"Are you sure you're up to this, hon?" Vanessa asked her husband as six excited children ran past them down the steps and toward the station wagon.
"I'm a former cop and a SCIA agent. I think I can handle taking a group of kids to the water park for a couple of hours," Logan replied.
Vanessa just smiled at him and held her tongue.
"Besides Jenn and Art promised to be my helpers and keep an eye out for the younger ones."
"I'm sure they will. You all have a great time and try to come home all in one piece."
Logan laughed. That last statement was the same thing she said to him whenever he went away on a secret mission for his job. Surely this wouldn't be as tough. He winked at her, before giving her a peck on the cheek. "I'll try. Have fun with your ladies' meeting this afternoon."
"I think I'll owe you for this one," she hinted.
"I can't wait." He smiled at her as he rounded up the children and the all piled into the car.
Vanessa waved goodbye to them as they pulled out of the driveway. Before they were out of sight she saw the first guest to arrive walking down the sidewalk from next door.
Lucy glanced back at the car that was just leaving and turned back to Vanessa. "Am I early?"
"A tad, but come on in," Vanessa invited as she led the way into the house. "I'm just finishing up a few things in the kitchen before the others arrive. Can I get you something to drink?"
"Yes, thank you. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Sure, there's not much left to do, but you could help set out the hors d'oeuvres for me while I put this casserole for Lawrence in the oven."
"Oh? For Lawrence?" Lucy said, unconsciously frowning at his name.
"He's between housekeepers right now, so he can use all the help he can get. Logan offered to take all of the kids, ours and Lawrence's, out for the afternoon. I thought I'd send dinner home with them tonight to make sure they're eating right. . . Is everything alright, Lucy?"
"Yes . . . Of course, I think it's good of you to help with the children. They need it. I'm a little embarrassed that I hadn't even though to help for the kids' sakes."
"Don't worry about it, hon. We all know you have your hands full as it is. No one expects you to do more."
"What do you mean by that? That I have my hand's full?" Lucy asked defensively.
"You're a single mom with a demanding job and active in the community. Honestly, I don't know how you find the time to do all you do, Lucy. As for me, I'm home most of the time now and I have Logan, who is a great help with the kids and around the house. Our kids and Lawrence's kids are the same ages and get along well, so it's really nothing for me to lend a hand now and then."
"Oh . . ." Lucy said, sheepishly. She was feeling thoroughly embarrassed now. "I'm sorry if I'm acting snappy. I've been having troubles with Vince and Lawrence dropped by the other day to give me and earful about it, so maybe I'm a little oversensitive right now, especially where Lawrence is concerned."
"I'm so sorry, hon. I had no idea."
"You should have heard how he spoke to me the other day. He really got under my skin."
"You know he hasn't been the same since he lost Eileen. My heart goes out to him. Not only did he lose the love of his life tragically, but he never really got any closure after the accident. How can you move on with your life when you don't really know what happened to someone? Trust me, I know from experience, you never really get past it."
Lucy nodded solemnly and replied in a quiet voice, "I don't think you ever do . . ." She paused for a moment, before pulling her mind back from the past and turning her attention back to the topic of conversation. "But that still does not give him an excuse to all but threaten to have me kicked out of the neighborhood association. And he's not the only one that misses Eileen. She was my best friend from the time we were born. Losing her was like losing a sister."
"I know, hon. We all loved Eileen . . . but don't you worry about what Lawrence said. I'm sure he just feels like he has to put on a strong front to make sure it doesn't look like he's playing favorites with anyone. Nobody wants you out of the neighborhood, not even Lawrence. You've been a part of this community since the beginning. You're like a member of the family to everyone living in this neighborhood. There's no way you would get voted out, if it even came to that, which I strongly doubt that it would."
"Thank you, Vanessa. That's nice of you to say."
"Speaking of family," Vanessa said as the second guest arrived. "Hi, Alma. Come on in."
"Hi. I'm sorry I'm late. I know I promised to help you get ready, but I got caught up," Alma explained as she joined Vanessa and Lucy in the kitchen.
"Don't worry about it, hon. Lucy's been helping me out and keeping me company. We're almost ready."
"I would have been here sooner, but Amanda dropped by and would not stop talking about her new boyfriend, the oceanographer, and their upcoming trip to the Caribbean."
"You should have invited her over. I would have loved to catch up with her. How is she? Was Meghan with her?"
