Authors: Layla Hagen
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College
I relax a bit as we enter Nelson Bay a few minutes later. It doesn't take me long to realize this is the wealthiest neighborhood I've ever seen. To my left and right lie houses—palaces really, each more grandiose than the previous one.
But we don't stop in front of any of them. Peter drives by house after house, until the houses get farther apart, and finally fields replace them. It's a while before the first sign of civilization begins to appear: a row of black, spearheaded metal bars—a fence. Behind it lies a neat garden, adorned with so many roses that it looks more like a nursery. There is no house in sight.
The car comes to a halt in front of the huge double gates. I still see no house behind them. My stomach gives a slight jolt when the gates open and we drive inside.
ow," I exclaim when the house finally comes into view. "Wow," I repeat as I stumble out of the car.
This isn't a house. It's the ultra-modern, almost futuristic version of a palace. Except for the ground floor, it seems to be made entirely of glass, with the odd wooden wall here and there. Its owners must be fascinated by square forms, because the entire building is an amalgam of smaller and larger cubes, the part observable from here, at least. The place must be swarming with people, judging by the number of cars all around me.
"You are expected inside, Ms. McLewis," Peter says, obviously amused by my reaction.
"I am?" I ask in amazement and start walking with trembling steps toward the entrance.
I close my palm around the handle of the massive oak door and expect to have to put some energy into pushing it, but it opens effortlessly.
Of course it does.
The moment I step inside, the simplicity of my white dress slaps me in the face. There are no words to describe how many levels of underdressed I am compared to the sleek, shiny surfaces and exquisite paintings on the walls, each with a picture light above it.
And this is just a hallway.
"Name," a deep voice calls, startling me. I turn around and locate the source behind the door.
"Serena McLewis," I answer.
The man scans the long list he's holding, then continues to the next page. And the next page. I count four page turns. "You're not on the list."
Everything from his polished shoes to his perfectly knotted tie and his neatly gelled hair tells me he's not the type to let me in if I'm not on the list.
"James Cohen invited me."
He raises an eyebrow.
"You think I sneaked in?" I ask him incredulously.
His expression tells me that is exactly what he thinks. My casual, beach-appropriate dress isn't helping my case, either.
"Let her in, Loren," a young girl squeaks from the far end of the hallway, hurrying toward us. Loren instantly lowers the list and gestures me to proceed.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't have time to put you on the list," the girl says, looking genuinely distressed. As she comes closer, I realize she's not as young as I thought. Her round, dark eyes and the slight fullness of her face are misleading, but she must be at least seventeen. To my relief, she's wearing a robe. A beautiful one, made of silk, but a robe nonetheless.
"I'm Dani," she says.
She takes my hand before I get a chance to introduce myself and pulls me in the direction she came from. "We need to get you changed," she says. "You can't go to the party dressed like
I stare at her black, unnaturally perfect curls, biting my lip. I know my dress isn't much, but coming from someone dressed in a robe, the comment seems a little off.
“Ooh. You’re British.” Her eyes widen with delight. “My brother didn’t tell me that. And he clearly didn't tell you anything," she says, smirking and opens the door that marks the end of the hallway.
"James is your brother?" I ask blankly.
"I know, the similarities between us are astounding. I—"
The rest of her sentence gets lost in the sudden explosion of words and laughter filling the room in front of us. Two dozen women, most of them around my age, sit on a long row of chairs in front of a mirror that covers the entire wall. Behind each of them is a hairstylist, turning their hair into curls just as unnaturally perfect as Dani's. Three of the girls are fully dressed, and the mystery surrounding the party—or at least part of it—dissipates.
"It's a themed party," I say.
"Eighteenth century Venice." Dani winks. "My mother throws themed parties every year for charity. It's Venice this time. Let's get you a dress."
On the other side of the room are rows and rows of metal bars with clothes hangers holding long, festive chiffon and velvet dresses.
"I set some dresses aside for you," Dani calls over her shoulder as we make our way through the rows of dresses. "Let's look at those first, and if you don't like any you can look for something else. Unfortunately, there won't be time to have your hair done because my lovely brother sent Peter far too late to fetch you."
"No problem," I say, trying not to sound too relieved that I get to keep my hair as it is. "So, um… you live here with your parents?"
"Yep. James sometimes comes here on weekends. When he's not working," she says, rolling her eyes, clearly disapproving of her brother's workaholic tendencies. "But I actually prefer it if he doesn't come here. Gives me an excuse to go down in San Jose."
Of course, Silicon Valley's capital. Where else could he live? The back of the room is marked by yet another mirrored wall. Thankfully, there's no one in front of it. In the left corner is a small open wooden closet containing five dresses.
"Which one do you want to try on?" Dani claps her hands excitedly.
