Graciella’s eyes fluttered open. She wasn’t ready to see what had become of her. She wasn’t ready to accept that fate had royally screwed her over. When she opened her eyes, would she see a girl that was sparkling? A girl who was proud of what she became? Or, a woman whose happiness had been eaten away by the darkness? She was broken from her thoughts by the urging of her mother, a woman who had loved her daughter so much she hobbled out of bed and took her to the store to buy a dress for a birthday party that her boyfriend insisted she have. The amount of support from her friends and family in her time of need was overwhelming, she just wished she could appreciate it more.
“Mom I…” Graciela bit her lip, not recognizing the girl in the mirror at all. Her hair was done up, lips peppered with a champagne gloss. “Where did I go?”
“Hmm?” The woman asked from the seat behind the girl. Charlotte stood up and let out a squeal, something Graciela had never heard before from her mother. “Graciela, my love. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever laid my eyes on!”
“Mom…” Graciela mumbled, trying to hide her blush and failing. “It’s just a dress.”
“A dress that brings out your eyes and that makes your smile look that much bigger. I feel a sense of pride washing over me right now,” Charlotte said. “You are growing up. My baby is going to be sixteen years old. The prettiest, smartest and most courageous sixteen year old in Fortitude.”
“You have to say that,” Graciela said. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she wondered what Maric would think of her in this dress. Would he love it? “Besides mom, I think this might be way too formal. Maric said to dress up, but this is like a prom dress.”
The pair was interrupted by a sniffle. Graciela turned to see a woman who hadn’t shown her face in awhile. Her aunt Astra, with tears flowing down her face. “Astra?” Charlotte asked, standing up to be by her younger sister’s side.
“Don’t mind me,” She sniffed, brushing Charlotte off. “I just heard your conversation and I thought it was beautiful. I was just reminded about how much I’ve given up.”
“What are you even doing here?” Graciela asked coldly, glaring at her aunt through the mirror, hoping she’d look up and see the hostility.
“Graciela,” Charlotte said sternly. “Stop it.”
“It’s just funny is all,” Graciela continued. “We all live in the same neighborhood, but she doesn’t even try to bring Knox over for us to see him. And, what is she on…guy number four?”
“Graciela!” Charlotte snapped, jumping to her feet. “Astra is your aunt and you will treat her with some respect. Or I will call Maric myself and tell him this party is off.”
“It’s his party,” Graciela had wanted to say. “You can’t tell him to cancel it.” But, she bit her tongue. She knew better than to agitate her mother. Instead she frowned and looked away. “Sorry,” She mumbled begrudgingly, not looking up at Astra.
“It’s okay,” Astra said calmly. “You have every right to be upset with me. All of this is my fault. I’m aware I’ve been very secluded as of late. But I’m hoping to turn a new leaf.”
“What are you doing here?” Charlotte asked. “Did you know we were coming dress shopping?”
“Oh no, I work here. After broke up with Waldorf, I decided to quit my job at the library. Dad might have told you. So, here I am giving makeovers. Do you want one, Char? Free of charge. I just need the good reviews now to show my boss I deserve my own station and not just desk duty.”
“I appreciate the offer, but no thank you,” Charlotte said. “I’m the mother of eight practically. I don’t need to look good.”
“It’s Valentine’s day today. Doesn’t Jeff have something nice planned for you? Don’t you want to look good and surprise him?”
“No I…” Charlotte bit her lip. She didn’t know if they had plans for Valentine’s day. Neither of the two had brought it up to the other. Things were kind of hectic, she didn’t expect Jeff to go out of his way for her.
“Do it mom,” Graciela said. She stepped down from the pedestal and walked her mother up towards it. “Dad will love it if you surprise him. Look at what you’re wearing now. An old lady sweater, and there are bags under your eyes. Your sneakers don’t even match…”
“Ok, I get it, hon.” Charlotte frowned at her own reflection in the mirror. She really had let herself go. But who had time or energy for makeup when there were eight toddlers, kids and teens needing to be taken care of. All the while, her having barely any energy to get out of bed. There was a time that Charlotte had gone out of her way to look nice for Jeff. Not because he had asked her to, but because she had felt good doing it and his lustful gaze over her body always made her heart skip a beat. He hadn’t looked at her like that in a while, her figure hiding behind baggy lounge wear. “If I do this, you have to promise me nothing too revealing Astra.”
“Of course!” Astra exclaimed. “You’re going to look amazing, trust me!”
Astra rang up the girls, putting in her own employee discount. After a few moments tapping on the computer, she let out a sigh. “How much is it?” Charlotte asked, fishing for a credit card in her new purse.
“You guys don’t owe me anything,” She said. “It’s my birthday gift to Graciela. You only turn sixteen once. Oh, and don’t forget to take that first dress with you too.”
“I’m getting the floral print one,” Graciela said. “Maric’s party isn’t that fancy.”
“You looked gorgeous in it. Save it for your prom, or something down the line. it’s my treat. Seriously. Enjoy your party.” Astra stood up and handed the girls their dresses. “If you guys need anything else, I’m always here.”
“Thank you…” Graciela said. She looked up at her mother who patted Gracie’s head lightly. A dress wasn’t going to fix their relationship but Graciela was happy to have it in her possession. Only because it had brought tears to her mother’s eyes seeing her wear it.
Graciela bounded down the stairs, a smile on her face. This dress was perfect. She felt so pretty. The dark thoughts that had plagued her mind as of late were pushed away as she thought about her plans for the night. After having picked her up from class one day, Maric had happily explained to Graciela that she needed to keep this day free. He has described his perfect plans for her in detail (knowing a surpise wouldn’t be the best thing for her). Braylen, Wolf, Harmony, Pax, Camilla, Maric and Graciela herself at an exclusive lounge he rented out for the evening. Brightly lit, he assured her, and free of charge as hi smother knew the proprietor of the place. The thought of Maric having done all of that for her made her heart leap out of her chest. He was so considerate. She really cared deeply for him.
