"I've got news for you, Katie Price." Mom stared at me with slits for eyes. "We're spending the summer in Chatfield, and that's final." She tossed the tomatoes she'd been slicing into the lettuce. "It's a wonderful opportunity to get away from it all. Your brother is thrilled with the idea."
"Jason," I replied, "is only eight years old. He's easily thrilled." I didn't mention that Alex Stedman had finally given me a ride home on the last day of school, after I'd been sending him telepathic messages for weeks, or that after making that much progress, I didn't want to lose any ground over the summer.
Dad walked into the kitchen and snitched a piece of tomato from the salad.
"Hi, Dad. Mom and I were just talking." I slipped my arm through Dad's, ignoring the sidelong glance from Mom. "I have so many projects that I should be working on this summer. Couldn't I just stay with Samantha? Or I could even stay right here and watch the house. That way I could feed Ralph." Ralph was our big, orange, affectionate but persnickety cat.
"Certainly not!" Dad sounded seriously horrified. "You're only fifteen!"
"Almost sixteen," I reminded him. Sixteen sounded so much older than fifteen. Dad wasn't the only one I wanted to impress with how, um, mature I was. I felt I needed every ounce of sophistication I could muster if I was going to get anywhere with Alex. After all, he had turned seventeen in May and would be a senior in the fall, not to mention editor of Scattered Leaves, our school newspaper. Even though I would be finally making it to upperclassdom as a junior, it was still embarrassing that I would not turn sixteen until October. Plus, my only claim to fame so far was being a third-string reporter on the school paper. I considered myself lucky when Alex assigned me to interview the new school nurse.
"Samantha has promised to feed Ralph, and you're still too young to be on your own. When I decided not to teach any summer courses at the university this year it was because I wanted to spend time with my family." Dad looked wounded.
"Yes, John," Mom agreed. "And I could use a change of scenery before I have to face a room full of second graders again."
"Jason is all excited about going," Dad said, as if this bit of news would impress me.
"Okay, okay!" I was tired of being bombarded with arguments, especially when I knew I couldn't win anyway. "I'm sure we'll have a great time," I added sarcastically.
That night, after packing my suitcase, I called Samantha to say good-bye for the summer and tell her about the ride home with Alex. I took my phone into my bedroom closet for some true privacy.
"Hi, Samantha. I've got some good news."
"You don't have to go away for the summer."
"No. I could not get out of that." I took a deep breath. "I'm resigning myself to an awful summer—"
"Now, wait," Samantha said. "Maybe you're, you know, jumping to conclusions. You do have a tendency to do that."
I ignored Samantha's remark. "My news is—" I paused for dramatic effect. "—Alex Stedman gave me a ride home from school today!"
"Woo!" Samantha exclaimed. "What about Nicole Kendall? Where was she?"
"Can you believe this? She left school early. She had a dentist appointment."
"That was lucky for you. For the past few weeks I thought maybe she and Alex had been joined at the elbow."
"I know, right?" I sighed. "Who needs to compete with a stunning redhead?" I pushed a boot out of my way and sat cross-legged on the floor. Ralph crawled out of a corner and rubbed against my knee and purred. "Anyway, there I was, just starting to walk home, trying to look as loaded down with the junk from my locker as possible, when who should pull out of the school parking lot but Alex."
"What did you do? Throw yourself in front of his car?"
"Nothing so drastic. I 'dropped' a bunch of my papers, and they started blowing around. Alex stopped his car, got out and helped me pick them up."
"You're getting clever in your old age."
"Actually, he was completely nice about it." I remembered the way his brown eyes crinkled when he laughed as he chased after the papers. I didn't think he was devastatingly handsome, but I like the way his mouth curled as if he was about to smile and how he walked, with sort of a graceful nonchalance. "After we had gathered everything up," I explained, "he offered me a ride."
"Well, how was the ride? What did you talk about?"
"Let's see." I closed my eyes to concentrate on every detail. "He said, 'Your name is Katie, isn't it?' and I said, 'Yes.' He asked how I did on my finals, and I said 'Fine.' Then he said, 'This is your house, isn't it?' and I said, 'Yes. Thanks for the ride.'"
"It was a short ride," I said. I felt myself turning red. "We both said 'Goodbye,'" I added defensively.
"Maybe what you ought to do is have yourself a summer fling to warm up for another try when school starts next fall."
"What do you mean?"
"You know. No one ever takes a summer romance seriously. You meet someone, you know you'll never see each other again, so you can flirt, have fun and not worry about making a fool of yourself, because you're never going to see him or any of the other summer people ever again."
"You mean I could practice my approach to Alex without having to worry about what the kids at school might think?"
"Samantha, you're brilliant. No wonder you're my best friend. I think I'll try it."
"Great. Have a nice summer."
"If I do what you suggested, I'll have a ridiculously fantastic summer."
Samantha laughed. "I hope so. See you in September. And don't forget to, you know, write!"
I sighed. Mom said she was told cell phone reception at our part of the beach in Chatfield was "sketchy at best," so she insisted that we just go ahead and make it a totally "no electronics" vacation. Already I was feeling withdrawal pains. "I'll write—and thanks again for the great idea about having a practice summer romance."
After crawling out of the closet and shooing Ralph downstairs, I stretched out on my bed. I thought about Samantha's idea, and the more I thought about it, the better I liked it. A summer romance could be the perfect rehearsal for the real thing in the fall with Alex. I could do it without the usual attentive audience consisting of the entire student body at school. I hugged myself and let out a small laugh at the thought.
Jason charged into my room in his usual heavy-footed fashion. "What's so funny?" he asked.
