Chapter 71: She's Got A Way

 Alley

“Alley? Uh, are you okay?”

I looked up at the voice. Isaac, standing in the doorway of Taylor’s room, watching me pace around like an agitated animal in a cage. “Fine,” I said, though that was pretty much a blatant lie. In approximately three hours, I was supposed to be dressed, presentable, and prepared for my test in parent approval.

And I was about to have an anxiety attack. Where were the shoes I’d planned to wear? Why was my hair acting like a bitch? Why wasn’t Taylor in here calming me down, like a good boyfriend/fiancé? What was so important about an oil change, anyway? Couldn’t it have waited until after tonight?

“You sure?” he asked. Well, this was a slight departure… for the past two days, I’d been lightly teased at every opportunity, since both Isaac and Zac found my nervousness about meeting their parents amusing. Smartass cracks about reactions to past girlfriends were randomly sprinkled into their conversations whenever I would walk into the room. Personally, I didn’t think it was very funny, although I was relieved that both of them were at least speaking to me on a regular basis. Particularly Zac… so far, he had been nice enough (for Zac, anyway), but I still felt he was leaving a lot unsaid. Though, really, that was probably a good thing.

“Yes,” I grumbled. I threw myself down on Taylor’s bed, staring gloomily around. I desperately wished Louise was here… I felt so out of place, so odd, living in a strange place with strange boys and about to meet an entire family of strangers that I was expected to impress… I felt a little overwhelmed. Well, a lot overwhelmed, really. And while I had to give Taylor credit for trying, he just really couldn’t understand – after all, he’d charmed my family effortlessly. The most reassurance I got from him was a simple ‘Stop worrying.’ At least Louise would have lectured some sense into me, or something. “I just… I can’t find my shoes.”

“What do they look like?” he asked. I eyed him suspiciously. I’d thought Isaac was the more open of the two other brothers, but truthfully, in a way, he was just as hard to figure out as Zac. There was just something different about him that I couldn’t quite place my finger on… always unfailingly polite… unnaturally so for a man of his age, in my opinion. What was he really thinking, behind that calm, courteous exterior?

He stepped into the room, eyes roaming around, as if he was going to help me look. I watched him, still sitting on the corner of the mattress. “Um… brown,” I said. At his amused expression, I realized I would probably have to be a little more specific. “Leather. Sorta braided-looking…”

Isaac scrunched his eyes, looking down at the floor. I followed his gaze, and then noticed the light brown sole of my sandals sticking out from under the bed. “Would those be it?” he asked.

I blushed, feeling like an idiot. “Yeah… those would be it.” I bent over and retrieved them from underneath the overhanging blanket, setting them on the bed next to me. “Thanks…”

“You’re welcome.” Isaac smiled, retreating towards the door. His lips curved up, forming one of those wide, million-watt smiles. “Still nervous?”

“A little,” I lied. He raised an eyebrow. I fidgeted. “A lot.”

“Don’t be. Taylor’s parents are very nice people.” He winked at his mild joke. “Seriously, though. It’s not a big deal.”

“To you, maybe,” I muttered under my breath. Yeah, it wasn’t like he was carrying some huge secret on his back, at least not that I could tell. As if meeting parents under normal circumstances wasn’t stressful enough, I had two extra issues at hand to deal with – mine and Taylor’s fictional how-we-met story, and of course, the clandestine platinum ring he’d placed on my hand just over a week earlier.

“You’ll be fine,” he said, turning to leave. “I really do think they’ll like you.” Well, whether he truly approved of me or not, at least he was always nice and had something positive to say. I watched his retreating back, grasping on to the slim bit of reassurance he’d just given me, but then I heard his voice from down the hall, echoing against the tall vaulted ceiling.

“Besides, it’s just dinner. Totally relaxed, laidback.” His voice took on a mischievous tone. “They won’t get out the lie detector, just yet…” I heard him laugh loudly, and though I knew he couldn’t see me, I flipped him off. Ugh. Nice? Positive? I immediately took that back. No help at all, of course. And I had to live with these freaks for awhile?

*****

I hate mirrors.

I’d been standing in front of Taylor’s still-steamy bathroom mirror for nearly 15 minutes, just staring morosely at my reflection. We had gone shopping yesterday, as he had promised, and he'd approved of a nice pair of jeans and sleeveless polo shirt for me to wear to meet his parents. But at the last minute, I’d changed my mind. When I’d been in Express, the faded hiphuggers had seemed cute and fitted, the shirt crisp and casual. As soon as I’d gone to put them on tonight, however, I’d freaked. What was I thinking? The jeans were too tight… the V-neck in the shirt came down too low… pair that with the flip-flops Taylor had picked out, and they would think I was some sort of skank…

So instead, I was wearing a pair of black dress pants that I’d packed with me, a white blouse buttoned almost all the way up, and a pair of nondescript black dress shoes. I blinked, staring at my hair, which resembled an overgrown rhododendron. I reached for my wide-toothed comb, in the hopes of shaping it a little better, when I heard a loud banging on the door.

“Alley! Come on!” Taylor was slowly but surely getting aggravated with me. For once in his life, he was the first one ready… and our lateness could solely be blamed on me. I threw the comb down, flustered, and quickly opened the door.

“Give me a minute,” I said nervously as he strode inside. He looked so calm, so casual and carefree, dressed in his faded jeans and button-up shirt. Damn him. “My hair…”

He stared at me, folding his arms. “What are you wearing?”

I looked down defensively at my monochromatic outfit. “What? I thought this would look nicer…”

“Alley…" he sighed. "You look like you’re going to a job interview, or something. Where is that outfit we got yesterday?”

“In your closet…” I said meekly.

“Go put it on.” He grabbed my shoulders, steering me out of the bathroom and down the hall. “Honey, chill. It’s just dinner.” Ugh, he sounded like Isaac. “They won’t bite, I promise…”

“I know, I know…” I said, sighing. He just didn’t get it, didn’t understand how I could be so nervous. “But I’m not like you, Taylor. I can’t immediately charm everyone I meet…”

“Well, we’re gonna work on that.” I found myself back in Taylor’s bedroom, and he went to the closet, pulling out the jeans, shirt and shoes I’d rejected. “Now hurry. We’re late as it is.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, deciding that it would simply be easier to give in than to fight. I fumbled with the pearly buttons of my shirt, undoing them all. I shrugged out of it, peeling the stiff material from my arms and throwing it in the floor. Taylor grinned, tossing the polo at me. He continued to hand me the clothes and shoes in assembly-line fashion as I redressed, and minutes later, I was ready. Well, not really ready, at least not mentally, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. As I self-consciously straightened out the front of the polo, Taylor walked over and gave me a peck on the forehead, amused by my antsiness.

“You’re ten different kinds of adorable,” he said with a laugh, his irritation gone. He grabbed my arm, grinning affectionately, and pulled me out the door. “Let’s go.”

 

“My hair!” I cried, attempting to escape from his grip to go to the bathroom. “Wait, let me fix it…” Although really, there wasn’t much hope in that happening, short of shaving it all off and starting over…

 

“Your hair is fine. We’re leaving.” I didn’t contest that authorative statement, as I didn’t want to annoy Taylor again – I  needed him on my side tonight. Instead, I kept my mouth shut. Following him downstairs, I clutched his hand in a death grip, praying that the next few hours went well.

*****

Despite my immediate post-proposal claim that I would never take Taylor’s ring off, reality unfortunately  intervened, and I’d been forced to remove the platinum band and temporarily stow the little velvet box away in his – make that our – sock drawer, for hiding. It’s weird – I’d never been much of a jewelry-wearer at any point in my life, but now, walking around without that beautiful ring on my hand made me feel naked. It wasn’t like I’d had the chance to get all that used to it… I’d only gotten to enjoy it for a week

I looked down, splaying out my thin fingers and sighing. Well, apparently, a week was all it took. God, my hand even looked bare without it…

Taylor reached over and squeezed my knee. “I know, I know,” he said with a sigh, having noticed my hand gesture and melancholy face. “We’ll tell them soon, I promise. One day at a time…”

I gave him a rueful smile. “Nothing can ever be easy with us, can it?”

