Coffee was always the first order of the day, and on Monday morning, it held a special importance, for it was a chance for five women to effectively catch each other up on their weekends. It was a meeting of like minds and hearts for a sense of camaraderie. Even though no one readily came out and admitted it out loud, each woman needed the ritual. But one more than the others.
Sydney was a recent transplant in the scenario; she had come…well, it would be more accurate to say that she had been dropped into the surroundings that had become almost like home for her over the past five months. Others had memories of childhood birthdays, mortifying prepubescent experiences, histories with friends and family to tether them to a particular spot—or not, in some cases. Sydney didn’t really have these the way others did; Gretchen Thomas, Irene’s youngest daughter with former husband Robert Bullock and one-fifth of the group that convened here in the teachers’ lounge at Kaminari Academy every morning, had become her best friend and had been kind to her as long as she could remember. Gretchen’s mother and sisters had enveloped her into their circle of love and trust even though they barely knew her… However, her memory was only five months old, and they consumed almost every inch of it. Lydia Townsend, Angelia Buchannan, and Cordelia Westcott Harrison also appeared quite frequently in her short, breezy memory. They were her pillars. They were her tethers. Rebecca Waldren, known to only the Wolfe family as Sydney, was living proof that anyone could make themselves anywhere.
“So how did it go?” Sydney asked an anxious-looking Lydia.
Lydia looked down at her mocha latte, fingering the rim of the cup as the others looked at her expectantly. “Well,” she began, “as usual, I make all the necessary arrangements for a nice, leisurely night at home with no paintbrushes or beakers.” A touch of mischief lighted her blue eyes. “I’d even uncovered that little nightie from Victoria Secret from a deep, dark corner of my underwear drawer…”
Gretchen, who had been searching for sugar for her coffee, whirled away from a cabinet nearby and said excitedly, “Ooh, so you pulled out the heavy artillery. Good one!”
“It worked, didn’t it, Lyd? I mean, he totally took the bait,” Sydney guessed as she sat down in front of her friend. “He had to of. You in a nightie has to be hard for a rather inhibited man like Vernon Michael Flannagan to resist.”
Cordelia snorted with laugher. “I’m surprised she didn’t give him a heart attack,” she muttered, prompting Angelia to purse her lips together to keep from laughing and kick her under the table. A stern look from Sydney had them going quiet.
“It didn’t work,” Lydia told Sydney glumly. Cordelia, Gretchen, and Angelia reacted with various stages of disbelief. “Michael spent the entire night peppering me with questions about the exhibit we’re having on the volumes that Marisol Sebastian and her friends recovered in Castilla-León during last Spring Break. So the effort was all in vain.”
Cordelia rolled her eyes as she broke off a piece of a muffin. “I guess I’m not much of a history buff, but I’m not at all impressed by some ancient dusty books.”
“I’ll bet if they were written by Shakespeare or something you’d be shoving people out of the way trying to see them,” Angelia teased, a smile playing at the edges of her mouth. Cordelia tossed a balled up paper napkin at her.
“Nope. I’d just wait until it comes out at the local Barnes and Noble,” Cordelia quipped.
“I doubt that anyone that is going to let those books go though the strain of getting printed,” Sydney pointed out. “From what I read, the books are fragile but in fairly good condition considering.”
“Midori is going all out for the unveiling of the volumes,” Angelia told her friends. “I heard that she’s treating it like some sort of black-tie event with a full staff of security.”
“Good lord. You’d think we’d be showing off the crown jewels or something.” Gretchen sat down with her coffee. “So where are you wearing?”
“Wearing?” Lydia demanded. “Who said anything about dresses?”
“I’m thinking maybe Jen can make me something,” Gretchen continued as if she didn’t heed Lydia’s question.
“It isn’t until December, so I’m not going to even think about a dress until after midterms,” Angelia said.
Cordelia raised a hand. “In that case, I vote for a change in subject.” An impish grin crossed her features. “Did you girls hear about the new French teacher?”
“What?” Gretchen blurted.
“You have to elaborate, Cord. You know we don’t work here,” Lydia said on behalf of herself and Gretchen, who worked at the Sakura School of the Arts nearby.
“Word in the hallways is that the Madame Monster in Foreign Languages has been eradicated.” Cordelia paused and sat back for emphasis, but also to prolong the suspense. She crossed her arms over her chest and revealed, “And they put a piece of premium eye candy in her place.”
From Lydia with eyes bulging: “Eye candy?”
From Gretchen with a sigh: “Damn, I need to transfer.”
From Angelia with urgency: “Come on, Cord. You can’t keep us hanging. What else did you hear?”
Cordelia smirked at them and said nothing.
