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Looking back, she could blame the whole thing on an impulse purchase. Well, that and the invitation to her tenth high school reunion, which landed in her mailbox the very same day. Divine providence? Cruel cosmic joke? Hard to decide. Experience pointed to it being the latter. Then again, Fate had never done her any favors, either.
Before buying that issue of Glass Slipper magazine, Lucy Harper had pretty much accepted the fact that she was forever destined to play the Sandra Bullock role in Miss Congeniality. Only there was no Michael Caine. She was never going to make it to the transformation scene.
There were two truths in Lucy's life. One she'd learned very early on. The other had crystallized the night of her senior prom.
First: She would never be one of the popular girls. That had been made painfully clear, oh, pretty much the first time she'd been stuck in a preschool playgroup with Andrea Steiner and Miriam Thompson.
Andrea, she of the perfect, glossy ringlets and shiny patent-leather shoes that never scuffed, not even on the playground. And Andrea's best friend, Miriam, of the perfectly freckled nose and adorable matching dimples, complete with endearing lisp that Lucy pretended to hate but secretly coveted.
These two Benetton princesses took one look at Lucy, with her hazel eyes, magnified by bookworm-thick glasses, her mousy brown hair, lumpy rather than wavy, no matter how often she brushed it, topped with the fresh chicken-pox scar on her right cheek, and immediately decided she was not fit to climb the same monkey bars they were. The preschool version of the Corporate Model for Advancement.
Lucy Harper, already a corporate failure at age four.
Things didn't change much in elementary school. Quiet, but more out of insecurity than shyness, she'd at least learned to tame her unruly hair by then. The Pippi Longstocking nickname had arrived shortly thereafter. Privately, she'd always thought Pippi rocked. But then, Pippi didn't have to contend with both the whack braids and being the class beanstalk.
Taller than anyone her age from second grade on, she still had gangly awkward long legs, complete with matching big feet that refused to steer clear of even the most insignificant obstacle. Her arms were freakishly strong, yet still scrawny-looking, and her nose wasn't quite straight due to an unfortunate flip-turn incident in the pool the summer of fifth grade, when she'd worked up the nerve to join the local swim team. The great thing about swimming, she'd discovered, was that it favored long legs and freakish arm strength, but didn't require perfect eye-hand coordination, like basketball or softball. And, as long as she remained in the pool, she didn't have to worry about tripping over her own feet. She'd prayed nightly that she was merely a late bloomer.
At twenty-eight, she was still praying.
Which brought her to truth number two: Popular boys never, ever fell for the geeky, beanpole, wallflower girl. Any doubts she might have harbored regarding this law of nature were completely and resolutely put to rest that long-ago June night.
Emboldened by a new pair of contacts that still kind of made her eyes water, skin imperfections only partly disguised by strict adherence to the tips outlined in the "Make Him Notice You, Not Your Pimples!" article in Teen magazine, and a black formal she'd begged her mother to let her wearone that finally hugged her meager curves rather than hanging from her shoulders like the Shrouds of Dances Pastshe'd worked up the nerve to approach the surprisingly stag Jason Prescott.
Jason was the magnificent, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered point guard of Grant High School's varsity basketball team. And the best part wasn't his blinding white smile, quick wit, or even his participation on the student councillong a haven for her fellow nerds and geeks. No, Jason's number one attraction was the fact that, at six feet five, he towered over Lucy's five-eleven frame. Whenever she could position herself in his orbit, which was as often as humanly possiblewithout ever actually being noticed, of courseshe enjoyed the fleeting sensation of feeling almost girlishly feminine. And, dare she say it, petite.
Grady and Jana had both warned her, of course. But she'd known it was her last chance before they were all cut loose into the big bad world of unpredictable futures. Well, in her case, as much of the big bad world as was encompassed by the Georgetown University campus. Her future wasn't all that unpredictable either, really, seeing as her father was a tenured professor in the English department, and her mother held a similar position at nearby American U. But Jason was heading off, scholarship already in hand, to play for Duke.
So Lucy knew she had to make her move now . . . or never.
