Alma set at the desk in her husband's den with a stack of half graded papers in front of her. She was finding herself too distracted to get much work done. Her mind kept going back to lunch last week with Mr. Clark, Mason. They had such a great conversation about books and plans for the school play. It wasn't hard to see why most of the women at the school found him attractive. He had a smile that kept finding its way back into her thoughts.
She felt so honored that he valued her opinion enough to ask her to help him choose a play for the drama club to perform this semester. Her mind was swimming with possible choices. She didn't want to let him down.
She tried to shake the distractions out of her mind and focus on the work in front of her, but before she could get back to work, she heard a crash in the next room, followed by the shouts of her children and the voice of her husband.
"The two of you are getting too rowdy in here. Your mother is trying to do her work. You both need to go outside and play or find something quiet to do so that you don't disturb her. She's done so much for all of us over the years, the least we can do is help her be able to do what she wants to do."
A moment later the office door opened and Ed was standing in the doorway, looking over her as she worked.
"You've been working very hard at this new job," he remarked.
"There's a lot to do and I want to do it well."
He cleared his throat. "I didn't realize how much work it would take to substitute teach. I honestly wasn't expecting all the hours after work and on weekends you would be spending on this. I thought this job would be just something for you to do while the kids were at school. It's much more than that, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is more than that," she responded more sharply than she meant to.
"I just hope you haven't taken on too much."
"Well, I am doing a little bit extra at the school," she admitted. "But it's nothing that I can't manage. It's not as if I'm a doctor and on call. I only have to be away when the children are and the grading and prep work I can do from home, so I'll be here when they are. Besides, I'll have the summer and vacations off."
Edward just nodded. "Yes, I know you can manage. It's taking some adjustments for all of us, but we'll make it work." As he left the room, Edward could only think about how this wasn't how he expected his retirement years to be.
"What about Kevin? He's nice," Maura said as she was Judith lounged on the couch in the Stuarts' living room.
"No," Judith said.
"Oh! Alex, then. He's really cute."
"No," Judith sighed. "Just forget it. This double date idea just isn't going to work out, okay? Just give it up."
"No, it's a great idea," Maura insisted. "I think we can still make it work, we just have to find the right foursome."
"Then you can start by counting me out. I've changed my mind. I don't want to double date."
Maura flopped back on the couch in defeat. "But I was so close. Jeremy was actually going to go along and everything . . . I guess just the three of us could go."
Judith frowned. "I don't want to be a third wheel tagging along while you're trying to get my brother to notice you."
Maura rolled her eyes. Her friend wasn't making this easy. There had to be a way to still make this work. Just then the solution to her problem appeared before her eyes.
Maura jumped up. "Vince!"
Vince, who had happened to be walking through the room at that moment, stopped in place when he heard his sister suddenly shout his name.
"Hey, do you want to come to the concert with us?"
"What? Why?" he asked skeptically. Her unexpected question had taken him aback.
"We're trying to get a group together so Judith's parents will let her go," Maura said, contriving her story on the spot. "We think they'll let her go if Jeremy will go too. Jeremy said he would go when David was going to go, but now that David's out, Jeremy might change his mind, but maybe he'll still go if you would go too, so he wouldn't be the only guy. And if it's you that goes with us then it would just be us with our older brothers to look after us and the Wiltons won't worry."
As Maura paused to take a breath, Vince took a second to take in her rapid rush of words.
"You're getting a group together?" he asked thoughtfully. "Who else is going? Some of your other friends?"
"I don't know, maybe. I hadn't thought to ask them. I guess I did mention it in front of Natalie, but we didn't make any plans either way . . . So what do you say? Will you go with us? Please?"
Vince pursed his lips and thought it over as Maura anxiously awaited his answer. If there was a chance that Natalie might go, it could be worth going along and if there was a chance that both Natalie and Jeremy were going, he definitely wanted to be there too. Plus, when his little sister turned on the puppy dog eyes, it was hard to say to no to her, but that didn't mean he didn't enjoy making her sweat a little before he gave her his answer.
He hesitated as she stared at him pleadingly, and then gave in. "Alright, I'll go, but you owe me one."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she gushed, jumping up and down and giving her brother a hug. She knew he wouldn't let her down. Then she turned to Judith and smiled.
Meghan stood at the doorway, looking out as Julian and his friends hung out on the patio, talking and laughing. She was staying out of their way as she promised Shayna she would. She knew Shayna had ordered her away because Julian had said something and she knew the only reason Julian had said anything was because of Melanie and Sara, especially Melanie.
Even from inside, Meghan could see Melanie was flirting hard with Julian. He didn't seem overly interested in her, but she was constantly touching him, leaning towards him, practically hanging off of him. She couldn't be more obvious.
