Tierney waited impatiently on the front step of the Harmans’ porch, holding her plastic-covered dress in one hand and her make-up bag in the other. Twisting around with her elbow, she rang the doorbell a fourth time. She was starting to get annoyed.
The door swung open with a creak to reveal Raquel glaring at her, her fingers holding a large roller in place. “Stop that,” Raquel snapped, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder. “You’ll wake Mom.”
Guilt washed over Tierney as she watched her friend jab a pin over the roller and lock the silky curl in place. She’d already had her hair done at one of the better salons, its twisted mass gleaming in a riotous mess of colors around its pins. Several multi-colored strands trailed daintily around her face and along the back of her neck, nestling like precious metal against her skin. Raquel couldn’t afford anything that fancy.
“Sorry,” she sighed, pushing her way into the entrance.
Despite Raquel’s warning to be quiet, music blared from Adrien’s room, wafting toward her as strongly as the scent of his aftershave. When she’d seen him this morning, stubble had grazed his chin and he’d grinned at her through hazy eyes. Tierney had left the party long before midnight -- which had nothing to do with Julien’s absence, of course -- and seemed to be the only one who had gotten an adequate night’s sleep.
Raquel shrugged and led the way upstairs. Instead of heading for her bedroom, she indicated the doorway with a vague wave of her hand and continued toward the bathroom, where her curlers waited. Tierney took her dress into the room, draped it over the back of a chair, and retraced her steps to the bathroom. After a moment’s contemplation, she swept the make-up to one side of the counter despite Raquel’s protests. Then, flicking open her make-up case, she pulled out a tube of foundation.
They applied their make-up in silence. Tierney was lost in thought; Raquel concentrated on keeping her silky curls from slipping out of their pins each time she moved.
That dizzying feeling of premonition spiraled through Tierney’s nerves as the silence stretched out. She’d worried about that whisper of imminent disaster since yesterday, when she’d realized with startling clarity it had nothing to do with Julien, and everything to do with Dare.
He couldn’t hurt her.
She’d reminded herself that she was safe countless times, but she wasn’t worried he’d hurt her either. This feeling was something else entirely, a complete mystery that scraped her memories of him and of their encounters into the forefront of her mind. But he could do nothing...
At least until she reversed the spell. Oh, why did this have to be so *difficult*? Tossing her blush into the make-up case with a little more force than was necessary, she forced herself to think of Julien, a far more pleasant subject. With Julien, the night would be special. Maybe even magical. Excitement fluttered through her as she applied her lipstick and then stepped back.
Perfect. The exact image she’d always dreamed of seeing swam in the silvery mirrored lake, the serenity in her eyes contradicting the ball of nerves twisting inside. Her hair was perfect, her make-up was perfect, and she... She reflected back both inner and outer beauty for the last time in her life.
“I need your help getting into my dress,” Raquel murmured around a tube of berry lipstick. She smacked her lips together, frowning at her image. “Do you think I can take the curlers out now?”
Tierney shook her head. “Give it a few more minutes. You should put your dress on first anyway. Then you don’t have to worry about messing anything up.”
“Except my make-up,” Raquel sighed, leading the way into her room. “I’ll probably get it all over my dress.”
“You’ll be fine,” Tierney soothed. She watched her friend walk to the closet, where a pale violet gown hung heavily from a thick metal bar. The gown draped in smooth lines, the clear, glittering beads weighing it down and twinkling in the light.
“I just can’t zip it up.” Disappearing into the closet, Raquel emerged a few seconds later with gown on and gaping at the back. She turned around, docilely waiting for Tierney to zip it up. Then she swiveled to face her friend. “Do I look okay?” she asked anxiously.
On Raquel’s tiny frame, the gown was stunning. It wasn’t too decorative, but the cut accented her figure beautifully. The color matched her eyes. Whoever her date was, he wasn’t going to be disappointed.
“I don’t think the curlers go,” Tierney said thoughtfully.
Raquel rolled her eyes. “And here I thought they went perfectly with the jewelry.”
Laughing at Raquel’s dry sarcasm, Tierney took her own dress off the chair and removed the crackling plastic. While Raquel disappeared into the bathroom to take down her hair, Tierney quickly removed her jeans and tee shirt, then donned the dress.