"Can't you remember to knock?" I glared at him. He stared back with his big, round, innocent-looking eyes. I'd always thought it was unfair that Jason had inherited Dad's blue eyes and Mom's golden-blond hair, while I'd somehow wound up with a mousy, washed-out version of Dad's chestnut-colored hair and a pale imitation of Mom's dark brown eyes.
Jason hopped up on my bed, ignoring my question. "Are you ready to leave tomorrow? I can't wait. I love to swim. Will you help me build a sand castle?"
"Yes, yes." I tickled Jason under his chin, hoping to shut him up. His endless questioning drove me nuts.
"Aaaaeee!" Jason snapped his chin down toward his chest and jumped off the bed. He stepped backward. "You can't reach me now!"
"I guess I can't." I knew that he wanted me to chase after him, but I wasn't in the mood. He was a complete nuisance. I was about to order him to bed when Mom and Dad called him. "You know what they want," I said. "You'd better scoot."
Jason dashed out the door. He thumped all the way down the hall and into his room.
I undressed, got into my pink polka-dot shorty pajamas, and slipped under the covers. Through the window a silvery rectangle of moonlight spilled across my bed. I closed my eyes and pictured myself at the beach in Chatfield, "accidentally" bumping into some handsome guy, making clever small talk, suggesting a walk on a secluded part of the beach. We would hold hands, then find a sheltered spot to sit. I'd say something funny, and he would laugh, then I would lean my head on his shoulder and he would put his arm around me. I would look up at him, and he would tell me I was beautiful. Oh, yes ... it would all be so easy with a summer boy.
I would start to say something, and he would place his fingers on my lips. Then he would put both his arms around me and pull me close and ....
"Wake up, wake up, wake up!" Jason tugged at my arm. The bed vibrated. I clutched the mattress so I wouldn't fall off. Jason smiled as he bounced on the bed. "It's time to get up," he announced. "It's time to get up!"
"No kidding." I gave Jason a mean look.
"Come on, come on. Get up!" Jason jiggled the bed.
"You're making me seasick. I might puke."
That did it. Jason hopped off my bed.
"Get out of here now," I commanded. "I have to get dressed."
Jason raced out of the room.
After breakfast I did my last-minute packing. I tucked my comb, toothbrush and makeup into the corners of my suitcase, then picked up my swimsuit, which was sitting on top, and fingered it fondly. I liked the color, turquoise, and all the little tucks and folds actually made me look shapely.
Eventually, everyone finished packing and the car was loaded. As we pulled out of the driveway Jason started singing "Merrily We Roll Along" at the top of his lungs. Mom and Dad joined in, and I scrunched down in my seat, hoping no one I knew would see us. I closed my eyes and tried to remember that only yesterday I had been alone in a car with Alex Stedman.
After the boring ride down I-90, Dad turned onto the Connecticut Turnpike, and before long Jason was pointing out our exit. "We're in Chatfield!" he shouted. He leaned forward, sticking his arms into the front seat. "I got there before Katie!"
"Big deal," I snapped.
From the exit we drove to Main Street, turned left and rode a couple more miles until we turned right at a sign proclaiming Beach Area.
"When we get to Bob's Beach Store, turn left." Mom read from her notes scribbled on the back of an envelope. "There! I think that's it straight ahead."
I spotted two guys in front of the store and, for a second, got remotely excited. But as I got a closer look I realized they were only about twelve years old. Oh, well. Through the open door of Bob's I could see a row of red stools in front of a long shiny black counter. A neon pizza sign flashed in the front window. It looked like a place that might be worth investigating.
We continued along a tree-lined street where the houses were large and expensive looking. One even had a turret sticking up through the oak and maple trees surrounding it. I hoped we would be staying there—the turret looked mysterious and romantic. But we rode on by. Abruptly, the scenery changed. The line of trees ended, and the houses gave way to cottages crowded onto narrow sandy yards.
"Our place should be here somewhere," Dad said.
I glanced around. To me it looked like the Mohave Desert, especially after just having ridden through that lush oasis with the luxurious houses.
"Look for number sixty-eight," Mom said.
"There it is! There it is!" Jason pointed out the window to a white cottage bordered by a falling-down picket fence half-covered with roses. At first I thought the gate was open. Then I saw that there was no gate. All that remained were two rusty hinges where a gate had once hung.
Dad pulled into the parallel depressions in the sand that served as a driveway leading to the side of the cottage. "Look at that!" he exclaimed. "We're right on the beach."
I scanned the beach hoping for a likely romantic prospect, but all I saw were a mother with three small children wading at the edge of the water and an elderly couple, fully clothed, lying on a blanket.
"Let's get everything inside." Dad hopped out of the car and practically skipped on his way to unlock the cottage.
I grabbed my suitcase and lugged it inside. I hadn't expected much, so I guess I wasn't too disappointed when all I saw was a long narrow room in which a U-shaped counter set off the kitchen at one end, a table and four chairs served as the dining area in the middle of the room, and sheet-covered chairs and sofas at the far end formed the living room.
"Phew!" I fanned my hand in front of my face. "It's boiling hot—and it smells in here!"
"It's just a bit musty from being closed up all winter," said Mom, who had come in right behind me. "We'll get all the windows open and let in some fresh air."
"That won't help," I muttered. I unlocked one of the windows and tried to open it. It didn't budge. I tried again, grunting with the effort. Still nothing. I hammered upward at it with the palms of my hands. It opened a crack. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. The back of my blouse was damp. I groaned. "We'll suffocate in here."
