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The New Debut

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``…..well, if I’d said that I’d be here by myself.’’

Ryan had to agree with Seth. He definitely would’ve found a way to bail He trailed after his brand-new brother, scanning the room for exits. Maybe there’d be a break or something and he could skip out? Seeing the other boy’s eager eyes searching the crowd, he kicked himself internally. Not even brothers for a week and he was already thinking of abandoning him. Nice, Atwood. He determined that no matter how humiliating or painful this was, he wouldn’t leave until Seth did.

Marissa and her friend Summer were coming over to them with another girl with auburn hair. Straightening from his slumped position against the table, he nudged Seth. He fought a smile at the catch in his friend’s breath as the trio approached. Summer and Marissa were in relaxed skirt and blouse outfits, looking like fashion models. The other was wearing a dress with spaghetti straps and a full skirt, her long hair pulled back to hang in straight lines down her back. She looked fantastic. Then again, were there any girls at this thing that didn’t look fantastic?

``So, here’s our White Knights.’’ Summer purred, eyeing him up and down.

``Let me introduce you.’’ Marissa smiled that dazzling smile of hers. He felt a familiar thrill as their eyes met. Damn, she was hot. ``Ryan Atwood, Seth Cohen ….meet Summer Roberts and Taylor Townsend.’’

``Hello.’’ Taylor stepped forward and stuck out her hand. ``Aren’t you the boy from Chino who steals cars and set fire to the model home?’’

``Taylor!’’ Marissa scolded her. ``I’m sorry, she’s a little….’’

``Yes, I am.’’ Ryan took the girl’s hand and just held it. Let Marissa get a little of her own back, see how she was making him and Luke feel. Besides, there was no way he was going to escort Summer.

``Just making sure. I mean, it’s nice to get the awkward questions and information out of the way so that you don’t unintentionally insult someone or wander into a subject they don’t want to discuss.’’ Taylor smiled at him. She seemed to have a little trouble catching her breath. ``You don’t talk much, though, do you? I mean, it’s okay, the Cotillion is about dancing, not talking, and…..’’

``Oh, but Ryan will be Summer’s escort.’’ Marissa cut in, voice falsely bright. ``I’m sorry, Taylor.’’ Her tone betrayed the fact that she wasn’t sorry at all.

``Oh.’’ Taylor dropped his hand like it was on fire. All the animation was drained out of her face, her hazel eyes no longer sparkled. She turned a shaky smile to Seth and stuck her hand out again. Ryan saw Seth had the same defeated look of resignation and dashed hopes. Summer was smirking at him and as for Marissa …..he really didn’t like the look in her eyes.

``But I want to escort Taylor.’’ He stepped between his brother and the girl before they could clasp hands. ``You don’t mind, do you?’’

``Mind?’’ Seth looked like he was about to faint, his eyes lit up and he smiled. ``No, of course not. I mean, if that’s what you want. If it’s okay with the ladies….’’

``No, it’s not okay, Cohen.’’ Summer fumed. She glared at Ryan and sent a confused look at Taylor, who was staring at them all with a stunned expression. ``You think I want to be escorted to the Cotillion by…..’’

``By Caleb Nichol’s grandson?’’ Taylor found her voice. ``Yes, why ever would you want that?’’

``Figures you’d think about that, Taylor.’’ That sweet sharp tone was back in Marissa’s voice. ``Aren’t you disobeying your Mother’s orders turning down Seth?’’

Ryan caught the tiny flinch at the mention of her mother. It wasn’t the same as the ones he hid when thinking about his home. Former home, he reminded himself with an inner thrill. She wasn’t scared of a beating. But she was scared. He reached out and lightly gripped her upper arm. He felt a slight tremble under the silky skin. He’d better deal with this quick or she’d start to cry. If he had to take Summer to this thing, …. No, he couldn’t do that to Seth.

``I thought we were White Knights not Slaves.’’ He rubbed his thumb back and forth over Taylor’s skin, trying to soothe her. ``Don’t we get a say in who we’re taking to .. Cotillion?’’ He’d paused so that he could pronounce it as Taylor had, Or as close to the French pronunciation as he could get.

``It’s not like you’re being asked to marry him, Miss Roberts.’’ Startled, all eyes snapped to the chaperon and instructor, Peggy. ``It’s a dance.’’

