"Bye. Have a great afternoon, everyone," Alma called once the bell rang. As the students filed out of the classroom, she breathed a sigh of relief. She had survived her first morning as a substitute teacher without incident.
Once the students were gone she was left alone with the man who had spent the last period sitting in the back of the room observing. When the principal had told her that another teacher would be observing her classes she was afraid she would be nervous, but every time she happened to glance at Mr. Clark he gave her a bright encouraging smile that put her at ease.
"You're doing great," he said once he made his way to the front of the room. "Are you sure you're new at this?"
"Well, it's been a long time," Alma replied. She was shocked that she found herself blushing at his compliment.
"You're a natural. If you're feeling confident, I'll tell the principal that you can handle being on your own this afternoon."
"Okay," she agreed.
"You'll do great," he assured her, flashing a warm smile. "I'll walk you to the teacher's lounge for lunch."
"Thank you," she smiled as he opened the door for her. She wasn't sure what had gotten into her. She felt like a giggly teenage girl around him. She couldn't remember feeling this way around a man since . . . well, as far back as she could remember. She felt ridiculous.
When they arrived at the teacher's lounge Mr. Clark introduced Alma to Mrs. Nielson, the teacher who would soon be going on maternity leave and Alma would be subbing for if all went well. As Mrs. Nielson began heating up her lunch, Mr. Clark again assured Alma that she would do fine on her own and bid her a warm farewell that made her smile.
"Mason is something, isn't he?" Mrs. Nielson said once Mr. Clark had left the lounge. "What a cutie."
"What?" Alma asked, thrown off-guard by her comment.
"I think half of the female faculty . . . and student body, too, have a crush on Mr. Clark. And the other half have a crush on Mr. Gregory," she laughed. "If you're here long enough, just watch the way the ladies here act around them, you'll see."
"Oh," Alma mustered a smile. "I think I heard my daughter mention Mr. Gregory. Is he the art teacher?"
Mrs. Nielson nodded. "Is your daughter a student here?"
"Yes, she's a freshman. My oldest son is a junior."
"Hmmm," she said thoughtfully. "Wilton . . . Is Jeremy Wilton your son?" When Alma nodded, she continued. "He was in my class last year. He's a good kid. I enjoyed having him in class."
Natalie walked slowly through the hallways, a stack of books in her arms and a map of the school building balanced on top. Trying to gather her bearings, she flipped the map over to see if the other side made more sense. As she moved the map she lost hold of her books. She juggled them in her arms for a moment, before she lost her grip on them and they clattered to the floor.
She sighed and bent down to pick them up. She knew without looking around that all eyes were on her, but she tried to ignore them and not add to her embarrassment.
As she picked up the first book, she saw a hand reach out to help her. She looked up into the greenest eyes she had ever seen.
"Don't worry, I'll get it," he said.
"Thanks," she replied, brushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear as she rose to her feet.
"Thanks so much," she repeated as he handed her the rest of her books.
"No problem . . . you must be new here," he said.
"Did the map give me away?"
"No, it's just I would have noticed you before." He cleared his throat. "I'm Jeremy."
"So where were you headed?" he asked motioning to the map.
"The cafeteria," she scoffed and rolled her eyes. "I feel kind of dumb not being able to find my way. I should know where the cafeteria is. I was just there for orientation last week."
"Don't feel dumb. It takes awhile to get used to this place."
"I think I just got turned around. I'm usually better with directions than this, I swear."
"I'm on my way to lunch. Want to walk with me?"
"Okay. Lead the way."
"Well, here we are," Jeremy said as they approached the cafeteria. He was about to say more when he was interrupted by a friend calling his name.
"I think I can find my way from here. Thanks again."
"Alright," he said. Again, he seemed to hesitate. When his friends called out a second time he started towards them. "I'll see you around."
Natalie looked around, surprised to hear her name and saw Maura waving at her. She walked over.
"Do you want to sit with us?" she asked.
"Sure. Just let me get my food."
"Do you think Meghan will want to sit with us too?" Maura asked Judith.
"It looks like she already found a place to sit," she said motioning towards the table by the windows.
"How did she get to sit there? Only Juniors and Seniors sit at that table. Never freshman."
"It probably has to do with Julian," Judith remarked as he said down next to Meghan.
"Still," Maura said thoughtfully. "Jeremy has this lunch too. Do you think he'll want to sit with us?" she asked hopefully.
"I doubt it," Judith scoffed.
"If we see him, I'll ask."
Judith nodded and said nothing. She started scanning the cafeteria. If everything was going to be all about boys this year, she needed someone to like too.
"Student council meetings start soon and elections for freshman class officers will be starting. Are you going to run for office?" Maura asked Judith as Natalie joined them.
"I don't know. I'm not sure," she replied.
"You should. It's so fun. We get to plan dances and school events and fundraisers. It would be really cool if we were on the council together."
"Yeah, it would," Judith smiled. She had to admit having something to talk about besides her brother would be a welcome change.
Judith wondered if she had thought too soon, when she saw Maura looking across the cafeteria at Jeremy who was looking in their direction.