Just one dance in Jason's arms. That was all it would take. One dance, with everyone watching them, their bodies so perfectly aligned. Lucy, surefooted for the first time, as would surely be the case with his oh-so-natural grace guiding her, her arms lightly around his neck as he smiled downdown!at her. The crowd would part, all other dancing would cease, as every eye was drawn to their absolute perfection. And when it was over, and the final strains of Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" were but a mere echo in their minds, she'd accept his kiss upon her cheek, maybe even a brushing of the lips, then she'd smile knowingly up into his perfect blue eyes . . . and turn and walk away without so much as a backward glance. Mysterious Lucy Harper, so poised, so controlled. How did we misjudge her all these years? they'd all wonder. Yes! Twelve hellish years in the public school system eradicated in that one, perfect exit.
It was her dream, after all.
Her best friends had used a less flattering term, but in their defense they were only trying to look out for her. They didn't want her hurt. Again. But that hardly made the plan delusional. Yes, Grady Matthews and Jana Fraser had seen that look of determination before, and okay, so it had rarely resulted in a positive outcome. But her pathetic little sigh of infatuation, bolstered by a plastic tumbler's worth of spiked punch, and they both knew all the reasoning in the world wasn't going to stop her.
She'd had a crush on Jason Prescott since freshman summer, when he'd been a lifeguard at her community pool. Her carefully orchestrated dives off the high boardthe only mostly graceful thing she could dohad never seemed to get his attention. And her one attempt at drowning in order to secure a romantic rescue, complete with at least two minutes of glorious mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, had gone embarrassingly awry. It turns out it's hard to get anyone to believe you're drowning while wearing your local swim-team Speedo, rubber skull cap, and goggles. Planning ahead was never her forte when her hormones got the better of her.
But on that glorious June night, she'd planned everything down to the last detail, including bribing the DJ to play Their Song. Or what would be Their Song, just as soon as their one perfect dance was over. For years to come, every time Jason heard that song, he'd think about that night. That dance. And the mysterious Lucy Harper.
Fate had given her a sign by sending Jason Prescott stag to his own senior prom. Looking back, she supposed she should have realized that Fate had been trying to tell her to give up after that pool incident. For someone with a 4.5 GPA, she had serious learning disabilities when it came to matters of the heart.
Not only had Jason not fallen for her starry-eyed, sequin-splattered, come-hither charmsmuch less the opening chords of "Kiss From a Rose"he'd thought she was joking when she'd asked him to dance. Joking!
Yeah, such a kidder, that Lucy Harper.
Lucy thought she'd done an admirable job of covering up the additional humiliation of having him not only laugh in her face, but pat her on the head before turning away. Like she was his bratty kid sister or something.
Then, because Fate wanted to make sure she got it this time, without so much as a backward glance at the conspicuously partnerless, hollow shell of a girl he'd left behind, Jason walked right into the arms of the blonde, blue-eyed perfection that was head cheerleader, Debbie Markham. She of the no-visible-panty-lines and questionable virginal status.
Unlike her heart, already shattered into so many irreparable pieces, Lucy's smile had barely wobbled. She was pretty sure she'd made a halfhearted attempt at joking her way out of the situationan automatic fallback position she'd mastered long before. Except no one was paying attention to her at that point. She supposed that should have made her feel a little better, being invisible and all. She knew from personal experience that it could have gone much worse for her. But Boyz II Men were crooning "On Bended Knee" now, and everyone around them had moved on without her. She stood there alone, completely ignored by the swaying couples surrounding her, which felt worse somehow. She wasn't quite sure how to make that exit now, knowing it would feel a lot more like running away.
In the end, Grady had emerged through the crowd and quickly dragged her outside. He'd told her he was merely protecting himself from the stalkeresque wiles of Marching Band Girl, Paige Fernlow. But Lucy had known the real reason. (Although after spying the two of them leaving together, Paige had left rather disturbing tuba solos on the Harper family answering machine for three nights running. To this day Lucy could not sit through halftime at a football game without feeling a prickle of paranoia.)
No, Grady had been protecting her, as always. She'd been insisting she didn't need rescuing since the day they met over the infamous Tater Tot incident in sixth grade, but her protestations were still met with the same response: "Everybody needs rescuing sometimes. It's what friends do." Then he'd trump her with the old "You'd do the same thing for me" routine. Which she would have. Gladly. Except it never had seemed to work out that way. One more thing Fate tossed her way that she couldn't seem to alter.
