Natalie stood bewildered as she watched her stepmother hurry away from the carnival. She wasn't sure of what to make of what had just happened.
"That was weird," Meghan declared, breaking the silence that Cassie's sudden departure had left behind. "I wonder what she saw in your palm. It must have been something-"
"It wasn't anything," Chloe snapped, abruptly cutting Meghan off mid-sentence. "Cassie just wasn't feeling well. Her leaving suddenly has nothing to do with Natalie or the palm reading. I don't want any of you thinking anything like that, so just drop it."
"What's going on?" Blaine asked as he Reese and Simon approached the group. "Where's Cassie going?"
"Home. She suddenly wasn't feeling well," Lucy explained.
"I'd better go and check on her," Blaine said, his brows furrowed with concern. "Can someone keep an eye on the kids for me?"
"Of course," Chloe nodded.
While Chloe and Lucy wandered away from the group to find the Kitteridge children and Blaine hurried off after his wife, Reese approached Natalie. She had been watching her daughter during this exchange and couldn't help noticing that she seemed bothered. She stepped closer to her and asked in a low voice, "Is everything okay? What happened?"
Natalie nodded, "Nothing. It's fine."
"Don't worry about Mrs. Kitteridge, Natalie," Maura spoke up. "She's always been a little odd. The concert's going to start soon. Are you coming with us?"
Natalie shook her head. "I don't think I'm in the mood for it. I hope you have fun though."
"Oh, we will," Maura beamed. She grabbed Judith's arm and led her away as Meghan followed after. "Come on. Let's go find the guys."
"I think I'm going to walk around a little bit and then head home," Natalie said to her mother.
Reese nodded. "I think we're ready to go too. Why don't you find us when you're ready and we'll walk back together?"
"Sure," Natalie said as she wandered off to the booths alone.
Reese waited until her daughter was out of earshot before she turned to her fiance and said quietly. "This is exactly why I kept her away from here for so long. That woman is nothing but trouble."
Simon wrapped his arm around Reese and gave her a comforting squeeze. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. Cassie seems harmless to me, maybe a tad eccentric, but harmless. I haven't seen any indication that she would do anything to harm Natalie."
"You don't know her like I do and I don't trust her," Reese said with a frown. "I'm not saying she would hurt Natalie exactly, but she obviously upset her just now. I hate to say it, but I think that this is only the beginning."
"Woah, you're really good at this," Artie gushed, as Jolene made her third bullseye in a row. "Where'd you learn to play darts so well?"
"Oh, I got a lot of practice when I was in college," she replied lightly. "The dartboard in the rec center was cheap entertainment for a poor college student."
"I should have you give me some pointers."
Jolene shrugged. "Sure. I could do that."
Artie smiled brightly. "Great!"
As the round ended, they were interrupted by Lorna who came skipping over to Jolene, begging her to play a game with her at one of the other booths.
"Go ahead," Artie waved them off. "I see my friend, Jenn. Thanks for the game."
"Jenn!" Artie called out to his friend as he ran up to her. "Where have you been? I've been looking for you."
"Oh, around," she shrugged. "I saw you playing darts with your nanny. Who won?"
"She did, but she's not my nanny. Dad just hired her to help out because of the kids."
"Oh, the kids," Jenn laughed. "When did you get so grown up, Artie?"
"You know what I mean."
"You seem to like her pretty well."
"I do. She's really nice."
"And pretty and way younger than Mrs. McCarthy," Jenn added with a wicked grin. "I know why you wanted your dad to hire her."
A deep blush rose up in Artie's cheeks, very much against his will. "Shut up. She's like twice my age and she's probably got a boyfriend or a fiance or something."
"Well, if she doesn't, she'd probably go for your dad before she'd go for you. So you might as well forget it."
Artie scoffed. "Yeah, right. And there's nothing to forget anyway. I don't have crush on her."
"If I didn't know better I'd think you were jealous or something."
Jenn rolled her eyes. "Don't be dumb. If I ever act that dopey, you have to promise you'll slap some sense into me."
Artie laughed. "Alright, then it's a promise."
"Because I'm definitely going to do the same for you."
"Fine. Now, let's go play some games."
"The concert's going to be starting soon," Maura said as she bounced happily over to Jeremy who was talking with Julian by one of the booths. Meghan and Judith trailed behind her "Are you ready to head over there?"
"Sure," he said, mustering a smile.
"Great." Maura replied happily. She took her eyes off of Jeremy and started to scan the area. "Now where's my brother?"
Jeremy spotted Vince first, standing at the corner of the carnival talking to Natalie. He squinted at them as he watched their interaction. They were too far away for him to hear what they were saying, but their body language was clear. Vince was leaning towards Natalie, probably saying something to try to impress her, but she wasn't having it. She leaned back from him and shook her head before turning and walking away.
"Oh! There he is," Maura exclaimed as she saw him too. She shouted out to her brother and waved to him. "Come on, let's go."
"Are you coming too, Julian?" Meghan stopped to ask Julian as the others walked over to Vince.
"Yeah, I-" he started, but was interrupted by someone calling his name.
"Julian! I'm glad we found you," Melanie called out breathlessly as she, Sara, and Elden reached them. She paid no attention to Meghan who stood by, huffing and rolling her eyes in annoyance.
"What do you want?" Julian asked flatly.
"I guess I deserve that. I wanted to apologize, we all do. Not just to you, but to Meghan too," she added, sparing only a split second of acknowledgement to the freshman. "I know we've been acting really snobby and really rude and we wanted to promise you that it's going to stop. Okay?"
