Cassie sat at one of the tables in the bar, papers spread before her. Inventories, schedules, bookings, promotions. As she tried to sort the information before her in her mind and prioritize the tasks at hand, she was finding that everything she needed to concentrate on was being pushed aside by thoughts of the events of recent days and mental preparations for the big dinner that night.
Preparation for the meal itself was nothing to concern herself over, but as for the company and the conversation that would accompany it . . . there was not enough preparation in the world.
She tried not to think too much about it. Aside from playing the part of a good hostess, the dinner party was beyond her control. These days it seemed like everything happening in her life was beyond her control.
"Hi Chloe, what are you up to today?"
"I was just running some errands for work and I thought I'd pop in and say hi."
"If you're looking for your husband, he's out on business."
Chloe shook her head and slid into one of the empty chairs at Cassie's table. "No, that's alright. I was actually thinking of dropping in to chat with you for awhile. What's new?"
Cassie couldn't hold back a sigh as she unsuccessfully tried to manage a smile. "How much time have you got?"
Chloe nodded knowingly, "I had a feeling it was like that. So what's the latest on the situation?"
"We're having a dinner party tonight for Reese, her fiance, and her daughter."
"Blaine's daughter, you mean?"
Cassie grimaced at the statement of that fact. "Does everybody know?"
Chloe shrugged. "I don't know, but I figured it out pretty easily. Does Blaine know?"
"Yes, Reese told him."
"And you didn't?" Chloe cut Cassie off before she could protest. "I met Natalie the other day when we dropped by to welcome them to the neighborhood and I have to say, Cassie, there is no way you could have honestly mistaken that girl for thirteen. You knew from the first time you met her that she was Blaine's daughter, didn't you?"
"I-" Cassie started. She could feel her blood pressuring rising and the color coming to her cheeks. "Yes," she said quietly. "I suspected it, anyway."
"Oh, Cass!" Chloe shook her head. "How could you not tell him?"
"How could I not? How could I have told him?" Cassie countered. "I honestly didn't know how to, so I just fudged the truth, just a little . . .Oh, but I've felt so guilty about it, Chloe," she confessed. "I have tried so hard to be honest with him throughout our marriage and from the moment we started dating, but I really slipped up. If he figures out that I misled him . . ."
"You mean he hasn't caught you on your lie? Didn't he question you about it after he talked to Reese? Didn't he catch on that maybe you already knew?"
"No. He was so shocked when he found out. I just let him talk and didn't say much of anything at all. I was holding my breath the whole time, waiting for the other shoe to drop but he was too preoccupied to notice any reaction from me at all. After he told me about his conversation with Reese he just needed time to process the news, so I gave him space." When Chloe didn't say anything, Cassie added, "He wants to be a part of her life. He wants her to be a part of our life."
Chloe could see the unhappiness all over Cassie's face. "And? What do you say to that?"
"What can I say?" Cassie shrugged hopelessly. "She's his daughter. I can't keep them from each other." A stern look from Chloe made her hurry to clarify. "I wouldn't try to and I won't try to. There's nothing I can do, but go along with it, however they decide to handle this, and try to be supportive."
"Good," Chloe said, putting a hand over her friend's to lend support. "I'm glad to hear it."
As the final bell rang, students rushed out of their classrooms and into the hallways, eager to be finished with school for the day. Some were headed home. Others were on their way to after school activities. Natalie felt like she was the only one dragging her feet and the only one not anxious for the school day to be over.
She tried to ignore the butterflies in her stomach and mechanically followed her usual path to her locker and to the front door. She was starting to have second thoughts about making this date, but it was too late to back out now.
As she stepped out through the glass doors, she saw him standing along the sidewalk waiting for her. He smiled brightly at her as she walked down the steps and she mustered a polite smile in return.
Blaine spoke up first. "Hi. How was school?"
"Fine," Natalie replied, searching for something more interesting to offer in reply. "It was pretty typical . . . How was work?"
"Fine," he parroted back again with an easy smile. "I can't say my day was very eventful either."
"You work in computers, right?"
"Yes," Blaine answered and began to explain in more detail how what once was a hobby lead to a career and eventually his own business.
As he started to talk, Natalie began to feel more at ease. She knew how to approach this meeting now. She had always been interested in journalism and had thoughts of someday becoming a reporter. Maybe by treating this as an interview, asking questions to learn more about her father while being open to answering his questions about her, this meeting would come more naturally to her.
"I thought maybe we could go somewhere where we could get a bite to eat and sit and talk for awhile," Blaine said. "Do you like ice cream?"
"I know a shop that makes the best sundaes," Blaine replied. "Ready to go?"
Natalie nodded. Her previous reservations were beginning to fade away. "I'm ready."
Reese sat down at her desk, taking a moment to breathe and just absorb her surroundings. Her office was officially unpacked. Everything was in order and she was ready to make the transition from settling in to getting down to some serious work.
Her moment was interrupted by a soft tap on her partially open door followed by the entrance of one of her new co-workers.
"Hi. I hope I'm not interrupting."
"No, please, come in," Reese insisted as she rose from her seat.
