Vanity lights glowed around the large mirror. Their reflection lit in the faces of the girls now occupying the bathroom this morning. Cindy smiled at Tara who was still trying to rub the sleepies from her eyes.
The smooth handle of the highly lacquered brush with natural boar bristles felt good in her hand. It had been a gift from her father, he had given it to her on the morning that he got married. It was one of Cindy’s prized possessions. She now used it to brush through Tara’s long silky hair. This had become a daily ritual for the sisters. Well, the step-sisters. Every morning Tara sat very still on the stool in the bathroom, looking into the mirror like it was magic.
In a way, it was. The magic of having a big sister was one that Tara loved and never got tired of. She would have been a big sister herself too, if it hadn’t been for the accident. She closed her eyes and Cindy wrapped her arms around her slender form,
“Open your eyes sweetie,” she whispered into Tara’s ear. “Look at me.”
Tara opened one eye, and then the other, her big blue eyes met Cindy’s golden ones in the mirror. Though she was too young to remember, she knew the stories about the terror of that day. She knew it almost destroyed her mother. But that was all behind them now. A calm came over her once again and Tara relaxed into Cindy’s arms. The magic of the mirror worked for her every time.
They kept eye contact for a few moments longer, then Cindy continued to brush Tara’s hair and she asked her what kind of braid she wanted today. The answer came swiftly, and brought a smile to Cindy’s face.
“Can I have the ‘Corona’?” she asked. “Oh please, I want to be a princess today!”
Cindy laughed, Tara wanted to be a princess every day. And why shouldn’t she be? It was the prerogative of every eight year old little girl, wasn’t it?
“Of course you can,” Cindy said, “Now tilt your head to the side for me, that’s it.”
Her deft fingers wove the silky blonde tresses into a braid that circled Tara’s dainty head. Tucking the ends in where the braid originated made it look like a continuous crown, and securing it with several bobby pins finished the look. Cindy held up the mirror so that Tara could see the back of her head.
“There,” she said. “What do you think?”
Tara sat up straight and moved her head around, just like she had seen the ladies do in her mother’s beauty salon. Then she nodded and smiled. “Its perfect!” she said. “Thanks Cindy.”
Tara hopped down and ran to her room to get dressed for school. She had decided that the pretty pink trapeze dress would look great over the floral leggings that she just received for her birthday. It would be the first time that she wore them to school, and just perfect for the dance program that her third grade class was doing today.
Cindy was putting the finishing touches on her own hairstyle when she sensed, more that heard, that Madeleine had come in. Her stepmother was leaning up against the door and their eyes met in the mirror.
“Thanks for helping Tara again this morning,” Madeleine said. “She is absolutely glowing with pride in her new look!”
Their smiles matched. Cindy and Madeleine both loved Tara, Madeleine as her mother, and Cindy as her big sister. Both of them would do whatever it took to try to make her world happy. The accident had taken more away from her than was fair for such a little girl.
Madeleine herself knew of the pain and loss that it had caused. It was still impossible not to remember it every day. Long before she had come into Cindy’s life, Madeleine had lost her husband and her baby daughter. Carbon monoxide poisoning was a silent killer, but they had not known, at the time, that it was making Tara sick.
John stayed at home with Mary that Saturday morning, while Madeleine took Tara into the clinic. By the time the diagnosis had come, it was too late for the family she had left back at home. The horror of that moment lived on in both of their hearts. But finding Cindy’s dad had eased Madeleine and Tara’s suffering, and they had become a family.
That was four years ago. Now Cindy was seventeen, her own birthday just a month away. Her dad loved Madeleine and Tara. Cindy had had to adjust to that. She had been alone with her dad since her own mother left when she was a baby. But it had not taken long to find out that she was good at being a big sister, and that it was real nice to have a mom.