She ambled slowly to the mirror. The dress dragged a little without heels on, but other than that, it was perfect. A deep vee slashed through the gown’s white satin bodice, ending in a point that was almost -- but not quite -- scandalously low. From that plunging neckline, the gown clung and tapered with her waist, then flared in layers of sheer white chiffon. The back dipped much lower than the front. It also ended in a vee at her back, the very tip brushing just above her tailbone. And on the bodice, where satin met chiffon, a band of moonstones, pearls, and crystal beads danced around each other.
“Oh, Tierney, you look gorgeous.” Raquel stood in the doorway, her hair now piled and pinned at the top of her head.
Tierney grinned at her, boisterous confidence soaring through her. “So do you,” she replied, and meant it. Walking carefully to Raquel’s closet, she pulled out the staggeringly high heels she’d left there the week before. “I don’t know how I’m going to manage to walk.”
With some curiosity, Raquel watched her slip them on. She burst into giggles when Tierney took a few experimental steps. “You’d better hope Julien holds you up.”
Glaring, Tierney tottered out of the room. “Are you ready?” she called over her shoulder.
“Yeah.” Still giggling, Raquel followed her out of the room and down the stairs. Tierney kept a tight grip on the railing as she descended, taking the steps one at a time. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay in those?”
“I’ll get used to them,” Tierney shrugged. She fiddled with the sparkling bracelet she’d already been wearing when she got there. Encrusted with moonstones and pearls, it matched her dress almost perfectly. “So are you going to tell me who your date is now?”
Raquel opened her mouth to reply, but the doorbell interrupted her. Maybe Raquel wouldn’t have to tell her. Triumphantly, she snatched open the door, only to find Julien and not Raquel’s date standing there. “Hey, Jules.”
He stared at her, his gray eyes swimming with shock, and absently handed her the bouquet of flowers. He didn’t even get mad at her for using the nickname they all knew he hated. “Tierney, you look...”
“Thank you,” she laughed, starting to pull him inside. But then she paused and looked at Raquel. “Your date should be here soon, right?”
Her friend shrugged vaguely. “I guess so. You guys go ahead. I’ll catch up with you after the Grand March.”
Tierney frowned. The Grand March was a tradition at their school, where the principal announced the individual names of each couple, who walked out on a stage decorated by the junior class, down a set of steps, and out of the auditorium. It was pointless, really, but it gave the girls a chance to show off their dresses, the parents a chance to take pictures, and the younger students a chance to feel included. It was also the gossip mill’s long-standing end of the year topic.
“We can wait for you,” Julien offered, but Raquel shook her head.
“No, seriously. You guys go.” She unceremoniously ushered them out the door. “Have fun. I’ll see you there.”
“If you’re sure...”
Raquel folded her arms across her chest. “Go.”
Shrugging, Julien and Tierney walked to his car. He opened the door for her and remained to shut it behind her once she settled inside. Raquel still stood in the doorway and, Tierney knew, would until they left. Julien started the car.
“She must be going with Frankenstein,” she muttered. As they pulled out of the driveway, Raquel went back in the house and shut the door. “Though she and Tim looked awfully friendly the other day.”
Amused, Julien shook his head. “Tim’s going with Angela Jeffries.”
Tierney sat back in her seat, utterly preoccupied with this little mystery. At least it would be answered soon enough.
The stage was decorated like a castle.
Machine-generated mist curled hazily around the base of the fake walls, tall and sparkling with translucent glitter, the parapets rising from their heights like stately guards. Gauzy strips of cloth draped from the ceiling, starting in the middle and hooked securely to the rafters. Cerulean intermingled with azure, violet, rose, and white, giving the effect of being surrounded by the setting sun, just at that moment when the sun dropped below the horizon. The lights blazing behind them amplified that impression.
Pale blue strips accented the castle and its gleaming ivory towers, broken only by the ornate white gate. Set on hinges, its feathery bars were bound by silver twine and guarded by two members of the sophomore class, who waited stiffly to perform their duty as gatekeepers. They were dressed formally in neat black tuxedos.
Tierney peered from the curtain, wondering when they were going to start. It was already six o'clock, a full half-hour after this whole charade was supposed to commence. She smoothed her hands over her flowing dress for the thousandth time, butterflies running rampant in her stomach. She still tottered when she walked. Flat surfaces were difficult, but stairs were nearly impossible, almost like trying to climb Mount Everest in stilts.