"Actually, she just dropped Meghan off at Andrew's before she came over. Meghan's going to be living with him and Shayna now."
"Really? That's surprising."
"That was my first thought, considering all she went through to have Meghan and how desperate she was to have a child."
"What actually happened between Amanda and Andrew?" Lucy asked. "I know they had a really bitter break up, but I think that was around the time Maura was born and I was going through too much of my own stuff to keep up with anybody else. What happened?"
Alma and Vanessa exchanged looks. Neither was particularly keen on reliving this point in the past and there was no particularly kind way to retell this shady part of their sister's history.
Vanessa finally spoke first. "You know Amanda and Andrew had tried for a long time to have a baby with no luck. The doctors couldn't find any reason why they weren't getting pregnant. Anyway, Amanda was really desperate to be pregnant and have a baby. Somehow she ended up getting the crazy idea to pretend she was pregnant and planned to secretly adopt a baby to pass off as their own."
"She tried it, but of course it fell through," Alma chipped in.
Vanessa nodded and continued. "Everyone was furious with her when the truth came out, especially Andrew, understandably. Oh, it got ugly for awhile. They ended up fighting over everything, who would get the apartment, who would keep working at the company. Since they were arguing so much at work, they couldn't both keep on working there. Amanda ended up losing her job and since she didn't have any income, she ended up losing the apartment. Then to top it off, she found out she was finally, really pregnant."
"Of course, no one believed her after what she had tried to pull," Alma continued. "We had Edward personally do a pregnancy test and ultrasound on her before any of us believed she was telling the truth."
"And by that time she was probably four, maybe five months along, right?" Vanessa asked Alma.
"Something like that. She said she must have gotten pregnant when she first started faking that she was pregnant, just before she had to start padding her clothes to look like she was really pregnant," Alma rolled her eyes. She still couldn't believe her sister had cooked up that cracked pot idea. "Apparently she was too wrapped up in all the drama she had created to notice that she was really expecting at first."
"I kind of think she had given up on the possibility of it ever happening by that point," Vanessa added.
"Wow," Lucy said, struck speechless. "I had no idea all of that was going on. So I take it Amanda got full custody."
Alma nodded. "They both agreed on it. They were both too furious with each other to consider reconciliation. Amanda was the one who wanted a baby from the beginning and Andrew was just bitter about the entire situation. He did come around towards Meghan after she was born."
"Whose idea was it that Meghan would live with Andrew and Shayna now?" Vanessa asked.
"Mostly Amanda's I think. She said she wanted Meghan to have the opportunities of going to a better high school. I kind of wonder if her new boyfriend doesn't have something to do with it as well. Maybe the appeal of motherhood has worn off for her."
"Surely not," Vanessa shook her head. "I'm sure it's just about what's best for Meghan. The Academy is an excellent school. I couldn't imagine not sending the kids there, given the opportunity."
The three women turned and looked towards the living room as they heard the sound of voices as the front door opened.
"I was telling James what I had in mind and he thought a band you booked at the club a few months ago might work. Do you think you still have their number?"
"I'm sure I would at home. Stop by my house after the meeting and I'll look it up for you."
"That sounds great, Cassie. Thanks so much."
As Lucy went to the living room to greet her friends, Vanessa and Alma finished preparing the refreshments in the kitchen.
"Speaking of school. Have you heard back about a teaching position?" Vanessa asked.
"Yes. They don't have any full time positions available for me, but they said I could be a substitute teacher. If all goes well, I may be taking over for a teacher who is going on maternity leave later in the semester."
"That's great. Has Ed come around about the idea yet?"
"In a way . . .He's not crazy about me going back to work, but he's okay with it. That's good enough for me," Alma said as she and Vanessa joined the others in the living room.
As usual Shayna was the last to arrive. Normally punctual to a fault, the women's meetings were one circumstance when Shayna made a point to be fashionably late. Shayna had only attended a few meetings before she figured out that the first twenty to thirty minutes were devoted purely to socializing and gossip. Not being particularly interested in either Shayna began making a point of arriving 25 minutes late, except when it was her turn to host, then it couldn't be avoided. It gave the others time to chat and get settled in before the real meeting started.
It didn't take long for the others to realize that when Shayna arrived gossip time was over and it was time to get down to business.
