Can a "Single Mom" with one noisy baby and a barking dog ever connect with her son's "Perfect Babysitter?"
The clock read a quarter to four. Katherine shook her head in dismay as she lifted Tony from the playpen. As usual, the baby was wide awake and squirming happily, threatening to wake her own son. Tony rarely took an afternoon nap. It was almost as if he was waiting for his own mother to arrive. Katherine smiled as she gazed upon her own sleeping infant. Thank goodness Sean slept according to schedule.
A quick diaper change soon put Tony in even better spirits. Katherine held him in her arms as she gathered up all the paraphernalia that belonged in the child's baby tote. She knew from experience that putting Tony down again would only lead to a bout of piercing screaming. As his mother Lisa said, "He's a sociable brat."
Katherine had winced at the word "brat"; winced, in fact, at other practices of Tony's mother. Ever since Lisa Mannering had engaged her services for the four hours a day that she worked part‑time, Katherine had grown more and more annoyed. It was nothing Katherine could really put a finger on, but her feelings toward Lisa ranged from pure pique to downright dislike. Too bad, really, when Katherine was so fond of Lisa's son.
It was four o'clock now, and the bus air brakes screamed a protest at the corner. There was Lisa. Katherine easily picked her out from the living room window. The tall young woman was the dirtiest person in the debarking group of commuters. What kind of a job was a tree groundskeeper for a woman anyway? Equality aside, Katherine personally thought chain saws and women weren't the best of combinations.
It's Katherine, she mentally corrected, showing Lisa inside.
"Hey, pumpkin, come to mother!" Lisa held out her arms to Katherine for her child. Tony laughed and screamed as the transfer was made.
Katherine felt a slight twinge of jealousy. Sean never did that for her, nor had Trisha, her two‑year old. A sedate smile or contented gurgle was about it.
"Your laundry bills must be atrocious," Lisa commented as the mother's dirt was transferred to the child. "Do you think all that dirt's healthy for him?"
Lisa grinned, and dotted Tony's nose with mud from her forefinger. Tony chuckled. "Of course not. But it certainly won't hurt him. Besides, little boys were meant to get dirty. Little girls too. I always did." Lisa suddenly frowned, and slipped her little finger inside Tony's diaper. "I thought so. You're soaking wet, you little monster!"
"Are you sure? I just changed him. I really did."
Why was it this confident young woman made her stammer like a schoolgirl? She had two children of her own, plus she was stepmother to Jim's two children, David and Valerie. His first wife had died ten years ago, and Katherine had lovingly tended his children as if they had been her own. At this stage in her life, she was hardly an inexperienced mother, but watching this twenty‑year old with her first child swiftly change Tony's diaper made Katherine feel almost inadequate.
Katherine remembered the first time she changed David. All thumbs she was, and even now after four children continued to be careful and methodical with Sean. Goodness, you had to be careful with children! You couldn't handle them like a sack of potatoes!
The "sack of potatoes" looked none the worse for the wear, however, and gurgled as Lisa tucked him under one arm, leaving the other free for the baby tote.
"Oh, Kathy, my paycheck hadn't come in yet when I left. Dan will pick it up on his way home from classes. Can I can pay you tomorrow afternoon?"
Katherine bit back a sigh. She'd promised Valerie they'd go clothes shopping tomorrow morning. There was a sale at one of the local stores that specialized in junior sizes, and they hoped to get there early.
Lisa sensed the older woman's exasperation. "Look, I'm sorry about this. Why don't you stop by after dinner, say about eight? I'll have the money by then."
"No, I couldn't possibly intrude on your Friday evening," Katherine said guiltily, knowing her attitude had prompted the suggestion. It wasn't Lisa's fault the paychecks hadn't arrived on time. "I'm sure you and your husband have plans."
"Nope, none. I'll just fix Dan's dinner, then he's off to the hospital again. He's on call tonight. Interns don't get many free evenings. It'll be just me and the brat, so no problem. Oops, there's my bus." Lisa turned away from the window and jumped up lightly, little clods of dirt falling from her jeans onto the floor. "I've got to run. Bye, Kathy!"
Later at dinner, Katherine announced she'd be leaving right after to pick up her baby-sitting fee.
Jim lifted his eyebrows. "That's a surprise."
"You going to Lisa's. I know you can't stand her. Pass me the salt, would you?"
"What an awful thing to say!" Katherine passed the salt, setting it down in front of him with a loud thump. Trisha jumped, and David and Valerie glanced at each other as if to say, "Uh oh, watch out."
"You know that isn't true!"