Not that she had ever minded being such a tomboy with her dad. But Madeleine had shown her things that she never knew she liked, like lip gloss, and shoes other than tennis shoes, and braids. That had been best of all. As a hair stylist, Madeleine had her own salon. Every Saturday she had taken the girls in to work with her for few hours. Tara had loved to rearrange the two bottom shelves of hair products in the waiting area while Cindy stayed by Madeleine’s side and learned how to style hair.
These were things that Cindy had never known before Madeleine and Tara came into her life. Things that she should have learned with her own mother. But Cindy did not know where her mom was now, nor did she care. She had a dad that she adored and, after all that time, a real family.
“You look great honey,” Madeleine said, watching Cindy in the mirror. Cindy smiled, it still felt so great to have a mom. “Will you still be able to come in and help after school today?” she asked.
Cindy nodded, trying not to show how disappointed she was. Tonight was the Prom. But Cindy was not going, even though she had been asked, by Daniel Thomas. She liked Danny, they had been friends since Jr high school. In fact they were best friends, and she was pretty sure that they both knew that it was never going to be more than that. It would have just been a fun night for both of them, without the pressures of dating.
She’d had the dress for a month now. She and Madeleine has searched together to find exactly the right one. It was ivory lace with an under skirt lined with layers of tulle that gave the dress a perfect full silhouette. As the piece de resistance, she had even found shoes to go with it. Also in ivory, they looked like silk, shimmery but not too shiny and they had ties that crisscrossed up around the ankle and tied in a bow. Cindy loved the elegance and decadence of both the dress and the shoes.
But she would not be wearing them tonight. Danny was gone this weekend, to his grandfather’s funeral in Oregon. Cindy sighed. It was no ones fault, but she still felt kind of let down about not being able to go.
If only she’d had the courage to ask Conner Teige. He was a transfer student who had only been here for a few weeks, and he had ended up in half of Cindy’s classes. From the first moment, when she had seen him walking into the biology room, her heart did a little flip. When he walked over and sat in the empty chair next to hers, she almost forgot to breathe.
She fought the urge to give herself a little eyeroll. Madeleine would have noticed and asked her about it. There was no way that Cindy wanted to explain how annoyed she had been that Sheena Williams had made a huge act of inviting Conner to take her to the prom. Right there in the main hall of the school, Sheena had handed him a big box tied with a wide ribbon that matched the school colors. Nice touch, right?
Cindy had been watching. Well, it was hard not to, she had to go through main hall to get to her next class. The crowds, that had stopped to stare, slowed her progress until she pushed forward enough to see why. Conner was thanking Sheena for the box and tried to walk away, but Sheena insisted that he open it right then and there. Cindy thought that Conner looked very uncomfortable by the whole thing. A feeling that was magnified a hundred times when she saw the look on his face when the box burst open and helium balloons flew up into the air above his head. Then the banner popped up and the invitation was there for everyone to see.
He had to smile, he had to be nice, he was a great guy and he didn’t want to hurt Sheena’s feelings. Cindy saw all of those things in his expression. Sheena was about to say something, and it was obvious that this could turn into a bad situation very quickly. So Cindy did the only thing that she could think of, to end his misery.
She deliberately tripped, throwing her books into the air and landing awkwardly at his feet. He helped her up, while other kids gathered the books and papers, from all over the hall, and started handing them back to her. The bell rang, and the hall immediately emptied. Cindy did not see where Conner went or where Sheena ended up. But she was confident that her own stellar performance had at least bought him some time to be able to talk to Sheena in private.
No, she wasn’t ready to go into all of this with Madeleine right now. But she didn’t actually have to worry, as it turned out Madeleine did not pick up on any of Cindy’s inner turmoil, and she continued with the conversation that she had come in to have with her.
“We have a full schedule, and several of the girls have specified that they want braids,” she said. Cindy nodded, she knew all about the plans of some of her friends. “I could really use your help as soon as you can get to the salon after school,” she said, very kindly not adding the next words that they were both thinking. “And since you are not going…”
Her fate sealed, Cindy assured her that she would be there. Madeleine was relieved, and Cindy quickly said goodbye, gathering her books and running out the door to get to school on time. Of Course the only topic of conversation that she heard all day long was the excitement for the Prom.
