“So while I’m up performing, you’ll have to be the one taking care of the table, okay, Mike?” Cassie confirmed the last minute plans with her co-waiter to ensure that everything would run smoothly.
“Sure, Cassie, but before you leave, make sure you let me know,” Mike replied, glancing around the decorated room. A banner above the stage announced, “Will C. Wood Music Department Crab Feed” in bold red letters, and streamers and balloons made every corner of the room bright and inviting. This was the biggest and most anticipated fundraiser of the year, the one fundraiser when the band geeks and choir nerds set aside their natural competitiveness and creative differences to work together to rake in thousands of dollars of donated support for the music department at the high school. It was also the most enjoyable fundraiser, for the students not only performed throughout the evening for the paying guests, but also worked as the waiters and waitresses at each of the tables in between their groups’ performances.
Cassie glanced about the room in excitement. As a member of the choir, she would be performing several numbers, including a few pieces played by the handbell choir and a sung solo. She looked forward to it. Her entire family would be here tonight, and she couldn’t wait to show them what she could do. This evening would be perfect, she was sure of it.
“May I have your attention, please!” A loud female voice boomed over a live microphone. “I need all of the students to come to the stage to receive their table assignments!” There was a general murmur throughout the crowd of teenagers, a few groans, and some excited laughter as everyone meandered towards the stage.
“Alright,” Mrs. Ratti explained patiently over the wire, “I’m going to call out your name and your table number. Please report to your table and pick up the name tags and fill them out. Russell Dunlap, table number one!”
Cassie and Mike stood chatting a few feet away when a name boomed out of the large black speakers that stopped Cassie cold.
“Nick McGuire, table number eight!”
For a brief moment Cassie froze and stared blankly at Mike’s tie, then excusing herself from his company, she searched the crowd anxiously. He couldn’t be here. Impossible. Glancing once more over the sea of students Cassie’s heart jumped as her eyes focused on one tall, slender young man across the room. Nick.
A fresh wave of panic assailed her as she fought to breathe. He was actually here! Dazed, she tried to slow the whirling thoughts in her mind. Why hadn’t she known that he’d be here tonight? She knew he was in Jazz band, but for some reason, the realization that her boyfriend, if at this point he could really be called such, would be here working along side of her all night long hadn’t computed.
She wasn’t prepared for this meeting. Theirs was not a relationship like others. It had always been different, chaotic, up and down, on and off… but never to this extreme. Three weeks! He’d been ignoring her for three weeks! True, she hadn’t done anything to fix that (her had pride refused to let her call him to talk about this odd estrangement that had settled upon their relationship), but despite it all she still cared. And it hurt, as it always hurt to find out that you loved more than you were loved.
“Cassie Clark, table twenty two!”
Hearing her name announced over the speakers made Cassie’s heart drop down to her toes. She felt exposed. If, like her, Nick hadn’t known that they’d be spending the evening in one another’s company, he certainly did now. As predicted, upon hearing the call of her name, he froze and glanced quickly towards the stage before began searching the crowd as she had done scant moments ago. Embarrassed, Cassie stumbled away from the gathered students and headed for her table, hoping she could remain unseen. It took every ounce of willpower not to look again in Nick’s direction.
Mike joined her at the table and they went about putting on their name tags. Mike scrawled his name across the sticky paper with ease, but watched closely as Cassie struggled to write neatly. Her hand was shaking and her arm muscles felt weak from the aftermath of the adrenaline. Finally, morbid curiosity got the best of her and she raised her gaze, leveling it out to survey the crowd. She spotted Nick instantly and suppressed a small shriek when she discovered that he’d been watching her the entire time. Their gazes met with the charged intensity of an electrical storm, and Cassie worried briefly that she would walk away burned. She wanted to look away again, pretend to be busy, escape to the parking lot, anything, but she was helpless to ignore Nick’s intense gaze glittering intently from across the room. She was frozen, his eyes holding hers captive as he began to blindly fight the crowd of students to make his way to her side.
“Cassie? What’s wrong with you?” Mike’s hand waved in front of her eyes repeatedly. Her knees felt shaky and the room seemed to grow fuzzy, but she directed her attention to Mike, trying to appear at ease, knowing she was failing miserably.
“Uh, nothing, I was just…” Cassie stammered, her gaze flickering back and forth between the two men who held her attention. Nick was getting closer and the panic returned in a riptide threatening to take her under. She had to get out of there. “I mean, I just remembered that I have to go do something. I’ll b-be right back, okay?” Without looking back, Cassie commanded her feet to move and escaped out the side door leaving a startled Mike, and a frustrated Nick, choking dust.
“I can’t deal with this!” Cassie moaned from her seclusion in the restroom stall. “Not now! Not tonight!” She felt like such a pansy, but the terror that clutched her stomach wouldn’t ease. Rubbing clammy hands over heated cheeks, she willed herself to take a deep breath. For some reason, that only made her more lightheaded.
The restroom door opened and then closed. Cassie clenched her eyes shut, hoping the intruder would come in, take care of business, and then leave her in peace.
“Cassie? Are you in here? It’s me Jules…”
She let out a deep breath, relieved. “In here.” Cassie remained crouched on the floor as she watched a pair of nylon clad legs approach the stall.
“Oh, Cassie,” Julia Symons, one of Cassie’s best friends opened the door then dropped to the ground beside her. “Are you okay? Is it because of Nick?”