``Fine.’’ Summer snapped, grabbing Seth’s hand. ``Come on, Cohen.’’

``Okay.’’ Marissa motioned to him. ``You two are over here.’’

Ryan trailed along after, looking at his date sideways. She clapped her hands a little and he could swear he heard a `yay’ as she followed him to their assigned spot. He ducked his head over a smile. He knew why he’d done it, to make Seth happy. To avoid Summer’s lust. He was used to the girls singling him out. In Chino, it was fun to see how many he could get. This was Newport, though, and girls like Summer were trouble. With his luck, her father was probably chief of police or something. He’d have to find a way to get Seth to tell him. Shouldn’t be too hard. Summer was one of Seth’s favorite subjects. Maybe he could get some info on Taylor while he was at it.

``Okay, get into waltz position.’’ He stiffened, looking at Marissa with disbelief for her matter of fact tone. Did he look like he knew what waltz position was? Hell, did he look like he knew what a waltz was? He snapped his eyes to Taylor as she put her left hand on his right shoulder. Her right hand hovered in the air to his left. Marissa frowned and moved forward. ``Here, let me…..’’

``Oh, I’ve got him in hand, Marissa.’’ Taylor’s voice, for the first time, was falsely bright. He frowned at the switch. ``Nothing to worry about.’’

``Yeah, better let your mom know not to worry, Townsend, since Chino’s gay.’’ Ryan felt like rolling his eyes at Luke’s comment. Is that the only insult that kind of idiot could think of? ``C’mon, `Riss.’’

``If you’re sure…..’’ She was looking at Ryan, a look in her eyes like she wanted him to save her. From what? As far as he could see, she had it pretty good. And he wasn’t destroying the Cohen’s faith in him to take on her boyfriend. He nodded.

``Okay, put your right hand on my back…’’ He cupped her shoulder blade, focusing on her instructions. ``….lower….’’ He saw her eyes widen as he slid his hand down her back until it rested just above her ass. Should he have taken his hand off and then put it back? Where was the sense in that? Besides, he liked the feel of her, the shaky undertone to her voice as she continued. ``….hold your other hand up…, cupped like you’re holding a glass to make a toast….’’ She placed her right hand palm to palm with his left, slipping her thumb up from his wrist to solidify the grip. When had it gotten so warm in here? Peggy’s voice was a welcome distraction as she showed them the waltz.

``You didn’t have to do that, you know.’’ After a few minutes, Taylor spoke up again. He looked up briefly from where he was watching their feet. In those ….sandal things…she was wearing, if he stepped on her foot he’d probably break her toes.

``Do what?’’ He never liked dancing. Everyone was watching you, waiting for you to mess up.

``Choose me over Summer.’’ She bit her lip and looked away. ``I know Marissa wasn’t happy with that.’’

``Why should Marissa care?’’ He risked a look to where Luke and his girlfriend were dancing. They looked like they were talking too, only the conversation didn’t look pleasant. Seth, however, looked like he was in heaven. Summer kept signaling to the other girls behind his back, getting shakes of the head in return. The two couples didn’t look like they had any trouble with this dance stuff. Probably had lessons since they were kids or something. He looked back down at his feet. Close one.

``Oh, please.’’ There was a slight tremor in her as she spoke. She couldn’t be as nervous as he was, could she? He stopped trying to dance for a minute. ``You like her, she wants you….. it was a little obvious. I’m not an idiot, Ryan.’’

``She has a boyfriend.’’

``To a guy like you isn’t that a red flag to a bull?’’

``A guy like me?’’ Okay, here’s where she was going to insult him. Junior miss….what did Sandy call them? Newpsies? ``What’s that supposed to mean?’’

``A guy who knows what he wants and doesn’t let anything get in his way. A guy who makes a decision and sticks with it, having weighed the consequences.’’ Taylor’s brow crinkled a bit. ``What did you think…… oh, no, Ryan….you’re not the kind of guy to cheat on someone, or make someone else cheat on someone….I didn’t mean…’’

``It’s okay.’’ He could tell, she meant every word. Just as she had when they were introduced. She hadn’t meant anything by bringing up Chino and the car and the fire, she was simply confirming information. Her tone was pleasantly honest. To tell the truth, it was a nice change from how everyone else here talked to him. There was always something in their eyes, their tone of voice. Fear, some sort of sick fascination. ``It wasn’t really about you.’’

