What if we told you there was a book with the telenovela twists and Miami heat of Jane the Virgin mixed with the romantic chaos of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before? Epic Readers, meet Once Upon a Quinceañera, the rom-com debut by Monica Gomez-Hira that we are utterly obsessed with!

Carmen just wants to make her happily ever after come true. Except apparently “happily ever after” involves being stuck working as a party princess. In a ball gown. During the summer. In Miami. Oh, and her prince? Her aggravating (and deeply attractive) ex, who just happened to roll back into town. It’s shaping up to be a hell of a summer!

Without any further ado, start reading Once Upon a Quinceañera now!

 

One

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a sign.

Three, actually. Too bad Mami missed them all.

“That was your left,” I yelped as we passed our turn. The humid, flowered streets of Miami slid by.

The wrong streets.

“Coño, this street has three different names, Carmen!” Mami glared at me in her rearview mirror. My fault. As usual.

Through six layers of sky-blue satin, my best friend, Waverly, muttered something about being late.

“Maybe we’ll turn into pumpkins and I won’t have to dance with a guy wearing an animal head,” I said.

“Maybe start taking this seriously?”

Waverly and I worked as party princesses for a company called Dreams Come True. She usually played Cinderella, but since this was my first party, I didn’t have a “usually” yet.

My buttercup-yellow Belle dress lay on my lap, as heavy as a baby, still smelling like dry cleaning fluid. As soon as Waves finished putting herself together, she had to help me with this monstrosity. This was the most formal dress I’d worn since my baptism gown, because I didn’t go to prom or have a quinceañera.

I’m not exactly the buttercup-yellow-satin, bluebirds-singing- around-her-head type. Satin means sweat stains. And if there are birds around me, it’s because they’re in the arroz con pollo I’m eating.

But here I am. Because I missed a few signs myself.

Miami Heights High School requires that every graduating senior take a life-planning class called Life Visioning. And a requirement of the requirement was an approved internship with a vetted local professional. Between two hundred and three hundred hours and a final project that had to be approved in advance. Not enough hours? No diploma. Unapproved project? No diploma. The administration thought that this would teach us persistence and responsibility, and, in an ideal world, give us the opportunity to discover our future college majors and eventual career paths.

This should have been a throwaway class—a guaranteed A that would let me sail across the graduation stage. That’s what everyone said. Just tick the box and carry on.

Except . . . why not use the class as intended? I lobbied hard for my mentor match, a wedding photographer and videographer. It was the videography part I was excited about, because I had dim ideas of maybe turning my fandom-video-editing hobby into a college major. I remember Mr. Velez raising his eyebrows at my sudden academic excitement. I wasn’t normally that kind of student. I was an expert at doing the bare minimum. But this felt like it could be different. Like the hours I spent hunched over my ancient keyboard matching actors’ faces with a perfect song lyric could pay off. Like it could mean something.

I feel dumb even admitting that now.

My boss, Edwin, I probably don’t have to tell you, was not a happy, fulfilled artist. I have no idea how many mal de ojos he put on the various brides and grooms he worked for, but it must have been a lot. He also wasn’t much of a mentor. His favorite topic was his own brilliance. And the exact shape of my ass.

Still, I’d taken a chance and shown him the final project I was going to submit. After he’d frowned through the whole thing, he’d said, “So jumbled . . . and why is it so blurry?”

“It’s supposed to look dreamy.”

“Well . . . that’s a choice, I guess. I mean, it’s for a high school class. Right?” Then he’d looked at it again. “Even for a high school class, though . . .” He actually rubbed his eyes like my video hurt them and sighed. “Honestly, Carmen, I expected you to take it seriously. Or did you just want to look cute at events?”

He looked me up and down. “You managed that, at least.” He sort of made a move for me, so I ducked under his arm and decided right then that nothing could make me turn in that video. Or go back to working for Edwin. Ever again.

I was only forty hours away from fulfilling the time requirement, and Edwin wasn’t big on keeping close track of the time sheets. So I declared myself done and wrote a paper to fulfill the final requirement. And yes, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to change the project without approval, but papers were the universal currency of high school. Like paying with a credit card in another country. They’d grumble, maybe just give me a technical pass, but they’d accept it. It was work, after all.

But I probably should have run my brilliant plan past the teacher. Because he didn’t accept it. Neither did the vice principal. Or the principal. Or the Board of Ed, not even after Mami took a day off from work to come with me to plead my case.

I offered to turn in the video, screw Edwin’s opinion of it.

Except it turns out that Edwin had kept better track of my hours than I had expected. They all knew I was forty hours short. And, as I mentioned, there would be ice-skating in hell before I would make up those hours.

Which meant I was missing one credit in order to get my diploma.

Which means I’m technically not a high school graduate.

Yet.

Funny how Life Visioning class was all about the visions and rules that other people had about my life and, since I didn’t jump through their hoops, I was screwed.

The Life Visioning class HAD taught me one thing. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, and I didn’t want to waste money I didn’t have figuring it out.