Meghan smiled deviously to herself. She knew exactly what to do to get back at the girl for banning her from their lunch table and sabotaging her chance at being on the freshman cheerleading squad.
When the doorbell rang, Meghan ran to answer it. As she had expected, Jasmyn was at the door. When she had taken her up on the offer of joining the dance team, Jasmyn offered to come over and get her caught up on the new routines.
"Ready to do this?" Jasmyn asked.
"Oh, I'm ready. Let's go out back to the patio. I've got my stereo out there and there's lots of room for us to move."
Meghan grinned to herself as she led the way. She promised she'd leave Julian and his friends alone, but there was no reason she had to let them have the backyard all to themselves, if she was leaving them alone and minding her own business.
When she opened the patio door and stepped outside, the laughter and chatter of Julian and his friends stopped abruptly. Meghan could feel the dirty looks of Melanie and Sara on her, but she walked away from them and over to an unoccupied part of the patio without giving them a second look.
"So, what's first?" she said to Jasmyn.
"We'll start with something simple. Follow my lead."
As Meghan focused on following Jasmyn's instructions, the others went back to their conversations. At least the girls did. Even though she was focused on Jasmyn's instructions and dance steps, when she glanced over she noticed that Melanie and Sara were off to the side by themselves looking bored and annoyed,
while the guys seemed to be more interested in watching her and Jasmyn's every move. Meghan was too pleased with herself. She couldn't hide the smirk that was creeping across her lips.
Melanie and Sara were not going to put up with being ignored for long. If the boys weren't going to come to them, they would go to the boys.
A few minutes later, they had convinced the guys that lounging by the pool was getting old and the group was headed elsewhere. As they left, Meghan could see that Melanie, especially, did not look happy. Meghan, on the other hand, felt triumphant.
"Are you waiting on me?" Shayna asked as she checked her make-up in the mirror. It was flawless, as usual.
"No," Andrew replied from the chair next to the bedroom window. "I'm just enjoying watching you get ready, my dear." He walked over and gave her a peck on the cheek.
"Is that all?"
"And also thinking how glad I am that you suggested this night out."
Shayna nodded. "We've needed this for a long time."
Ever since Meghan had moved in, their lives and their household dynamic had changed considerably. Laying down a set of rules had helped. Though resistant, Meghan had been compliant. While things were starting to settle into a new order, the initial chaos had left Shayna feeling unusually out of sorts and the changes had caused some tension between herself and Andrew. A night out for just the two of them, away from the kids and away from the household would do them a world of good, she was certain. One thing did weigh on her mind though, making it hard for her to feel totally at ease.
"Do you think it's a good idea leaving Meghan and Julian on their own together?" she asked, framing her concern as carefully as possible. "We've left Julian home alone before, but not Meghan since she's been here. Maybe it would be better if she spent the evening at Alma's, especially since Julian's friends are here."
"I asked her about going to Alma's, but she said she'd rather stay here. I guess Judith is at Maura's and it wouldn't be as much fun being there with just the younger kids."
"Did you ask about Vanessa's. She expressed that she was looking forward to spending more time with her niece."
"It's a little late for that now," Andrew replied. "I'm sure the kids will be fine. Even if he's busy with his friends, Julian will be here in case there's any trouble. I trust him totally to take care of any emergencies."
Shayna nodded slowly. That they could trust Julian was no question. That there was nothing to worry about because Julian was there, was another story. She hated to say so to Andrew and especially hated to bring it up now as they were planning to go out and get away from issues with the family for the evening, but she was wary to leave her son and Andrew's daughter at home alone together. She had seen the way Meghan looked at Julian and the way she had acted when he was around and she had also seen how her son had made such a concerted effort not to notice Meghan. She didn't think anything would happen if they were left alone together, necessarily, but she felt it better if the situation was avoided as much as possible.
Andrew placed a reassuring arm on her shoulder. "Don't worry. Everything will be fine."
She shrugged and mustered as smile. "Yes, I'm sure it will be."
As they started to leave, they ran into Julian in the hallway.
"Is it alright if I go out with my friends for awhile? We'll probably go to the mall and grab a bite to eat."
Shayna nodded. "That's fine. How long do you expect to be gone?"
Julian shrugged. "I don't know. I'll make sure I'm home before curfew, if not sooner."
"Have a good time," Shayna replied. "If plans change, call."
Shayna suddenly felt more at ease. With Meghan staying home and Julian going out, she had one less thing to worry about. Andrew, on the other hand, was starting to have second thoughts.