"I thought I'd stop by and see how you were settling in. Is there anything you need? Anything I can help you with?"
"No, I'm doing just fine, but thank you . . ."
"Dustin," he supplied his name when she seemed to be struggling to remember.
"Yes, I'm sorry. It may take me a little while to get adjusted."
"I'm sure you will be one of the family in no time. I've heard only good things about you and I'm looking forward to working with you."
"Thank you," Reese replied, feeling flattered.
Dustin was about to speak again, but held his tongue when a young man entered. He glared at the newcomer impatiently as the youth went about his task of emptying the wastebasket. When the young man seemed to be dawdling over his job, Dustin felt the need to speak up. "Is there a problem?
The boy huffed and rolled his eyes. "No," he grumbled.
"Then why don't you be on your way?"
The boy turned as if to leave, but instead paused and turned to Reese. "Who's the girl?" he asked, gesturing to the picture frame on Reese's desk.
Dustin was about to speak up, but Reese cut him off before he could say a word. "My daughter, Natalie. Why do you ask?"
The boy shrugged and shook his head. "She looks familiar. I think I've seen her around."
"I doubt Ms. Burrough's daughter would be in any of your usual hangouts," Dustin scoffed.
Reese was not sure what she was in the middle of, but she tried to keep things peaceful. "You seem about the same age. Maybe you go to the same school?"
"Maybe. Yeah, that's probably it," the boy said quickly. Avoiding eye contact with Dustin and Reese, he grabbed the bag of trash and hurried out of the room before he could be questioned any further. "I'll get out of your way."
Dustin waited until the boy was out of earshot before speaking again in a hushed tone. "He wouldn't know your daughter from school unless she goes to the alternative school. He was kicked out of the academy last year before midterm."
"Who is he?" Reese asked.
"My uncle, Mr. Lind's, son," he replied. "He has his son do odd jobs around the office in the afternoons in an attempt to keep him out of trouble. I think he still has hopes that Scott will make something of himself someday. I think he's lucky his father is senior partner in a law firm, because he's probably going to need all the legal help he can get to keep himself out of jail in the future."
"Oh," Reese said her eyes wide with surprise.
She was still reeling from that information when Mr. Lind himself entered her office.
"Hello, Reese. Dustin, could you excuse us a moment? I'd like to have a word with Ms. Burroughs."
"Sure," Dustin nodded before leaving the room. "I'll see you later."
Mr. Lind waited to speak until after Dustin left the room and the door was securely closed behind him.
Reese nervously waited for him to speak, wondering what he wanted to talk with her about privately. She hoped that she hadn't made a mistake at her new job already.
"I was wondering if you could help me with something," Mr. Lind said once he was sure they would not be overheard.
"What is it, Mr. Lind?" Reese asked curiously.
"I have a very important project I could use some help on. It's of a rather confidential nature. I think you might be the right person for the job."
"When is Dad going to be home?" Brooke whined.
"I don't know. Soon, I'm sure," Cassie replied as patiently as possible. "Would you help me by setting the table?"
Slouching, Brooke tossed her head to the side in disgust. "Why do we all have to make a big deal over these people and get all dressed up for them? Why do we have to have this stupid dinner anyway?
"You know why. We've already discussed this," Cassie explained as she put the finishing touches on the salad and turned to the oven to check on the progress of the main course.
"I just don't know why we have to have this big fuss when all this time we got along just fine with out them and they got along just fine without us. Can't we just keep things that way?"
Cassie smiled sympathetically at her daughter. "No, we can't. We might not like it, but we just have to make the best of it."
"Maybe you do . . ." Brooke muttered.
"No, we all do," Cassie said pointedly. "Just be on your best behavior tonight. The dinner won't last long and maybe it will work out better than we think."
Brooke scowled and Cassie could tell that her daughter wasn't any more convinced by her positive words than she was herself. Yet, she had to keep saying them both to her daughter and to herself.
"Now, please, go set the table while I get changed. Your dad will be home soon."
Cassie had just finished changing clothes and was checking out her appearance in the mirror when Blaine returned.
"Hi," he said as he greeted his wife with a kiss on the cheek. "Dinner smells good. And so do you," he added, lingering close and wrapping an arm around her waist.
Cassie smiled as she took one last look in the mirror and turned to face her husband. "Thanks. We're both nearly ready . . . I take it all went well this afternoon?"
"Yeah, great," he answered enthusiastically. "I was actually a little nervous about how things would go and how Natalie and I would get along without knowing each other, especially since, you know, she's fifteen."
Cassandra's breath caught in her throat, but thankfully Blaine didn't seem to notice her sense of alarm and continued talking.
"But it went really, really well. It wasn't that awkward at all. We had a really nice talk."
"I'm glad to hear it," she said, willing herself to relax.
"It's a difficult thing to accept, that I've had a child all these years that I knew nothing of. It's hard not to think about all the moments I was cheated out of while she was growing up, but I don't want to think that way. I want to look forward. I want to look forward to the time we can spend together and the moments I can be a part of. I can't wait for you and the kids to meet Natalie. She's a fantastic kid. I think once you all get to know each other you're all going to love her."