"The red one," I say without hesitation. In addition to being the prettiest dress I've ever seen, it's red. Red is my favorite color, but I don't wear it often. I don't know why, probably because I feel I attract too much attention whenever I wear it, something I'm not very comfortable with. But today—tonight, actually—is different. And wearing red seems like the right thing to do.
"It's perfect," I say when Dani holds the dress in front of her, faking a bow.
She giggles. "I'll help you with it, then you can help me with mine. I tried getting dressed on my own and nearly wanted to tear the damn thing apart."
To my confusion, Dani waits in front of me while I take my clothes off, completely unfazed by my discomfort. I discard my plain little white dress on the floor and pull the red one over my head as fast as possible—with Dani's help. She's right, doing it by myself would have been a nightmare. For all its beauty, it's so heavy I hope I won't have to do much more than sit at a table for the rest of the evening.
hen we finally manage to get the red dress on, I face the mirror.
It looks even more beautiful than it did on the hanger. Even more perfect. The long, bouffant skirt reminds me of the drawings in the storybooks I used to devour when I was little.
"What's your story?" Dani asks. I can see her frown in the mirror, as she concentrates on the monstrous task of pulling the laces through the more than fifty eyelets of the bodice.
"What do you mean?"
"How long have you and James known each other?"
"Um…" I take a moment to consider my words. If I tell her I just met him last night, she'll think—rightly so—that I must be insane to show up here. Pretending to know him well will backfire faster than Jess's car on a particularly bad day.
I go for a neutral, "We met recently."
Her eyebrows shoot up in surprise, and the thinnest rivulets of sweat ooze on my temples. What did he tell her about me? He must have told her something. But if he did, I need all the cunning in the world to find out what.
"So are you applying to Stanford?"
"God no. I've been admitted to Oxford," she says proudly, "to study English literature."
"Congrats," I say, slightly surprised. For some reason, I can't picture Dani, with her black hair and slightly tanned skin, in a place without sun. In a place as sad as England. But maybe England is just sad to me. "I'm a fan of English literature, too.”
For some reason, my comment brings a particularly bright smile on her face. "You're one of the very few people who didn't cringe and suggest I take up medicine or law."
"Well, I think everyone has the right to study what they want. Jess, my best friend, is studying history."
Her delicate hands have almost finished lacing up the bodice. "Not everyone can be business freaks like you and my brother," she winks.
Aha. What else did he tell her about me?
"He's quite smart, your brother."
. The word forms in my mind by itself, and I'm glad Dani is so preoccupied with the eyelets. My cheeks turn almost as red as the dress.
"Please don't let him know you think that. Won't help that pigheadedness of his in the slightest."
I squelch the urge to laugh as best as I can, because she says this in such a solemn tone that I'm sure she'd be highly offended if I didn't take her seriously. There is a slightly awkward pause while she laces the very last eyelets, in which the only sound is a high-pitched laugh from one of the girls in front.
When she's done she takes a few steps back and looks at me approvingly. "You look beautiful."
"Your turn," I say. "Which dress is yours?"
She picks a white dress from the nearest metal bar and hands it to me. I make a point of keeping my eyes on the beautiful white chiffon while she discards her robe. After a few painful minutes, I actually manage to get her in her equally heavy dress without ruining her hair. She turns around and I start on the eyelets. I'm halfway through them when an eerie harp tune comes from Dani's robe. She completely ignores it.
"I think that's your cell," I say tentatively.
"I know. It's probably my boyfriend, trying to make up for completely bolting last night," she says through gritted teeth.
I proceed with the eyelets in silence.
"Do you have a boyfriend?" she blurts.
"Yes. I mean no," I say, taken aback by the sudden turn of the conversation. "We broke up a few weeks ago."
"Oh. I'm sorry. How long had you been together?"
"Six years." To my relief, the usual painful heartache that accompanies any thought of my failed relationship isn't happening. "You should really answer that. Or switch it off," I say, pretending not to notice her shocked glance in the mirror as the phone starts ringing yet again.
She bends and picks the phone from the pocket of her robe with a rather sour expression that turns to affectionate annoyance when she notices the name on the screen. It's not her boyfriend.
She presses the phone to her ear. "Where's the fire?"
I don't hear anything more than a buzzing noise coming from her phone, but it's enough for my stomach to give a little jolt. I can't even fathom what it'll do when I actually
"But I'm not ready," she protests when the buzzing noise stops.
I signal her in the mirror that I'm almost done.
"Okay, okay, I'll be there in a minute," she says, giving up and closing the phone.
"I need to go. Will you be okay on your own? Just stick to the girls, they know where the ballroom is. I'll find you there," she says and runs off. "Make sure to take a mask from the closet," she calls over her shoulder before disappearing altogether.