Since the day Grady had firmly wedged himself into her and Jana's life, he'd been routinely saving them both. So, okay, more often her than Jana. Could she help it if Jana didn't seem to get into as many scrapes? He was still the quiet observer around others, but never with her or Jana. He was wicked smart, possessing a bordering-on-nerdlike fixation with all things mathematical and technological. Okay, so it wasn't "bordering." But it was his wry commentary on how the human condition afflicted the majority of their peer group that had kept Lucy and Jana sitting at his lunchroom table all the way through high school. They still enjoyed a rather loose interpretation of those erudite lunchroom discussions, only instead of being accompanied by the less-than-savory chili mac surprise and warm milk, they now took place over pizza and beer.
Jana had been in her life since the days of the Benetton princesses. (Jana flunked Playground Politics 101, too. She and Lucy were immediate best friends.) At that time, the Frasers and Harpers lived in the same apartment building in Arlington, Virginia. Their mothers wouldn't be considered close friends, or even casual friends by the loosest of standards. Lucy's mom was every English professor cliche rolled into one, from the serviceable clothes and bobby-pinned bun, to the wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her long, slender nose, a nose that was generally immersed in a book. Mary Harper was far more at home dealing with fictional characters than she was with real people. Not because she didn't like real people, mind you. Real people were just fine. It took real people to write books, after all. It's just that she was usually so distracted with writing her next lecture that observing even the basic tenets of friendship building were beyond her.
Jana's mom, on the other hand, made friends very easily. Too easily, some might have said. Of course, that might have been envy talking. Or jealousy. Because most, okay all, of Angie Fraser's "friends" were men. And because it was no secret that not all of them were single.
But Mary and Angie did have one thing in commonthey shared car-pool duty, ferrying their daughters to and from Tiny Tots Preschool.
Jana had her mother's bright red hair, but the similarity ended there. Angie Fraser was very Tina Louise as Ginger. Jana was more Lucille Ball as, well, Lucille Ball. Except with huge splotchy freckles, and big white teeth that were just a bit crooked, and still were, despite three years of braces, complete with the ever-so-attractive head appliance.
Of course, to mousy, unfreckled, and uninterestingly toothed Lucy, Jana was some kind of exotic creature, and the source of immediate fascination. Unlike the television-commercial cuteness of Miriam and the preppy perfection of Andrea, Jana was an absolute original. Lucy remembered thinking that her new friend must be something really special if God made her stand out like that.
Lucy had since learned that God merely had a peculiar sense of humor.
But her belief in the unique force that was Jana Fraser had never wavered. Unfortunately, that unique force, even when combined with Grady's global-rescue theory, couldn't protect Lucy from her own self-destructive crush tendencies. The Senior Prom Fiasco had only been a temporary setback to her apparently indestructibleand obviously deludedlibido. Jason Prescott had merely been the first in a string of unattainable men Lucy fell hopelessly for.
Through four years of college, not once did she find herself remotely attracted to any of her horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing, but ever-so-nice-and-dependable, lab partners. The same went for the unfocused yet earnest struggling poet in her English composition class, and the naive but sweetly endearing member of her study group. She lost her virginity, but never her heart. She'd lost track of the number of end-of-date kisses where she'd close her eyes and pray that this time she would feel something. Anything. Nada.
But she knew she wasn't holding out for the impossible. There was that Halloween keg party in her sophomore year, after all. Proof positive she could feel something. A whole lot of something, actually. As a joke, she and Jana had dressed up like cheerleaders. With their wigs, orange-hued fake Coppertone tans, and bust-enhancing Victoria's Secret bras, even Debbie Markham would have believed they'd earned their pom-poms. Okay, only if the lighting was sort of bad. And a lot of beer had been ingested. Which was exactly the case when Lucy ran into the current target of her unrequitedhell, totally unnoticedaffections: junior-varsity quarterback Steve Van Kelting.
He'd mistaken her for the real thing, and the next thing Lucy knew, she was on her back in one of the frat-house bedrooms. A small, insignificant part of her knew she should tell him she really wasn't Wandawhich is what he'd called her as he'd pulled off her letter sweaterbut then his hands were on her, and his mouth found hers, and well . . . what Wanda didn't know wouldn't hurt her.