"Well, it isn't. I just don't approve of the way she treats her child like he was indestructible, gets dirt all over him, throws him up in the air, slings him sideways under her arm, I mean, really..."
"It never hurt our kids when she watched them for us."
"That doesn't mean I don't like her."
Jim carefully used the salt before replying. "You don't like Lisa. You haven't since you found out Trisha and Sean like playing with her more than--" He stopped.
Tears filled Katherine's eyes. Jim put down his fork. "I'm sorry, honey. But you're too protective of the children, even of David, and he's almost thirteen years old. A little rough housing or a big bear hug won't hurt them, but you treat the kids like cut glass. Worse, you have a fit when I won't."
"I'm a good mother. I love our children!"
Jim sighed. "I know that, Katherine. But by‑the‑book clinical care isn't necessarily a good thing. My God, the way you regulate Sean's sleeping and eating, you'd think he was in prison. You could learn a few things from--"
Katherine stood up abruptly, her chair tipping back so much that it overbalanced and crashed to the floor. Trisha started crying in her highchair.
"Well, thanks for letting me know what a terrible mother I am! You should have told me four children ago!"
Katherine ran from the table and into their bedroom, slamming the door.
Jim picked up his fork again. "Stop crying, Trisha. Everybody else, just...just eat your dinner."
Two hours later Katherine stopped in front of the run‑down apartment building where the Mannerings made their home. She was nervous during the trip from the car to the hallway. The neighborhood wasn't what she would call the best in the world, but the hallway was swept, and only smelled of age, nothing else.
Lisa's door opened before Katherine had a chance to knock.
"Hi. Saw your car drive up. Please come in and have a seat." The door led directly in the living area. Lisa gestured toward a sagging old couch neatly covered with a patchwork quilt. "Don't mind Scarlet," she added as a barking Irish setter bounded out from the kitchen. She's a pussycat. Would you like some coffee?"
"I can only stay a minute," was Katherine's unheard answer, for Lisa was already leaving the room for the kitchen, the red dog following, barking all the while.
Katherine studied the room, then walked over to Tony's crib. The only new piece of furniture she saw, it was next to the warmth of the radiator. In it, Tony slept peacefully. Katherine marveled at his contented expression. Between Lisa's radio, not blaring but certainly louder than she ever played hers, the dog's barking, and the clanking dishes in the kitchen, it was a wonder the boy could sleep.
If only Jim could see this! Then he'd take back those painful words from dinner. Still, the crib was new, the room was scrupulously clean in its shabbiness, and the boy was warmly covered with fresh blankets. Katherine looked around for the little dirt clods Lisa so often left on her carpet, but the bare wood floor had none.
Lisa returned in time to notice Katherine's scrutinizing. "It isn't the Ritz, is it?"
Katherine blushed. The girl probably thought she had been looking for mice or something.
"But when Dan gets out of medical school, suburbs, here we come. I'll have my own yard, and a swing set and sandbox for Tony. I can't wait to plant my own garden, too. Fresh veggies are good for growing brats. Cream or sugar?"
Katherine shook her head "no," as she took the offered cup and saucer, again feeling the familiar uneasiness that Lisa so often evoked in her. She finished her coffee quickly, politely refused another cup, collected her money, and beat a hasty retreat to the car.
The following Monday came far too slowly, as far as Katherine was concerned. She and Jim had maintained an uneasy truce all weekend, while the gusty advent of a storm provided her with cranky, cooped‑up children. Even the baby, Sean, seemed uncharacteristically fussy.
It was a relief to finally send Jim off to work and Valerie and David to school. With Trisha contentedly playing blocks, and Sean asleep, Katherine could enjoy the peace until Lisa arrived at eleven to drop off Tony. She had to be at work for eleven-thirty; the rain was still coming down. Katherine even managed to feel sorry for Lisa on this miserable day for anyone working outdoors.
Despite the weather, Lisa was right on time. "I'm dripping wet, Kathy," she explained, staying out on the porch instead of coming in. "Tony's really been annoying today, but if he gets on your nerves, just let him cry a bit. It won't hurt him."
Something inside of Katherine snapped. "It's Katherine, not Kathy! And what kind of a mother are you to let you son cry? Good Lord!"
The rain dripped down Lisa's face, running in the creases of her shocked expression. She silently she handed Katherine a bundled‑up Tony and the baby bag, then turned toward the bus stop.
Katherine bit her lip, almost as shocked as Lisa by her outburst. She watched the girl hop on the bus, her hair wet and straggling, then Katherine slowly closed the front door to tend to Tony.