"I hope so," Cassie said with a smile. She still wasn't sold on this idea of suddenly having a stepdaughter and of her children suddenly having a half-sister, but Blaine's optimism was contagious. Hearing the excitement in his voice and seeing the joy in her eyes always made her heart melt. It reminded her of why she had adored him so all of these years. "Just don't expect too much too soon. The kids and I - all of us - are going to need sometime to get used to all of this. It's going to take some time."
"I know," Blaine said. He reached out to take Cassie's hands in his own. "And thanks for taking the time. You've been so wonderful throughout all of this even though it hasn't been easy for you. I want you to know that I appreciate it."
As their conversation began to wind down, Brooke silently backed away from her secret listening spot on the stairs before her parents could catch her eavesdropping. She didn't care how much time they gave her. She didn't care how fantastic this new daughter of her father was, she was never going to become remotely close to loving her. It just wasn't going to happen. Not in this lifetime.
Brooke had just made it downstairs when the doorbell rang. Her parents ushered her and her brother into the foyer where they all greeted their guests at the door.
Blaine introduced Natalie and Reese to his family and Reese introduced Simon to Blaine. Everyone was pleasant except for Brooke who refused not to pout.
"Let's go into the dining room," Blaine suggested. "Cassie's been working on a great meal for us."
The two families sat down at the table together and began to eat in silence.
Since it seemed that no one else knew quite what to say, Blaine took it upon himself to break the ice. "Everything tastes great, Cassie. You've outdone yourself. I hope I didn't ruin Natalie's appetite by taking her out for dessert first," he said with a wink across the table.
"No, not at all. The dinner is very good. Thank you, Mrs. Kitteridge," Natalie replied.
"Where did you go after school?" Reese asked. They hadn't had time to talk much about the outing before coming to the Kitteridge's house.
"We went out for ice cream," Natalie replied with a conspiratorial smile. "They have an amazing turtle sundae that's almost as good as the ones we used to get at that shop back home."
"If it was so great why didn't you stay there?" Brooke muttered.
"Brooke!" Cassie hissed at her daughter. "Don't be rude!"
"It's alright," Simon insisted. "This is bound to be a difficult time. I'm afraid I'm the reason for our move. I was offered a promotion that I couldn't resist and luckily for me, this wonderful woman next to me agreed to come with me and to do me the honor of someday becoming my wife."
He laid his hand over Reese's and she smiled and blushed at the praise.
"We knew we would be living close by, but we didn't imagine it would be just next door. I hope that won't be too awkward."
"No, I think it's going to work out fine," Blaine replied.
Cassie watched Simon and Reese as they spoke. Simon's calm and kind tone matched with the loving looks he and Reese exchanged with each other, set her at ease. They looked like such a nice couple. It was ridiculous to think that Reese would be a threat to her and Blaine after all of these years. Reese had never been the threatening type to begin with.
"So when is the wedding going to be?" Cassie asked eagerly.
"We haven't set a date yet," Reese replied.
"Not yet," Simon agreed. "For now we're just enjoying being engaged, getting adjusted to our new homes and new jobs."
"When you do decide, let me know," Cassie insisted. "I have a lot of connections. I could help you with finding someone to do the music and Chloe runs a professional party planning business. I'm sure she'd be delighted to help."
As Reese was thanking her, she felt something vibrate in her pocket and reached for her phone. "I'm sorry," she apologized as she checked the text message that had arrived. "Normally, I would just ignore it, but it's from my job. They're dealing with a major problem right now that the senior partner asked me to help with. I promised I'd keep myself available in case there were new developments," she said as she put the phone away.
"What kind of problem?" Natalie asked.
"There has been a breach in the computer system that is being investigated. Mr. Lind needed someone he knew wasn't involved to help keep track for what's going on and since this started before I arrived he thought I would be the right person for the job."
"If they need a tech expert to help, you might suggest my name. My work has been a little slow lately. I would have time to take on another client," Blaine spoke up.
"I'll keep that in mind," Reese promised.
Suddenly, Cassie wasn't feeling so at ease. The conversation around her continued, but it seemed as if their voices were drifting farther and farther away.
"Is everything alright?" Blaine asked, snapping her back to the present.
"I don't know," Cassie admitted. "I think so . . . would you excuse me for a minute?"
Cassie left the table and retreated to the bathroom where she splashed a bit of cool water on her face and took a moment to collect herself.
Something about Reese checking her phone and the conversation that followed it struck her as oddly familiar. It was if she was watching a movie she had seen before, but vaguely recalled. She remembered that moment, that scene as something significant, but she couldn't recall why, because she couldn't remember what happened next. She felt like she had to try to remember, but how could she remember something that hadn't happened yet? It was vague, like a dream. She just had to shake it off. Forget about it.
She was about to return to the dining room, when she noticed Brooke standing behind her.
"I'm alright," she said. "Maybe I'm coming down with something. Let's go back downstairs."
Brooke shook her head. "No, you're right, mom. Something bad is going to happen. I can tell it too."