“Sure it can… and it will… once we get past this.” He winked, and I grabbed onto his hand for comfort, leaning back into the seat. The buildings and houses swished past us as we drove towards the outskirts of town. Taylor had informed me that they had moved out to a more rural area once Middle of Nowhere came out, as some of their more zealous fans had started staking out their old house. Knowing how massively popular they had been back then, I couldn’t even imagine…

“So… what do your parents know, again?” I asked nervously. I knew that in addition to telling them many general details about me personally, he’d explained our relationship with the same story he’d given his brothers – the clever little tale about how we’d ‘kept in touch’ and become friends over all these years. But I wanted to get the ‘facts’ straight. Although Taylor obviously felt that things would get easier once we’d gotten through this initial introduction phase, I wasn’t so sure of that. I was bound to slip up at some point and say something stupid… odd as it sounded, telling the truth about our weird relationship would have been so much easier…

But then again, as Taylor had pointed out, that story would more than likely get us both sent down to St. Mary’s psychiatric ward for evaluation, so his argument that we needed a good cover story was a valid one. Besides, I was sure that God was up there having a good laugh over our attempts to explain everything. Who ever said that He didn’t have a sense of humor?

I turned to look at him when he didn’t immediately answer, watching him purse his lips in thought as he tried to recall his string of little white lies.

“That you’re from Lexington, my age… That I’ve known you since I was thirteen… um… I kept you a ‘secret’ from everyone because I was trying to keep your privacy intact, from fans and stuff, especially since they tend to go after any girl with a possible connection to us… um… we kept in contact mostly with email and letters and the occasional call, and you used to have a friend who lived in Tulsa, and you visited her on occasion, and I would sneak and see you when you would come in…”

“Jesus, Taylor,” I said. “As if we didn’t already have enough ‘stories’ to keep straight… I don’t know anyone in Tulsa! Why did you tell them that?!”

“Well, I had to have a way to explain that picture of us together,” he said defensively. “And obviously I couldn’t tell them that I’d visited you out there, because they all know that’s not true… so I had to invent a way for you to be in Tulsa…”

I blinked. “They’ve seen the picture?” So they’d already seen what a geek I was?

He smiled. “Yes. Before I came back to stay with you, I showed Mom.”

“Why?!”

He rolled his eyes. “Why wouldn’t I? I mean, I basically got home and immediately started packing to come back, and she was confused, to say the least. It took a lot of talking to convince her I was doing something important. She wanted to see the girl I was disappearing with for the summer… and I had to show her that I’d known you before, and that I wasn’t just running off with some stranger…”

“Oh…” I linked my hands together, resting them in my lap, staring at the bitten-down nails of my thumbs. Ugh, gross. Maybe I should have gotten a manicure… “What did she say? About the picture…”

He grinned. “She thought you were cute and had a beautiful smile.”

“What? No, she didn’t…” The words flew out of my mouth automatically, a reflex. My standard reply whenever I was given a secondhand compliment. Taylor rolled his eyes again and reprimanded me before continuing with our original topic.

“But anyway… so… they know we became good friends, and I told her that, like, I really liked you, but I was with Jennifer at the time, and so I just never did anything about it…” Taylor turned his Explorer onto a lesser highway, and the landscape grew more rural. The scenery was less cluttered, more natural, with leafy green trees arching over the road and large, looming houses spaced apart. More like back home, really, except without the rolling hills and grazing Thoroughbreds. “And they know that I didn’t remember you when I first woke up – luckily, the doctors had said that might happen, so it’s not unheard of. A type of amnesia, or something. So, anyway… basically, once I saw you again, and recalled everything, I had to come see you…”

“Okay,” I said, my mind reeling. God, it was all so much to keep up with… “So… why would you not keep me a secret now?”

He winked. “Because you’re too important, and life is too short, for me to waste time trying to live in secrecy.” He let go of my hand and gently chucked my chin. “Which is entirely true, by the way.”

The car began slowing down, and I perked up, warily looking around when I realized we were nearly there. Two cream-colored brick pillars caught my eye, and Taylor turned towards them, onto a blacktopped concrete driveway. We pulled up to a wide, intricate wrought-iron gate. Jesus, it looked like we were getting ready to enter a minimum-security prison, or something… I watched, silent, as Taylor took out a plain white card from his wallet and swiftly slid it through a reader attached to the side. With a clang, the gate separated and slowly opened outwards. We drove through, carefully navigating along the narrow road.

The house finally came into view a moment later – large, yes, yet not flashy or extravagant. Just simple, regular brick, dark blue shutters, and wide rectangular windows. A line of round, trimmed shrubs lined the wraparound front porch, and I noticed a windchime hanging above the railing. Very normal, so far…

“Well,” Taylor said as he maneuvered around to the back. There was a line of cars lined up in and around their driveway. I immediately recognized Isaac’s Jeep among them, as well as Zac’s beat-up Wrangler. “This is it…”

“I can see…” He pulled up behind the Jeep and pushed the gearshift in park. I undid the seatbelt clasp, and then fidgeted for a moment. “What’s your sisters’ names again?” I asked suddenly. “Oh, God, I can’t remember…”

He sighed. “You will be introduced to them anyway, but there’s Jessica, Avery, and Zoe, in order of oldest to youngest. And before you ask, Mackenzie is our littlest brother. Mom and Dad are Diana and Walker… and Macky has two fish, Goldy and Angel.” He grinned at that last one, and I rolled my eyes.

“You’re absolutely useless,” I grumbled. Taylor unbuckled himself and practically leaped out of the car. I followed, moving much more slowly, putting off the inevitable. I felt like I was about to go onstage for a beauty pageant – carefully dressed and groomed, prepared for a seemingly polite but subversively grilling interview. God, what if they hated me? What would we do?

Taylor grabbed my arm, dragging me towards the back door, which was apparently the main entrance to the house. “I’m starving,” he said casually, as if this was just a totally normal night out, and not a dinner date at which I was practically required to impress everyone there. “Mom’s fixing lasagna,” he remarked. “She asked what you liked, and I said pretty much anything Italian. And she’s a great cook… you’ll love it.”

Lasagna? Good Lord, what had he been thinking? All that sloppy marina sauce and piles of ricotta cheese… had he temporarily forgotten that I was an imbecile? I sighed inwardly. Well, it was sweet of him to suggest that for me, and on the bright side, it did sound good. “Okay,” I mumbled, unsure of what else to say. I automatically reached up, nibbling on my fingernail, one of my many nervous habits. “Thanks…”

He stopped at the door, turning to face me, keeping my hand firmly clenched in his. I found myself blushing as he looked me over with a smile, his eyes wrinkling in that familiar, warm way. How did he do it? How did he manage to make me feel like the most important person in the entire world, without even saying a word?

I took a deep breath. “Well,” I said with forced ease. “Are we going in, or standing out here on your back porch all night?”

“That’s more like it.” He grinned, leaning forward to give me a quick, solid kiss. When he pulled away, he reached for the doorknob with his free hand. “Relax…” he reminded me. With that last helpful suggestion, he pushed the door open, pulling me inside.

We stepped into a foyer, and it was relatively dark after coming in from the bright late-afternoon sun. I blinked, letting my eyes adjust. In the next room over, I could hear voices, laughter, the noise of a TV blaring in the background; the hissing sound of food being grilled on a stove, of water boiling in a pot. And damn, it did smell wonderful. I inhaled deeply, closing my eyes.

Taylor led me down the short hallway, towards the rectangle of light, where the noise was coming from. I toddled along behind him, warily peeking around his shoulder as we entered the kitchen. “Hey!” Taylor said loudly, startling me. “We’re here!”

At his announcement, several heads swiveled to face us. I wasn’t sure where to look, at first – my eyes darted around, soaking in the influx of blondness in the room, in awe of this family’s fabulous genetics. His mother, Diana, I noticed first – long, wavy blond hair, hanging far down past her back. She met my eyes easily and immediately smiled, her face warm and open. I hesitantly smiled back, hoping my face wasn’t turning beet-red. On the opposite side of the stove, lined up at the bar counter, were more Hansons. Isaac and Zac, watching us with expressions of mild amusement. Not surprising. Next to them was a girl, maybe 14, with shoulder-length hair, and a face eerily reminiscent of Zac. Judging by the sounds coming from the next room over, I figured the rest of the clan was in the den watching TV.

“There you are!” Diana exclaimed. I stood by and watched as she set her spatula down, immediately coming over to hug her son. He stood nearly a foot taller than her, and I had to smile at their awkward but loving embrace. “You made it!” she said, pulling away from Taylor and smiling up at him affectionately. “We were beginning to wonder…”

“Sorry,” Taylor said, laughing a little. “My fault. I’m always late…” He glanced over slyly at me, waiting to see how I’d react to him taking the blame. I smiled, hesitantly stepping forward, and he latched onto my arm and pulled me next to him. “Mom, this is Alley,” he said, sounding almost proud. He nudged me. “Alley, my mother, Diana Hanson.”