Luckily for me, between Hurricane Mami, Typhoon Me, and Tropical Storm Waverly, we managed to get the administration to agree to give me another chance to get my diploma.

“You can work for Dreams Come True!” Waverly had said, and the school had agreed, after warning me that this was my LAST CHANCE. If I messed this up, I was stuck, no returns, no substitutions, no backsies.

“And I only need to make up the last forty hours, right?” I’d asked, hopefully.

Mr. Velez sighed and looked over his glasses like I was confirming every disappointing thought he’d ever had of me. “This is a completely different internship, so no. It’s a second chance. A fresh start. From the beginning. And you need to turn in a final project that ACTUALLY gets approved.”

Truthfully, it was fine. I didn’t want to work for a princess party company, but I also didn’t not want to. My best friend already did on weekends, and I could spend the summer sorting invoices for my diploma and writing a five-page paper about how the experience had changed my life. Simone, the new boss, hadn’t liked that idea, though. She said, “Believe me . . . I can’t even begin to express how excited I am to have an actual assistant in the office! Thrilled is an understatement! But . . . you can’t really be a Dream behind a desk. The only way to really understand my business is to perform! And we’ll record a performance of you as a Dream for your project!” Which meant working days as Simone’s assistant (and I had just started that part of the internship), and nights and weekends as an official Dream, dancing and singing (once Simone had verified that I could actually do both) at the birthday parties of various rug rats.

Adorable rug rats, sure, but rug rats nonetheless.

At least I’d get paid for the performance part of it. Waverly made it sound like it paid a lot better than the Cupcake Chicas at the mall.

And that’s why I was here, on the first Saturday afternoon in June, two weeks after I should have graduated, in the back seat of my mother’s car, wriggling into a ball gown and pinning my wavy brown hair into a half updo.

“Thanks again for the ride, Ms. Mirella,” Waverly said as she zigzagged the tie on the back of my bodice. We’d only been friends since the end of junior year, so she was still kind of formal with Mami. “My car is in the shop, and my parents are out.”

“Yeah, maybe we’ll make it to the party before the kid graduates from college,” I grumbled.

“Listen, Carmencita, I could have made you take the bus. I have plans, you know, and I—” Mami said, then stopped as something caught her eye in the window.

Oh no.

We were driving past Coral Gables Park, a popular place to take outdoor pictures. A troop of teenagers was there, all dressed up, the boys in tuxes and the girls in slinky maroon tube dresses and matching heels. And even though I couldn’t see her, I knew that somewhere in that nest was a girl, probably dressed in a gown that looked like mine and Waves’s, wearing a huge-ass tiara that weighed her head down almost as much as the twenty pounds of Aqua Net they’d put on her hair to keep it from frizzing in Miami’s humidity.

A quinceañera.

“Mira, Carmencita . . .” Mami breathed out. “¡Que linda! Pero, maybe a few too many ruffles? You can barely see her head. She looks like one of those cozies that your abuela used to put on the spare roll of toilet paper in the bathroom.” Mami honked at them and waved with a huge grin. Toilet Doily did a small curtsy back, and almost fell over. No one ever seems to practice the curtsying part in heels.

Waverly craned her neck past me to get a better look. I just stared straight ahead. I wasn’t going to risk us missing the turn again.

Mami caught Waverly’s interest and said, “Ay, Waverly, that’s right! You hadn’t moved here yet!”

I could practically hear the sad violin music in the background as Mami started her tale. “The story of Carmen’s non-quince is an actual tragedy! It was . . . well, it was . . .”

“Actually, Carmen told me all about the canceled dinner, Ms. Mirella,” Waverly said brightly. Bless her, thinking that Mami could be stopped mid-rant just because you’d already heard the rant before.

“We were all so excited, Waverly. We’d rented a dress and hired a photographer to do a photo shoot on the beach in the afternoon before the dinner. Really planned to do it up.” She glanced back at the party, now arranging themselves in a lineup like they were about to be brought in for questioning.

“Not we, Mami. Tía Celia. And when Tía Celia giveth, she can also taketh away.”

“And whose fault was that?” Mami snapped, her voice bristling with indignation.

“Yeah,” I grumbled, “you weren’t too happy with her either, if I recall.” Mami and Tía Celia’s fights were always legendary, but THAT one . . . let’s just say everyone on my block learned a few new curses that day. In two languages. Maybe three. I’ve blocked out a lot of it.

“Eh, Cecilia overreacted. Pero , Carmen . . . what you did was inexcusable.” Mami twisted around so she could make eye contact with Waves. “And did Carmen tell you what she did to make my sister flip her wig and cancel everything?”

“Actually, Ms. Mirella—” Waverly began, still optimistic that she could derail the Mami Express.

“A party! She took her twelve-year-old cousin to a HIGH SCHOOL party! With drinking! And then her cousin recorded it and my sister found everything on her phone!” Mami waved a hand. “Did you know that? Or did my Carmencita tell you un cuento al que le faltan muchos pedazos?”

