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"Passion Purple, Fruity Fuchsia, Playful Pink." Delia Cameron smiled as she came to the rose-colored nail polish. According to Delia, pink was the new pink. She'd tried to explain it to me once in terms of the color orange, but fashion wasn't really my forte, and I was pretty sure I had completely missed the point. At the age of fifteen, I more or less had to face the fact that, unlike my best friend–Delia Cameron, fashion goddess–there was a distinct chance that I didn't actually have a forte.
"Divine Yellow," Delia continued, picking up the next nail polish container on the shelf and examining it like a detective looking for clues in a case of paramount importance.
Beside me, Annabelle grinned wryly, and the half smile softened her typically solemn features. To the outside world, Annabelle Porter was an almost alien creature: quiet and shy, too serious for her own good, and too smart for anyone else's. Once upon a time (in the seventh grade), she'd seemed that way to me, too, but now–three years, two hundred and six sleepovers, thirteen embarrassing karaoke nights I'm sure we'd all rather forget, and an unofficial initiation into our tight little group later, I knew Annabelle well enough to know that the crooked half smile was some kind of commentary on Delia's nail polish manifesto.
I grinned at Annabelle, and she bit back a bigger smile. We'd both been in this exact position many, many times before.
Blissfully unaware (or maybe deliberately ignoring) the silent exchange between the two of us, Delia picked up another bottle of polish and became instantly and absolutely entranced by it. "Mango Mermaid," she breathed in the reverent tone most people reserved for the birth of their first child.
"Mango Mermaid?" the fourth member of our group asked, her voice low, dry, and incredulous. She looked at me. "Mango Mermaid," she repeated flatly, shooting me a tortured look.
I patted her consolingly on the shoulder. Poor Zo. Shopping with Delia took a certain kind of endurance, and Zo Porter, Annabelle's cousin and more or less my other half for practically as long as either of us could remember, didn't have it.
"Yes," Delia replied, rolling her eyes at Zo. "Mango Mermaid. Just look at the shimmer and composition. It's perfect."
"We've found the perfect nail polish," Zo said, her voice still completely flat. "Hurrah." With a tiny, almost pixie-like build, blond hair, and baby blue eyes, Zo didn't exactly look like your typical tomboy, but there was no mistaking the fact that she was anti-girly and had been even before the day her mother had dropped five-year-old Zo off at my house for playgroup, left the state, and never looked back.
Delia, the Mango Mermaid polish held safely in her left hand, tucked a strand of chestnut brown hair behind her ear with her right. In typical Delia fashion, she was completely unaffected by Zo's scorn for all things feminine. "Says the girl wearing her brother's sweatshirt," Delia said, eyeing Zo's gray sweats disapprovingly.
"I don't have a brother," Zo said immediately.
Delia arched one eyebrow. "Oh," she said with a look of faux surprise. "My mistake."
Annabelle watched the repartee between her cousin and Delia and then tilted her head to the side. "Did you hear that?" she asked me.
"What?" I asked. I saw the twinkle in her eye a moment too late.
"That," she said, her voice as soft and serious as always, "was the sound of civility flying out the window."
Zo, Delia, and I had been best friends for as long as any of us could remember. The two of them liked to pretend that they just tolerated each other for my sake, but in reality, arguing was practically an Olympic sport with those two, and there was no one Delia would rather argue with than Zo. I, for one, wasn't fooled by their little act, and civility comments aside, neither was Annabelle.
"Food court?" I suggested out loud, knowing that there were exactly two reasons Zo put up with our Friday afternoon mall trips. The first was because the rest of us liked the mall, and tough-girl act aside, there wasn't anything short of breast implants that Zo wouldn't have done for the rest of us. The second, more compelling reason Zo tolerated our weekly mall trips was the triple chili-cheese dog, bacon cheeseburger, and chocolate milkshake she ate every time we went to the food court.
"It's about time," Zo said, making a big show of grumbling. Still, she picked up a second Mango Mermaid polish and tossed it underhand to Delia. "I'm starving," she said by way of explanation, "and these are buy-one-get-one-free."
Wisely, Annabelle, Delia, and I said nothing about the fact that Zo had eaten right before we left. Her endless appetite and teeny tiny body size were almost as much of a mystery to me as Delia's innate understanding of all things fashion and the fact that Annabelle could say more with a single look than I could with an entire sentence.