“Hi,” I said shyly. Unsure of what proper procedure was – I’d never actually had to meet anyone’s parents like this before, seeing how I’d had essentially no love life before Taylor – I simply stuck out my hand, feeling very silly. I was relieved when she immediately clasped it, her smile growing wider. Her blue eyes crinkled up in a familiar way, and I immediately realized where Taylor got his beauty from. Oh, how uncanny…

“Hello, Alley,” she said. She laughed gently. “Lovely to meet you. We’ve heard so much about you…”

“I’m glad to finally meet you, too…” Especially since you’re going to be my mother-in-law…

“Of course.” I was slightly surprised when she gently pulled on my arm, leading me away from Taylor and over to the last empty stool at the bar. “Here, sit down. It’s going to be ready soon, so make yourself at home.” I obeyed, sitting down next to Isaac, giving him a quick nod and hello. He smiled, and sitting so close to him, I could see the sympathetic look in his eyes. I wondered if he could see the cry for help in mine. Regardless, I knew, just by his expression, that he was going to help me out tonight, and I felt relieved.

“Taylor hogging the bathroom again?” he asked. “He’s good for that sort of thing.”

I bit my lip, stifling a laugh. “Um, yeah. You know how he is with the hair…” From the corner of my eye, I saw Taylor throw me an insulted look, but thankfully he didn’t contradict me. Isaac laughed softly, obviously trying to put me more at ease, as he’d done earlier in the day with mixed results. I settled into the chair, resting my arms on the countertop. Zac, meanwhile, remained silent, a strange sort of smirk on his face as he gave me a brief once-over. Taylor claimed that Zac was still trying to figure me out, but I wasn’t sure I believed that. Honestly, what was there to figure out, other than the ‘suddenness’ of mine and Taylor’s relationship, which we had done our best to explain? There just wasn’t that much to me, when you got right down to it…

“Do you want something to drink, Alley?” Diana asked. “We have iced tea, Coke, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew…”

“Well,” I hedged. I was a little thirsty, but I wasn’t so sure a massive dose of caffeine was going to help my nerves any. “I—”

Taylor interrupted, striding towards me. “Well, I want to introduce her to everyone else first,” he said. Before I could protest, he’d latched onto my hand and started pulling me towards the other room. Before we left, however, he stopped by the girl at the bar. “Oh, and this is Avery.”

“Hi, Avery,” I said. I’d always heard that it was a good idea to repeat the names of everyone you met to remember them better… and with as many people as I had to meet today, I needed all the help I could get. She offered me a mild smile and hello, clearly indifferent to it all, and so he immediately carted me off into the den.

Taylor’s father was on the couch – the lone brunette in the sea of blonde. Sprawled out next to him was a younger version of Diana, all fairness and long, wavy hair. Their profiles were to us, so they didn’t notice our entry right away. I quickly surveyed the room – very homey, lived-in. There were pictures all over the walls, shelves cluttered with trinkets and handmade crafts. Really, not the sort of den you’d imagine an internationally known rock star lounging around in. Maybe Taylor’s life had been a little more normal than I’d originally thought…

There was a gigantic TV over in the far corner, blaring out the evening news – it had to be the biggest appliance I’d ever seen. Jesus, it was nearly as tall as I was. Sitting in front of it were two more blondes, a young boy and even younger girl. They were bickering over something, but immediately stopped when Taylor spoke up.

“Hey,” he said cheerfully, startling everyone in the room.

The little girl turned and visibly brightened. “Taylor!” she shrieked. She leaped up, bounding over to us. Taylor laughed, scooping her up in a hug and swinging her around, despite the fact that she was probably well past the age where that sort of thing was normal. He swung her up and down, laughing as she squealed. He was obviously so comfortable around kids, a fact that wasn’t surprising in the least, since he’d grown up with six of them. I stood by, watching until they calmed down, and she latched onto his neck, giggling. I felt a wistful smile form on my lips. He would make such a good father…

“Zoe, this is Alley,” Taylor said, interrupting my little reverie. He adjusted her so she was facing me. “Say hello.”

“Hello,” she said dutifully, studying me with wide, bright eyes. She was absolutely adorable, I thought, with her curly blond hair and angelic little face. I resisted the urge to reach out and pinch her cheek.

“Ah, so this is Alley.” I turned to see Taylor’s father getting up off the couch and coming to stand behind me. He offered up his hand. “I’m Walker.”

“Hi…” God, I really needed a more interesting salutation. I gripped him firmly and we shook. “Nice to meet you.”

“And you,” he replied. “We’ve heard a lot about you…”

“That’s what everyone keeps saying,” I said with forced cheerfulness. “All good, I hope…” Ugh. Could I be any more lame?

He laughed. “Of course, of course. So, Taylor tells me you’re from Lexington?”

I nodded, preparing to answer, but once again, Taylor beat me to the punch. “She used to live, like, ten minutes from where Aunt Beth lived,” he piped up, bouncing Zoe on his hip.

“Yeah,” I said. “I grew up on High Street, just down from Fontaine.”

Walker nodded in recognition. “Right, right, I remember that area. Close to the television station?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Probably half a mile or so away.”

“Beautiful area. We haven’t been there in awhile, but I remember there were lots of amazing old houses. And there was the--” he paused, frowning in thought. “The Clay estate, I believe, is in that area?”

“Yeah, the Henry Clay estate. It’s right off of Main…” We chatted for a few more minutes about my hometown, and amazingly, I felt myself beginning to relax the tiniest bit. Initial impressions had gone fairly well… so far, anyway, both of Taylor’s parents had been polite, easygoing, and not freaked out by my wild hair. Maybe I would make it through this evening unscathed, after all. Taylor finally set Zoe down and introduced the rest of his family – his oldest sister, Jessica, and littlest brother, Mackenzie. God. How was I supposed to remember all these names? I wasn’t so sure my little mnemonic device was going to work…

“I’m gonna check on dinner,” Walker said. “Have a seat. It should be ready soon. ”

I turned to Taylor, hesitant, and he nodded, taking my arm again and leading me over to the loveseat, across the coffee table from his sister. I sat down, looking all around the room, absorbing the little details here and there – a pretty flower arrangement on the mantel, the soothing pale blue wallpaper, the neatly framed paintings on the wall. Taylor settled in next to me, sprawling over his section of the couch.

“So what’s been going on?” he asked Jessica. “What have I missed?”

She shrugged, still slouched down in the cushions. “Nothing, really.”

“Nothing at all?” Taylor repeated.

“Nope.” She seemed unconcerned by my presence, much like the other siblings had, and I wondered about that. Were they assuming I was like his last girlfriend, or did they simply not care? I looked over at Taylor; he was grinning.

“So how are you and whatshisface?” he asked. “Is he still calling here every hour of the day?”

Jessica’s face flushed just a little, and she rolled her eyes. “He does not call here every hour…”

“Yeah, right.” He looked over at me to explain. “Her boyfriend calls here constantly…”

“He’s not my boyfriend!”

“No? Not yet, give it a little time…” Taylor replied. “But Jesus, as much as he talks, I don’t see why you’d want to date him, anyway… you’d never get a word in edgewise.”

“Kind of like you, huh?” I said before I could control myself. I halted, blushing. Way to go… insult him in front of family, great. God, I just needed to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the night.

However, to my surprise and relief, Jessica actually laughed. “Exactly. You’re one to talk, motormouth.”

Taylor sighed, not even disputing the claim. “Ganging up on me already. Figures.”

I smiled. “It’s nice to have people on my side.”

He gave me an injured look. “You’re supposed to be on my side…”

Before I could reply, his father walked back into the room. “It’s ready,” he said. “Come and get it.”

*****

My first dinner with the Hansons.

Seeing them all lined up at the long rectangular table in the dining room was surreal – one flaxen head after the other, in differing shades and at differing heights, until you got to the end where Taylor’s father sat. Kind of like seeing a line of used yellow crayons lined up in a box, with a Burnt Sienna haphazardly stuck in the back…

We’d taken our time getting to the table, so there were just two seats left for me and Taylor, side by side. I immediately went for the one next to Isaac, as I felt a little better since he was at least somewhat familiar to me. Taylor collapsed beside me in the remaining chair.

“I’m starving,” he announced, much like he had done to me earlier. “This looks great.”

“It does,” I agreed, surveying the table. Diana had piled all of our plates high with thick squares of lasagna, cheese and sauce oozing from the sides. Two giant baskets of bread were placed on either end, and bowls of salad sat to the upper corner of the plates. I briefly wondered how much their grocery bill was every week. It had to be astronomical…

Walker laughed, seeing the way I was eyeing the spread. “Bet you’ve never seen so much food at one time, have you?” he teased.