“Cordelia?!” Lydia, Gretchen, and Angelia squealed.
“She’s only doing this because she knows that she’s got you three, hook, line, and sinker,” Sydney told her friends. Sydney shifted to look at Cordelia, challenging the redhead with her brown eyes. “I’ll bet she knows nothing else about him and she’s just jerking us around like she usually does.”
Cordelia met Sydney’s gaze without flinching. “All right. If you don’t believe me, then you won’t mind stepping outside to observe the spectacle yourselves.”
“Spectacle?” Lydia squeaked. “Don’t tell me he’s out there…”
“Okay, I won’t.” Cordelia stood coolly. She brushed a few crumbs off her maroon skirt. “I guess I can take in all of his gloriousness on my own—”
“Like hell!” Gretchen, Angelia, and Lydia were out of their seats before Cordelia could finish the sentence. Cordelia looked at Sydney with triumph and said nothing.
A couple of heartbeats later, the guy appeared, striding down the hallway in dark, dressy slacks and a pale gray collared shirt. He received looks from some of the people standing around in clusters, but no one said anything to him. They seemed to be complacent with admiring him from afar.
Cordelia shook her head, then blurted with the tact of a Twinkie, “Looking good, babycakes!”
When the mysterious guy’s eyes drifted in their direction, a mortified Sydney ducked behind Lydia and Gretchen so that he could not see her. Lydia and Angelia both gaped at her and Gretchen let out a giggle so loud that it echoed down the hallway. Sydney couldn’t believe this. Cordelia had gotten them all excited about some guy…but hey, he wasn’t that bad looking…he was actually pretty cute…
“Hello ladies,” he greeted them.
“Hi,” they, with the exception of Sydney, called back. She was still hiding her red face from view. She was so embarrassed. How could Cordelia have done something like that?
“Is he gone?” she whispered.
“Oh yeah, and I report that the backside is as good as the front side,” Cordelia responded. Sydney hit her on the arm as she rose back. It had no effect.
Gretchen started to fan herself. “Phew. Sizzling.”
“Willing to put yourself back on the market yet, Lyd?” Cordelia asked slyly.
“I like window shopping just fine, thank you,” Lydia shot back.
“I’ll bet Cordy gets his number by noon,” Angelia said with a bit of envy.
“Wanna bet?” Sydney scoffed.
The quintet shared a collective glance.
“You’re on,” Cordelia affirmed.
The hallways were teeming with students a little before eight dressed in royal purple, silver, black and white. The excited din of students and faculty playing catch-up with one another rose over the sound of footfalls, paper shuffling, and doors opening and closing. A sense of novelty tinged the eagerness that shone in everyone’s faces.
Seventeen-year-old Charlotte Anderson-Lewis’s gray eyes were huge with excitement as she bounded up to Helen King working out the kinks of her new locker. Of course, hers was of a different sort.
It was the first day back at school after the summer break. Personally, Charlotte was not the best student, but her grades were decent. Her twin sister Megan had the brains of the outfit. Needless to say, things had not begun to look promising until just that moment when she had learned some very interesting news…
“Bloody stubborn lock,” Helen muttered under her breath.
Charlotte skidded to a stop right next to her friend and waited for Helen to notice her.
“I am never going to get this open,” Helen grumbled, trying the combination again. She hit the locker with a flat palm in frustration. “Damn it all…”
“Helen!” Charlotte exclaimed in exasperation. “Uh, hello?!” She stomped her foot for emphasis.
Helen whirled to her, cornflower blue eyes filled with irritation. “Bloody hell, Charlie! What is it? It’s barely eight in the morning and already you’re messing me about.” Charlotte sighed, relaxing her stance and crossing her hands over her chest. “Could we please not start out our senior year with drama? I have full-on senioritis and I really don’t care for you trying to make me excited about anything.”
A smirk transformed Charlotte’s features. Helen was mildly anxious but tried not to show it. She learned from hard-earned experience not to show any fear around Charlotte. It only served as ammunition.
“Have you looked at your schedule for the semester, dear Helen?” Charlotte asked in a voice that indicated she had some interesting—well, in her opinion—news for Helen.
“No, I haven’t. I’ve been waging bloody war on my locker. But I assume that there is a reason that you’ve pointed my schedule out to me. Mind telling me before I lose my patience with you?”
And what were friends for, again? Charlotte tried not to let Helen’s gristliness diminish her excitement. She grinned and said, “We got a replacement for the infamous Madame de la Rue. And—you’re gonna love this—”
“Uh huh,” Helen muttered.
“—our new French teacher is a guy!” Charlotte clapped and jumped up and down to demonstrate her happiness over the subject like she was half her age. Or acting her shoe size.
Helen was nonplussed. “Right. And?”
