Dina was on her way to work next morning when Lauren called.
“Good morning!” she trilled. Dina flinched at the volume of her voice.
“Good morning yourself,” she mumbled, barely awake yet. Morning was definitely not her favorite time of day.
“Hun, I have the best news for you! You’re going to be so excited!” Dina became marginally more awake.
“What is it?” she asked.
“So, I heard back from Tamika already. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know who the guy is. She says he sounds like half the bear shifters on the app. I told her he was way hotter and cooler, but it didn’t help. BUT! – this is the exciting part – it turns out she’s been thinking about organizing a summer garden party to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the app, and my message was the motivation she needed to go ahead with it. She’s going to invite everybody who has a profile on the app. So, with a little luck, your man will be there, and you can meet each other in the flesh!”
“That will be amazing!” Dina said. “So when’s the party?”
“Next Saturday night.”
“Wow, that’s not a lot of time to find a new dress. But I guess I can go shopping this weekend. You’ll come to the party too, right?”
“Of course, hun. You know I’m always there for you. I’ll help you sniff him out. And you know I love a good party!” Lauren said. Dina broke into a grin.
“Thanks, Lauren. I’d be so nervous going by myself!” she said.
On Saturday, Dina and Lauren went shopping with their two other best friends, Melissa and Kristin. Luckily, the Hope Valley annual summer ball was being held the week after the Shiftr ball, so they all needed to get dresses anyway. Dina was bursting to tell Melissa and Kristin about the dating app and the guy she’d found, but she understood that she was sworn to secrecy. They were both single girls, and she thought they’d be perfect for the site too. She hoped that she’d find herself a shifter, not only for her own happiness, but so she could let one of them into the secret as well.
“I can’t tell you how hard it was keeping my secret from you all that time,” Lauren told Dina, when they were walking a distance behind the other two. “Every time you told me that you were lonely, or that you thought you’d never find a man, I was bursting to show you the app. So when I got together with Connor, it was like a double celebration!” Dina grinned at her friend’s soft heart.
“I don’t want to jinx it by saying anything,” she whispered. “But I’m really hoping the same for Melissa and Kristin.”
The girls enjoyed a long day of shopping together, breaking often for coffee, then lunch, then more coffee, then happy-hour drinks. None of them enjoyed shopping for clothes, hating the discomfort of fitting rooms, and the way that dresses hardly ever fit them perfectly. But they managed to find a compromise by layering the shopping with lots of fun activities in between.
They’d collectively banned each other from wearing black, since it was a summer party, and had all picked out beautiful, flattering floral designs. Dina chose a chiffon dress in the palest mint green, with huge, cobalt-blue flowers on it. It had a tight waist, which showed off her hour-glass curves, a flowing ankle-length skirt, and a low, v-neckline that made the most of her bust. Lauren picked out a fuchsia-pink dress in raw silk, embossed with a lighter pink orchid design, cap sleeves and a raised, belted waist. Melissa chose a sleeveless, cotton knee-length-dress, which was white all over, except for a deep pink and yellow floral and butterfly pattern around the hem, while Kristin bought a sky-blue silk dress, cut high on the thigh to show off her height and great legs. Dina had watched the girls trying on one dress after another, all day long, and she thought they all looked amazing. At 5’1, Melissa was the shortest of the four of them, and the cut of the dress made the most of her curves, without swamping her. She had dark blonde hair, and cornflower blue eyes, and a slightly vacant expression that belied her fierce intelligence. Kristin was only an inch shorter than Dina, and she carried herself proudly. She used to play basketball at college, and she had an athlete’s elegance, but she struggled with her weight due to PCOS. Out of the four of them, she probably had the hardest time accepting her curves, but only her closest friends knew it. To everyone else, she looked like a fearless, sexy woman.