With a toss of her hair, Delia flounced off to buy the Mango Mermaid polish, and five minutes later, the four of us stepped out of the store and into the the open expanse of the mall.
"You know what I love about the mall?" Delia asked, her voice bright.
"The sales?" I asked.
"Your father's credit card?" Annabelle asked with another Annabelle half grin.
"The torture?" Zo hadn't quite given up playing the shopping martyr.
"No, no, and don't kid yourself," Delia said, responding to us in order. "The smell."
I sniffed the air cautiously while Zo and Annabelle, for once in their lives on the same page, shared a look of confusion.
"I don't smell anything," I said. I paused for a moment, wondering if I should even go there. "What does it smell like?" I swiftly maneuvered around a cart selling neon cell-phone accessories as I spoke. Unfortunately, I was maneuvering a little too swiftly and ended up running face-first into the next cart. For a split second, I fought to keep my balance. I lost, and crashed to the floor with the grace of an overweight elephant.
"Now that ain't pretty," Zo said before dispensing what passed in her mind as helpful advice. "Lift foot, then shift weight, Bay."
"I didn't trip," I replied, narrowing my eyes at her. "I ran into–"
"Possibilities," Delia interjected happily.
"Huh?" She'd lost me with that comment.
"I smell possibilities," Delia said, stepping over me to get to the booth. "The mall is filled with possibilities. Take these earrings, for example."
Zo groaned loudly. "Hungry," she reminded us.
Delia waved the complaint aside with a delicate flick of her right hand.
Not wanting to get caught in the middle of their weekly mall showdown, I started to stand up, and as I did, I felt a hand on my arm, pulling me to my feet.
"Thanks," I said, dusting myself off and turning around. "I . . ."
As soon as I saw his eyes, my mouth stopped functioning, which was a good thing, because my brain had clicked off a microsecond before.
Kane Lawson, eye candy. King of eye candy. God of eye candy.
"Thanks," I said, forcing myself to form a decipherable word while my mind froze from cuteness overload. Emergency, emergency, I thought. Must form coherent sentence.
"What are you boys doing here?" Delia asked, never at a loss for words, especially around members of the opposite sex.
Boys as in plural? I wondered at her words and looked past Kane to see two of his friends. It was like eye candy, supersized.
"Just hanging out," Kane said, his hand still on mine. "You okay?"
No, I wanted to reply. Put me in ICU, fatal embarrassment ward.
"I'm . . ." I searched for the right word, my brain being difficult.
"Fine?" Zo prodded.
"That," I said weakly. For good measure, I nodded vigorously, as if that was somehow going to make me appear like less of a total and complete idiot.
Unlike Delia, who had a new crush every week, I'd had exactly two in my entire lifetime. The first had been a deep and undying love for the boy with curly brown hair in my kindergarten class. The second was Kane.
"You're Hayley, right?" Kane asked me, filling the silence. "I think you're in my geometry class."
"Bailey," I corrected him, my name getting caught in my throat. "And it's world history."
He nodded and smiled. Oh, the smile.
Delia began chatting up the guy on the left while the guy to Kane's right raked his eyes up and down, first over Annabelle's body and then over Zo's. Apparently, even in her sweats, she was more appealing than I was. Story of my life.
"Hey, buddy," Zo said, her voice casual yet deadly. "Eyes on face."
Annabelle stifled a laugh, and I groaned inwardly. Zo had no tact and even less impulse control, and despite the fact that she wasn't an inch over five feet tall, the look she was giving the guy to my right had me convinced that if he didn't manage to drag his eyes away from the perfect figure hidden under her sweat suit, he'd find himself in a world of pain within the next thirty seconds.
"Bailey," Kane said again, repeating my name and drawing my attention away from Zo. I looked over at him, and for a moment, we just stared at each other. Finally, he nodded at me and smiled. "See you around."
I nodded dumbly, a smile plastered on my face. Kane Lawson would see me around.
The guys took off, and the moment they were out of earshot, Delia squealed. "What did he say?" she asked.
"See you around," I said. He'd now officially said over a hundred words to me. It had taken five years to get there, but I was finally in the triple digits.
