“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Lexi said quietly. “What about what happened with Haley?”
“Oh, honey. You would never do something like that to Mia. This is a whole different thing.” Jude smiled. She knew how sensitive Lexi was to overstepping her welcome, but this would be good for everyone. “How about if we let Zach decide?”
Lexi stared at her for a long time, saying nothing.
“It’s not a sympathy date, Lexi. It’s a night out for friends. And I really think Zach should be there when he’s named homecoming king, don’t you?”
Lexi sighed. “Yeah.”
Jude held out the shopping bag. “I bought the dress for you.”
“I can’t accept that,” Lexi said. “It’s too much.”
Jude saw Lexi’s gratitude, but there was something else in the girl’s blue eyes, a dark, smoky shame that broke Jude’s heart. “You’re part of the family, Lexi. You know that. Let me do this for you, okay? I know you want to go to the dance. Let Zach take you.”
Lexi looked down at the tile floor. The hair behind her ear fell free again, shielded her profile from Jude. “Okay, Jude,” she finally said, softly. “If Zach wants to take me, I’ll go with him. But…”
Lexi shook her head; her hair shimmered at the movement. “Don’t be surprised if he says no.”
“Okay. Open your eyes,” Jude said, putting her hands on Lexi’s shoulders.
Lexi drew in a deep breath and did as she was told. In front of her was a big mirror surrounded by tiny globe lights. For a split second, she saw a stranger—a girl with sleek, glossy black hair, layered now around her face, and perfectly arched eyebrows. Carefully applied violet eyeliner had enhanced her blue eyes, given her a smoky, sophisticated look, and blush highlighted her high cheekbones. She was almost afraid to smile, in case it was an illusion.
Jude leaned closer. “You’re beautiful.”
Lexi slipped out of the chair and turned around. “Thank you,” she said, hugging Jude tightly.
Later, on the ferry home, she and Mia sat in the backseat of the Escalade, with Jude in the driver’s seat. Lexi kept sneaking looks at herself in the mirror. She wanted to believe it would make a difference somehow, this transformation, that Zach would finally look at her and think she was pretty. But she knew better.
Tonight was not going to go well. Honestly, she couldn’t fathom why he’d agreed to take her to the dance—probably because Jude and Mia had pressured him mercilessly, and one thing was always true: Zach hated to disappoint his sister.
If only Lexi hadn’t almost kissed him. None of this would be a problem if she’d never turned to him that night. Or if she’d told Mia the truth. If only … if only. It was a list that went on and on, and she’d reread it so many times in her mind that she felt sick to her stomach.
It had been a week since the party—since the hilltop. Lexi had repeatedly intended to tell Mia the truth, but she hadn’t. She couldn’t, and now, for the first time, when she saw her best friend, Lexi felt like a liar. And every time she saw Zach, she ran like a track star. She was terrified that she’d ruined everything, that when her secret came out, she’d lose Mia’s friendship and Jude’s respect. Everything that mattered to her.
“I should have said no,” Lexi muttered later, as she and Mia bounded up the stairs at the Farraday house to get dressed. “This has disaster written all over it.”
“I don’t get you,” Mia said, closing the door behind them. “I really don’t.”
Lexi immediately felt guilty. “Sorry. It’ll be fun. I can’t wait.” She went to Mia’s overflowing closet, where both dresses hung between sheets of plastic. They dressed and studied themselves in the oval mirror by the desk. Only occasionally could Mia’s black-and-white Converse high-tops be seen under her hemline.
“I think I look okay,” Mia said, turning to Lexi. Her green eyes held worry. “Don’t I? Will he think so?”
“You look gorgeous. Tyler will—”
A knock at the door interrupted them. There was a pause, then it opened. Jude stood there, holding a silver camera. “Tyler is here.”
Mia looked nervously at Lexi. “How do I look?”
“Totally hot. He’s lucky to have you.”
Mia threw her arms around Lexi and hugged her tightly. “Thank God you’re with me. I don’t know if I’d have the guts to go downstairs without you.”
Holding hands, they left the bedroom and walked down the big curving staircase.
Zach and Tyler were in the living room, standing together, talking. Both were wearing blue suits. Zach’s hair was still wet—the football game had just ended and he’d raced home to get ready.
He looked up and saw Lexi. She saw the way he frowned as she came down the stairs. Her heart started beating so fast she felt light-headed.
Be cool, she thought.
She’d say she was sorry right away, laugh it off, that stupid near-kiss. Maybe she’d say she’d been drunk and didn’t remember any of it. Could she pull that off?
As she neared him, Zach stepped forward, offering her a blue-tipped white carnation in a clear plastic box. “Thanks,” she mumbled.
“It’s got, like, a rubber band on it; it goes on your wrist,” he said. “Amanda says they’re the best kind.”