When they were done with shopping for the day, they went to Valentina’s, their favorite cocktail bar, for early evening drinks. The other three seemed happy with their purchases. Dina was a little nervous about her dress. She often picked bold colors, hence the red number that featured on her Shiftr profile, but tended to stick with classic, understated styles, so this was something new for her. When she’d seen the dress in the store, she’d had a fantasy of herself as a fairy princess, floating around the garden party, looking mysterious and ethereal. But now she wondered if it would just look stupid.
“Not at all,” the girls chorused when she voiced her doubts.
“You look so elegant, and delicate,” Melissa said. Dina snorted. She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone had called her delicate, and that was all before she’d turned 12.
“That dress is attention-grabbing, in all the right ways,” Kristin assured her.
One cocktail turned into two, and then three, as the girls chatted excitedly about the upcoming party. Dina was joining in too, but her thoughts were all about next weekend’s Shiftr party. Lauren flashed her conspiratorial glances when the others weren’t looking, knowing exactly what was on her mind.
“Let’s hope there’ll be some hot guys there!” Lauren said. “They won’t know what’s hit them when you ladies walk in!”
“Honey, there are no hot guys in Hope Valley. I think we’ve established that,” Kristin said drily.
“Hey, things change. People move to other towns.”
“Uh huh. And in Hope Valley, everyone knows there’s someone new in town before they’ve even had time to empty out their U-Haul. Trust me, no eligible bachelors have arrived in town in the past several months!” Kristin continued.
“Well, people also come to the summer party from towns all over the county,” Lauren said. “It’s become quite a big deal in recent years.”
“Lauren, you’re a sweetheart, and I know you’re trying hard for us because you’re all loved up with Connor, but I’m not expecting to meet anyone there,” Melissa said, patting Lauren’s hand. “I feel like my marriage was my one shot at lasting happiness. It didn’t work out, after our stillbirth broke us up. I think I’m destined to be alone now, and I’m ok with that.” Dina glanced at Lauren, who shot her a look of exasperation. Dina grinned, painfully aware that she’d be saying the same type of thing if she didn’t have the Shiftr party to be excited about.
“I just want someone decent, you know,” Kristin said, breaking through a pause in the conversation. “I’m about ready to settle now.”
“No!” Lauren almost shouted. “You deserve someone as amazing as you are!”
“Babe, the chances of me being able to have kids is very small. If I can find a guy who doesn’t mind being childless, and is not a total slob, and treats me decently, well, maybe that’s all I’ve got a right to expect.”
“Ladies! Where did this lack-of-self-esteem avalanche come from?” Lauren said, looking appalled. “I thought me finding Connor would give you all hope that there are great guys out there. Now, no-one is going to settle or be an eternal spinster. We’re going to go to the ball, all looking amazing, and we’re going to have fun, and chat to lots of men. And I’m certain that, within six months, you’re all going to be with someone incredible. And I don’t want to hear any more negativity from any of you!” With that, she stalked over to the bar to get another drink.
The following week passed in a blur for Dina. She snuck onto the app a couple of times, checking her alerts. Each day, there were at least three more guys wanting to know if she could be their perfect match, but she was determined to hold off on replying before she’d been to the garden party. The sexy bear shifter was on her mind more often than not. The thought of his hot, naked torso turned her mind to mush. While she was teaching her elementary school classes, her mind was far away, concocting all kinds of fantasies about the things they could get up to together. Her ex-boyfriend hadn’t been very adventurous in bed, which had been a constant frustration to her. She was a red-blooded woman, with strong appetites and urges, and the sex drought she’d suffered since Trey dumped her had driven her half-crazy. She loved the thought of being dominated in bed; of being overpowered by a really big, strong guy, who was capable of pinning both her wrists in one hand, while he pleasured every part of her body. When she lay in bed alone, she imagined the bear-guy doing exactly this to her – holding her down and taking her roughly, while he gazed at her with those dark, fathomless pools of eyes.
