Chapter 35

Since nearly his first day at Lander, Vince had been engaged in some phase of the courting process. Initially it was friendship, then tentative dating, then of course the actual manifestation of a relationship. The point being that until the end of his freshman year, he had attended every social event with either the physical presence of a romantic partner or the moral obligation of having one. On this night, Vince was realizing for the first time what it was like to be single and in a large social setting. It was largely the same from a logistical standpoint, yet somehow it felt... lonelier.

It’s not to say that he was excluded or the only single one; quite the opposite, really, since Hershel, Mary, Alex, and Selena were the only dedicated couples in attendance. However, he was used to having a conversation separate from the group at outings like this, a private world that could lead him to the dance floor or to the bar or merely draw him into it as he sat in place, briefly walking away from the larger group dynamic to a more intimate one. That was gone now, and Vince found himself missing it nearly as much as he missed Sasha, which was still quite a bit.

As for the others, they seemed to be having their usual amounts of fun. Hershel and Mary were talking quietly, Selena and Alex twirling around the dance floor (or twirling as much as one could with the limited space and large population), Thomas, Violet, Stella, Nick, and Alice were all engaged in boisterous conversation, and Camille was listening silently but attentively. Something about that girl pricked at Vince’s memory. He’d thought he had put it to rest when he recognized her as the healer from Jill and Sasha’s match, yet a bit of his brain continued to tingle when he looked at her. He shrugged it off, as usual, and let his attention wander.

“Man, I would never have guessed a girl that scary could drop it that low,” Nick noted as Angela took it to the floor and Chad looked strikingly uncomfortable. “And to see it wasted on such a fuddy-duddy. For shame.”

“Did you actually just use the word ‘fuddy-duddy’? I’d say that’s the bigger shame,” Violet accused.

“If the dud fits, use it,” Nick replied. “Seriously, he has a fairly good-looking lady gyrating against him and he looks like he is getting a root canal.”

“I imagine it’s a delicate line to walk, escorting one’s best friend’s sister,” Vince contributed.

“Waaaaaaait, what the shit now?” Alice said, turning her head.

“Aren’t Shane and Chad friends? I mean, they hang out so often I just assumed-”

“That’s not the juicy part,” Stella interrupted. “Did you just say Angela is Shane’s sister?”

“That’s what she told me at the water table,” Vince said.

“Wow, I guess that explains why she’s so involved in the freshman class,” Violet surmised.

“I think it’s kind of her to take an active interested in her younger brother’s world,” Thomas said.

“Mmmhmm, given how aggressively she’s dancing I’m not sure it’s Shane’s whole world she’s interested in,” Stella said. “More like just one hunky blonde part of it.”

“I don’t think it is like that,” Vince said. “He agreed to escort her in exchange for training assistance. She said she wanted him so that she could enjoy the act of dancing without fending off other boys.”

The table stared at him, silence on their tongues and doubts that he could possibly be serious in their eyes.

“Wait, does Chad believe that, too?” Alice asked.

“Of course,” Vince said.

Nick sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth. “Holy damn they made two of them.”

“Two of what?” Vince asked.

“Maybe it’s something about being really powerful that makes them like this?” Alice proposed.

“Nope, I’m about on par with at least Vince and I’m not that dense,” Thomas replied.

“What are we talking about? Guys?” Vince asked.

“I’d say it’s more a factor of focus,” Mary ventured. “They commit so fully to their specialties that they find themselves mentally lacking in other areas.”

“I’m right here, you know. Perfectly in ear shot,” Vince pointed out.

“Yeah, but you don’t really know what we’re talking about, which sort of proves the point,” Nick said, addressing Vince at last. “Tell you what: the song is slowing down a bit so I say we couple up and hit the dance floor. I want to investigate this little curious coupling further and this is a good chance to close the distance.”

“I wouldn’t mind a dance,” Mary said, she and Hershel rising from their seats and proceeding to the floor.

Camille started to reach for Thomas, but Violet snatched him away first. She gave the smaller girl a pointed look, her eyes darting to Camille’s then flashing briefly to Vince and back. “Come on, big boy, you can take me for a spin.”

Stella rose from her seat. “I don’t do this kind of dancing, you kids can play detective and I’ll get us some beer.”

Alice looked at her remaining options: between Vince and Nick there was no contest. She’d rather keep her distance from the boy with the complicated moral compass. Unfortunately, her own sense of ethics was getting in the way of grabbing her simple yet honest friend and twirling him around the dance floor. It was obvious Camille liked Vince, yet the girl was too timid to make a move, and of course Vince was, well, Vince. Which meant if she snatched away this golden opportunity, heaven only knew when there would be another.

“Come on, Nick, try not to step on my heels,” Alice commanded. “And you two, don’t you dare try and just sit this out. So help me God I will organize a complicated tea ceremony with full etiquette and formalwear and guilt you both into coming if we don’t see you on the dance floor. This is a team night out, after all.”

Vince stood up and offered Camille his hand. The girl tried not to degenerate into a glowing red beacon as Nick and Alice stepped lightly onto the floor.

“That was quite nice of you,” Nick complimented. “Such a sacrifice to help a girl you barely know.”

“At least I’m stuck with a decent dancer,” Alice replied. “Besides, I like Camille. She may not speak loudly but everything she says is heartfelt and honest.”

“Not to mention you’re practically itching to drag her off to a salon and make her up like a doll,” Nick countered, the two falling into a softly swaying rhythm.

“Well, yes, that too.”

“So set on honesty, despite its failings as a philosophy,” Nick said.

“How does honesty fail as a philosophy? It keeps things simple.”

Nick laughed lightly and twirled Alice out to the end of his arm and pulling her gently back. “Honesty is many things, but simple isn’t one of them. Lies and half-truths keep the world simple. Truth complicates things, makes messes where there needn’t be any, and opens doors better left closed. Point of fact, it’s quite the opposite of simple.”

“Of course you’d think that way. If you ever tried being open and honest with someone you’d see how wrong you are.”

“Alice, believe me when I say every good liar is aptly versed in truth. Knowing where the two overlap is knowing where the spot for the greatest deception lives.”

“Jeez, you’re such a cynic. How do you live in the world if that’s the way you see it?’

“Years of practice. But all right, Alice, if you are so determined to believe that truth makes things simpler, let’s test that theory.” Nick took her by the small of the back and executed a small dip. When he pulled her back to standing he carried the motion a bit further than necessary, bringing her left ear within only a few inches of his mouth.

“I sincerely missed you over the summer,” Nick whispered in a voice that tickled against Alice’s neck and felt stronger than his usual flippant tones. Just like that he had pulled back to a respectful distance again, though the expression he wore was more earnest than his usual half-cocked grin. Alice heard a soft thumping in her ears and realized at some point during his antics her heart had significantly sped up.

“So tell me, Alice, did that little piece of truth make your life less complicated?”