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Stacey is stretched out on her stomach, a pen between her teeth as she flips through her math book with a frown on her face. Half a sandwich is on a plate beside her, and she distractedly swaps the pen for another bite of whole-wheat pita, turkey and salad. Rain patters steadily against her bedroom window.

Through her concentrated efforts to focus on derivatives and functions, she hears the front door open and close. She checks her watch almost dreamily, figuring it must be her mom home early, before she flips another page of her text book and fits her pen back between her teeth.

"Stacey?"

Stacey jumps, and the pen in her mouth clicks against her teeth as she clenches down on it. She drops it onto her bed. "Hi." She sits up, looking at Mallory Pike with a mixture of surprise and wariness. "Are you okay?"

Mallory tugs her knit-cap off her head and tosses it onto Stacey's desk, which is already covered with clothing. Then she jams her fingers into the pockets of her jeans, looking a little embarrassed, and Stacey suddenly realizes how breathless and pale Mallory is, like she's run over without really thinking about it.

"What's wrong?" Stacey asks, her eyes wide. She shoves her math book to the floor and motions for Mallory to sit down. "I didn't think you were coming back to Stoneybrook until Christmas."

"I'm just back for the weekend." Mallory sits next to her, her shoulders hunched. She's taller than Stacey remembers, though it hasn't been that long since they've seen each other. The fifteen-year-old Mallory Pike is taller than the seventeen-year-old Stacey McGill, and neither of them like it much. At fifteen, Mallory still looks like she has a lot of filling out to do. At seventeen, Stacey looks like she's in her final year of college, not high school.

Mallory fidgets. "I didn't mean to interrupt," she says after a moment. Her voice is weak and she sounds close to tears.

"What's wrong?" Stacey asks again.

"Nothing bad, really," Mallory says, giving Stacey a quick glance that looks guilty and upset. "I'm not sure I'm supposed to tell you. I don't know why I got so upset over it, anyway." She bends her head and looks down at her knees.

Stacey folds her arms across her chest and leans forward a little so she can see past the wild tangle of curls hiding Mallory's face. The rain has sent it into spirals.

"Mallory," she says, using an authoritative voice she usually saves for baby-sitting.

Mallory's fingers twist together. "Mom's pregnant," she mutters. She looks up at Stacey and suddenly she looks furious. "I mean," she snaps, "as if eight kids aren't enough. As if they're not already struggling to pay for everything. Claire's nine, for god's sake – this was obviously an accident."

Stacey looks at her in alarm, but Mallory continues, her rant gathering steam.

"Mom's been in tears all week, apparently, and Dad's just about beside himself. I can't believe they were stupid enough to let this happen."

"Mal," Stacey says patiently, interrupting as Mallory pauses for breath, "It's not the end of the world, right? These things happen."

"You don't get it," Mallory says, suddenly tearful, "This changes everything." She starts sobbing noisily, and Stacey puts her arm around Mallory's pointed shoulders.

She wonders why Mallory isn't more excited. Hearing the news of Mrs Pike's pregnancy sent a ripple of happiness up Stacey's spine. As if to answer Stacey's own question, Mallory's voice muffles its way out from behind her hands.

"I've been hormonal all week."

"Oh," Stacey says sympathetically.

Mallory starts to cry again. "But what'll happen?" she asks, turning towards Stacey, her face pale and tear-streaked. "Seriously, Stacey, Mom and Dad fight about money more than anything else. A new baby will only make things worse. And it'll be so much younger than Claire. It'll be alone..."

Stacey gives a small laugh. "Alone, in the Pike household? I'm pretty sure that's impossible. Didn't you go on strike once just to get some peace and -–"

"That's not the point," Mallory snaps, though she doesn't offer to clear up what the point is, exactly. Stacey sits quietly at her side, patting her back now and then.

Finally, Mallory gives one last sniffle and straightens up. Her eyes are puffy and red. "I should go back and apologize," she says softly, looking a little embarrassed. "I sort of –- I sort of left in a hurry." She looks down at her hands again. "They told me they wanted me home this weekend because they had something to tell us all... Everyone else seemed pretty excited about it." She wipes her eyes. "Mom and Dad both seem pretty worried, though. I mean –-"

"I'm sure they can take care of it," Stacey says calmly, interrupting before Mallory's inner narrator seizes control again. "It's pretty exciting, really," she adds. "Another little brother or sister."

"Yeah, great," Mallory mutters, but Stacey sees the hint of a smile playing around her mouth, and she knows the worst is over –- for now.

"It'll be okay," she promises, patting Mallory's back.

"Yeah." Mallory sighs and wipes her eyes on her sleeve. "Sorry I interrupted you." She glances around at the piles of textbooks on Stacey's floor.

