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By Melody Carlson
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2009 Melody Carlson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I can't believe it's only six weeks until graduation." Kriti groaned, then turned her attention back to the history book in her lap.
"If anyone doesn't need to worry about graduation, it's you, Kriti." Taylor reached for the fruit platter. "You've got it made it the shade, girl."
Kriti gave Taylor a half smile. But DJ knew Kriti wasn't concerned about graduating-that was a given. Kriti was obsessed with getting top honors at Crescent Cove High, even more so since she recently received her letter of acceptance from Harvard.
"Hopefully none of the Carter House girls need worry about graduation." Grandmother scanned the girls around the breakfast table. "I can only assume that all of you are maintaining your grades."
"Of course," DJ assured her. Naturally, she wasn't going to admit what kind of grades they all were maintaining. And to be fair, DJ had actually been applying herself to her studies for most of the year. In fact, since returning to classes after spring break, it seemed that all the girls had gotten more diligent about school ... and life in general. How long this sense of serious sobriety would last (both figuratively and literally) was anyone's guess. But DJ was not complaining.
"Here's a thought." Eliza's eyes lit up. "Instead of focusing on how long it is until graduation, whynot focus on the fact we have only two weeks until prom."
"Like it's possible to forget," DJ tossed back at her. "Everywhere you turn in school there's a glossy, glitzy poster in your face-and half of them belong to Miss Eliza Wilton."
"So you've probably noticed the rest of them belong to Madison Dormont and Haley Callahan," retorted Eliza. "And I would really appreciate it if the Carter House girls would back me in my campaign a little more." She looked hopefully at Grandmother. "Don't you agree, Mrs. Carter? Shouldn't we all support each other like a family?"
Grandmother gave DJ a look of frustration. She'd already questioned why DJ had no interest in running for prom queen, but DJ had adamantly answered, "No way!" Grandmother now smiled and nodded. "Yes, of course, Eliza, all the girls should be perfectly willing to help you. It would be wonderful to have a Carter House girl as prom queen."
"Great. I'm going to have a campaign strategy meeting Sunday night and I'd like all of you to attend." Eliza beamed. "And it will be catered."
DJ suppressed the urge to say "Whooptie do!"
"And I thought this weekend might be a good time for everyone to model their gowns," Eliza continued, this time aiming her words at Grandmother. "We can have a fashion critique night with Mrs. Carter as judge. Doesn't that sound like fun?"
Fun like a root canal, DJ thought.
"Not everyone's dress will be ready this weekend," Rhiannon protested.
Eliza nodded knowingly in DJ's direction. "Yes, so I've heard. Some girls seem to be dragging their heels-as if they think a fairy godmother is going to show up and wave her magic wand ... right, DJ?"
DJ laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea to me."
Eliza had been pestering everyone about prom dresses for the past couple of weeks-ever since her mom had shipped her a beautiful gown from Paris, which she'd already sent out for alterations. So far only Kriti had caved to the pressure, allowing Eliza to drag her out formal shopping last weekend. Kriti probably gave in just to shut Eliza up so she could study without interruption.
"But what will you wear if your fairy godmother doesn't show?" continued Eliza. "Your soccer uniform perhaps?"
DJ rolled her eyes. "Give me a break, Eliza. I'll have a dress in time for the prom."
"I can only imagine what kind of lame dress you'll manage to dig up at the last minute. And please, don't go to one of those rental places." Eliza made an expression that strangely resembled Grandmother. "Honestly, DJ, why do you insist on waiting until the last minute for anything that's remotely related to fashion? It's like you get some kind of thrill out of being difficult."
DJ just shrugged and picked up her coffee cup. DJ was tempted to remind Eliza that she wasn't the only one without a prom dress. But what difference would it make? Once Eliza got stuck on something like this, she was like a pit bull. Sure, she might be a pit bull dressed in a pink Marc Jacobs jacket and lip gloss-but a pit bull all the same. Lately DJ had begun to suspect this fixation on prom was simply Eliza's cover-up ... a way to conceal the troubles that lay beneath. Even the fact that she and Lane had recently begun dating felt like a distraction device. Like Eliza was so caught up in creating her "perfect" little world that she never had time to think about her traumatic kidnapping incident in Palm Beach a couple weeks ago. Like it had never even happened. And, according to Rhiannon (Eliza's roommate), Eliza had lied to Grandmother, saying that she'd informed her parents about the whole thing when she really hadn't.
"FYI," Taylor announced lightly, "DJ and I will be going prom dress shopping this weekend." She glanced at DJ. "Right, Roomie?"
DJ shrugged, then noticed that Grandmother was eyeing her with interest.
