Chapter 6

Taylor

"Honey, I'm home!"

"You've got the wrong house, go away!" I yelled. Ike came into the living room and plopped down on the couch beside me, big dopey grin on his face.

Sometimes I hate my brother. He's always been the big romantic, writing songs about girls since 3rd grade. "More Than Anything"? "Love Song"? All Ike. No Zac or Tay. All Ike. The girls loved that sort of stuff. The whole family thought that Ike would be the one with all the girlfriends during his teens, the one who always had a girl by his side. Nope. Ike almost never dated. We have always had girls around. Females became a permanent lawn ornament around the Hanson house. Zac and I always took advantage of it. Well, more me than him. But Isaac has always been a good boy. He never had a steady girlfriend until he met Jill. He wrote endless songs about her. We wrote a Grammy with one of the songs he wrote for her. But the nimrod never told her. Jill never knew how he felt, because he never told her. When he finally confessed his feelings to her, Jill admitted she liked him too. They started dating, and are now engaged. It's the stuff you make movies of the week out of.

It just made me sick.

I've never really gotten a hold on the whole romance thing. In Hanson's prime, when I was 17, I would have a new girlfriend just about every week. If you looked up 'promiscuous' in the dictionary, there was a picture of me. I have made a vow with Zac and Ike not to do that any more after one of the girls I had been with died of AIDS. Man, was that a scary experience. So I'm no longer a rambling man. But Jill and Ike's fairy tale romance still makes me want to ralph. Taylor Hanson doesn't do mushy stuff. When Ike would come in from a date with Jill all happy, I just wanted to smack him. Really, really hard.

I guess all of my anger is because I'm jealous. This is totally off the record, but I'm sorta jealous of the love Ike and Jill have. I've never had a real relationship with any of the girls I've ever been with. Except for Mr. Cuddles. I loved that teddy bear. But after Mr. Cuddles suffered a watery death when Mom decided he was dirty and threw him in the washing machine, girls just never really did it for me.

Joke. That's a joke.

Whew...tough crowd.

"So whatcha doin?"

"What does it look like I'm doing, Isaac?"

"Um, watching TV."

"Hello, Captain Obvious."

Ike paused and stared at the TV. "So...whatcha watchin?"

Oh god. Mental head slap.

"I'm watching this new Fox Special, "How to Kill Brothers Who Ask Stupid Questions."

"So you're planning to off Zac?"

"Ike...shut up."

We sat in silence for a while, watching some cartoon. We rarely get to relax and veg out in front of the boob tube. But when we do, there is never anything on. It never fails. So we were stuck watching "The Angry Beavers".

"Jill told me Jack is bringing someone to dinner tonight," Ike said, his eyes not leaving the screen.

"Really? I didn't know Jack had a girlfriend."

"It's not his girlfriend. Just someone who works with him. According to Jill, she doesn't get out much. She's from Texas or something, and hasn't been here for a long time. So she's coming here to make new friends. I think she's 25, your age."

Now I was interested. Single woman, my age, coming with us to dinner?

"That's cool," I said nonchalantly. "You know how I like meeting new people."

"Yeah, now we just have to work on keeping you in your pants."

My head turned sharply. "Excuse me?!"

"Chill, Tay, I was kidding."

I relaxed slightly. "So what's her name?"

"Damn...I knew you were going to ask me that! I think it's Claire. Yeah, Claire sounds about right." Ike is extremely bad with names.

"Isaac, is that you?" Mom came into the living room. I promptly removed my feet from the coffee table and sat up. If Mom realized I was relaxed, I'd probably have to do chores or something.

"I just got back," Ike said. He stood up and gave Mom a peck on her cheek.

"How's Jill? She and Jack are still coming here before we go to the restaurant, right? I have a question for Jack about Zoe's kitten, but it's been too hectic around here for me to call him."

"What can Jack tell you about...wait, Zoe has a kitten? Since when?"

"Since she found a stray cat who had kittens in our basement. This one was too weak to leave with the others, so we've been taking care of her. Didn't I tell you this? Or maybe it was Zac I told."

"It wasn't me." Now I felt really out of the loop. I had no idea Zoe had a cat.

"And Jack is a veterinarian, Taylor. Surely you knew that. He and 3 others took over the hospital when Frank Smith retired."

"Are you sure? Because Zac and I were there today, and there was only one person there, a woman." I thought back to Dr. Whitney and smiled. Then I realized it was the big dopey grin Ike was wearing a few minutes ago and frowned. I hate heredity.

"Yes, Taylor. There are 2 men and 2 women, with a number of assistants." Mom kept looking back at the kitchen. I bet she was checking for fire. Jess was trying to cook something. She's not exactly the most culinary female in the family.

