Keys and Kisses
When the year started, I had one goal—make my AP classes count and keep my grades up. Both my focus and my grades started wobbling. Dating my best friends came with perks like hugs, kisses, and invitations to dances, but it also came with cons in the form of vindictive posts, hate mail, and vandalism of my car. I asked if it could get any worse, and I guess I got my answer.
My college essays suck.
My mother and I are racing toward a collision.
My secret admirer might turn out to be a real friend.
My dance partner wants to walk away to preserve our friendship.
My best friend demanded I keep no more secrets.
My first offered to move in with me.
My second… he’s got my back.
They all do. But what brought us together seems to be tearing us apart and I can’t jeopardize those friendships. I won’t. I thought losing them was the worst thing, but losing even one… it might be the change we can’t survive. The real key here isn’t what do I want… it’s am I willing to fight for it?
P.S. I still need to get a damn dress.
Every night is another story.
“You have to try the blue one,” Cheryl said, holding up the dress toward me. It was a skinny strapless number that would probably hit me mid-thigh.
“Not really my style,” I said.
“No, it’s perfect. You have a great body and the ruching hides anything you might think you need to hide.” A half-snort and laugh later, she added, “Not that you need to hide anything. Does she, Coop?”
Going through a different rack of dresses behind us, Coop glanced over and grinned. “Nope. She’s perfect.”
Exasperated, I took the dress from Cheryl and held it up to me as I faced Coop. “Really?”
He cocked his head to the side. “Do they have it in green? It would match your eyes better.”
I did not roll my eyes.
“But this matches Bubba’s eyes, and he may not notice,” Cheryl argued, catching my arm to pull my gaze back to her. “Trust me, guys don’t notice it consciously when you do it, but their subconscious? It’s the perfect prey, it recognizes the colors, and then they’re drawn in by the symmetry.”
What the hell did that mean? It wasn’t in any psychology book I’d ever read. However… “Right color or not, I don’t wear skimpy dresses.”
“It’s not skimpy,” Cheryl said, her exasperation punching up each syllable. “Just add it to our rack there.”
Turning, I stared at the single rack the lady had brought out for us to hang our “selections” on, and when we were ready, she would wheel it to the changing room.
Over a dozen dresses already hung on it—for Cheryl. I’d hung precisely one before this one. A simple, straightforward, black cocktail dress Cheryl had given me a singular look of disgust followed by one of sympathy before she’d waved me on to hang it up.
Leaving her flicking through the racks, I carried the strapless dress over to hang it up.
“What do you think of this one?” Coop asked, holding up some tulle-infested nightmare of lace and satin. Despite his vain attempts to contain a smirk, his eyes practically danced with laughter.
“I think you’d look great in that,” I deadpanned.
He snorted, and Cheryl let out a giggle. “Oh, do we get to dress Coop up, too? Why didn’t you say so!”
“I’m good,” Coop said. “Let’s focus on Frankie.” Thankfully, he put the monstrosity away, and when Cheryl held her hand up for a high five, I gave it to her gratefully. “But seriously, what about this one?”
Ready to lampoon him for that dress again, I shut up as I turned to see him holding what looked like a two-piece outfit—a lacy high neck crop top and satin miniskirt. It was also in the deepest green. Although really pretty, that was a short skirt and the lacy top was kind of provocative.
He eyed the dress and then me.
“Oh, I like that,” Cheryl said. “Find it in blue, too.” She immediately dove into the racks with him. “We may have found your calling, Coop.” Biting my tongue, I drifted to another rack, even as Cheryl let out a whoop. “Royal blue. This will match Bubba’s eyes, right?”
“How the hell would I know?” Coop scoffed.
“Hang on, I have a picture, let me check…” Cheryl had a picture?
I stole a glance over as she whipped out her phone. Coop made a face, and I gave him a little smile. Dress shopping hadn’t been high on my list, especially after Ian disappeared that morning. Jake had gone after him, but I hadn’t heard from or seen either of them—until just after work when Jake sent me a text that everything was gonna be okay and happy hunting for a dress tonight.