Waverly looked confused, so I translated. “Mami is implying that I may have left out some crucial details.”

“Oh, she told me everything, Ms. Mirella. And that she felt so guilty.” She laid it on thick, even as she gave me big eyes that seem to say, Maybe you did leave out some things.

“I’ve already told you everything you need to know,” I whispered to her.

Waverly’s phone pinged with a text. She held it up to me and frowned. “Simone just says, ‘Beast Late. New.’ Weird. She must mean Matt? Tran isn’t new.”

Mami sighed like she knew she was losing her audience. “Guilty should only have been the start of it!” Then her phone buzzed, thank the technology gods. “Speaking of . . .” Mami said before she silenced it.

Must have been Tía Celia. It wasn’t a secret that she and Mami were talking again. But I didn’t have to like it.

It wasn’t even the canceled quince that still hurt. Or the canceled photos. It was the canceled people. People like Tía Celia, Tío Victor, my cousin Ariana, and her brother, Cesar, aka the “good” side of the family.

And I wasn’t going to get into the boy I blamed for all of it.

Mauro Reyes. The host of the high school party in question. My dishonest former pseudo-boyfriend. My worst mistake.

I was saved from my badly wandering brain by the blessed GPS. “You have arrived,” she intoned in her perfect android voice.

“Finally. We’re here.”

Yes, my first party as an official princess. Beauty. Belle. Me. Except thanks to the parts of Mami’s history lesson that I couldn’t drown out, I felt more like the Beast.

Not the one who was apparently running late.

He would be the one wearing the mask you could see.

__________________

Cinderella had to pee.

This was not as straightforward as it sounded. My training was a jumble in my head, but I could remember Simone telling me over and over again that we were NOT to do anything to destroy the fantasy for the kids. And have you ever seen Cinderella pee? Exactly.

Still, I didn’t much remember what Simone had suggested we say if we did have to pee.

I told Simone I wasn’t ready for this party.

Waverly downed her second glass of “fairy tea,” aka apple juice. “The kids are like little pushers, believe me, pushing drinks and slices of birthday cake and Cuban sandwiches and everything else on you,” Waverly had told me. I hadn’t believed her. I should have.

“Maybe you should say that Cinderella is trying to keep her tea consumption down. She’s having trouble sleeping, and the prince is tired of her jumping him,” I whispered to her, keeping my Belle-ific smile plastered to my face. I didn’t blame Cinderella for overindulging—it was hot and gross and fairy tea was better than nothing when your tongue was sticking to the roof of your mouth. I’d only been here twenty-five minutes and already my too-long dress felt heavy with sweat and my feet were swollen in my four-inch heels. And let’s not even talk about the funk around us that you could probably smell from space. Simone was supposed to double-check that the houses had air-conditioning, a must in Miami when you are wearing layers of satin and crinoline, but somehow, she forgot to confirm more often than not.

Apparently, princesses have to suck it up a lot of the time.

“Belle!” Cinderella said, choking on her tea. Then, in a lower voice, “Not. Funny.” She twitched her blond bun toward a group of little girls, all dressed in miniature versions of our outfits and all watching us as though they had to dissect us later.

Cinderella shifted underneath her ball gown and glanced at the clock. “At least thirty more minutes of mingling, pictures, New Guy shows up as a surprise, last song, then back into our carriages,” Waverly whispered to me. Or the city bus, since Mami had been a one-way ticket here. “And I don’t think I’m going to make it.” She was practically doing the pee-pee dance at this point.

“Oh my God, please don’t leave me alone here. Just don’t think about water at all . . .” I clutched at her with my clammy hands.

I shouldn’t have said the W-word, because she paled and practically mowed down two small six-year-olds to find the parents, who were off having their own party in the kitchen.

Eight little pairs of eyes pinned me to the wall as if I were a butterfly, and my stomach fluttered like it was full of them. “Is Cinderella sick?” one of them demanded, her lip already stuck out and quivering. Ay, mi madre. I cursed Edwin’s objectifying ass again and took a deep, shaky breath. Had Simone said anything about addressing questions about a sick princess?

If I didn’t come up with something soon, these niñitas were going to riot.

“No!” I said brightly. “Of course not. Cinderella noticed a little rip in her gown and went to call some bluebirds to fix it!”

I held my breath as they stared, and I stared right back. Sweat trickled down my back and all of Simone’s words played like bad Auto-Tune in my head.

I would run if I had to.

But then they nodded. Of course Cinderella couldn’t bear to have a ripped dress, and naturally the bluebirds needed a GPS location and time to travel.

“Oooh,” said another little girl, whose bright pink Sleeping Beauty gown was already stained by the fairy tea she’d spilled all down the front. “I wanna see!”

Shit. I looked around the room for rescue. Where the hell was Waverly? Did these people have an outhouse? And where was Tran—the guy I’d spent the last two weeks rehearsing with? Had he tried to reach us on the phones we weren’t allowed to have on us? Panic made my dress stick closer to my skin.

I heard the doorbell. Oh, thank all the saints. He was here. My Beast! He’d distract them.

