Chapter One

Chapter One

One year ago…

Late fall bit like late winter in Gracia that year. Temperatures hit record lows as the holiday season reached its fever pitch, and clothing vendors scrambled to fulfill the need for winter coats. They came from cold-weather stores and were bought almost instantly.

People on the streets of Gracia, California, bundled up in their winter coats and resumed their normal existences of making dates, having lunch, and gossiping. And buying Christmas presents.

The cold temperatures reminded dimly Jessica of Christmases in New York, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to go back. She’d had enough of New York to last her a few years. She had good memories of Christmases with her sisters and mother, but the recent events with her now-ex husband had marred her love of the city for the moment.

Lawrence Williams, four years older than her, had been the son of a family friend of her father. Their close proximity blossomed into friendship, and they became colleagues once Jessica graduated college at a very young age. Somewhere along the way, they thought that they were in love with each other, and Jessica, who was nearing thirty, found herself accepting Lawrence’s marriage proposal.

Looking in retrospect, Jessica was a little ashamed. The shame used to be more, but time had dimmed the sensation a little. She had married for nothing more than false security and expectation. She had disappointed herself becoming Mrs. Lawrence Williams, and she couldn’t help but feel slightly relieved when the marriage failed after their second anniversary. It had turned out that Lawrence had thought less of the union than Jessica had, as he had taken a mistress and started working insane hours while at the same time complaining about her work ethic.

It gave her great satisfaction when she was able to accidentally shove her ex-husband’s lover into a puddle of muddy water after the divorce proceedings.

Now twenty-eight, Jessica felt that she wasn’t going to worry about becoming an old maid. She had tried the marriage experiment, but it obviously didn’t work for her. After the two had ended their marriage, Jessica had packed her stuff and returned to California to be nearer to her sisters. Having been in Gracia for two weeks, Jessica felt considerably better about herself. Being able to be around people that would support her and nurture her was the healing she needed after the nasty divorce. And it gave her great pleasure to buy each and every one of the people she loved great Christmas presents.

As if she knew that she was thinking about her, Daniella Thomas’s voice rang out and broke though Jessica’s thoughts.

“Hermana!” yelled the tall supermodel, streaking across the street in a soft Versace coat and designer leather boots. Jessica, wearing a black coat, had to smile as Danie linked her arm with her own.

“¿Qué pasa?” Danie chattered. “I see you’ve taken up daydreaming as your list of talents.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “I was just walking down the street, not taking a trip to Wonderland.”

“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” Danie changed the subject. “So how does it feel walking down the street in Gracia again?”

Jessica exhaled, her breath coming out in a puff. “Like home, honestly.” She turned to Danie. “I never thought I’d miss you guys so much. And I’d never thought that I would like being celibate so much either!”

“Yes, technological advances in that area are exquisite,” Danie said jokingly.

Jessica gave her a playful shove. “Danie, you know I don’t use a vibrator, so I don’t even know why you brought it up.”

“I was just joking, hermana.” She sighed. “Oh, don’t I love the single life!”

Jessica couldn’t fight an eyeroll. “You mean the fucking-Aidan-Bloom life.” She went on as Danie blushed. “Danie, I don’t know why you just admit that you’re dating the man and get it over with. Being tied down to someone is not the end of the world.”

“Aidan and I are just having gratuitous sex,” Danie responded. “He’s my best buddy and I don’t think we’d make that kind of good couple, you know? Why complicate it with emotions? We’d ruin our friendship.”

Jessica tried to pick the best way to address this. Aidan Bloom was a talented fashion photographer and currently Danie’s main photographer. They had been friends for quite a while, and Jessica knew that secretly, Aidan harbored some feelings for her younger sister. Danie, having recently ended her own bad relationship, was not interested in a meaningful experience, though Jessica feared that Aidan did. They’d built up a great friendship and Jessica figured that they were going to ruin it.

“Danie,” Jessica began, “you’ve already ruined it. Once you have sex with a man, you can’t go back.”

Danie tossed her hair in a display of nonchalance. “I love him but I’m not in love with him, and he’s not in love with me. So it’s alright.”

“Maybe that’s what his penis says, but you gotta ask him what he thinks of the situation.”

Danie guffawed at Jessica’s reference to his genitalia. “Jessica, damn! Do you have to be so blunt?” Jessica opened her mouth to answer. “No. Don’t answer that. I should know better that you would tell me the truth.”

“Damn right,” Jessica declared.

“Now,” Danie said in a serious voice. “I think we ought to change the subject.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Danie stomped her foot in frustration. “Are you listening? I think you need to find a penis to get attached to yourself.”

