Rusty's electric blue eyes bored into me, his expression a total cipher.
"You're mad at me."
"Mmm-mmm," he shook his head without taking his eyes from mine or changing his expression. I couldn't look away. The grass under my feet scratched.
"Then what?" Yeah, I was asking the obvious.
"You said your shoes would match my hair." His voice was matter-of-fact, just a shade cool, revealing no hint of what he was really thinking. "I just want you to know that my hair is not hot pink."
My ears burned. I held up my heels, pleading with my eyes.
"And my hair is not fuzzy. Curly, sure. Not fuzzy."
The fake fur ankle straps. Mom had called them excessive. Did the corners of his mouth twitch?
"But they're cute, aren't they?"
"Sure. But nothing on my head is as sharp as those stilts, not even my nose."
Relief flooded me. "Oh my gosh. You had me going."
He tilted his auburn head. "You wear those tonight and your ankles'll be killing you before you leave." I couldn't tell if he was warning or joking. Maybe both. Then he bent down without changing his expression.
"Uh, what should I do?" I asked as I watched him. I didn't know whether to squat down with him or remain standing. Either way was awkward.
He pulled one shoe off. "Well, you could go barefoot. Myself, I never pass up a chance to go barefoot." Then he pulled his sock off and wiggled his toes. I know it sounds stupid, but his feet were as perfect as his face.
I think I would have died if he had let his focus drift even for a moment to my thighs.
When I was choosing my outfit, my thoughts had been different. I chose the tight denim hot pants and loose, light blue v-neck tee-shirt specifically to keep his attention on me. But when I arrived at his house for the party, I could see I was out of place.
He had met me on the front sidewalk before I could quite decide whether to say I must be at the wrong house, and had stared, just for a moment, at my high-heeled shoes before saying, "Nice heels! Wanna take a look at the back yard? It's where we'll be dancing later."
Not knowing quite what to do, I had removed the shoes as I followed him around the corner of the house, before both of us came to stand in the soft but scratchy grass.
And now he had removed his shoes.
I do not not know how he managed it, but he straightened up without looking once at my legs.
"Let's put our shoes on the porch."
"Rusty!" A girl's voice called through the back door. "What ..." The door swung open and Rusty's sister stepped out. "Ah, you must be Cheryl. Rusty said you would be coming."
"Hi." I didn't know what else to say. I was planning on seducing your little brother? Right. That joke would not fly in this house, not in this group.
"Cheryl, this is Reba, my big sister."
"So nice to meet you. Lovely outfit. Where did you find it? Could you come with me? I could use some help. Mom wants to talk with you, Rusty."
"Uh, ..." I looked back to Rusty.
He just grinned, and my awkward feelings seemed to vanish like mist. "Reeb's a good friend. I'll go see what my mom wants."
Reba came down the steps and hugged me. "Bring your heels. Wouldn't want'em walking off without you."
I followed her up the back stairs, carrying my shoes.
"I'm gonna change to jeans, and I want your opinion," Reba said as she led me into her room.
"I'm dressed wrong."
She started pulling pairs of jeans out of her closet. "Whattaya think o ' this pair?"
"I guess I misunderstood when Rusty said casual. Those look nice."
"Think so? I have an old pair that matches these. Not your kind of casual? Here. Do you think they'd fit you?"
"Maybe. Not my ... usual casual, I guess. Fit me? May I?"
Ten minutes later, we descended the front stairs in matching jeans and tees. She had found me a pink camisole to go under my tee-shirt, and picked a tee of her own that matched the blue of mine. And we were both barefoot. And friends.
I don't quite know how Rusty's family made me feel so at ease so quickly, but I had even forgotten to worry what Mrs. Ellison would say.
"Ah, Reeba, Cheryl, there you are. Come help me with the finger food."
Of course Rusty was right. I would have broken my heels or my ankles or both, dancing in the grass.
The music was loud enough to dance to, but not loud enough to bother the neighbors. In fact, some of the neighbors joined the party at different times.
And it was fun. Reeba and her date led a bit of formation street, and some of their church friends showed us how to dance ballroom style. And there were parlour games, which are kind of like drinking games without the drinking. And nobody paired off to go submarine racing in the bushes or anything.
I got to help clean up, and I found myself driving home thinking that she who had come to conquer was the vanquished. And I didn't exactly hate the idea.