Katherine rehearsed a dozen apologies all afternoon, but none sounded right. Still, she had to say something. She'd been incredibly rude. What if Lisa decided to find a new baby-sitter? She'd miss the extra cash. More importantly, she'd miss caring for Tony. It was amazing how fond she--and Trisha--had grown of him. Lisa's child‑rearing methods differed from hers, but Tony was still a well‑nurtured, loving child.
A knock on the door startled her. Was it four o'clock already? It must be Lisa, and Katherine hadn't even changed Tony yet, for he'd actually slept some today. Another black mark against Katherine. There was nothing to do but open the door.
"I'm really a mess, Katherine." Lisa used the correct form of Katherine's name. "If you'll just hand me Tony, I'll be on my way."
Katherine couldn't ignore the girl's unwillingness to come in. "Nonsense. The bus doesn't come for another 15 minutes. I'm sure you could use something hot inside of you. Plus Tony's not ready yet. He just woke up. Please come in."
Lisa slowly obliged. She stood inside the door, muddy and sodden. Katherine hurried to bring her a folding metal chair and a cup of coffee.
Lisa sipped her drink as Katherine repacked Tony's baby bag. The silence was unbearable. "So how was your day?" Katherine asked in desperation.
Tears started running down Lisa's face and mixed with the droplets of rain. "Awful. Simply awful. A little boy was hurt today. He was playing on one of trees where I work. I asked him to get down, but... He fell and broke his leg. I stayed with him while the mother called an ambulance and her husband."
"How awful!" Both women trembled, their gazes immediately traveling to their own children for reassurance.
Lisa wiped her eyes. "When the husband arrived, he screamed at his wife for letting the boy climb the tree in the rain. Like that really helped. All he could say was, 'How could you let this happen? What kind of a lousy mother are you?'" The words echoed through the room.
Katherine's throat tightened. "Lisa, about this morning... I never meant to criticize your parenting."
"No, it's all right," Lisa interrupted. "I have a lot to learn." Silence. Then, "You know, I was always jealous of you."
"Me?" Katherine nearly dropped a handful of diapers. "Why?"
"You're so experienced. Four children. And you said you came from a large family and baby-sat a lot. You're so lucky. You don't know how hard I..." Lisa's free hand flipped palm up as she searched for words. "I have to fumble around and read all kinds of childcare books and, and-- Well, me and Tony, we just play it by ear."
Lisa sniffed. Lisa, who was always so poised, so self‑assured! Or so Katherine thought.
"I'm sorry," Katherine said.
"No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to go to pieces on you." Lisa smiled, but her voice was still shaky. "I'm an only child, and my mother died when I was young. So I'm kind of at loose ends when it comes to mothering. But I always figured extra love makes up for any mistakes. That has to be true, doesn't it?" she asked desperately.
Love cancels out mistakes? Even mine? Katherine felt a huge load fall from her heart. She studied Tony in the playpen, happily cooing and squirming next to Sean, motionless and sleeping, then realized Lisa was waiting for an answer.
"Of course it does. I agree one hundred percent," she said, Lisa's radiant smile was her reward.
Katherine set down the baby-bag, and picked up Tony. "He's a fine boy, and you've done a fine job with him. I don't know what you're worried about." She passed Tony to his mother, then lifted her own son high in the air. "Wake up, sleepyhead, you've slept long enough."
Tony yelled his usual lusty yells at feeling his mother's arms, and Katherine grinned. She'd see that Sean started giving a few yells himself.
"Here's your tote, Lisa, and here's Tony's snugsuit. Here, let me help you get him dressed." Katherine tucked Sean under one arm, a la Lisa style, ready to help. Sean, unused to such rude treatment, at least according to his standards, let out a wail.
"That's okay," Lisa said quickly. "I can get it. Sean's crying."
Katherine quickly kissed Sean, then tucked him back under her arm. "He's a big boy. A little crying won't hurt him, right?"
"Well, if you say so, Katherine. Wait, let me check Tony's diaper first. He's such a little fire hose...hey, he's dry for a change! Now that's a surprise."
"Wonders never cease," Katherine spoke lightly. "And please, call me Kathy."
(no pet, but baby on board!)
"I'm not going to our high school reunion, and that's final!" Sarah Collins crumpled up the invitation for emphasis. "High school reunions are for hopeless romantics and late night TV. At best they're a bore. At worst they're a disaster."
"But Sarah, it wouldn't be any fun without you!" protested her sister, the former Miss Noelle Collins, now happily married and very pregnant. "In high school we did everything together!"
Sarah sighed. She truly loved her year-older sister, but she was not giving in on this. "You know I only came back here because your baby's due in a couple of weeks. I've told you a million times I wasn't going to our ten-year reunion."