Either way, she was not looking forward to the imminent obstacle.
"You're not going to fall," Julien whispered beside her. He watched her, amused, as she alternately chewed on her lower lip, smoothed her dress another time, and shifted nervously on the fear-inducing height of her heels. He held her gorgeous, rare flowers in his hands, looking utterly at ease and completely natural.
Her mouth twisted wryly. "That's easy for you to say," she pointed out. "You're not the one who has to walk in these things."
Julien looked mildly perturbed by that statement and he asked, "If they're so hard to walk in, why did you buy them?"
Men, she thought, exasperated. Did they understand nothing? Out loud she said, "Because they're *cute*. And because you're over half a foot taller than I am. It's better for pictures."
"Oh, right," he nodded sagely. "That's definitely more important than being able to walk."
She smacked him. "Don't be facetious." She glanced around the stage, sighing impatiently. No sign of getting started. "What are they waiting for?"
Julien shrugged, unconcerned. He handed her the flowers, careful not to crinkle the pale blue tissue encasing them. The ghost orchids intertwined with autumn crocuses and cymbidiums, a full dozen and a half of the first arranged painstakingly. She balanced them in the crook of her arm, repositioning them twice before they satisfied her.
"I want to get this over with," she moaned.
Just then, Jordana stepped in front of the milling couples. "Okay, everyone, line up. They're going to start in just a few seconds." She glanced over crowd, searching for specific faces. "I need the prom committee in the front. The rest of you know where to go."
The prom committee took their places at the front of the line, the other couples shuffling into alphabetical order, according to the last name of the male half. For the Collective, this proved quite difficult. Tierney had to stifle her laughter. The three girls wore the same dress in different colors, a particularly hideous creation of chiffon and satin. The brightly colored chiffon covered a short skirt and fell to the floor, while the bodice was decorated in some obscure sequined pattern.
Tierney delightedly noted that Dare's cummerbund was neon green to match Lindsay's version of the dress.
"Come on, move!" Jordana called.
As if on cue, music swelled around them. Tierney clutched her flowers tighter and latched herself to Julien's forearm. She knew she would trip and fall, probably dragging him with her. She was surprised he still had feeling left in his arm, after the death grip she'd had on it earlier. But, oh, goddess, the stairs were not going to be fun, and as long as she managed to get through it upright, Julien's arm would stay firmly attached to his body.
She heard the principle giving his introductory speech. The tones drifted back to her in bits and pieces, a word missing here, a word slurred there. She was too nervous to focus on what he said anyway. Julien squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.
"Jordana Cartiss, senior class president, escorted by Adrien Harman."
The line of students surged forward. She caught a quick glimpse of Jordana's sleek red dress, the gauzy scarf billowing behind her. The crowd hidden by the castle walls burst into applause. The butterflies in Tierney's stomach plummeted dangerously.
"I'm going to trip, I know it," she hissed.
He grinned. "Ninety percent of the things people worry about never happen," he whispered back.
The swelling applause drowned out the next two names. Tierney adjusted her grip and stepped forward. "Why do I have the feeling I'm about to fall in that ten percent?"
Raising an eyebrow, he shrugged helplessly, indicating he hadn't been able to hear her and she should repeat herself.
She shook her head. It wasn't important anyway, just useless conversation to take her mind off the nerve-wracking anticipation. She searched vainly for Raquel in the crowd. Who was her date?
Leaning in, his mouth brushed lightly against the shell of her ear. "What did you say?" he murmured, then drew back, startled, realizing how close he'd gotten.
Shivering from that light touch, she pulled away. "It doesn't matter."
He didn't look convinced, but let it go. Only three couples remained in front of them. Luckily, Julien's last name was pretty high up in the alphabet, so they didn't have to wait half an hour to be announced. Her nerves might have killed her.
"Andrea McKinney, escorted by Benjamin Cunningham."
Scattered applause this time. Neither half of that couple involved themselves in any sort of activity, and frankly, Tierney was surprised they had bothered to turn up for prom at all.
She could see through the gates now. The auditorium was *packed*. All the more people to witness her humiliation. She searched the crowd, looking for her parents, but they were lost in the sea of faces.