"It's okay," Stacey says. "It was only homework. Mom's out, but she mentioned seeing a movie later –- want to come along?"

Mallory gave her a watery smile and shook her head, getting to her feet. "No thanks. I'll see you tomorrow, though. When I've calmed down..." She gave Stacey a sheepish look, and Stacey grinned.

"You look okay now," she assured her.

Mallory just nodded and took her knit-cap from the pile of clothes on Stacey's desk. "Could you not tell anyone?" she asks painfully, turning to face Stacey again. "I'm pretty sure it's still a secret."

Stacey swipes an X over her heart. "I won't."

Mallory smiles and pulls Stacey's bedroom door closed behind her. Stacey moves to the window and peers down into the yard, watching Mallory trudge through the misty rain and the mud to her own back porch. Mr. Pike greets her with a gentle smile, holding one arm up. Stacey watches as Mallory huddles into a hug with her father.

She tilts her head, looking down at them –- looking, in particular, at Mr. Pike. He hasn't changed much since she first met him. A few grey hairs, maybe, but he's still in his late thirties and Stacey suddenly realizes she thinks he looks pretty good for his age.

No wonder Mrs Pike is pregnant again, she thinks. She grins and picks her math book up off the floor.


 

Stacey shivers and picks her way carefully across the yard, trying her best to stick to the slippery clumps of grass between the muddy puddles. It's dark, and frost is in the air. Behind her, the glow from the kitchen window spills out and lights up the path to the trash cans against the fence. Stacey clutches the bag tightly in one fist and holds the other arm out for balance as she trots her way from one piece of firm ground to the next.

"Evening, Stacey."

The cheerful voice almost makes her slip, and she spends a moment teetering on the edge of a particularly mushy part of the lawn before she looks up. Mr. Pike is standing on the other side of the fence, holding the lid of a trash can in one hand and a full bag of trash in the other. He looks rather amused, and she knows he must have been standing there, watching her wobbly dance across the lawn.

"Hi," she says, embarrassment flooding her.

He smiles at her and drops the trash in the can before fitting the lid on firmly. Stacey takes the final few steps to her own trash can and does the same. "Has Mallory gone back to Riverbend?"

"She went back last night." Mr. Pike seems on the verge of saying something else, but stops and purses his lips.

"She told me," Stacey says nervously. She gives him a small smile. "Congratulations."

He gives a small laugh. "I thought so. Thank you." His smile widens and Stacey realizes how happy he is about it. She relaxes and smiles back at him.

"When is it due?" she asks curiously.

"June, we think."

"And Mrs Pike is okay? No morning sickness?"

"She's fine." Mr. Pike gives her a gentle smile and Stacey feels her cheeks burning red again. She wonders if she's displaying too much curiosity.

"That's good," she says. Embarrassment rolls over her again. Suddenly she feels like a twelve-year-old.

"How's school?" Mr. Pike asks, his hands in his pockets.

"Fine," Stacey answers. "I'm finding it easier this year. Eleventh grade was sort of terrible."

"Senior year isn't so bad," Mr. Pike says cheerfully. "I had lots of fun in senior year. College, too."

Stacey grins at him, suddenly imagining a seventeen-year-old John Pike. A shiver, entirely unrelated to the cold, runs up her spine.

"It's cold out here," he says, noticing. "You should go back in." He gives her a wide grin, and even in the dark she spots a dimple she isn't sure she's ever noticed before. "Go to the right this time, and you won't have to jump that big mud patch."

Her cheeks burn. "Right," she answers.

He laughs and bids her goodnight, and for a moment she watches him stride away towards the glow of his own kitchen, back to his children and his pregnant wife. She feels an insane stab of jealousy, and hurries back inside, embarrassed, guilty and confused.


 

"Are you okay?"

Stacey looks up from her salad and meets Mary Anne's eyes. "Fine," she answers.

Mary Anne looks unsure. "You've been really quiet all week," she says.

Stacey stabs a cherry tomato with her fork. "It's embarrassing," she admits after a moment, still wrestling with her thoughts and attempting to pin down what it is, exactly, that's bothering her.

Mary Anne watches her carefully, but doesn't say anything, and Stacey leans forward. Then she changes her mind and leans back again, dropping her fork.

"Eat," Mary Anne says sternly, in a voice scarily-reminiscent of Stacey's mother.

Stacey picks her fork up again and stares down at her food. "Have you ever had a crush on someone you really shouldn't have a crush on?" she mumbles after a minute. "Not like... I mean..." She chews her lip and sneaks a glance at Mary Anne, who looks slightly amused.