"Maybe opening the windows is a job for your father," Mom said. She reached for her purse on the kitchen counter and pulled out the envelope with the scribbles and read from it. "Little's Store. It's across the street and six doors down." She handed me a pile of change. "I think that's enough to get some soda. Why don't you pick up a carton at Little's? We can do the rest of our shopping in town once we get settled in here."
"Okay." More than happy to escape the stuffy cottage I took the change and hurried out the door, gasping for air. A strong breeze blew in off the water. By the time I reached Little's, the sweat had evaporated off my face.
It didn't take long to find the store. A faded, peeling sign hung over the door of a skinny orange building. A gaggle of girls about ten years old was gathered around the front steps. One girl giggled as she peeked through a window in the front door. I checked my reflection in the window. I wanted to look nice, just in case I spotted any good-looking guys. So far I hadn't seen any likely candidates, but I was going to keep my eyes wide open for possibilities.
Inside the store narrow aisles were crowded with everything from beach balls and suntan lotion to potato chips and canned asparagus. I looked around for a cooler. I was desperate for a cold soda.
I noticed someone at the rear of the store stacking cereal boxes on a shelf. As I approached him I saw that, from the back, with his tall, broad-shouldered build and dark hair, he looked kind of like Alex Stedman.
"Excuse me." I cleared my throat. It was nice to have a ready-made excuse for talking to him. Maybe I could even find out his name. I tried out a flirtatious smile. "Do you have any cold soda?"
"In that far corner." The voice was familiar. The boy turned around as he pointed. He smiled broadly. "Well! Hi, Katie."
My smile faded. A sea of red washed over my face.
It was Alex Stedman.
My hands went limp. I dropped all my money. Then I fell to my knees, more to hide the fact that I was blushing than to recover the change rolling all over the floor.
In an instant Alex was crawling around retrieving quarters, nickels and dimes and handing them to me. "Here," he said, taking the money and pouring it into my hand. "You'd better count it to make sure it's all there."
I opened my hand and pretended to count the money. I didn't know how much Mom had given me. Not that it mattered. With Alex kneeling only inches away from me, I couldn't remember how to add, anyway. I looked up at Alex and tried to smile. "I—it's all here." My heart practically exploded in my chest.
"Good." Alex took my hands and pulled me to my feet. "What are you doing in Chatfield?"
His. Hands. Touched. Mine. The electricity went right up my arm and straight to my heart. "We're, uh ... I'm, uh ... I'm here with my family. We're s-spending the s-summer in a cottage at the beach."
"That's great. It's nice to see a familiar face—one a little closer to my own age." Alex jerked his thumb toward the front window where the girls were still giggling.
"I know what you mean." I said, feeling somewhat steady by now. I shot a disdainful glance at the girls.
"Now ...," Alex said. "What can I do for you?"
I gazed into Alex's warm brown eyes. Ask me out. Fall in love with me. Then I realized I was still clutching Alex's hands. I let go as if they were hot coals. "Umm ... er ... soda," I finally managed to say. "Where did you say the cold soda was?"
"Right there." Again Alex pointed to the cooler in the corner.
I went to the cooler and pulled out a six-pack of cream soda.
"You can pay for that up front." Alex walked with me to the counter next to the front door.
I stood in front of the counter, holding the soda and smiling up at Alex.
"Umm, if you put that on the counter, I can ring it up."
"Oh. Of course."
"Hi, Alex," the girls called in unison.
"Hi, girls." Alex winked at them. He turned to me. "You get two cents back." He pressed the money into my hand and wrapped my fingers around it. "Now don't lose it."
"Thanks." I wished I could have thought of a more clever response.
"See you around."
I walked awkwardly out the door. I was sure that Alex thought of me as just a kid, a clumsy kid who dropped things every time I saw him.
As I walked back to the cottage hot sand filled my shoe, but I didn't care. It had been such a shock to see Alex. I hadn't even thought to ask him if he was spending the whole summer in Chatfield or how he got a job so quickly or anything. And how was I going to have a trial romance now? Alex was hardly some anonymous summer person I'd never see again. He was the one I'd wanted to practice for! I certainly couldn't do it with him around. Unless ... unless I could practice with Alex himself. Even Samantha couldn't top that idea.
The more I thought about it, the more I worried that it'd be too risky. Practicing a romance could be chancy enough without trying it with someone I really cared about. Besides, Alex thought of me as just a kid. I could see that. Maybe I could do something to change his image of me. Maybe—
"Oh, good! Katie's back with the soda." Jason ran out of the cottage, grabbed my arm and pulled me inside.
"Just put it on the kitchen counter," Mom said. "I'll get some glasses."
"Sure, Mom." I put down the soda and looked around the room. The windows were all wide open. Fresh air circulated, and sunlight danced on the newly-swept floor. The sheets had been pulled off the furniture, exposing white wicker cushioned with blue-and-white pillows. The room was light, bright and cool. I thought maybe the cottage would be okay after all. Of course, the fact that Alex was in Chatfield might have had something to do with my most recent opinion.
"I'll pour the sodas."
"Me first," Jason said.
I started to pour the soda into his glass, then noticed there were only three glasses. "Hey, isn't Dad having any?"
"He went into town to get food supplies," Mom said. "He'll be back soon. Let's sit at the table."
I sat down. The ladder-back chair was plain, but sturdy and comfortable. I swirled the soda in my glass.
"Kids, this summer means a lot to your father." Mom spoke in a low voice. "I don't want it spoiled by a lot of gripping and complaining. Understand?"
Jason nodded enthusiastically as he guzzled his soda. It was obvious that he was already enjoying himself and wasn't planning on voicing any complaints.
