Mr. Gardiner jotted notes on the white board to emphasize his lecture on civil rights—or something. Shelby had no idea, because her attention had strayed to what Jace Conroy, the super-cute-walking-electric shock, who sat four seats back and two rows over, was doing that very minute.
The bell rang. Mr. Gardiner shouted over slamming books and loud voices. “That’s all for today. Pop test the day you get back.”
It was like someone hit the mute button. A stunned hush filled the room as all eyes shot toward the teacher.
Mr. Gardiner’s double chins jiggled as he chuckled and dismissed them with a wave of his hand.“Hashtag sophomores are so gullible. Get out of here.”
Groans and a couple of good-natured, offensive oaths were flung at him as they hurried from the room. Shelby slung her purse over her shoulder, waited for a couple of students to pass, then slid out of her seat.
“Hey, Palmer!” Randy Dawson, freckled, redheaded school genius and all-around good guy, waited at the end of her aisle with…Jace?
Shelby gulped down the excited knot in her throat and went to stand by Randy. They were both about the same height— five foot seven. Jace, at least a head taller, with shiny brown hair interspersed with sun streaks, gave her a quick nod. His hero-handsome features and deep brown eyes sent the pace of her heart into overdrive.
“Hi, guys,” she said, keeping it cool.
“Are you going to Valerie’s Sweet Sixteen party?” Randy asked, using the two words Valerie Cosgrove did not want her party called because it was “soooo last century and beyond lame.” Valerie, one of Shelby’s two best friends, was throwing her first boy-girl party, a “sophisticated and socially cool,” barbecue to celebrate her sixteenth birthday and her brand new driver’s license.
“You like to live dangerously, don’t you?” Shelby joked.
Jace’s instant laugh made Shelby feel witty and clever. She glanced at him, then quickly looked at Randy’s face. “Yes, I’ll be there. Are you guys going?” Say yes. Say yes. Say yes. It wasn’t every day she got to go to a party, and Jace being there would make it perfect.
“Sure,” Randy said as Jace nodded.“We just need to know what time to show up.”
Yes! Shelby’s mouth stretched in an ecstatic smile.“It starts at eight.” An eternal nano-second passed. They seemed to be waiting for her to say something else. Like what? She was so clueless! “Okay, then. I guess I’ll see you there.”
Shelby turned and smacked into a desk, falling forward, clutching her books.The desk skidded out from under her and she was going down when two strong hands grasped her waist.
“Nice move, Grace,” Randy laughed.
“You hurt?” Jace asked, his breath caressing her cheek.
OMG! OMG! A burning sensation crept up her neck to her face. He was so close she smelled the fresh soap scent from his after-gym shower. “Yes. No. I mean…I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Good.”Jace released her gently and straightened the desk. Shelby pushed her glasses up from the tip of her nose. She could see the cute little mole right below the corner of his left eyebrow. “Um…thanks, J-Jace.” Oh, crap, why did I have to stammer?
“You’re welcome.” He gave her a wink, stepped aside, and motioned with his extended hand for her to go ahead of them. Shelby fled to the safety of the hallway. Were they right behind her laughing about it? No. Better not look back. If they were right behind her she should keep walking like nothing had happened.
Rachel Rodriguez, Shelby’s other best friend, compact and curvy (she hadn’t needed a padded bra since seventh grade), dodged around students at breakneck speed. Her black curls, held back with a mini-braided hairband, bounced around her shoulders and her dark eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Guess what?” She flipped around to walk beside Shelby. “I’ve just been accepted as a student volunteer at the Whisper- ing Springs Animal Shelter! Can you believe it? This is gonna look so good on my college apps and—get this—it’s a no-kill shelter. I’m so excited!” Rachel wanted to be a veterinarian and was determined to do whatever she could to land some scholarships and get accepted by a top college—even though that was two years away.
“That’s awesome!” Shelby flashed a forced congratulatory, smile but she couldn’t stop thinking about being such a klutz in front of Jace. If only she could have a do-over.
Rachel’s brows drew together in concern. “Why is your face so red?”
Shelby bugged her eyes out at her. “Shhhh! Just keep walking.”
When they reached her locker, Shelby leaned against it for support. “Do you see Jace Conroy behind us?”
Rachel scanned the throng of faces scurrying back and forth. “Nope, he must have gone the other way.”
Shelby stole a look. Jace was nowhere in sight. She inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh. “I. Am. Dying! I did a most-embarrassing-moment thing.” She told Rachel everything while she opened her locker and tossed her books inside.“And that stupid Randy Dawson called me Grace and laughed!”
“Why you por thang!” Rachel clucked in sympathy. Shelby blinked. “Por thang?”