``You mean…’’ He saw her eyes flick over to Seth and Summer. ``Oh.’’ The light in her face dimmed a bit.

``Not that you’re not ….’’

``No, it’s okay.’’ The tremble was stronger now. ``Why should it be any different with you? I mean, she’s Marissa Cooper. I’m just crazy Taylor Townsend.’’ Her voice was envious, bitter, disappointed and flat. The falseness in her tone was back as she gave him a fake smile. ``We should be practicing.’’

As they started to move again, Ryan tried to think of what to say. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Marissa. Did he really like her? Really? Sure, she was hot. She’d helped out with the model home thing. She’d also been partly responsible for the fire, he realized. He hadn’t heard her apologize for it, though. Luke had. He smiled a bit at how desperately Luke had asked for his help in Juvie. That may be why he’s being such a jackass now. Getting back at Ryan for witnessing the sheer terror he’d experienced. What was up with helping Dawn, though? Payback for the help he’d given him in Juvie? He just couldn’t figure the guy out. One minute he was alright, then he was a giant asshole. It was worse than trying to figure out his mom.


Ryan flinched away from the thought of his mother. Her drunken cries at the party, her insincere apologies. It was all so familiar. Watching over her as she slept it off, sick at the smell of rum. Wait ..his mother never drank rum, it was always whiskey. Vodka, if she was trying to be discreet. Why had he thought of rum? ……Marissa. That night he’d picked her up off her driveway. She’d smelled of rum. The night she’d come to the model home, then too. And that morning on the pier. He went back over every interaction with her, every time he’d seen her. He felt like he was waking up, or pulling off a pair of shades to look into a darkened room.

She’d been drunk at the fashion show, he realized. That functional drunk his mother had some days. At the party later, too. That morning on the pier, she hadn’t really done anything to stop Luke, or help Seth. And then she comes by later and yells at them for their behavior? She’d been drinking, he just hadn’t noticed. Or maybe he hadn’t wanted to notice. Maybe he wanted to think that this place was different, that that sweet smell was perfume, that a girl like her wouldn’t have to be drunk to like him. She’d wanted him, but that wasn’t about him. It was about her. A way to rebel? An adventure? He was suddenly very glad he’d pushed her away.

``Ryan.’’ Taylor was trying to stop dancing. ``We’re taking a break. Didn’t you hear the music stop?’’

Startled, he looked around. Everyone was looking at them. Seth was on his way over, Summer having obviously abandoned him. It in no way dimmed the expression on his face, though. Ryan looked back at Taylor, hoping he hadn’t embarrassed her too much. Her expression was quizzical, concerned. She seemed to be silently asking if he was all right.

``Sorry.’’ He dropped his arms from her and stuffed his hands into his pant’s pockets. He heard tittering and knew it wasn’t directed at him from the flush that filled Taylor’s face. ``Guess I was having too good a time.’’

He made sure that his voice was loud enough for everyone to hear, a sparkling smile was his reward. Man, she was gorgeous, why hadn’t he seen that before? Oh, she couldn’t compete with Marissa, but …… There was an honesty to her, a sincerity that reminded him forcibly of Theresa. Marissa had a falseness to her, a façade, he was coming to realize. He could understand it, if she was unhappy and angry enough to turn to drink. He just didn’t want any part of it. He’d dealt with enough of that shit. Maybe a word to Luke? The guy couldn’t be a complete loss. He’d saved Ryan from the fire, owned up to it. He’d even tried to help Dawn. Get him away from his loser friends, drop a word into his ear about Marissa’s problem. Because he knew, now, that he seriously didn’t want anything to do with her.

``Isn’t this great?’’ Seth enthused.

``Wonderful.’’ Ryan muttered. Everyone was sitting down, sipping water from the tables. Taylor followed them to a table and reached for a chair. Inspired by he didn’t know what, Ryan gripped the chair just as she was about to touch it and pulled it out for her. He seated her with what he hoped was appropriate style, thankful the chair didn’t catch on anything.

``Wow, man, unexpected depth.’’ Seth nudged him as he sat down. ``Nice moves.’’