I opened my mouth to tell our curious little Sleeping Beauty why she couldn’t watch Cinderella’s magical dress alterations, when suddenly a voice next to me came to my rescue.

“Cinderella would be so embarrassed if you saw her in her underwear.”

Every nerve in my body was suddenly on red alert.

That wasn’t Tran’s voice. And it wasn’t Matt’s, either.

I knew it, but at the same time, I didn’t.

Because it couldn’t be the voice I thought it was.

No way could it be . . . but it was.

Mauro Reyes.

 

Two

I’M NOT (THAT) SUPERSTITIOUS, but my first thought was that I must have called him here with my car thoughts. Because Mauro Reyes hadn’t entered my mind in ages, and suddenly . . . this? No lo creo.

For starters, Mauro didn’t live here anymore and hadn’t for years. (Gracias a Dios.) Considering how often he’d gone off about the Disneyfication of culture, blah, blah, I couldn’t see him doing this job, not even for extra cash.

Mauro Reyes, son of famous photographer Oscar Reyes, would definitely never need extra cash anyway.

Richie Rich asshole.

But the real reason that it couldn’t be Mauro was that none of Belle’s stories ended with her knocking the Beast sideways for hooking up with her three and a half years ago, insulting her, lying about everything, and taking off.

So, you see, my logic was sound. Except that then the Beast muttered, “Uh . . . hi, Carmen. Wow. Um . . . yeah, sorry I’m late. Traffic,” and damn it, I just KNEW that terrible voice.

“Uh . . . hi, Carmen” might be the only honest thing he’s ever said to me. Maybe. Just the fact that my name had come out of his face made me want to double-check my birth certificate—to be sure that it wasn’t a lie, too.

I looked toward the door, willing Cinderella to come back with a princess wave and steer us back on schedule, but I guess the bluebirds were taking their sweet time.

This was so not the moment for a reunion. Whoever was behind the mask didn’t matter. I knew that I needed to stay in character. Mauro wasn’t going to be the reason I screwed up my only chance of getting my high school diploma by the end of the summer.

Besides, I was Belle. These little girls deserved it, these mamis were paying for it, and el diablo himself could be behind that mask (though that might be an improvement, believe me) and I’d still playact love.

If I knew anything about him, I knew Mauro Reyes could pretend to feel anything. A mask would only help.

“Oye!” One of the aunts of Birthday Girl stumbled into the doorway and put her hands on her hips. “Why you all standing around for? Dance or something!”

Princesses don’t glare, so I put on my sparkliest voice. “Who wants more cake?” Waverly had told me that I could get out of most bad situations as a party princess by offering cake. But the girls saw an opportunity for something new, and their eyes gleamed. “Yes!” they breathed out like one organism. “Dance, dance!” A few of them even sighed. The aunt raised her chin at me, and I could see the laughter in her eyes—the mojitos, too. Alcohol makes some people mean.

I looked at the Beast and shrugged, praying for the baldosa floor to open and swallow me up.

Because this was not good. Mauro had just started today. We’d never danced together, not even when we were together, and the waltz wasn’t exactly something you could expect people to know off the top of their furry heads.

I turned to the Beast and gave him a deep curtsy, battle drums beating in my head. Because while I’m actually a pretty good dancer (Mami would have kicked my ass if I weren’t . . . she considered it one of the most important parts of being a Latina), it wasn’t like I could lead myself in a waltz. Especially not while wearing heels and a too-long dress and making sure I didn’t end up headfirst in the flat-screen TV.

Thankfully, the Beast bowed deeply, strolled forward, and took my hand like we’d been doing this all our lives. Simone’s training certainly hadn’t said one word about how to act if your ex showed up dressed like a cross between a French soldier and Chewbacca, so I concentrated on the mask—because at least THAT wasn’t him.

Under the mask, he could be anyone! Right?

Who was I kidding? Three and a half years later, and the pressure of his hand on my waist tumbled me back into the high school darkroom. My body knew this wasn’t Tran, and I couldn’t tell if Mauro was feeling anything at all.

Mauro Reyes wasn’t supposed to be here in this house, or here working for Simone, or even here in Miami—holding me tighter in his arms than any guy who hated me had a reason to.

I gritted my teeth in a smile and waited for the waltz music to start and for this to be over. Ideally, my alarm would go off and this whole thing would just be a too-much-tres-leches-cake-at-dinner-fueled bad dream.

Except then Birthday Girl’s cute big brother put on a CD and what blared out was a little more Daddy Yankee and a little less Uncle Walt (Disney, that is). What was I supposed to do?

Start grinding in my ball gown? With Mauro? That wasn’t going to happen. No high school diploma was worth that kind of humiliation.

Mauro didn’t miss a beat, though, throwing up his hands and bouncing up and down. I just . . . stood there for a second. No way was I shaking what my mami gave me in front of Mauro and a bunch of six-year-olds. So I settled for wiggling my shoulders a little and kept smiling. Always freaking smiling.