I sighed and resisted the urge to say, No, duh, I'm stupid—I don't understand. But no point in antagonizing Mom, even though I knew the lecture was directed mainly at me.
"Good," said Mom. "I—"
There was a knock at the door. "Somebody let me in. My hands are full!"
Jason leapt up from his chair and opened the door. "Hi, Dad."
Dad walked in and set two bags of groceries on the counter. "There's more in the car."
Without a word Jason raced out the door.
Mom and I started unloading the bags and putting things away in the cabinets and refrigerator.
"Say, Katie," Dad said. "I ran into a couple at the store who're from Hartford, too. They're spending the summer in a cottage down the road from us. They have a son who goes to your school. Maybe you know him. His name is Alex. Alex Stedman."
"We've, uh, met." I gulped. So Alex would be in Chatfield for the whole summer!
Jason walked in, staggering under the weight of two bags of groceries. I took one and put it on the counter.
"They've got a daughter, too," Dad continued. "She's about Jason's age—a year younger, I think. Jason, do you know a girl named Hailey Stedman?"
Jason shrugged. "I don't think so."
"Well, that's okay. We'll get to know them all real soon." Dad pulled out two packages of hot dogs and three pounds of hamburger from one of the grocery bags. "I invited them over for a cookout tonight."
"T-tonight?" My heart somersaulted. There was no time to lose. "Where's my room? I really need to, um, freshen up."
"Turn right at the top of the stairs," Mom said. "It's the third door on your left. The bathroom is between your room and Jason's and our room is on the other side of the hall."
Sifting through Mom's directions as I ran, I dashed up the stairs to my room. My suitcase was on the bed, which was covered with a blue-and-white spread that matched the cushions on the living-room furniture. I was glad to see a large mirror hung over the white wicker dressing table next to the bed.
Through the bedroom window I saw two sea gulls flying over white-capped water. The sky was unblemished by even a single cloud. On the horizon was a sliver of land which I knew was Long Island. Three sailboats skimmed across the water near another island that looked as if it was only about a half mile off shore.
But admiring the view would have to wait. I had more important things to do. Such as fix my hair. I plugged in my curling iron and sat down to comb my hair and decide how to style it.
After I was satisfied with my hair, I carefully applied makeup, a bit more than usual, then changed clothes twice before finally deciding on a yellow sundress with enough gathers in the bodice to round out my less-than-voluptuous figure. My new white sandals completed my outfit.
I swirled down the stairs feeling primed to impress Alex with my sophisticated image. As soon as I got within ten feet of my mother I could tell I was getting the once-over.
"Blue eye shadow for the beach?" Mom raised an eyebrow.
"It contains a sunblock," I answered quickly. "Where are Dad and Jason?" A deft change of subject on my part. "Shouldn't we be setting things up for this cookout Dad planned?"
"They're out back cleaning the grill and sweeping off the picnic table." She'd forgotten my eye shadow and any objections she may have been about to raise. "As usual, your father wasn't thinking too far ahead when he issued one of his last-minute invitations, and now he's realized how much there is to do before we can serve company."
"We're eating outside?" I pictured the wind ruining in an instant what it had taken me twenty minutes to achieve with my hair.
"Well, we can seat eight at the picnic table. Besides, we might want to go swimming. Jason is already in his bathing suit."
"I'm comfortable in this." I headed off what I knew would be my mother's suggestion to change my clothes. Instead I again changed the subject. "I'll make some potato salad." I always used my grandmother's recipe, and it never failed to win compliments. It wouldn't hurt to impress Alex in as many ways as I could.
Once the potato salad was ready and Dad had lit the coals in the grill, I began to pace. "When are the Stedmans coming over?" I asked my mother. I tried to sound casual, as if it really didn't matter and that, in fact, I found the whole idea of a cookout mildly annoying. That way Mom wouldn't wonder why I was so eager.
"Your father said they'd come around six o'clock, so they should be here before too long. Why don't you go out and see what Jason is up to? I don't want him swimming alone, and if Dad is engrossed with making the perfect fire, he may not be watching Jason too closely."
"All right," I said, though I doubted that Jason would go swimming without asking someone to watch. He liked to have an audience. But I figured it would help take my mind off Alex, so I went outside and found Jason at the edge of the water, trying to skip rocks. He wasn't having much success.
"You need the right kind of rock for that," I said. I hunted around in the sand until I found a few smooth flat stones. "Now watch." I tossed a rock. It skipped across the water three times.
"Let me try." Jason picked up a stone and imitated my form as he threw it. It skipped once.
"Good try." I kicked off my sandals and waded into the water. "Let me show you how to really get into it." I positioned myself carefully before throwing another rock. A wave smacked the hem of my dress as I let loose with a good throw. The rock skipped five times.
"Hey. Nice throw." It was Alex. "I used to be pretty good at that when I was little."
When he was little! I wanted to bury myself in the sand. Alex would have to see me playing with rocks, standing in water up past my knees, my dress now wet and clinging to my legs.
Alex picked up a rock and threw it. "Hmmm. Only four skips. I must be out of practice."
I tried to look dignified as I walked out of the water and picked up my sandals. I noticed Alex was wearing red bathing trunks and a blue T-shirt. "I was just going in to change into my swimsuit," I said airily.
"Great," Alex said. "Meanwhile, I'll have a contest with Jason. We'll see who can skip a rock the farthest."
In my room I surveyed the damage. My hair had drooped into a nondescript mop, and the bottom of my dress was half-soaked and dotted with specks of sand. My eye shadow had smudged so it looked as if I had two black eyes.