"That sounds like a good plan, DJ," Grandmother said. "Just don't forget we have modeling class on Saturday morning. You girls all know that the Mother's Day fashion show is only three weeks away, but you might not know it's completely sold out. It could well be Crescent Cove's biggest fund-raising event ever. Just this week, Mayor Daschall told me how proud he is of the Carter House girls. He wants the newspaper to do a feature article on you the week before the fashion show. He's actually calling you girls the future first citizens of the next generation."
DJ held back the groan that was threatening to erupt as her grandmother droned on about how the Carter House girls were such fine examples. Was the mayor as delusional as Grandmother? Or were they all in deep, deep denial? Even so, DJ felt a tiny stab of pity for the old woman. She actually seemed to care about the girls ... and she'd been a pretty good sport these past few weeks-especially in light of what they'd all gone through during spring break. DJ had honestly expected Grandmother to send all the girls packing once they'd gotten home. But, other than a rather lengthy lecture and stern warning about abiding by the house rules, she hadn't. As a result, DJ had been trying to be more positive and cooperative lately. But hearing the mayor's praise of the girls made DJ want to scream. If only he knew the truth.
As Grandmother wound down her little pep talk, Casey quietly excused herself. It seemed that everyone at the table was subdued now. Perhaps they all felt a bit of guilt. Future first citizens of the next generation ... with the kinds of problems these girls had experienced this past year? It was psychotic, DJ thought.
And, unless DJ was mistaken, their problems weren't over with yet. She watched as Casey silently exited the dining room. It felt like Casey was trying to slip beneath the radar, like she had something to hide. DJ honestly didn't know what to make of her anymore. Despite the fact that Casey had retracted the confession she'd made at Palm Beach, DJ still had a feeling that it could be true.
Oh, she knew it made no sense, but she still had this nagging fear that Casey really could be pregnant. And yet Casey had firmly denied this possibility. She'd explicitly told DJ that she'd been mistaken-false alarm, no harm no foul, end of story. And after that she refused to even discuss it. And, really, why would Casey lie? DJ just needed to let it go and forget about it.
Of course, it didn't help matters that Casey had started dating Seth again. Oh, like the other Carter House girls, she'd definitely calmed down her social life these past few weeks, but DJ had been disappointed to see Casey and Seth still together. Didn't Casey get that Seth was bad news? Didn't she see the way he treated her, how he took her for granted, and how he was after only one thing? Still, just like Taylor had hinted more than once, maybe DJ needed to back off. "All you can do is warn her and wait," Taylor had said. "You start pushing her and she'll probably just go the other direction." And Taylor should know, since she'd been there herself not so very long ago.
Just the same, DJ found it hard to give up on her old friend, and that's why she excused herself and hurried off in hopes of catching Casey. She'd invite her to shop for prom dresses. But Casey had already grabbed her bag and was on her way back down.
"Hey, Case," DJ said as she casually blocked the way, "why don't you come shopping with Taylor and me on Saturday?"
Casey's brow creased. "Well, for one thing, I'm just about flat broke."
"But I thought you were going to the prom with Seth-don't you need a dress?"
"I do. But Rhiannon offered to help me with it."
"Oh ... that's nice of her."
"Maybe ..." Casey's scowl deepened. "In exchange I have to go to youth group with her for the next three weeks."
DJ grinned. Score points for Rhiannon!
"Yeah, it figures that would make you happy."
DJ heard the other girls coming out of the dining room. They'd be heading for the stairs and their last-minute grabs before school.
"It's just that I care about you," DJ said quickly. "And I'd really like to talk to you-"
"Later." Casey cut her off, pushed past her, and hurried down the stairs.
Keep praying for her, DJ told herself as she headed for her room. Maybe that was all she could do. Just keep her mouth shut and pray. Really, what was so hard about that? And maybe she was making something out of nothing. Just let it go.
"Sorry to force you into prom dress shopping," Taylor said as she came into their room. She paused in front of the closet mirror, fluffing her hair and retouching her lip gloss. "It just seemed like the best way to silence Miss Eliza. Besides, she's sort of right. The longer we put it off, the less we'll have to choose from."
"Yeah, I suppose shopping's just a necessary evil."
Taylor laughed. "Someday, you're going to look back on these times of enforced fashion assistance and realize how much you needed me."
DJ made a face. "Yeah, like the next time I'm dribbling the soccer ball toward the winning goal, I'll pause to flip my hair and say to myself, Oh, yeah, that stylish Taylor Mitchell, where would I be without her today?"
Taylor made a face as she closed the lid on her lip gloss. "Hey, there's nothing wrong with being an attractive athlete."