“Ay, mija, that’s not dancing!” one of the tías shouted, and the others laughed and started giving me encouragement in two languages. “Gotta get closer . . . un movimiento sexy!” They acted out the moves in case I needed a visual aid.

When the abuelitas started to drift into the room on their cloud of talcum powder and curiosity, the brother quickly put on a merengue. Mauro immediately started the quick, jerky two-step, pulling me even closer while I pushed him away. People started to laugh.

It may have been three and a half years later, but he was still bad luck. Mauro was playing with me; he wanted me to join in, one-up him. Even though I couldn’t see his face (and hated that he could see mine), I could feel that he was laughing underneath his furry head. Enjoying watching my reaction, the asshole. But I couldn’t afford to screw around. My future literally depended on me not kicking him in the shin.

Not that it wasn’t tempting.

I gave Birthday Girl’s mother a smile that managed to be happy and pleading at the same time, and she clapped. “OK, Miguel. Enough is enough. Put the right song on, por favor.”

He shook his head like we were ruining his fun and put on the Disney one.

The dulcet sounds of “A Whole New World” started up.

Now the little girls who had giggled when we were dropping it like it was hot howled in protest. “NOO! That’s from Aladdin!”

He shrugged. “So? It’s Disney, right?”

They rolled their eyes in unison. “It’s not the right STORY! You can’t put them in the wrong STORY! It doesn’t make SENSE!”

The mami, tired of her son screwing things up, sighed loudly enough to be heard next door and then changed the song. “Tale as Old as Time” filled the room. Mauro, who had been whipping and bouncing three seconds ago, and doing a not-terrible merengue two seconds ago, turned to me then and gave me another perfect, elegant bow. I curtsied back, even as I panicked. I was hoping we were done with the dance portion of the evening. One of the abuelos, apparently thinking that we were still taking requests, shouted out, “Bah, put on a good salsa!” Birthday Girl’s dad laughed and shook his head. By now, the other parents from the party had come in from the kitchen and the patio, all teetering on the same good mojitos, smelling of lime and pan con bistec.

Luckily, I’d made myself sit through the whole Disney movie oeuvre as soon as I got this internship, so I knew the scene in question. I looked away coyly, and then put my hand delicately on Mauro’s arm. This was formal and pretty and totally wrong for us. I didn’t like feeling shy around Mauro, of all things.

“This is so awkward,” I muttered through my smile.

He cocked his lionesque head at me. “Don’t worry, I know how to waltz. I dated a debutante once. Unless you mean awkward for another reason?” He was just daring me to say something about our past. Our stupid, meaningless past.

“It’s awkward like those movies where the actors have to kiss five seconds after meeting,” I told him.

“We’re not kissing, though. Are we?”

Ugh, why did I have to bring up kissing at all? I willed myself to be a robot, to only speak in character.

“Fine.” He gave a dramatic sigh. “I promise not to ravish you on the dance floor. Unless the girls ask for it, of course. Gotta give the kids what they want.”

He started whirling me around in time, and then I couldn’t think about anything but making sure I didn’t go skidding across the floor like a rag doll. Dance-wise, I had to admit, he was always in control. Solid. Mauro had always been on the scrawny side of skinny. Still, the arm I was holding on to was strong. Even stronger than I had expected.

Have I mentioned how much I hated having these thoughts at all?

In the movie, Belle and the Beast are dancing in a gorgeous EMPTY ballroom, serenaded by the teapot chick. That was not our situation. The Florida room wasn’t small, but it was packed with eight little girls who were whirling around us, like drunk little backup dancers. They were crashing into each other and into us. Meanwhile, the parents hadn’t done much more

than move the oversize recliners against the wall. The coffee table was still there, close to the center of the room. Still smothered by about a million photos of the family at the beach, at weddings, at random parties a lot like this one. Still perfectly level with my knees.

Oof. A munchkin plowed directly into my side.

“Wow, you took that hit like a linebacker,” Mauro said, admiration in his voice. I couldn’t see his face through the mask. I gritted my teeth through my princess smile and said nothing at all. I could hear the abuelos, already bored, muttering in Spanish. But the grown women were strangely enthralled.

“Ay, que lindo! Reminds me of my quince. Oh, to be fifteen again,” one of the mamis sighed to another.

But Drunk Tía wasn’t fooled. “Óyeme, isn’t this a love story? Don’t you have to, you know, LOVE each other? It’s like you’re dancing in different rooms!” She wiggled her fingers at us, like she was flinging some love dust at us. Birthday Girl’s mami laughed and nudged her playfully. My hands twitched. I wanted to shove someone. Guess I’m not cut out for that fairytale life.

“They don’t get romantic until he becomes the prince!” one of the three Ariels pointed out. “He’s not sexy till then.”

Sexy? I thought these kids were, like, six.

“Naw,” said a fellow little Belle. “He was hotter as the Beast, THAT’S when they fell in love. Him being a prince was, like, TOTAL Ken doll.” She looked at Mauro and said, politely, “No offense.”

