Ray glanced at his watch.
“Twenty minutes gone,” he said.
Since Sammy had stopped trying to learn how to let her hair down they had been sitting down at the fringes of the party, exchanging the odd word of conversation but not really using the time as well as they could have. Ray had been listening to the music, tapping his foot to songs with a catchy rhythm while Sammy had been remembering a forest she had visited in a dream containing squirrels, tiny bunnies, badgers and other woodland creatures which had approached her fearlessly until she was sitting in the middle of a circle of animals feeling like Snow White.
“Oh,” she said, in response to Ray’s announcement, the opposite of pleasantly surprised. “Do you want to spend the rest of the night with other people?” She winced. “That came out wrong - what I meant was...”
Ray held up a hand to stop her, looking amused.
“I thinkI know what you mean. I’m sorry if you thought I wanted to desert you - that’s not what I meant. I was just seeing how much time had passed. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t think you’d like my friends if I took you to meet them and I’m guessing your friends would all think we were an item if we walked up to them together?”
Sammy nodded. “That’s why they put my name down. They think I need a boyfriend.”
“Ah, that’s not fair of them. You should choose your boyfriend, not them.”
“I know, right?”
“Well, unless the boy chooses you,” Ray said, amending his statement.
Sammy smiled. “Though even then, you choose whether you say yes or not.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ray said, looking at her face. “They might sweep you off your feet and leave you without a choice.”
That made her laugh.
Ray smiled, the sort of smile you smiled to yourself when you knew more than the person you were talking to.
“You laugh now,” he murmured.
Thoroughly amused, Sammy asked, “So how many girls have you taken the choice away from?”
Ray looked into his wine glass, though still addressed her.
“Strictly confidential, I’m afraid. If I told you, you might start demanding to know my secrets. Also, I don’t particularly want you spreading things around the school or blackmailing me.”
“Do I look like the sort of girl who would do that?” Sammy asked, not taking him seriously at all.
“There’s no one less trustworthy than a woman, Samantha.” He looked into her eyes as if he were giving her serious counsel. “Remember that, and you’ll go far.”
“I am a woman, Ray.”
Ray grinned. “And how much will you trust your girlfriends after they signed you up for this?”
“Not much at all. Still, I can’t distrust the entire female population. My mother’s a member of it.”
Ray mocked a grave expression.
“Your mother is the woman you must trust least of all, Samantha. While you’re not in the house she conspires with users of black magic to bring about your downfall. Anyone who knows you well is a danger to you.”
Sammy snorted. “You’ve been watching too much TV, Ray.”
Ray’s expression returned to its normal cocky grin.
“Nah, it’s just fun to play around like that.”
“According to you.”
“I really know how to have fun, Sammy. I don’t expect people with a lesser grasp of the concept to follow me.”
“Did the girls you swept off their feet agree?” she asked mildly.
“Oh yes.” Ray looked intently into her eyes. “Would you like to be the next?”
Sammy pretended to seem apologetic.
“I’m afraid I don’t really go for the full-of-himself type. Sorry about that.”
Ray shrugged. “Think what you will. And if you say no, it’s your loss.” He glanced at the watch and then looked back at Sammy. “I guess we’d better return this to the teachers. I don’t think they’ll let us keep it.”
“Well...” Sammy hesitated. “You don’t have to take me along with you...”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ray said instantly. “Unless you’re tired of me, of course.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare grow tired of someone who could so enrich my life,” Sammy teased, though deep down relieved by Ray’s response and the speed with which he had delivered it. Together they stood up and walked over to the gazebo.
“Did you have a good time?” Mrs Finney asked.
“Absolutely marvellous,” Ray replied charmingly.
“It was really great,” Sammy said honestly.
Mrs Finney beamed.
“Wonderful, just wonderful. Well, enjoy the rest of your evening. I hope the pair of you will communicate a long time after the Spring Dance and look back thinking you made a wonderful decision taking part in this.”
Sammy didn’t mention that she hadn’t made any such decision, too happy about how the evening had turned out to bring up such a thing, and thanked Mrs Finney along with Ray before they returned to the seats they had previously occupied. Seconds later, an announcement was made on the megaphone about returning the watches lent out to the Mysterious Partners.
Sammy sighed happily. She was having a much better time than she would have done not partaking in the Mysterious Partner scheme.
“What are we doing next, Ray?” she asked, feeling carefree. It seemed to her that she trusted he would understand boundaries and the music was loosening her up where Ray’s ideas of fun hadn’t been able to. She would have jumped up and danced if she hadn’t known that she would make an utter fool out of herself.
Ray’s smile was slow and very wicked, and made you want to grin in response.
“Now you’re going to do everything I say.”