This was a mistake.
The words reverberated through seventeen-year-old Haley Carston's head. Pulsed painfully through her heart.
They even trembled in her hands.
The pale pink princess-style prom dress poufed around her. There was no other word to describe it other than poufed. She looked like a strawberry cupcake.
The girl staring back at her in Katie's full-length mirror looked like a stranger. Too much blush, too much mascara. Dark pink lipstick. How had she let her new friend talk her into this much makeup?
Because everyone let Katie. Katie was that kind of person. The shining star.
Nothing like tag-along Haley.
But that girl in the mirror--she was a stranger.
Except for the scared eyes. Those were all Haley.
After Katie had found out she wasn't planning to go to the senior prom, she'd promised to find Haley a date. And no one said no to Katie.
But who could she have found?
Haley's dad had dragged her to Redbud Trails, Oklahoma in the middle of her senior year, after a job he'd been chasing hadn't panned out. They'd planned to leave after a few weeks, but Haley's Aunt Matilda had seen how unhappy she was at the prospect of moving again and offered to let her stay until her first semester of college.
Haley had expected to hate the minuscule high school, graduating class of a whole dozen. She'd never imagined she'd fit in, figuring she'd stick out like the outsider she was.
Instead, she'd found an immediate friend in Katie, who'd taken Haley under her wing and drawn her into her circle of friends--the popular kids--and made Haley forget that she hadn't been born and raised in small-town Oklahoma.
Most of the time.
Tonight, she felt like a silk flower in a room full of hothouse roses. Pretending she was one of the crowd but woefully inadequate.
The three-inch pumps that matched the dress were already pinching her toes. She wobbled into the hallway and hesitated outside Katie's bedroom doorway. How in the world was she going to get to the first floor without tumbling down them?
"What are we waiting for?" Haley recognized the complaining male voice wafting up from the living room--Katie's boyfriend-of-the-month, Ronald Walker. Katie had commented more than once about how fine they would look in their prom pictures together. Haley thought maybe that was the only reason her friend was dating the jock and half-expected a breakup soon after tonight.
"Haley will be down in a minute," Katie said.
There were other voices laughing and talking. Katie had convinced the group to meet up at the Michaels' farm and carpool. Which meant more people to see Haley descend and face whatever sap Katie had found for her, some guy who felt sorry enough for Haley to be her date.
Her feet didn't want to move. But she was afraid Katie would come upstairs looking for her if she didn't go. She took the first step and let her momentum carry her down, down...
Voices got louder. It sounded like Katie had a crowd of friends in the living room.
"Maddox, heads up!"
When she heard the name, Haley lifted her gaze from the stairs, and she stumbled on the last step. She barely registered the projectile flying toward her until it whacked the back of her shoulder. Her foot caught in the long dress, and she tilted precariously.
A strong pair of hands caught her waist and steadied her.
And a kid-sized play football fell to the floor.
"Sorry," Katie's younger brother Justin, a freshman, muttered from somewhere off to the side.
Haley looked up . . . and up . . . and up into the strong-jawed face of Maddox Michaels, Katie's older brother.
Who should've been in jeans and a Stetson but instead was wearing a smart black suit and white shirt and black tie...
No. Oh no.
"Great, we're all here!" Katie sang out. "Let's have mom do her three hundred pictures so we can go."
Maddox let go of Haley's waist, but only after he made sure she was steady in the uncomfortable heels. "All right?" he asked easily.
She nodded dumbly, her cheeks burning hotter than the face of the sun. She'd only met Maddox twice before, and she'd found herself tongue-tied both times.
He was handsome. A college guy.
And she couldn't even stutter out a sentence!
"I think this belongs to you." He presented her with a simple wrist corsage of white roses. His fingers were hot on her wrist as he slipped it over her hand.
"Oh, um..." Thank you. How hard would that have been to say? But she only had one thought blaring through her brain. Find Katie!
She excused herself--had she even said pardon me?--and moved faster than the shoes should have allowed, pushing through the other bodies crowding the room. There Katie was, coming out of the kitchen. Haley took her friend's arm and ducked back into the brightly-lit room.
"I can't go to prom with your brother," she hissed.
Katie patted her hand, looking over Haley's shoulder back into the other room. "Look, I know he's an old curmudgeon..."
Curmudgeon? Was Katie insane? Her brother was...was amazing. Sure, he occasionally got irritated with Katie's wild schemes, but then, who wouldn't?
He'd just finished his freshman year on a football scholarship--quarterback, no less. And there was talk that a Division I team wanted to recruit him. He was that good.
And that far out of her league. What would she even say to him? Had Katie lost her ever-lovin' mind?
Katie's smile turned apologetic. "But he was the only one..."
...who would go with you.
Her friend didn't have the finish the sentence. The words Katie didn't say hurt just the same.
"Look, I don't have to go to prom," Haley whispered frantically. "I can just go home, and then he won't have to pretend to be my date."
"Quit worrying." Katie waved her hand like she was brushing away a gnat. "Everything will be fine. Everyone will be so focused on him, they won't even notice you."
And Katie was right.
Against her better judgment, Haley squeezed into the suburban Ronald had borrowed from his mom. She would've pressed up against the window but her voluminous skirt prevented her from scooting far enough in. Her face burned as Maddox calmly settled his lanky body beside her, one long leg pressing into the pink layers.
His shoulders were so wide he had to rest his arm behind her on the seat.
It took all her energy to keep from falling into him as Ronald showed off for the guys, speeding around corners until Haley thought she might get carsick. By the time they got to the banquet hall, her whole body ached from tension, and she hadn't danced a single song yet.
Maddox helped her out of the vehicle, and within seconds, they found themselves surrounded by guys offering high-fives and talking about the last games of the season. Girls flirted with him as if Haley weren't even there.
She couldn't believe Katie had done this to her.