"Hey, maybe Jack'll bring the woman you're thinking of to dinner," Ike said, punching my shoulder.

I scowled at him. "I am not your personal punching bag. I am not filled with sand. I was not put upon this earth to be used for your enjoyment. I am..."

"Taylor, that's enough. Isaac, don't hit your brother."

"Oh yeah, Mom, Jack and Jill are bringing another person along for dinner. That's okay, right?"

"Of course. The more the merrier!" A huge crash was emitted from the kitchen. Mom shot us a worried smile. "Excuse me boys," she said before sprinting to the kitchen.

"I'll fix it!" I heard Jess yell.

"Hey, Ike? Did you know that Zoe has a cat?"

"Of course I did. Didn't you read the latest Hanson Family newsletter?"

"The what?"

"I'm joking. I didn't know until this morning, when Zoe showed her off. Why?"

"Oh, no reason." I turned off the TV.

"So...Ike."

He eyed me. "What?"

"Tell me more about this Claire person..."

.

Chapter 7

Blaire

"I cannot believe I agreed to do this."

I was standing in front of my closet fresh from the shower in a pair of boxers and my bra searching for clothing. Why does it seem that no matter how many items of clothing you have you never have anything to wear? This question has troubled humanity for ages. Unfortunately, it has yet to be solved, leaving me in quite a predicament.

"I HATE YOU JACK!" I yelled, frowning at my closet. I glanced around my room.

Clothes were strewn everywhere. It looked like my closet threw up. "Oh, man..." I groaned.

A knock rapped at my door.

"What?"

Andrew's head popped in, his hand over his eyes. "You decent?"

"Yeah, you can come in."

He slowly entered, stooping to scoop up clothes I had thrown. He dumped the pile on my bed.

"I've come to offer my advice as a fashion consultant," he said, making himself comfortable in my rocking chair.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was grateful for his help. I know women are supposed to have the great fashion eye, but in our family, it didn't quite work out like that. Andrew got our mother's fashion genes, and I got most of our father's. Mom has picked out Dad's clothes every morning since they got married in 1980. I've seen pictures of Dad's bachelor hood days, and it wasn't pretty. He used to try to mix stripes and spots and say he was creating a new trend. Yes...the ugly trend.

I held up a black pantsuit. "Yay or nay?"

Andrew carefully studied it. "Well, normally it would be good, but I don't think you'll want to wear this tonight. Jack said you're going to some fancy restaurant."

Andrew got up and came to my closet. He rummaged around for a minute, then emerged with something. "How about this dress?"

I stared at it. "You're kidding, right?"

"No. What's wrong with it?"

"And, I think I wore this when I was 12."

"So? It'll be a little short..."

"I suppose I could wear it...but what will I do with the other boob? That dress will only fit one."

"Blaire!" he stared at me.

"Don't Blaire me."

"God...my virgin ears..." he muttered as he searched the closet floor for a scrap of material that would cover my whole chest. "How's this?"

'This' was the dark blue dress that I had worn for my college graduation.

I held it up to me. "What kind of restaurant did Jack say we were going to?"

"A that dress restaurant."

"Good. Thank you. Now get out of my room." I looked in the mirror. Considering I still had a fuzzy green towel on my head, it looked pretty good.

"Now, Blaire, loving sister that you are, can I borrow your car tonight?"

I knew there had to be a reason Andrew was being so nice. Sibling love doesn't come cheap in my family.

"Yeah sure. Why not? I'm not using it."

"Great. Where are the keys?"

"You got me. They could be anywhere."

"BLAIRE!"

The sudden yelling startled me. "What?" I said timidly.

"We've only been at home for an hour and 45 minutes. How could you possibly manage to forget where you put your keys?"

I shrugged. "It's a gift. Hey, if you want the truck, you can find the keys."

Andrew left grumbling.

"Hey, And? Check the kitchen. I stopped off there to get Cujo something to drink. They may be in the refrigerator." I was answered by louder grumbling. "Ungrateful snot," I muttered. "I let him borrow the truck...my truck. The least he could do is say thank you."

I pulled the towel from my hair and felt it hit my shoulders. I pulled a brush out from under shirts that were on my dresser and started...primping. Yes, it shocked me, too. I didn't think the word 'primp' was in my vocabulary.

I love my hair. It's really long and thick. It reaches halfway down my back. I had to fight really hard with Mom to let me grow it that long. But it was worth it. I glanced in the mirror. The dark chestnut brown played off the dark blue of the dress. The dress also made my eyes even bluer than they already are.