“None taken,” he said in a laugh-choked voice. Finally, FINALLY, the damn song ended. I was ready to drop another curtsy to him and then to the girls, when he surprised me by dipping me and lowering his masked face to mine, I guess to make the little shipper who loved the Beast AS a beast happy.

Thank goodness for the plastic and hair between us. I clutched his arm, making sure to dig my nails in there a bit. If he could go off script, so could I.

The girls screeched with delight. At least they seemed happy. So did the parents, who had brought out a pitcher of sangria and were now dancing together, exaggerated versions of our waltz.

Birthday Girl glanced at them. Her face clouded over. It was an expression I recognized. The adults were taking over. She could feel her birthday slipping away.

Damn it. No. I wouldn’t let that happen. Not on my watch. But before I could do anything, Mauro stepped in front of her and bowed. “Princess, may I have this dance?”

She squealed and clapped her hands. He began to whirl her around, evoking several high-pitched little girl shrieks. All the mamis stopped and sighed. A few whipped out their phones to memorialize the moment of extreme cuteness.

Cinderella finally reappeared next to me. “Uh, that doesn’t look like Matt.”

“That’s because it’s not. Thanks for leaving me out here alone, by the way.”

She shrugged. “When nature calls, even Cinderella must answer. Besides, I caught a bit of that dance. I liked the method acting. Playing Belle pre-romantic furry feelings? Respect the choice.”

I ignored that. “You were gone awhile. You OK?”

“Yeah, this is a new costume and I couldn’t get the clasp undone. I think I peed on it a little bit.”

Note to self: Try not to play Cinderella any time soon.

We began to unobtrusively clean around the room. Hoping to make a quick getaway and let the parents handle their little sugared-up chiquitas.

Thank goodness my first party hadn’t been very elaborate, no face painting or animal balloons. Just fairy tea and misery.

Cinderella clapped her hands. “Oh MY! Tee-hee, look at the time! It’s time to get back to the castle. The prince gets SO worried.”

“Then Belle can stay ’cause the Beast is already here,” one of the Rapunzels pointed out. She put her hands on her waist.

“And he JUST got here.”

A papi smothered his laugh. Must have been his little angel.

Cinderella’s smile wobbled for a moment, but unlike me, she was a pro. “We all have to make sure to get back to Fairyland together!”

“Is it like catching the train to Hogwarts?”

“Something like that,” I assured the girl. “And if we don’t get back soon, why, Lumière might torch the whole place! You know how he gets.”

I don’t know how Cinderella managed to look smiley and demure and STILL shoot me a warning look, but she did.

As we were saying our goodbyes (and Waverly was in the kitchen collecting our fee plus, please lord, any tips), Birthday Girl gave me a huge hug and buried her face in my neck. Her cheeks felt sticky against mine. She smelled like buttercream.

“I love you, Belle. I love you forever.”

I knew she wasn’t talking to me, just the character I was playing, but my eyes stung anyway. They were unexpected words to hear. Her parents watched me warily, like they wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to whisper to the kid that this was all just pretend.

They didn’t need to worry. I wouldn’t crush this kid’s dreams. Life would do it to her soon enough.

“Happy birthday” was all I said, my voice feeling a little shaky. “Feliz cumpleaños, little princess.”

“Jessie, quieres más cake?” her tía called. Jessie pulled away from me and patted my little yellow satin purse. “Bye!”

“Bye.” I waved and sighed.

Time to head back to the not-so-fairyland of my real life.

__________________

When we were safely out of view of the party house, Waverly turned to Mauro and said, “You aren’t Tran. Or Matt.” She crossed her arms and waited.

“Uh . . . not the last time I checked,” Mauro said, giving her that smile that I still remembered. The teasing one where it felt like he was including you in the joke.

“Um, that was your cue to introduce yourself. Here, I’ll demonstrate.” She held out her hand and gave him a Princess Sparkle smile. “I’m Waverly, aka Cinderella, and this is Carmen.”

“We’ve met,” I grumbled.

“Repeatedly,” Mauro said. And then shifted the furry Beast head to the crook of his other arm and held out his hand to her. “I’m Mauro. The once and future Beast.”

I couldn’t help it, I snorted.

Waverly raised her eyebrows at me. “Why am I getting the feeling you two know each other?”

I said, “Barely,” at the same time that Mauro said, “Very well, actually.”

I could almost see the gears behind Waverly’s blue eyes turning.

I’d told Waverly about Mauro exactly once, a late-night whispered confession earlier this year when she’d asked me about my worst breakup.

I’d left a lot out, though. Like, you know, his name. He was just “the photographer.”

The night I told her the story, it was still so easy to fall back into remembering. Barely a blink and there I was. Back at the party. The See and Be Seen Party.

 

If I could find him, if we could talk, maybe we could find some understanding. I hated that he thought I was someone I wasn’t. Someone who would brag about a promise that I hadn’t even wanted him to make. He needed to know that I didn’t even care about whether his father took pictures of me or not.

Ariana was going to confess. That’s why I’d risked bringing her here. But I wanted to talk to him first.

