"Good morning, Daddy. Are those your famous pancakes I smell?"
"Good morning and you bet they are," Blaine replied cheerfully.
As Blaine served the pancakes, he looked up at his daughter, expecting to see brown-haired, green-eyed Brooke. Instead, sitting in front of him was a girl with black hair, brown eyes, and Reese's smile. It was Natalie. She was sitting at the table, as naturally as if she had sat there every morning of her life.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
"For your pancakes? Always?"
Blaine sat across from her and watched her as she gobbled down the pancakes and hurried out the door to meet the school bus.
"Bye, dad. I'll see you tonight."
As he watched her skip away, Blaine was taken back to the day she was born.
He remembered the first time he held her at the hospital when she was just a newborn.
"She's so beautiful . . . And you did great in the delivery room. Thank you so much for bringing this little girl into the world."
Reese smiled tiredly from the hospital bed.
"If you ever change your mind-"
"I won't. This is the right thing."
"But if you do, you'll always be welcome. As much or as little as you want to be involved, it's okay."
"No, thank you for trusting her with me," Blaine replied looking down at the newborn's face. "I promise you I will take good care of her and do my best to give her the best life possible."
In a flash of memory he relived the years that followed. The sleepless nights, the seemingly never-ending cycle of feeding and changing were all worth it when he got to experience her first smile, her first words, her first steps. It wasn't his ideal situation, but for them it worked. Reese got her career and he and Natalie got each other.
Reese was never completely out of the picture. She was there for every birthday, every holiday, and times inbetween, just because.
"Natalie's been learning some new words. We've been working on animal sounds."
"Oh, that's great!"
"Natalie, how does the cow go?"
"Very good," Reese clapped her hands together. "I can't believe how fast she's growing. How much she's learning already."
"She's a smart girl, just like her mother."
"No, you deserve all the credit. You've been so great with her. You've been like a father and a mother to her. No one could have done better."
"Being a parent to her was the best thing I could have done. I can never thank you enough for trusting me to be the one to raise her."
"No, I should be thanking you and maybe apologizing too . . ."
"For making the biggest mistakes of my life. I should have been more involved. I never should have left."
"It's never too late. I said the door is always open to you to be in Natalie's life as much as you choose. It's still open."
Reese looked down shyly. "And what about with you? Would you ever give us another chance. I was so stupid to have ended the things the way that I did-"
"Shh," he interrupted her and drew closer. "I've been waiting for you to say that . . . it's never too late."
Blaine awoke with a start. It took him a minute to realize where he was. He looked over to see Cassandra laying in the bed next to him, the blankets covering her gently rising and falling as she peacefully slept.
He laid his head down on the pillow again, but he knew it was no use. He was too wide awake now to go back to sleep.
He got up and looked at the clock. It was early morning, so he decided to get out of bed and go downstairs. He knew it was early, but he felt like he couldn't wait a moment longer. He picked up the telephone.
"Reese? It's Blaine. I'm sorry to call so early, but this can't wait. I don't waste any more time."
"Someone called kind of early for a Saturday morning," Simon said with a yawn as he walked into the kitchen and found Reese making coffee.
"It was Blaine," she replied with a hint of confusion in her voice.
"Really?" Simon replied casually.
"He wanted to talk about Natalie," she said as she poured two cups of coffee and walked over to the kitchen island. "He's decided he wants to get to know her better. He's eager to make up for lost time."
"That's good . . . isn't it?" Simon asked, noticing Reese's hesitation.
Reese thought for a moment before answering. "Yes, it is. His call was just so out of the blue and seemed so urgent that I was thrown for a second, but it is good."
"I'm glad he seems willing to let bygones be bygones. I think it will be better for everyone involved to just put the past where it belongs and move forward."
Reese nodded in agreement. "Me too. I've felt so guilty for keeping them apart for so long. I was so sure one or both of them would not be able to forgive me for not being open about the truth sooner."
Simon laid his hand on hers. "Reese, you know Natalie would never hold anything against you. She's a very mature girl and a sensible one, like her mother. Plus she loves you very much, no matter what. I don't know this Blaine fellow, but it sounds like he's a good guy and a good family man who would only wants what's best for Natalie. Just try to put those feelings of guilt in the past, because I see only good things ahead for all of us."
Reese smiled. "I hope so. Blaine asked if we wanted to come over for dinner sometime. He thinks it might be good for the families to get to know each other. What do you think?"
"Sounds fine to me."
"Hello, hello!" Chloe called out as she let herself and Vanessa into Lucy's house.
"Hi," Lucy called out as she approached the entryway. "I'm almost ready. I'll just be a minute."
"Take your time, we're not in a hurry, hon," Vanessa replied.
"I wonder what these new neighbors are like," Lucy remarked as she checked her hair and make-up in the mirror.