"Is that all?" she asks. "Hasn't everyone had a crush on someone they're not supposed to?"

Stacey briefly wonders who Mary Anne's forbidden crush had been, but pushes it out of her mind. "This is different," she says painfully. "This is ridiculous."

Mary Anne looks stern all of a sudden. "Is Claudia going to be in this story? Are you fighting over boys again? Because --"

"No!" Stacey says, her blue eyes widening. "No, this doesn't have anything to do with Claudia..."

"Good," Mary Anne says, looking relieved. "Who is it, then?" Her smile fades a little. "Is it Logan? Because I don't really care if it is, but it'd be really weird..." She trails off uncertainly.

In an attempt to stop the guessing game, Stacey leans forward again, her cheeks burning. "It's Mr. Pike," she whispers, sounding mortified.

Mary Anne doesn't laugh, and Stacey is incredibly grateful. She does, however, look amused. "Mr. Pike?" she asks. "Mallory's dad?"

"What other Mr. Pike am I going to be talking about?" Stacey hisses. She drops her fork and runs her hand through her hair. "I don't know why," she mutters.

"Ooh!" Mary Anne leans forward suddenly, her eyes alight. "I heard Mrs Pike's pregnant again! I'm not sure if it's true –-"

"It is," Stacey answers. "Mallory told me a couple of weeks ago. I promised not to tell anyone."

Mary Anne looks only slightly put-out as her exciting item of rumor is confirmed so quickly. "I can't believe they're having another baby!" she says. She gives a happy sigh, and then realizes where the conversation was before she interrupted. "Mr. Pike?" she asks again. "I wouldn't worry about it, Stacey. It's just a crush. I think all the members of the BSC have had a crush on him at some point."

"Except Mallory," Stacey says hopefully.

Mary Anne giggles. "Except Mallory."

Stacey feels a sweep of relief. "Really?" she asks. "You too?"

"Once or twice." Mary Anne's cheeks are a delicate shade of pink.

"Oh," Stacey breathes, suddenly feeling less ridiculous. She gives Mary Anne a small grin. "Well, it started when Mallory told me Mrs Pike was pregnant again, you know..." She drops her voice and leans even further across the table. "Obviously they're still doing it."

Mary Anne's face turns bright crimson, and Stacey laughs. She finally feels hungry enough to eat.

"He must be good at it," she says thoughtfully, chewing her cherry tomato. "Sex, I mean."

"Stacey..." Mary Anne gives a nervous giggle and shakes her head, her cheeks still bright red.

"And he is good looking," Stacey continues, stabbing a narrow stick of carrot with her fork. "I don't know why I never really noticed it before. He's always just been Mr. Pike, Mallory's dad. Mr. Pike, the neighbor."

"He still is those things," Mary Anne points out. She looks nervous all of a sudden. "It is just a crush, right, Stacey? I mean..."

"What do you think I'm going to do?" Stacey snorts. "Break up their marriage? As if." She shakes her head. "Come on, Mary Anne."

Mary Anne gives a sheepish smile and shrugs.


 

Stacey is walking home from school when Mrs Pike calls out to her. Stacey smiles and waves.

"Are you busy?" Mrs Pike asks anxiously. "I need a last-minute sitter for Claire."

"No problem," Stacey answers. "Congratulations on the baby, by the way, Mrs Pike."

Mrs Pike smiles at her. "Thank you."

Stacey enters the warmth of the Pikes' living room and looks around. She doesn't visit as often as she used to –- Claire and Margo are the only ones Mr. and Mrs Pike still seek a sitter for, and the other kids are all old enough to look after them most of the time. The house doesn't seem to have changed much –- it's a little tidier, perhaps, without the triplets' toys strewn around.

"Where is everyone?" Stacey asks, pulling her scarf away from her neck.

"The triplets are all spending the night at Scotty Danby's," Mrs Pike answers rather distractedly, looking for her car keys. "It's his birthday, I believe. So you won't need to worry about them. Nicky insisted on having a sleepover as well, so he's spending the night over at the Thomas-Brewer household."

"Are he and David Michael friends?" Stacey asks in surprise.

Mrs Pike smiles. "Sure. They play on the same baseball team and they like to swap baseball cards, when they can..."

Stacey feels a little foolish about acting so surprised. "And Vanessa and Margo?"

A dark expression fleets momentarily across Mrs Pike's face. "I'm going to get them now," she answers, finally locating her car keys. "Mallory tells me they've both turned up in Riverbend, having left school and taken the train this morning." She shakes her head, looking both angry and tired at the same time. "They're not... They're not taking the news well." She touches a light hand to her stomach, and then to her forehead, as though she has a headache.

"I thought they'd be excited," Stacey answers worriedly.