Maura thought her heart skipped a beat when she noticed Jeremy smiling in their direction. When she offered a little wave, he seemed to jump. He blinked, breaking out of his daydream and gave a nod of acknowledgement to her, before turning away.
"So, Natalie," Judith said, eager to change the subject. "You said you might be moving to Arrendale Heights?"
"Yeah, it hasn't been decided yet."
"How did you get offered one of the new houses?" Judith asked. "My dad is one of the co-founders of the neighborhood and I heard him say the families that were given first offers to move in were hand selected. What's your connection?"
"My mom's fiance works for the Townsend Corporation. His boss, Mr. Arrendale, offered him a chance to move to the neighborhood."
Judith nodded her approval and took another sip of her drink.
"Your parents are divorced?" Maura asked.
"They aren't together," Natalie answered simply.
"Does your dad live nearby? Do you get to see him often?"
"I've never actually met my father. My parents split up before I was born."
"Me too!" Maura said excitedly. "I mean, I never met my dad either, for the same reason. That's so cool." When Natalie gave her a strange look, she clarified, "I just mean, nearly everyone I know either lives with both parents or at least knows both of their parents. It's kind of cool not to be the only one." Maura smiled, sure that she and Natalie would become good friends. "Do you ever wonder where he is and what he's like?"
"Sure," Natalie nodded. "Once in awhile." She had a feeling the wondering would soon be over. Now that they knew exactly where her father lived, it was just a question of when they'd get to meet.
"Hey, James. Is Cassie around?" Blaine asked as he walked into the club. "I thought I'd stop by and take her to lunch."
"You're too late. My wife already beat you too it."
"Oh," Blaine said, sounding disappointed.
"Do you want me to fix you something while you're here? I could whip up a sandwich or something from the back."
"No, thanks," Blaine replied.
James hesitated a moment, trying to read Blaine's body language and tone. "Why don't you sit down for a minute while you're here? Do you have the time?"
"Sure," Blaine said, sitting down on a bar stool. "I have a little time before I have to get back to work. What's up?"
"That's what I was about to ask you. Is everything alright . . . with you and Cassie? Chloe and I both noticed she's seemed out of sorts lately and you seem a little down yourself right now."
"Really? You think Cassie's seems upset?" he asked with concern.
"She seems like she's got a lot on her mind, anyway. What's going on?"
"It's Reese . . ."
"Reese? I hadn't heard anything about her in ages. She just . . .vanished."
"I know. She left town years ago, wouldn't let anyone get in contact with her, but now I guess she's coming back. Cassie told me she saw her fiance and daughter checking out one of the new houses."
"Wow," James said. "Well, it will be nice to see her again. I always liked Reese." When Blaine frowned he said, "But you don't seem so sure. And neither does Cassie. What's the big deal?"
"It shouldn't be a big deal, right?" Blaine said thoughtfully. "I'm just a little stunned. The whole reason she broke up with me, or at least she said, was because she wasn't ready to get married and have kids, but she has a daughter."
"How old is the daughter? People grow and change. Just because she wasn't ready then, doesn't mean she wouldn't ever be ready."
"But Cassie said the daughter was probably about 13 or 14 years old. She must have gotten pregnant right after we broke up. I can't believe she moved on that fast."
"It seems like you moved on with Cassie pretty quickly yourself."
"Yeah, but we took things slow and took our time with our relationship. Cassie insisted on it," Blaine replied. "I just can't wrap my mind around Reese moving on with another man and having a baby so soon after we broke up. And she's not even with the girl's father anymore. She has a new fiance. I keep wondering what happened. It couldn't have been an easy time for her. I don't know why she never told anyone. She could have called me if she was in trouble. I thought we were still friends. I would have helped."
"Why would she call you? You broke up and moved on," James stated. "You have your own wife and family now and she has her own life and her own family. Why should you care so much about an ex and why she never called on you?"
Blaine shrugged. "You think I shouldn't. I still thought of her as a friend."
"I think it's no surprise Cassie is so down. How would you feel if she wanted to run off to the rescue of one of her exes?"
"I didn't say all this to her," Blaine said in his defense.
"But she knows. Women sense these things and you know Cassie is more perceptive than most."
"You're right. I've been a jerk."
"No, man. If anything you're the total opposite of that. Just remember which woman is your wife and the mother of your children. Don't forget where your priorities lie. You'll be alright. I don't think Reese coming back won't be as big of a thing as it seems."
Blaine returned to his office feeling better about the Reese situation. He took James' advice to heart and decided to focus on Cassie's feelings about Reese's return more than on his own feelings about her moving on without him. He had a wife that he loved and children that he adored, why should he concern himself with how and when Reese found those things for herself?
As soon as he walked in, the phone rang. He managed to answer it just before it would have gone to voicemail.
"Hello, Blaine Kitteridge, Bay Pointe Technologies. How can I help you?"
There was a pause on the line before a voice replied. "Hi, um, Blaine. This is . . ."
He hadn't heard her voice in so long that he was sure that he had forgotten what it sounded like, but the instant he heard her speak, it all came back to him like they had spoken just yesterday, "Reese. Hi."