"Samantha Adams, escorted by Joel Daniels."
Oh, goddess, they were next.
They stepped up to the gate, Julien's sleeve slippery beneath her fingers, and she took a deep breath. Sam Adams, who was about as alcoholic as the shortened version of her name, walked confidently with her date to the edge of the stage and paused briefly before continuing down the stairs.
"Tierney Anderson, escorted by Julien D'Angelo."
She plastered a bright smile on her face, knowing it was cheesy and fake, but too full of nerves to do anything about it. Those stately gates swung open.
"You'll be fine," Julien whispered, a cocky grin lighting up his handsome face.
Cheers erupted as the pair moved onto the stage. No surprise there. Julien was the starting point guard on the basketball team. She would be shocked if there *wasn't* applause.
They made it to the stairs without any problems, but disaster loomed imminent in the form of six narrow steps. She handed him her bouquet, picking up her skirt with one hand, hopefully to narrow her chances of tripping.
One down. Two. Three... With a sigh of relief, she found herself firmly back on solid, *flat* ground.
He returned her orchids. "I told you," he said, though it was hard to hear him over the boisterous applause.
Tension draining from her shoulders, they walked slowly down the aisle, the clapping dying out gradually. They made it to back just in time to hear Dare's name announced.
He strode from the castle looking bored, Lindsay beaming beside him. Her flowers were red and clashed horribly with the neon green, but Lindsay had wanted red roses. Dare had merely obliged her.
He met her eyes when they paused. Even through the distance separating them, she could feel his eyes sweeping critically over her. She tossed her head, meeting his eyes squarely, knowing that tonight, he wouldn't be able to find anything wrong with her appearance.
Then the couple following them momentarily blocked her view, cutting off eye contact.
Trying to look regal, but only managing to look snobby, Lindsay took a step down, then another. Tierney held her breath, that feeling of disaster augmenting to disturbing proportions. Lindsay's heel wobbled precariously as she placed her weight on the slender spike, then she lost her balance. Dare caught her quickly, crushing the flowers against her dress. She gasped, mortified, the sound audible even over the buzzing crowd.
Tierney drew in a sharp breath. Well, at least it hadn't been her. She felt briefly guilty, that thought creeping through her head, knowing that even while it was honest, it wasn't nice. Then she brushed her feelings of guilt aside. Oh, what did she care anyway?
Lindsay righted herself and the pair continued to where Tierney and Julien stood, accompanied by only one or two snickers. Tierney idly noted that Lindsay's face matched the bruised red of her roses. That didn't stop her from jostling Tierney out of her way.
She stumbled into Julien, her soulmate's cruel eyes following her descent with something like humor. A small smile played around his lips as her date closed his arms protectively around her and glared back.
"Watch where you're going," Lindsay snapped. She swept by them, huffing and disgruntled. Dare followed like a faithful puppy.
Letting go, Julien laid one finger against her lips, quieting the stream of words he knew was ready to spurt forth. "Not tonight," he said. "Console yourself with the fact that Lindsay just made an ass out of herself in front of more than seven hundred people."
Realizing he was right, she managed to drag her anger back under control. "Julien," she laughed, "you always know how to make my day brighter."
Amusement curved his lips. "Let's make it brighter yet. Do you want to go outside?"
"In a minute. I want to wait for Raquel."
More couples streamed around them as they finished their few minutes of high-school fame under the dim lights of the auditorium. Some names Tierney recognized; others slipped past her. The school was large enough that you could pass someone in the hall one day, and not see them again for another two weeks. While Tierney didn't mingle with many of the other groups, most of the students knew her because of Adrien, even while she didn't know them. It was hard to spend time with him and not be noticed.
Impatient to be outside, she shifted to make more room for the couples pouring into the back. A girl in a particularly gaudy orange dress paused at the top of the stairs now, her date looking freshly scrubbed and freshly shaved, his round features giving him a much younger air.
They were replaced by an Asian girl in a divine black gown and one of the other members of the basketball team.
Eight couples later, Tierney finally spotted Raquel waiting behind the gates, her date tall and confident next to her. Tierney gaped. No wonder Raquel wouldn't tell her who she was going with.
"Raquel Harman, escorted by Elliot Harington."
Harington's son? Raquel *hated* Harington!