Rachel waved at someone passing by. “I’m trying out the Texas twang for English class. Mrs. Waldrup’s making us do one-act plays using regional accents to study voice and diction. Since we live in Texas, I figured it would be easy. How’d I do?” “It sounded okay but people from Whispering Springs don’t have Texas accents unless they’re old-timers and then it’s only a drawl not a twang.”
Located in south-central Texas about twenty miles from the northern edge of San Antonio, the small town of Whispering Springs lies nestled in the rolling hills of the Texas Hill Country. Pioneers were drawn to this area for the mountain cedar, live oaks, a variety of wildlife, and an abundant supply of water from the natural springs that bubbled up from the Edwards Aquifer. Shelby smiled, remembering how much fun it was to swim in the blue water of the limestone pools etched in the rock by the steady flow of spring water.
In the last few years San Antonio had exploded in growth, stretching its boundaries in all directions thanks to the influx of new residents from every state and several countries, with many military personnel.Young families who wanted to escape the big city chose to move to Whispering Springs for the small-town atmosphere while still being able to commute to work. As word spread, so many people had come that the city fathers now talked about the need for another high school and several new elementary and middle schools.
“Some parts of Texas, like along the Red River, it’s very heavy. That’s the one I’m trying to copy.” Rachel poked her. “Back to Jace. What happened isn’t the end of the world, you know.”
Shelby closed her locker, fastened the combination lock and spun the dial. “So do you think Jace is completely turned off by Klutz Palmer?”
“Jace actually had his big manly hands around your tiny little waist!”
Shelby smiled dreamily. “Did he ever.”
By the time they reached Valerie, who waited for them at the door of the cafeteria with arms folded and the toe of her sandal tapping, Rachel had convinced Shelby to let it go, to stop replaying it over and over in her mind. She’d make things right at the party. She’d even laugh at herself if Jace or Randy brought it up.
Valerie’s light blond fishtail braid hung over her shoulder and her small pink-butterfly earrings set off her topaz-blue eyes, now squinting. “What took you two bitches so long?” She practically shoved them into the lunch line then stepped in front of them. “Don’t forget to be at my house at seven so you can help with last minute things.”
“We won’t,” Shelby said, taking a tray.
“And don’t forget your pajamas for the sleepover after the boys go home.”
“We won’t,” Rachel said, giving Shelby a hooded eye roll.
“And don’t forget to bring your curling irons and straighteners—just in case.”
“We won’t!” Shelby and Rachel said in annoyed unison.
Valerie tapped the glass in front of the gelatin salads and pointed.The lunch lady handed a salad to her.“Can I help it if I want everything to be perfect?” Her tone sounded hurt and a little huffy as she banged the bowl onto her tray.
“Come on, Val,” Shelby said soothingly. “You know us bitches won’t let our alpha bitch down.”
The corners of Valerie’s lips curved.
“That’s right,” Rachel agreed. “So did you call and ask if you could go home early?”
Valerie harrumphed. “I did and Dad reverted from retired to active Col. Cosgrove. He and mother are “the officers in charge of our private little military complex,” his words. And they intend to surprise me. Yuck! I’ve been ordered not to call again or the party will be cancelled.”
Shelby held back a chuckle. Col. Cosgrove just couldn’t seem to leave military life behind, but he was a nice man who always made Shelby feel welcome. Valerie’s mom, also nice, though a little distant, liked being a big fish in a small pond. She had used her twenty years of officer’s-wife training to join every citizen committee or volunteer group in town, always rising quickly to a leadership position. Her picture was in the paper practically every month. Shelby’s mom predicted that Valerie, the perfectly raised army brat, would someday be her clone.
They filled their trays and hurried to their regular table. When they were seated Shelby hung her purse on the back of her chair as Valerie drummed her French-manicured nails on the table. “If it’s all sweet and frilly like the birthday cake, I’ll puke.”
“Why that’d be jist awful, hon.”
Valerie’s nails halted. Her thin nose scrunched.“What did you say?”
“She’s practicing Texas Twang for English class,” Shelby explained as her knife and fork wrestled with the chicken-fried mystery meat.
“Oh, got it. Mine is New Jersey.”Valerie delicately spooned her gelatin fruit salad.
“I’m glad I’ve got Mrs. Rowell.” Shelby took the paper off her straw. “Straight through the book and no surprises.”
“Okay, enough about that,” Valerie said.“Here’s how we’re going to get the boys to pay attention to us and only us.”
“Just a sec,” Rachel said, lowering her voice. “Taylor told me a couple of the guys have managed to score some vodka and bourbon.”
Valerie smiled. “Good. If we’re careful Dad won’t have a clue.”
“Knowing your dad,” Shelby said. “All who enter will be frisked. Especially the boys.”
Valerie’s spoon bounced off the table and onto the floor.