Jessica shook her head in consternation. “No wonder you talk the way you do. You get it from me.” She paused. “I hope you’re not insisting that I go and find some horny male specimen to have a one-night stand with. Because, if you are, I’m going to discourage you right this very second.”

“You need for someone to pop your cork, hermana,” Danie insisted.

“You make me sound like a bottle of overpriced champagne,” Jessica muttered.

Danie brightened at that moment, forgetting the meaning behind her sister’s statement. “Oh yes…speaking of champagne…I nearly forgot. Aidan told me that his older sister Marjorie is coming to Gracia for a few weeks and she’s throwing this big party next week. Well, it’s more like this banquet thing, but it’s the same difference.”

“I don’t know…”

“Come on, Jess! You haven’t gone out since you came to Gracia. This will be a good chance for you to get out and show the world the new Jessica Thomas. She’s no longer the wife of that bastard Lawrence Williams—she’s free now.”

Jessica sighed, feeling a bit excited. “Fine. I’ll do it—but we’ve gotta find me a damn good dress first.”

* * *

Meanwhile, at the Moon Spot a few paces in the wake of the Thomas sisters, Kevin and Kristin Richardson sat silently at a booth eating a hurried dinner of hamburgers and French fries.

The atmosphere around them was tense. The airport had lost their luggage, and, to make matters a bit worse, a whole slew of fans had noticed the duo and an unofficial autograph signing event had occurred. While Kevin didn’t mind catering to his fans, he found that the occurrence had made things worse between him and his wife. It was just another reminder of their big move to another city.

They were staying in a hotel until their new house was ready. The Tsukimoris were footing the bill for their stay. Needless to say, for this very reason and many others, Kristin didn’t much like the Tsukimoris.

The Tsukimori family founded the Sakura School for the Arts, a prestigious school for dance, music, and visual and performing arts in Gracia, California. In a strange turn of events involving a foreign country and a salsa dancer, the School lost its Music Department Head and clamored to find a new one.

Meanwhile, the Backstreet Boys were taking a much needed break. Brian was married, and so was Kevin; Nick wanted to start a solo career, and AJ and Howie had their own agendas. Kevin knew that he wanted to remain in the realm of music. He was given a talent to play the piano, and he wanted to share it with others on another level than being a teacher. It’s unclear how he heard about the position at the Sakura School, but something inside of him, a little voice, told him to try something new. However, at the same time, Kristin’s acting career was fledging, and she was finding nothing more than guest starring roles on TV shows. Kristin was preparing for a casting call when Kevin was going through this process. He tried to be as supportive as he could, but the truth was he was nervous. He was taking a giant leap away from his performer persona, and it weighed on his mind heavily. Things got worse once Kevin accepted the position. He had to take a short seminar on teaching, and one day, he came home to find Kristin in tears. She had been passed over for a good role and it was all coming at her at once. They fought, Kevin slept on the couch. The next day, they made a truce, and had been standing on that shaky truce ever since.

Kevin’s cell phone jingled, and he picked it up to examine the LCD display. Midori Tsukimori. Kristin stared at him questioningly.

He flipped it open and put it to his ear. “Hello?”

Midori Tsukimori’s bright voice came over the line. “Kevin! How are you? You alright?”

“I’m fine.” Kristin frowned. He mouthed, Midori, and her face went blank. “I’m just having dinner with my wife. You sound like you’re moving.”

“I’m in my car,” she confirmed. “Anyhow, I have a point to calling you.”

“Well, I was hoping you were just trying to take up my airtime.”

Midori laughed. “Very funny. Seriously, I need to tell you about a few things.” She took a breath. “I know you haven’t moved into your house yet, but make sure that the post office has your new address. You’re going to have a lot of things coming from us in the mail. Also, you’re going to be receiving an invite to your first public appearance as the Music Department Head.”

“As long as I can wear clothes, it’s fine with me,” Kevin commented, making Midori laugh. Kristin sipped on water.

“You’d better be wearing a tux for this one. The Countess Marjorie Worchester is going to be in town for a few weeks, and the city wanted to give her a big welcome since her brother has put down roots here. You’ll be eclipsed, sorry.”

“No problem. It’ll give me a chance to new people.”

“I’m glad you’re up to it. Be prepared for your own royal treatment. We’ll talk about that later. No one’s set a date for anything yet.”

For that Kevin was relieved. He expressed this to Midori and she chuckled. “Not that I blame you, but they feel like they need to roll out the welcome mat for you, and this the manner in which they do it most of the time.” She emitted a short gasp. “Oh my. I need to go. Good luck with everything, Kevin.”