Mrs Pike shrugs and gives her a tired smile. "Claire is in her bedroom. She's –- she's a bit upset." She sends a worried glance upstairs. "John will probably beat me home, but he knows where I'm going. Call his office if you have any trouble. Or Mrs Brewer, or –-"

"I know what to do," Stacey assures her. "Don't worry about it."

Mrs Pike flashes her a relieved smile, and then calls upstairs. "Claire? I'm leaving now! Stacey's here..."

There is no answer.

"It's okay," Stacey says. "Go ahead. I'll see you later."

Mrs Pike hurries out the door and Stacey heads upstairs, pausing momentarily outside Mr. and Mrs Pike's bedroom. The bed is wide and neatly-made and an odd feeling grabs hold of Stacey's stomach as she looks at it. She scowls, the now-familiar feelings of ridiculousness and embarrassment flooding her from head to toe.

You'll go back to normal soon, she promises herself. It's just a stupid crush, and all because you keep imagining him having sex.

She forces the scowl off her face as she knocks gently on the closed door to Claire's bedroom.

"Claire?"

"Go away!" The voice is strangely muffled.

"Your mom's gone," Stacey says patiently. "Come down and have a snack with me. I haven't seen you for ages..." She pauses for a moment, listening. "Is it true you've grown a foot and a half in the past month?" She hears a stifled giggle, and grins.

The door swings open and nine-year-old Claire Pike stands in front of her, tear-streaked and tired. "No," Claire says. "Half an inch."

"Half an inch is still pretty good," Stacey answers, giving her a smile. "Come and have a snack."

"Is mom really gone?" Claire asks.

"Uh-huh. Did you fight?" Stacey leads the way downstairs.

"Sort of," Claire answers. "I yelled at her."

"Why?"

Claire throws herself into a chair at the end of the table and rests her head in her hands, looking miserable, but rather melodramatic. "Because she's having a baby," she says.

"You shouldn't yell at her for that," Stacey answers, opening the fridge.

"Mallory did," Claire answers, as though that explains everything. She scowls, and sounds rather tearful when she speaks again. "Vanessa and Margo ran away."

"Well, your mom has gone to bring them back," Stacey says comfortingly, pouring two glasses of juice.

"They didn't ask me to go!" Claire wails, bursting into noisy tears. "They j-just ran away and l-left me here!" She buries her face in her arms.

"Oh, Claire..." Stacey sits down beside her and takes one small hand into her own. "It's okay."

"No it's n-not!" Claire sobs. "They hardly t-talk to me at all, because now they g-go to the s-same stupid school..." The last word trails off into a moan and she hiccups and sobs against the surface of the table.

Stacey glances around the kitchen worriedly, as though she might be able to find something on the counter that could help the situation. "It's okay, Claire," she says eventually. "I'm sure they would have invited you, too."

Claire frowns and rubs her eyes. "No they wouldn't," she answers, but she doesn't say anything else. Stacey shifts a glass of juice towards her and Claire takes a couple of hasty gulps.

"I hate being the youngest," Claire hiccups after a moment.

"Well you won't be, in a few months," Stacey answers. This was obviously the wrong thing to say, because Claire shoots her a look of anger.

"It's all Dad's fault," she says, sniffling quietly. "I heard the triplets talking about it. They think it's funny."

Stacey can imagine the triplets sniggering and laughing about the new situation the Pikes have found themselves in. "It's not your dad's fault," she says gently. "These things happen, Claire."

"It's not fair," Claire says darkly, glowering at her half-empty glass. "I hate this family."

"No you don't," Stacey answers cheerfully. "It's kind of hard for you all to adjust. Don't forget your mom and dad are both worried, too."

"I don't care," Claire says stubbornly, folding her arms over her chest.

"Well, it's just you and me for a while," Stacey says, changing the subject. "Want to play a game?"

Claire shakes her head.

"Do you have any homework?"

Claire sighs and drags herself away from the table. "Uh-huh."

"Do you need help?"

She shakes her head and trudges upstairs. Stacey decides to give her time alone. She sits on the couch and watches TV for a while, keeping an ear out for any movement upstairs. When she goes up to check on Claire, she's stretched out on top of her bed, sleeping.

Stacey is debating on whether or not to let her continue when she hears the front door open and close.

"Hello?"

She hurries to the top of the stairs and smiles at Mr. Pike, suddenly feeling awkward and shy. "Hi, Mr. Pike."

"Stacey." He smiles at her and empties his pockets, dropping his keys and wallet onto the table by the door. "I take it Mrs Pike hasn't returned with our jail-breakers yet."