“Thanks,” she said again, not daring to look at him. He’d mentioned his girlfriend; she got the point.
“Okay, picture time,” Jude said. Miles came up beside her. “We’ll need fingerprints from you, Tyler,” he said.
“Dad!” Mia shrieked, blushing.
Lexi moved awkwardly into place beside Zach. He put an arm around her, but didn’t pull her close. They stood like images from an Old West photograph, stiff and unsmiling.
The photographs went on and on, until finally Zach said, “No more, dos amigos. We’re outta here.”
As they started for the door, Lexi pulled away from Zach. She stepped into the entryway, where she’d left a brown shopping bag by the table. Reaching inside, she pulled up a small green plastic container that held a potted purple petunia.
“This is for you,” Lexi said to Jude, feeling her face grow hot. It was such a little gift—she’d found it on the half-price counter at the local nursery. It was probably totally the wrong thing, but it was all Lexi could afford. “I know you don’t really need anything, but I looked … and you don’t have any petunias, so I thought … anyway, thanks for the dress.”
Jude smiled. “Thank you, Lexi.”
“Come on, Lexster,” Mia said from the doorway.
Lexi walked to the door with Jude, and then followed Mia out to the Mustang.
“One o’clock curfew,” Jude yelled from the doorway.
Zach didn’t seem to be listening. He walked on ahead to the Mustang, which was parked out front. He opened Lexi’s door but didn’t wait for her to get in. Instead, he walked around to the driver’s side.
When Mia and Tyler were settled in the backseat, Lexi took her place beside Zach. He started up the car and cranked on the music.
All the way to the high school, Mia and Tyler whispered together. Zach kept his eyes on the road. He seemed pissed off at Lexi, or at the fact that she was his date. She could hardly blame him. In the school lot, he parked close to the stairs, and the four of them merged into the colorful river of kids streaming into the gymnasium, which had been transformed into a tacky version of New Orleans, complete with streamers and fake moss. The Mardi Gras theme continued when they walked into the gym, where a chaperone handed them a handful of brightly colored bead necklaces.
The song playing was “Hella Good,” and the dance floor was overflowing.
They got their pictures taken first—each couple alone, then the girls, then Mia and Zach.
Lexi could see how stiff Zach was. Every girl in the senior class seemed to be watching them. No doubt Amanda had asked for a full report, and Zach wasn’t going to do anything to hurt his girlfriend’s feelings. He wouldn’t even look at Lexi.
Finally, he took her hand and led her out onto the dance floor. As they got there, the music changed, slowed down. He took her in his arms.
Lexi stared at his chest, tried to move with him and not step on his feet. Honestly, she had no idea how to dance, and she was so nervous, she couldn’t breathe. Finally, she looked up and found him staring down at her, his eyes unreadable. “I know you didn’t want to take me to the dance, Zach. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“I’m sorry,” was all she could think of to say.
He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her through the crowd. She stumbled along behind him, trying to keep up, smiling at the people she pushed past so it didn’t seem weird that Zach was pulling her off the dance floor.
He kept going, past the punch bowl and the row of parent/teacher chaperones and through the big doors to the football field. There, everything was black and still. The stars overhead joined with a bright moon and set the goalposts aglow.
Zach finally stopped. “Why did you try to kiss me?”
“I didn’t. I lost my balance. It was stupid…” She sighed and looked up, immediately wishing she hadn’t.
“What if I wanted you to?”
“Don’t mess with me, Zach,” she said. Her voice cracked, betraying her. She knew his reputation. He probably said things like this all the time. He went through girlfriends like she went through lip gloss. “Please.”
“Can I kiss you, Lex?”
In her mind, she said no, but when Zach looked down at her, she shook her head, unable to find her voice.
“If you’re going to stop me,” he said, pulling her close, “this would be the time.”
And then he was kissing her and she was falling and flying, twisting into someone else, something else. When he finally drew back, he looked as pale and shaky as she felt, and she was glad of that, because she was crying.
Crying. What an idiot …
“Did I do something wrong?”
“So, why are you crying?”
“I don’t know.”
Lexi heard Mia’s voice and she lurched away from Zach, wiping the stupid tears from her eyes.
Mia ran up to them. “They’re crowning the homecoming king and queen. You better get in there.”
“I don’t give a shit about that. I’m talking to Lexi—”
“Go,” Mia said.
Zach looked at Lexi again, frowning; then he walked off, headed for the gymnasium.
“What were you two doing out here?” Mia asked.
Lexi started walking toward the gym. She didn’t dare look at her best friend. “He wanted to tell me something about the game tonight.” She forced a laugh. “You know me. I don’t know jack about football.” She winced. Another lie to her best friend. Who was she becoming?