"So how do you like living in the neighborhood so far?" Maura prodded Natalie as they gathered in the school hallway.
"I know my mom and some of the other neighborhood ladies stopped by to welcome your family. I really wanted to come with them, but my mom thought I shouldn't. Mrs. Varner and Mrs. Spencer are really nice, aren't they? And of course, you met the Kitteridges too . . ." she trailed off.
"Yeah," Natalie replied flatly. "Everyone's really nice."
"Why are you rambling on about the neighbors?" Judith asked curiously. She found Maura's line of conversation odd.
"No reason. Just making conversation. What's wrong with that?" Maura said quickly. Her mom had made her promise not to say anything about Natalie and Mr. Kitteridge, but she was having trouble thinking of anything else. She knew she had to bite her tongue, but that didn't mean that Natalie couldn't offer information if she wanted to. Maura hoped that maybe with a little prompting Natalie would share something. She wasn't sure which part was worse, not knowing all the details or not being allowed to say anything about what she knew.
"Nothing, I guess," Judith shrugged. "You'd just think there was something more interesting to talk about than how nice all of the neighbors are."
"Okay then, why don't we talk about how nice David is?" Maura said with a grin. With a nod of her head she motioned over Judith's shoulder. "There he is. Have you tried to talk to him?"
"No," Judith said blushing.
"You should go over now."
"And say what?"
"Anything. Say hi, say something about art class."
Judith frowned. "I think the guy should make the first move," she insisted firmly, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Hmmm," Maura said thoughtfully.
"Oh no, don't start getting any ideas," Judith pleaded. She should see the beginning of a plot forming in her best friend's mind and that worried her. "Just forget it, please. I can manage my love life on my own."
"Just think, if you and David got together and Jeremy and I got together we could go on double dates. Wouldn't that be the best!"
Maura noticed Natalie shift uncomfortably and quickly added, "Except of course, if Natalie had a date too and we could triple date."
"You don't have to worry about including me," Natalie insisted. "I'm not in a hurry to find a date."
"And don't worry about me either," Judith interjected. "Seriously, who wants to go on a date with their older brother?"
"I wouldn't mind," Maura shrugged. "If it meant going out with the guy I liked."
"Let's just drop the idea. It's not going to work."
Down the hall the group of girls had caught the attention of both Jeremy and Vince. When Jeremy turned away from them, he was startled to find Vince standing behind him. Vince seemed startled too and quickly looked away awkwardly.
"Oh hey," Jeremy said. He hesitated a moment, but decided to ask the question that was on his mind. "Do you know much about that new girl, Natalie?"
"What? Me? No," he answered with a frown. "Why would I know anything about her?"
Jeremy shrugged. "I just thought you might, since it seems like she's good friends with your sister. Maura always seems to know about everyone."
"Maybe she does, but all I know is that girl is cold," Vince shook his head. "If you're interested in getting to know her, don't even waste your time."
"Oh?" Jeremy said with a confused frown. "Oh, okay, thanks."
"No problem," Vince said gruffly and turned away.
As Jeremy turned back towards the group of girls, he couldn't catching a glimpse of Natalie again and smiling before he headed for class.
Alma sat in her classroom, reading during her prep period, when she heard a light rap at her open classroom door and a voice call out, "Hello there. Catching up on some classroom reading?"
"No," Alma replied a little too quickly. She jumped a little and quickly closed the book. Her cheeks flushed as she caught herself. "Actually this is personal reading," she admitted.
Mason stepped forward and caught a glimpse of the title. "Not bad. Are you enjoying it so far?"
Alma breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn't sure why she felt like she was a student caught goofing off instead of doing her schoolwork. She relaxed and smiled more genuinely this time. "I'm not very far into it yet, but yes."
"I might have a recommendation for your reading list then," he said thoughtfully. "But that's not why I dropped in. I have a little project coming up that I hoped maybe you could help me with."
"Me?" Alma asked, surprised.
"Yes. If you're not able to or too busy, feel free to say no."