Kevin thanked her and they ended their conversation. Kristin looked up at him.

“So,” she began in an even tone, as if she were trying to hide her disdain, “that was Midori. What did she have to say this time?”

Kevin put his cell away. “She wanted to check up on us. And she told me about some swanky party they’re throwing for the Countess Marjorie Worchester.” He paused. “We’ve been invited to go.”

Kristin sighed, swirling her French fry in ketchup. “I don’t know, Kevin…”

Kevin reached across the table and patted her hand. “We’re gonna go. It’ll be a good way for us to get acquainted with people.” He took out his wallet and threw some bills on the table. “Come on. Let’s find you a dress.”

* * *

Their first stop was JCD Designs. The small shop on Gracia Row was brightly lit and decorated in tinsel and Christmas lights. Poppy music played in the background and in the back a woman was scream-singing the song at the top of her lungs. The “singing” dissolved into laughter. A blonde with deep cornflower blue eyes came from the back, wearing black pants, a black striped vest along with a matching tie over a slinky off-the-shoulder top. Her hair flowed freely past her bared shoulders. She smiled when she saw them.

“Hi, how are you guys?” she asked.

Kevin replied, and explained what they were looking for. The girl introduced herself as Jennifer and showed them to some dresses hung on the wall. Jennifer suggested one for Kristin as a tall, raven-haired woman came from the back wearing an immensely short red dress. Kevin’s eyebrows cocked. Kristin glanced over disdainfully. Jennifer paused and shook her head.

“It’s says, ‘Call girl’ to me,” Jennifer told the woman.

The raven-haired woman sighed. “Dammit, I can’t find anything for this stupid party.” She went through the dresses on the rack with frustration. “I think I’ll go in my underwear.”

Jennifer laughed. “Don’t do that. I don’t feel like hearing about you spending a night in jail for indecent exposure.”

The woman laughed, too. “It would be a first.” She turned back to the rack and selected a dark teal blue dress. “Wow—this would look fab on Jess. I’m gonna take it back to her.” She retreated to the back. “Find me a dress would you?” she called over her shoulder.

Jennifer sighed and turned back to Kevin and Kristin. “Sorry about that. That’s my cousin. She’s extremely picky about clothes.” She clasped her hands together. “So did the two of you find anything that you liked?”

Kristin pointed out a white dress of which Jennifer disapproved. Jennifer pointed out a black dress and a red dress that didn’t look too flashy. While Jennifer was on her way to the back, the raven-haired woman appeared again, wearing a tan colored dress.

“This washes me out,” she whined. “Did you find anything?”

Jennifer thrust a royal purple dress at her. “Take it and try it on. You’re driving me crazy.” With that, the raven-haired woman went to the back. Jennifer looked to Kristin. “Alright. Let’s see how these look on you.” She took her to the fitting room area and unlocked a door. “Here we are.” Kristin went inside with the two dresses. “Come out and let us see them!”

Jennifer showed Kevin to the sitting area as the raven-haired woman appeared again. The purple dress turned out to be perfect; it was strapless and the back plunged so far down that there hadn’t been much skin above her backside that was covered. But it clung and swayed in the right places, so she fell in love with it. Jennifer grinned proudly.

“I love it!” the woman declared. She modeled in front of the mirror, then turned around to Kevin and Jennifer. “What do you think? Do I look smashing or what?”

“I think you’re gong make every man in that room sweat,” Jennifer commented.

“Yeah, she’s right,” Kevin confirmed in a jocular tone. “I’m sweating pretty badly under these clothes.”

The woman gave him a presumptuous grin. “Well, maybe that means you should take them off. Wouldn’t want to ruin them.”

A yell came from the back. “Daniella Elizabeth Melissa Thomas—!”

The woman yelled back. “Hermana, leave me alone! I was just joking with the man, jeez!” The voice from the back challenged Danie to induce her silence, and Danie excused herself to “kick some ass.” Jennifer shook her head as Kristin appeared. They vetoed the dress and Kristin returned to the dressing room.

A moment later, someone else came out from the back.

She was tall, but not as tall as the raven-haired woman. Her long auburn hair was in a curling mass past her shoulders and a strapless teal dress with sequins on it covered her lithe frame. Jennifer stared at her, mouth agape. Kevin couldn’t help but goggle a bit himself. She looked beautiful in the dress, all mussed and elegant all at the same time.

At that moment, Kristin emerged from the room and saw the auburn-haired woman looking fabulous. The red dress was ill-fitting, making her look slightly heavier than she actually was. Kristin changed back into her clothes and told Jennifer they would be back if they couldn’t find anything.

They didn’t return to JCD Designs that night, or ever.

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