At lunch, Sydney was alone. Well, not alone exactly; there were at least a hundred people in the cafeteria at the moment, and some of them were over the age of eighteen. However, Gretchen and Lydia were at the Sakura, and Cordelia and Angelia had lunch at different periods of the day. So she was alone.
Over her salad, Sydney thought about things. The idea to work at the Academy was Gretchen’s idea, and, despite her older sister’s firm disapproval, Sydney felt that Rebecca Waldren had to start creating her own life sooner or later. And the first step was to get a job. During the months she’d been confined to the Wolfe house, she’d read so many books that she had started to feel akin to the stories, the characters, the many and diverse themes. Theories started to form in her full mind, and that was the reason why she agreed with Gretchen’s suggestion to teach. If she could not share her memories with someone, she could share her theories. The bright and eager young faces she had encountered were more than willing to listen, take note, and offer their own. It was a step in a new direction.
But what of her old life? Sydney could remember nothing before Jessica Thomas’s face looming above her, calling her Rebecca. That didn’t mean she didn’t want to find out where she’d come from. She had requested that Jessica try to dig up information on her past two months ago. So far, Jessica had not found anything.
It makes no sense, Sydney mused, spearing a cherry tomato on her plate. How could there be no one out there looking for me?
“Is this seat taken?”
Jolted from her thoughts, Sydney looked up and found a young man standing over her brandishing a tray. He was clad in a black dress shirt and pinstriped slacks that added an air of quiet sophistication to his rakish look. Longish brown hair framed a face sporting a bit of a five o’clock shadow, and his blue eyes twinkled with a bit of mystery, but the thing that stood out the most was the youthfulness he exuded. Sydney knew that she was not old, but up against this stranger, she felt ancient.
“Um, no,” Sydney responded. She gestured to the empty chair. “Go ahead. You’re more than welcome to take it.”
“Thanks.” He lowered himself to the chair and placed the tray on the table top. Silence fell in-between the two strangers; not that Sydney minded. She could handle the quiet. However, it seemed that her new lunch mate could not. He fiddled with his vegetable medley a moment before speaking again. “So….are you new here?”
Sydney swallowed a mouthful of salad. “It’s my first day.”
“Mine, too.” He speared a green bean with his black plastic fork. “Drivel,” he muttered under his breath and tossed the fork on the tray. “I suppose they think that this is supposed to be fine cuisine.”
Sydney looked at him from under furrowed brows. “It doesn’t seem all that bad to me. It’s supposed to be a step above normal school food. I’d say it fills that condition.”
“I guess when you put it that way…” He flashed a smile that had Sydney’s heart stuttering a bit. What the hell? she thought. Here I am, totally crushing on this guy like I’m some teenybopper— about whom I wouldn’t know anything if it hadn’t been for Gretchen’s “grown girls” slumber party three months ago… She winced at the memory as she broke off the thought.
He blinked at her, smile dropping a touch. “Is everything all right?”
Sydney shook her head, trying to get the cacophony of New Kids on the Block and giggling over Girl Talk out of her mind. “Sorry. I’m fine, really. Just had an errant thought—”
“Errant,” he repeated in a fascinated tone.
“What? Do you not like the word?”
He laughed a little then. “No. Actually, it’s an interesting word. Not a word I hear a lot, as a matter of fact. One of those words you don’t hear in the normal everyday vernacular. It sounds cool. Errant. Could be a name for a rock band or something.”
Sydney pursed her lips together, trying visibly not to laugh at the notion. “Oh really? And I’m guessing you would be, what, the lead guitarist in this so-called band named Errant in leather pants and a scruffy Bob Marley T-shirt? You certainly have the hair for it.”
“Ouch,” he said, feigning hurt and prompting to Sydney laugh, finally. “Fine, but only if you are the lead singer and wear leather hot pants that show off your gorgeous legs,” he shot back, making her look away and blush. She found that she couldn’t help but he charmed by him.
More hospitably, he said to Sydney, “The name’s Cameron Cook, by the way. Yours?”
She had to catch herself before she said Sydney. Would that have been so bad? a contrary voice demanded in her head. “Um, Rebecca. My name is…Rebecca Waldren.”
Cameron frowned at her a bit, catching the hesitation in her voice. Then he chuckled. “You sounded a bit hesitant there.” He flashed a smile that bordered on cheeky. “What, is that not your real name or something?”
Sydney chuckled; she tried to make it come out nonchalant but it emerged nervously. “Of course it’s my real name. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Well,” Cameron responded, considering the question, “people change their names, discard old ones, make up new ones. It’s a common practice.” When he stared at her unceasingly without speaking, she gave him a What? look. “I’m just wondering—which one did you do?”
