“She’s coming. I cannot believe she is coming. Seriously.” Jaycee Lawrence plunked down next to Luke Baker for two seconds and then jumped back up and continued to pace in front of the back step of his parents’ home. He watched her—back and forth, back and forth—unsure of just what to say to defuse the time bomb in her voice and movements.
“Is it really so bad?” Luke finally asked, his longish, blondish hair threatening to slide down his forehead and into his eye as it always did. He scratch at the summer scruff on his jaw in concern and worry. He’d been trying for ten minutes to calm Jaycee down, but he of all people knew when she got riled, calm was a long shot on a short horse.
Just like that she spun on him, sending her high, light brown ponytail swinging behind her. She glared at him through the harsh black glasses she insisted on wearing so everyone knew she was not just a dumb girl. “You’re kidding me. Right?” She crossed her arms and the glare became a scowl. “Please tell me you’re kidding. How can you even sit there and ask that question? You know as well as I do that nothing good can come from her coming here. And for the whole summer too!” Jaycee’s hands went into the air simultaneously and then crashed down onto her hips. With a shake of her head, she pursed her lips and her eyes narrowed as if focusing their laser-heat onto a target. “I cannot believe they are doing this to me. This was supposed to be my summer. Mine. Not hers. Mine.”
“Well, how long is she staying?” Not that there was any way of talking Jaycee down at this point, but Luke was still searching for an angle just the same.
“Three months.” Storm waning, she sat down next to him in a huff and shook her head, the desolation trailing every movement. “I’m done. Seriously. I am so done. She is going to waltz in here like the Queen of Persia, and I’m going to totally be yesterday’s news.”
Luke’s smile only lifted half his lips, and he anchored his arm on the porch planks behind her. They weren’t together in a dating sense, but they had known each other since well before kindergarten, and with only one year separating them not to mention only a little more than half a mile between their houses, they had been fast friends for practically forever. Jaycee was more the tomboy, basketball-playing type where Luke much preferred more laid back pursuits that didn’t involve scoreboards or report cards. But somehow, their friendship fit them both.
Besides, Jaycee had her eye on Rory Harris, the top jock at Ridgemount High School, and that didn’t look to change any time soon. With no warning, she put her forehead over onto Luke’s shoulder and moaned. “Ugh. My life stinks on ice.”
Gamely, he put his hand on her opposite shoulder and patted it. “I think you’ll survive. I can almost guarantee it.”
But that only brought out another moan. It was going to be a long summer.
Sage Wentworth pulled out her compact to check her makeup once again. Yes, she was being banished to nowheresville North Carolina, but she didn’t have to show up looking like a doormat. Lips, perfectly perfect red; eyeliner remarkably holding up even after the second leg of the cross-country flight, and blush that had begun to fade just slightly. Ugh.
Taking out the applicator, she brushed a touch more on, checked her reflection in the tiny mirror and clicked it shut just as the stewardess came to offer ice water.
“Ma’am,” the stewardess said, handing her the water.
However, Sage expertly dogged the offer. “Do you not have some that’s room temp? I don’t do ice. And not this off-brand either.”
The stewardess swallowed whatever she was about to say and smiled. “Certainly.”
When she was gone, Sage wiggled herself straight up in the first class seat. At least not everything was completely, horrifically awful about her life at the moment. Okay, so her parents were starting their summer trip around the world—without her. And, true, she was being shipped off to live for three months with people she barely remembered. And, granted, she had wanted to stay in Beverly Hills for the summer, shopping with Mackenzie and Patelyn.
Sage sighed. Okay. Her life stunk, royally.
Why had they insisted on making her completely miserable? What had she done to deserve this exile to the netherworld? Carefully, she ticked through the options. Her grades were good. Not stellar maybe, but adequate. She didn’t overspend. Sure there was that binge two months ago, but no one could blame a girl for wanting to look good at the Prom. She wasn’t a druggie or an alkie. Though both were frequent options in the crowd she ran with.
No. There was no real rhyme or reason to this banishment.
They said it was because her dad wanted to see her before she headed into senior year and then off into her life, but the sad fact was, Sage wasn’t even really sure what that “life” might look like. College? Maybe. Okay. Probably. But where?
Berkley? UCLA? Or somewhere farther away?
