well. “Good day.”
As we walked away from her, I noticed with a beating heart that his arm was still around my waist. When we were far enough away from her, I remarked under my breath, “Charming young lady.”
Cesar threw his head back and groaned. “I’m so sorry for the things she said, Elizabeth. I wish I didn’t have to associate with her.”
“Then why did you agree to be her partner?” I grumbled, staring down at the rose in my hands. Then my eyes widened when I realized I’d said that aloud. “I’m sorry, of course--”
Cesar chuckled darkly, apparently not offended by my question. “Oh believe me, she was much more pleasant when I met her and she asked me. I didn’t see the more charming side of her personality until we had our first practice session and she snipped and corrected the entire time. Not to mention her ridiculous demands. I wish I could get out of it, but there is no way to refuse someone in this sort of situation, let alone quit on them once you’ve accepted.” He gave me a small smile. “I’d much rather dance with you.”
I smiled back, my cheeks growing warm. “Me, too. But I still need to find another partner, as Kip keeps reminding me. I have no idea who to ask.”
“Maybe someone will ask you,” he said out of the blue.
My eyes widened. That didn’t seem likely to me. “You think so?” Then a horrible thought struck me. “I wouldn’t have to say yes to anyone, would I?” Seeing his puzzled look, I explained with a laugh, “I refuse to dance with Vince. I have been the victim of his irritating practical jokes one time too many.”
Cesar stared at me for a minute before he burst out laughing. After he’d calmed himself, he replied, “I would recommend keeping your distance from him then, as he’ll probably ask you first chance he gets. There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t want to dance with you.”
I gave him a skeptical look. “That’s very sweet of you, but I doubt that it’s accurate.”
He studied me carefully, a small smile on his lips. He’d slowed his steps and I followed suit, the two of us still connected by his arm around my waist. “How can you be so oblivious to your talent?” He asked me, his voice barely above a whisper. “You were born to dance.”
Okay. My heart was thudding in my chest and I was sure my face had turned five shades of red. How could he say such corny things and sound so...sincere? I normally would scoff if a guy said something that...sappy to me, but when Cesar said it, with his deep voice and his piercing hazel eyes, I not only fell for it, I liked it. Maybe because this isn’t my world anymore, I reasoned. Maybe because in a fantastic world like this, with magic tiaras and princes and talking animals, it seems more realistic. Or maybe it’s just because I like Cesar...
“I...” I stammered, not sure how to respond at all. “You...I...um, thanks,” I finally said lamely, dropping my eyes to the ground.
Cesar chuckled and bumped my shoulder with his playfully. “Everything will be fine,” he said as we resumed our stroll. “You–you’ll find a partner worthy of your talent. And I’ll cheer you on from the audience.”
I noticed that he sounded a bit wistful, which was exactly how I was feeling. “And I’ll cheer you on, too,” I told him sincerely. “Even though I don’t like Adriana, I know you’ll be wonderful out there tomorrow.”
Cesar grinned and nodded. As we walked along, I spotted a pretty seashell, swirls of greens, yellows and blues coating the shiny surface. As Cesar and I crouched in the sand to inspect it, I found myself thinking about the contest tomorrow.
I hoped I was ready.
To be continued...