Something about Cameron’s straightforward manner and curiosity bothered Sydney. She realized that she had spent so long trying to skirt and to cover the issue of her elusive identity with those on the inside world that she became irritated when someone wanted to know more. This guy, with his college-boy impish grin and shrewd mind, represented the small number of people who cared, after the foolish shine of novelty faded, to know more about her.
But that didn’t mean that she was going to spill her guts to him like he was Dr. Phil and she was sitting on his couch. She was smarter than that.
Sydney shifted in her chair a bit before replying, “And what makes you think I did any of those things?”
Cameron shrugged. “Just a hunch.” He tilted his head faintly when she didn’t refute the comment. “Am I right?”
Sydney merely blinked at him as suspicion filled her. “What’s it to you, Cameron Cook?”
Cameron merely blinked back. Then his lips curved upwards again. “I was merely wanting to know more about a beautiful woman sitting by herself. That’s all.” Then he added with a flash of his teeth. “I swear.” Sydney shook her head and looked at some students sitting nearby. She tried not to be slightly amused but found she could not fight it. “Look, we can talk about something else. Anything.” When she turned back to look at him, she had her arms crossed over her chest and her brown eyes were still dubious. “Okay, how about this: my full name is Cameron James Cook; I’m twenty-five, single, and I’m an Aries. I love action movies, contact sports—”
Sydney waved a hand. He closed his mouth and his barrage stopped. “Spare me the Love Connection-esque intro.” Cameron’s eyebrows arched. “So what makes you think that I should care about you or talk to you?”
Cameron looked around at the other teachers in groups, sitting at tables talking. Students were laughing together, also in smaller, intimate groups. A comfortable din hung in the air, not too soft, not too clamorous. But no one was alone. Except Sydney. Or at least she had been before Cameron had sat down in front of her.
“Honestly? Because, at this particular moment, you have nothing else better to do,” Cameron pointed out bluntly.
Sydney rolled her eyes. Just who did he think he was? “Oh come on. Are you trying to assert that I need you to pass the time? Because I don’t, you know. I’m just fine sitting here by myself.”
“I didn’t say that you need me to pass the time,” Cameron clarified, a slight edge to his formerly friendly tone. “I just said you have nothing else better to do. You can pass the time however way you like.” He rose from his chair but didn’t take his tray with him. “Nice meeting you, Rebecca Waldren.”
With that, he walked away, leaving Sydney feeling puzzled.
“What was that all about?” she said to herself.
“I don’t have the slightest clue either.”
Sydney whirled around at the sound of the voice. A tall woman with long raven hair wearing a jade green dress was standing behind her. It took a moment, but she eventually realized who the stunning woman was.
“Danie,” Sydney said in greeting. “I didn’t know you were standing there.”
“And I saw why,” Danie, the mother of two daughters, quipped, smirking. Sydney rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Look, no matter how annoying he seemed, you have to admit, he was pretty cute…”
“Who was he?” Sydney wanted to know as Danie shifted expertly and took the chair that Cameron had formerly filled. “Did you recruit him?”
“Actually, no.” Danie placed her chin in her palm, elbow on table, and the conversation took on an intimate tone. “I can’t take credit for that one. But I did snag Michael Vaughn out from under the community college’s nose.”
“Michael Vaughn? Which one is he?”
“About six feet tall, light brown hair, sizzling green eyes—”
“Ah,” Sydney interrupted, remembering that morning’s embarrassing incident courtesy of Cordelia. “Him. Yeah, I’ve seen him.” The memory of him, the mind’s eye image of him walking down the hallway that morning, filled her with a strange feeling. “Michael Vaughn—that’s his name?”
“Yeah. Teaches French to the high-schoolers. I heard that record attendance and promptness in that class is already assured for the rest of the school year.”
“I’ll bet.” Sydney smiled at the thought of smitten teenage girls fawning over a teacher, but she couldn’t shake off the strange sensation that came with hearing the name Michael Vaughn. What did that mean?
Probably nothing, Sydney told herself. I’m just grasping at straws because I’m feeling somewhat alone today…
“But anyway,” Danie was saying, “Cameron was recruited by Miyori Arashi. He’s a Lower Secondary lit teacher.” Danie paused, then added with the tone of Sorry, Sydney,” So you might see more of him…”
“It won’t be a problem,” Sydney assured Danie. “I’ll be fine. He was just being nosy, and I haven’t had to deal with that in a while. I guess I wasn’t expecting it.”