With cold cream and tissues I removed what was left of the eye shadow and most of my other makeup as well. I pulled off my dress and tugged on my swimsuit, covering it with a University of Oregon sweatshirt Dad had brought me after he'd given a seminar there. I ran a comb through my hair, pulled it off my face and fastened it with an elastic band.
I tossed my sandals into the closet. I could go barefoot if Alex could. With a quick glance in the mirror before heading back to the beach I could see that I looked like the little kid Alex surely believed I was. Well, I may have blown my opportunity to impress him with my clothes, but there was still the potato salad. What was it my grandmother said about the way to man's heart being through his stomach?
As I went back downstairs I found Mom talking with a woman and a young girl in the kitchen.
"Katie," Mom said, "I'd like you to meet Mrs. Stedman and Hailey."
"Hello." I shook hands with Mrs. Stedman, an attractive dark-haired woman with a friendly smile.
I thought the little girl was tall for her age, thin and solemn-looking. Her dark hair was cut short, above her ears. In a surprisingly deep voice Hailey said, "How do you do?"
At that point Jason ran into the kitchen, skidding to a halt just inches from Hailey. "They've got the hamburgers and hot dogs going! Come on, Hailey. Let's be first in line!"
"I'll get my potato salad," I said. I'd emphasized the word "my" so Mrs. Stedman would know I'd made it and would maybe mention it to Alex. It would look better than if I brought it up myself.
"Now, Thelma," Mom said to Mrs. Stedman. "We can get the catsup and mustard."
"Okay, Louise." Mrs. Stedman winked. "I guess I can just about manage that."
I took my potato salad out of the refrigerator and hurried out the kitchen door. I caught my toe in the doormat and stumbled, sending the bowl flying through the air, right toward Alex.
"Watch out!" I screamed.
"Nice serve!" I heard Alex cry.
Everyone applauded. Alex had caught the bowl of potato salad right side up.
"You've heard of tossing the salad, haven't you?" I said, somehow regaining my composure.
Alex laughed. "I can't wait to have some. Hey, Dad, aren't those burgers done yet?"
"Almost." Mr. Stedman coughed. Smoke from the grill partially obscured my view of him, but I could see that he was tall and had dark curly hair streaked with gray. He waved a spatula through the smoke, clearing it for a moment.
"These hot dogs are ready, if anybody wants one." Dad stabbed a hot dog with a fork and held it up for everyone to see.
"I want one!" Jason grabbed a paper plate from the picnic table. "Come on, Hailey."
Hailey followed Jason.
"Guests first," Dad said, sliding a hot dog onto Hailey's plate.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Price." Hailey waited until Jason got his hot dog, then walked back to the picnic table with him. Jason immediately loaded his plate with potato salad, pickles and corn chips.
"Perhaps we should wait until everyone has been served before we get started," Hailey suggested.
"You two may eat," Mom said. "This is just first come, first served. Nothing formal tonight."
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Price." Hailey sat down after taking small portions of everything on the table. She tasted the potato salad first. "This is quite delicious."
"Thanks," I blurted out to Hailey just as Alex and I lined up for hamburgers. I wanted to mention that I had made the potato salad from my grandmother's special recipe, but I was kind of unnerved by Hailey's formality. She seemed extraordinarily polite for a seven-year-old. Maybe some of it would rub off on Jason. And maybe he could get her to relax a little.
After we were seated at the picnic table, I watched out of the corner of my eye for Alex to try my potato salad. Finally he took a bite.
"This is good." Alex turned to look at me. "Did you make it?"
"My grandmother made it using my recipe—I mean I made it using my grandmother's recipe!" I felt myself turning red and hot. I sounded like an idiot!
"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" Jason pounded the table, throwing his head back as he laughed.
I glared at him, trying to silence him with a stare.
"Well, it's great." Alex smiled and tried to ignore Jason, but it wasn't easy.
"Th-thank you," I managed to stammer. I felt totally embarrassed and wanted to throttle Jason as he continued to cackle. Hailey looked wide-eyed at Jason, as if she'd never seen anyone laughing hysterically before.
Alex tried valiantly to make conversation with me, but all I could manage were a couple of monosyllabic replies. Finally, we both lapsed into silence as our parents engaged in a friendly debate about what a coincidence it was that we had all ended up at the same beach for the summer.
Eventually Mom stood up. "Would everyone like ice cream for dessert?"
"Yippee!" Jason yelled.
The Stedmans all murmured their approval.
"I can't eat another bite," I said.
"Actually, I'm kind of full, too," Alex stood up and took my hand. "Come for a walk with me, Katie. The exercise will make us feel better."
"All-all right." Maybe if I didn't have an audience I could relax and show him that I wasn't always clumsy and tongue-tied.
Alex continued to hold my hand as we walked, and I practically popped a blood vessel trying to think of something to say. Finally I asked, "How did you get your job at Little's?"
"My aunt knows Mr. Little and when she heard we were spending the summer here she mentioned that he always hires some summer help. When we got here last night I went right over to the store. He hired me on the spot. I guess it pays to be one of the early arrivals—and to have an aunt who knows the boss. It's not a bad job. Weekdays, nine to three."
"Yes." I couldn't think of anything else to say. It was hard to concentrate on anything except my hand in his and our legs brushing together as we walked.
Suddenly, Alex stopped. He looked down at me. "Let's go swimming."
Alex took off his T-shirt. As I pulled off my sweatshirt I couldn't help noticing that he was giving me the once-over.
He whistled softly.
To hide my embarrassment, I ran into the water and let the waves cover me.
Alex dove in after me. He didn't surface right away, and I was just starting to worry when he grabbed me around my waist and lifted me out of the water. I screamed. "Alex! You startled me."