"Especially if you're going for product endorsements ... which I don't see coming my way anytime soon." DJ slung the strap of her bag over a shoulder and reached for the doorknob.
"Were you talking to Casey on the stairs?" Taylor asked quietly.
"Trying to." DJ shook her head. "I just wish she'd open up."
"She will when she's ready."
DJ closed the bedroom door behind them. "I tried to talk her into shopping with us on Saturday."
"Good idea, except I hear Rhiannon's making her dress."
"You guys talking about Casey?" Rhiannon asked as the three merged at the top of the stairs.
DJ glanced around to see if anyone else was within earshot.
"They're all downstairs," Rhiannon assured her.
"It's just that I'm worried about Casey," DJ admitted. "It's obvious that something's wrong. She tries to hide it, but it looks like she's unhappy."
Rhiannon nodded. "She definitely seems different. I thought maybe she was depressed about school ... she told me her grades have slipped, but she said she was working on it. And Kriti offered to help her."
"Maybe that's all it is ..." DJ tried to sound hopeful. "Just her grades."
"Anyway, I made her promise to come to youth group"-Rhiannon grinned-"in trade for her prom dress. Seemed like a good deal to me."
"And brilliant." DJ reached out to give her a high five.
"Maybe." Taylor didn't look convinced. "Just don't forget the old adage about leading a horse to water ... just because you drag her there doesn't mean she'll drink."
"If she's thirsty, she might."
DJ jangled her keys. "We better get going or we'll be late."
As DJ drove the three of them to school, she was still thinking about Casey. Maybe Rhiannon was right that Casey was simply worried about grades and graduation. And she probably should be. Yet, it just felt there was something else going on. For one thing, it seemed obvious that Casey had been avoiding DJ. Every day since spring break, Casey had ridden to school with Eliza. Besides that, Casey had quit soccer-and right before play-offs too. She'd claimed it was because of a reinjury to her knee, although DJ had never heard of this mysterious injury before. And she'd never seen Casey take a bad hit, plus she never limped or anything. Not that DJ had questioned Casey's story. She knew by then that, although Casey was acting all quiet and introverted, her fuse was short and she could explode at the slightest provocation. DJ did not care to provoke her.
Despite DJ's concern for Casey, she had never mentioned the Palm Beach confession to anyone-not even Conner, and she told him almost everything. And maybe that was a moot point now since Casey had insisted it had been a mistake. But why did DJ have such a hard time letting it go?
"What a gorgeous day," Rhiannon observed as they went up the front steps of the school.
DJ squinted up for one last glance at the brilliant blue sky before they went inside. "I feel a major case of spring fever coming on."
"Too bad we're stuck indoors all day." Taylor frowned as she removed her oversized shades.
"Hey, why don't we meet outside in the courtyard for lunch," DJ suggested as they were about to part ways.
"Sounds great," Taylor said as she turned away. "See ya then."
DJ was heading for the English department when she spotted Casey and decided to invite her to join them for an outdoor lunch. Pressing through a crowd of students, DJ suddenly realized that Casey was talking to Seth. And not just talking-talking either. They seemed to be in the thick of an intense conversation. DJ was about to turn away and give them their privacy when she saw Seth grab Casey firmly by her upper arm-and then he gave her a hard shake.
DJ couldn't stop herself. The next instant she was standing defensively by Casey's side. "What's going on here?" She directed this question to Seth.
"None of your business," he snapped back.
Casey nodded, but her eyes looked troubled. "It's okay."
"It doesn't look okay," DJ persisted. "I just saw Seth grab and shake you."
"Really," Casey insisted. "It's okay."
"And it's none of your business anyway." Seth glared at DJ.
DJ took a step closer to Seth. "Actually, it is my business. Casey is my friend. And if I thought you were abusing her, I wouldn't just sit around and watch."
"I'm not abusing her." He forced a smile now. "We were just playing around. Lighten up, DJ."
"Yeah," Casey added. "Lighten up."
DJ didn't know what to do. She just looked from one to the other, and then the bell rang. "Maybe you guys need to lighten up too," she said evenly. Then she turned and walked away. And although she was trying to act confident and slightly nonchalant, she felt shaken and unsettled. What had really been going on just then? And if Seth felt comfortable treating Casey like that when lots of people were around, what might he do when they were alone? Despite Seth's claim that it was none of her business, DJ knew that she was going to make it her business. And before the sun went down tonight, she and Casey were going to sit down and talk.
Excerpted from Last Dance by Melody Carlson Copyright © 2009 by Melody Carlson. Excerpted by permission.
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