Tierney watched open-mouthed as her best friend made her way back to join her. Elliot, who apparently refused to remove his eyebrow ring even for prom, sported a smart black tux, complemented by a chic gray vest. His short, spiked hair had been arranged artfully to preserve that "I just rolled out of bed" look. In contrast, his blue eyes shone clear and animated.
Once they were a few feet away, Tierney noticed the blush creeping across Raquel's cheeks. She stared at her friend, blinking several times, then turned to Julien. "Outside?" she asked.
He nodded. Gesturing for Raquel and Elliot to follow, they pushed their way through the thronging mass of students in the lobby. He had to nudge someone out of the way with the glass door to get it open, but eventually, fresh air flooded into Tierney's lungs, instead of the smell of paint and glitter and glue.
Shoving their way through puffy skirts and truckloads of flowers, the group finally stopped at the edge of the parking lot.
"This is insane," Elliot muttered, fishing in his pocket. A cigarette emerged, followed by a cheap, plastic lighter. He placed it between his lips, then lit it, inhaling deeply. He exhaled, but was careful not to blow smoke in any of their faces.
From the way Julien relaxed, she could tell he appreciated this gesture. "It's worse than last year," he agreed, glancing around milling couples.
One of the girls nearby caught his eye. "Could you take a picture?" she pleaded, holding out her camera.
He accepted it readily, turning it over in his hands twice before he figured out how to adjust it. Raising it to his eye, he frowned, then lowered it. The shutter clicked open. A group of five girls huddled together, looking young and carefree, their smiles and lives immortalized with the quick press of a button. He handed her the camera.
In a flurry of skirts, she thanked him and hurried off to pursue other victims.
"Do you have a camera, Tier?" Raquel asked, digging through her purse. "I have one, but I forgot to bring film."
A long stream of smoke flew between Elliot's lips, then he said, "I told you we could stop to pick some up."
"I know," she sighed, "but I was worried about getting here on time."
He grimaced, his eyes sweeping over the crowds of gaudily clothed high school students, then lifted his shoulder in a careless shrug. "We can always get some on the way to the prom." Dropping the cigarette on the beaten concrete, he ground it out under his scuffed shoe. He looked up and groaned. "Bitch alert."
Mrs. Harington strode toward them like a general toward errant ranks, her hawk-like features drawn tight and thin. Her darting eyes flared at the scent of acrid smoke. Somehow her face got even more disapproving.
"Were you smoking?" she demanded.
Amazing how someone who always looked as if she'd just swallowed something sharp and painful could produce someone as laid back as Elliot. If the sour look ever faded from her face, they might resemble each other. As it was, her features were too pinched to tell.
"Of course not, Frances," he said easily, ignoring the way she drew in her breath when he called her by her first name. Tierney wanted to laugh at the look of rage on the teacher's face, but knew better than to risk her grade. Harington didn't tolerate insolence. Except, apparently, from her son. "It's such a nasty disgusting habit."
"A nasty disgusting habit is right," she snapped. "If I find out you were doing that or anything else inappropriate at this dance--"
He cut her off. "I know, I know. You've threatened me a million times."
Evidently, this satisfied her. She nodded knowingly at him, then her shrewd eyes fell on Raquel. "And as for you, Miss Harman, if I find out you were party to anything, I will have you expelled."
A moment of silence reigned while Raquel searched for some appropriate response. Julien took advantage of those few seconds. "We're going now," he said to Raquel and Elliot. He nodded respectfully to Mrs. Harington. Grasping Tierney's elbow and carrying her flowers, he led her away from the group to his beat-up convertible. She was well aware he could have afforded a much nicer car, but chose to keep the one he owned, because he said it had character.
It was one of the many things she liked about him.
She glanced around to see if she could find her parents, but they’d probably left already. Her father *hated* traffic. It had been enough that they were there.
Opening the door, Julien waited until she ducked inside, pulling her skirts in the car and getting settled before closing it behind her. She relaxed against the seat. He climbed into the driver's side and slammed the door behind him.
"Ready?" he asked, glancing over at her.
She watched him slip the keys in the ignition. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You and Raquel are always forgetting something." He started the car.
The soft strains of classic jazz broke into the silence. With a disdainful frown, he switched the music over to a more mainstream station. She didn't speak, letting the familiar song wash over her. He released the emergency break.