Noelle plucked nervously at the oversize maternity top she wore. "I know you weren't very happy in high school, but..."
"What overweight girl with crooked teeth and a bad complexion would be?" Sarah interrupted. She doubted if her year-older sister would ever understand the humiliation she went through. But then, Noelle was always drop-dead gorgeous who carried the proud title of "popular". Sarah was just the wallflower sister who Noelle lovingly, generously, included in everything.
"But you look so great now! Don't you want to show everyone how well you turned out?" Noelle asked.
"No. I'm sure the student body isn't interested in my orthodontia work, or in the endocrinologist who discovered my thyroid problem," Sarah said dryly. "I have no intention of parading myself around a bunch of people who were cruel to me at a time when I needed understanding."
Noelle bit her lip and tried again. "I'm sure they've all grown past that now. If you come to the reunion, I promise I wouldn't try and fix you up with anyone."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Right. You promise me that every time I come home for Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or summer holidays. Yet each time you dangle some eligible man at me. Sis, the reason I moved away from here was so I wouldn't marry some local boy and get stuck in this one horse town!"
"At least if you had stayed, you'd be teaching in a safe place! I read the newspapers," Noelle flung out. "I know what those big city schools are like. Some day you're going to get hurt!"
Sarah sighed. This was an old argument, and unfortunately, a valid one. Sarah's teaching job in an urban high school could get a bit hair-raising. But she refused to rehash old ground.
"My living in the city isn't the point, Noelle. I'm not here to party. I'm here to help you out when the baby comes. Heaven knows how long Joe will be able to stay home."
Probably not long, Sarah thought to herself. Truck drivers had to drive to make money, and unfortunately Joe's trips were usually long hauls.
"You go tonight with him," Sarah said in her most soothing voice. "The two of you will have a good time. You don't need me. I'll stay home and do your ironing."
Noelle burst into tears. "Joe called earlier. His rig broke down at the state line. He won't be home until tomorrow."
Sarah silently cursed Joe, his rig, and his contractors. She knew exactly what was coming next.
"I can't go alone!" Noelle wailed. "Not like this! My belly won't even fit behind the steering wheel!" Her blotchy, puffy cheeks turned even blotchier. "Please, Sarah, won't you drive me?"
Sarah knew when she was beaten. She reached for the tissue box and gently wiped her twin's face. "If it's that important to you, of course I'll go."
Noelle sniffed. "Really?"
"Yes, but on one condition."
"I'll go with you, but not as your sister. I want to go in disguise."
Noelle's eyes opened wide. "You can't be serious!"
"I most certainly am," Sarah continued. "Since Mom and Dad moved to Florida, you're the only one around this town who knows my face."
"If you weren't so darn unsociable, others would, too," Noelle grumbled.
"But they don't. So tonight I'll be your sister's good friend from--say--New York City."
"Sarah, are you crazy?"
"Not Sarah. You can call me Serena."
"Let's make it Serena Davenport. Yes, I like the sound of that. It's very cosmopolitan. And I think I'll be--" Sarah drummed her fingers on the coffee table and considered. "A New York diamond seller. That sounds impressive."
"But Sarah Collins, high school teacher, would impress them even more!"
Sarah would have hugged her sister for her staunch loyalty if eight and a half months of baby wasn't in the way. She settled for tenderly patting Noelle's shoulder.
"Thanks, Sis. But I'm just not up to listening to ugly-duckling-turned-swan comments all night. That would be too humiliating. I'll play Sarah's best friend, you visit with your friends, and we'll both get through the evening with a minimum of hassle."
A little smile played around Sarah's lips. "Who knows? Maybe I'll even enjoy myself."
The evening was soon upon them. Sarah put the finishing touches to Noelle's hair, then stood her in front of the mirror.
"You look fantastic," Sarah assured her.
"Right. Like a beached whale in sequins." Noelle pulled a face at the mirror, then turned away. "You're the one who looks gorgeous, Sarah."
"That's Serena," Sarah absently corrected. "For an old maid school marm, I fix up okay," she conceded. The mirror showed a vision in aquamarine, her eyes alive and sparkling, curled hair cascading over her back like a waterfall.
"You're gorgeous," Noelle repeated. "You'll knock 'em dead at the reunion. Tonight you'll be the belle of the ball, and I'll be the wallflower."
"You could never be a wallflower," Sarah said, giving her sister a quick hug. "Come on or we'll be late."
"I'm coming," Noelle's eyes twinkled, "Serena."
"Look at this crowd," Sarah said as they drove into a full parking lot. "There's no way I can find a parking space close to the door. Why don't I drop you off in front?"