"Oh, I did, did I?" Alex grinned.
"Yes. You did!" I struggled, but not too hard, to free myself from Alex's strong grip.
Alex held me tight. "I won't let you go," he whispered, his breath hot against my face, "unless you give me a ki—"
"Katie! Alex!" It was Jason, splashing at the water's edge. Hailey stood calmly beside him. "We want to go swimming with you."
Alex put me down gently and waded over to splash Jason. As Jason splashed back, Hailey stepped out of range.
I waded out of the water and stood at the edge of the beach while Alex and Jason continued their water fight. Jason and his perfect timing!
"Would you watch me while I swim?" Hailey asked. "I'm not supposed to swim unless someone is watching."
"Sure." I tried to dismiss any thoughts of kissing so I could seriously stand vigil while Hailey swam precise laps back and forth parallel to the shoreline. She did the crawl perfectly, coordinating her arm strokes to her breathing.
Hailey was a major contrast to Jason's exuberance. I admired her quiet determination as she swam in the choppy water.
"Youch, ouch, ouie-ouch-ouch!" Jason hopped on one foot, holding his other foot in his hands. "Oh, oh, oh!"
I signaled Hailey to stop swimming and I rushed to his side. "What's wrong?"
"Are you okay?" Alex put his hands on Jason's shoulders, bringing him to a standstill.
Hailey wandered over to Jason, eyeing him with concern. Or was it consternation?
"It's my toe," Jason moaned. "I cut it on something. Oh, it hurts."
"Hold still and let me look at it," I said. "Is it your big toe?"
"There's just a tiny cut. It's hardly even bleeding. Let's wash it off." I took Jason's hand. "Just swish your foot through the water, then let me see it."
Jason gingerly dabbed his foot into the water a couple of times. He noticed Hailey watching him, her brow knit and her mouth turned down at the corners. "I think my toe is all right, now," he said. "Maybe I should take Hailey back to the cottage. Her mother said she shouldn't stay away too long."
Hailey's eyebrows shot up, forming two little triangles in the middle of her forehead.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Alex asked.
"Oh, yes. I'm fine." Jason swaggered over to Hailey. "Let's go back now."
"Sure," Hailey answered, and she and Jason headed back to the cottage, marching along in unison.
I turned to Alex. "I think Hailey is a positive influence on Jason."
"Ordinarily he would have gone on for at least fifteen minutes about his toe, milking it for all it was worth."
Alex laughed. "At least he's not really hurt."
"Yes." I shivered. "Brrr. I'm getting cold. We should have brought towels." I was sort of hoping Alex would put his arm around me. I hadn't forgotten that he'd been about to kiss me just before we'd been so rudely interrupted.
"I was the one who suggested we go swimming." Alex spread his shirt out on the sand. "Put your sweatshirt back on and sit here. The sun will dry us off."
I pulled on my sweatshirt, but I hesitated to sit down. "I don't want to ruin your shirt."
"It's just a T-shirt. You won't ruin it." Alex sat down. He patted the portion of shirt next to him. "Come on. Sit down. It's our first evening on the beach. Let's enjoy it."
I sat down. I dug my feet into the sand and sifted it through my toes. Being so close to Alex made me shake all the more. It was almost like my dream of the night before.
"You're still shivering." Alex put his arm around me.
I drank in Alex's warm smile. His teeth were gleaming white against his tanned face. His dark brown eyes stared directly into mine. I found myself leaning closer and closer to Alex until finally our heads were only centimeters apart.
"Oh! Look at that," called a voice in the distance.
"Do you see what I see?" said another high-pitched voice.
"Yoo-hoo. Hi, Alex. Yoo-hoo!"
I pulled away from Alex and whirled around. Climbing over a jetty about fifty feet down the beach were the girls I had seen that afternoon in front of the store where Alex worked. They were all laughing and pointing.
I couldn't even look at Alex. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you. I-I'm not cold anymore. We can leave if you want to."
"I'm not embarrassed." Alex grinned. "Let's really give them something to point at." He pulled me close and kissed me. Waves of excitement raced through my bloodstream. Alex’s lips were so velvety soft and warm on mine.
It was a long kiss. It left me gasping, as much from surprise as from lack of oxygen. Once I caught my breath I noticed that the girls were running away as a unit, like a school of fish.
"There," Alex said, laughing. "That should impress them."
It had certainly impressed me.
"You seem to have a fan club," I croaked.
"They're a pain in the neck. Mr. Little was pretty annoyed when he found them hanging around me at the store, since they haven't been paying customers. I'm afraid if they really become a nuisance, it might cost me my job."
"Alex, you know what you need to keep those girls from bothering you?"
"I don't think they're that determined." I lowered my voice. "What you need is a girlfriend to scare them off."
"What do you mean?"
"You saw how they ran off when you kissed me."
"Well—" I hesitated, then went on. "—I could be your girlfriend." My voice was shaky. I had to fight my doubts about my plan. It was spur of the moment, and I hadn't had time to consider all the pluses and minuses. But if I could make Alex my fake summer boyfriend, maybe at some point it would turn into the real thing. Hastily I added, "Just pretend, of course."
"Oh. Of course." Alex thought for about it for a moment. "I think that's a great idea."
"You—you do?" My jaw dropped.
"Yes." With one hand Alex tipped my chin up. "Maybe we should seal our deal with another kiss."
"But the girls have left already!"
"You mean we should save the show for when we have an audience?" Alex looked at me, one eyebrow raised questioningly.