Maybe she could study abroad for a semester. Sweden or France. Studying in Paris. How amazing would that be?
“Ma’am.” The stewardess was back with the requested water. So this brand wasn’t much better, Sage accepted it with the graciousness due her station in life.
“And may I have just a bit of lemon?” she asked in her sweetest, asking-for voice.
It was truly astonishing how quickly the stewardess could eat words that never came from her mouth but shot from her eyes. “Of course.”
It was to be expected. The help, helpful though they were, often seemed one request away from losing it completely. Her mother always said it was the plight they suffered under—trying to keep good help. Sadly, it was true. As she sipped on her water, Sage let her mind trace back through her childhood nannies. There were truly too many to count. Of course, most of them were less than adequate, but still…
There was Mika from Italy, and Olga from Germany, and Carmela from Spain or was it South America? Sage had never really been sure. But she had learned, her place was to tell the nannies what to do, and it was their place to do it. When they got that dynamic out-of-sync—and they always did, it was time for a new nanny.
Sage reached into the pocket with the reading material and thumbed through the fashion magazine that held little fascination for her. Those people didn’t know how to dress, and they wouldn’t know a tasteful accessory if it walked up and introduced itself.
Bawdy and classless. That’s what most of them were, and those were the ones who were trying. She flipped three more pages and gave up completely, pushing the magazine back into its holder. Putting her head back, she let her gaze go out to the soft, sunlit day beyond. They had told her that her father would be meeting her at the airport, and her mind traced back over the one photograph she had of him along with the dusky images she barely remembered.
In the picture he was young, mid-twenties, maybe, with dark curly hair. A nice nose. Nice eyes. Her mother had said once that she had her father’s eyes, which seemed a strange thing to say at the time. Then again, she was five and didn’t know you could have someone else’s eyes without actually having someone else’s eyes. She took another sip and let the sigh out in an inaudible breath.
Ladies of her station didn’t sigh, not for others to hear anyway. No. If nothing else in the whole world, she had learned how to carry herself in public, how to be graceful, charming, and cheerful—even if the whole world was falling apart around her. She wasn’t royal exactly, but her training had gone right up to that gate and knocked. Teas. Ballet. Violin in the orchestra.
Oh, yes. She had culture running out her ears, and she was proud of it.
So all she had to do was get through the next three months, and when she returned, her mother was planning the biggest coming out party for her 18th birthday that the Hills had ever seen. No one would ever, ever forget it, and to Sage, that was what life was all about—being completely unforgettable.
“I thought I told you to dust the living room,” Jaycee’s mom said in an all-out panic. The queen would arrive in less than two hours, and the place still did not resemble the palace her mother clearly wished it was.
“I did dust. Twice.” And with that Jaycee turned and stalked off. Halfway to her room, she stopped when her mother called something about the entertainment center.
Putting her head back, she fought the frustration clawing at her. “You have got to be kidding me. I don’t think a little dust is going to kill anyone.” But she knew her mother was frantic, and she knew why. Everyone was—her father, her mother, even her little brother, Ryder who had taken an outright shower that morning without being asked, something he never did. In fact, most of the time they were lucky if he wasn’t covered in dust, dirt and grime when they went to church.
It was what normal 10-year-old boys did. So long as the queen wasn’t coming. But today, the queen was coming, and so nothing was normal.
“Jaycee!” her mother called again, and Jaycee had to say a quick prayer to get God to give her patience. The only question was, could she conceivably pray her way through an entire summer?
“Sage?” The man was older, much older, than the picture. However, he had those same grey-green eyes and the nice smile that was at once boyish and a question.
“Dad?” It was such a strange place to stand in life—with fellow travelers bumping this way and that around them, staring at her past as the present swirled around her.
His smile filled out with even more questions and words he never said.
What was the protocol in such a situation? Should she shake his hand or Heaven help her, hug him? A moment more and he put his hand out even as his gaze continued to drink her in. Thankful it was turned for a handshake and not a hug, she took it and let her gaze drop beneath his.
“I’m so glad you could come,” he said, sounding choked.
“Thanks for having me.”
His hand dropped from hers, and she lifted her gaze and fought to put it on his and keep it there. But it was just all so awkward.
“Did you have a good flight?”
She nodded. “It was fine.”