I finished with my hair and didn't bother with makeup. I rarely ever wear it. And I don't know who these people are. Why exert myself for people I don't even know?

I sat down on my bed and stared at the post-it note with Taylor's number on the bedside table. Now there's a guy who would be worth putting make up on for.

"Who am I kidding?" I said aloud to myself. "I'll never have a chance with him." I grabbed the paper and ripped it in half, dropping the bits in the wastebasket as I walked out of my room and down the hall to the room Cujo was in.

I knelt next to her. "Hey Cujo," I whispered, stroking her head. She looked up at me and laid her head back down with a sigh.

"I know you miss Zac," I said. "Zac misses you just as much. But tomorrow you'll be able to see him, okay? And maybe his cute brother, too." I slapped my hand over my mouth. Did I actually say that? Cujo didn't seem to notice my slip up. She was dozing off again.

"HEY BLAIRE!" Andrew yelled. Cujo opened one eye.

"JACK AND JILL ARE HERE!"

Cujo grunted then rolled over.

"That's right girl, you tell him."

"NOT GETTING ANY YOUNGER, BLAIRE!" Jack this time.

"Jeez, the neighbors will be complaining tonight," I whistled. Our neighbors are an elderly couple who complain about the littlest thing. Unless they're trying to get me to examine their cat for free. They're getting pretty tricky at that.

"Dang, Blaire," Jack said admiringly. "You actually look like a girl tonight!"

"As opposed to other times?" I said. He was looking spiffy tonight also, in nice khaki pants and a forest green shirt. But it's not as cool as my shirt with the dancing dogs on it. Where else can you see dogs in tutus? "Where's Jill?" I asked, noticing she wasn't around.

"She's down in the car. She's really anxious to see her friends." He paused and looked down at my bare feet. "You ready?"

I kneeled down, felt around under the couch, pulled out a pair of blue velvet shoes, and slipped them on. "Yep."

He looked puzzled, and Andrew rolled his eyes.

"Uh...Blaire?" Jack said, staring at the couch.

"Don't ask."

.

Chapter 8

Taylor

"Zachary! Come down here please!"

That's my dad. He's yelling his head off, but he's still polite.

The whole family was sitting in the living room, waiting for Zac. The girls were in dresses and skirts, and the guys were in good clothes also. Practically a miracle. The whole family all scrubbed up, not a pair of jeans in sight. Any minute now, the apocalypse will strike.

"Is he ever going to come out of his room?" Zoe groaned from her position on the couch. She leaned up against Mom.

"Honey, Zac's going through a tough time right now. Cujo has never been away from Zac for very long, so we just have to cope with him for a while."

"ZAC!" Dad yelled.

Mom frowned. "Walker."

"What? I told him almost an hour ago to be dressed and down here. He's had more than enough time. Jill and Jack are going to be here soon, and I'm not going to leave him here."

Ike stood up from the couch. "I'll go get him." He slowly went up the stairs. I could tell what he was thinking: "Zac will be at dinner even if I have to sedate him and prop his limp body in the chair."

I was watching the scene from the doorway. Mac was slouched in a recliner, rocking slowly, fiddling with the buttons on his shirt. Jess and Avery were talking quietly in the loveseat. Avie crossed and uncrossed her legs and smoothed her skirt to make it seem longer than the two-inch strip of material it really was. Jess's plain black skirt reached the ground, but it was slit to midthigh. Riske. Zoe was wearing some Laura Ashley floral dress. She and Mom were sitting on the opposite couch. Mom was braiding Zoe's hair. I sighed and shifted my weight. My family is so exciting.

"When are Jill and Jack supposed to be here?" Mac asked. He ceased rocking and was now playing with stuff on the table. It took all of my willpower not to reach over and slap his hands.

Mac has now plunged headfirst into the sulky teens. I don't remember any of us being this bad. He's really been rebelling against the family. I think a lot of it has to do with going to a public school, being blonde, and being a Hanson. You know, one of "those" Hansons. Avery and Jess never got a lot of grief about being related to us. In fact, Avery is even more popular now because of it. But guys are much different. Even though it's been almost 10 years since the whole "they're gay, they're girls" crap, you'd be amazed at how much these kids remember, even though they were 4. And I do not look like a girl, thank you very much. Mac has shorn his long hair for a cut that looks more like Ike's instead of Zac and mine. At the end of summer, Mac practically worshipped us. He had been out in California with us, helping out at the studio and hanging out with his big brothers. But in August, when school started and Mac entered his first year of public school, the daily phone calls stopped, the emails only came about once a month when Mom and Dad made him write, and we didn't hear anything from him. Now, some of it is our fault. We could've been better at talking to everybody and keeping up with what happens in our family. Mac doesn't hate us, he just doesn't like us very much anymore. Ike, Zac, and I have made a decision to get more involved with our family, starting with Mac over Christmas vacation. But right now, I wanted to slap him.

