Holly grinned, hugging Chiara from behind.
“What do you think?”
Chiara slowly tilted her head, still uncertain as to whose reflection was staring back at her from the full body mirror the makeup and hair team had brought with them when they invaded the small apartment at B5. Holly had explained that she and Oliver had set everything up a whole week ago, even before Jay had asked Chiara if she would come to the Christmas Ball. They had been so certain that she would say yes. She was not sure if she liked being so predictable, even to Holly. Predictability was vulnerability.
But this time, it felt good.
Holly, Oliver, and Dante had picked out and purchased two gowns from one of the Up boutiques, along with shoes, makeup, and accessories. The makeup and hair team had arrived to help assemble pieces of which Chiara could hardly make heads or tails. The final product was something she could never have imagined.
Holly was stunning in a pale purple strapless gown with a sequined bodice and a close-fitting skirt, a slit showing off her shapely legs from the knee down to her black high-heeled sandals. Her nails were painted glossy black and her dark hair pulled back in a high updo, pinned in place with jeweled black dahlias that glistened as they caught the light, matching the black dahlia hanging at her throat. Her dramatic makeup enhanced her almond shaped eyes and full mouth.
Chiara herself wore a gown that shimmered like a prism. The bright white bodice clung to her shapely form, silver gauze sleeves seeming to drip like waterfalls of stars over her tan, slender arms. The long skirt flared from her narrow waist, fluffed with layers of white tulle overlaid with the silver gauze, scattered with clusters of glitter. Her nails were painted white and delicate, white jeweled stars were pinned through her hair in its intricate braid cascading down her back, curling tendrils escaping to frame her made up face. White high-heeled sandals comfortably hugged her feet.
Holly giggled. “It made me think of you like crazy. Like an ice princess. Oh, totally forgot your finishing touch!” She reached behind her to the single box remaining after the makeup crew had cleared out their belongings. It squeaked open and Holly turned back to Chiara, draping a necklace around her neck. Chiara bit her lip.
“Hol, this is way too much,” she breathed. Holly shrugged, snapping the necklace in place.
“Dante and Ollie insisted.”
Despite herself, Chiara raised an eyebrow. “Ollie?”
“You don’t call him that?” Again, Holly shrugged, dismissing the thought and changing the subject as she grinned giddily, squeezing Chiara’s shoulders. “But just look at yourself!”
Chiara did once more. The necklace was a massive piece of jewelry, all of white and silver jewels, stars and moons and bursts all woven together in masterful harmony. It contrasted with her tan skin, accentuating everything.
She gritted her teeth. “It looks like I’m getting married! If Alan saw me like this -”
“Forget Alan exists. For tonight, at least.” Holly touched her hair again, winking. “Tonight, it’s just us and the boys.”
Chiara chuckled under her breath, twisting in the mirror to see herself from another angle. The transformation was uncanny.
“Just days ago, weren’t you telling me to stay away from them?”
“I also told you that what’s important to you is important to me.” Holly squeezed Chiara’s hand and Chiara met her earnest gaze. “I want to see what you do. Ollie…Oliver is really generous. And funny. And a gentleman and kind and creative, and I want to give them all every chance that you have.”
Chiara released a short breath, nodding in satisfaction.
“Generous, funny, gentleman, kind-”
Chiara laughed. The front door crashed open and Mrs. Dalton stumbled inside, dropping a paper bag of groceries by the door and shoving it shut behind her. Chiara shoved the mirror to one side, rushing forward.
Mrs. Dalton smiled tiredly, shifting two other bags to her hip. “I’m fine. Thank you. I just…wow.” Her smile widened, her lips trembling as tears glazed her eyes as they skipped up and down Chiara. “Look at you.”
Chiara frowned, stepping closer and taking the bags of groceries from her hands. Holly bent and picked up the one on the floor.
“Why are you crying?”
Mrs. Dalton laughed helplessly, shoving the balls of her hands into her eyes and drawing in a shaky breath. “I’m just so…so proud of you and…and all you’re doing! You’re going to the Globe Academy and making friends with the Collective and going to Christmas Balls looking like a princess and I cannot believe that you’re my daughter.” She choked on a sob, slowly sliding down the length of the doorjamb, hiding her her face in her hands. “How did a tired failure like me get lucky enough to be your mother?”