“Well…” I studied the massive pile of pasta on my plate. Had Taylor told them I was a bottomless pit, or were they just being generous? “It is a lot…”

Taylor snickered. “I don’t know…” he murmured. “I think I’ve seen you put away more than that in one sitting before…”

I kicked him under the table. What, did he want to make me look like a moron in front of everyone? Luckily, no one seemed to have caught that comment, and once Walker gave the go-ahead to begin, the others around me began digging into their food with impressive fervor. Especially Zac, who was shoveling the dinner into his mouth with a speed that even I found amazing. I slowly cut into my thick square of lasagna, but remained still for a moment, paranoid that they would start watching me as soon as I lifted the fork to my mouth.

Taylor peered over at my plate. “Hey, you got more than me,” he said, as if I’d done it on purpose. He grabbed his fork and attacked my dinner, stealing the little slice I’d just cut off. Normally, I would have jabbed at his hand with my own fork in defense, but somehow I didn’t think that would be appropriate in this setting. Instead, I watched, bemused, as he chomped on his stolen pasta, chewing and savoring. He gave me a tight-lipped grin as he munched. “Delicious,” he declared after swallowing. “Try it, Alley.”

I tentatively stuck my fork into the meal, aware that his mother had looked up at that statement, obviously waiting on my opinion. Why lasagna, Taylor? Why couldn’t you have suggested something a little neater, like chicken marsala or sirloin or hell, grilled cheese? I firmly poked a wide piece of noodle and cheese, and tentatively lifted it up to my lips.

“Good, huh?” Taylor asked. Jeez, he was awfully chipper this evening. While he was generally an upbeat sort of person, his incessant prodding and buoyant tone were at least a notch or two above normal Taylor standards. I studied him as I chewed; looked carefully at his eyes. He locked gazes with me for a moment, and I noticed the way his eyes shifted around ever-so-slightly. And then it hit me – he was nervous. He’d managed to fool me for the past two days, always offering his standard breezy reassurances, but deep down, he was as jittery as me. Strangely enough, that thought actually made me feel better. Like we were in this together…

“Mmmm…” I nodded vigorously as I swallowed. It was good… As good as Louise’s, if not better, though I was sure she would kill me for ever saying that. Taylor winked as I voiced my approval, and Diana smiled, turning her attention back to her plate.

“So how was the drive up here?” Walker asked, striking up some conversation. “Have any trouble?”

“No, it was good,” I said. “Pretty uneventful. A little traffic around St. Louis, but that’s normal.”

“Pretty uneventful for you,” Taylor grumbled. “Seeing how you were asleep most of the time…”

I blushed a little and shrugged helplessly at his father’s chuckle. “Well, yeah,” I admitted. “But I guess you could take that as a compliment, Taylor…” I bit my lip at his flat, amused expression. “…like, your driving was just so smooth, I couldn’t help but go to sleep…”

“…or rather, you were just so boring, she couldn’t help but go to sleep,” Isaac said, and everyone laughed. I met Taylor’s eyes, still biting back my smile and giving him an apologetic look.

“Boring, huh?” Taylor asked. “Whatever. I just like to engage people in conversation…”

“Translation: you like to tell pointless stories,” Jessica said. She turned to me, rolling her eyes. “I bet when you all passed ORU he had to tell you about the time he tried to climb on the big hand statue and got yelled at by campus police…”

I couldn’t help but giggle. Yeah, I actually had heard about that. “Yeah, he did,” I admitted, and everyone laughed. “And I also got a long story about when you all played in the Mabee Center several years ago, and Taylor thought he sprained his ankle onstage…”

“And he kept an ice pack on it for two days, but it still hurt, and he kept a bandage on it for a week,” Isaac finished. Zac snorted. I got the distinct feeling they’d heard that one retold many, many times. “Taylor, jeez. You really need some new material, man.”

“What?” Taylor exclaimed. “It was new to her!”

“You mean I don’t even get original stories?” I asked. “I get hand-me-downs?”

Taylor threw his arms up in defeat. “I give up. Let’s just eat.” Smiling, his mother agreed. While everyone resumed their eating and idle chatter, Taylor leaned close to me, whispering so that only I could hear.

“You’re doing great,” he said dryly.

*****

After spending a little time with the rest of the Hansons, I began to understand where Taylor got his easygoing, sharp humor from. How he really seemed to be so ‘normal’ (well, in some ways), despite his erratic career and lifestyle. When you grew up in such a close-knit family, as one of seven siblings, you ended up with a certain amount of self-deprecation and modesty, I supposed.

Once I’d recovered somewhat from my initial shyness, I found myself chatting, if not easily, then at least not awkwardly, with Taylor’s parents, though the children, for the most part, kept to themselves. Walker and Diana were very nice; polite, but with an understandably guarded air about them. I wasn’t surprised, or insulted – after all, I was sure they’d met their fair share of girls with eyes for at least one of their sons, and not all of those girls could be trusted. Particularly since I knew good and well what kinds of girls Taylor had brought home before. They kept their questions light and simple, a fact that I was eternally thankful for, as it made my job a little easier. But regardless, by the time dessert rolled around – homemade chocolate cream pie that nearly made me want to die of happiness – I had managed to relax and almost enjoy myself. 

And so far, by some stroke of luck, I’d managed to compose myself with a modicum of dignity. Other than one mildly scary moment where I nearly knocked over my Coke, things had gone pretty smoothly. There had been no lasagna mishaps, no dropped plates, no accidental chokings… at least not yet, anyway. I’d remembered which silverware to use, hadn’t talked with my mouth full, and had thus far answered his parents’ questions about my upbringing satisfactorily.

As the others finished their desserts, they slowly left the table one at a time, gathering their plates and glasses and taking them over to the sink to be cleaned until Taylor, Zac, his mother and I were the only ones left. The youngest ones wanted to go outside and had taken Isaac and Jessica with them, and Walker had driven Avery over to a friend’s house.

Taylor leaned back in his chair, rubbing his stomach and sighing happily. His shirt inched up as he did so, revealing a thin strip of his bare belly, and just a hint of hair. “That was great,” he announced. I couldn’t help but smile. The anxiety I had noticed earlier was gone; he had loosened up. I loved seeing him like this – relaxed, open, uninhibited… unlike his public ‘fans-might-be-watching’ demeanor, which was always a little wary. He noticed my expression and sat forward, moving his hands down into his lap and grinning back at me. A moment later, I felt his long fingers sneak over and slide onto my thigh, squeezing it affectionately under the table. I blushed, hoping his intimate actions were completely concealed from Diana’s point of view.

“It was,” I managed to agree. Not content with a simple squeeze, Taylor had left his hand on my leg, and of course, that meant that all coherent thought immediately flew out the window. Taylor, quit distracting me, I thought. There will be plenty of time for that later… Jesus Christ, what am I doing? Thinking about sex when his mother is right here in front of me? I nervously darted my eyes over to her, checking her expression. As if she could actually read my thoughts – as if she could just tell exactly the sort of things I was imagining doing with her son, like some sort of motherly intuition. And just when I thought I was doing so well…

“Well, thank you,” Diana said, mercifully oblivious. “I haven’t fixed lasagna in awhile, so I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.”

“Really? Well, it was really good…” I reached down, poking Taylor’s hand, hinting for him to let go so that maybe I could start being lucid again. Thankfully, sort of, he removed it, and so I asked his mother where the recipe came from, listening attentively as she replied. She stood up after answering my questions, collecting the dishes in front of her, presumably to take them to the other room.

“Do you need any help with the dishes?” I asked. Taylor noticeably jerked beside me, but I ignored him. Hell, anything for brownie points…

“No, Alley, that’s okay, I got it.” She smiled. “But thank you.” I nodded, watching her leave the room with a stack of china.

“You never offer to help me with the dishes,” Taylor said dryly when she was out of earshot.

I scowled at him, leaning forward and speaking low, since Zac was still sitting a few seats down, devouring his second helping of pie. “I’m not trying to impress you,” I grumbled. “I’m making an effort here, Taylor…”

He laughed merrily. “I know, I know.” He lazily rubbed my back, easing some of the tension from my shoulder blades. “And you’re doing great. Isn’t she, Zac?” Zac responded with a noncommittal grunt, and Taylor shrugged. “Whatever. She likes you, I can tell.”

Taylor’s enthusiasm and optimism was really starting to get annoying. How was I supposed to tell when he was telling the truth when he kept making grand generalizations like that? I couldn’t trust his opinion, it was biased. Sure, his mother had been polite, but all civilized mothers were in these sorts of situations, weren’t they?