Right up until then, I’d almost managed to make the mental block about the dress shopping. Coop waited for me by my apartment door when I got home, and he’d followed me inside. Thankfully, Mom wasn’t home and Coop kept it upbeat. He even fed the cats while I grabbed a shower. But even a half-hour of extremely invested making out couldn’t quite chase away the half-sick sensation left in the wake of Ian’s absence.
I’d texted him before I went to work. Then at lunch. I debated sending him one before we went out to get the dress and then decided against it. If he wanted to answer me, he would.
For the last forty-five minutes, it had been look at dresses and find some to try on. The price tags on them were not cheap. I found a rack with dresses that had longer skirts. The gold one was kind of pretty.
“No, Frankie. You need to work on your tan if you want to go for that. Too cold and pale. It will wash you out.”
Yeah, I didn’t ask, Cheryl. But I kept that comment to myself as I looked past the pink and the yellow. There was a pale, almost silvery blue that made me think of Jake.
I tugged it out and held it up to me. It would hit right at my ankles. There was a slit at the side, and the bodice had an illusion gap. It would look open almost to my navel but the sheer mesh would disguise it some.
“That’s not bad,” Cheryl commented as she breezed past me with three other dresses. “I’ll add it.” She snagged it out of my hands and then was on the move.
“It’s like watching a hurricane in action,” Coop said as he drifted over to where I searched.
“Kind of feels like one.” A force of nature. That description fit Cheryl to a T. “She had a picture of Ian?” I hadn’t meant to ask, I wasn’t going to ask. I was going to keep the inquiry to myself and yet…
“Yeah,” Coop said as he ran his hand over his hair then rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s just from one of the parties over the summer.”
One of the parties. Cheryl had been at one of the parties.
Of course, she had. They’d all been at the parties. The guys invited everyone. I’d been invited. I just hadn’t gone. “Cool.”
Shifting away from the sympathy in his voice and his expression, I started wading through the rack again. A midnight purple mermaid dress caught my eye, and it was stunning.
Coop sighed. “That’s beautiful,” he said. “You’d look great in it. ‘Course, you’d pretty much look great in anything here.” He pretended to look around before he leaned close and whispered, “Even the cold and pale colors.”
The corner of my mouth tugged up. “Thanks, Coop.” I bumped his shoulder, and he hip checked me gently.
“Anytime. Want me to go add that to the rack?”
I blanched at the price tag. No way I could afford it. I mean, I could, but no way in hell was I spending that much.
“Come on,” Coop said, bumping her shoulder again. “Try it on. I bet it looks amazing.”
He’d been doing his best to be upbeat and cheerful, and all I’d done since I got home was sulk. Sucking it up, I held up the dress to myself again and glanced down. It really was gorgeous. “You know what…why not?” I didn’t have to buy it.
“That’s the spirit.” He snagged the dress and went to add it to our collection. Surely we had enough. But Cheryl made a shooing motion toward the rest of the area.
“We have to make sure we look at everything available. Go on.”
Turning away from her, I rolled my eyes. I didn’t want to look at everything available. There were dresses out the wazzoo in here. Animal print. Chiffon. Lace. Tulle. So. Much. Tulle.
Ballerinas didn’t use this much tulle.
I bypassed the animal print because I did not have the wherewithal to pull it off, for one. And for two—every single one seemed designed to be slinky and sexy. So not me.
Then again, I didn’t really know what was me. I owned very few dresses and spent less time than most of them worrying about it. At this point, I’d also worn both of my nice dresses—on dates with Archie—so that meant I had to get something different for Homecoming.
I needed a dress. We had dresses everywhere. Surely something would work. I wandered away from where Cheryl currently plundered and made my way to a different set of racks—oh, clearance! Perfect. Even twenty-five percent off some of these prices would be better than nothing.
The colors varied from a plum wine spaghetti strapped dress that included two long slits to a deep fuchsia wrap dress. I skipped right past those and then hesitated on a midnight blue sequin midi dress. It had a slit, but most of the skirt hit about mid-calf and it had a halter top with a triangle in the center. It would show some boob but not a lot of it.
And it had no back whatsoever.
A hand snagged it out of my grip, and Cheryl grinned. “Normally, I’d fuss at you for sneaking over here, but this is a steal and it’s gorgeous. I might have to fight you for it.” She tossed it over her arm with three others and headed for the rack.
“Someone needs to put a bell on her,” Coop commented, and I grinned.