"Maybe we should call Vanessa or Alma and see if Meghan can spend the evening with them after all. Or Lucy, if that's where her friends are."
"We'll only be gone a few hours. I'm sure Meghan will be fine on her own. If anything happens, she can call us at the restaurant or she can call one of the neighbors. Don't worry. Everything will be fine."
Andrew seemed uncertain, but when Meghan insisted that she'd rather stay home to practice her dance and watch a movie, he could only agree to stick with the plan.
After Shayna and Andrew left, Jasmyn also had to wrap up their practice and head home.
"I have to say I'm really impressed," Jasmyn remarked. "I think you're already caught up and maybe beyond some of the newer girls in the troop. You catch on fast."
"Well, I have been in dance practically since I could walk," Meghan replied. She tossed back her hair. "It's always come naturally to me."
"I'm glad you decided to join us. I could tell you had talent. You'll be a great addition to out team. Miss Melanie and her cheer friends are going to be sorry they passed you over."
"I doubt it," Meghan scoffed. "They aren't sorry."
"I couldn't help noticing the looks they were giving us. You're lucky looks can't kill. They guys on the other hand . . .I wonder if you didn't chose this spot to practice on purpose." When Meghan just grinned, Jasmyn laughed. "You really got to them. Melanie and Sara couldn't get the Julian and Elden away from here fast enough."
Meghan laughed with her. She would show them what "just a freshman" could do. This was just the beginning.
After Jasmyn left and Meghan had the house to herself, she went inside, turned on some music, and practiced dancing, both the routines Jasmyn had shown her and those from her dance classes, until it was almost dark. Then she popped some popcorn, changed into her pajamas, and turned on a movie.
It was nice to have the house to herself for once with no overprotective father fussing over her, no Shayna to criticize her choices, and nobody to try to impress.
If her dad and Shayna were home, there was no way either of them would approve of her watching the Spooky Channel, even though she'd have no problem convincing her mom to let her watch whatever she wanted. Tonight the channel was playing "Cat Lady." It was just getting to the most suspenseful scene, where the lady noticed the hundreds of cats following her and she was running for the phone booth, when . . .
"What in the world are you watching?"
Meghan jumped back and screamed. When she saw Julian in the doorway, she breathed a sigh of relief and waited for heart to stop racing.
"It sounds like a cat fight in here," he said as he turned to the TV to watch. He smirked. "Did I startle you?"
"Oh my god, Julian! I didn't hear you come in," Meghan scolded.
"I'm not surprised over all that racket," he said walked past her to the other side of the sofa. "I slipped in as quiet as a cat."
She stretched her foot out to kick him as he walked past. "Not funny!" she insisted. "Sit down and watch with me."
"Only if you let me turn off the lights," Julian said. "It's not right watching scary black and white movies with all the lights on . . . unless you have them on because you're too scared."
Meghan accepted the challenge. "Do it."
Once the lights were down and they were settled on the couch, Meghan found herself looking at Julian more often than the movie. Finally she asked, "What are you doing home so early? I thought you'd be out with your friends later than this."
"I was going to, but . . .I got a little bored with them and decided I'd rather come home."
"Really?" Meghan asked, her interest piqued. "That's surprising."
He could tell she was eager for the details, but not feeling inclined to share them, he just shrugged. He didn't want to tell her that the reason he left early was because of her, that because she was all they wanted to talk about. For Melanie and Sara, it was how juvenile and pathetic she was. For Elden, it was how hot she was and wanting to know whether or not she was single. Both Melanie and Elden were pressing him for his opinion. What did he think of her? Again, he just shrugged off their questions and unsuccessfully tried to change the subject.
He couldn't honestly disagree with Elden and he also didn't want to offer anything negative that might support Melanie and Sara's dislike of Meghan. Yes, she was attractive, for sure, but she was also clearly the spoiled princess type, used to turning heads and getting her own way. She was too high maintenance, too fake, as far as he was concerned, but telling Melanie he thought that wouldn't help anyone.
As he was lost in thought, Julian felt something hit him in the face. He wiped his cheek and turned to Meghan who laughed. The next pieces of popcorn between her fingertips went into her mouth instead.
"You looked too serious," she explained. "You can't tell me you find this movie that worth so much intent thought.
"No, I was just thinking," he said as he tried to focus on the movie again.
"I think you think too much," she muttered softly.
When he turned towards her again, she was sitting much closer to him than he had expected, staring at him intently with those lovely gray eyes of hers. Despite everything else, there was a sweetness to her and she really was pretty.
Before he could think beyond that thought, Julian jumped back, startled out of this thoughts by the sound of the front door.
"Hello!" Andrew called out. "We're home!"