9. songs and second chances

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Ian steps through the gate like a knight in shining armor

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Ian steps through the gate like a knight in shining armor. His face belies his confident swagger as he approaches, but the kids are too excited to notice the naked terror. Annoyance warms my face; I had this covered, and now here he is, sweeping in like he's saving the day.

Ian's throat bobs, and I wonder if he's swallowing past his dry mouth. Finally, he unglues his lips and manages to get out, "Is there a Princess Kaylee here?"

"Me!" The princess in question shoots past me and grabs Ian's hands, sending a new wave of emotion across his face.

He catches my eye. The regret is there, painfully obvious to see. My breath catches. What changed? What made him decide to show up, after all?

The kids all clamor for Prince Eric as Kaylee leads Ian to our sing-a-long group, chattering a mile a minute about all the Little Mermaid stuff she owns. Only children can make rampant consumerism seem charming.

Ian makes all the appropriate oohing and aahing noises, compliments everyone on their beautiful face paint, and kisses a few hands. In the span of a minute, I am chopped mermaid. I grit my teeth; once again, he's managed to charm everyone around him.

Ian doesn't quite bask in the attention, but it doesn't take long for him to relax around the kids, who don't seem to notice he isn't as out-going as me, or that he still has a panicky look in his eyes. By the time everyone calms down, the tablet switches to the next song in the playlist, and our singing is forgotten.

While music plays in the background, Ian and I get the cardboard swords and tiaras out. The parents pass out magazines for the kids to use as a flat surface, and the kids get to coloring.

I take a step back so I can stand next to Ian while still keeping an eye on the activity. "You came," I say, keeping my voice low so no one can overhear us.

He doesn't acknowledge me at first, and just as I'm about to bristle and move away, he whispers, "I know it's probably too little, too late, but I'm sorry, Kavya. I...I couldn't move. I didn't care that it would make the company look bad, or that you'd have to do it alone. Every thought in my head was screaming Don't go in there!"

My eyebrows draw together.

Just as he opens his mouth to say something more, I lightly touch his wrist. It's barely a second, but the skin on skin contact electrifies me. From his sharp intake of breath, he feels it, too.

"Not here," I whisper. Do not break character is another rule in the Fairytale Handbook. "Later."

He nods.

We return to our respective tasks—Ian helps the little boys glue rhinestones to their cardboard swords while I advise the girls on how best to decorate their tiaras. A few of the boys want tiaras, too, and even though one parent objects, I calmly remove the tiara templates and hand over the container of sparkling gems.

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