Chiara swallowed sharply. Holly gently took the bags of groceries from her hands and Chiara nodded her thanks, lowering herself to sit cross-legged beside her mom, the glistening skirt flowing around her like a flower’s petals.
“Bad day at work?” she breathed. Mrs. Dalton slowly nodded.
“They had to let another handful of people go. Julia’s gone. Randy’s gone. Izzy’s gone. They kept me, but I’m doing double and triple shifts now. I’m just…I’m so tired and I don’t feel like I have the right to be. You, Grant, your father…you all deserve more from me!”
“I’m going to stop you right there.” Chiara squeezed a hand into a fist, then released it. She hated seeing anyone she loved so worn down by the world. It was far from fair. “Mom, you’re doing more for us than anyone could ever expect of you! You work unbelievable hours at the supermarket, and then come home to cook and clean because you want us to come home to…well, a home. Being a mom is a hard enough job as it is, and now we’re adding a career outside of the house.” She wove her arm through her mom’s, laying her head on her shoulder. “You’re not a failure, Mom. You’re my superhero.”
Angela sobbed sharply, pressing her head against the wall. Chiara closed her eyes. She understood the need to simply sit and cry, knowing that it would fix nothing. It was a sort of relieving process.
Her mom deserved it more than most.
Chiara looked down at her beautiful dress and high heels and clenched her jaw. There was no excuse to go out partying when her mother was about to drop of exhaustion. How could she have let Jay and Holly talk her into this?
“Why don’t you go take a nap, Mom?” Chiara pushed herself to her feet, joining Holly in the kitchen and picking up cans of beans to stock. “Holly and I will look after this.”
“No, no,” Angela sniffed, swiping her jacket sleeve across her eyes and clearing her throat, coming to her feet and shooing them from their duties. “You both have been looking forward to this for the past week and I’m not going to be the one who keeps you girls from your night of magic. You’re both so beautiful! We don’t want to mess up those dresses before the boys get here, and they could be any minute!”
“It’s just Oliver and Jay,” Holly protested, packing chicken breasts into the refrigerator despite Angela’s protests. “They couldn’t care less what we looked like.”
“Still, I won’t have my girls show up at a Globe party looking like they just stocked a refrigerator a few minutes ago. Go, sit down! Did the makeup crew tell you any jokes? Anything funny happen while I was gone?” She smiled through her thick demand for laughter.
Chiara and Holly exchanged a glance and Chiara slowly nodded. When she got back from the dance, she would be sure to clean the apartment as much as possible while her mom slept. Now, Mrs. Dalton needed to know that her daughter was getting the night for which she had prepared.
“The coordinator was from Italy,” Chiara informed her, slowly sitting on one of the kitchen stools. Holly leaned against the kitchen table. “And we could barely understand a word she was saying.”
“We might have thought so, too, but she kept telling us to close our eyes. We couldn’t understand her, so we’d get our eyes poked with a mascara brush.”
Angela giggled and the doorbell rang.
Chiara squashed the heave of uncertainty that rose in the pit of her stomach, forcing herself to rise and cross to the door. She could handle confrontations with the grace and confidence of an army general. She could work until she dropped to help provide for her family and never complain. A dance was a different battle ground altogether.
She opened the door and smiled invitingly.
“Come on in.”
Oliver swept inside, impeccably dressed in his signature blue suit, his hair combed and gelled to perfection and his shoes polished to a shine. He winked at Chiara and Holly with a grin, crossing through the kitchen and extending a hand to Angela.
“You must be Mrs. Dalton. I’m Oliver Truitt and I must express my pleasure at making your acquaintance!”
Angela giggled, taking Oliver’s hand and shaking it. She had calmed somewhat to the idea of meeting the Collective since she had heard that they were hardly celebrities to Chiara, but friends.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Truitt. Forgive my appearance. I just got back from work and I’m afraid I’ve still got a lot to do, but please make yourself at home.”