"You okay over there?"
At her nod, he pulled out of the parking space.
The ride to the hotel was overwhelmingly uneventful.
They made small talk, idle conversation about everything and nothing, and listened to the radio. Julien fiddled with the station every few seconds, nothing seeming to suit him. Tierney had the impression that something bothered him, but feared asking him what it was. Maybe she just imagined it.
But when they pulled into the parking lot, she was sure of it. He turned off the car and instead of getting out, he stayed where he was, staring blankly through the windshield. Her fingers played over the door handle. She wondered if she should push it open, breaking the moment, or if she should wait to let him make the decision on his own.
Her hesitation took the choice away from her.
"I was nervous about asking you to come with me," he confessed suddenly. He slipped the keys from the ignition, rattling them between his fingers. He shifted in the seat until he was facing her. "You know, I really like you, Tierney."
She opened her mouth to reply, but didn't know what to say, shutting her mouth abruptly. "Well, you obviously don't hate me or you wouldn't have asked me to the prom."
"You know that's not what I meant."
She did. And even worse than that, she knew she felt the same, even though it was *wrong*. She had a soulmate. How could she feel this way about Julien when Dare frayed at the edges of her consciousness? It didn't make any sense!
But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't change how she felt, and she genuinely cared for Julien.
“Yeah, I know.”
Her words were chosen cautiously, hovering in ambiguous torture on the air. He hesitated for a moment, then said, “Tierney, I’ve liked you since I met you. No, I’ve wanted to *date* you since I met you. You’re funny, you’re smart, and you’re genuinely nice to everyone you meet. I didn’t hit on you at first because you’re Adrien’s little sister’s best friend --“
“No, don’t interrupt. I need to say this.” He took a deep breath, reaching a hand to smooth a strand of her hair and brushing the skin of her neck. “You’re like Adrien’s little sister. And then you and I got to be good friends, too. I didn’t want to ruin that. But I’m graduating soon and I’ll be going away to school. I don’t want to lose you.” He grinned wryly. “Well, if I haven’t already by telling you this.”
She didn’t say anything, didn’t look at him. Words hovered in her throat and she knew how much it must have cost him to say this to her, when the risk of losing something important shone like a promise over both of them.
“Tierney, do you think--“
She wasn’t ready for this. Two weeks ago, she’d found her soulmate. In that same breath, she’d lost him. His superficiality struck deep, the wounds ragged and bleeding. She was still too raw, still too uncertain, and still too disillusioned. Her soulmate didn’t want her. How could anyone else?
He’d seen into the deepest, most secret core of what she was. He’d still rejected her. But...
Maybe she was wrong to think that being soulmates meant something. She and Dare certainly weren’t a match made in heaven, or even in the dankest recesses of hell. She’d been a fool to think they had a chance. He offered outer beauty, but it wasn’t enough.
Julien offered her herself.
She pondered that realization for a moment, its sincerity touching deeply. Julien liked her for who she was, not for what she looked like on the outside. The spell didn’t change people, only appearances. And he said he’d wanted to be with her for months, long before the spell ever came into play. He’d wanted her when she was hideous and he hadn’t cared that she was.
“-- that maybe we could go out? This could be our first date?”
Her hazel eyes swung to meet his gray, but she still didn’t say anything. Her face stayed utterly blank, but her mind whirled.
Julien was never anything but sweet to her. He treated her like a friend, yes, but Raquel hadn’t been wrong when she said he also treated Tierney differently from everyone else. He always paid her that extra bit of attention, the kind that made her feel special and worthwhile, no matter what else spun out of control around her. She loved spending time with him, didn’t she? Whatever they did, they always had fun, regardless of how stupid or childish or random it was. Somehow she knew that he truly, genuinely cared.
And then her thoughts flew to their afternoon on the beach, when he’d ended up sprawled on top of her. She would be lying if she said she wasn’t attracted to him. His dimples were endearing, his gray eyes soul-searching, and his touch gentle. The attraction was mental as much as it was physical. But were those reasons really good enough to risk their friendship?
Then, suddenly, she had the most stunning thought of all, the kind of thought that makes everything fall into place, that clarifies all those doubts and inhibitions trying to interfere...
“Tierney?” he prompted.
And instead of answering, she kissed him.