"Not yet." She clings to the banister as she makes her way downstairs, towards him, willing herself to simply look at him as plain old Mr. Pike, the next door neighbor.

It's no good. Since learning of Mrs Pike's pregnancy, her view of him has shifted, and she can't figure out exactly why. Suddenly she notices the shape of his body and the gentle slope of his shoulders, the lines around his eyes that crinkle up when he smiles and the long-fingered hands that are currently offering her a diet soda.

She takes the bottle silently and he grins at her again, the dimple in his cheek crimping. "Claire okay?"

"She cried for a while," Stacey admits.

Mr. Pike's smile falls a little, and he nods. "It'll take time to adjust to everything," he says, more to himself than to Stacey.

"I think it was mostly because Vanessa and Margo ran away and didn't come and get her first," Stacey says.

Mr. Pike chuckles and sits at the kitchen table. After a moment, Stacey sits opposite him.

"How's school?" he asks.

"Okay. I'm studying calculus." She takes a sip of her soda and notices the way he looks a little admiring as she explains her way through her complicated math homework. Eventually, she stops and goes red, but he doesn't seem to mind her rambling.

"I always liked math," he says after a while. "I was never any good at it, though."

She laughs, and hopes she doesn't sound overly fawning or lovesick. She hopes he hasn't noticed the way she's staring at him, or the way she sometimes snaps to attention and frowns as she inwardly scolds herself for being so stupid and developing a crush on him in the first place.

Eventually, she notices the time, and she drains the rest of her soda quickly. "I should go," she says, realizing she sounds a little reluctant. "I'm supposed to start dinner."

"Sure," Mr. Pike answers, walking with her to the front door. "How much do we owe you, Stacey?"

"Oh," she says in alarm. "Oh, no, don't worry about it. I mean, it was only Claire and she spent the whole time sleeping –-"

"Don't be silly," Mr. Pike says, pushing crisp bills into her hand. "Thank you."

Her skin fires up where he touched her, and she can feel her cheeks going red. "Anytime," she says. "Really."


 

Knowing that Mary Anne won't laugh at her or spill her mortifying secret to anyone else, Stacey finds herself confiding everything to her.

"I've started to dream about him," she moans, her arm across her eyes. Her legs are propped up against Mary Anne's pillows, and rain is falling against the windows in rolling waves as the wind drives it sideways. 

"What sort of dreams?" Mary Anne asks.

Stacey looks at her with raised eyebrows. "There's not much talking in them, if you get my drift."

"Stacey!" Mary Anne looks scandalized, and her cheeks turn red, as they so often do these days when she's talking to Stacey.

"I know!" Stacey cries, pressing the heels of her hands over her eyes. "But I can't help it! He lives right next door and I see him almost every day! Even if it's just for a couple of minutes. And he always talks to me, you know, asking me about school and everything..." She wrinkles her nose and rolls onto her stomach. "Don't look at me like that," she pleads, noticing the stern look on Mary Anne's face. It's scary how like her dad she can look sometimes. "I know it's stupid," she adds. "But it's not like I'd ever admit anything to him, or do anything about it."

"I know," Mary Anne answers immediately, giving her a small smile. "Mallory would kill you."

Stacey gives a giggle and shakes her head. "I know. But it'd be worse if he found out, you know? It'd be so embarrassing. I can barely look him in the eye now..." She gives a dreamy sigh. "He has really nice eyes."

"He does," Mary Anne agrees.

Stacey traces the pattern on Mary Anne's bedspread with her finger. "What should I do?" she asks. "I think maybe I'd be less infatuated with him if I had a boyfriend. Do you think I should ask someone out?"

"Who?" Mary Anne asks. "Do you like anyone?"

"No," Stacey admits.

"Then don't," Mary Anne answers. "You might just hurt someone's feelings."

"Yeah, okay," Stacey answers, dropping the idea immediately. She changes the subject. "Mallory comes home tomorrow."

"She does?"

"Uh-huh. She's grown like a teenage boy –- all gangly and awkward."

Mary Anne laughs. "I guess. Don't tease her about it though."

Stacey shakes her head. "I won't. Do you want to come over tomorrow? If she's still upset about Mrs Pike being pregnant it might be good to have you there. You always know what to say."

Mary Anne smiles and rolls her eyes. "Okay. I'll come by after lunch."

Stacey peers out the window, which is covered with glittering rain drops. The sun is showing through the cloud, weak and watery. "I think I'll make a run for it while the sun's out," she says. "See you tomorrow."

She's only just reached the end of the block before the rain starts pouring down again. She swears and holds her jacket over her head, wondering if she should run back to Mary Anne's, or just keep going in the hope of it being a brief shower. Each drop is icy and heavy.

