“You look pleased as punch,” Kadelyn said deliberately not looking at Brance as he dropped down on the steps at the foot of her chair. Her brother leaned on one elbow, one hand idly wrapped around the other wrist, one knee propped up, which should have looked absurd in his formal blue coat and marble-white shirt and breeches. As always though, he just looked comfortable. And likely to invent trouble.
Leaning his head back, he smiled at her. “You mean, you’d be pleased to punch me,” he returned.
Back straight, hands in her lap, Kadelyn shook her head and still refused to glance down. She would smile if she looked at him, and she didn’t want to. “No,” she said. “Not in front of so many people.”
Brance snorted, but looked over the ballroom noticing its attention as well. There were always a few heads turned their way, between spins in the dance, between bites at the long line of refreshments down the side, or just in the middle of a conversation. They were used to the attention, daughter and son of the Clan Lord, and he and Kadelyn were hard to miss: dark-haired, sharp-eyed, richly-clothed, sitting at the head of the room, with their bodyguards floating by the walls tethered to them like steel kites. It didn’t bother either of them.
“If you thought I deserved to be punched, you would do it, audience or no,” Brance murmured.
“I would not,” she told him.
His eyebrows pulled together in sudden thought, and whatever it was, he almost laughed at it. “I think you have.”
“I would not,” Kadelyn said again, a little too evenly, a little too firmly.
Brance looked up at her again. She saw him shift out of the corner of her eye, waited for him to turn back to the rest of the ballroom, and let out a low breath when he didn’t. She risked a small turn of the head and found him looking at her, smile faded to a shallow curve.
“What did I do tonight?” he asked softly.
Kadelyn blinked at him. It was her turn to smile, but she knew it was sharper thing than his. She faced forward again. “How many women did you dance with?” she asked slowly.
He didn’t answer for a second, but she heard him pull in a breath to say something. “If you give me a minute,” he said. “I can count.”
“Have many bets have you made tonight?” Kadelyn asked.
“Three,” Brance said carefully.
“How many servants have you flirted with?”
There was only a short hesitation. “Sev– eight,” he said.
“How many tables have you sat on? How many chairs have you stood on?” she asked. She met his eye, quick.
Brance met her eye and held it. “Five and two,” he said.
“How many times have you challenged every boy under ten to a race three times around the entire ballroom, hand to the wall, fast as they can, with a fruit ice prize for first place and ice down the back for last?” she asked.
“Just the once,” Brance said. He was trying not to smile. She could see it in the tight way he held his cheeks, but it wasn’t keeping it out of his eyes. “It is a formal ball, after all. There shouldn’t be too much silliness.”
“How many times have you just disappeared to who knows where?” Kadelyn asked, too evenly again.
He didn’t say anything.
“And how is it different from any other night?” she asked, voice low.
He held her gaze steadily, smile sliding back. He nodded once, maybe just to say he heard her, maybe to say she was right, maybe both, and maybe neither. His expression had smoothed to the point of nothingness, the curve of his lips more mask than anything else. Kadelyn looked at him for a long minute, then finally looked away, unable to read it and unable to keep trying.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He peeled himself off the stairs and leaned in against the arm of her chair. Slowly, he kissed the top of her head. She didn’t look at him, but she leaned toward him when he pulled away, just a little. “I’m not trying to hurt anyone.”
“Would it be so difficult to spend one evening as you’re supposed to?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, and the word came out an unsteady laugh. “I think I’m actually trying, Kadie. But I’m having a harder time doing that math than you are.”
She glanced at him in pure disbelief, but that indecipherable smile was still pinned to his lips and his eyebrows were drawn together in thought again. He wasn’t really looking at her, though his eyes flicked to her when he saw her turn. He looked at her and didn’t see her. Then he did. And then his smile burst open.
“You would, you know,” he murmured.
“What?” she asked.
“You would punch me if I deserved it,” he said. “You’re good at following the rules.” And he kissed her hair again, a little quicker, and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
My friend Kathryn is a thief! She stole this line for a piece on her blog. Be sure to stop by and see what’s in the punch over there.