Danie smiled again. “Maybe he likes you.” Sydney froze and merely stared at Danie, brown eyes large and doelike. “I don’t think it would be a bad idea for you to start dating, Sydney. I mean, life does on, right? It doesn’t have to start with Cameron Cook, but it can start somewhere.” Sydney looked away and considered this. Danie covered her hand with her own. “I can’t imagine being where you are, and I think you are doing well. So do what you feel is best for yourself.”
But what is that? Sydney demanded silently to some entity she couldn’t see or name. What is best for me if I don’t know who I am?
On the outside, Sydney smiled for Danie. “Thank you, Danie. I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
Danie’s eyes softened at the sentiment. If there was one thing that the things Sydney had read during her five-month cram session on pop culture had missed about Danie, it was her drive to help the people around her that she cared about. “My pleasure. You know I’d do it again, anytime.” With that, Danie rose and left Sydney on her own. But this time, she didn’t mind it so much.
There was a knock on Vaughn’s open office door after lunchtime. It was the last period of the day, and it just happened to be his planning time. It was quiet in the bank of offices reserved for the Secondary foreign language instructors, and Vaughn had taken the quiet time do some assessing of his own.
The first day of school—the first day of anything, he’d always thought—set the precedent for the rest of the school year. And if his day was any indication, he was going to have a spectacular year.
Of his three French classes, his favorite was third block French IV, the class that contained his upperclassmen. Or upperclasswomen, as Helen King, in her British accent, had corrected him. That class was ninety percent female, most of them walking into the block with an almost tangible excitement. But once they, instructor and students, had introduced themselves—most with competent French that made Vaughn smile—the idol worship he had been afraid that was going to occur had turned into a lively session of exchange. He had learned a great deal about his predecessor, the monstrous Mme. de la Rue, and even more about a particular group of girls—his crème de la crème: the witty Tori Harrison, the aforementioned redheaded spitfire Helen King, the bright and idealistic Evie Thomas, the Anderson-Lewis twins Charlotte and Megan, and Abigail Thomas, the sharp-eyed youngest of Daniella Thomas. Tori, Evie, and Abigail were cousins and shared a French relative, which was evident as soon as they spoke.
He was making plans for all of his classes the following day when he glanced up at the knock on his open door. A large smile crossed his features as he recognized the familiar face.
“You know, getting in here was almost as hard as passing security at the Vatican,” Eric Weiss told his friend as he came in and lowered himself into the chair in front of Vaughn’s desk. “But I have to admit, the place is beautiful. How much is tuition? I’ll bet it’s an arm and a leg to get your kid into this place.”
“I guess I’ve been too polite to ask,” Vaughn admitted. “So what brings you here? Did you want to catch a glimpse of the object of your affection?”
“Ha ha ha,” Weiss said sarcastically. “I’ll have you know that I like Danie Thomas for more than her physicality. She’s got brains, beauty, and brawn.” Vaughn rolled his eyes. “You haven’t seen Cover Girls? Come on, Vaughn. It’s iconic. She channels Bettie Page, Wonder Woman, and Foxy Brown all in one role.”
“I find it telling that your estimation of Danie Thomas relies on a movie where she spends long moments scantily clad,” Vaughn remarked.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it” was the easy rejoinder.
“Maybe we need to change the subject,” Vaughn suggested as Weiss laughed.
“You need to open your eyes, my friend.” Weiss’s eyes fell upon the ornate invitation lying in full-view on Vaughn’s desk. “So what’s this?”
“Some sort of event that one of the Kaminari bigwigs is sponsoring,” Vaughn explained. “One of the history teachers took a trip to Spain during the summer and uncovered some ancient artifacts owned by some woman named Maura Ayala. I don’t know much more than that.”
“Maura Ayala.” Weiss frowned over the square for a moment more, then tossed it back onto Vaughn’s desk. Vaughn knew his friend well enough to notice the look of thoughtfulness that crossed his features.
“What’s wrong?” Vaughn inquired.
“Nothing,” Weiss answered, and a bit too flippantly. “So,” he continued without hesitation, “are you taking Lauren to this fancy shindig, or are you going stag?”
They paused and glanced at each other at the sound of singing breaking the former silence. They were no longer thinking of dates and movies. In fact, they found themselves both slightly amused at the notion of someone grooving to their favorite song in a place that was a quiet as a tomb.
Weiss tilted his head quizzically. “What is that?”
“I have no idea.” Vaughn rose from his chair and followed the sound. Weiss in turn followed him.
The sound was coming from an office a couple of doors down. The rest of the doors down the hall were closed, the instructors having gone home if they weren’t in their classes. That is, except for the office belonging to a one Isabelle E. Flannery.