“So how long are you staying, Alley?” I whipped my head around. She’d slipped back in without us noticing to collect more dishes. I stopped, realizing I had no idea how to answer that question, as Taylor and I hadn’t discussed that beforehand. Oh, until we get married, you know…

“I, well…” I frantically looked over at him. “Until Taylor gets sick of me, I guess,” I joked when I recognized that he didn’t have any answers to substitute for me. He rolled his eyes at that but smiled.

“Yeah,” he agreed amiably, reaching to push a curl behind my ear, causing me to blush again. Was that normal, to be so openly affectionate in front of them? Had he done that with all his girlfriends? Or just me? I wasn’t sure which was the better answer. “For… awhile. We didn’t actually set a specific amount of time…”

“Oh… okay.” For her part, Diana looked a little confused, and I certainly couldn’t blame her. An indefinite stay? Well, it was pretty obvious I didn’t have a job… “Well, I hope you have a good time here. You’ve been here before, right? I believe Taylor mentioned you had a friend that lives here?”

I could feel the blood rushing into my face, and I tried to remain calm and controlled. I was terrible at lying, and I hated it, especially since I was doing it to her. What a way to start off a relationship… “Um, yeah,” I said. “I’ve been here… a few times.” I swallowed; my mouth suddenly felt dry. “Visiting,” I added for no apparent reason.

She nodded. “Well, that’s good, so you probably know your way around at least some of the town… where does your friend live?”

I opened my mouth and then closed it. Good question, Mrs. Hanson, where does my ‘friend’ live? I couldn’t for the life of me name a single suburb in Tulsa to spout off. I silently smashed Taylor’s toe with the heel of my sandal, hoping he would get the hint. Judging by the way his muscles tensed up, I gathered that he did.

“Over in Owasso,” he said for me. I merely nodded, trying to appear as if I was simply used to Taylor interrupting and answering for me. Which, really, was not that far from the truth. “So, different area…” he trailed off before speaking again. “But she moved, didn’t she?” Taylor asked suddenly. “Samantha. She moved to… Kansas City, did you say?”

I really wondered why he felt the need to go into detail. Didn’t they always say the best liars never volunteered anymore than they had to? Well, I guessed it kept us from having to talk about it anymore, which was a plus. But really, where the hell did he get the name ‘Samantha’? I made a mental note to ask that later on.

“Um, yeah,” I said. “She doesn’t live here anymore… so, it’s been awhile. Since I’ve been here, I mean. I don’t really remember too much about this area…” Other than our fugitive-on-the-run escapade in the hospital and the memorable scene at Gypsy’s, that is. Sort of hard to ‘see the city’ when you’re trying to hide from angry security officers…

“Ah, I see,” Diana said, accepting our explanations. “Well, I know the boys are busy, but you have to make Taylor take you on an official tour of the city.”

I nodded, and Taylor agreed. “Oh, I will,” he said. “I’ll point out all the highlights…”

“…and lowlights,” Zac mumbled through a mouthful of chocolate.

“Zac,” his mother scolded. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” She looked at me, shaking her head. “Eighteen years old, and I still have to remind him. Boys!”

“I hear they’re a handful,” I said. Especially, oh, four of them…

 

She laughed. “Yes… but worth it, in the end.” She smiled fondly at Taylor before turning to grab an empty plate, and I suddenly suspected that she was remembering the two years she’d had without her son. Two years, my God… I’d barely been able to make one without him. I took a deep breath, my throat feeling oddly thick.

“I’m gonna run to the bathroom,” Taylor said, completely oblivious to the subtle melancholy tone of the room. “I’ll be right back.” He winked at me, and I could have throttled him. Leaving me alone already? I wasn’t ready to fly solo with any of them just yet…

I nervously turned around. Zac looked at me, his face expressionless. Well, he was going to be no help, so I wasn’t sure why I even bothered. I was trying desperately to come up with a mild, easy conversation topic, but Diana beat me to it.

“So you said you just graduated from college,” Diana said. “What did you say your degree was in, again?”

Right. I’d thought I’d managed to casually gloss over the fact that I was an art bum, but it seemed that I was going to have to give details now… here we go, the point when she discovers her son’s new woman is unemployed and unskilled in any sort of practical career. Taylor would have to choose this moment to leave me here alone. Damn him. “Um…” I said, hesitating, embarrassed that I couldn’t say something that sounded important, like pharmacy or engineering. “Art. Painting was my area of concentration…”

“Oh, I see,” she said. “What do you paint?”

“Um… anything that strikes me, really… I’ve done a lot of landscapes… I love to do portraits…” I tried not to fidget in the seat. She nodded again, clearly trying to find something positive to say.

“That must be fun… Do you take requests, or sell your work?”

“I’ve sold some before… never really taken requests. I… well, really, I usually just paint for myself, or for friends and family, though I’ve had a few pieces put on display back home…” I furtively glanced towards the door. Dammit, Taylor, where are you? Help me out here…

She nodded politely. “Well, I’d love to see something you’ve done, sometime.” I was about to reply, but was interrupted.

“She did that one of Taylor,” Zac spoke up. I stared at him, nearly dropping my fork. “The one he took and put up in his room. Remember?”

Diana’s eyes immediately widened, and she glanced sharply at me. “That was yours?”

For some reason, I felt mortified. Maybe it was because Taylor’s gift had been the most intense, personal thing I’d ever done – when I’d been creating it, the thought had never crossed my mind that someone other than him would see it. I felt almost exposed, knowing that others had seen it. Knowing that they had seen the emotion behind every brushstroke…

I averted her gaze, tucking my hair behind my ears. “Yeah,” I said softly. “That was one of mine…”

Her mouth dropped, and she set the dishes down for a moment. “Oh, Alley, it was beautiful… incredibly realistic. Almost like looking at a photograph…” I blushed, and she shook her head in wonder, smiling. “We were floored by it. I can’t believe Taylor never mentioned that it was yours!”

“Well,” Zac said, again filling in for me, “he didn’t remember until about two months ago.” His tone had a strange lilt to it, almost like a challenge. He fixed his gaze on me, studying my face without flinching, as if waiting for my reaction. I didn’t look away.

She immediately sombered. “Oh, that’s true.” She gave me a concerned look. “You poor thing… waiting so long… he feels so terrible about that,” she said quietly. “I’ve never seen him so distraught… or so determined to leave...”

I merely nodded, unsure of what else to say. He hadn’t been the only one distraught… “It was hard,” I finally said, my voice barely above a whisper.

She clucked sympathetically. “Why didn’t you come visit? I’m sure he would have remembered sooner if he’d been around you…”

I gave her a tight, rueful smile. “I guess I thought you all wouldn’t believe me, since I’d never met any of you. I didn’t really have any other options…” I trailed off, remembering the desperation and loneliness I’d felt for those twelve months. How I’d felt completely at a loss, with no hope for a reunion…

She nodded again, her eyes understanding. “Well,” she said gently, “I’m so glad he did remember.” She collected several bowls, stacking them, and smiled warmly at me as she retreated from the room. I watched her leave, a fluttery, almost giddy feeling in my stomach, sort of the way I’d felt after doing particularly well on a test. Really? She was glad he remembered me?

I glanced back at Zac, who was still studying me while mechanically chewing his pie crust. What was up with him? Observing me from afar all evening, then suddenly jumping to my rescue, then back to his detached demeanor again? It was unnerving.

“I… I think I’ll go to the restroom, too,” I said, eager for an excuse to leave.

*****

Later, Taylor took me on a full tour of the house. The upstairs was quiet as he walked me through, pointing out each room and explaining its purpose, whether it was a bedroom, bathroom, closet, or rec room. The house was large, of course, but not unnecessarily big, and it took us several minutes to complete a run-through of the level.

We came back to his old bedroom after we were done, and I stood in the middle, looking at the walls. Diana had kept Taylor and his brothers’ rooms just as they had left them, rather than converting them into spare bedrooms or offices, as many parents would have done. There were still pictures left on the wall, ancient posters, Taylor’s old bed in the corner, neatly made with a dark red blanket draping over the sides… That’s where he woke up, before he came to me, I thought, remembering what he had told me when he’d first ‘arrived’. Woke up in that bed, with a room all clean and pristine, much like it is now… So weird. So, so weird, to be seeing all the things and meeting all the people he’d talked about for over a year… I walked closer, studying a family picture that was tacked up on the inside of his door. It appeared to be one several years old, probably taken a year or two before his accident. Seeing their images frozen in time made all their similarities jump out even more. Incredible, all that blonde…

“You know, it’s pretty amazing,” I said, absentmindedly tapping my finger against the photo, “that so many of you are blonde. I mean, your mom is blonde, but your dad has dark hair. So, if you really think about it…” I mentally worked out a punnet square in my head, imagining the possible genes they each could have passed down. “…you have like a 50/50 chance at best of being blonde for each child… and yet all of you are blonde… so--”

“Alley,” Taylor interrupted. “You’re not a science major anymore. You should forget all that useless shit you learned in biology.” He grinned, and I just rolled my eyes.