Just as she decides to make a run for it back to Mary Anne's, a car slows in the street and the passenger door is thrown open. Stacey's heart thumps painfully as she realizes it's Mr. Pike.

"Want a ride?"

She throws herself into the passenger seat and hastily sets about rearranging her jacket. "Hi, Mr. Pike," she says breathlessly. Lately, in her head, she has been calling him John, and she hopes he doesn't notice the brief stutter before she says Mr. Pike. "Thanks for stopping." She combs her fingers through her damp hair. If her mom was driving, she'd take hold of the rear-vision mirror to check the damage to her carefully-styled curls. In Mr. Pike's car, she folds her hands into her lap and prays that her hair doesn't go too wiry and fly-away.

"Are you headed home?" he asks, waving away her thanks. "Or are you headed to Mary Anne's?"

"Home." She sneaks a glance sideways at him, through her lashes, and thinks he looks thin and pale. She wonders if it's the stress of Mrs Pike's pregnancy, or if it's just her imagination.

"How is Mary Anne?" Mr. Pike asks, putting the car back into gear. "I haven't seen her for a long time."

"She's okay. Busy. School... you know."

He grins. "Senior year."

She grins back. "Yeah." She suddenly notices he's gone past Slate Street. "Oh," she says, "I could have just cut through your yard."

"It's raining," he says. "I'll take you to the door."

"Okay. Thanks." She notices the way her voice shakes and she curses her over-active imagination, which is suddenly full of extremely unlikely scenarios, all involving the backseat.

"Doing anything special for Christmas?" he asks.

"No. It'll just be Mom and I."

"Not spending any time with your dad?"

"Not this year." She looks out the window at the raindrops sliding down the glass, and for some reason starts babbling. "He asked me, but I can't. It's easier if I don't see him. Does that make me sound awful? It just seems like I can't see him without having an argument with him, or without prompting him to have an argument with Mom. We're more polite to one another when there's distance between us. I don't want to fight during Christmas..."

Mr. Pike looks a little taken aback, but quickly masks it. "It doesn't make you sound awful," he says. "It must be hard for you."

"It is." Her heart warms a little and the tears that were suddenly burning behind her eyes fade away. "What about you guys? How are you spending Christmas?"

"Just at home," he answers, slowing as they approach the intersection into Elm Street. The car pulls to a gentle halt and Stacey watches him shift the gear stick into neutral. His long fingers curl around it gently as he waits for a chance to turn. "We're just having a quiet Christmas," he says. There's a pause before he adds, "As quiet as it can be, at our house."

Stacey laughs and leans back into the seat. "How's Claire?" she asks after a moment.

"She's okay. I think she'd be excited if Mallory hadn't reacted so negatively. It's a big change for everyone." He shifts slightly and drums his fingers on the steering wheel, waiting as a silver car sluices its way through the waterlogged intersection.

Stacey hopes she hasn't made him uncomfortable. "They'll get more excited as time goes on," she says.

He smiles. "Hope so."

"Are you excited?" she asks daringly, a small, teasing smile on her face.

He smiles back at her. "Very excited. So long as it's not another set of triplets."

She laughs and he grins and eases the car forward again into the driving rain.

He pulls into the driveway and she thanks him and fumbles with her seatbelt like a child, her face burning.

"Bye," she blurts eventually, almost falling out into the rain.

"Bye, Stacey."

She hurries to the front door, but takes the time to look back over her shoulder as Mr. Pike reverses the car out of the driveway, his fingers splaying against the steering wheel as he turns it. He doesn't look back at her, but she remembers the way her name sounded when he said goodbye, and her heart thuds painfully.

When she gets inside she sits on the bottom stair and cries.


 

Stacey barely lifts her head from her pillow as she hears the gentle knock at her bedroom door. Instead, she curls into a ball, feeling very sorry for herself.

"Stacey? Your mom says you're not well..."

Stacey sits up immediately. "Mary Anne! I forgot you were coming."

"I can go," Mary Anne says, running her eyes over Stacey carefully. "Are you all right?"

"Close the door," Stacey whispers.

Mary Anne's eyes widen and she closes the door and sits down on the edge of Stacey's bed, looking worried. "What is it?" she asks, her voice also a whisper.

Stacey rubs her hands over her face, feeling the evidence of tears on her skin. "Don't laugh at me."

"I won't," Mary Anne promises softly.

"It's Mr. Pike," Stacey croaks. "Mary Anne, I can't stop thinking about him. I don't know why..." Her voice cracks and she looks away, staring down at her knees, still buried beneath her blankets. "I know it's stupid and I know I'd never, ever, ever have a chance with him... And I can't stop crying about it." She wraps her arms around her knees and hides her face.