Stealing peeks at Conner in Biology and Geometry and English and Health hadn’t helped either. She should have asked him. He was the nicest boy she had ever met. He was kind of shy, but he always had a smile for her. He glanced up to see her looking at him. She saw that smile before she jerked her head away and looked down at her book. Her cheeked burned. He had caught her staring. Could this day get any worse?
The answer to that question was yes. By the time she got to the salon, her heart was sick. While she had tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, she really had wanted to go. The salon was busy when she got there. It seemed that all of the appointments, this afternoon, were for girls going to the Prom. Madeleine pulled Cindy right in and got her started on her first client.
Braids were her specialty, and had been ever since Madeleine had taught her the basics. Cindy was good at it because she loved doing it. It took a good half hour to finish the first look. Everyone came over and oohed and aahed about it. The girl in the chair beamed, she liked it too. It made her look like a medieval princess. Regal and elegant for the dance tonight.
Every style she did was different than the one before. That was Cindy’s gift. Besides, it would not do to have a dozen girls all show up with the same look. Just when she was getting into her next style, a familiar voice floated across the salon and made Cindy look up to confirm it was who she thought it was.
Sheena Williams floated in and greeted all of her friends who were there getting their hair done. “He’s going to pick me up in a stretch limo,” she was saying to Dina. Her face was glowing. Cindy’s heart took another drop into her stomach. She had not heard, but now it looked like Conner had accepted the invitation after all, he was taking Sheena to the Prom.
Cindy swallowed hard and turned back to concentrate on the task at hand. Only she knew of the jealousy that burned through her gut. She forced a smile on her face when she was thanked for the magnificent styling and moved on to her next job. Still the hurt did not go away, and even she was surprised at the depth of the pain she felt.
Trying hard to ignore her and to not eavesdrop, she barely noticed when Sheena left. But moments later, she did see that she had forgotten to take the lip gloss that she had been showing off. It was sitting at the station where she had had her hair done. Cindy looked at it and instantly felt the urge to throw it into the garbage. “Real mature,” she scolded herself under her breath. And instead of indulging that fantasy, she took it up to the front desk and put it in the lost and found box. Not much else she could do about it now anyway.
The flurry of last minute primping ended abruptly at seven o’clock. The last of the girls had left and Madeleine was finishing up with the few ladies that were still here. Cindy was cleaning in the back room when the chime of the door sounded. She sighed, she thought that she had locked the door after seeing Darla and her mother out nearly twenty minutes ago.
“Don’t worry honey, I’ll get it,” Madeleine said.
With her arms full of dirty towels and capes, Cindy nodded, grateful. She turned and walked back to the washing machine that was nearly full of water, ready for the next load. She tossed in the towels and closed the lid. She was about to grab the broom and head out to finish sweeping when she saw who was standing there.
For a full minute, she looked at him. He was so handsome in the black tux that he was wearing. The dark gray tie and cumber band matched the subtle stripe down the sides of the slacks. It was probably the most elegant tux she had ever seen. Not that she had seen that many, but it was way nicer than the one her dad had been wearing when he got married. Cindy was aware that her thoughts were random and rambling. But she was unsure if she was imagining that he was really there.
“Conner?” she asked hesitantly. “What are you doing here?”
He stepped forward and she finally noticed the flowers in his hand. It was a wrist corsage, just like she had imagined she would be wearing if she were going to the Prom tonight. Her heart sank, he was on his way to the dance. Was Sheena out in the limo waiting for him to grab the lip gloss that she had left here earlier?
She was confused when he reached out and took her hand. She watched him closely, he seemed to be staring at their clasped hands for the longest time. Then he looked up, and their eyes met. As so often happened around him, she forgot to breathe again. Who could blame her? That shy smile of his, that she loved so much, was shining at her.