"Er, uh, I guess so." I wished I'd let Alex kiss me. Even if he'd been only kidding around, I would have enjoyed the feeling of his warm lips on mine, his strong arms holding me tight. But it was too late. I'd blown my chance. It was starting to get dark. We couldn't just sit there all night. "Um, maybe we should head back to the cottage," I said.
"If that's what you want."
It wasn't what I wanted at all. But how could I tell him that what I really wanted was to be his girlfriend for real? However, Nicole Kendall seemed to be first in line for that position, and I was certainly no match for Nicole. "Well, it is getting late ...," I said miserably.
"All right, then." Alex stood up and offered me his hand.
Once I'd pulled myself up I thought for a second that he was going to take me in his arms. But he let me go and stooped to pick up his shirt. He shook the sand out of it. "Let's head back."
The sun was setting in back of us. Two long separate shadows formed in our paths as we walked silently to the cottage. It was just about completely dark when we got there. Everyone was inside. Alex opened the door for me.
"Katie!" Mom sprang up from her chair. "We were just talking about you."
Mrs. Stedman also stood up and approached me. "Yes. We'd like to ask you something."
"Oh?" I smiled nervously.
"Now you don't have to if you don't want to," Mom said.
"But of course we'll both pay you if you agree," said Mrs. Stedman.
"Pay me? For what?" I glanced at Alex.
"To babysit for Jason and Hailey!" Mom exclaimed.
"You see," Mrs. Stedman said, "we've discovered that your folks and Mr. Stedman and I all love to play golf and tennis and bridge."
"We'll each pay you the going rate, plus a little extra for snacks. What we'd like," said Mom, "is for you to baby-sit each weekday from nine until three, so we can have some free time. What do you say?"
"Well ...," I said hesitantly. I could always use the money and, since I wasn't sixteen yet, my prospects for finding anything better weren't very good. Also, I'd be working the same hours as Alex and have the same hours free. That would be convenient. I put up with Jason all year long, anyway. Why not get paid for it? "I'll take the job," I said finally. I liked the sound of the word "job." It sounded more important than "babysitting," which was not my favorite occupation.
"Oh, good!" Mrs. Stedman exclaimed.
"You will?" Mom sounded as though she couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. She knew, of course, that I didn't care much for babysitting, that I thought children—especially Jason—were essentially boring and useless.
"I can start tomorrow," I volunteered. "I'll pick up Hailey at 8:50." I figured that was about when Alex would leave for work.
"We can drop her off," Mrs. Stedman said.
"I don't mind," I said. "It will give you more time for golf or whatever you plan to do." I wouldn't have an excuse to see Alex if they dropped off Hailey!
"Fine," said Mrs. Stedman. She looked at her watch. "See you tomorrow morning. It's late. We'd better be getting back to our cottage. Come on, everyone. We can't stay all night."
As Mr. Stedman and Hailey said their good-byes and thank-yous, Alex drew me outside. He took my hand and led me back down by the water. He slipped his arms around my waist.
I looked up at him. There wasn't enough moonlight to see the expression on his face.
"Wh-what are you doing?" I asked nervously.
"There are six people who are closely related to us standing just a few yards away. At least one of them is bound to be watching us. If you're supposed to be my girlfriend, I really should kiss you good-night."
"But—but we're only trying to fool those girls."
"If we're going to pull off a realistic act, I think we should try to convince everyone."
"Oh. Of course." My knees trembled. I was beginning to wonder if it was wise to have gotten myself involved in such a scheme, even if I was the one who originally suggested it. I cared too much for Alex to have to pretend all the time that I was only pretending to like him!
Alex leaned down, pressed his lips on mine and crushed himself against me. I locked myself into his embrace. His arms around me melted any doubts about having him as a pretend boyfriend. But a minute later I pushed him away. "That's enough," I whispered. "This … this is only supposed to be a good-night kiss."
I felt light-headed and short of breath. I'd only been kissed seven times since eighth-grade graduation, and none of those kisses had left me feeling the way Alex's had.
"I keep forgetting," Alex said, "that I'm seventeen and you're a mere child of fifteen. I'll try to keep myself in check from now on."
I couldn't see Alex's face well enough to tell if he was teasing, but even if he was, I didn't need to be reminded of how young and inexperienced I was. Undoubtedly Nicole Kendall had no trouble handling Alex's kisses.
"Alex," Mrs. Stedman called out. "We're leaving now."
"Be right there." Alex draped one arm around my shoulders and walked me back to the cottage. "See you tomorrow, Katie." He squeezed my shoulder, then turned to leave.
"Good night." I watched until I couldn't see Alex any longer, then went inside. Before I dashed upstairs, Mom shot me a funny look. I wondered if she'd seen Alex kiss me.
In my room I sat in front of the mirror, thinking. I'd tried to put my best foot forward and wound up tripping over it. Maybe if I looked older Alex would take me more seriously. If only I could do something to measure up to Nicole Kendall! There wasn't much I could do about my figure, but maybe there was something I could do about my drab hair. I fingered a lock and curled it around my thumb.
"Jason, will you stop picking the raisins out of your toast and just eat?" I paced around the table. "If you don't hurry, we'll be late!"
"Relax, Katie." Mom spooned sugar into her coffee. "It's just past eight-thirty. It'll take only a couple minutes to walk to the Stedmans', and our golf date isn't until nine-thirty, so there's no need to rush, anyway."
"I don't want to be late on the first day," I said. "Jason, I'm going upstairs to comb my hair. You'd better finish eating and brush your teeth before I'm ready to leave."
When I reached my room I took a few dollars out of the painted tin box on top of my dresser and stuffed it into my pocket. I figured that would be enough for some hair color to brighten my drab locks.