"Haven't you heard? We don't have to wonder. We already know them," Chloe replied. "It's Reese Burroughs and her family. Do you remember her?"
"Do I ever," Lucy replied, leaning back from the mirror. "She was supposed to handle my divorce, but instead the hack they sent in her place screwed me over . . . Reese just seemed to fall off the edge of the earth, didn't she?"
"It certainly seemed like it," Vanessa agreed.
"I think Cassie wishes things had stayed that way. She was not too pleased when she met Reese's fiance and daughter outside of the house one day and found out who was going to be moving in."
"Oh, poor girl. Doesn't she realize she has nothing to worry about?" Vanessa said, her voice full of sympathy.
"That's what I tried to tell her. I'm not sure she's totally convinced."
"How old is the daughter?" Vanessa asked.
"About 13. At least that's what Cassie guessed."
"Not she's not. Natalie's 15, going on 16, like me," Maura interrupted as she walked past.
The three woman turned to look at her.
"How do you know?" Lucy asked.
"She's a new friend of mine. We're in the same class at school. She's a sophomore too."
Lucy turned to look at Chloe and Vanessa, wondering if they were putting the facts together the same way she was.
"Why does Mrs. Kitteridge not want to see Natalie and her family move to the neighborhood? What would she be worried about?"
"Never you mind," Lucy replied. "We shouldn't be gossiping about other people's business."
"Is it because Natalie's mom and Mr. Kitteridge used to know each other?" Maura asked. Before anyone could answer or decline to answer, she explained. "Because that's what Mr. Kitteridge said to her when Natalie and I ran into him yesterday."
"They've met?" Chloe asked, surprised.
Maura could tell she had the women's undivided attention and interest now. "Yeah, we were walking past when Mr. Kitteridge and his kids came home. Then Natalie's mom showed up and they shooed us off so they could talk alone . . . Wait, Natalie's mom used to live here . . ." Maura thought back to what Natalie had told her about her parents and started to put the pieces together. "Oh my gosh, is Mr. Kitteridge, Natalie's father or something?"
"Maura," Lucy said in a scolding tone. She felt the need to hush her daughter, even though it wasn't likely the parties involved would be in listening range. "Now we don't know that . . ."
Maura grinned excitedly. Her mother not directly denying it was almost as good as her saying that it was the truth.
"And it's not our business. It's theirs to share or not share, whether it's true or not. I don't want you to say anything to anyone about it, especially not Natalie. It's up to them to sort out."
"Okay, I promise. I won't breathe a word," Maura swore, but she was so giddy about the revelation that she could barely hold still. "Can I come with you to the housewarming to say hi to Natalie? I promise I won't say anything."
"Not this time," Lucy said. "I'll tell her you said hi and let her know she can give you a call if she wants to invite you over."
"Okay," Maura agreed reluctantly. As her mom, Chloe, and Vanessa left, Maura walked slowly up the steps, her head in the clouds. How exciting that after all of these years of not knowing her father, Natalie was suddenly living next door to him and she herself had been the one to introduce them for the first time!
When she reached the top of the steps she knocked on Vince's bedroom door.
"Whatcha doin?" she asked.
"Not much. What's up?"
She walked into his room with a sigh. "Do you remember much about my dad?"
Vince rolled his eyes. "No. For the millionth time, I can't remember stuff from when I was a baby."
"Do you think much about your dad?"
Vince frowned. "Not if I can help it. What's got you thinking about this, this time?"
"My friend Natalie."
"The new girl you're always hanging out with at school?" Vince asked, suddenly interested.
"Yeah, she's moving into the new house that just sold with her mom and stepdad. Mom and Aunt Chloe and Mrs. Varner are headed over there now to welcome them to the neighborhood. Anyway, after talking to them I think she just met her real dad for the first time. And it just got me thinking about my dad again and I wondered if you could tell me anything about him, that's all."
"You know all I know. Probably more."
Maura went to her own room, closed the door behind her and flopped down on her bed. She was sure she'd worn out Vince and probably her mom too with her questions about her father. There was so much that she wanted to know, more than she could ever find out from asking simple questions.
She had a vague image of him in her mind from her mom's descriptions and from the one grainy newspaper photograph she'd found of him. She knew he had dark hair neatly trimmed, light skin, and that she had his nose.
She imagined what it would be like if he had known about her and if he had stayed with her mom. She imagined family dinners, chatting at the kitchen table. She imagined her would call her princess or kitten and they would be one big happy family. Complete.
And even more than herself and Vince, she thought of her mom. How nice it would be for her mom to have a man in her life and to love and be loved by. She knew her mom was lonely, though she tried not to let on that she was. Though she was curious, Maura tried not to ask too many questions about her father, because she hated to make her mother sad and remind her of her loneliness.
Maura smiled to herself. She was happy that Natalie might get a chance to know her father and Natalie's experience gave her hope, that one day, she might get to meet her own father as well. Maybe, someday, her biggest wish would come true.