“I should have said something earlier,” he said. “Things were so mixed up. You know Todd, don’t you?”
Cindy nodded, she had no idea what he was talking about, but she did know Todd. That is, if he was talking about the Todd that was one of Conner’s new neighbors.
“Todd wanted to ask Sheena,” he explained. “And then she gave me those balloons before he had a chance to.” He shrugged. “How could I say yes to her when I knew that Todd wanted to take her?”
“So you told Sheena no?” Cindy asked, trying to understand what had happened. “She is going with Todd tonight?”
Conner nodded. She tilted her head and looked at him, confused as ever. He laughed. “I’m not doing this very well,” he said, as his hands tightened slightly on hers. “Cindy, would you like to go to the dance with me tonight?” he finally asked.
A million thoughts raced through her head. But only one mattered.
“Yes.” she simply said.
Then she looked down at her clothes. Her shirt was covered with bits of hair, and her jeans were her favorite old comfortable pair, faded and a bit shabby at the hems. She did not want to know what her hair looked like, but her hand smoothed down the back of her head anyway. How could she go to the Prom like this?
He read the concern in her face. “I don’t have a limo, like Todd,” he said. “But I would be able to drive you back to your house, so you could get dressed.”
She nodded, and looking up she saw Madeleine watching her and giving her a thumbs-up signal. She was all smiles. Funny, Cindy suddenly realized that Madeleine had known all along that she was sad about not going to the Prom. She smiled back and waved goodbye as Conner escorted her out of the salon.
Pictures of the Prom would be plastered all over the school the next Monday. There would only be one of Conner and Cindy. In fact, they had barely made it there in time to even have it taken. They did not stay to dance. The whole evening had been spent in the intimate little bistro not far away. They had lost track of time over dinner. Talking and getting to know each other had made the time fly. Ten minutes at the dance let them both know that they would rather keep talking, so they left and wandered around the fountains at the nearby arboretum.
Making their way back to her house, they still didn’t want the evening to end. So they took the the dessert, that they had brought from dinner, and sat in the gazebo in her backyard. Kicking off their shoes, they talked and laughed and shared the decadent cake. Under the canopy of stars that decorated the sky above them, they sat close and held hands. Cindy had never imagined that it could be so wonderful. She could stay here, just like this, forever. Suddenly Conner stood and offered his hand to her.
“May I have this dance?” he asked with as much seriousness as he could muster. She placed her hand in his and he pulled her up into his arms and spun her around. She held on tight, grabbing him around the waist. He laughed and slowed down to gently sway back and forth with her.
After a few minutes Cindy rested her head on his shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered. His arms tightened ever so slightly around her. All time stood still as they danced in the magic glow of the moonlight.
Dreams of that dance continued all night long. When Cindy woke up the next morning, she had to remind herself that it had been real. It had, hadn’t it? She made her way into the kitchen. Tara was sitting on the counter, helping her mother make breakfast.
“Morning sweetie,” Cindy said, kissing the top of the little girl’s head. Just then the doorbell rang and Tara jumped down and ran to answer it. Moments later, Conner stood in the doorway with Tara holding one of his hands, and Cindy’s shoes in the other.
He winked at her. “I think these belong to you,” he said. She blushed and took them from him. She had not even realized that she had left them outside last night. He laughed, “I left mine back there too,” he said, reading the look on her face.
“I’ve got to go now,” he said. “But would you like to see a movie with me tonight?”
Cindy nodded and walked with him to the front door. They lingered a few moments, and then Conner kissed her cheek. “See you at seven,” he said.
It felt like her feet never touched the ground as she floated back to the kitchen, a dazed look on her face. The feel of his lips still on her cheek. No doubt about it. It was real!
“Was that your prince?” Tara asked. Madeleine and Cindy both laughed. Cindy nodded.
“Yep,” she said. “My very own prince charming.