Rose briefly froze in front of Jasper’s face, which was right in front of her, before she tried to step back from him.
It seemed like she might lose her balance and tumble onto Jasper’s lap if she wasn’t careful.
However, Jasper held Rose’s wrist tighter with a mischievous smile. Flustered, Rose, with flushed cheeks, spoke.
“Let go, let go…”
“You were enjoying the view of my face, weren’t you? You’ve been staring at it for quite a while.”
“Did you pretend to sleep all that time? That’s not fair.”
Jasper continued to gaze at Rose, who was muttering timidly, for a while and then stood up from the couch.
Rose was taken aback by Jasper suddenly blocking her way, and his scent was even more pronounced as he got closer.
Jasper looked down at Rose with a casual look in his eyes.
“You asked me to teach you to dance last time.”
“Oh, yeah, I did.”
Silently, Jasper moved closer to Rose and extended his hand towards her. Rose alternated her gaze between Jasper’s firm palm and his calm face.
“Rose, let’s start with the basic steps.”
“I had to find a place without people. We can practice in the garden if you prefer.”
Rose reflexively nodded. The thought of practicing dancing with Jasper in the garden made her feel like she would be instantly surrounded by people.
‘It will probably be the same at the graduation ball…’
Amidst the gaze of many people, can one dance gracefully without any flaws? Rose didn’t want to appear ridiculous with her feet getting tangled for no reason.
As Rose hesitated for a moment, Jasper quickly flicked his fingers as if to signal her to take his hand.
“My arm hurts.”
Rose regained her composure and held Jasper’s hand.
His palm, which had been trained with a sword for a long time, was firm and calloused in places. Through their touch, Rose felt Jasper’s warm body temperature.
Jasper naturally extended his arm and lightly supported Rose’s back. There was no hesitation in holding hands, but his embrace was cautious and delicate.
Rose glanced up at Jasper for a while. Somehow, she found his gaze captivating, which made her speak first to shake off the awkwardness.
“How do you start with the steps?”
Jasper began to move at a slow pace, keeping his eyes fixed on Rose.
She hesitated for a moment, then followed Jasper, worried that their feet might get tangled. She slightly lowered her head to avoid the possibility.
After a while, Jasper’s low voice was heard.
“We need to make eye contact.”
Rose raised her head abruptly. Jasper’s lips bore a faint smile.
He was enjoying this situation.
Rose tried not to be too flustered as she recalled the social dance lessons she had taken last year. The moment she almost left the academy due to her failure in those lessons felt like a distant memory now.
As she pondered one thing after another, the memory of the social dance exam came to her naturally.
The moment when she coincidentally got a ride in Jasper’s carriage and his eyes and gestures as he examined her injured ankle.
Back then, it seemed like the most miserable day of her life, but now it felt like a turning point in her life. If Jasper hadn’t noticed her hobbling with her injured ankle…
‘I wouldn’t have felt these emotions. Probably never in my life.’
Rose was grateful for the present moment.
Gradually, the tension in Rose’s body eased, and she began to move her feet naturally in time with the music. While she might not have been particularly talented in physically demanding activities, she could dance.
She had learned social dance at the academy and had even learned to dance from her mother, Anna, before that. It had been a while since she had the opportunity to dance, so she felt a bit rusty, but her body remembered the basic steps.
Even if she hadn’t danced for a while, she had a good foundation. With a little practice and without too much nervousness, she felt she could dance without any trouble at the upcoming ball.
Jasper paused for a moment and then spoke.
“You’re good at this.”
Rose was slightly thrilled by Jasper’s compliment.
“Really? You don’t think I’ll look too awkward at the ball?”
“Do you care about how others will perceive you?”
Jasper’s brow furrowed slightly.
Rose hesitated as she contemplated Jasper’s question. It wasn’t something she had typically worried about, but recently, she seemed to be particularly conscious of the gaze of others.
It had been different when she was alone, without friends. Perhaps it was because of Jasper.
Jasper let out a soft sigh.
“If it’s because of me, don’t do it.”
Jasper released his arm from around Rose’s back and gently brushed away the strands of hair stuck to her forehead. He tried to speak more gently than usual.