There was a loud thump coming from Zac's room and muffled screaming. Dad groaned and started trudging upstairs.

"Isaac! Zachary! What are you two doing?" he yelled as he walked.

"Hop up, Zo," Mom said. "We have a few minutes. I'll finish your hair in my room."

Mom and Zoe retreated to my parents' room. Zoe is the sister that resembles Mom the most. She's almost Mom's Mini-Me. They both have the same long slightly wavy blonde hair, bright blue eyes, round face, and thin frame.

"Well, I'm going to have one of those cookies we worked on. I'm starving," Avie said, grinning at me. Jess followed, leaving Mac and me. In the room. Together. Alone. Mac and me. Great.

Mac started rocking again. The recliner had a slight squeak whenever he rocked back. Squeeeeak...squeeeak...squeeeeak...

I crossed the room and placed my hand across the back. Mac glared up at me.

"Sorry, kid, that squeak was driving me crazy," I apologized.

Mac shot up and was standing next to me, staring up into my face.

"I'm not a kid Taylor," he fumed quietly. "But maybe you'd notice better if you weren't neglecting your family."

My mouth flew open. "Neglecting?"

Ding-Dong! The doorbell chimed.

"Taylor, get that!" seven voices yelled in unison from around the house.

Mac smiled slightly. "Surround sound."

I obediently went to the door. "We'll talk later, right Mac?"

"Yeah, sure. Whatever."

I unlocked the door and swung the door wide open. "Hey Jill."

"Taylor! It's great to see you again!" Jill flew into me.

Jill was looking good. She has really curly auburn hair with blonde highlights that reaches the bottom of her shoulder blades. The blonde highlights matched her gold dress perfectly. She has sparkling green eyes that can see right through you. I've never been able to lie to her. Really big gold shoes heightened her 5'6" body.

"Where's Jack? And Claire?" I asked.

Jill looked confused. "Who's Claire?"

I was disappointed. "Ike said Jack was bringing a girl named Claire..." I trailed off.

"Oh, Blaire! Yeah, she and Jack are in the car. They should be here in a minute." She came into the entry hall. "Where is everybody?"

"Dad, Ike, and Zac are wrestling upstairs, Mom is making Zoe beautiful in her room, Jess and Avery are getting fat in the kitchen, and Mac is making everyone miserable in the living room."

Jill laughed and walked into the living room. "Hey Mac! How are you doing?"

Mac smiled at her. Jill is the only one who Mac doesn't gripe at. I personally think that Mac has a crush on her, but I'm smart enough to keep my big mouth shut.

"I'm fine. I've been practicing for the Christmas concert." Jill is the choir teacher at Nathan Hale High School, so she teaches Mac and Avery. "Hey, IKE!" he yelled. Jill winced.

"Mackenzie Hanson, that is torture on your voice."

"Oh, sorry."

"WHAT?!" Ike yelled back.

"JILL'S HERE!"

"Mac!"

"Oops."

Thunderous footsteps ran down the stairs. Ike appeared and embraced her, giving her a kiss.

Mac's disgusted look summed up my feelings. Yuck.

Luckily, the doorbell rang, and I left to answer it. I could hear Jess and Avie chattering their way into the living room, and Mom and Zoe joining the party. I swung the door open.

Jack was standing there. Just Jack. No Blaire. Damn.

"Hey Jack, how's it going?"

"Hey! Haven't seen you in a while. Jill already came in, right?"

"Yeah, come in."

He came into the entry hall, then stopped. He turned back to me. "Hey Tay, will you do me a favor?" he asked, running his hand through his short Jill-colored hair.

"Sure."

"I have a friend who's coming, she's fixing her shoe or something. Can you wait for her and make sure she doesn't get lost?"

I laughed. Our house is on a 5acre lot with tons of trees around it. The first time Jack came out here, he was roaming around for 30 minutes before he found the house.

"Sure I'll wait for her. Jill and Ike are in there anyway."

Jack groaned. "As much as I'm happy they have each other, it still sickens me to have to watch them together. I hope they tone it down during dinner. I'm really hungry."

"Same here, Jack. Same here."

Jack went into the living room and I stepped out on the porch and settled into a chair.