As if on cue, the person in question walked past them. Helen went slack-jawed, as she was rendered speechless in the first time in recent history.
“I suddenly can’t wait for third period French,” Charlotte commented, watching Vaughn—mostly his backside, though—as he walked away.
“You and me both, mate,” Helen agreed.
Vaughn walked into Kaminari Academy for the second time and still found himself astounded by its sprawling beauty.
The marble floor in foyer was black with thin spiderwebby veins of white, and the Kaminari Academy insignia inlaid in the floor spanned six feet by six feet. As Vaughn paused upon it and looked down at the roaring lion frozen in motion staring back at him, it finally dawned on him: he was here. This place with its intricately carved paneling and the high, majestic ceilings was a new place with ample possibilities.
After taking a walk through the hallways, during which he was ogled and speculated about, he ended up in the main office to check his mailbox.
The long-haired young woman at the front desk looked up at the sound of his approach, brown eyes twinkling with mirth. She wore a dressy cerulean top with long sleeves and her dark hair pulled back from her face. She was adorned with matching jewelry and her headset for the phone. Since the phone lines were quiet for the moment, she’d had Janet Jackson on medium blast, singing along with “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” until Vaughn had arrived.
“Hey! What’s up, MV?” boomed twenty-year-old Nicole Smith. A few days ago, when they had first met after his orientation and they had hit it off so well, she had told him that she was going to call him “MV” instead of “Mr. Vaughn.” After Vaughn had inquired why, Nicole had replied that it sounded way better than plain old “Mr. Vaughn.” Not to mention it resembled the sound of the word envy, which already some of the male teachers harbored for the Academy’s newest recruit.
Apparently, Nicole was not the only female that noticed he was attractive.
“Nothing much as of yet, Miss Smith,” Vaughn responded as he came up to Nicole’s desk. He stopped thinking of it as the front desk; Nicole had already personalized it with a little radio (playing a CD she made), her own ink pens (ballpoint, because she wrote with them best), a jar of Jolly Ranchers (just green apple and cherry to be precise), her ever-ready mug of fizzling Peach Nehi telling everyone You Ain’t Ready for This Jelly! (she detested coffee even though it was quite widespread but Vaughn had no idea where she kept her Nehi stash or how it was always fresh), pictures of friends and family, and a quite unexpected pin-up of Henry Cavill.
Nicole rolled her eyes at his calling her Miss Smith. “Look,” she began, “I’m not a student here so you can call me by my first name. You won’t get into any trouble. Promise. Besides, it’s not like there’s a rule or something.”
“All right,” Vaughn amended. “From now on you are Nicole.”
Nicole nodded in satisfaction. “Thank you.” She rolled in her chair over to the teachers’ mailboxes and reached into his box to pull out the papers inside. He smiled and thanked her before starting to shuffle through them. One group of papers was a complete list of all of his students. In the middle of the pile he discovered a square of thick, fancy paper embossed with silver and royal purple. An invitation.
“You know,” Nicole said as Vaughn looked up from the silver and royal purple invite, “if you need a date or something for that thing…”
Vaughn didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to catch Nicole’s meaning. His green eyes flicked over in her direction as he started to flip through the rest of the mail. “You’ll be the leading contender, Nicole, thanks.”
Suddenly Nicole barked with laughter and waved him off. He looked at her incredulously. “Oh man. I’m just kidding. Besides, you’re old enough to be my play uncle.” And just what, Vaughn mused, were the right credentials for a ‘play uncle’? “That would be too weird, you know? And you probably got a girlfriend, right?”
Crickets. Nicole had unknowingly uttered the dreaded word: girlfriend. Well, shit.
Vaughn’s existence after Sydney’s death was a pale facsimile of the life he had led when she had been alive. He had recently begun dating other women, but no one intrigued him beyond the third date—at least until Lauren. Weiss had said that he was a serial heartbreaker and Cupid brandishing his bow and arrow had nothing on him. Not that Vaughn meant to; he had not been ready to commit himself emotionally to another person yet, and even with Lauren he had his misgivings.
Nicole narrowed her right eye (her “good” eye) at him when he didn’t answer. It was almost as bad as getting a reprimand back when he worked for the CIA. Well, actually, now that he thought about it (and had time to fidget under Nicole’s penetrating brown-eyed gaze), it was worse.
“You’re single? Damn, MV! I thought you at least had them lined up around the block or something. Maybe a wife and kids and dog. A cat. A hamster. Something!”
“I am dating someone, but it’s not serious yet,” Vaughn admitted carefully.
“I’m sure there’s someone around here that might make you feel lucky,” Nicole remarked.
Vaughn’s laughter mingled with Nicole’s as the door to the main office opened and a dark-haired woman walked in.