``You don’t have to keep doing that.’’ Taylor fiddled with her glass.

``Doing what?’’

``Being nice to me.’’ There was a softness in her eyes, a vulnerability. ``I mean, you don’t want to ruin your rep making your debut with a social pariah. I’d completely understand if you…..’’

``If I have to go to this thing, there’s no one else I’d rather go with.’’ He gave her a smile for her stunned expression. ``I can’t be that bad.’’

``Oh, no, you’re very attractive. And you don’t make stupid jokes or mean comments about …. I didn’t…..oh….’’ Taylor flushed and looked down. ``You meant the dancing.’’

``Yes, Ryan isn’t too good with the dancing. The punching, the brooding, yes. Not the dancing.’’ Seth leaned forward. ``You know who is though? Summer. She floats like an angel…..’’ He turned to Ryan. ``Have I thanked you yet? Because I have got to be dreaming….ow!’’ He looked in surprise at Taylor. ``Did you just kick me?’’

``If you felt that, you must be awake.’’ She looked at Seth perceptively. ``You really like Summer, don’t you?’’

``Since I was ten.’’ Seth nodded. ``She’s the most amazing ..’’

``You’re going about this all wrong.’’ Taylor cut in. ``She’s used to guys chasing after her, drooling. She’s heard every line, every desperate attempt for her attention. You’ve got to alter your approach if you want her to like you. Classy and classic. Something she hasn’t seen before, hanging with Princess Mononoke and that crowd.’’

``You watch anime? Next you’ll tell me you’re into comic books.’’ Seth scoffed.

``It’s an underrated art form, in my opinion. As for comic books, if they were called graphic novels, perhaps I would’ve been permitted to read them. The genre’s so marginalized by people’s preconceptions of what’s involved.’’ She smoothed a non-existent wrinkle from the tablecloth. ``Back to the Summer thing. I can understand if you don’t want my help…’’

``No!’’ Seth just barely avoided shouting. He certainly gathered several stares. ``No, I need all the help I can get. Please…?’’ He had a pleading expression. ``You’re a girl, you can translate their mysterious language. Say you will….c’mon, it’ll be fun watching me mess it up….’’

``With that attitude you’re not going to get anywhere.’’ Taylor clasped her hands together. ``I don’t know how much I can help, I mean, I’m not exactly popular.’’

``Neither am I. But you’re Ryan’s date, and he’s my brother, so that makes us friends if not practically related…’’

``Brother?’’ Taylor turned to Ryan. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he shrugged. Why did Seth have to bring up that personal stuff? ``The Cohen’s adopted you?’’

``Guardians. It’s more a legal responsibility than a family thing.’’ It had to be. It was the only explanation he could think of. That they wanted to keep an eye on him, give him place to crash; that he could understand. They couldn’t actually want him to be part of their family. Seth challenged that assumption.

``Man, you better not ever say that in front of Mom or Dad. It’d crush them to think that you don’t feel part of the family.’’ Seth’s punch to his shoulder was more like a tap. He really needed to teach this kid to hit. ``I’ve always wanted a brother, y’know. Now I have a super cool one, even if you can’t dance. And your date’s gonna hook me up with Summer.’’ He turned back to Taylor. ``You are, right?’’

``No.’’ She smiled at the crushed expression. ``I’m going to help you woo her. Courtship, always a good move. Much better than hooking up.’’

``You are awesome.’’ Seth’s tone was reverent. ``How come we never hung out?’’

``Oh, well, my mother wants me to be popular, and….’’

``Ah, yes, the legendary Veronica Townsend, she-wolf among the Newpsies.’’ Seth nodded sagely. ``I can perfectly understand how hanging with Seth Cohen would derail your popularity.’’

``Everyone?’’ Peggy was back, clapping her hands for their attention. ``Okay, now we’re going to practice the escort function. You ladies will enter from there..’’ she indicated stage left `` …. you will walk out to meet your father…..’’ Taylor flinched. ``….you gentlemen will enter from there…..’’ stage right `` ….bow, hold your bow until the lady curtsies. Your father will step back, you will deposit your bouquet…’’ she indicated a table on the stage ``… your escort will step forward. Take his arm, and you both will walk to your assigned places.’’ She waved a hand towards the dance floor. ``Any questions?’’