I still couldn't believe Mac thought we were neglecting the family. I know we weren't always around, and we didn't always call, but we still loved them. Doesn't that count for something? There are all sorts of families whose parents leave, and they don't get supported by anyone. And Mac calls us neglectful? Puh-leeze. Neglecting, my aunt Fanny's ass.

A twig snapped from the yard. There are tons of horror movies that start like that. Just to be sure a bloodsucking murderer wasn't going to disembowel me, I called out. "Um...hello?"

"Hey!" a friendly voice answered. Well, if it was a murderer, at least it was a friendly murderer. You know, the type who says, "Have a nice day!" before stabbing you.

Suddenly, a figure appeared. "Hey!" she called. "I'm Blaire."

Blaire was a glowing warm beauty that would make any male with a pulse stop for another look. A lot of long, dark brown hair flowed down her back, large deep blue friendly eyes, a blue dress sitting sweetly on a slim but not too slim figure, and something else. There was a wholesomeness, an innocence that hung around her like a blanket. You don't see someone like Blaire everyday.

As she approached the porch, her face hit me smack upside the head. "Dr. Whitney?"

She looked at me, and then smiled. "Hanson. Taylor, right? You brought in Cujo. Who's doing great, I might add. She's sleeping at my apartment because there aren't any cages in the kennel big enough for her," she said smiling, reveling sparkling white teeth. "And it's Blaire."

"Blaire," I repeated softly. You know all that stuff I said earlier about taking a break on women? Well, I lied.

.

Chapter 9

Blaire

Well...it can now be official.

This night can now go down in history as Blaire's Most Awkward Moment of 2008.

I looked down the table, watching the Hanson family interact with each other and with Jack and Jill. Jack and Mr. Hanson were discussing something, Jack's arms gesturing wildly. Isaac was talking to Jill, his mouth close to her ear, a sweet smile on her face. Zoe was playing with the silverware on the table, and Jessica and Avery were watching her and talking to each other about all the people Jess had met in New York. Mrs. Hanson and Zac were having a very animated discussion on the exact reasons why Zac couldn't put in his eyebrow and tongue rings to visit Grandma Hanson, and the descriptive punishments he would go through if he dared think of even trying to dye his hair blue.

And I was sitting at the end of the table, sitting awkwardly next to Taylor, studying the pale blue curlicues on the tablecloth.

My dress was feeling more and more constricting as the night went on. I remember now why I rarely go the extra effort in the wardrobe department. I shifted my weight in the high backed wooden chair.

Taylor cleared his throat.

"So..."

"So..."

"Blaire?" Mrs. Hanson asked pleasantly from down the table.

I quickly whipped my head from tracing the lines of Taylor's face with my eyes to her matronly face. "Yes ma'am?"

"How long have you been in Tulsa?"

"Oh...about a year now," I said. The table's attention focused itself on me.

"Where were you before you came here?"

"I'm from Texas originally."

"So you, Jack, and Jill have known each other for a while, then?"

"We grew up together," Jack said, shifting the attention from me.

I need to die, I thought. Quickly.

"Do you like it here?" Taylor asked in a soft voice as the Hansons went back to their respective conversations.

"Tulsa's a nice place," I said. "I've met some really nice people here."

Look at me. Am I flirting? Woo. Lock up your sons, America. Blaire is on a roll.

"Really now?" Taylor said, a slight smile creasing his face.

"Do you have a boyfriend back in Texas, Blaire?" Jess, who was sitting beside me, asked.

I felt my cheeks redden. "No...no boyfriend."

"That's great! I'm sure we can fix you up, right Ave? We have a knack for setting people up on dates."

"What a gift..." I murmured, urging my cheeks to unredden. I could feel Taylor's eyes burning a hole in my skull.

Avery laughed. "Jess, you're going to make her think we're freaks. Maybe she doesn't even want a date."

"Of course she does. Right Blaire?" Jess sighed, a faraway look in her eyes. "Everyone should be able to be as happy as Riley and me..."

"Riley...that's the one who wears tights, right?"

Jess glared at Avery. "He's a dancer, Avery. He has to wear tights. Besides...I think they're sexy."

Avery shrugged, taking a sip of water from her glass. "I don't know, Jess. I've heard that guys wearing tights for extended periods of time can really do something to him, if you know what I mean"

"Shut up!" Jess hissed.

I felt a light pressure on the top of my hand, interrupting my observation of Jessica and Avery's conversation. Give it a few more minutes and we just might have to get Jerry Springer out of retirement.

I looked at the hand covering mine, and traced the arm up to the owner. Taylor's eyes were sparkling merrily into mine.

I almost melted.

"Having fun yet?" he asked.

Keep your hand on mine and I'll be having lots of fun.