She was a few inches shorter than he was due to the shiny black boots that adorned her feet, but her height did not diminish her gentle presence in the slightest. She wore a short-sleeved teal top with a boat neck and dark gray slacks. Her thick curly hair was pulled back from her face with a small claw clip, leaving the rest of her dark mane falling down her back, and plastic black eyeglasses sat on her upturned nose. She wore little jewelry or makeup except for a charm on a silver chain and a little lipstick.
Nicole shifted her gaze to her as she went to retrieve her own mail instead of having Nicole do it for her. “Hey Miz Iz. Glad to see you’re back safe and sound after your trip to the Great Beyond.”
The woman smiled, a gentle change of expression that lit up her paler-than-California-average face. “I almost didn’t make it. My parents have been bugging me nonstop about when I’m going to hook up with some witless idiot with a penis and make them some grandbabies and blah, blah, blah.” She rolled her eyes and stuck her hand inside of her box. “Not to mention my Nana is in a rather euphoric state after discovering the advantages of having a sex toy. The Rabbit, she calls it.” Nicole choked on her Nehi and Vaughn leaned over to pat her on the back. The woman merely sighed, and continued as Nicole tried to catch her breath. “After several years of this, I’ve learned that you either learn to deal with the black hole known as familial obligation or get sucked into it.” She turned around and appraised Nicole’s desk. “Ooh—is that Henry Cavill?” She shook her head in mock disapproval. “And what happened to Will Smith, young lady? Forgot that scene in Bad Boys where he’s running with his shirt off, did you?”
Nicole snorted so hard Vaughn thought her brain was going to come shooting out of her nose. “Girl—you know I will never ever forget…” She broke off and started fanning herself as the aforementioned image appeared in her mind’s eye. “Whew. Well.” She cleared her throat. “We will not speak of that. We’ve got someone of the other persuasion in the room…”
She’d said the last part of her statement out of the side of her mouth as she gestured to Vaughn, who was trying mightily not to seem interested (and not to mention slightly embarrassed) in their exchange. When Nicole caught his eye, she smiled innocently like one would before pulling down your pants. Vaughn’s eyebrows lifted a fraction.
“MV, this is Isabelle Flannery,” Nicole told him. She then addressed the woman. “Iz, this is MV—I mean Michael Vaughn. MV—French”—she gestured with her left hand to indicate she was speaking about Vaughn, then with her right to indicate Isabelle—“Iz—Spanish.” She put her small hands together then broke them apart to make a dismissive gesture that reminded Vaughn of Fran Drescher as the phone rang. “Well, there you go. Discuss.”
As Nicole answered the phone with the standard line, Isabelle smiled at Vaughn. Two pairs of green eyes met, Vaughn’s the darker of the two. Vaughn could not explain the feeling of stillness that came over him as she gazed into his face. It was not borne of some kind of instant sexual or romantic attraction; he knew somehow, even though he had no precedence for it, that it went deeper than that. After being around many people, a great deal of them after the destruction of the world in some way or another, this special inexplicable something about Isabelle was refreshing.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Vaughn,” Isabelle remarked, breaking the silence between them. Vaughn opened his mouth to echo the sentiment but Isabelle yelped. “Dammit!” she cursed. “I’m gonna be late for my first class of the year!” She swiped a mouthful of Peach Nehi and grabbed a couple of Jolly Ranchers from Nicole’s jar. “Ten cuidado, chica. ¡Hasta luego!”
“Claro que sí. Hasta luego, señora,” Nicole called after her after ending her phone call. “¡Y no olvidas nuestro almuerzo! ¡Es muy importante a mi!”
“Ay, ¡no voy a olvidar nuestro almuerzo, chica! Te lo prometo.” She flicked a wave at Vaughn. “Au revoir, Monsieur Vaughn.” With that, Isabelle disappeared, leaving an astonished Vaughn in her wake.
Vaughn whirled to Nicole. “What was that?”
“Oh that? Yeah, she usually sets aside time to do up her classroom for her students. It’s all very fun and stuff. But she hates being late. It’s one of her pet peeves.”
“No, not that. You know Spanish?”
She just gave him a Sphinx-esque smile and hummed along with “Proud Mary.”
“So all these days when you’ve been forcing me to tell you about myself you’ve been holding out on me,” Vaughn said.
She made a pssh sound. “Yeah, whatever, man. Look, take me out on a coupla dates then you can say that.” She paused and stood. Before he could figure out what was happening, she was pushing him out the door. “You’re gonna be late for class.”
“But wait—” Vaughn attempted.
“See ya later! Good luck!” And the door slammed on him, leaving him standing out in the hallway in bewilderment.