“I’m glad.” Standing there in jeans, a pressed shirt and a light grayish jacket, he looked like all the dads on television. Nothing at all like her dad. Okay, her stepdad. Jason Wentworth the Fourth. The man she had called dad practically her whole life if you didn’t count the short visits during the first five years of it, which she hadn’t until this very minute.
His eyebrows went up questioningly. “I’m sure you have luggage?”
“Great. Why don’t we go get it and get you home and settled?”
Home and settled. They were such strange words.
Luke wondered as the day wore on if Jaycee’s stepsister had made it yet. Truthfully, he couldn’t imagine the whole step situation. The youngest of five, he had never known a time until just this past year of not having siblings who were in the bathroom when you had to go or who could keep their hands off of your stuff even when it was clearly marked My Stuff!
Down the aisle of the grocery store he went, ticking off items for the church outreach day. It was a twice-a-month thing for their youth group. The other two weeks were taken by the women’s society, and sometimes the youth helped out for those as well.
As cultures went, their little town didn’t really have any homeless people, but they did have their share of disadvantaged ones. Luke pulled several large cans of tomato sauce from the shelves and put them in the cart. If he had learned no other words in the time Pastor Steve had been there, the words “help others” were seared into his brain and on his spirit. That was, according to Pastor Steve, the point of everything in life and especially Christianity—helping others, reaching out to them, making them feel welcome and loved. It truly didn’t matter if they ever showed up for church beyond those meals. That was what the church was about, and if they failed in that mission, nothing else really mattered.
He looked at the list Ms. Patty had given him. Ms. Patty, or Ms. P, as most of the youth referred to her was a large, African-American woman with a personality to match her girth. She had never met a stranger because according to her, once you hug a person, they are no longer a stranger, and Ms. P hugged everybody—whether they needed one or not.
In fact, Luke had had his fair share of hugs from Ms. P because next to introducing herself with a hug, she also paid with them as well. As president of the youth group, he was often tasked with… well, tasks. Cleaning the church center’s kitchen, getting the groceries, working out the schedules, covering when others couldn’t make it.
“He’s my Superman,” Ms. P often said of Luke, and though it embarrassed him, he’d learned not to try to get out of the compliment because Ms. P really came after you good then.
Pulling five large bags of spaghetti off the shelf, he added them to the growing mound in his cart. Only bread remained on the list, and he pushed his way around the aisle cap to get it. As soon as he finished here, he needed to get over to the church. They wouldn’t be cooking until in the morning, but the food needed to be put away, and he would probably have to do some cleaning on the kitchen as well. The last thing he wanted was for Ms. P to show up and have to do it. She did enough.
Grabbing loaves of bread, he thought again of Jaycee. Normally she would be here, meeting up with him with another cart about now. But not today. Today, she was re-meeting her sister, and Luke had to admit he was glad he was here rather than there. “God, help them… both,” he breathed as he headed for the checkout.
From her seat in the aging family minivan, Sage did her best to check her adverse reaction to practically everything as they rolled through the little town and out into the country. Somehow she hadn’t really remembered this part. Not that the town would have been any better. She was quite sure the newest home there was at least a decade old and had not weathered its age very well.
“Jaycee and Ryder are really excited you’re coming,” her dad said, glancing over at her. “It’s all they’ve been talking about.”
Sage smiled, but it was forced. Had it not been for his efforts, no one would have even spoken on the ride. She just didn’t know what to say to the man. It wouldn’t be, couldn’t be what she was really thinking, and the truth was, pretending her thoughts were something they were not was not working at all.
“So, do you remember any of this?” he asked as if hoping she might.
The smile got swallowed in her fight to cushion the truth. “Not much. I kind of remember going to the church. It’s the little one, right? With the wooden floors?”
His smile was the brightest one she had seen so far. “You remember that, huh?”
“Yes.” Clutching her white handbag, she willed the panic in her to settle down. Why had she agreed to this? The second she got the chance to text her mother, she was going to find another option and take it because this was a bad idea. A very, very bad idea.
“They’re here.” Jaycee’s mom veritably swooned as she checked both children before heading for the front door of their house which no one ever used. It took more than one wrench of the doorknob to get it open after she fluffed and fretted about her own appearance.