After they finished eating, Valerie texted Taylor with a booze-at-your-own-risk warning. But just in case, they decided to stash the booze in a car and slip out to get it after the party got started. Then the three of them chatted about who would do what at the party. Shelby, acutely aware of her own inexperience, mostly listened.
Her art class was in the far wing so she dumped her tray and left first. Mrs. Winstead had already passed out their portfolios with their copper tooling plates. Shelby took out a pair of latex gloves she brought from home. Normally she didn’t care what happened in art class, but she was not about to ruin her manicure just hours before the party.
During the previous class, each student had taken a simple pencil drawing and taped it over a copper plate. Then they’d used a pointed wooden stylus to trace the image into the copper. After the paper was removed, they went outdoors and brushed liver of sulfur mixture over the copper to turn it black. Shelby shuddered. Talk about a rotten egg smell; that smell was absolutely the worst. Next time she’d use Vicks in her nostrils. But that didn’t matter anymore; today was the exciting part. They would polish the copper with fine steel wool and the raised places would be bright and shiny and the recessed places would be dark, giving it an antique finish. Shelby slipped on her gloves, picked up the steel wool, and began polishing. Sounds of rubbing and whispers of awe snaked through the room.
Thirty-five minutes later Shelby couldn’t believe the finished piece in her hands. Her drawing of a deer in the woods was so much more amazing like this than on paper.“Excellent job, Shelby,” Mrs. Winstead said, pausing behind her. “And it will look even better when framed. I wanted to tell you that your watercolor painting of Mission San Jose has been selected for display in the Administration Building’s student art show in June. If that’s okay with you?” Mrs. Winstead’s eyes twinkled.
Shelby beamed up at her and vigorously nodded. Only two students from each class were chosen to display their work in the art show. Shelby had gone to the mission, sketched on the grounds, then come home and worked hard on the painting. When she brought it to class Mrs. Winstead snatched it up to submit to the show, but it had been weeks and she thought it had been rejected.
The rest of the day dragged by, without even a glance of Jace to give Shelby a taste of what the coming party had to offer. They had no more classes together on Friday, but she kept hoping she’d see him in the hall. And if their eyes met, well—romantic-filled daydreams in the science lab depended on those moments.
On the bus ride home she imagined how good she would look and couldn’t wait until after dinner so she could start getting ready. When the bus came to her stop, Shelby hopped off, wrapped her fingers around the straps of her backpack and sprinted toward home. Excited didn’t even begin to describe how she was feeling.The best part about it was, after the party all the boys would be sent home and the girls were having a sleepover. That meant freedom and a whole night away from home. Too bad it wasn’t the whole weekend. She had loved Josh from the minute he was born last August, but she was so tired of hearing her mother say, “Shelby, the baby needs changing.” or “Shelby, the baby needs a bottle.” And dealing with Roger, the man her mother had been stupid enough to marry, was maddening. This party was definitely what she needed.
As she rounded the corner to her street, she spotted the white van. Crap. It seemed like every couple of days these two creeps came by to check out the empty house for sale. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the woman’s head turn. What a freak. A baseball cap covered her long, platinum-blond hair and hid her forehead. Large dark sunglasses covered half her face. It made Shelby’s skin crawl the way the two of them ogled her, especially the man behind the wheel. She didn’t want to do it but she took a quick glance at him. Sure enough, he was hunched over the wheel, peering around the woman, staring at her. His dark hair slicked back from his sunken cheeks. It would be awful if those two bought the house and moved into the neighborhood.
Enough of them.Tonight was too important to let a couple of weird house-hunters spoil her day. Shelby shoved her eyeglasses back into place with one finger.That was another thing she was tired of doing. Her eyesight was too poor to go without glasses, but her mother didn’t believe in contact lenses. With perfect vision her whole life, Mom just didn’t understand. “I don’t want you hurting your cornea or getting a disease from not cleaning them correctly,” her mother had said. “I just don’t know…let me think about it before we make an appointment to see the doctor.”Shelby knew better than to push the subject, because money had been tight ever since Josh was born.
Shelby shoved all that out of her mind. This was the night she had daydreamed about for a month. Mom had taken her shopping and the emerald green dress they chose looked amazing on her, especially with the new push-up bra that gave her boobs. She had practiced makeup that would help the dress enhance the green flecks in her brown eyes and had perfected an upswept casual style for her light brown hair.
Her mom’s hair was a deep chestnut that she used to dream of having—until her mom told her she wished she had Shelby’s shade.“The sun does such wonderful things to your hair.”After that, Shelby appreciated the soft brown color, with its subtle highlights, fullness, and how easy it was to arrange. With a precision cut last week from her mom’s hair stylist, she was so ready. If everything went the way it was supposed to, she might end up with her first boyfriend. Valerie had Andrew, Rachel crushed on Brandon, and it would be so awesome if she and Jace could get together.
