Hi Everyone! This Prequel story was a part of the Practically Ever After sampler handed out at Book Expo America in 2018, and now it's available for everyone to enjoy. I hope you like this little peek at Grace's Sweet Sixteen!
My dress was a poufy tulle-skirted strapless pink ballerina dream with rhinestone buttons and the loudest gold sequined belt on the planet. Perfect for a sweet sixteen, pretty in pink in a not-stylistically-challenged Molly Ringwald sort-of way. My manicure matched the sherbet color of the dress, and Mom had let me buy a pair of four-inch rhinestone-covered Jimmy Shoos that totally negated any need for a disco ball at my party. But even though I knew I had gotten the formula down perfectly for a Fifth Avenue party princess, that didn’t change the fact that the minute I saw Leia Couffaine in the middle of my living room, I felt like a little kid playing dress-up in last season’s runway rejects.
She had thigh-length, straight, unnaturally-dyed red hair that seemed to glow under the lights, like Rapunzel let loose with a bottle of hair dye. I hadn’t expected her to come to my party after my awkward invitation at the Model UN Conference, stuttering out the invite in clumsy French like she really was the French delegate. But she actually showed up and was picking at the plate of pretzel bites. Her cute leaf-green tunic hugged her body in all the right places and I felt my face turning red when her eyes met mine. She walked over, head held high and a confident bounce in her step and, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what to say. “Hi, happy birthday,” she said, flashing me a smile. “Thanks so much for inviting me. Your house is amazing.”
My mouth was dry and I regretted not standing closer to the drinks table. “Thanks. My dad built it.” I tried to tuck my straightened hair behind my ear, but my ring got caught on some strands, forcing me to shake my hand free. “I mean, Dad had it built. He’s not really good with actually building things. I don’t take after him like that because I’m good at that. Building things.” Leia’s eyes stayed focused on my face while I babbled and I closed my eyes for a second to concentrate. “Not that I built this place—” I cut myself off before I could keep rambling my way into sounding even more like an idiot. An idiot who liked talking about building houses. “What I’m trying to say is thanks for coming.”
Her lips pressed together like she was trying not to laugh, and, to her credit, she didn’t. Instead, she reached out to tug lightly on the top tulle layer of my skirt. “I love this. It’s like you’re Anna Pavlova and you just twirled offstage.”
I was good at flirting. Epically good. It was an easy formula—bat my eyelashes, lean in a little bit, never break eye contact, except to maybe glance away and glance back. I had never failed. But every flirty trick I’d ever learned disappeared the second Leia touched my skirt. No one had ever made me as nervous or tingly as this girl with the big amber-colored eyes who could rattle off world leaders' names in one breath. “Thanks. It’s a Betsey Johannsen.” We’d hung out at Model UN Conferences before, but this was different. This time, we weren’t in conference-required “business attire” and I didn’t have our last set of negotiations to fall back on. Instead, I just had to talk about fashion, which probably made me sound like an airhead.
“You look adorable,” she said, matter-of-factly, lips turned up in a sweet smile. She popped another pretzel bite into her mouth and, while I was trying to figure out a response, chewed, swallowed, and added, “It definitely beats a business suit.”
“Yup. Except you look good in everything.” I blurted out, then immediately wished I could take it back the minute Leia’s cheeks took on a coral tinge. I needed to get out of here before I could say any other embarrassingly not-smooth things. My eyes searched the room behind her and landed on Dad trying to maneuver out of the kitchen with a fresh tray of snacks. “I, uhm, have to go help my parents with the food. Carrying it out, I mean, not making it, because I can’t cook for the life of—” I stopped myself from babbling on again and, on an exhale, said, “I’ll be back.” As I dropped my head and rushed past her on my way-too-high heels, I at least had the presence of mind to add over my shoulder, “Enjoy the party.”
I was a dork. A dork who had chickened out in front of the cutest, smartest girl in the tri-state area, probably ruining any chance she’d ever want to talk to me again. Happy sweet sixteen to me.