"Yes..."



"Hey! You!"

I whirled around in the hallway, only to see Muffin flying towards me.

"Jack told me about your date on Monday," she said smugly. I rolled my eyes.

"It wasn't a date," I said. "Just Jack, Jill, and the Hanson's."

"Oh please..." Muffin said, rolling her eyes back at me. "Where I come from, we would consider that a date."

I groaned. "Muuuuuuffin..."

"Come on! Don't tell me it was so bad that you won't even talk about it..."

"Nothing happened that's worth talking about."

"Yeah, whatever. So has Taylor called you?" Muff asked eagerly.

"Well...no. But I wasn't really expecting him to. I mean, it would've been nice, but he hasn't."

"I'm sure he will." Muffin said matter-of-factly.

"I'm not. It's already Friday. If there was any attraction on his side, I have a feeling he would've called before now." I shrugged and grabbed a few random forms off of my desk. "Anyway, Zoe, the youngest Hanson, has a kitten she's bringing in today. The school's apparently have some kind of holiday, so Zoe and Avery are coming in."

"Has Cujo already left?"

"Yeah, on Tuesday. Zac and Isaac came and picked her up. Muff, you should've seen Zac's face. He just looked so happy to have her back."

"Awww..." She was silent for a few seconds. "So when are Zoe and Avery coming?"

"I'm not sure. I guess whenever they feel like it."

As if on cue, the intercom buzzed. Jack, Christian, and Andrew had decided that the building was way too big for normal conversation, so in order to talk to one another in our offices or the exam room, they set up an intercom system. It still scares the bejeezus out of me every time a voice comes out of the little metal box on my desk.

I pushed the button. "Yes?"

Lola's voice came back out. "Avery and Zoe Hanson are here for you, Dr. Whitney."

"Okay, I'll be right there." I turned to Muffin, who was checking her watch. She grimaced.

"I better go get surgery ready. I have to remove a tumor from Lassie Drysdale, the collie that's in the back."

I slowly got up from my desk and walked to the front waiting room area. Two blondes were standing at the front desk, talking to Lola. The shortest one was holding a white kitten.

"Hey Zoe...hey Avery..."

"Blaire! This is Niv." Zoe said excitedly.

"Niv?"

"Yeah, it's short for Niveus, which is Latin for white," Avery explained, as Zoe handed Niv to me.

"Zac named her."

Memories of my college Latin professor flashed in my brain. I shuddered. "Are you two ready to come in the back?"

Avery nodded. "Yeah. Zac and Taylor are coming back in a little while for us. I'm on license probation with my parents," she said, rolling her eyes.

"She backed into a tree," Zoe said as we walked into the first available exam room.

"I did not!" she protested. "Okay, maybe I did, but...Zac's run into a lot more trees than I have! And he almost got into a wreck this morning."

I laughed to myself. "How old is Niv, Zoe?"

"About 6 months. Her Mom broke into our basement and had kittens. Niv was the runt, and was too small to leave when the rest of the family did, so they left her." As Zoe talked, I did the normal procedure: taking the temperature, checked her pulse, checking her ears for mites and her fur for fleas.

"Well, at 6 months, the cats get their shots, rabies and distemper, and they get fixed, which means she won't have kittens. She can also get wormed, which is either a pill or a liquid that gets rid of worms that are living in her stomach. There's nothing you can really do if she gets fleas, except for a flea collar. And..."

"And isn't she boring?"

I turned around. Jack was standing there, grinning.

"Can I help you?" I asked. Not that I tried to be mean, but here was the guy that was telling everyone I went on a date...and it wasn't a date.

"Yes, you can," he said. He came into the room. "Taylor and Zac are back already, and they already filled out the forms for Niv to be fixed and have all the trimmings, so I'll just take her and get started," he said, scooping her up off the table. "Don't worry, Zoe, she'll be fine. I promise."

"Bye, Niv," Zoe said, nuzzling her chin.

"You ready to go, Zo?" Avery asked. Zoe slowly nodded her head. I felt a little awkward just standing there. After Jack came in and made me feel like a total ass in front of Avery and Zoe, I pretty much wanted to throttle him. I'm definitely not a pacifist.

I walked Zoe and Avery out to the waiting room. Taylor and Zac were talking to Muffin.

I stopped in the doorway and watched them. Taylor's tousled blonde hair made him appear like he had just gotten out of bed, and his simple jeans and a shirt hung loosely on his lean frame. He smiled at Avery and Zoe as they walked towards him, and put his arm around Zoe.

"Blaire?" someone called. "Blaire? BLAIRE!"

