Oh, thank God, Sam thought, sidling up to the buffet table and popping an olive in his mouth. I thought I’d never get away!
He shot a quick glance back in the direction of his escape, relief washing through him when he realized he hadn’t been followed. He loved his family, but like his siblings, he was anything less than pleased at having to make conversation with Uncle Neal and Aunt Theo. He’d successfully avoided the majority of his extended family during the chaos that was wedding planning week, and just when he thought he might pull it off entirely, Aunt Theo cornered him, showering him with the dreaded opener: “My, how you’ve grown! What grade are you in now?”
He continued to munch on olives, allowing his annoyance to wash away as he glanced around the spacious but crowded yard. It was a special day, after all, yammering aunts notwithstanding. He’d just witnessed his mother getting remarried, something he never thought he’d see, considering how well her last marriage worked out. But Watson was an okay guy, and he genuinely seemed to want the Thomas kids around. The weather was beautiful, the food was flowing freely, and the rest of the wedding party looked radiant. What more could a guy ask for?
A tiny-half smile pulled at the corner of his mouth as his gaze settled on a blonde figure in the distance.
Stacey, he mused. Stacey McGill. How you doin’?
She looked stunning, of course. She was wearing a pale blue sleeveless dress, her hair flowing freely over her shoulders, pinned back on the sides with silver clips. Though, Sam considered, she always looked stunning, even in regular clothes – tall and thin, with curly blonde hair and a real sense of style. It was hard to believe she and Kristy were the same age – they certainly didn’t look it.
Not that it made him feel any less weird, staring at a thirteen-year-old friend of his sister’s.
Her being stunning certainly helped, though.
“Do I even want to know what you’re thinking?” a voice intoned from the vicinity of his left.
Sam turned, surprised to see his brother Charlie standing beside him, an amused expression settling over his features. A faint flush coated the back of Sam’s neck, but he didn’t reply, instead continuing to shove olives in his mouth as he turned his attention back across the yard.
“Why don’t you ask her to dance?” Charlie queried pleasantly.
Sam frowned. “She looks busy,” he murmured between bites. She was standing with her group of friends, laughing and chatting and taking pictures. In fact, her camera had been permanently attached to her face for most of the day – maybe Kristy had put her in charge of recording the event for posterity?
The idea amused him, but was not enough to shake his growing tide of wary uncertainty.
“A word of advice,” Charlie mused aloud, draping an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Girls who look like that will always be busy.” He paused, taking in Sam’s pained expression, before speaking again. “Take a swing or take a seat. In the meanwhile, how about leaving some olives for the rest of us?”
Sam shot him a feint unimpressed look. “Thanks,” he mumbled, brushing his hands off and moving away from the table. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested, it was just…
She was thirteen. A middle-schooler. An eighth-grader.
Never mind the fact that he studied her every chance he had. Never mind the fact that he’d jumped at the chance to deliver groceries to his neighbors that week, just to catch a glimpse of her while she was helping Kristy and the others with their impromptu playgroup. Never mind the fact that he’d actually hurried home from his job early every day, instead of hanging out with his friends like he usually did, on the off-chance that he’d run into her as she was biking home in the afternoon.
Never mind the fact that while he was standing there like a lump on a log, his cousin Luke had approached her, tapped her on the shoulder, and asked her to dance.
Get a grip, Thomas, he admonished himself. You’re letting a ten-year-old show you up. With a determined nod of his head, he looked around, his eyes lighting up as he spotted another of Kristy’s friends close by.
“Hey, Claud!” he called jovially, waving to get her attention. “Wanna dance?”
He pulled a smiling Claudia onto the dance floor and twirled her around, feeling himself relax incrementally as he laughed and joked with her. When the song ended, he fell into an exaggerated bow before her, thanking her profusely before turning to his sister’s best friend – and another girl he’d known since she was a baby – and sweeping her off the sidelines. Mary Anne blushed all the way to the roots of her hair the entire time they danced, but he managed to coax a smile out of her before letting her go.
He turned just then, noticing Stacey standing on the edge of the crowd, alone, the corners of her mouth turned down in a slightly confused frown. Almost as soon as her expression registered in his mind, however, it vanished, replaced with a bright smile as she waved to someone standing behind him. She moved forward, ostensibly to meet this mystery guest, but he when he saw his chance, he took it, catching her arm as she brushed past him.
“Stacey,” he said softly, surprised when his nervousness from before came rushing back all at once, “would you like to dance?”
She hesitated, her big blue eyes searching his for a long moment. “Okay,” she finally replied.
He smiled, letting her arm go, wondering faintly why a rosy pink blush was suddenly spreading across her cheeks. Just then, his mind registered that the music had changed, from upbeat and funky to something a little slower and more romantic. For a moment, they stood awkwardly, as other couples – including his mother and Watson – swayed around them.
Sam reached for Stacey’s hand. “Come on,” he murmured, “I love this song.” He didn’t, in reality – Watson was a pretty cool guy, but he had weird, old-fashioned taste – but the reassurance was enough for her. Tentatively, she rested her hands on his shoulders as his arms encircled her waist, and they began to sway along with everyone else.
He wracked his mind for something to say, something witty that would disarm her, like Claudia or Mary Anne. He drew a blank, however, every potential comment lodging in his throat as their gazes met once more. She was already smiling, rather dreamily, her eyes sparkling and eager, and he relaxed, drawing her a bit closer.
So what if she was thirteen? So what if anybody else was watching them? She was absolutely beautiful, she was dancing in his arms, and she was looking at him like he was a dream come true.
At that moment, she was the only thing that mattered in his world, and that’s when Sam realized –
– he was in love.