Delia pondered my words. "Was it 'I'll see you around' or 'see you around' or 'see ya around'?" she asked seriously.
"That matters?" I asked.
Delia nodded. "When it comes to guys," she said, "everything matters."
"Everything matters," a musical voice repeated. I turned and found myself staring into eyes so blue it almost hurt to look at them. "Can I help you girls with anything?" the woman asked, gesturing toward the booth.
Zo glanced at Delia and then back at the saleswoman. "Don't encourage her," she said flatly.
I looked at the woman, unable to turn my gaze from her eyes, all thoughts of Kane exiting my mind as I stared into them.
"I need something cutting-edge that will flatter a retrochic red-carpet look," Delia said.
Zo fought a smile and shrugged at the saleswoman. "I told you not to encourage her."
The woman clicked her tongue and murmured quietly as she pulled open a drawer on top of the booth. "Try this," she suggested, handing Delia a black metal choker with a small white bow in the middle. "It's retro and cutting."
She turned her attention to Zo. "And for you," she said.
Zo held up one hand in protest. "Oh no," she said. "I'm not interested. I don't do accessories."
The woman ignored her and held out a small, deep purple crystal on an almost invisible gold chain. It swung back and forth in front of Zo's face, and despite herself, Zo was captivated.
Watching the crystal, I felt my mind drifting off, and I could practically hear the woman going all "you're getting sleepy, verrrrryyyy sleepy" on me. I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
"And for you," the saleswoman continued, turning to Annabelle as she placed the crystal firmly in Zo's callused hand. "You're not going to argue with me like this one?" she asked, nodding her head toward Zo.
"Zo and I are very different," Annabelle, queen of the understatement, said evenly.
Zo snorted under her breath. She was the only person who could actually get a rise out of A-belle. Since they were first cousins and only children, I'd always thought it was a sibling rivalry kind of thing.
"For you, something classic," the woman said to Annabelle. "Understated."
"Practical," Annabelle put in, and Zo snorted again. Annabelle was one of those rare people who was born practical. Of course, the fact that she'd grown up all over the world with a linguist mother and an anthropologist father surrounded only by adults might have had something to do with it, too.
The woman measured Annabelle's request. "Some-times," she murmured. "Sometimes practical. Observant certainly, and true."
Why did I feel as if I'd called one of those psychic hotlines? 1-800-creepysaleslady.
The woman's blue eyes flittered over to me as she ran her fingers along the edges of several silver barrettes. I looked at her face, and my teeth ached with the sheer blueness of those eyes.
"This," the woman said, closing her hands over a circular dark silver barrette and turning back to Annabelle. "This is for you."
I looked at my friend. In true Annabelle style, she didn't say anything. Instead, she flipped the barrette over in her hand to look at the price, and after a moment, she nodded.
"Okay," she said simply. Her mouth curved into a slow grin. "I like it."
I bit my bottom lip and waited. The woman said nothing.
"What about Bailey?" Delia asked, still admiring her necklace. "She could benefit from a little accessorizing. Trust me." Delia didn't mean anything by it, and since she'd been saying pretty much the exact same thing since we were four years old, I didn't take offense. In the world of Delia Cameron, shopping goddess, everyone needed fashion advice, except, of course, for Delia.
"For you," the woman said. For a second, I heard nothing but that melodic voice. The rest of the sounds of the mall faded away, and the colors in front of my eyes swirled and blended together in the background until all I could see was the woman. "It is not I who can choose for you."
Her words echoed in my head.
"You must choose for yourself."
There was no way to argue with the command. When I thought about it, it was kind of pathetic that I couldn't even argue with the kiosk lady. Chalk another one up for Bailey Morgan, high school doormat.
With great effort, I pulled my attention away from the woman's eyes and my own thoughts and turned to look at the booth. Jewelry of all kinds hung on dainty displays. Cautiously, I let my finger trail over a watch with a face like the view of a river from a plane, carved into wood.
The woman watched me carefully, but I shook my head. As I pulled my hand back from the watch, my shirt caught on a small drawer and pulled it open. Startled, I backed up, unaware that my sleeve had attached itself to the drawer. Its contents poured out onto the floor, clattering loudly enough that everyone within a fifty-foot radius turned to look at me in one coordinated motion.
From the Trade Paperback edition.