“Still resisting an education, I see,” I said. “Alright, fine, I’ll quit acting like a nerd. But seriously, Taylor…” I glanced back at the picture, studying the line of beautiful, fair faces that looked back at me. “Are you sure you want to marry me? I’ll taint your gene pool…”

“What?!” He was so appalled at that statement that I had to laugh. “Alley, that’s ridiculous. How many times do I have to tell you, you are a beautiful--”

“—I know, I know. I was just joking…” I sighed, walking back over to him. “Sorry…”

He sat on the bed, looking up at me. “It’s okay. I just wish you wouldn’t say things like that, because it’s not even remotely true.” I smiled at his seriousness and bent to give him a kiss. His lips were soft and warm, and I sighed contentedly when we broke apart. “Besides, our kids will need to get their intelligence from somewhere…”

I grinned, loving the casual way he discussed our future… kids? I felt a little shiver run up my spine. “True, I suppose,” I conceded with a haughty air, and laughed at his dour expression. Wordlessly, he reached for my hand, kissing the soft skin on the back before speaking again.

 “So… what do you think?” he asked. “About my family…”

I nodded. “I like them,” I said. “They seem like good people.”

He grinned cheekily. “They are. Where do you think I get my charming personality from?”

I snorted. “Apparently not the same place you got your humility, which is non-existent.” He mock-scowled, grabbing my arm and pulling me down into his lap. I squirmed to get away – after all, what if one of them came upstairs and saw us sequestered away in his room, me on his lap? – but Taylor wasn’t having it. He wrapped his arms around me, holding me close in a hug.

“You fit in so well,” he said when I stopped struggling.

“Because I’m blonde?”

He laughed. “That, too, I guess… but I was thinking more along the lines of your little comments at my expense… oh, they loved that. Not used to seeing that sort of thing from girlfriends…”

And that was a good thing? And here I thought my lack of tact or class was a black mark against my name. “So,” I said wryly, “keep insulting you, and in no time I’ll be one of the family?”

“Pretty much.” He shifted me on his legs until I was facing sideways. “Everything is perfect…” he murmured. “I’m here, you’re here, and it’s all real this time…”

“It was all real last time,” I reminded him. “Though maybe not quite in this dimension…” He laughed a little, and I continued. “But I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, just yet…” Not until I was approved and we started telling the truth, anyway…

“Why?” he demanded.

"Taylor, we're lying to them!" I exclaimed, amazed that he’d apparently already forgotten the giant flaw in our evening. "You can't tell me they would approve of that!"

"We're not lying to them... we're just not mentioning it yet... there's a difference..." he said, grinning in that annoyingly adorable way of his.

"A difference?" I sputtered. I was amazed that the whole thing wasn't eating him up inside the way it was me. "It's still wrong! You know, in Catholicism that's called a 'lie of omission'..."

"Well," he said, after a moment, "it's a good thing we're not Catholic then, I guess..."

I started to argue with him again, but stopped. Well, now that he mentioned it, I certainly agreed with that statement. Because Catholics didn't use birth control, right? Yikes... and judging from Taylor's genetic history, I was relatively sure the boy was an overflowing spring of fertility. And while I was all for little baby Taylors and Alleys running around in our future, I wasn't sure I was ready for seven or so little baby Taylors and Alleys running around.

“Right,” I said slowly. I slowly stood up, disengaging from his embrace. “Hey, remind me to stop at Rite-Aid on the way home.”

“Why?”

“So I can get my birth control refilled,” I muttered under my breath. “Oh, I just need to pick up a few things,” I said a little louder. He shrugged, agreeing to my demand, and followed me out into the hall.

“You ready to go back down?” he asked. “They’re probably starting to wonder about us…”

I groaned, not liking the undertone of that statement. “Don’t say that… I don’t want them to think I’m a whore…”

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.” He took my hand, leading me back down the stairs. “Come on, we need to hang out for awhile.”

“We do?” I asked, chagrined. Why couldn’t we leave now, while they still had a relatively good impression of me? What was that old saying about overstaying your welcome? “Why?”

“So they can see how perfect we are for each other,” he replied easily. “Now come on.”

*****

“So, you have a roommate, right, Alley?”

I turned to Taylor’s father, who had returned from his brief trip and had rejoined us in the den downstairs. The kids were still outside with Isaac, and Zac had left for the evening, claiming he’d had previous plans with a friend, and so it was just me, Taylor, and his parents. I had the impression that they’d planned for it to end up this way... a little ‘one-on-one’ time alone with us.

“Yes,” I replied. “Louise. She’s sort of… my pseudo-sister, I guess you could say. She’s Ellen and Thomas’s daughter. We grew up together.”

He nodded in understanding, and I was eternally glad that Taylor had already explained to them my parent situation so any of those awkward questions could have been avoided. “Is she in college, too?”

“Yeah, but she’s almost done. Graduates in December. She has to do her student teaching this semester.”

“So you’re done, and she’s almost done,” he said thoughtfully. He laughed a little. “It went by fast, didn’t it?”

“It did,” I said. “Truthfully, it doesn’t feel like I’m done. I feel like I should be buying notebooks and canvases and getting ready for classes again…”

“So what are you planning to do?” Diana asked. “Do you have anything specific in mind?”

Shit, shit, shit. The one question I had heard at least a million times the past few months, and the one that I hated more than anything. And that I still had no idea how to answer. I gave brief consideration to making something up that sounded good – hell, all the other truth-stretching didn’t seem to bother Taylor, so why should it bother me? – but I refrained. Damn. Might as well be honest.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I just want to paint. I mean,” I added hastily, “I’ll be finding a regular job, to at least pay the bills, but I want to work on my art while I’m doing that. Really, I’d love to have a showing at a gallery somewhere…”

“You should,” Taylor said. “You have more than enough for that already, I think. We should make some calls.”

I wondered if they picked up on his use of ‘we’. As if he and I were already one unit. “You should,” Walker agreed politely. “Just keep at it, that sort of thing takes patience. So how long have you been painting?” he asked.

I smiled. “I was ten when I first started. Dad got tired of me asking for a new box of crayons every week, so he decided to get me supplies that were a little longer-lasting and see how it took.” I shrugged. “I’ve been doing it ever since. It just feels right. I can’t imagine not doing it…”

Walker chuckled. “Well, I think it’s safe to say we understand that.” He glanced over at Taylor and smiled. “The nature of artists, I guess. We knew early on there was no way we were going to hold these boys back…”

Taylor grinned. “True,” he said. “We were pretty determined.”

“Yep, you were… not even fazed by rejection.” Walker smiled ruefully. “You just kept going at it, show after show…”

I perked up. Taylor had been through the details of their early career with me before, but it was interesting to hear it from a different point of view. “Taylor said once he thought they’d performed for every single person in Tulsa at least 10 times at one point,” I said, laughing. “Same places over and over, every year…”

“Oh, yes, that’s probably true,” Diana said. “There were times when it seemed so futile, but they kept wanting to do it. They wanted that contract…”

“I can’t imagine that… being so young but so determined,” I said. “When I was 11 or 12, I was more concerned with, like, cartoons and boys, than trying to do something productive with my life…”

She laughed. “Well, I think most 11 or 12-year olds are, Alley. We just happened to have three special cases…” She smiled at Taylor. “Particularly this one here. He was always the most ambitious.”

“Really?” I looked slyly over at Taylor, who was beginning to look a little nervous at the change of conversation. Good. Let him be in the hot seat for awhile. “How so?”

“What was that list he had, Walker?” She turned to her husband thoughtfully. “Do you remember? Of things he wanted to accomplish?”

“Right, his list of goals to reach by the age of thirteen,” Walker said. “He had them up on his door.”

I turned to Taylor in disbelief. “You had a list of goals at thirteen?” I asked. “Jesus…”

Taylor shrugged and smiled. “Hey, I had things I wanted to do.”

“Like what?”

“Like get a contract!”

“At thirteen?!” Christ! What sort of twelve-year-old made it his resolution to land a record contract? “I can’t believe that…”

“It’s true,” Diana said. “Poor thing, he was crushed when that year was up. Took a little longer than he expected to get one.”