"Hello, the welcome wagon's here," Chloe sang as Reese opened the front door.
"Hello, sweetie, it's so nice to see you again," Vanessa stepped forward, greeting her with a friendly hug. "How have you been?"
"We brought you something," Chloe added. "Just a little 'welcome to the neighborhood' gift from everyone in Arrendale Heights."
"Thanks. Won't you come in?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Vanessa cheerfully accepted the invitation. "We'd love to see your new house."
"We're still getting everything unpacked and set up," Reese said apologetically.
"It looks like you're off to a great start," Vanessa said.
"I love your kitchen," Chloe remarked as she handed the gift basket to Reese, who set it on the kitchen island.
"It's a beautiful house," Lucy added.
"Do we have company?" Simon asked as he joined the ladies in the kitchen. "Hello."
"Yes, these are our new neighbors, Lucy, Vanessa, and Chloe," Reese did the introductions. "This is my fiance, Simon."
"Nice to meet you."
"Can I offer anyone something to drink?" Simon offered.
"Oh, you don't have to go to any trouble. We know you're just getting settled," Vanessa replied.
"It's no trouble," Simon insisted. "Let me see what we have."
As Simon headed for the refrigerator, Natalie walked into the room, "Mom, have you seen- Oh, sorry I didn't know you had visitors."
"A few of the neighbors dropped in to say hello. This is my daughter, Natalie," Reese explained. She felt a little nervous introducing Natalie to these women who had known her and Blaine in the past. She was so used to keeping her daughter and her life a secret, being secretive had become a habit, but the easy, friendly attitudes of the others soon made her feel at ease.
"Hi, Natalie," Lucy spoke up. "I'm Maura's mom. Maura wanted to come with us today, but since she couldn't, she wanted me to tell you that she says hi and to give her a call if you want to get together sometime."
"Okay, thanks. I will."
"She's welcome here anytime," Reese remarked. "I'm glad Natalie is already making friends in the neighborhood."
"I hope you feel like you have friends here too, Reese," Vanessa added. "It's been a long time, but I hope you don't feel like we're strangers here. I think most of us are old friends. I hope you feel like this is kind of a homecoming for you."
"I do, kind of," Reese said, suddenly feeling shy and nervous again. As Natalie slipped outside, she tried to change the subject. "Would you like to see the rest of the house, keeping in mind that we're still unpacking?"
"We'd love to."
As Vanessa followed Reese into the living room and Simon got the drinks ready in the kitchen, Chloe drew Lucy aside in the entryway. "What do you think of Natalie? Do you think there is any possible way Cassie really mistook her for only 13 or maybe even fourteen?"
"Definitely not thirteen, no way," Lucy shook her head. "Fourteen would be stretching it. Do you think she purposefully lied?"
"I'm almost sure of it," Chloe whispered. "Besides, don't you think she looks like Blaine?"
"I can see the resemblance. Knowing Reese is her mother, and with the timing of everything . . . yeah, I think it's pretty obvious."
"I have no doubt Cassie noticed it too. I think I'm going to have a word with her about this. She knew more than she's been saying, to me, to James, and I'm sure to Blaine."
"Are you always sitting on the steps with your nose in a book?" Vince asked as he walked past Natalie's house.
Natalie shut the book she had been writing in and looked up. "So what if I am?" she responded coolly.
Vince shrugged. "What are you writing in that notebook of yours that's so important? I know you aren't working on homework, it's Saturday."
"Is that so unheard of?"
"Yeah, unless you're a total nerd . . . But I bet you are one of those A+, honor society types."
Natalie crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow. "And I bet you're not."
"Not even close."
"I could tell."
Vince shook his head, "You don't give a guy a chance, do you?"
"Excuse me?" Natalie asked, confused.
"Two times I come over to talk to you and both times you shut me down. What's up with that?"
Natalie opened her mouth to speak, but found herself fumbling for words. "Once with a lame pick up line that was obviously meant to impress your friends."
"A guy needs an opening," he said with a shrug and a wink.
Natalie could see he was trying to act endearing. She cracked a sideways smile, in spite of herself.
"Ah, see I'm getting to you know. I saw that smile," Vince prodded. Any hint of a smile on Natalie's face vanished.
"Okay, look. I don't know what you're after, but don't waste your time. I'm sorry, you're not my type."
"Woah, you're a little full of yourself, aren't you?" Vince tried to play cool, but seeing a spark of anger in Natalie's eyes, he backed off. "So, what is your type?"
"Not the type that vandalizes school buildings, makes routine trips to the principals office, and skips class. Sorry."
As Natalie started to walk away, Vince called after her. "Fine, if that's what you want to think. Go ahead and think that's all I am. You'll never know." Vince shrugged and walked off, determined not to be hung up on a girl who clearly wasn't interested.