“Regardless of what others might say, you don’t need to worry. I’ll take care of it within my limits so it won’t reach your ears.”
Jasper’s gentle touch as he smoothed Rose’s tousled hair strand by strand was delicate. Rose unconsciously tilted her head towards Jasper’s hand.
Noticing Rose’s small movement, Jasper didn’t miss a beat and used his palm to cup Rose’s left cheek. Rose, feeling Jasper’s warmth, murmured.
“Yeah, it seems like I was conscious of it too. I felt like I should be recognized as someone worthy to be Jasper Conway’s partner. I didn’t want to embarrass you…”
“I have no reason to be embarrassed by you.”
With her face resting in Jasper’s palm, Rose nodded slowly.
“I know that. I still felt that way at the moment.”
“If you have such thoughts…”
Jasper said, tearing up at the corners of his eyes.
“I feel so sad. Shouldn’t we just go to the ball? Oh… yeah, that’d be great, let’s not go. It’s okay if I don’t go to any social gatherings or anything. If it becomes too much of a burden and you don’t feel comfortable with me… ah, maybe I should just move out of the capital?”
Jasper’s brow furrowed and he started to speak, but his expression grew increasingly serious and emotional as he went on. His complexion darkened with each word.
Rose, initially in a daze, interrupted Jasper’s words urgently.
“No! I want to go to the ball.”
“Yes. I don’t want to run away. It’s like we’ve done something wrong.”
“If someone says something like that, I’ll take care of it.”
“I don’t exactly understand what you mean by ‘take care of it,’ but there’s no need for that. I won’t entertain such thoughts anymore. I feel much lighter in my head after talking with you.”
Rose decided to view the ball as an opportunity to create memories with Jasper before graduation, not as a situation where they needed to gain approval from others. She had almost let herself be crushed by gossip and the stories circulating her, but it was too late for that now.
There would always be something in the future, and she didn’t want to keep running away.
And as she had told Jasper, she didn’t want to run away. Thankfully, she had always been strong in that regard.
While Rose gathered her resolve, Jasper’s eyes were fixed on her, moving restlessly as he looked at her with intense longing. Jasper lowered his head a bit more, drawing closer to Rose, and asked.
“Are you okay?”
Jasper’s voice was filled with a hint of uncertainty. Rose nodded energetically.
Jasper pressed his lips tightly together, looking as if he were lost in his thoughts. To reassure Jasper, Rose gently held the hand that was cupping her cheek.
‘He’s secretly quite worried.’
In moments like this, Jasper appeared to be deep in thought, not someone who would lose his temper and throw a punch at a fellow student.
His imposing figure seemed to wither, and his shoulders, once tense, relaxed, while his previously anxious eyes now showed a touch of warmth.
Jasper lowered his upper body and mumbled in a dazed voice.
The golden eyelashes, cast in a soft light, drew closer to Rose. Her heart began to race uncontrollably, and she could feel her heartbeat resonating in her ears.
Despite the overwhelming proximity of his near-perfect face, Rose felt more accustomed to it than before. Fortunately, her body didn’t freeze completely.
With a determined effort, Rose tightly closed her eyes and raised her heels slightly to lessen the height difference. However, she felt no sensation on her lips until suddenly her body seemed to float.
This happened because Jasper used one arm to lift Rose’s back, almost as if she were sitting on his bicep.
Startled, Rose opened her eyes to find Jasper smiling at her. With her body lifted, her eye level was higher than Jasper’s, and his face appeared differently, almost enchanting.
Her lifted eyes seemed rounder than usual, and his blue irises sparkled. It was an endearing face.
Rose inclined her head toward Jasper first. Their lips met slowly and softly.
* * *
Rose headed to the academy’s research lab where she had received support to use for her graduation thesis research.
When she opened the door and entered, she found Theo inside.
While it was a shared research lab with Theo, Rose hadn’t seen him there for several weeks, so she was slightly surprised. Seeing Theo up close after a long time, she noticed that he had a somewhat pale and tired complexion.
Theo awkwardly smiled with a weary look on his face.