Le mueves pa’cá, le mueves pa’llá
Éste es el nuevo baile de la techno cumbia
Le mueves pa’cá, le mueves pa’llá
Es el nuevo baile de la techno, techno cumbia
Vaughn recognized Nicole and her Peach Nehi immediately. She had her legs crossed at the knee and one foot moved along with the beat of “Techno Cumbia” coming out at moderate volume out of the stereo. But the person who had been singing was Isabelle Flannery.
Isabelle was putting away a stack of books, her back to the door. She was still clad in the teal top and dark-gray slacks, but her hair was in a French braid. She sang in a strong, clear voice that was as much straightforward as it was pleasing to the ear. She moved slightly to the music, enough to have Weiss nudging Vaughn with that guy twinkle in his eye and nodding meaningfully. Where was that hole in the ground when you needed it?
Nicole noticed them first. A smirk transformed her mouth as she took in their expressions, then she cleared her throat loud enough for Isabelle to hear.
When Isabelle realized that Nicole clearing her throat meant that she was being watched, she whirled and jumped, startled and dropped the book she had been about to put up on the bookshelf. “Ay, ¡Dios Mío!” She placed a hand on her rapidly beating heart. “Uh, hi, Mr. Vaughn. You scared me,” she said unnecessarily, not able to think of anything else.
“I’m sorry,” Vaughn hastily apologized. “We were just down the hall and…” He looked at Weiss for help, but Weiss gave him a mildly amused look that indicated that he was on his own in this one, buddy. “We just, um, happened to hear you…”
“We weren’t too loud were we?” Isabelle inquired, concerned. She leaned over and turned Selena down to a hum. “There. Better.” She put her hands together, smiling graciously at Weiss. “Are you a friend of Mr. Vaughn?”
“If friend translates into suave, more charming counterpart, then yes, you have your man,” Weiss told Isabelle.
Vaughn rolled his eyes but tried to keep the irony out of his tone when he spoke again. “Ladies, this is Eric Weiss. And I have to warn you mostly what comes out of his mouth is BS.”
“Hey!” Weiss protested.
“I was wondering what that smell was,” Nicole quipped.
“Very funny,” Weiss shot back.
“Mm-hmm,” Nicole merely intoned, still giving Weiss and Vaughn searching looks as if she were trying to figure something out. What she was contemplating, they had no clue.
“The ladies are Isabelle Flannery and Nicole Smith,” Vaughn told his friend. “Nicole is the”—she raised an eyebrow at him—“main office administrative assistant.” She nodded her approval at the title. “And Ms. Flannery teaches Spanish here at the Academy.”
It was Nicole’s turn to roll her eyes. “All right, look, y’all,” she started, sitting up from her relaxed position in the chair, “if we’re all gonna be adults here, let’s be on a first name basis.” She pointed to herself. “Nicole.” Then to Isabelle. “Isabelle.” Next to Vaughn. “Michael.” Last to Weiss. “Eric. Let’s practice, shall we?”
“You wouldn’t mind if I called you Michael, would you?” Isabelle asked Vaughn. “I mean, we just met and…”
“Well, if you don’t like that, you could always call him Mickey,” Weiss quipped. Vaughn, embarrassed, dropped his head in his hands. “Or I’m sure you could come up with a cute little pet name.”
“We should probably wait until the first date to start doing all that,” Nicole piped up, earning a not-too-gentle nudge from Isabelle. “As a matter of fact, Iz is free Friday night. What about you, MV?”
“Nicole?!” Isabelle cried.
“Mike is totally free Friday night,” Weiss offered in Vaughn’s stead. Vaughn glared at him. “Though,” Weiss amended, “he might already be scheduled for a date with someone else…”
“And that is his business,” Isabelle broke in, looking slightly relieved. She shifted her gaze to the men. “I have plans anyway. My big brother is going to be in town and I am meeting him for dinner. I haven’t seen him in a while, so…”
“Well, I hope you have fun eating with your brother,” Vaughn said politely, wanting to snip off that particular topic before it got too out of control. “Nice to see you again, Isabelle, Nicole.”
“Likewise,” Isabelle agreed. “Nice to meet you, Eric.”
“Yes ladies, it has been a pleasure,” Weiss said gallantly. “And hopefully I will be seeing more of you two.”
“Mm-hmm,” Nicole intoned again as Vaughn pulled Weiss away from the doorway and down the hall.
Weiss gazed at his friend as they left Isabelle’s office. Vaughn looked like he was absolutely mortified in the wake of the whole scene which, in Weiss’s opinion, might mean that progress was being made.
