“Do you want to spend the night tonight?”
I literally blurted this; I doubted she’d even made it out. But again, she surprised me. “Sure. Let me just ask.”
There was a clank as she put the phone down. As I sat there, listening to the register beep and some other muffled conversation, I realized I was holding my breath. When she came back, I still didn’t exhale.
“I’m in,” she said cheerfully. “Mac can bring me with the pizza. In, like, twenty minutes or so?”
“Great,” I said, entirely too enthusiastically. “Thank you.”
“Sure. Just give me your address and a phone number, okay?”
I did, and then we hung up. I went into the bathroom and washed my face, telling myself I could handle anything for twenty minutes. Then I went downstairs.
Ames was at the stove when I walked in, his back to me. “Ready to eat? I’ve got the table set.”
I glanced into the dining room: sure enough, the candles were lit, two plates laid out with silverware and folded paper napkins. “I actually, um, have a friend coming over. She’s bringing a pizza.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he turned around to face me. “I told you I was cooking.”
“I know, but—”
“Your mom didn’t mention anything to me about a friend visiting,” he told me.
She also thought Marla was going to be here, I thought.
“It’s not very polite, Sydney, to make other plans when a person has gone out of their way to do something for you.”
I didn’t ask you to do anything. “I’m sorry . . . I guess signals got crossed.”
He looked at me for a long moment, not even trying to hide his irritation. Then, slowly, he turned back around. “You can at least have a taste. Since I’ve gone to all this trouble.”
“Okay,” I said. It was weird to see an adult pout. “Sure.”
At the table, he served us both, then picked up his glass of cola, holding it up. “To good friends,” he said.
I clinked my drink against his, then took an obligatory sip as he watched me over the rim of his glass. I glanced at my watch. It had been ten minutes.
“So I rented a couple of movies,” he said, twirling some noodles around his fork. “Thought we’d settle in on the couch, have some popcorn. Hope you’re a fan of heavy butter. Or else we can’t be buds anymore.”
If only it were that easy. “Yeah. Sure.”
He smiled at me then, in a forgiving way. Like I’d earned another chance or something. Everything was wrong here.
“This is good,” I said, forcing myself to try the pasta. “Thanks for cooking.”
“Of course.” He smiled, clearly pleased. “It’s the least I can do, since you’re stuck with me all weekend. Speaking of which, what are you up to tomorrow? I’m heading to see Peyton in the morning, but I’ll be free all afternoon. I was thinking we could hit a movie or go bowling, then have dinner out somewhere.”
“I actually have a school thing,” I said. “It’s, um, kind of mandatory.”
A pause. “On the weekend?”
I nodded. “Community service project. I’ll be gone most of the day.”
“Huh.” One word, so many connotations. “Well, we’ll see.”
My stomach tightened, and for a beat or two, I was sure the few bites I’d managed to get down were going to rejoin us. But then, thank God—thank everything in the world—the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” I said, leaping up and tossing my napkin onto my seat. Starting for the door, I hit the edge of the table with my hip, causing something to clank loudly. I didn’t slow down to see what it was.
In the foyer, I flipped the dead bolt, then yanked the door open hard, clearly startling Layla, who was standing right in front of it, holding a pizza box. I could see Mac in the truck, parked in the driveway.
“Hi,” I said, breathless. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Well, it’s nice to get such an enthusiastic welcome.” She looked up at the tall windows on either side of the door, eyes widening. “Your house is gorgeous.”
“Thanks. Come in. I’ll, um, get the money for the pizza.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said. “It’s on the—”
She stopped talking suddenly, staring over my shoulder. Instantly, her expression went from open and friendly to guarded. Before I even glanced behind me, I knew Ames had appeared.
“This is the friend?” he said when I did look his way.
“Layla,” I told him. To her, I added, “Come on in.”
She didn’t move. Instead, she turned her head toward Mac. I couldn’t make out her expression, but a second later, he was getting out of the truck. When he joined her on the steps, she finally stepped inside.
“Ames Bentley,” Ames said to them, extending a hand. “Close friend of the family.”
“This is Mac,” I said. They shook. I took the pizza from Layla. “Come on in the kitchen.”
We went, with me leading, Ames right behind, and the Chathams bringing up the rear. Right away, I saw Layla surveying the scene in the dining room. When she saw the candles, she looked right at me.
“Pretty fancy,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“Just showing off my cooking skills for Sydney,” Ames said. “Thought I’d wow her with my sauce, but she went and ordered a pizza. She’s a heartbreaker, this one.”