A little longer? What, a couple of months? Good grief. “Wow,” I finally said. I’d known that Taylor was a pretty driven person; that much I had gleaned just by being around him, but this was much more than I had expected. God, it was a wonder he hadn’t gone insane in the time he was stuck with me, being unable to perform. If it meant that much to him, how had he been able to stand it?

“You know,” Diana said slyly. “We have plenty of old tapes with their early shows on them lying around… we should dig a few up to show you sometime, Alley.”

I raised an eyebrow, unable to stop the grin on my face. “Oh, really?” I asked. “Hmmm. Sounds interesting…”

“I don’t think she needs to see those,” Taylor said, sounding mildly alarmed. “She doesn’t even like our music…”

“Taylor!” I was appalled – what sort of thing was that to tell your future in-laws? That your girlfriend/fiancée didn’t even like what you did for a living? Besides, that wasn’t entirely true… “That’s not true! I like some of your songs!”

To my surprise, his parents both just laughed. “Regardless,” his mother said gently, “she likes you, Taylor, and that’s reason enough to watch.”

I blushed a little, but agreed. Taylor looked mortified. “Where are these tapes?” he asked uneasily.

“Somewhere where you and your brothers can’t get to them,” she replied in a sweet tone. “Should I go get a few?”

I was liking Diana more and more. “Yes!” I immediately replied. “By all means…”

“It’s after nine,” Taylor suddenly pointed out. “Shouldn’t Zoe be in bed?”

Walker laughed, looking back at the clock, and indeed, it was ten after nine. “She should,” he agreed. “Nice save, Taylor.” I sighed loudly, as if disappointed. He stood up. “I’ll go find her. Are they still outside?”

“I think so,” Diana said. As he stood up to go find his youngest daughter, his wife turned back to us. “Well, I guess that will have to wait until next time,” she said, her eyes glinting with mischief. “But they’ll come out sooner or later.”

“I can’t wait,” I said. Yeah, it was time for a little payback in that department. Taylor had seen and heard plenty of embarrassing stories about me from Ellen and Joanna, so it was only natural to get that favor returned in kind.

“I can,” Taylor muttered. He stretched his arms over his head. “Well, really, Mom, we should be going. Alley still has jet lag from the one-hour time difference…” He grinned at me. “She has to get her twelve hours of beauty sleep in every night…”

“Taylor!” I rolled my eyes. “Not that much…”

“Okay, maybe just ten.” He stood, pulling me up with him. His mother stood, as well, leading us back into the kitchen.

“Do you want to take any with you?” she asked. “We’ve got plenty left over.”

“Well,” I said. “That would be great, actually…” We stood by, chatting aimlessly as she fixed us several Tupperware boxes of leftovers to take home. Taylor took the small stack from her when she was done, setting them on the counter.

“Thanks for dinner,” he said brightly, giving her another hug. “It was good.”

“You’re welcome, honey.” I inched closer as they pulled apart, preparing to say my goodbyes. She turned to me after letting go of him, giving me a wide, genuine smile. “Alley. It was wonderful to finally meet you.”

“You, too,” I said softly. “Thanks for having me.” I wasn’t sure what to do – shake hands again or something? Before I could decide what to do, I suddenly found myself enveloped in a gentle hug. Shocked, it took me a moment to return her loose embrace. Taylor’s face lit up. See? he mouthed. She let go of me, and I stood there, grinning uncontrollably, positive that I looked like a dork.

“Come back soon,” she said. “We’d love to have you. And maybe then I’ll bring out one of those videos… and some pictures you should see, as well.” She winked at me, again looking eerily like her son.  Bringing out personal items for me to see? Definitely a good sign… she trusted me. And, apparently, realized that Taylor trusted me and that we were quite serious…

“Pictures, too?” I asked. I smirked at Taylor, whose face had fallen again. “Any embarrassing ones?”

“Plenty.” She smiled broadly.

“Excellent,” I said gleefully. “I can’t wait.”

“Right,” Taylor grumbled. “Well, we gotta go. We’ll catch Dad and the rest of them outside.” He gently prodded me towards the foyer, where the back door led out to the driveway. I laughed and said goodbye, walking ahead of them and out of the kitchen to the door we’d come in. I was getting ready to go outside when I realized that they weren’t right behind me, as I’d previously thought. Lord, was he chatting again? It was always so difficult to get Taylor to leave places because he could never shut up…

I turned, retracing a few of my steps and peeked around the corner of the open doorway into the kitchen, checking on him. Indeed, he and his mother were still talking, though it was so low I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Taylor was turned slightly towards her, his face alight, and she was quietly whispering to him with a soft smile on her face. I wondered what she was saying… something about me?

Before they could notice that I was unintentionally spying on them, which I figured would not be viewed as a good thing, I quickly went back to the door to wait on him.

*****

“You did great, Alley.”

“I did?” I looked over at Taylor, who hadn’t stopped grinning since we’d gotten into the Explorer. I was dying to know what his mother had said, but at the same time, reluctant to admit that I’d been watching their private interaction. Instead, I was waiting patiently for him to voluntarily tell me that information on his own. So far, no such luck.

“You did. They really like you.” The second time I’d heard that statement this evening, but again, from the same source. “Especially Mom.”

“Oh, really?” I asked carefully. “How can you tell?”

He rolled his eyes. “Because she’s my mother, maybe?”

“Did she say anything?” I rolled the window down to let some cooler air into the car, relishing the way it whipped through my hair. It had finally grown dark outside, and I stared up into the sky, looking at the stars.

“Maybe.” I turned back to look at Taylor. He smirked, his profile just barely lit up by the glow of the streetlights that lined the road.

“Taylor!” I reached over, poking his side. “Tell me!”

“Nah. It’s part of the confidential mother-son relationship…”

I scowled, and he laughed, obviously getting a kick out of my need to know. “I told you everything Ellen and Joanna said about you!”

“Can I help it that you can’t keep a secret?”

“Ugh!” I folded my arms, slouching in the seat. “You’re so aggravating.” I stared out the window, watching the city begin to overtake the rural landscape. Taylor chose not to respond to that, instead humming merrily along to the song playing faintly on the radio. I listened carefully before managing to decipher it. Smiling, I leaned over and turned it up.

“Penny lane is in my ears, and in my eyes…” I softly sang along with Paul and John, my voice barely audible over the rush of wind coming through the window. “…there beneath the blue suburban skies…”

 

“I didn’t know you liked the Beatles.” I looked back over. Taylor had his head cocked to the side, glancing back and forth between me and the road.

“Yeah… I used to have Let It Be and Revolver somewhere around the house, but I let Heather borrow them and they never made it back…” I rolled partially on my side so that I faced him.

He raised an eyebrow. “Really? But the Beatles were pop music, Alley…” he said in a lightly teasing tone. “You’re damaging your reputation…”

“True… but some of it’s not that bad.” I relaxed, letting my eyes rest on his lips, one of my many favorite Taylor features. They were moving softly in sync with the radio between responses, so flawless and sharply cut. “Despite what you told your mother, I do like some of your stuff, Taylor… and I like to hear you play…”

“Really?” He smiled broadly. “I knew I could get you to come around…”

“Don’t get too excited just yet…” I murmured. “I’m not running your fan club…”

“That’s funny, I thought you were my fan club…”

“Shut up.”

“Love you, too, honey.”

I giggled at his dry tone, leaning over to kiss his cheek. As I settled back into my seat, I closed my eyes, again singing along with the radio. I felt Taylor’s hand sneak over and rest on my leg, and I smiled, covering his fingers with mine. This was heavenly – cruising late at night in the cool air, singing along to some classic music, just being with the man I loved. Was this what my life was going to be like? Though I had disagreed with Taylor’s assessment of perfection earlier, I was beginning to see his point. Despite the difficulties that came with being with him – jealousy from girls, erratic schedules, the occasional stretching of the truth – it was perfect. We were perfect together…

The song ended, going straight into a commercial break, and I opened my eyes, sighing contentedly. Taylor’s lips were still moving silently, singing along with something apparently only he could hear. He felt my stare, and turned to glance at me, his eyes gleaming in the lamplight. When he didn’t say anything, I sat halfway up, cocking my head to the side.

“What?” I asked.

“You inspire me.”

I started. Well, that was a new one… some days I wondered exactly where all of Taylor’s flowery declarations came from. Was this really the same boy who had essentially called me a nerd earlier? “Huh? What? How?”

He laughed. “You’ll see… one of these days.”

*****

Later that night, after our trip to Rite-Aid, a long phone conversation with Louise, and a longer make-out session while we had the apartment to ourselves, Taylor had gone to take a shower, and I had gone downstairs for a snack. Other than the kitchen and the upstairs hall light, the other rooms were dark, and it was very eerie and quiet as I padded through the kitchen on bare feet. The AC had been cranked up earlier in the day, and so there was a light chill in the air.