I hadn’t even thought about what I might find when I got there.

I made my way toward the back of the house. His father’s bedroom. I’d never been here.

Voices, inside. Mauro’s and another.

A girl’s.

A part of me wanted to go stomping in there, shouting, throwing shit, right?

But it was like I was frozen to the floor.

Mauro. His shirt off, pants unbuckled. On top of another girl. A blonde. I couldn’t see much of her, and whoever she was didn’t matter. What mattered was who she wasn’t.

She wasn’t me.

 

“Hey . . . uh . . . you planning on walking home?” Mauro asked me. I’d walked right past the Dreams van, caught up in the toxic movie replaying in my brain.

Oh, how I would have loved to have done just that. But I knew Simone was expecting us back at the Shack, and I wasn’t about to drag my Belle dress through the dusty Kendall streets.

I swept past him and got into the van. I’d never been inside it before. Props lay in heaps around us—extra gloves and bunches of silk flowers and bags of bright-colored plastic beads and party favors. A wire rod was propped against the back door, for us to hang our costumes on when we weren’t wearing them.  It all smelled a little like watermelon candy.

I didn’t even ask how Mauro had gotten access to the Dreams van, considering that as far as I knew this was his first party, too. But that was Mauro. He could talk people into things. Lots and lots of things.

“Are you Simone’s long-lost kid or something?” Waverly asked. “I’ve never seen you before, and she’s letting you drive the van? No one drives the van.”

Mauro grinned from the driver’s seat. “Simone’s a friend of my father’s. They used to work together. I go to Berklee College of Music in Boston, but I didn’t get into any summer programs so here I am, crashing at her place this summer.” Our boss, Simone Travis, had worked runways back when she was young, before she’d decided that her fortunes lay in making Dreams Come True (literally and figuratively).

And music? Since when? I remembered that he played the guitar, but he had always been all about his photography.

“Your dad is a model?” Waverly asked him, and gave me a sidelong glance, like, That explains so much.

“No, he’s a photographer. Oscar Reyes.” And then he waited, like he’d probably done all his life, for the other person to recognize the name and start fawning.

“Huh.” And just when I was about to gloat that Waverly obviously had no idea who he was, she said, “He’s the one who was on Modelista, right? The Miami season!” She turned back to me. “Is that when you guys knew each other?”

“He went to our school,” I said. “For a little while. Before you transferred in.”

“Yeah,” he said, meeting my eyes with a smirk. “And Carmen and I—we also had photography in common.”

“I guess photography held your interest for as long as it held mine.” I shrugged.

A few seconds later, a text.

Waves: Wait—photographer? Is this—

Me: Yes. And I promise to tell you later.

That was all I needed to say. Waverly narrowed her eyes at the back of Mauro’s head, already on my side.

“Well, anyway,” she said in a very change-the-subject voice, “that family totally stiffed us!” She started stripping out of her stank ball gown and pulling off her wig, revealing her closely cropped red hair. “Did these people not realize that tipping is customary, like at a restaurant? We are SERVICE PROVIDERS!”

“Maybe they didn’t think a Cinderella who went tinkle deserved twenty percent?” I shimmied out of my dress and felt the air-conditioned coolness finally hitting my skin, blasting against the sweat that had collected there. I pulled the pins out of my heavy Belle hair, shaking it away from my face. Ah, sweet freedom.

Mauro shifted us into traffic.

God, it was surreal to have him here, being a part of this. Looking so different. The Mauro I remembered had long wavy black hair, always pulled back in a careless ponytail. He wore loose black clothes on his lanky frame. This Mauro had short hair, messy but on purpose. His clothes fit now. They had something to fit to. The memories kept seeping into my head like smoke. Me lying on my bed, texting him and laughing at his snarky replies. Him and me sneaking off to the school darkroom in the middle of the day. That was our shared hobby. He took photos, and then we pretended we desperately needed to develop them every day so that we could hook up.

At a light, he started to pull off his bulky Beast costume, leaving him in just a T-shirt and his costume’s tights.

Yeah, those arms that I had felt before . . . they weren’t because of the costume. Neither was the flash of abs I saw before his shirt settled back down.

Muscles. When did he get those?

I didn’t even realize I was staring until Mauro glanced in my direction and our eyes met and held. Usually after a few seconds of stare-off, guys look away. Mauro didn’t. His light green eyes were unsettling. I swallowed and blinked first.

None of this made any sense. Mauro didn’t live here, and Dreams wasn’t the kind of job you moved to Miami for. So . . . was Mauro filling in for someone? Doing Simone a favor? Was God himself punishing me for not working hard enough in high school to avoid this whole horrible situation?

I was leaning toward that last one. And I was ready to sacrifice a chicken or goat or whatever the santería people recommended in order to fix it.

My phone buzzed.

Waves: You OK?

Me: Sure.

Waves: Because you are staring.

Me: It’s just weird.

Waves: Are you going to talk to Simone?

Me: No. Hopefully the last house will say that we

sucked together and I’ll get to play Jasmine

instead.