"You mean it? All of you?" Julian asked, his eyes settling on Elden.
Elden looked away under the pressure of Julian's hard stare. "Yeah. I'm sorry, man. I was joking around, but I took things too far. I didn't know I would offend you."
"Well, you did."
Meghan, who was left gaping at Melanie's apology, was baffled at the exchange now. She wondered what had exactly gone on between Julian and his friends.
"Yeah, I know that now. It won't happen again. Are we cool?"
Julian nodded, then turned back to Melanie who was staring at him expectantly. He motioned towards Meghan. "She's the one you should be apologizing to."
"Of course and we are," she assured him. "Can you forgive us and put the past behind us?"
Meghan hesitated a moment. Melanie had barely finished her question before she had turned her attention back to Julian. The request had somehow lacked the sincerity that she oozed when speaking with Julian. She didn't think Melanie cared what her response was either way, except for how it related to Julian. She frowned, wanting to snap back, "Why should I?" but instead she held her tongue. There was no way she was going to let Melanie be the bigger person. Instead she shrugged, playing at indifference. "I suppose so."
"Good." Melanie smiled brightly at Julian and he smiled back. "Now that that's all sorted out, are you going to come along to the concert with us?"
"Yeah, as long as Meghan can come too."
Melanie's smile faltered for only a fraction of a second, too brief for Julian to see, but it didn't go unnoticed by Meghan. "Sure. Of course."
The crowd at the carnival was starting to thin out as people were heading home for the evening or to the concert and the vendors were beginning to close up their stands and pack up for the night.
Lawrence knew it was time for him and his children to start home as well. Artie had decided to go to the concert with Jenn, accompanied by her Uncle Logan. But his youngest two children needed to go home and start settling down for the night.
He found Lorna playing a game at one of the booths with Jolene. Both girls were cheering and laughing together as Lorna won the game and was able choose the last prize of the day. He couldn’t help watching Jolene and Lorna together. The two seemed to have bonded well and he was glad they had a good rapport. He wished Lance had warmed to the nanny more, but he didn’t have high hopes for his younger son’s surly behavior to improve. He understood the pain he was going through all to well himself, but didn’t know how to help him.
From the moment they had arrived at the carnival, Jolene’s eyes had lit up at the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the festival and he could still see that childlike enthusiasm radiating in her expression even now. He hesitantly had to admit that it was contagious and he walked over to his daughter and her nanny smiling as well.
“Look, Daddy. I won,” Lorna said happily, lifting a fuzzy, pink bear up for him to see.
“That’s very nice,” he replied encouragingly. “Have you seen Lance? It’s time to go home.”
Lorna’s face dropped and Jolene seemed to look disappointed as well. He wasn’t sure which one of the girls was more disappointed that the carnival was ending.
“Yes. He’s over there,” she replied, motioning towards the other end of the park. “I’ll go get him.”
As Lorna hurried off, Lawrence turned back to Jolene. “It looked like you and Lorna were enjoying yourselves. Thank you for spending time with her.”
“It’s my pleasure,” she said sincerely. “I was really enjoying myself. Thanks so much for inviting me along.”
When Lawrence just nodded and seemed content to let the conversation drop, Jolene searched for something to say. “This was a really nice event and a good turnout. I was surprised. Your neighborhood does this carnival every year?”
“Yes, for several years now. My late-“ he always seemed to struggle for a moment to choke out the word. “wife, Eileen, organized it originally as a charity fundraiser. Our friends in the community have worked to continue the tradition in her honor over the last few years. She would have been proud of the turnout today,” he said, his voice growing wistful. He gazed around the scene surrounding him. “This was always her favorite time of year.”
Jolene’s heart went out to him. Seeing him so sad and so vulnerable made her want to comfort him, but she didn’t know how. She wished she could say something to bring back the happy light-hearted mood she felt a moment ago, but she was at a loss.
“She must have been a wonderful person. Everyone I’ve met seems to think so highly of her still.”
“Yes,” he said simply.
Jolene stubbornly twisted her mouth into a grimace. Just like that the wall had gone back up and there was no scaling it. He was impenetrable, but somehow she found herself intrigued by the challenge. She wasn’t sure why she suddenly found herself so desperate to reach out to him and break him out of his funk. When Lorna returned, her pink teddy bear in her arms, followed by Lance trailing behind, as sullen as his father, she thought she knew just the thing.
“I can tell that from your children as well,” she added with a smile. "They're great kids."
“Well, thank you,” Lawrence replied. The dark cloud that had passed over him seemed to lighten in his children’s presence and when the topic of conversation was steered away from that of his late wife. He turned to Lance and Lorna. “It's time to go home now. Say goodnight to Miss Jolene.”
Lorna threw her arms around Jolene in a warm bear hug and thanked her for the afternoon, while Lance begrudgingly muttered a dutiful farewell.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to help get the children to bed?” she asked. “I really don’t mind.”
“No, you’ve done enough. We’ve probably kept you too long already. I'm sure you have your own life to get back too. Have a good night, Miss Parker.”
“Good night, Mr. Arrendale.”
Jolene stood watching after the trio as they walked away. She bit her lip nervously and chided herself. What was she doing? What was she feeling? She wasn’t supposed to get involved this way and yet she was finding herself not wanting to back away. She sighed, shook her head at herself, and reminded herself to get it together.