She looked up instinctively, though she immediately wished she hadn’t.
The gang was gathered around the flagpole; Susan and Kim were seated on the bricked ledge beside it and David and Jared were playing hacky sack.
She steeled herself for the inevitable. She’d avoided them at lunch by hiding out in the library, but now she had no choice but to say hi.
"Hey, guys," she said, coming up to the group. She hesitated, saw David do the same.
They stared at each other from a distance.
The girls swarmed her, pulled at her arm. She followed them out behind the school, to their place on the football field. The boys followed along behind, keeping the hacky sack in motion.
"Well?" Kim asked when they were all standing around the goalpost. "How does it feel?"
"Scary," Lauren answered. She so didn’t want to talk about this, but it was better to be talked to than talked about. And these were her best friends.
"What are you going to do?" Susan asked, scouting through her backpack for something. Finally she pulled out a Coke. Opening it, she took a drink and passed it around.
David came up behind Lauren, slipped an arm around her waist. "We don’t know."
"How come you didn’t have an abortion?" Kim asked. "That’s what my cousin did."
Lauren shrugged. "I just couldn’t." She was starting to wish she were far, far away from here. With Angie, where she felt safe …
"David says you’re giving it up for adoption. That’s cool. My aunt Sylvia adopted a baby last year. She’s way happy now," Susan said, reaching for the Coke.
Lauren looked up at David.
For the first time she realized that he could walk away from this, leave it in the past along with all his high school memories. Someday it would be as forgotten as his tenth grade MVP trophy or his grade point. Why hadn’t she seen that before?
She’d thought they were in this together, but suddenly all the warnings came back to her. It was the girl who got pregnant.
"Come with me," she whispered to him, pulling him aside. He followed her to a dark, quiet place beside the bleachers.
She wanted desperately to be held and kissed and reassured, but he just stood there, staring down at her, his confusion as obvious as his love.
"I just … I’ll miss you over the break." She wished he’d invited her along, but it was a family vacation.
"My dad set up a meeting in January. With a lawyer." He flinched, looked at her throat. "About adoption."
"Just give it away," she said, hearing the bitterness in her voice. That would be so easy for him.
"We should at least listen." David looked ready to cry, right there on the football field, with his friends only a few yards away.
And she knew: None of this was easy on him.
"Yeah," she said, "sure. We should listen."
He looked at her. She felt distant from him; older. "Maybe I’ll get you a ring. Aspen has tons of cool jewelry stores."
Her heart did a little flip. "Really?"
"I love you," he said softly.
The words sounded different than before, as if he’d murmured them from far away or mouthed them underwater. By the time she got home, she couldn’t remember the sound of those words at all.
ANGIE READ THE INSTRUCTIONS FOR MAKING RICOTTA gnocchi for at least the fourth time. She did not consider herself a stupid woman, but she couldn’t figure out how the hell she was supposed to use the tines of a fork to form the gnocchis.
"Forget it." She rolled the dough into a rope and cut it in small pieces. She’d decided to learn to cook; that didn’t mean she wanted to make it her life’s work. "Good enough."
She then stirred the sauce. The pungent aroma of sizzling garlic and onion and simmering tomatoes filled the cottage. Not as good as Mama’s, of course; you couldn’t get that homemade aroma from a store-bought sauce. She only hoped that none of her family stopped by.
At least she was cooking.
It was supposed to be therapeutic. That was what her sisters always said. Angie had been desperate enough to give it a try, but now she knew. All that mixing and chopping and scraping hadn’t helped at all.
I won’t live through it all again. The highs, the lows, the obsessions.
Maybe she shouldn’t have told Conlan about Lauren. Not yet anyway. Maybe she should have let their love take hold first.
That would have been like the old days, with her in a lonely wilderness that bordered his but didn’t cross over. Though he didn’t see the nuances of her change, she did.
Honesty had been her only choice.
Once or twice today she’d meandered down the road of regret, almost wishing she hadn’t invited Lauren home with her, but in truth, she couldn’t really go there. She was glad to be helping the girl.
She washed a bunch of fresh basil leaves and began to chop them. They stuck to the knife and formed a green glob. She cut what was left into slices with her scissors.
The front door opened. Lauren walked into the house. She was soaking wet.
Angie glanced at the clock. "You’re early. I was supposed to pick you up–"
"I thought I’d save you the trouble." Lauren peeled out of her coat and hung it up on the iron coat rack, then she kicked off her shoes. They thunked against the wall.
"Put your shoes away neatly, please," Angie said automatically, channeling her mother. At the realization, she laughed.
"I am. I sounded just like my mother for a second there." She tossed the basil in the sauce, stirred it once with a wooden spoon and covered the pot. "So," she said, setting the spoon down. "I thought you were going to stay after school with David."