“So,” Weiss began in a speculative tone, “how long has this been going on?”
“This? What this?” Vaughn inquired as the found themselves back in the private confines of his office. He lowered himself into his chair. “I just met the woman this morning.”
Weiss just gave him a smirk. “Look, Mike, I know chemistry between a man and a woman when I see it. You and Isabelle definitely had sparks flying.” Vaughn shook his head and brought up his e-mail program on his spiffy school-issued computer. Weiss peered at him for a moment before adding, “But I have two words for you: Lauren Reed.”
Vaughn was so startled by the comment that he choked on saliva. How the hell did you choke on spit? he thought as he coughed uncontrollably. When he had controlled his breathing, he cleared his throat and said, “Lauren Reed and I just went out on a few dates.” He cleared his throat and said the last part of his statement at the same time so Weiss could not decipher it.
Weiss’s eyebrows arched. “You need some water or something, man? What did you just say?”
“I’m fine, Eric, really. I said that Lauren and I aren’t exclusive.”
Weiss let out a choked chuckle. “Look, Mike, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that you shouldn’t go out with this Isabelle Flannery. But you have been seeing Lauren longer than the unlucky participants in the Dating Game before her.” When Vaughn shot him a glare, he held up his hands in defense. “Hey, just saying.”
“I like her,” Vaughn admitted.
“Uh, which one?”
A chirpy little ding from the computer saved him from having to answer. Honestly, he had no idea how he would have answer if he had been forced to. But nevertheless, he had a new e-mail message.
From: “Nicole L. Smith”
To: “Michael C. Vaughn”
Subject: Got Yourself a Date!
Yeah, I know that was a dirty little ambush back there,
but hey, my Mama said drastic times call for some fool
acting sometimes, you know? Anyway, you’re gonna meet
Isabelle at Morelli’s Saturday night at eight. And you
better have a good time, hear? I don’t wanna have to
kick your ass for not showing my girl a good time. I
think it looks good in those khakis. Yeah, I said it.
So do that voodoo and get some. Some what? You know
Got yourself a date! Saturday night at eight! Great,
great, great, great, great! (Heh heh heh.)
THE Ms. Smith
When Vaughn’s expression changed to one of utter disbelief, Weiss asked, “What is it?”
Vaughn turned to Weiss and responded, “Nicole is setting up the date. For Saturday night.”
Weiss laughed and Vaughn glared at him. “I don’t see what’s so damn funny.”
“You getting all flustered is damn hilarious. Your eyes get all big and your face gets all flushed. It’s almost as bad as the time you ran into Devlin in his skivvies in the locker room.”
“What are friends for, again?” Vaughn lamented aloud, mostly to himself.
“Well, with a friend like me…”
Vaughn decided not to answer to that comment and clicked the reply button. He composed his reply, trying to be as gentlemanly and implicit as possible.
From: “Michael C. Vaughn”
To: “Nicole L. Smith”
Subject: RE: Got Yourself a Date!
My first impulse was to find you and shake you for what
you did back there. But now that I have had time to think
about it, I realize that you did it because you care
about Isabelle and me. But under no circumstances will
you have to kick my ass because I will not go out on a
date with Isabelle if she doesn’t want to go out on one.
And why are you checking out my ass, anyway? I thought
was old enough to be your “play uncle”?
No sooner than he had sent his reply to Nicole had he another new message. He read it and replied to it, ignoring the looks he was getting from Weiss.
From: “Isabelle E. Flannery”
To: “Michael C. Vaughn”
Subject: You will have to excuse Nicole…
I’m writing this because I am profoundly embarrassed by what
just happened a few minutes ago. You probably know Nicole
a little bit by now, and generally she means well. But I
feel that she may have overstepped her bounds by putting us
on a date together. Or trying to, anyway.
I am not holding you responsible to go out on a date with me.
I get the feeling that you are seeing someone, and I don’t
want to get in the middle of that. But if you ever need
anything, let me know.
From: “Michael C. Vaughn”
To: “Isabelle E. Flannery”
Subject: RE: You will have to excuse Nicole…
Don’t be embarrassed for Nicole. She is a woman of her own
will, and even if you had held a gun to her head, I have
a feeling she would have done what she did anyway. Yes, I
agree that she means well, and that she wasn’t doing
anything but trying to make us open up to one another. But
we might be doing fine in that department for the moment.
However, if I do need anything I will let you know.
“So, does she like red roses or white roses?” Weiss quipped when Vaughn turned to him. Among the many things that Vaughn’s glare said, the nicest was a mere no.