“Don’t be mean.”
“As if you weren’t thinking the same thing,” he charged, and then crossed his eyes. Laughing, I shook my head.
Because—well, yeah I had been thinking the same thing.
“Keep looking, Frankie,” Cheryl said as she breezed past. The effervescent cheer in her voice grated less as the first hour dragged into the second.
She was wearing me down.
In the end, I had twenty-seven dresses to try on.
Coop and I were never getting out of here.
I would apologize to him, but he’d been the one to insist we go when I wanted to bail in the first place.
“Divide and conquer,” Cheryl said. “We walk out in every dress. Coop, you are going to be the tie breaker if we can’t agree.”
“Oh. Joy. I was about to offer to get you ladies something to drink.”
“Nope.” Cheryl pointed him toward the puffy flat square seats. “Park it. You have to give us feedback.”
He shot me a look, and I shook my head. “You said this would be fun, remember?” If I had to suffer, then so did he.
There might have been a little bit of hate in his eyes when I said that. A very little bit. Cheryl turned away, and Coop and I both stuck our tongues out each other and shot the middle finger.
Chuckling, I felt better and pushed my way into the cubicle with its metric ton of dresses. We’d divided them by length and hung some behind the door and on each of the walls. I also had a large three-panel full-length mirror to see how I looked in them.
Stripping out of my comfortable clothes, I debated which set of dresses to start with. Twenty-seven dresses.
There was a movie with that title and a couple of these reminded me of all of hers.
Blowing out a breath, I turned to my left and started with the short dresses. The first one—the strapless dress with the short skirt and the rusching—wouldn’t work with my bra, so I had to lose it too. I squeezed into the dress and did a little hop shimmy before zipping up the last bit.
It hugged every part of me.
I had towels that covered more real estate.
“C’mon,” Cheryl called. “Let’s see it. I absolutely hate mine.”
That boded well. After checking to make sure it actually covered my ass in the mirror, I sucked in my tummy and then opened the door. I made it two steps before I caught the snap of a camera phone.
When I glared at Coop, he just grinned. “And now my fun begins.”
Still, I laughed as he cocked his head to the side and gave me a critical look. Trying to ignore the nervous flutters, I glanced at Cheryl and then did a double take.
“It’s fine,” the blonde admitted as she swept a hand down as though indicating the whole poofy—thing. Yeah, I didn’t have words for the dress. It was awful. “I hate it. It’s not even a contender, and our boy over there flinched. You, though…” She twirled her finger, and I sighed before doing a little pirouette. “Three-inch heels, pull your hair up, and get a nice choker, and girl, you would slay in that dress. The blue is really working for you.”
“Not really a fan,” I admitted. I was not comfortable. At all. “It’s too tight.”
“No such thing,” Cheryl said. “What do you think, Coop?”
“Nope,” he said flatly, and we both glanced at him. Despite a scorching and intense stare, he gave me a lazy smile. “Homecoming dance. You dance in that outfit, and everyone is going to see your ass. So no, I think not.”
“See, this is a no,” I said, probably way too brightly. Admittedly, I liked the way he was looking at me, but the dress was just too little. Seriously, too little.
“I think it’s a maybe,” Cheryl countered. “It’s too form fitting to show your ass. You can move in it, right?”
I really didn’t intend to find out.
“C’mon, Coop. I know for a fact you can dance. Front and center.” Cheryl clapped her hands. “Come dance with our girl, and let’s see how it moves.”
A startled look crossed Coop’s face before he shoved off the seat and headed toward me. “Just pretend the music in here is louder,” he offered, before crooking his finger.
They were killing me.
Laughter eddied upward. This was ridiculous.
But I caught Coop’s offered hand and let him pull me to him. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I just hoped like hell the top didn’t slide down.
Thankfully, it stayed firmly in place. Hands on my hips, Coop started to sway. This close, it was hard to miss the firm muscle where I brushed against him. He was also a lot warmer than I was. They had the air conditioning turned way down.
Oh, there was a benefit of ruching, my perking nipples were not on display. I might like this dress—a little. Especially since Coop looked at me like that. It was easy to move with him as he drifted in a simple box step.