"What is it?" she asked. She was sure she couldn't guess what it might be.
"I've been volunteered to take charge of the school play this year. Usually Mrs. Neilson is in charge of it, but obviously she's out this year. Since you're filling in for her and obviously have experience, and good taste, in literature," he added motioning towards her book. "I was hoping you might help me brainstorm some ideas . . . and," he chuckled, slightly embarrassed, "any other help you'd like to offer I could definitely use. Don't tell anyone, but I might be in a little over my head here."
She couldn't help smiling back at him in spite of herself. "I might be able to come up with some ideas."
"That would be great. I really appreciate it. Do you think we could meet at lunch time one day next week and talk about it?"
"Thanks so much. I'm looking forward to it . . . and let me know what you think of your book if you've gotten farther into it by then."
After school, Jeremy and Natalie's paths crossed and he fell in step next to her in the hallway.
"Hi again. How's it going?" he asked.
"It's going," she replied with a wry smile. "How about you?"
"I can't complain," he said. "By the way, I heard we're neighbors now."
"Yeah, that seems to be the topic of conversation today."
"Well, it's not every decade we get someone new in the neighborhood, so when it does happen, it is big news. But I guess that means I've missed my chance again . . . you've probably already been offered a tour around the neighborhood."
"Maybe," she replied noncommittally.
"I should know better than to expect to compete with Maura." When Natalie looked confused and suddenly uncomfortable he hastened to explain. "I mean, she's always the first to know neighborhood news and to let everyone else know what's going on and to invite anyone anywhere. I - I don't know how that sounded, but maybe it didn't come off right."
"No, it's fine. I get it," she replied.
Jeremy laughed nervously. "Maybe I should start over. What I really want to say is . . . would you want to hang out sometime? It wouldn't have to be just you and me if that seems weird. We could hang out with Judith and Maura or something. There's a carnival and concert coming up. I don't know if you're going, but the whole neighborhood will be there." He caught himself rambling and tried to get back on point. "I'd like to get to know you better."
"Oh, I don't know," Natalie said nervously. She felt like her head was swimming. She wasn't sure what to say. "I really don't know," she said with more doubt in her voice.
"Okay," Jeremy said slowly.
When she saw Maura approaching, she felt the urge to get away from there, away from Jeremy, and away from the whole conversation as quickly as possible. "I kind of have a lot going on right now. Maybe it's not a good idea."
She turned and quickly started to walk away. Jeremy wanted to call or follow after her, but he was stopped by Maura.
"Jeremy! Jeremy! I'm glad I caught you. I have an amazing idea."
"Uh, can it wait?" he asked, turning back to see if he could catch Natalie, but she was already gone.
"No, you have to hear this. We need to set up a double date."
"A what now?" he asked, not sure if he was hearing her correctly. "For who? And why?"
"It will be you, me, Judith, and David at the carnival concert."
Jeremy pondered that unusual combination for a moment. "So who will be dating who here? I know I won't be dating my sister, unless you mean you just want us to come along with you and David . . ."
"No, it's Judith and David. She is totally crushing on him, but she won't even talk to him, but if you would talk to him for her, it would be the perfect way to get them together."
"I don't know," Jeremy hesitated. "I don't want to get that involved with my sister's romantic life. I don't particularly want to think about her having a romantic life." He frowned. "And my parents' aren't going to go for this idea. They don't think she's old enough to date."
"I know that. That's why this plan is so perfect. It won't be like dating. They aren't going to object to her going to the concert with her big brother and her best friend and some other person from school," she said with a dismissive wave at the end. When Jeremy still looked skeptical, she decided she would have to resort to begging. "Please, say yes, Jeremy. Pretty please? All you have to do is ask him and we'll all hang out at the concert together. There's nothing to it. See, look at them," she pointed down the hall. "They so want to talk to each other. They just need a little nudge, that's all."
Jeremy sighed. "Okay, fine. I don't have any other plans for the concert anyway."
"Oh, thank you," Maura said hugging him around the shoulders. "You won't regret it. I promise."