Lauren looked miserable. "Yeah. Well."
"I’ll tell you what. Go put on some dry clothes and we’ll have some hot cocoa and talk."
"I’m cooking. Which probably means we’ll have to go out for dinner, so you might as well get dressed."
At last, a smile. "Okay."
Angie turned the heat on the stove to low, then made a pot of homemade hot cocoa. It was one of the few things she made well. By the time she was finished and had taken a seat in the living room, Lauren was coming down the stairs.
"Thanks," Lauren said, taking a cup of cocoa, sitting in the big leather chair by the window.
"I take it your day didn’t go well," Angie said, trying to keep her voice gentle.
Lauren shrugged. "I feel … older than all my friends."
"I guess I can see that."
"They’re worrying about Civil War battle dates, and I’m worrying about how to pay for day care while I go to college. Not a lot in common there." She looked up. "David said he might buy me a ring."
"Is that a proposal?"
It was exactly the wrong thing to say. Poor Lauren’s face crumbled. "I didn’t think so."
"Oh, honey, don’t be too hard on him. Even grown men can’t handle impending fatherhood. David probably feels like he’s been dropped out of an airplane and the ground is rushing up to meet him. He knows he’s going to hit hard. Just because he’s scared doesn’t mean he loves you less."
"I don’t know if I could take that. Him not loving me, I mean."
"I know what you mean."
Lauren looked up sharply. She wiped her eyes and sniffed. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I don’t want you to be sad, too."
"What do you mean?"
"You still love your ex. I can tell by the way you talk about him."
"I’m that obvious, huh?" Angie looked down at her hands, then said slowly, "I saw him today." She didn’t know what made her share that secret. The need to talk about it, maybe.
"Really? Is he still in love with you, too?"
Angie could hear the hope in Lauren’s voice and she understood the girl’s need to believe that a burned-out love could be rekindled. What woman didn’t want to believe that? "I don’t know. There’s a lot of water under our bridge."
"He wouldn’t like me living here."
The perceptiveness of the observation surprised Angie. "Why do you say that?"
"Come on. After what that other pregnant girl did to you guys?"
"That was different," Angie said, echoing what she’d said to Conlan only a few hours ago, wanting to believe it. "I cared about Sarah, sure. But I fell in love with the baby in her womb. I would have adopted that child and brought him into our lives and said good-bye to Sarah. She would have disappeared from our everyday lives. You’re different."
"I care about you, Lauren. You." She sighed. "And, yes, sometimes the old needs get away from me. Sometimes I lie in my bed upstairs and close my eyes and pretend you’re my daughter. But that doesn’t make me who I was and it doesn’t hurt anymore. I have to make Conlan see that." Angie looked up. She realized that she wasn’t even talking to Lauren anymore. She was talking to herself.
Lauren was staring at her. "Sometimes I pretend you’re my mom."
"Oh." The word was almost lost in the exhalation of breath that came with it.
"I wish you were."
Angie wanted to cry at that. They were both missing the same piece of themselves, she and Lauren; no wonder they’d come together so easily.
"We’re a team," she said softly. "You and me. Somehow God knew we needed each other." She forced a smile and wiped her eyes. "Now, enough doom and gloom. I’m going to try to boil this damn gnocchi. Why don’t you set the table?"
LAUREN LAY ON HER BED, LOOKING AT PHOTOGRAPHS. There were dozens spread out in front of her. Mr. and Mrs. DeSaria. The three girls–together, separately, and in every combination. Pictures taken in spring, summer, winter, and fall. At the beach, in the mountains, even a few by the side of the road. She looked at these beautiful pictures and imagined how it would have felt, being loved like that for the whole of her life, to have a father come up to her, smiling, and reach for her hand.
Come with me, he’d say, today we’ll–
There was a knock at the door.
Lauren jackknifed off the bed. She didn’t want to get caught pawing through the family’s private photographs. She opened the door just enough to see out.
Angie’s left eye stared at her through the crack. "We’re leaving in ten minutes."
"I know. Have a good time." Lauren closed the door, listening for footsteps.
She opened the door.
"What did you mean by that?" Angie asked.
"You said have a good time."
"It’s Christmas Eve."
"I know. That’s why you’re going downtown. You told me all about it last night. You said the DeSarias descend on town like locusts, eating everything in their path. So, have fun."
"I see. And you’re not a DeSaria."
Lauren didn’t understand. "No. I’m not."
"So you assumed I’d leave you here alone on Christmas Eve and run off with my real family to gorge on cookies and hot mulled wine."
Lauren blushed. "Well, when you put it that way–"
"Get dressed. Is that clear enough for you?"
Lauren felt the smile expand across her face. "Yes, ma’am."
"Dress warmly. They’re predicting a white Christmas. And please remember that I’m much too young to be a ma’am."