Waves: Do I need to throw a glass slipper at his head? I will totally throw a glass slipper at his head.

Mauro looked back at me for another second, before he slammed on the brakes and swore at an old man who’d just blown the light.

Thanks for the distraction, viejito.

Me: Don’t throw it. He’s driving. But keep it handy.

Traffic meant that the van was creeping along, barely getting any closer to the Shack than it had been ten minutes ago. So we sat, letting the soundtrack of other people’s cars fill the space. The silence felt like standing at the front of a classroom trying to solve a physics problem, knowing the teacher wasn’t going to let you go back to your seat till you came up with the answer.

And you were never going to come up with the answer.

OK, fine . . . about Carmen and me . . .” Mauro burst out.

“Nope! None of my business,” Waves said immediately.

“Right. Can I just say some words in my defense?”

“She just said you don’t need a defense,” I snapped. Not like he had one, anyway.

“Is that why she’s glaring at me like she wishes my head would catch fire?”

It was true. Waverly had no poker face.

“So, yeah, to answer your unasked question, Waverly . . . Carmen and I dated my sophomore year, her freshman year, and—”

“We didn’t date,” I corrected him instantly. “We hooked up occasionally, in the darkroom at the high school—”

“Yeah, and then we had a misunderstanding . . . one that she mentioned to the wrong people—”

“You aren’t seriously talking about the damn photos, are you? Because if you are . . . a ese cuento le faltan muchos pedazos!My blood pressure was rapidly climbing past Disney princess–approved levels.

“Hey, I know what that means now!” Waverly said, pleased.

“And then I had a party and even though we were fighting, she came anyway and—” Mauro continued.

Waverly whipped her head toward me and said, “What is it with you and parties? No wonder you didn’t want to be a party princess!”

“Not just any party. THE party. My twelve-year-old cousin, a red Solo cup, twerking, and video evidence.”

“And I don’t know how any of that was my fault. Neither of you were supposed to be there!” Mauro pleaded, trying to look innocent. And failing.

I shrugged. “It was your party. It was your house. Your alcohol. Your underaged friends. See and Be Seen, remember? She took it literally.” And really? It wasn’t his fault. Not that part of it, anyway. I’d been the one who’d told Ariana about the pictures to begin with, and I was the one who’d brought her with me in order to make her confess to Mauro that she’d been the one who had mentioned (online! for the whole world to read!) that Modelista photographer and Colombia’s favorite son Oscar Reyes was going to give me a photo shoot as a quinceañera present, because his son was so crazy about me.

I was such an idiot to think that any plan involving Ariana would work.

And that was before Tía Celia went through Ariana’s phone and found the video evidence of the party. La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the Holy Mother herself, couldn’t have saved me after that. Tía Celia canceled my quince dinner and my pre-dinner beach pictures (the only real photo shoot I actually had scheduled), and no amount of Mami hechando chispas could convince Tía Celia to change her mind.

Not that Mauro needed to know any of that.

“Still, Carmen, cops? You had to involve the authorities in our breakup?” He met my eyes in the rearview mirror. “I mean, I know it was you.”

I wasn’t admitting to shit.

 

So many eyes on me, and none of them kind. I sat next to some of those people in class, but it didn’t matter. They believed that they belonged there, at Mauro’s house. And they believed that I didn’t.

I’d heard it all.

Did you see who is here tonight?”

“Yeah, Carmen Aguilar . . . still panting after Mauro like she has a chance.”

“Bueno, she did . . . in the darkroom, anyway . . . The light of day is different, especially when she started running her mouth about his father. She should have kept using her mouth for the other thing.”

And then both of those people died.

 

Not really, but a girl could dream.

I should have been keeping better track of Ariana. But at that moment, I was just grateful she wasn’t anywhere near me. At least she hadn’t heard what people really thought of me.

That I was a slut.

That I was a fame whore, hooking up with Mauro because of his famous father. And the worst crime of all—that I was stupid, because I’d actually trusted that Mauro wasn’t running a game on me.

I didn’t bother to look to see who was talking about me that night. Because it truly was everybody. Even people who didn’t know me. Maybe especially them.

But I knew who I really was. And at that moment? I was a girl . . . with a phone . . . who could call 311.

Suddenly, I could feel all of it, buzzing in my throat like angry bees. It wanted out. It wanted me to give voice to it. But I couldn’t give Mauro the satisfaction.

I could feel how flushed my face was, so Waves could definitely see it. Which is probably why she said, “ANYway, it’s all ancient history, right?”

“Absolutely,” I said, without hesitation. “Dusty, decrepit—”

“Dead,” Mauro said.

“Destroyed,” I fired back.

“Done and dismal—”

“All the D-words,” Waverly said.

“I can think of a few more,” I muttered.

I saw Mauro smirk in the mirror.

Waves: You better tell me everything you should have told me before.

Me: I did tell you.

Waves: Yeah, well . . . here’s another D-word for you: details.


Are you hooked on this Once Upon a Quinceañera sneak peek?

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