Although she’d only seen his photo for a moment, his image was burned into her brain. It was weird – she usually had to meet someone a few times before she could recall every feature of their face. But she remembered him as if she knew him intimately. And she had the strangest sense that those brown eyes were calling to her, across space and time. She pictured them as tender and insistent, telling her that she was the one. But as she tossed and turned, unable to sleep, the thought gnawed at her that he would have thought she’d rejected him, and already gone onto someone else.
“Relax, Little Miss Stresshead!” Lauren said, answering Dina’s early morning call after one of those anxiety-ridden nights. “Even if he has started dating someone else, if you’re the one, it won’t matter. You’ll be his destined mate.”
Saturday came, and Lauren came over to Dina’s place to get ready for the garden party. They ate a bowl of pasta each.
“I know what you’re like – drinking too fast when you’re nervous – so we’ve got to line our stomachs first!” Lauren said. “Otherwise, Connor will be putting you over his shoulder and carrying you home before the party’s even started!”
“You’re right,” Dina said with a giggle, recalling all the times she’d got way, way too drunk at parties in an attempt to hide her nerves, and then ruined any chance of meeting a guy there. “But I think I’ve learned to pace myself now I’m in my thirties!” Lauren cocked an eyebrow.
“Let’s hope so, girl,” she said.
After they’d finished eating, they began to get ready. They put on some music to get them in a party mood, alternating between Lauren’s R’n’B favorites, and Dina’s taste in light rock. Dina rubbed camellia moisturizer all over her body, making her skin impossibly soft and smooth, and then she put on a matching lacy lingerie set, in the same mint-green shade as her dress. It was beautiful and expensive, and she’d bought it during the week to give her an extra confidence boost. She slipped her dress on over the top. She still wasn’t sure about the long, floaty skirt, but she did love the way it flared over her hips, and the nipped in waist. Her bra gave her boobs a nice lift, and the low v-neckline of the dress made her cleavage look amazing. She draped her favorite wrap over her shoulders. It had belonged to her grandmother, and was made of cream filigree lace.
She joined Lauren in the bathroom to do her make-up.
“You look stunning!” Lauren said, looking at Dina’s reflection in the mirror as she applied her eyeliner.
“You’re looking pretty hot yourself,” Dina said, eyeing her friend’s voluptuous figure in her tight pink dress. Lauren loved her curvy body and it showed; she always looked sensational.
Dina applied black liner and smoky gray eye shadow to her eyelids, to emphasize the greenness of her eyes. She added mascara, then picked up her favourite lipcolor and hesitated.
“Lipstick or not?” she asked.
“Not!” Lauren said. “You’ll scare any guys off who might be thinking about kissing you.” Dina giggled.
“Fair point, I guess.”
“How about this one?” Lauren said, picking up a pot of rose-pink gloss. “It’s so pretty.”
“Ok.” Dina slicked it on. It made her lips look extra full, and she completed the effect with a rose cream blush.
“Perfect!” Lauren said, in admiration. “Your eyes look kind of wicked, but your cheeks and lips have this fresh, kind of innocent look. It’s the ideal virgin/harlot combination!”
“Hey!” Dina exclaimed, and slapped her friend’s ass playfully.
They both stepped into killer heels – Dina in nude patent courts, and Lauren in black patent sandals – and walked into the bedroom to see themselves in the full-length mirror.
“Wooh! We’re two hot ladies,” Lauren exclaimed. Dina looked at her reflection more shyly. She looked pretty ok, she allowed herself to think. Before she could object, Lauren snapped a selfie of them together. “The before shot,” she said with a cackle. “Ok, let’s have one drink before we go, so we don’t go in cold.” She pulled a small bottle of tequila out of her purse. “Do you have soda, and lime?”
“Yes!” Dina said, striding over to the kitchen. She mixed up two drinks with ice. “I actually feel quite classy right now,” she commented, as they drank them sitting on high stools by the island in the kitchen.
“Well we princesses better call ourselves a carriage, if we don’t want to be late,” Lauren said, reaching for her phone, and tapping on a taxi app.