"I'll wait for you there. But hurry. I can feel my ankles swelling in these shoes already."
"Will do." Sarah dropped off her sister, found a spot way in the back to park, and began the walk up to the school gymnasium.
"Quite a crowd, isn't it?"
Sarah turned at the masculine voice to her right. There was something distinctively familiar about that voice, and she strained to see the owner in the dark.
"So it appears," she replied, curiously waiting for the man to catch up.
"Maybe we should keep each other company on the long hike in?" he suggested as he got closer. He held out his hand, and smiled. "I'm Dominic Vincenza. My friends call me Nick."
Sarah stiffened with recognition. Nick was here? She remembered her high school crush on him. If the black hair and warm brown eyes weren't enough to melt any female's heart, there was the added attraction of his being student body president, captain of the science club and basketball team, and the boy voted, "Most likely to succeed."
"Hello, Nick. I'm--Serena Davenport."
Nick frowned. "I'm sorry, but I don't recall the name."
"Oh, I'm here as a guest." Sarah allowed Nick to tuck her arm within his and escort her though the traffic in the parking lot. He always was the charmer, even as a teenager, and he'd certainly come into his prime now. "I'm with the former Noelle Collins. Her husband couldn't be here tonight, so I'm taking his place."
"Is Sarah here?" Nick asked eagerly.
"Sarah?" What an odd question. "No, she's out of town."
Was it her imagination, or did Nick's face fall? Sarah gave him a strange look.
"Too bad," was all Nick would say under her scrutiny. "So, you're a friend of the family?"
"Yes. Sarah and I meet in New York at this fabulous designer's party. I'm a diamond merchant, you know," she said with flair.
Nick was unimpressed. "How's Sarah doing? I heard she was working in some run-down school or something."
Sarah felt a sudden flash of anger. Not only had Noelle been spreading her gloom-and-doom stories, but she was again being ignored. She might as well have her crooked teeth and oversize dresses back again.
"Sarah's doing just fine," she said curtly. "Oh, there's my--" She almost said 'sister'. "Friend. I'd better get her inside and find her a chair. Perhaps I'll see you later."
Her dismissal was polite, but obvious. With a nod of his head, they went inside and split in different directions.
"Was that Nick?" Noelle asked as Sarah caught up with her twin.
"In the flesh. And he wasn't impressed by Serena at all," Sarah couldn't help but say. She smiled, trying to make a joke out of it. "Can you believe it? No matter who I am, the wallflower still remains. It's high school all over again."
"I told you to be yourself," Noelle said firmly. "Come on. Let's find the refreshments. I'm starving--must be the baby."
"You're always starving," Sarah laughed, feeling much better. "And don't give me that line about eating for two. Come on, I'll try to clear you a path through this mob."
The gym was packed with people. Suits and cocktail dresses had replaced tuxedos and prom dresses, but other than that, everything looked the same to Sarah. The old scoreboard was still cracked, the decorations seemed garish and strange, and the smell of the locker rooms still wafted out among the perfumed and after-shaved crowd.
Sarah and Noelle found a spot among the bleachers with their punch and pretzels. Noelle was immediately surrounded by her old gang who politely greeted "Serena", then turned back to Noelle to discuss the past, the present, and the future of the baby-to-be.
Some things never change, Sarah sighed to herself as she was excluded from the conversation. It appeared Serena wasn't any more interesting than Sarah was. After making certain that Noelle was okay and had a refill of the non-alcoholic punch, she decided to walk around.
"I'm going to mingle a bit. I'll be back in fifteen minutes to check on you, okay?"
Noelle nodded happily. "Bring more food on your way back, please."
"Will do." I might as well be useful.
Sarah wandered past the dancing couples and tried to pick out the ones she remembered. There were the usual pairs who'd remained together from her high school days, and of course many more new matches. Sarah sighted the buxom blonde who never forgave Sarah's sister for stealing away the head cheerleader spot. She hadn't had the nerve to get even with Noelle herself, but she revenged herself by making Sarah's life miserable in gym class.
Sarah smiled to herself. It all seemed so petty now, and so very long ago.
"What a lovely smile. What were you thinking about, Serena?"
Sarah pivoted around to find Nick watching her with an amused expression on his face. How had he found her among all these people?
"I was thinking about Sarah, and what she'd say if she were here," she answered honestly.
"Come dance with me, and tell me all about it."
Before she could refuse, his arms were around her, and they were swirling in time to the old tunes. "About Sarah--are you two really good friends?"
Serena smiled, her eyes twinkling. "I like to think so."