# # #
As she reached her driveway, a car drove down the street. Shelby stopped to watch it roll past the van. Good, maybe the real estate agent was ditching them.
She hurried through the carport, opened the kitchen door, and froze on the threshold. Her mom sat at the kitchen table doing her nails. No pans were heating on the stovetop and no warm smells drifted from the oven. The sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach was all too familiar. Please, please not tonight. She came in and closed the door. Please don’t do this.
“How was your day?” “Fine. Uh, Mom?”
Her mother blew on her fingertips. “Yes?”
“I have to be at Valerie’s at seven. Do you want me to start dinner?”
Her mother’s mouth froze in a pretty pucker. “Oops.” She smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, sweetie, I forgot all about Valerie’s party. Tonight you’ll need to take care of Josh.” She went back to blowing her nails.
No. She couldn’t do this again, she just couldn’t. Jace was going to be there. It was all planned. Everything was perfect. She couldn’t miss the party, she just couldn’t.
“Mom, this is all we talked about for a whole month. You bought me new makeup and a dress and new pajamas. I have to go to the party.” Her fingernails dug into her palms as she clenched her fists. She had to stay calm, controlled, say the exact right thing to change her mind.
“I’m sorry, darling, but Josh was fussy all day. He wouldn’t have done well at the daycare. So instead of going to the gym, I was stuck at home. You know how I get when I miss my routine. When this thing came up…well…I just forgot.” She lifted her shoulders in a helpless gesture.
Like that was supposed to make her not care about her own plans. Shelby took a step closer. “Mom, listen…”
Her mom waved her hand dismissively.“Please, Shelby, just drop it. I’m sorry, but you know how important Roger’s career is to us. We have to make an appearance at every dinner, cocktail party, and meeting. It just can’t be helped.” She beamed at Shelby. “Wait until you see the new cocktail dress I bought. It’s red with sequins and the hem comes to points.” She blew on her nails again.
Shelby studied her mother. Just days ago she had bounced around as if she were the one going to Valerie’s party. Now she acted like it was nothing. Shelby continued to stand there, unable to speak. Melissa Butler, the natural blue-eyed, brunette beauty who used to be admired, envied, and adored by everyone, was popular again. Roger had done that. But whatever Shelby wanted in the way of a social life was no longer important, not like it used to be, before Roger.There was money for hairdressers and gym memberships because these things were important in her mother’s life. A new cocktail dress every week cost money they didn’t have, so why waste money on a babysitter when you had a perfectly able fifteen-year-old in the house?
The silence between them thickened with tension. Shelby had to say something or give up.“Can’t you call a real babysitter this time? Please, Mom, I can’t miss this party.” Her throat began to ache as she fought hard not to cry.
“It’s way too late.”She closed the bottle, carefully protecting her freshly manicured nails. “Besides, Roger’s not sure about you going to a boy-girl party when we don’t know any of the boys who will be there. He says in this day and age it’s not a good idea. ”
That was the final straw in the large stack that had been dumped on her since Roger had come into her life. “Roger is not my father and I’m going to the party!”
An angry voice exploded behind her. “No, you are not, young lady.”
Shelby whipped around. She hadn’t heard her stepfather come in. The sneak.
Roger glared tight-lipped at her as he shut the door. “I don’t ever want to hear you raise your voice to your mother like that again! Consider yourself grounded.”
“Of course I’m grounded!” Shelby’s face contorted in rage. She heard Josh start crying in his bedroom. “If it wasn’t this you’d find another reason to keep me home taking care of your precious son. Well, it won’t work because I’m not babysitting tonight.” She turned on her mother. “You married him and had his baby. You stay home and take care of Josh. Or better yet, take him with you!”
“Shelby, that’s enough out of you!” Her mother’s face flushed as she tried to control her embarrassment and anger. “I’m ashamed of you. I didn’t raise you to act like that. You’re a very lucky girl to be part of this family.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Mother,”Shelby said, glaring.“I’m lucky you raised me to be your wimpy little built-in nanny who’s not supposed to do anything else. I can’t join any clubs and I had to drop out of my watercolor class because I have to take care of Josh after school. I can’t go out with my friends or do any of the things you did in high school because my mother has a baby and she doesn’t want to be stuck taking care of it. Yeah, I’m really lucky.”
“That’s enough!” Roger moved to stand behind his wife, hands on her shoulders to comfort her as she sat there in stunned silence staring at her daughter. “Go to your room. Your mother and I will deal with you later.”
“No problem,” Shelby said then added with dripping sarcasm. “I know you’re both way too busy to pay attention, but your son is crying. One of his parents needs to check on him because I’m not.”
She stormed to her room. As she passed Josh’s door she yelled, “Oh, will you shut up for once!”