We’d learned this one together in sixth grade gym when our school had its very first dance. Coach had taken pity on all of us and taught everyone a simple way to dance. Coop had been a great partner. Except, he had belched every time we got too close and then would crack up as I glared.
Thankfully, he made no such gesture now. With my hands that close to his hair, I curled my fingers to trace from his scalp to his nape. Faintly, somewhere, the music played overhead seemed a bit faster but we just kept moving slowly. Coop trailed his gaze down to my lips…
Cheryl’s sudden burst of laughter sucked me right out of the moment. “Real dancing guys, though you look adorable at the moment.”
“I’m good,” I said, slipping my hands free and trying not to respond to the quirk of his lips. “We still have twenty-six dresses to go.”
“Fine,” Cheryl said, throwing up her arms. “Next ones then.” She marched back into her changing room, and Coop snaked his arms around my middle and pulled me back before I could head into mine.
Lips next to my ear, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Twisting to look at him, I raised my brows. “For what?”
“I thought you were exaggerating,” he said in a tight whisper. “This really is going to take all night.”
He pressed a kiss to my cheek, and I covered his hand on my abdomen. “Yep.” My stomach gurgled. “We will need some major sustenance if I manage to survive this.”
“You will,” he promised. “I’ll be here, every step of the way.”
That made me feel better. “Thanks for coming,” I said, and he grinned before hugging me against him.
“Glad I could be here, now go find your dress, Cinderella.”
I laughed. “That would be shoes.”
“Don’t worry,” Cheryl called. “We’ll go out for shoes after we figure out the dresses.”
I must have looked as stricken as I felt, because Coop put a hand over his mouth but couldn’t quite muffle the snicker. Someday, I was totally getting even for this. It wasn’t Coop’s fault, but he was here, and he was having too much fun at my expense.
In honor of that, I kissed my finger before I flipped him off. Once I was shut back in the changing room, he cracked up for real. Leaning against the door, I stared at the dresses.
This was going to take forever.
Forever, it seemed, lasted about ninety-nine minutes. Not one hundred. Ninety-nine. Yes, I set a timer on my phone. I wanted something to write about in that journal I had to fill out, and as awkward as this was, it was so much better to try and focus on than the fact there’d been no word from Ian.
Not a peep.
I tried on the skater dress, the mermaid one, the dresses with one slit, dresses with two slits. I fit into the lace crop top and satin mini-skirt—Coop was a serious fan of that. The fact he took multiple pictures said as much.
When I walked out in the pale, silvery blue illusion gap dress, however, Coop and Cheryl both went absolutely silent.
“Wow,” he’d exhaled, and leaned forward.
“I’ll say,” Cheryl commented slowly. “Twirl.”
I did, and the skirt had the slightest bit of flare.
“That might be the one.” She’d decided on hers, but we were still trying them all on. It was the principle of the thing. And I had to admit—I loved the dress she’d found for her. It was pink, lacy, and had a sheer lace overlay on a satin skirt. It was stunning. While not my favorite color, it looked amazing on her.
I’d left the red dress for last. I had no idea who picked it out—I hadn’t seen it before we carried all the dresses in. It was simple, spaghetti straps, a curve bodice and the rest just fell straight down. No fitted waist or body-hugging cut. While I couldn’t wear my bra with it, it was the first dress I put on that I actually felt comfortable in.
It clung without being clingy. The skirt moved easily and fell to my calves. The pair of slits played peek-a-boo with my knees but didn’t really gap open unless I moved.
If Coop’s reaction to the illusion gap dress had been anything to go on, the red dress blew it out of the water.
“That one,” he said without preamble as I stepped out. I grinned and glanced down, then rose up on my toes like I had on pretend heels.
I’d actually beaten Cheryl for once, but her door opened as I made a little twirl. She was back in her crop top and shorts. She paused to stare at me and nodded.
“Definitely that one.”
Just like that, I had a dress. I ran my hands over the hips on it and then faced Coop again. He nodded as he snapped a picture. “Yes, Frankie. That one. You look great, you look like you feel great, and it’s perfect.”
Relieved and a little elated, I slipped back into the changing room and took the dress off. As I hung it up, I tugged out the tag and stared at it.
That was two weeks of tips…for a dress.
“Now that you have the colors,” Cheryl said. “We can go get shoes.”