"Wish she could have been here tonight," Nick said. "Not that you aren't the loveliest dancing partner a man could want," he quickly added.
"But?" Serena urged, curious as to where this conversation was heading.
Nick shrugged. "I made a special trip back here. I was hoping to see all my old friends."
"I know for a fact that you and Sarah were never close," Sarah said decisively.
Nick actually stopped dancing, his large hands still on her waist. "She told you that?"
"I-- She said she didn't have many friends in high school. Certainly never any boyfriends."
"Did she tell you I asked her out? More than once?"
"It's true. I wanted to be her steady guy, but she'd never go out with me."
Sarah stared at him, her mouth parted in amazement. "You can't be serious."
"I was damn serious."
"But Sarah said you were big man on campus! Maybe she never thought you were serious. She was only the head cheerleader's ugly duckling younger sister."
Nick's eyes flashed dangerously. "Sarah was never ugly."
Something in her shocked face must have registered with him, because after a moment he pulled her back into his arms and started dancing once more. When he spoke again it was in his usual, charming voice.
"So what would Sarah would say if she was here tonight? You never did tell me."
Sarah swallowed hard. She should go back to Noelle. At the very least, she should insultingly protest Nick's obsession with "one" woman while dancing with "another". Sarah did neither. Instead, she found herself answering his question.
"If Sarah were here, she'd probably be remembering all the indignities she suffered," she said slowly, missing Nick's flash of anger as she looked over the dance floor. "And then she'd remember how long ago those were. She'd remind herself that all those slings and arrows made her the understanding high-school teacher she is today. Her past helps her identify with the troubled young students in her own classroom."
Nick seemed to hang on every word. "Sarah's a high-school teacher, then? I thought maybe elementary."
"Not for a long time." This time the smile she gave him was Sarah's, not Serena's phony act. "Sarah may not have been a popular teenager, but she's a popular teacher. Better yet, she's an effective teacher, and that counts for a lot in her book."
Sarah saw Nick nod with satisfaction--and pleasure. And then, "Is she happy?" he asked in a hoarse voice. "Has she found someone to make her laugh?"
"I--" No. No, I haven't. This time, Sarah flashed Nick a brittle, Serena smile. "She's not married, if that's what you mean. As for the rest, why don't you ask her sister?" Sarah checked her watch, noticing that the fifteen minutes were almost up. "Speaking of Noelle, I really should be getting back to her."
"Noelle will be fine. Look at all those friends with her. I think another dance is in order, don't you?"
The gym lights dimmed, and the music switched to a slower, more seductive number. Sarah searched for Noelle with a quick assessing look from across the gym. Noelle seemed happily settled in, so she let Nick lead her into the next dance.
"Where does Sarah live?" was his next question.
"In New York. I thought you knew that," Sarah replied.
"I know the state. I don't know the address. Perhaps you'd give it to me? Or her phone number?"
Sarah blinked. "You want Sarah's phone number?"
"Yes. I've tried to get it from her sister, but no luck. Noelle's been most uncooperative--seems Sarah doesn't want any ties to her old home town. Maybe you'd help me out?"
Sarah didn't know how to respond to the longing in his voice. "I--I think I'd have to ask Sarah's permission, first. She--uh--"
"She's never mentioned me to you? Not even in passing?"
Sarah searched for a way to end this dance, and her lies. "I'm sure she remembers you quite well. Sarah and I don't talk about her school days much. She lives in the present. That's why she isn't here tonight."
Nick's expression was sharp. "I thought with her sister ready to deliver, she'd be in town for certain. They were always close."
Sarah was suddenly glad of the low lights. They hid her guilty, flushed face. She wished she'd never taken on the Serena persona--wished she'd never lied to this man--and now it was too late to do anything about it without making fools of them both.
"Next time I see her, I'll tell her you said hello," Sarah managed to reply.
Nick gave her a warm, approving glance. "You're a nice lady, Serena. And a tactful one. You haven't asked one probing question yet. No wonder Sarah likes you."
Sarah felt even guiltier as Nick held her just a little closer, and remained silent.
"I'll tell you what any other woman would have asked by now. I was crazy in love with Sarah Collins. And--" he took in a deep breath, "That's why I came here tonight. To see if I could exorcise old ghosts, and get on with my life. I'm almost thirty years old--too old to be mooning over a teenage dream girl."
A curious sense of disappointment swept over Sarah. Still she let Nick talk.
"Sarah influenced me in so many ways. She had such dignity about her. She never cried, never hurt people back. And she was never jealous of anyone, not even her own sister." Nick smiled. "Quite a woman."
Me? Are you talking about me?