I looked away from the enthralling display of dog food to see Avery gesturing me over.

"Hey, Taylor," Avery whispered, nudging him.

He glanced down at her, then in my direction. I was instantly aware of my oldest pair of jeans with the hole in the knee, my hair in a ponytail, and the bloodstain on my sweatshirt.

If there is a God...You will please strike me and my horrible, horrible outfit down.

"Hey, Blaire," he said smiling.

No such luck. I smiled weakly at him.

"Blaire! Hey!" Zac exclaimed. "Want to come to lunch with us?"

"Yeah, Blaire, come eat with us!" Zoe said, running to me and hugging me around my waist.

"Go ahead, Blaire. Jack and I can hold the fort," Muffin said mischievously.

"Well...sure. Just let me change out of this shirt, and I'll come."

"We need to stop by the store and pick up some stuff for Mom, so we can swing back by in about 30 minutes. Is that okay?" Taylor asked, as they were leaving.

"Yeah. 30 minutes. Great."

I watched Avery turn back and grin at me, the same mischievous smile Muffin had on.

It's a conspiracy, I tell you! They're all out to get me and my social status!

Which is nonexistent.

I sighed and retreated wearily to my office, to change shirts and try to gouge out my eyes with a spoon.

.

Chapter 10

Taylor

Note to self: If one is expecting to talk to girl during lunch, one should not take one's siblings.

The five of us were sitting at a table at Smithhart's, a small family-owned diner on the outskirts of Tulsa. Zac and Blaire were discussing some oddball subject I kept catching bits and pieces of, and Avery and Zoe were talking about dresses for Avery's high school's Snowflake Ball, where Avery was one of the nominees for Snow Queen.

And I was fiddling with sugar packets.

"Yeah, but I liked the white dress with the light blue meshy material layering it. Remember that one? We saw it at the mall."

"That was pretty, but what about the red one?"

Oh...my...god.

"Right, Tay?" Zac asked, pulling me away from stacking and restacking the sugar.

"Huh? Uh...yeah."

"See! I told you! Thin Elvis is much better than Fat Elvis."

"Zac, sweetie, I'm sorry, but you're wrong. Thin Elvis may have been cuter than Fat Elvis, but Fat Elvis had soul."

What? Elvis? Someone please save me.

This whole thing was reminding me of Monday, when we all went out to dinner with Blaire, Jack, and Jill. We arrived at Olive Garden, and I had planned on sitting next to Blaire and charming her by being my naturally charming self. But Jess and Avery sat on one side of her, and they talked of strange girlish rituals, and my mother sat in front of her. It's rather hard to try to seduce a woman when your mother is right in front of you.

"Hey, here comes our food," Zoe said, nodding to the waitress headed our way.

"How are you kids doing?" she asked, setting the tray down on a nearby empty table. She looked to be in her mid-forties, complete with limp, graying red hair, tired eyes, and crows feet at her eyes.

"We're doing fine. And you?" Zoe said politely.

The waitress smiled, and set Zoe's hamburger in front of her. "It's getting better, dollface." She finished handing out the rest of the food, Zac's blackened snapper, Avery's chicken salad, Blaire's Caesar salad, and my Cajun chicken salad.

"So, Blaire, what are you doing for Christmas?" Avery asked while we were eating.

She shrugged. "I really have no idea. My parents are at home and can't come up here, and I can't leave, so I'm probably just going to celebrate with Andrew."

"You can celebrate with us!" Zac suggested.

I just stared at him. As much as I liked Blaire, we've only known the girl for all of a week. And why does he keep kicking me?

"I don't think so," Blaire laughed. And what a beautiful laugh she has. And a beautiful smile that accompanies the beautiful laugh. And the...well, anyway.

"Why not? Jack and Jill will be there. I'm sure Mom and Dad would love to have you and Andrew there, if they knew you were alone. Right, Tay?"

"Well...uh..."

"See? Taylor doesn't want me there either," Blaire said, smiling at me.

Me and my big mouth. "Of course I want you." I really need to work on my brain to mouth skills. "What I mean is..."

"Tay, just shut up before your hole gets any deeper." Avery advised.

I shut up.

"Mom would definitely want you there," Avery continued. "She really likes you. I think she was going to suggest it anyway."

"Well...I'll think about it."

"Why can't your parents come up to see you?" Zoe asked. Zoe is the only one of us who inherited all of Mom's compassion. At times, some of it surfaces in the rest of us, but Zoe is the only one who is truly sincere. It may be because she's the baby, and the most sheltered one of all of us. She's always been protected from the harsh reality of the world, so her sweet nature has been preserved.