"Oh, Stacey," Mary Anne says sympathetically. "It'll pass. Right?"

"But it hurts," Stacey wept. "I know it's stupid, but my heart beats so fast whenever he looks at me, and I dream about him and I imagine what it would be like if he took notice of me like I take notice of him..." She trails away miserably and feels hot guilt flood through her.

Mary Anne shifts up beside her and puts one arm carefully around Stacey's shoulders. "It'll be okay," she says. "You've had crushes on other guys before."

"But this is different," Stacey insists.

"Why?" Mary Anne asks.

Stacey opens her mouth and then closes it again. "It just is," she says. "I can't explain it. I can't think straight when I'm around him. Anyway..." She glances around nervously, as though checking for eavesdroppers. She drops her voice to a low whisper. "You're a virgin, right?"

Mary Anne withdraws a little. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"Nothing," Stacey says. "It's just that –- it's just that I'm not, and I can't stop imagining how it would feel if I was with him –-"

"Stacey," Mary Anne says sharply, "this is getting out of control. Mallory will be here soon, and if she sees you like this, she'll want to know what's wrong."

Stacey winces, and nods. "I know."

Mary Anne's voice is gentle again. "Go and shower," she says. "It'll make you feel better. If Mallory arrives, I'll tell her you're just feeling a bit... a bit under the weather."

"A bit," Stacey says, cracking a small smile. "Thanks."

The obsession won't let go of her. She's tried to shake it off; she's tried to starve it –- but so often she looks out the window and sees him in the yard, throwing a football with Nicky or ordering one of the triplets down from the apple tree. Just when she thinks she's got him out of her mind, he appears in front of her as though to taunt her further.

In the shower, she runs soap over her body and lets her fingers trace patterns where she wished he would touch her. She blinks back tears as she realizes how pathetic she feels about it all, and how silly it all is.

Mallory and Mary Anne are waiting for her. Mary Anne has made the bed and is sitting on the end of it. Mallory is in the desk chair.

She grins at Stacey, who is wrapped in a bath sheet. "Hi."

"Hi," Stacey answers, trying to sound cheerful. "How's Riverbend?"

"I'm glad to be out of there for a while," Mallory answers. "Though it feels like I've left one crazy-house and entered another. Claire might not believe in Santa anymore, but she sure gets excited at Christmas time."

Stacey laughs, and Mallory and Mary Anne both turn their backs as she starts to dress.

"Have you seen Jessi?" Mary Anne asks.

"She's in Oakley until Christmas Eve. I'll see her before I have to go back to school. What's new with you guys?"

Stacey stretches out on her bed with damp hair, fully dressed. "Nothing much," she answers. "How's everyone adjusted to your mom being pregnant?"

Mallory sighs and fidgets a little. "I dunno. Up and down, I guess. Vanessa says Mom and Dad have been bickering a bit. She wants to work full time and he doesn't want her to. He thinks she should take it easy."

Stacey's heart thumps with a flare of hope, knowing that Mr and Mrs Pike have been arguing, and she hates herself for it. She forces the images of divorce and hurt and comfort out of her head. "It'll be okay," she says.

Mary Anne picks up Stacey's comb and starts to run it through the damp tresses. "That's what I said," she says cheerfully, and she gives Stacey's shoulder a comforting squeeze.


 

Stacey meets Mr. Pike at the trash cans again on Christmas Day.

"Merry Christmas," he says, beaming at her.

"Merry Christmas," she echoes, offering him a smile in return.

"Get anything good?" he asks.

"Um..." She thinks for a moment. "A new curling iron."

He tilts his head. "But your hair's already curly."

She laughs and wedges the lid back on the trashcan. "What about you? Good haul this year?"

"Lots of socks," Mr. Pike says.

"Is that good or bad?"

"Good, I think."

Stacey smiles again, but her heart is beating painfully in her chest, and it's warring with her brain, which is screaming at her to stop feeling so stupidly infatuated.

"Why don't you and your mom come over?" he asks. "Dee's making gingerbread."

"I probably won't be able to eat it," Stacey says painfully.

"We'll find something for you. I think we've got some of that hot chocolate your mom buys."

"Really?" Stacey asks. "Won't we be in the way?"

"We've got to get used to having more people in the house," he says seriously. "Come over."

"I'll go and ask Mom." She smiles at him and picks her way back across the icy yard –- keeping to the right to avoid the mud patch.

She has to avoid the temptation to hurry her mother up. Just as they're ready to leave, Stacey rushes upstairs again to apply another layer of mascara – and at the same time, she grumbles at herself in the mirror for even bothering.