"Did you know Sarah was a candy striper at the local hospital?"
"My mom worked there. She told me all the patients were crazy about Sarah. I wanted to volunteer, too. I would have had to quit the basketball team, but I didn't care. My father talked me out of it." Nick paused. "I've never forgiven myself for that. If I'd worked with Sarah at the hospital, she might have noticed me. I desperately wanted to get to know her better."
Notice him? Dominic Vincenza, the boy most likely to succeed, wanted ME to notice him? Why didn't he say something? For an awful moment Sarah thought she was going to cry, but she managed to pull herself together.
"But you didn't--get to know her."
"No." Nick sighed. "I still wanted to be like her. She was a special lady. So I did the next best thing. I went to medical school."
Sarah froze in his arms. "You became a doctor? Because of Sarah?"
Nick smiled. "Sure did. I specialize in pediatrics. I figured that way I could take care of my own kids when Sarah and I had them." The smile faded. "I never had the kids or Sarah, but I was hoping tonight--"
His voice broke off brusquely. Sarah couldn't take it any more. She reached for his shoulders and gently pushed herself out of his arms.
"I don't think you should be telling me all this," she said in a choked voice. "It's none of my business."
"Serena, wait, I'm didn't mean--" Nick tried to stop her, but Sarah hurried away from him. The crowd on the dance floor was heavy, though, and Nick reached for her right arm just as another woman grabbed her left.
"Serena, Noelle's sick!" the other woman cried. "She wants you!"
Sarah gasped, and immediately pushed her way through dancing couples, ignoring their protests, ignoring Nick behind her.
"Noelle, what is it?" Sarah cried as she shoved aside the concerned bystanders clustered around her sister.
"Sarah!" Noelle gasped. Her face was white and sweaty, and she was crying. "I'm having contractions! Joe's not here, and this wasn't supposed to happen for two weeks. Oh, God, Sarah, I'm scared."
Sarah immediately helped her sister to the hardwood floor, and rested her sister's head in her lap. "Shhh. It's all right. I'm right here. Has anyone called an ambulance?"
"I have," someone called out.
"Good." She took one of her sister's hands, and stroked her twin's hair. "See, sweetheart? An ambulance is on the way."
"But what about my baby?" Noelle wailed. "Sarah, I'm early!"
"A few weeks won't matter. Your baby will be fine." She looked up to see Nick watching them both, an unfathomable expression in his dark eyes. "And Noelle, you're in luck. Guess who's here? Nick Vincenza, and he's a doctor."
"Nicky? A doctor?"
"That's right, Sis. Tell her, Nick. Tell her the baby will be fine."
"A few weeks early is nothing to worry about," Nick said to Noelle, although his eyes kept flicking back to Sarah. "I'll stay with you until the ambulance gets here, okay?"
"I want Joe," Noelle sobbed as Nick knelt beside them. "Where's Joe? Sarah--" Noelle closed her eyes in embarrassment. "Sarah, my water just broke!"
"It's okay. It's perfectly normal."
"I don't want to have my baby here! Sarah, you won't leave me?"
"I'm right here. I'll stay with you all the way to the hospital." Sarah continued to stroke her sister's forehead. "Then I'll track down Joe for you."
Noelle called out Sarah's name over and over again until the ambulance arrived. Sarah didn't dare look at Nick, who stayed at their sides until she and Noelle were in the ambulance, leaving Nick behind. She had to concentrate on keeping a badly frightened Noelle calm.
Somehow she managed to do just that--all through the frantic ride in the ambulance to the hospital, where the E.R. doctor delivered Noelle's nephew just a few scant minutes after her arrival in the emergency room.
"It's unusual for labor to be so quick for a first baby," the E.R. doctor said. "But mother and child are doing fine."
They did even better after Sarah managed to get Joe on the phone to speak to his wife.
"Thank-you so much, Sis," a sleepy but radiant Noelle told her after the call. "And please thank Nick for me, too. I'm glad he was there until the ambulance showed up." Noelle smiled. "Maybe I'll name the baby after him, since it's a boy." She drifted off to sleep.
Sarah leaned over and kissed her sister on the cheek. Then she went out front. There was no cab at the taxi stand. Too bad. She'd have to catch a bus back to the high school to pick up her car. There was no way she was going back inside the gym.
Even the miracle of birth couldn't erase the look of betrayal she'd seen in Nick's face when he'd learned Serena's real name. The last thing she wanted to do was face him. She'd take the bus straight home. She could pick up the car and take some things to Noelle and baby tomorrow.
With a sigh, she headed for the bus stop. She didn't get two steps. At the curb, leaning against his car door, was Nick.