She had been on cloud nine and Graciela was sure that nothing could bring her down. Except, she had forgotten about Nerissa. She had hoped that on this day, the girl would drop her rotten attitude in favor of supporting her former best friend. Of course not. It would never be that easy. “You look good,” Nerissa said, an air of fake interest surrounding her. “What time is our party?”
“Our party?” Graciela asked aloud. “It’s Maric’s party.”
“And I’m not invited?” Nerissa asked, titling her head. Graciela swore that in this moment she had looked so innocent. But Graciela knew better that. “Well, I just figured that we always celebrate our birthdays together. I thought tonight would be no different. MAric wouldn’t mind if I came, right?”
“Uhmm…” When it came to standing up to Nerissa, Graciela could never find the courage. She couldn’t figure out why.
“Nerissa sweetie,” Charlotte said, coming into the room. “Let’s talk for a minute.” Charlotte took Nerissa aside, but remained close enough for Graciela to overhear their conversation.
“Yes, Mrs. Gray?” Nerissa asked. “Should I get dressed?”
“You were not invited to this party. Maric has gone out of his way to plan it for Graciela. You can’t insert yourself within it.”
“It’s very rude that he didn’t invite me, don’t you think?” Nerissa challenged.
“No, I don’t,” Charlotte answered calmly. “You have done nothing but put his girlfriend down, make fun of her and try to get her to do things for you. Why would he invite you to the party he’s throwing in honor of the same girl you can’t even be bothered to talk to anymore?”
“It’s not like that!” Nerissa cried. “She stopped talking to me.”
“She may not say this to you, but she’s stopped talking to you because you’ve turned your back on her after promising to stand by her side. I won’t allow the emotional warfare to continue under my roof. Graciela has tried to resolve her issues with you diplomatically, but you insist upon trying to reign superior. In my house, we are a family. I don’t care what Jeff says, or what he thinks he owes your parents. If you continue to harass my daughter, you will have to leave this house. No exceptions. Graciela is happy today. She’s smiling. If you ruin that…” Charlotte’s voice dropped to barely above a whisper, but Graciela could still hear her. “I won’t let you get away with a slap on the wrist. I know your game.”
When Charlotte left the room, Nerissa glared at Graciela. “Let’s talk in the other room, NOW.” She grabbed Graciela’s arm forcefully. “I can’t believe that just happened.” Graciela dragged her feet along the carpet. Once in the other room, Nerissa exploded. “Tell your mom that you want me there! It was my idea for a sweet sixteen to begin with.”
Remembering her mother’s words, Graciela struggled to overcome her fears. “Your idea was a big party with the whole school. You know I don’t like big crowds, and late parties. Maric’s party ends before it gets really dark out.”
“Again with the stupid darkness. We all know you’re making that up for attention! You saw how people ran to your side when you cried back in Moonlight Falls about it and that’s why you still do it. That’s how you tricked Maric into liking you. He thinks he can save you or something. He’s such an idiot.”
“Are you serious?” Graciela demanded. “I don’t do anything for attention. I hate attention! And say what you want about me, but Maric isn’t an idiot. You’re just mad because you’re single and no one cares enough about you to to throw you a party of your own. I’m lucky to have Maric. You’re going to be here tonight all alone. Get used to it, because someone as rotten as you will be lonely forever. I mean, not even your parents wanted you, right?”
A loud crack could be heard as Nerissa’s hand made contact with Graciela’s face. “Don’t you ever talk about my parents like you know them! Your parents tricked them into thinking you guys could save Moonlight Falls or something. Here we are while they’re back at home in that hell hole still!”
“Hey!” Pax exclaimed, rushing into the room. “Is everything alright?” He noticed the tears brimming in his sister’s eyes. “Nerissa…”
“I know you think I’m the bad guy too, but your sister said some rotten things herself. If she ever talks about my parents again…”
“My mom took you in!” Graciela cried. “She gave you a safe place to stay so you wouldn’t have to grow up in that terrible place! All you’ve done is make everything about you! Just let me have one day!”
“Gracie,” Pax said. He held his hand out. “Now is not the time. She won’t listen anyway.”
“Really?” Nerissa asked. “Not even you’re going to give me a chance, Pax? You’re just taking her side.”
“You’ve been horrible to her since we’ve gotten to Fortitude. This isn’t about you tonight. It’s Graciela’s birthday party, thrown by MARIC. If you have a problem with the arrangements, go to him. He sent the invites out. Leave Graciela alone. I don’t care what she said about your parents. I’m sure whatever it was was warranted.”
When Nerissa stormed out of the room, Pax threw his arms around his sister. “Just forget about her. Today is your day. Hey, do I look dumb?” He asked in an attempt to make his sister smile. He pulled away from her. “That vampiric sunscreen Braylen gave me made me get a sun tan.”
She laughed and wiped a stray tear from her eye. “You look like a human, almost. If your eyes weren’t all glowy.” She pulled at the hem of her dress nervously. “Listen to me. I…I’m so thankful for you guys. You, Camilla, Mom, Waverly, Dad, Harmony, Braylen, Maric…even grandpa and Callen. Oh, and Ethan too. You guys are all I need. I love you so much.”
“We love you too, so don’t cry. We’re going to have a nice time tonight. Don’t even worry about anything else but having fun.” Pax kissed her cheek before heading upstairs to get dressed.