"My house in Texas is a ranch, complete with animals and crops. If my dad leaves it, everything is neglected. It takes a major emergency to pull Dad away from 'Ellie'."

"Ellie?"

"'Ellie' is the name of the ranch. Dad named it right after he first met my mom, Ellen. He says he knew from the beginning that he was going to marry her. Isn't that sweet?"

"That's so romantic!" Avery gushed.

"Mom never had a ranch, but Dad wrote songs for her," Zac said, picking at the rest of his fish with a fork.

"Ike writes songs for Jill," Zoe said. I think she wanted to get back into the center of attention. Like usual. You can say we spoil her. You'd probably be right.

Blaire smiled at her. "I know. I've heard some of them. They're very good."

"But not as good as Thin Elvis," Zac muttered.

Blaire launched a napkin at his head, and it bounced off his forehead. I couldn't help grinning.

"Zac, quit being such a nerd," Avery said crossly.

"Are you kids done with these plates?" Our waitress approached the table.

"I'm done with mine," Blaire said.

"I think we're all done," I added.

She piled them on a tray. "I'll bring your check out shortly."

"Hey Tay, are you going to get the check?" Zac asked.

I frowned at him. No matter how many shows we do, no matter how many albums we sell, Zac is constantly broke. I have no idea how he does it.

"Yeah, Zac, I got it."

He smiled sheepishly at me. "Then I'm going to go out to the car. Do you mind?"

"Why would I mind?"

He shrugged. "Come on, Zoe, Ave. Come on out with me."

They dutifully got up and filed out the door. I watched their retreating backs, and ran my fingers through my hair. Even though we had all gotten our hair cut, I still was more comfortable with longer hair. It was a bit of a security blanket for me. So I was growing my hair back out to the style it was in 2000. Ike had fallen in love with short hair, but Zac and I still have the trademark long blonde Hanson hair.

"Zac's a pip, isn't he?" Blaire asked, watching them with me.

"He's something, alright."

She turned back to me. I don't know where, and I don't know how, but courage suddenly rumbled deep inside my abdomen. Or maybe it was just the salad.

"What do you have planned this weekend?"

"I don't really have anything planned. Why?"

"We're doing a show in a club in downtown Tulsa Saturday night. We don't usually play clubs, but the owner is one of Ike's friends. Do you want to come check it out?" Please say yes, please say yes, I prayed.

"That'd be great!" Blaire said enthusiastically. "I've been looking forward to hearing some of your music."

"We start playing at 12, so do you want me to pick you up at around 11:30?"

"11:30's good."

Our waitress came back and handed me the check. "Just slip the money in there, and I'll come by and pick it up," she said, walking away.

"So how much was my lunch?"

"Oh, you don't have to pay anything. It was our treat."

"No, it's okay, I can get it."

"No, really, it's covered."

"Then at least let me get the tip."

"You don't need to do that."

"But I want to. Really, it's fine. Doctors do make quite a bit of money, even if they doctor animals. I think I can afford a salad."

"Blaire, listen to me...I got the bill. You don't have to pay."

We've always been raised in the old-fashioned way, that the guy pays for everything, even if you are with your family. Some people call it sexist, saying that it makes a woman have to depend on a man, but I call it polite.

"Okay, okay, you got it." Blaire crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat. "Not even the tip?" she asked meekly.

"Blaire, if you don't..."

"Fine!"

I quickly slipped the money in the leather folder, and we went out to the car.

The ride to the animal hospital was mildly peaceful. Zac and I talked about the club show tomorrow, and Blaire, Ave, and Zoe talked about Avery's dress for the dance.

I walked Blaire to the front door of the hospital by her request. I was a little confused. Why did she want me to walk with her all of 10 feet?

I was totally surprised when Blaire turned and hugged me.

Hugs are wonderful things. A little hug can just change a person for life. Blaire's arms wrapped around me, and I was wrapped around her.

So it wasn't quite the kiss I was hoping for, but a hug will do fine.

"Thanks again for lunch," she said smiling as she pulled away, and walked into the hospital.

"Whoa, Taylor!" Zac whistled. "Way to go! Hugging on the first date. Maybe next time you'll even get a kiss on the cheek. You fast mover, you."

"Can we go now?" Zoe complained. "It's getting cold."

I am a smart person, and I have learned by experience never to leave the keys in any vehicle if Zac is occupying it. I reached into my jacket pocket for my keys, when something papery brushed against my hand in the pocket.

I pulled out a 10-dollar bill. 'Thanks for lunch-B' was scrawled sloppily on the front. I smiled, and started the car.

I suddenly couldn't wait for Saturday.