"Hi, Shayna. Have a seat," Vanessa said cheerfully as she got up from her seat and pulled a dining room chair over for herself.
"Since we're all here, I guess we'll get started," Vanessa, as president of the ladies group, started the meeting. "First on the agenda is the new school year. As we all know the kids will be going back to school soon, which means that it's time to start planning carpool schedules. Once we figure out our schedules and the kids' after school activities we'll sort that out.
"Also it's time to start thinking about out annual fall fundraiser. It's not too soon to start brainstorming ideas and deciding on a charity to give to this year. Any ideas?"
"I think a carnival would be fun for the kids," Cassie spoke up. "Maybe I could use my connections to try to get a band to play."
"I know a lot of caterers and food vendors that I've hired through my job that would be willing to lend a hand," Chloe added. "I can handle the decorations too."
"That sounds great. Thank you both for offering you expertise," Vanessa replied. "Do you have anything to pass on from the neighborhood association, Shayna?"
"A couple of things," Shayna said with a brief pointed look at Lucy before looking away. "Construction is almost complete on the new houses, so we'll have some new residents moving in soon. It would be nice to give them a warm welcome, take them a nice housewarming gift."
"Does anyone want to volunteer to take on the task?" Vanessa asked. "Cassie, is everything okay?" she asked, noticing her disconcerted look."
"No, I don't think so. I'm sorry. Excuse me," she said and quietly exited the room, leaving the others only able to look at one another and wonder.
"I would be glad to head the welcoming committee, if no one else wants to take the job," Vanessa said.
"I would but my schedule is so crazy, as always. If I'm free when you go to meet them, I'd be glad to come along."
"Great. Thanks, Lucy. Is there anything else, Shayna?"
"Just one small thing . . . a reminder really. It might be a good idea to make sure that we all remain conscious of the bylaws of the neighborhood. When you've lived here for awhile, as we all have, it's easy to become complacent. So as wives and mothers we should take a few moments now and then to remind our families of what's expected of them, so there are no violations."
Shayna deliberately tried not to look at any one person while speaking, but when her eyes crossed Lucy, her look seemed especially pointed.
Lucy had no doubt that Shayna felt the need to say that because of her, or rather Vince, and she knew that Vanessa and Chloe, at least, knew it too. She hated that Shayna knew all of her business, but she wasn't surprised that Lawrence had told her. He treated her like his right arm. She was livid and dying to give Shayna a piece of her mind, but she had too much dignity to make a scene. She held her tongue and her seat on the sofa.
"That's . . . something to consider, I suppose," Vanessa replied. "But I'm sure we're all fully aware of what's expected and are already making sure our families are doing what's right as well. If there's nothing else, then I think we should adjourn. Help yourself to the snacks and drinks, ladies and I have cheesecake in the kitchen if anyone wants any."
"I think I could use some air," Lucy said as she rose slowly from her seat.
Chloe was quick behind her. "I'll come with you."
"Can I get you anything, Shayna?" Vanessa asked as Lucy and Chloe walked out.
"No thank you," she replied. Normally she would stay longer after a meeting, not as long as some of the others, but long enough to be polite and what she considered to be socially acceptable. This time she sensed with the tension in the room, that it would be better for her to just go and as soon as possible. "I should get going. I have a lot of errands to run this afternoon. I'm planning a big dinner tonight to welcome Andrew's daughter."
"Our niece," Vanessa responded with a smile.
Shayna looked from Vanessa to Alma, putting the connections together. "Yes, that's right."
"Say hello to her for me and tell her I'd love it if she'd stop by for a visit. I'd love to see her again."
"I'll make sure of it."
As soon as they were outside, Lucy was about to go off about Shayna, but she was stopped in her tracks by Cassandra who was standing on the deck staring across at the neighboring lot where one of the newly constructed houses stood.
"Oh, Cassie. I didn't know you were out here," Lucy said, startled.
"Is everything alright?" Chloe asked.
"That house . . . I don't know what it is. I just get a bad feeling about it. Like once someone moves in there, it's going to change everything." Cassie shook the thought from her mind and turned around to face Chloe and Lucy as if she was coming out of a trance. "Maybe I should just try not to think about it . . . I'd better go back in side and apologize to Vanessa. Oh, and if I leave before you do, Chloe, just drop by my house whenever and I'll look up that phone number for you."
Chloe and Lucy just looked at each other as Cassie went back inside.