On my way back downstairs I heard Jason gargling in the bathroom. I winced. Probably the neighbors could hear him, too. "Come on, Jason. One. More. Minute."
"Okay." Jason gurgled and spit.
I went downstairs to wait.
"Katie, there's plenty of food to fix for your lunches." Mom was peering into the refrigerator. "Hot dogs, milk, juice, carrot sticks, celery." She closed the refrigerator door and opened a cabinet door. "Bread, peanut butter, raisins—"
"I can find the food, Mom," I said. "We won't starve."
"Yes, I know. I just—"
"I'm ready!" Jason jumped down the last three stairs, triumphantly raising his arms over his head as he landed on the floor.
"Good!" I grabbed his hand and led him out the door before there could be any more delays. When we got a few steps away from the cottage, I stopped and grasped Jason by the shoulders. "Jason, I want you to be on your best behavior. Understand?"
"Of course," Jason said, wide-eyed. Innocent.
"Fine." I took a step, then stopped again. I realized I didn't even know where Alex's cottage was.
"Let's go." Jason tugged at my hand and led me off to the left. "Number seventy-six is this way."
"Duh," I said, as if I'd known all along.
Alex’s cottage looked pretty much like ours, except it had a trellis by the door where a tangle of roses grew. I knocked twice.
The door opened. Hailey peeped out from behind it. "Won't you come in?"
"Hi," I said cheerily. "Are you all ready?"
"Oh, yes," Hailey answered. Her formality still un-nerved me a bit, but I was sort of getting used to it.
"Katie," Mrs. Stedman said, "here's the key to the cottage, in case Hailey needs anything. Hailey, don't forget your snack." She handed Hailey a small plastic bag containing cheese cubes and green olives.
"Thanks." Hailey kissed her mother good-bye.
"Oh," said Mrs. Stedman. "Here's your bathing suit, too."
"I'll take it," I said. I lingered in the doorway, waiting for Alex to appear. I wanted to walk to the store with him.
Suddenly he bounded down the stairs. "Ah. Is this my escort service?"
"Ready and waiting," I answered briskly.
"Let's go, then," said Alex.
The four of us filed out the door.
"You two walk ahead of us," I said to Jason and Hailey. "This road's too narrow for us to walk four across."
Jason and Hailey paired off, whispering solemnly. Occasionally Jason peeked over his shoulder at Alex and me and giggled.
It was a short walk, and soon we had to cross the street to the store. "Let's all hold hands," I said to Jason and Hailey. I hoped Alex would take the hint. He did.
As soon as we'd crossed the street I spotted the cluster of girls down the road on their way to the store. "See you later, Alex," I said in an extra loud voice. Then I stood on my toes and gave him a quick kiss. "That was for their benefit," I whispered, motioning toward the girls.
"See you back here at three o'clock," Alex said, as soon as the girls got a little closer. He blew me a kiss before he stepped inside the store. I blushed, even though I knew the kiss was only for the sake of the giggling girls.
"Okay, you two," I said to Jason and Hailey. "We're going for a walk." I tried not to smile as I walked past the girls, who were now giving me a thorough once-over.
"Where are we going?" Jason walked between me and Hailey, holding our hands and swinging his arms.
"To Bob's Beach Store," I said. "I thought it would be fun to see what they have there." I didn't mention that I hoped they had a good selection of hair coloring.
The walk to Bob's Beach Store was longer than I had thought it would be—nearly a mile. But once we reached the section that had the trees and big houses the cool shade provided a pleasant change of atmosphere, which silenced the gripes Jason had just started making about having to walk so far. In the driveways of the houses I saw expensive cars. Some of the houses had tennis courts, and one even had a swimming pool. Then the trees thinned out and the houses looked a bit more rustic as we neared Bob's. There also appeared to be a knot of kids about my age. So far in my section of the beach I had seen families with small children or older couples. Alex and I seemed to be the only two between the ages of ten and twenty-five.
"Well, here we are," I said, as we arrived at Bob's. I led Jason and Hailey through the open door of the store.
Jason immediately hopped up on one of the stools at the counter and spun himself around. "Whee!"
"Why don't you two have a soda? You must be thirsty after that walk." I saw a sign advertising root beer in frosted mugs. "How about a mug of root beer?" I wasn't so concerned about their thirst. I wanted to keep them busy for a few minutes.
"Yeah! Root beer!" Jason bounced on his stool.
"Yes, thank you." Hailey climbed up on to the stool next to Jason and folded her hands on the counter.
A cute blond guy working behind the counter turned around and asked, "Three root beers?"
"Just two." I pointed to Jason and Hailey. "I, uh, have to look for something." I didn't want an audience while I shopped, especially not a cute guy.
"Maybe I could tell you where to find it." The blond guy took two frosty mugs from the freezer. "What are you looking for?"
"I'll, er, just look for it." I could feel the red creeping up my face. "I want to browse anyway."
"Let me know if you need any help." The blond guy filled the mugs with root beer from a tap and set them on the counter in front of Jason and Hailey. "It's no trouble." He flashed me a big smile.
"All right." I ducked my head to hide my blushing cheeks and scurried to the other side of the store to look around. I hunted through the shelves until I finally found a section with a limited selection of shampoos and conditioners. I searched through all the bottles twice but couldn't find any hair color. I tried to think. Maybe I could use something else.
I moved over to the food aisle and checked the baking supplies. In the midst of flour, sugar and birthday candles I finally found some food coloring. If it would color food, why not hair? The worst that could happen would be that it wouldn't work. It didn't cost much and, actually, it would be less embarrassing—and incriminating—than buying hair coloring. I could probably attribute a few red highlights to the sun.