My heels sunk into the sugar sand and I kicked them off, happily digging my toes into the cool, wet sand as I made my way out to the edge of the water. The house had gotten hot and stuffy, with friends fighting over the last hoagie or asking me to change the music, and the deck was crowded with great aunts and cousins and neighbors who all wanted to tell me how grown-up I looked and to ask me about the future. In a few hours, everyone would come out to the edge of the lake to watch the fireworks Dad had ordered for the party, but until then, I had the place to myself.
Out on the edge of the water, it was me, the mid-September crickets, and the almost-full moon that lit everything a grayish white, like I was looking at everything through the iridescent fabric that we’d used in our lyrical recital dresses last year.
“You’re so lucky to have your own beach,” said a soft voice over my shoulder. I jumped, cursing the way the sand had muffled all the sound so I didn’t hear anyone coming, and Leia walked around to face me, a little laugh in her voice as she added, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I counted to three to try to slow my heartbeat, but it refused to, just changing from an “oh my God, I’m going to die” staccato to a crazy nervous beat I was sure she could hear even over the crickets. “You didn’t.” At her scrunched nose and quirked smile, I added, “Well, only a little bit, but it’s okay.” I swiped at my skirt nervously, hoping I didn’t have pine needles stuck to my butt.
“I didn’t see you inside, so I thought I’d look out here.” A breeze blew over the water and she folded her arms while her hair blew behind her like a princess. Or maybe a warrior, from the way she stood up straight and didn’t fold into herself with the chill. She tilted her head to look up at the sky. “It’s such a perfect night for a sweet sixteen.”
“I made a note in my planner to put in an order for a good weather, and it looks like the universe listened,” I joked, immediately regretting my utter dorkiness. “I mean, I could have asked for beach weather, but I’ll take this,” I added, trying to salvage the situation by adding an unconcerned shrug, like I made offhand cool comments like that all the time. “Sorry about earlier, I was a little overwhelmed.” Her eyes widened slightly and I quickly added, “by the party, I mean. Not you, of course.” Part of my brain wondered what the chances were of the ground under me turning into quicksand or opening up into one of the Pine Barrens’ blue holes and sucking me into embarrassment-free oblivion.
She made a thoughtful humming sound, then stepped closer until I could smell the snickerdoodle perfume she always wore mixing with a cinnamon-spiciness that clung to her hair as it blew around us. She didn’t say anything, just reached out tentatively to take both my hands, like we were kids about to start a game of “Ring Around the Rosie.” We stood there for a long while, wind blowing around us, but it was easy to ignore the cold because of the heat that ran from our joined hands and through my body like we were completing a circuit.
Finally, Leia broke the silence building between us like a storm. She looked at me like she was sizing me up and, after a few seconds, seemed to light up. “You like me, right?”
Nervous laughter bubbled up in me and I forced myself to keep focused on her eyes instead of dropping my gaze to my feet. “You really get straight to the point, don’t you?”
“So do you,” she said, and squeezed my hands. “I’ve liked you since you introduced yourself at the first Model UN we went to together. I thought you were really cute and so smart.”
I’d never admit that the only thing keeping me from sinking to the ground was the current running through us and the magnetic pull that had me moving closer. We’d already gotten practically nose-to-nose without noticing. “Yes, I like you. A lot. But I didn’t think—”
“For someone so confident, you can be so insecure.”
I couldn’t hold back the pout forming on my lips. “It’s my sweet sixteen and I can be insecure if I want to.”
“Let’s see what we can do about that.” She rose on her tiptoes until her lips just brushed mine, as whisper-soft as silk. “Does that help?” she asked, her breath sparking across my skin.
“It does,” I managed to get out, before we both moved at the same time into a kiss that nearly short-circuited me. The fireworks were only supposed to start later that night, but I’d already become a sparkler, energy running across my skin and filling the night.
I couldn’t have planned a better sweet sixteen.