Sarah bit her lip. Time to face the music.
Nick spoke first. "How's your sister?" he asked, his voice quiet in the night.
"Mother and son are good. The baby is gorgeous. She might even name him after you."
"There's no need. You were more help to her than I was. What about her husband?"
"On his way home. Both parents send their thanks."
Nick nodded. "Glad I could help." And then, "Why, Sarah? Why the deception?"
Sarah threw out her hands, palms up. "Because I was tired of always being the ugly duckling. Because I didn't want to be reminded of those days by everyone's well-meaning comparisons between the 'old' me and the 'new' me. I'm the same person I always was, just in a different package. But no one would understand that. They'd only notice how much weight I lost, or who my dentist was, or how nicely my face had cleared up."
His eyes were accusing. "I wouldn't," he said.
"Others would." Sarah's voice wavered. "I couldn't go through all that... but Joe couldn't make the dance. Noelle really wanted to come. I couldn't let her come alone."
Nick uncrossed his arms from his chest, but he continued to lean against her car door. "Did you enjoy yourself tonight, Sarah? Did you have a good laugh at my expense?" His voice grated harshly in the still air, but behind that edge was the barest trace of pain. "Will you go back to all your fancy city friends and tell them what a fool you made of your old classmate?"
"No. No!" Sarah insisted. "Nick, I never knew how you felt about me! For heaven's sake, you were the only person in the whole high school who talked to me tonight! I never expected you to tell me--what you did."
"You should have known I'd show up."
She shook her head. "How could I? I haven't kept track of you. I haven't kept track of anyone."
He abruptly looked away into the darkness.
"I never go to these things. God, how I hate this place. Nothing good in my life has ever happened here. Even my nephew nearly makes his appearance among old bleachers and smelly lockers. Can you believe it? Whoever said time marches on was never at this school," Sarah said bitterly. "Nothing ever changes."
"You're wrong. It can change if you want it to change."
If only I could believe that... Then she was her normal practical self again.
"Nick, I didn't believe in fairy tales when I was seventeen, and that was years ago. I'm sorry I lied. I meant no harm. Truly, I didn't."
"Now what? The party ends?"
"It doesn't matter. Nothing about that school matters."
"It does to me."
"Because it was the only place I had you in my life."
Sarah pulled bus money out of her purse with shaking fingers. "Take my advice. Put the past behind you. I'm not the same person I was then."
"No, you're even better."
Sarah's eyes opened wide. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I'm not. Why did you come tonight?"
"My sister asked me."
"No other reason?"
She shook her head.
"You came to a place you hated so much you wouldn't even use your real name--all because your sister asked you?"
"Don't give me a halo for that."
"Sarah, you're the most loyal, unselfish woman I know. You always were. You're also the most blind. If the kids in your classroom can love you for yourself, don't you think others can, too? Like me?"
Sarah tried to draw a breath through her tight throat. She thought of all the times Nick had been kind to her--sitting next to her in the lunchroom, saying hello to her in the halls, helping her with Spanish homework in study period. Could she have been so very wrong? And for all these years?
"You fell in love with someone you knew a lifetime ago, Nick. Some young kid."
There was a long, long silence. Then she felt Nick's hand tentatively reach out and touch her shoulder. "The grown woman is even more impressive."
"Yes. I've been going to every single one of these damn reunions for the past ten years hoping to see you," he admitted.
"Ten years?" Sarah whispered.
"I've suffered through ten, miserable, boring reunions." His lips gently brushed her forehead. "The least you could do is look me in the eyes."
Sarah did. The love she saw took her breath away.
"Can't we start over, Sarah? I'll take it as slow as you want. Just give me a chance. Give us a chance. Is that such a terrible thing to ask?"
"No," she said suddenly. "It's not terrible at all. It's kind of sweet. Like you."
He must have liked what he saw in her smile, because he kissed her again, this time full on the lips. Sarah's breath caught in her throat.
"You and I need to talk. We have a lot of catching up to do."
Sarah let him hold her, feeling a little shy, yet at the same time happy and hopeful. Not at all like the old Sarah. "I'd like that."
He exhaled on a slow sigh. "You don't know how long I've been waiting for an invitation." The strain seemed to melt from his face. "Hop in and let me drive you home."
"You don't want to go back to the school?" she asked.
"Back? I've waited years to get you all to myself. Do you mind?"
"Oh, I don't know." Sarah smiled, the brilliant smile of a woman grown. The joy in her heart was a strange feeling, but she welcomed it. She reached for Nick's hand.
"Maybe reunions aren't such a bad idea after all..."