twenty-two

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Mom gathered my hair into a half- up half-down ponytail, adding a few curls with a curling iron. She stepped back to appraise me.

"It took me a while to get used to it, but I think that new hair color suits you," she said.

"Is my lipstick too dark?"

"It's perfect."

"Do I have too much blush on?"

"You look like Cinderella at the ball," she said. "Let's show Dad."

I looked in the mirror, and for the first time, I saw it. Just a glimpse, but there it was all the same. I could see pretty with my own eyes. I didn't need anyone else's.

"What's wrong? Do you want more eyeliner?" Mom rummaged through her makeup case.

"No, everything's fine," I answered. The truth was, I wished I were going to the real prom, not some consolation party in a forgotten graveyard.

I heard a familiar clank against my sliding glass door. I launched into a coughing fit to cover the sound.

"Can you get me some tea?" I hacked. "My throat's dry."

"I knew that rain wasn't good for you," she said, heading out.

Once she was gone, I darted to the door. An appreciative whistle rose from the dark.

"My mom will be back in a minute," I whispered. "You have to go!"

Justin, halfway up the tree, looked unconcerned. "Make up an excuse, Ari. It's party time."

I glanced behind me. "I thought we were supposed to meet at Lowell's ... Richie's supposed to pick me up in ten minutes, and—"

He climbed to a higher branch, then swung his legs onto the deck like a gymnast. "I spoke with him. He's already there. Everyone's waiting for you." He inserted a finger into one of my curls. "You look very sexy, by the way."

What was I supposed to say to my parents, that my date stood me up, and I was going to the prom alone? Forget it.

He waltzed past me into the room.

"What are you doing?" I protested.

The door flew open. The steaming mug in Mom's hand tipped, dribbling tea onto the rug by the foot of my bed.

"Hello, Mrs. Grande," Justin said with a nod. "I apologize if I scared you. I was trying to pull off that corny Romeo and Juliet balcony act. You know, with it being prom night and all."

"You must be Richie." Mom lowered her eyes. It seemed no one was immune to Justin's charm.

"That's me," he said, lifting my hand to kiss it.

Mom took in his sweatshirt, faded blue jeans, and Nikes. He shifted, blocking her view.

"I bet you're wondering why I'm dressed this way, Mrs. Grande," he said, turning back. "It's embarrassing. I spilled something on my tux and had to get it dry-cleaned. My mom picked it up after work, and I was hoping Ari could come with me to get it from her. We'll go to the prom from there."

"Would you mind if I get a picture of you kids before you go?"

Justin covered my hand with his. "As long as you make a copy for me."

I stiffened. His lies were landing in my mother's trusting ears. Never mind that I'd spent the past few months avoiding the truth myself.

Mom introduced "Richie," the world's most perfect date, to Dad. Then she arranged us in an awkward pose and snapped pictures. In between shots, she kept reminding me to smile.

"Gosh, Ariana, we'd better get going." Justin eyed his watch.

His act was as contrived and sappy as the photos my mom had just taken. Had he really said "Gosh," for christsakes?

"Somehow, I doubt my tux would fit you." Dad chuckled, rubbing his stomach.

I started for the door. Mom dropped a hand on my arm while Justin kept going. She whispered, "Richie seems like a nice boy."

Where had my overprotective mother gone? How could she not see through Justin's act? Moms were supposed to have a sixth sense about these things. How could she be so annoyingly on top of my every move and yet unable to sniff out his lies? And there was Dad, flipping through the Wall Street Journal while his only daughter left home with a guy whose last name he didn't even know.

She pressed a hand to my back and ushered me out the door. I jerked away, hurt that her maternal instinct had failed to kick in.

"Have a wonderful time, honey." She smiled at me, her eyes full of pride.

This was my last chance to stay home. I didn't have to go to the Prom with the Dead. It wasn't too late to turn back.

"I hope you have fun with your friends," she added.

Friends, I thought to myself. Is that what they were? I thought of Richie's phone call, of Zoe and Nora helping me dye my hair. It's just a party, I said to myself. If we all hung out together, I wouldn't have to be alone with Justin.

"It was so nice meeting you, Mrs. Grande," Justin said. "Time to go, Ariana."

Mom kissed my cheek, and Justin and I headed for the sidewalk. When Mom shut the door, he quickened his pace, leaving me behind.

"What's going on?" I demanded, running to catch up with him.

"I've got a surprise for everyone."

"What do you mean?" I asked warily.

"We have a lot to celebrate." He turned around to face me, walking backward. "Come on. We only have a few minutes until the party starts."

Was Richie in on this? Why was he already at the party?

"Just trust me, Ari."

I pictured him and Nora on the Majestic Seas, discussing my so-called trust issues. I bit my bottom lip to stop my imagination from taking off. Instead, I thought about my phone call to Jenny Carson. She was a complete stranger, and yet I trusted her more than Justin. And then there was Tiffany Miller, who'd turned out to be a decent person.

Who was Justin Bieber, anyway?

He was watching me, I realized, watching me stand there in an ugly prom dress, my high heels glued to the sidewalk.

"Okay, I'll tell you the surprise," he said, stirring me out of my thoughts. "Remember how those guys tore Zoe's shirt off at that fake party Wanda made up? Well, Wanda's under the impression that her friends are having a pre-prom party at Lowell's. When she shows up, we're going to blindfold her and rip off her prom dress. She'll have to make her way back into town in her birthday suit." He laughed. "It's going to be hilarious. It's time for Zoe to get back at her for what she did."

I smiled weakly.

"Good one, huh?" Justin asked, searching my face.

I considered telling him I didn't like his plan at all, that I didn't want to go to the Prom with the Dead, and that I was done with his League. But now I had to go. I had to put a stop to it. I didn't think it would take much to convince Zoe that this was a bad idea. If she agreed, maybe Nora would, too.

Justin climbed onto his bike, patting the space behind him. I slid on and gripped his buttery leather jacket in my fists, intent on not touching him.

"Let's go," I said.

A/N:

Ariana's dress at the Grammy's 2016 is one of my faves though ahah

sorry for the repost but wattpad wasn't working yesterday and nobody saw I updated so that's why I am reposting this chapter

so how will the prom go? let me know your thoughts!

love you <3

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