``Will there be anyone available for those without fathers?’’ Marissa’s tone gave the impression all she was concerned with was how things would play out. From the giggles and laughter as well as Taylor’s blush, he knew it was a deliberate dig. Ryan felt sick he’d ever been attracted to that bitch. ``Or whose fathers aren’t coming?’’

``If I had that for a daughter, I’d never show up, either.’’ One of the guys who’d been with Luke commented, loud enough for Taylor to hear. He could tell she was trying not to cry. He wanted to touch her hand, give some comfort, but her hands were in her lap.

``Mr. Douglas…’’ Peggy began.

``My father will be escorting Miss Townsend.’’ The room fell silent when Seth interrupted. Taylor snapped her head up to stare at him. ``If that’s agreeable?’’

``I don’t see any problems.’’ Peggy smiled at their table. Ryan noticed that Marissa had a set look, blank and emotionless. Summer looked surprised and a little relieved. ``Miss Townsend?’’

Taylor nodded, eyes still bright with unshed tears. They stood and lined up, as ordered. Phillip was apparently standing in for the fathers. Marissa and Peggy organized the lines so that when the girl’s name was called, her escort was the one at the head of the line of boys. Marissa kept shooting him looks which he was pretending he didn’t see. He was too focused on the guys in front of him, anyway; watching how they bowed, how they held out their arms to the girls. If Sandy was going to be there, he really didn’t want to mess this up. He noticed Summer’s gaze following Seth with a confused expression. He felt his stomach tightening as he got closer and closer to the front of the line. Seth pulled it off without a hitch, of course. The whispers as Seth went forward were nothing to those when he stepped up.

``Very nice, Mr. Atwood.’’ Peggy commented softly as he walked by with Taylor on his arm. He would’ve been relieved at getting through it if he hadn’t known they’d have to do it all again tomorrow night. In fancy clothes and a room full of people who thought he was scum.

``That was nice of Seth.’’ Taylor said as they began dancing again. Or, in his case, practicing not stepping on her feet. ``Do you think Mr. Cohen will be okay with this? I mean, my mother will probably freak out, and she can be pretty nasty when she gets going.’’

``I think Sandy can hold his own.’’ He wanted to reassure her that this wouldn’t be a disaster. He had even opened his mouth to do so when he felt something under his foot. ``Shit.’’ Looking down, he saw he’d only grazed her toes. They weren’t red or anything, so he hadn’t crippled her. Yet. ``Sorry.’’

``You need to trust me.’’ Ryan lifted his head to meet her eyes. Something in her hazel eyes compelled him.

``I don’t trust people, really.’’ God, why had he said that? To her? He wanted to take it back, look away from her incipient……she was smiling?

``I meant, trust me to move my feet out of the way. That I know what I’m doing.’’ Taylor’s expression was sympathetic. Usually, when he blurted out something personal like that, he’d get pity. Or laughed at. Or hit. He remembered that she was as unpopular as Seth, that apparently her mother wasn’t any more of a prize than his. ``I’ve taken classes. Okay, mostly ballet, but I do know how to waltz. You just need to follow the pattern and trust that I’ll be doing the same. I won’t embarrass you, Ryan.’’

``I know you won’t’’ He flexed his right hand a little, encouraging her to step a little closer. Her eyes widened as she did so, a little smile playing at her lips. ``It’s not you I’m worried about.’’

``Dance with me, Ryan.’’ Taylor invited, stepping into the waltz. ``I’ll try not to chatter and distract you.’’

``I like it.’’ He kept his eyes on hers. He didn’t want her to think he didn’t trust her dancing. There was a vulnerability to her, underneath that confident manner. Unlike Marissa, though, she didn’t seem to expect help as a matter of course. He liked that he didn’t have to try and figure out what was going on. She just spoke up, direct and to the point. ``It’s comfortable.’’

``Because of Seth?’’ Off his nodding, `` …we need to get Operation Summer going. Maybe if he played a little hard to get…..’’

``He’s not.’’