“No,” I answered. “Not tonight.”
“But there’s a great place…”
“I believe you, but I’m toast. I’m starving. And I’ve kept Coop up way past his bedtime.” I crossed my fingers. Please play along.
“Well, she’s not wrong. You know, I’m eighteen on Thursday, it’s all down hill from here.”
I grinned before mouthing Thank you, Coop to myself.
“Well, it is almost ten, and we still need to buy these before they close.”
I snagged my phone from on top of my shorts and stared at it. There were some messages from Archie and from Jake. Both giving me ratings on the various dresses.
But I was grinning.
The red dress won their votes, too.
I glanced at the dress and then the phone. Then I tabbed to Ian’s message thread.
Me: I found a dress. It’s red.
I hit send, then waited.
Not even a read receipt.
Sighing, I clicked the screen off and got dressed. The whole time, I argued with myself over the dress. Why would I spend that much on a dress for a dance?
There were others that I’d kind of liked, and they were less expensive. But I kept looking at the dress. It was my first school dance with a date. It was the first thing Ian told me he was going to ask me out to, and he said he would still take me, even if…even if we were only going to be friends.
I lifted the dress off the hook as I popped open the door. Cheryl stood there, grinning. Then she gave me a hug. It startled me, but I hugged her back.
“Thank you,” she said with a wider smile.
“For coming out tonight and doing this. I had fun, and I know you thought I was crazy, but girl, that dress was waiting for you. You’re going to look like a million bucks.” Her blazingly bright smile encouraged me to believe her. “That said, you want to go to Mini’s or the Shoe Factory, they have the most comfortable heels, and they can color match if you can’t find the right ones. So if scheduling is a thing, I want you to know where to go. The Drop Shop also has really great accessories you can pick up, and I’ll text you my hair stylist. She does magical things. We should plan a day of pampering before the dance.”
Um. No. But I smiled. Cheryl was exhausting me just talking about it, and that was all before the dance. “Thanks, I appreciate it. Sorry I’m not more enthusiastic.”
“It’s okay,” she told me. “I know shopping seems like a boring thing, but it is exhausting. So, get your dress and go eat. We’ll talk on Monday, okay?”
Coop took the dress from me as we followed Cheryl up to the counter. All the way there, I argued with myself, and Coop didn’t say a word. Cheryl paid for hers and then waited for me to take my turn.
I took the dress and went up there. It was expensive, but gorgeous, and I felt good in it. Coop’s face had been worth it. I wanted to go to the dance, and I wanted to feel pretty.
I sucked it up and paid for the dress. Then it was time for another hug. As we left the store, the late hour seemed to hit all at once. I hadn’t really slowed down today. I had chores and work the next day. And homework.
Weariness swept through me again. But before we parted… “Cheryl?”
She glanced over as she set her dress inside her little mini cooper. “Yeah?”
“Thank you,” I told her. “Seriously. I had—fun.”
“You bet. Night, Coop, thanks for being an honorary girl!”
“My pleasure,” he said dryly, hooking an arm around my shoulder, and I leaned into him. “Next time, we should do our nails.”
Cheryl laughed as she went to slide into the driver’s seat. “Oh, my mom usually does the mum the weekend before, so if you want to, I’ll give you her number to give your mom so she can show her how to make it—you know, if she needs help.”
The Homecoming mum. I hadn’t even thought about that.
“I’ll text it to you,” Cheryl said, then waved. “Mitch is waiting for me, so I need to get over there. He’s been grumbling for the last two hours since he found out Coop tagged along.” She rolled her eyes. “Boys. Bye!”
Then she was out of there.
“Shopping,” Coop said. “Sucks.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t kidding. I did kind of have fun.” I glanced up at him. “Thanks for coming along. I know this wasn’t what you had in mind for a date.”
“I got to spend it with you,” he told me serenely. “That’s all that matters.”
My stomach gurgled rudely.
“Now, let’s feed you before you decide to eat me.” He made a face, and I laughed.
“I’m not that hungry.”
“Yet,” he teased. He took charge of the dress and got it hung neatly in the back. I’d just spent a fortune on a dress, and I was strangely okay with it.
“Food,” Coop nudged me.
Yep. Definitely food.