Jaycee knotted her arms and shook her head. “Mom, come on. This is ridiculous.”
When her mother turned and caught sight of her, she scowled. “Jaycee Marie, stand up straight. We want to make a good impression.”
With a deep sigh and a roll of her eyes, Jaycee straightened. This was going to be a long three months.
The house was small, tiny in fact, and as Sage exited the vehicle, she took it all in, wondering how many rooms it could even have. Five? Six? And that was being generous.
“I can come back and get your bags,” her dad said, coming around the front of the van to walk with her. Wow. That felt so off-kilter, him standing there waiting for her, looking at her like she was an angel fallen from Heaven.
Fighting every horrible thought in her, Sage squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and put her head back. Somehow she managed to smile at him brightly.
“Ready?” he asked, and he offered her his arm.
The nod was kind of sideways, but she did get her head to go down. Her heels clicked on the concrete sidewalk as they passed the modest flowerbed that was filled with growing things and a few flowers all the way to the front door. There, he opened it for her, and called, “We’re home!”
He took a step back to let her enter first. Stepping up and into the home was a challenge mostly because it seemed so very dark and dim inside. The last thing she wanted to do was trip.
“Oh!” The woman with the long, dark wavy hair on the other side of the threshold clapped her hands and put them to her mouth. “Sage. Oh! You’ve grown so much. We’re so glad you could come.”
Without warning, she was pulled into a hug that lasted mere seconds but felt much longer than that.
“Oh. Yes. Thank you.” Exiting the hug, Sage tugged on her short white skirt and had to square her shoulders again to get her composure back in hand. “Hm.” Smiling was beginning to hurt.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Mrs. Lawrence, Gregory’s wife.” The woman was going in five directions at once, and Sage did her best to keep her own nerves in check as the woman shook her hand. “You can call me Mrs. Lawrence or Emily or… Stepmom if you would like.” She laughed a hollow, nervous kind of laugh.
“It’s nice to see you again, Mrs. Lawrence.” Okay, the truth was, she didn’t really remember seeing her the last time, but it was something to say that didn’t sound totally ridiculous.
“Oh good. Okay. And these are our children.” Mrs. Lawrence went over to the two figures on the other side of the room. “This is Jaycee. You probably remember her from last time, and this is Ryder.”
Nodding and trying to smile at both of them, Sage willed her polite training to overtake her judgment of everyone and everything. “It’s nice to meet you both.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ryder said, staring at her as if he had been star struck.
“Yeah,” Jaycee said, and Sage noted without any trouble the dismissive nature of the syllable from the young woman in jeans with the hard, black framed glasses. Then Jaycee looked over at her mom. “Can I go now? I’m supposed to meet Luke at church to do the groceries.”
Mrs. Lawrence glanced over at Sage with an apology in her eyes and then leveled her gaze at her daughter. “Don’t you think it would be better to stay and help Sage get settled? Maybe she could go with you afterward.”
The tilt of Jaycee’s head and eyebrows told Sage loud and clear that if that happened, it would not be a welcome change of plans.
“Oh, that’s fine, Mrs. Lawrence,” Sage said quickly, wanting to rescue the situation if that was even possible. “I’m sure Jaycee has better things to do than to wait on me. I’m sure I’ll be fine getting my things set up.”
Hope and vindication sprang into Jaycee’s eyes as she looked at her mom. “Please. Can I go now?”
A moment and Mrs. Lawrence sighed. “Fine. Go.”
“Awesome.” And that’s all it took for Jaycee to be out of the room.
“But be back by seven!” Mrs. Lawrence called.
“Will do.” And a door somewhere on the other side of the house banged closed.
Mrs. Lawrence looked down at Ryder who was still staring at Sage with a goofy look on his face. “Ryder, why don’t you show Sage to the guest room?” Then her gaze came back up to Sage. “It’s not much of a guest room. It’s honestly my sewing room, but we’ve moved some things around, and there’s a daybed in there.”
“I’m sure it will be lovely.”
Lovely it was not. Cramped, crumpled and befuddled came much closer. The cabinet didn’t even close for all the scraps of cloth sticking out of it, and Sage had no desire to open the closed closet doors to find out what else might be in there.
“Like I said,” Mrs. Lawrence continued, “it’s not much.” She worked on fixing and fluffing the daybed which didn’t help at all.