``I know.’’ Taylor sighed. ``But sincerity isn’t an asset in this community. He’s going to have to choose between fitting in or standing out. And standing out is lonely when it’s not beauty you’re standing out for.’’ She was silent for a while, so he took the opportunity to study her face. She really was gorgeous. She didn’t appear to have any makeup on, aside from a shiny pink tint to her lips. Lip gloss. He wondered what flavor. That thought led him to wonder what she’d be like in bed. Either really frigid or unbelievable, he’d bet. He was just starting to fantasize about how she’d look naked when she spoke. ``Strawberry.’’

``What?’’ He flicked his eyes back up to hers.

``My lip gloss. Strawberry.’’

``How….?’’ Okay, that was more than a little creepy. He hoped she couldn’t read his mind, considering where his thoughts had been a minute ago.

``Ryan.’’ Taylor’s voice was chiding. Like Kirsten’s when she’d busted him denying the cigarettes in the trash were his. ``I may not have many guys check me out, but when you look at my lips and your eyes glaze over, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you were thinking.’’

``Sorry.’’ He was. She was nice, he didn’t have any business thinking about her like that. Yeah, fat chance of stopping it now. Moving with her in his arms, he couldn’t help but notice her smell. Some kind of flowers. Nothing he recognized. He tried to focus on her eyes, but he found his gaze trailing down her jaw to her lips, down her neck to her shoulder … and lower…..

``Ry-an.’’ She scolded as his eyes dropped to her chest. She tapped him lightly on the head with her left hand. ``My eyes are up here.’’ She didn’t sound pissed, she sounded amused and a little excited.

``Sorry.’’ He brought his gaze back up as slowly as he could, smiling to let her know he wasn’t really sorry at all. She smiled back at him, warming his skin with her expression.

``Operation Summer, remember?’’ She told him. ``Seth?’’

``Right.’’ He shook his head a little. He’d never had a girl affect him like this, like some sort of spell. It was confusing. It was fun, too. ``Seth. What did you have in mind?’’

He let her words pour over him, focusing entirely on what she was saying. He really wanted to do this for Seth, after all the Cohen’s had done for him. He found himself nodding at her plan. She really had insight into how these people operated. Maybe she’d want to double-date? Purely to help out Seth, of course. Not because of him. She couldn’t be interested in him. She was rich and classy with a whole future ahead of her. It couldn’t help her fit in to be with the town’s most wanted. No matter how she made him feel.

Peggy ran them through the escorting and bowing twice more, followed by more dancing. He found himself smiling a lot, he even laughed once. He couldn’t help it, she just looked so cute with her nose crinkled up like that, commenting on how some girls wore too much perfume. He couldn’t agree more with the opinion that too much was just too much. Overly painted and scented always reminded him of his mother, trying to hide her addictions from a new boss. He’d loved how she’d looked for Vegas night, made the mistake of hoping that’s who she could be. Taylor distracted him with questions about Seth, things they could use for Operation Summer.

``Okay, everyone. Everyone?’’ He felt more than saw amused glances his way as he kept dancing for a few moments after the music cut out. He really needed to stop doing that. ``That’s it for today. I will see you all tomorrow night. Shoo.’’ She tapped her pen on her clipboard as the teenagers milled about, sorting themselves into cliques.

Summer followed Seth over to where he and Taylor stood. What was she…..oh. Marissa was heading over, Luke glaring at him over her head. Meeting the other guy’s gaze, he flicked his eyes towards the girl nervously gripping his arm and tried to convey his change in interest. A furrow appeared in his forehead as he glanced at Taylor, then back at Ryan. His eyes were confused. So were Marissa’s when he finally looked at her. There was a flat look of disapproval when she looked at Taylor, followed by a brief look of hurt directed at him. Did she really think he was stupid enough to be manipulated like this? Another girl came over just as Summer and Seth reached them. She was blond, wearing less than any other girl there.

``So, I’ll see you two at the party, right?’’ she gushed. ``My parents won’t be back until tomorrow, late.’’

``Holly throws a pre-Cotillion barbeque every year.’’ Marissa explained. He really didn’t care for her tone. Condescending without even a pretense of civility.

``She didn’t last year.’’ Seth put in, giving Marissa a strange look.

` ``Yes, I did.’’ Holly was obviously confused as to why her two friends were talking to these people.

``Sounds awesome!’’ Summer put in, hugging the other. Seth’s eyes practically bugged out of his head. ``We’ll be there! C’mon, `Riss.’’ She dragged her friend away, chattering about clothes and parties and people he didn’t know. Seth’s eyes followed her out the door.