The Pikes' living room is crowded and warm. They roar a general greeting of Merry Christmas before turning back to the gifts they're all absorbed in. Mallory picks her way over to Stacey through the scatterings of wrapping paper, which has been on the carpet since that morning.

"Merry Christmas," she says, grinning.

"Merry Christmas," Stacey echoes. "Get any good presents?"

"Vanessa was my Secret Santa this year," Mallory says happily. "She bought me a new journal."

"Nice," Stacey says, sensing she is supposed to approve.

Mallory lowers her voice and gives a breathless giggle. "The triplets wanted me to buy condoms for Dad."

Stacey snorts and covers her mouth. "What?"

Mallory wrinkles her nose. "They thought it was hilarious. I refused. I mean –- I mean, ew!" She buries her face in her hands and Stacey starts to laugh again, though a gentle flush rises up her face, and her spine is tingling.

"I'd better go and see if Mom needs help," Mallory says.

"I'll come," Stacey offers.

Stacey's mother is sitting at the table with a mug of hot chocolate in front of her, deep in conversation with Mrs. Pike about the terrible state of the roads.

Stacey and Mallory both roll their eyes, and Mallory heads for the tray of warm gingerbread. Stacey hovers nearby, breathing in the pleasant scent.

"Here you go." Mr. Pike hands her a mug of hot chocolate. "Your mom instructed me, so if something goes wrong, I refuse responsibility."

Stacey grins at him and takes a sip, playfully narrowing her eyes at him over the rim of the mug. He looks amused, and her stomach flips in response. She sits at the end of the table and watches him move about the kitchen, portioning out the gingerbread and directing Mallory to take it through to the living room.

When Mr. Pike stands by Mrs Pike at the counter and runs a gentle hand over her back, the butterflies in Stacey's stomach all swoop unpleasantly. She watches from beneath her lashes as Mrs Pike smiles at him and then turns back to Maureen. They're still chatting about the icy weather and the roads.

Mr. Pike chimes in, but there's a roar in Stacey's ears as she watches his hand move slowly up and down Mrs Pike's back, until it rests low against her hip, pulling her closer to him. Sneaking a glance at his face, Stacey realises he doesn't appear to be doing it consciously, and this makes her feel worse.

The hot chocolate is suddenly tasteless, and the scent of gingerbread overwhelming and unpleasant.

Get a grip, Stacey's brain snaps at her heart. Look at them and realise how happy they are together.

Reluctantly, she takes another look, and her heart sinks as she realises that Mr. and Mrs Pike really do look incredibly happy. There is no hint of tension or unhappiness between them.

Is this it, then? her brain asks rather grumpily. Can you get over him, now? It's gone far enough.

She sneaks another glance at them and catches Mr. Pike kissing the top of his wife's head. She can't ever remember them being so affectionate before –- not in front of her, anyway. She wonders, briefly, if he has clued into the way Stacey is always fumbling and bumbling and blushing around him, and is merely reminding her of where his heart lies.

Her brain dismisses this as ridiculous. It's Christmas. They've having another baby. They're happy. That's all. It has nothing to do with you because he'd never think –- not in his wildest dreams –- that you would see him as anything other than plain old Mr. Pike.

She knows the harsh thoughts coming from the back of her mind are right. He would never look twice at her, and she doubts he would pay enough attention to her to realise how silly she's been around him lately. Her heart sinks even further and she takes another large gulp of the hot chocolate.

She switches her attention to Mrs Pike. She is listening to Stacey's mom intently, one hand over her husband's, which is still curled against her hip. She is slim and pretty, and her smile lights up her whole face, sending her eyes sparkling.

Stacey suddenly realizes, with a jolt, that she would never compare –- no matter what the situation, or the circumstances or the dreams. Mrs Pike fits with Mr. Pike.

She almost hears it –- the audible click between them –- and she blinks and looks down into her hot chocolate. She wonders for a minute if she's going to cry, because suddenly she senses a huge loss, even though nothing has changed on the outside. She can see them fitting together in front of her, and suddenly she realizes she's been seeing Mr. Pike differently because the pregnancy has forced her to think of him as one half of a pair.

Relief suddenly sweeps through her as she pins down the source of her emotional turmoil. She wonders now if she can work her way out of it.

I never thought of him as somebody's soul mate, before, she thinks, watching him laugh and gesture with one hand as he adds to the conversation she has now lost track of. She realizes, stupidly, that he became attractive when it became freshly-obvious that he was attractive to Mrs Pike. She wonders what this makes her. She wonders if she's the sort of person who will only ever be attracted to men already in relationships.

No, her brain answers calmly. Stop being silly.

She allows herself a small smile as she sips at the dregs of her hot chocolate. I will. Eventually.