I was standing in front of the refrigerator, debating my soda choices, when I heard the front door open. I froze. Had to be Zac – Isaac had called earlier to inform us that he was staying over with his girlfriend. I grabbed an Ale8 from the top shelf and quickly shut the door.

Zac clomped into the room, running one hand through his short, messy hair. I smiled hesitantly at him, holding the cold can in my hand, suddenly wondering why I hadn’t thought to put on a robe or something before coming down. I felt incredibly silly and helpless, standing there in my short little pajamas.

“Hey,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound so feeble and squeaky.

His eyes flickered over at me. “Hey.” I watched as he set his keys down on the counter and came over to the fridge, digging through it for a Dr. Pepper. I felt like I should say something more, but all I really wanted to do was run back upstairs and wait on Taylor to get out of the shower…

“Your mom is a really good cook,” I said, wishing that I’d been blessed with Taylor’s idle conversation skills. “Dinner was delicious.”

“She is,” he agreed. I waited for him to make more conversation, but he didn’t take the bait. As he guzzled down his soda, I struggled for something else to say to fill the silence.

“Your mom and dad were so nice,” I said. “I was nervous about meeting them, but they made me feel so comfortable.”

“Yeah.” He finished off the can and tossed it in the garbage. Giving me a small nod, he turned to go upstairs. “Well, I’m going to bed.”

“Oh… okay…” I watched his back retreat towards the stairs. “Thank you,” I said suddenly.

He stopped and turned. “For what?”

I hesitantly stepped forward. “For… telling your mom about the painting. I didn’t want to make a big deal of it…”

“No problem.”

“Yeah…” I met his eyes, biting my lip uncertainly, unsure if I should ask the question that was burning just behind my lips. Ah, hell. “Did I really do okay?” I asked tentatively. Well, if I was looking for a completely impartial opinion, this was the only place I was going to get it.

He gave me a look of disbelief. “What?”

“Sorry,” I said hastily. “I’m just… antsy. Taylor said they liked me, but I can’t really trust his opinion, obviously, and I just figured… you always tell it like it is…”

He gave a dry chuckle, nodding again, but remained silent for several minutes. “You know, you’re different,” he said.

I blinked. “Huh? What do you mean?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Nevermind. And to answer your original question, yes.” He started to go upstairs, but I stepped towards him some more.

“No, tell me,” I said slowly. “What do you mean, I’m ‘different’?”

He gave me a look of surprise – perhaps because I was challenging him – but to his credit, didn’t brush me off again. “Different from the others. You don’t exactly fit the profile of his type.”

His type? I knew perfectly well what Taylor’s ‘type’ had been before he’d chosen me. I bristled a little. “And is that a bad thing?” I asked hotly, feeling defensive. “Just because you--”

“No,” he interrupted me. “Did I say it was a bad thing?” I mutely shook my head. “See? So what are you complaining about?”

“I’m not complaining,” I said. “I just want to know why you brought it up…”

Zac leaned against the wall, folding his arms. “That guy upstairs?” he said. “That’s not my brother. That’s not the guy I grew up with. He’s changed, and not necessarily because of the accident. He’s been a different person since you came into the picture.”

I was dismayed, speechless. So was that how he saw me? Like some sort of succubus who was bending his brother to her ways? “I--” I stuttered. “I don’t… I mean, I haven’t--”

“—and I don’t know what your real story is, or how you all really met,” he continued, horrifying me even more. “But truthfully, I don’t care.”

I hugged my arms close, squirming, wishing to God that I’d never tried to initiate conversation with him. What had I been thinking? “Zac,” I said, my voice wavering a little, “I know you don’t like me very much, but--”

“Did I say that?”

“What?” I was getting more and more confused. “No, but you--”

“You didn’t let me finish,” he said sharply. “Can I continue?”

I stared at him, giving up all hope of understanding what his deal was. “By all means.”

“My point is… he looks good. Happy. And it’s been a long time…” Zac shrugged, trailing off. “It’s obviously because of you. You’ve got a way with him that no one else has.”

“Oh…” I didn’t know what else to say, and truthfully, I was afraid that if I did speak, I might burst into tears. That wasn’t the first time I’d heard that, but it was the first time it had come from someone who I knew truly, completely meant it. As Taylor often said, Zac never minced his words…

“And believe me, my parents noticed that.” He straightened back up. “So does that answer your question?” When I mutely nodded, he turned to walk upstairs. “Good. Now, I’m going to bed.”

“Okay…” I watched him stalk up the steps, his body disappearing partially into the shadows. He stopped halfway up, peering at me between two square slats of the banister. I met his brown eyes evenly.

“You’re alright, Alley,” he said finally. “A little weird, but alright.”

“Oh,” I said softly, staring at a place in the banister where the wood had splintered. “Um… thanks.” He snorted a little, shaking his head in amusement, then continued up the stairs. I stood still, listening to the floor above me squeak with every step he took towards his room. Once it grew quiet again, indicating that he was down for the night, I slowly walked up the stairs and into Taylor’s room. I crawled into bed, curling up in his blankets, wondering at the strange conversation I’d just had.

*****

 

Taylor finally came out of the shower after nearly 45 minutes, his face flushed from the heat, hair damp and tangled in knots. I stayed in the warm comfort of his bed, sipping my Ale8, watching him slide a fresh pair of boxers on and comb through the tangles. I tapped distractedly on the side of the can as he finished up, closing the door and flipping off the overhead light.

“Took you long enough,” I said lightly when he turned around. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to come in and get you…”

He smirked, wiggling his thick, curved eyebrows. “Mmm-hmmm. And I’m sure that’s the only reason you wanted to come in…”

“Of course… the soaking wet nakedness has nothing to do with it…”

He laughed loudly, collapsing on the bed and crawling towards me. I relaxed my knees, straightening them as he came closer, eliminating the small barrier between us. He rested on his side next to me, throwing one arm haphazardly over my legs. “I’m exhausted,” he murmured. “Aren’t you tired?”

“Yeah… though I did just have twelve ounces of caffeine…” I smoothed back his wet hair, pushing the locks away from his face, behind his ear.

“Mmm.” His eyes fluttered closed as I gently kneaded his scalp with my fingertips. “What a day…”

“Yeah…” Agreed. What a day.

He yawned, rolling slightly so that his eyes met mine. “I want to tell them the next time we go over there,” he said softly.

I stiffened a little at his decision. “Already?” I squeaked.

“Yeah… why wait? You know them now… they like you, they approve…”

“Well…” Of course, I’d been complaining earlier about not getting to wear my ring, but now that the opportunity to slip it back on presented itself, I was chickening out. “I don’t know… I mean, I don’t know that they liked me that much… maybe we should wait a little longer until they get used to me…”

He shook his head. “Nah. Threatening to bring out old pictures? You’re in.” He paused. “You know, of all the girls I’ve dated… and I dated Jennifer for how long? Two awake years, roughly, I guess? I never saw Mom act towards her the way she did towards you tonight.”

“That’s a good thing, I’m guessing?”

“That’s a very good thing.”

“Oh… well, okay,” I said nervously. Oh, God help me. “If you think so…”

He squeezed my knee. “I know so.” He pulled the blanket up around waist, closing his eyes. “Will you turn out the light?” he murmured. I managed a smile, setting my can on the nightstand, reaching over to flip off the bedside lamp. Taylor shifted as I moved, making room for me to scoot down and curl up under the comforter with him. I wiggled in as close as I could get without completely squashing him – close enough to feel the soft, hot puffs of air as he breathed, close enough to smell the slightly spicy scent of his shampoo.

“Goodnight,” I said softly to the darkness. “Love you…”

“Love you, too…” He licked his lips, and then the room was silent. I closed my eyes, determined to be calm about it all, as he was. Determined not to think about the next time we went over to his parents…  Neither of us moved for several minutes, and I was just deciding that he had fallen asleep when I heard him clear his throat.

“Hey,” he whispered.

“Mmm?” I opened my eyes, blinking them to adjust. 

He smiled, and I could barely make out the curve of his lips in the dim moonlight coming from the window. “You want to know what Mom said to me, right before we left?”

Of course I did, I’d been dying to know ever since we’d gotten in the car… however, I acted nonchalant. “You tell me… do I?”

He laughed gently. “She said, ‘Taylor, this time I think you finally got it right.’”

I felt my eyes widen. “She did?” Really? Wow… “And what did you say?” I couldn’t stop the nearly-childish grin that spread across my face at his next words.

“I said, ‘You know, Mom, this time, I think I did.’”