``Not really your type of thing, Townsend.’’ Holly’s voice cut in coldly. ``Although I’m sure Ryan would have a great time.’’ She smirked, ogling him up and down. ``See ya.’’ She twitched her hips at him as she walked.

``Y’know, I’ve never really wanted to hit a girl before…..’’ Ryan found himself saying.

``It’s okay.’’ Taylor turned to Seth. ``Operation Summer will go more smoothly if you and Seth are by yourselves.’’ She proceeded to brief Seth fully on his lines, what to say if Summer said this, what to do if Summer said that. His brother nodded sharply at each point, quietly intense in his concentration. Ryan herded the two out into the hallway, seeing that people were trying to set up and decorate for tomorrow. Taylor was just taking Seth through the third rendition of Operation Summer when Kirsten approached.

``Ryan? Seth?’’ Taylor’s voice stopped short. ``Everything okay?’’

``Three hours of dancing.’’ Ryan risked a glare at his guardian. She smiled.

``I feel like I could go for three more.’’ Seth enthused.

``Save some of that for Operation Summer.’’ Taylor advised. ``Mrs. Cohen. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’’ She stuck her hand out with that same confidence she’d greeted him. ``Taylor Townsend.’’

``Pleased to meet you, Taylor.’’ Kirsten shook hands and turned to Ryan. ``Who are you taking?’’

``Taylor.’’ Ryan tilted his head towards the girl. ``Provided her mother doesn’t kill me when she finds out.’’

``I’m sure it’ll be alright.’’ Kirsten smiled at them all. ``And you, Seth?’’

``Summer Roberts.’’ He declared, as if her name was a movie title. ``Isn’t it amazing? Everything is amazing. In fact, have you lost weight, Mom? New haircut? New dress? New shoes.’’

``Seth!’’ His mother laughed. ``It’s nice to see you excited about this. That must be why you didn’t meet me out front.’’

``Sorry.’’ Ryan flushed. Great. He was the responsible one, the focused one, and he couldn’t even remember to get them to the door to meet her. ``Kirsten, I ….’’

``It’s my fault, Mrs. Cohen.’’ Taylor cut in. ``I’m afraid Seth and I were just scheming too intently to pay any attention to the time.’’

``It’s nothing.’’ Kirsten assured them, she seemed worried, though. It was probably that Jimmy thing, as she seemed a little distracted as well. ``We should go before Sandy….’’

``Taylor should come to dinner.’’ Everyone stared at Seth. ``Y’know, so we have more ammo to convince Dad to escort her. To Cotillion. Like I practically promised…’’ He turned begging eyes to his mother. ``We have to get him to do it, Mom. Taylor’s dad….well, there was this terrible skiing accident…or something….but the important thing is she’s gonna help me woo Summer, we have to do this for her….. you can take Veronica Townsend, Mom, she’s not even close to your league…..’’

``Seth!’’ Kirsten shook her head. ``Breathe, son.’’ She smiled at Taylor. ``I’m sorry, he kind of raised himself.’’

``Oh, it’s alright, Mrs. Cohen. There’s no need to feel obligated.’’ That tight note was in her voice again, as it had been when she’d told him that she knew he was attracted to Marissa. ``I should probably go.’’

``Dinner’s at six.’’ Kirsten turned, motioning the boys to head to the parking lot. ``We’re not very formal, so anything like what you’re wearing now….. or jeans….whatever.’’ Ryan looked over his shoulder to check on Taylor’s expression. There was that dazed and excited smile again. She did the little clap thing she had before, the small-voiced `yay’. There was a little jump added in, a spring in her step that was far more attractive to him than that Holly girl’s wiggling hips. He smiled a bit, wondering how Sandy would react to someone nearly as frenetic as his son.

``Ryan!’’ Seth tugged on his arm. ``C’mon, man, I wanna get home and write down Operation Summer before I forget. You can stare at Taylor’s ass..ets.. assets. Later. At dinner.’’

``I wasn’t staring.’’ He jammed his hands into the pockets of the sports jacket. He felt himself flush as Seth snorted disdainfully. He really wanted a cigarette. Quitting cold turkey was a stone-cold bitch.