The bedspread was lime-green and white striped with small pink flowers on it. Sage didn’t even want to contemplate how old it might be. Her skin crawled just thinking about sleeping there.
“We freed up a little room in the closet.” Pushing the things in the closet back, Mrs. Lawrence stepped back to show Sage who wondered what she was going to do with the eight suitcases of stuff waiting in the van.
“It’s wonderful,” Sage said with a smile, wondering how she could even say the words.
“Ryder,” her father said from the doorway, “why don’t we go get Sage’s things?”
In a daze, Ryder followed his father out.
“Don’t mind him,” Mrs. Lawrence said when they were gone. “He’s just discovered that girls are on the planet.”
“He seems very sweet.” Sweet. It was how her voice sounded, and she was having great difficulty trying to force it not to crack right down the center.
“We’re so glad you’re here. Gregory was thrilled when your mom called about this.”
Sage was still a little fuzzy on the details of how her banishment had come to be, but she smiled and nodded as if she knew every fact by heart. “I’m glad it worked out.”
“Ryder!” her father’s hushed voice traveled with nearly no trouble down the hall and right to her.
“I’m just saying. How much stuff can one person need?”
Horror and surprise coursed across Mrs. Lawrence’s face as she rushed for the door. “I’ll just go help the guys.”
“No. I’m being serious. She looks like a Barbie doll. Perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect makeup. It’s like she’s made of plastic.” Jaycee was transferring the lettuce into the refrigerator from the bags on the counter, and Luke was becoming a bit concerned that it might be both bruised and shredded in the process. “I think her hair is made of real platinum. And you should have seen Ryder. His tongue was practically hanging out. Ugh.”
“Well, at least she’s not an ogre.” Not that he was trying to help, but Luke knew that wasn’t going to sit well.
“And you should have seen Dad. He looked like someone could snap a flashbulb in his face and he wouldn’t have even noticed. And Mom, oh my gosh, she was just… ‘this needs dusted… put this away… fluff these pillows… why didn’t you dust this?’ It’s a good thing I had to come here, or someone was going to be put out of their misery in that house.”
Finished with the lettuce, she turned and put her hands over the back pockets of her jeans. “What else?”
“We need to get the trash bags in the cans, and the plates and plastic ware out on the line.”
Luke watched her as he worked to get things in order in the kitchen for the next morning’s marathon cooking session. Efficient. Hardworking. Down-to-earth. All the things he’d always thought he would want in a girl. The smile that crossed his heart was sad and futile. No, Jaycee Lawrence would never see him like that, and he really didn’t blame her. What did he have to offer in the boyfriend department anyway?
He wasn’t the guy who stood out in the class pictures, and he was as apt to make a goofy move as to make a smooth one. Truth was, he admired her taste in not choosing him. She was smart enough to know he wasn’t worth the time or the effort. Pushing those thoughts back and away, he finished up at the sink and went to take care of the trash on his own. Even Jaycee shouldn’t have to be subjected to that job.
Ten seconds after they left her to the room, Sage yanked out her cell and typed like her life depended on it, which it almost certainly did. She had to get out of here. She could act with the best of them, but this place would require more than acting. Mom. I made it. I know we talked about me going to stay with Aunt Anna as well this summer. Can we talk about doing that sooner rather than later? PLEASE!
She hit send and sat very gently on the edge of the bed. It squeaked with the movement. Pulling up the next number in her phone, she sent a text to Patelyn and then one to McKenzie. Desperation texts, meant to explain the horrible plight she now found herself in. There was no mall here, no shopping centers that she had seen. There was one grocery store that they passed on the way through town, and it had cars with actual dents in them sitting there.
Her fingers told the sad, sad tale of just how far she had fallen in the world, and the more she typed, the worse it got. When she finished, she considered letting the tears start, but she didn’t dare. First off, they would surely ruin her makeup. Secondly, if anyone knew she was crying… Well, they couldn’t know. She would put on the Wentworth charm until she could escape this disaster, and then she would leave and all things Lawrence would be forever behind her, a sad chapter in her life that she would never have to think of again.
With that thought, she glanced across the room at her luggage stacked there. It was pointless to unpack. She wouldn’t be here long enough to make it worth the effort.