“May I help you stow away your produce?”
“Well, if you feel so inclined and aren’t afraid of staining that beautiful suit, I’d love the help.”
Holly jumped to join them and Oliver commented flamboyantly on her beauty, to which she responded with a meaty punch in the arm. He complained about her abusing him despite his great help in selecting their gowns, but it was background noise to Chiara as she watched Jay in the hallway, leaning against the wall and massaging his ankle, newly free of its splint. She raised her eyebrows.
“Still bothering you?” she prompted. He nodded shortly.
“Yeah. It’s the cold, I think. And your stupid stairs.” He glared back at them. “I don’t have good memories of your stairs.”
Chiara shrugged. “Well, I have cookies in here, and you have good memories of those.”
Jay chuckled. “Right about that.” He straightened, planting his foot on the floor and casting his gaze up Chiara to her eyes. He winked with a sly smile. “It looks like the stars threw up on you.”
Chiara rarely had trouble hiding a blush, but this time she felt the heat flood to her cheeks and she hoped the makeup was doing its job. She cleared her throat.
“Well, if it’s anything like when you threw up on my stairs, I’m going to go change.”
“No!” Jay shook his head emphatically, his smile remaining in its content place on his face. “No. It’s perfect, is what I meant. You look beautiful.”
Compliments from Jay Newhall were an entirely different category of thing to adjust to. Chiara found that it was not uncomfortable, but she did not know what to do with them while her stomach flipped in wild circles. Brody would compliment her all the time and it felt natural, like it was part of the discussion or was simply a bridge to the next topic. It felt friendly and unforced. From Jay, it felt like senses of which she had long been unaware were being woken. Numbing fireworks were exploding in her brain and sentences were hard to string together. It did not help that the Newhall heir had dressed to the nines, not a hair out of place, wearing a tailored grey suit with a slender white silk tie that matched her gown perfectly.
Part of Chiara missed when she and Jay were enemies. Feelings of disgust and frustration were easier to handle than whatever this was.
She cleared her throat again.
“Well…come in. Let’s get you a cookie. And an ice pack.”
Jay bowed his head in gratitude, striding inside with a mild limp. Angela set down her bell peppers as Chiara closed the door and crossed the room to Jay, wrapping her arms around him in a tight, motherly hug. Chiara watched Jay stiffen, then slowly relax. One arm stretched to return the embrace in his slightly awkward response. Mrs. Dalton pulled back, planting a kiss on Jay’s cheek.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she breathed. Her tone was so genuine. Jay smiled, patting her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s all due to you and Chiara. Thank you for your help.”
Mrs. Dalton shook her head self-deprecatingly. “I was just being a mom.”
Jay pursed his lips. “That’s already more than some moms do. So thank you all the same.”
Chiara watched her mom slowly nod. Despite being sometimes silly, oftentimes overworked, and generally overwhelmed, Angela Dalton was a shrewd woman and it was not hard for a mother’s intuition to see through a boy’s emotional walls to the aching soul behind it. She rubbed his shoulders gently.
“Well, remember that, anytime you need that mom stuff that moms do, always feel free to come here. Don’t even bother knocking.”
Jay slowly nodded.
“The same goes for you, Oliver! All you boys!”
“And we will definitely be taking you up on that offer, Mrs. Dalton! Holly, you’ve got to stop hitting me or I’ll be black and blue tomorrow morning.”
“Than put the food in the right place! Bread goes in the bread basket!”
“Well, I didn’t know that!”
Angela winked. “It seems they already get along,” she whispered conspiratorially. Jay exchanged a smile with Chiara.
“Yeah, we have our thoughts about that.”
Mrs. Dalton laughed, returning to the kitchen to direct Oliver and Holly as they finished putting away groceries. Jay leaned against the back of the old beat up couch, looking down at it with a small smile. Chiara thought she could read a trace of fondness in his impossibly blue eyes before he looked up at her and she had to look away to hide the blush rising to her cheeks again.
Tonight was going to be hard if these newfound sensations were going to continue.
“So, about that cookie?”