Still upset, Cassie tried to force her wobbly voice to produce some semblance of words while fighting the tears that threatened behind closed eyelids. “Yes. I just don’t know how to face him, Jules. I’m so scared of what he’s going to say. I mean, we’ve been ignoring each other for weeks, now, and I don’t even know why!”
“Do you still care for him?” Julia queried softly, handing Cassie a length of toilet paper.
Cassie crushed them into a ball and dabbed at her nose and eyes. “You know I do, but he doesn’t feel the same way, Jules. If he did, why would he ignore me? Do you know how much it hurts? Just yesterday, I passed him in the hall when he was walking to class with Brooke Bosler.” Cassie sat up straighter, anger and pain flashing ominously in the depths of her eyes. “He completely ignored me, Jules. No words, no look, not even a glance. It was as if I didn’t exist.”
“Did you say anything to him?”
Cassie flushed guiltily. “No. I wanted to, but I’m so uncertain of myself when I’m around him. I care about him so much, but I feel like I never truly know how he feels about me. Then when we stopped talking to each other… I don’t even know how that started. But if he cared, wouldn’t he have called? Written me a letter? Something.”
“Did you make any attempts?”
“I tried calling him a couple times, but he never called me back. After that, I gave up. I figured there was a reason he wasn’t calling, and that it probably meant that he didn’t want to be with me anymore. I mean, you know how we are. One minute he’s telling me how much he loves me and then next he’s distant and we’re breaking up.” Cassie rubbed a hand wearily across her eyes. “And despite that, I still care about him. Every time I take him back because I still love him. Brooke keeps asking me why I don’t talk to him and it’s because I’m scared. What if he tells me that he doesn’t love me anymore? That he’s been ignoring me because he was too afraid to dump me? If he breaks up with me tonight, I swear I’m going to lose it.”
“Cassie,” Julia’s voice was teasing. “You can’t hide from life in a bathroom stall. You’re just going to have to go out there and make the best of the situation.”
Cassie nodded miserably. It seemed she didn’t have any other choice.
Julia glanced at her wristwatch. “Come on, everyone should be arriving any minute, so you need to get in there to man your table. Have you found out where your parents are sitting yet?”
Cassie let Julia pull her up off the floor then hurried to the mirror to examine the emotional damage. Not too bad, all things considering. “Not yet. They didn’t make any reservations ahead of time so they’ll be put at one of the unassigned tables.”
“Well let’s go see if they’re here, yet.” Julia smiled and gave Cassie a hug. “And hang in there. Whatever happens, we’ll make the best of it.”
Nick stood stationed at his table, but his attention was fixed on scanning the room for Cassie. He didn’t know what had made her bolt like that. Where had she gone anyway? He’d already checked the kitchen and the green room to no avail. Now he couldn’t even find her in the main dining room. She wouldn’t have gone home, would she?
Nick rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. What was going on between them? He didn’t know why they had been ignoring each other, but seeing her here tonight made him realize that he was tired of it. He wanted to see her, to talk to her, to hold her hand. He knew he should apologize for not attempting to keep in touch, she was his girlfriend after all, but he still couldn’t understand what had happened to start all of this nonsense in the first place. All he knew was that Cassie never seemed to have time to be with him, and he was tired of having an absentee girlfriend.
He thought over the past few weeks, still scanning the crowd for her whereabouts. When they’d first gotten together, things had been fine. They’d called each other every night and tried to see each other when possible between classes. But their class schedules were so different that it was rare when they could find time to meet. They didn’t even have the same lunch. Every day after school she had choir practice, and in the evenings she had homework, and her parents never let her go out anyway. The weekends were no good because he had baseball and she had choir gigs. It was frustrating. She never seemed able to put any time towards their relationship. It was more of a distant friendship than anything else.
Regardless, though, he still loved her. He kept hoping that there was some way for them to make it work. But in order to do that, they’d have to get back on speaking terms. Which I’d tried to repair tonight, he thought, agitated. He still didn’t know why she’d run.
He expected her to be angry with him or distant. But frightened? And she had been frightened. He saw the panic flare in her eyes just before she’d done the disappearing act. It concerned him. What was going on in that mind of hers? He scoured the crowd once again, and this time was pleased to Cassie back at her table. This time, they would talk. Grateful he had been assigned to an overflow table, he started across the room once again, determined to speak with her. This time, she wouldn’t escape.
Cassie knew Julia was right, even if it didn’t make the problem any easier to face. She watched Mike from her post behind their table as he brought out a basket of bread for their group of hungry music and crab lovers. But talking would have to wait. She had to perform tonight, not to mention sing a solo. There would be no way she’d be able to accomplish those tasks after a rough breakup. Her nerves were already strained enough at the thought of singing in front of hundreds of people. The breakup would just have to wait, and Nick would just have to be avoided, plain and simple.
But easier said than done. Just as Mike returned to her side and began polite conversation, Cassie caught sight of Nick making his way towards them. He mouth set in determination and his eyes full of resolve, Cassie knew with certainty that it would be much harder to avoid him this time than before when the span of the entire room had given her a head start on her escape. She glanced about, searching for a plausible excuse to leave, but it was too late. He was at her side in seconds, and Cassie’s stomach tightened into a vicious knot.
“Mike,” Nick acknowledged, inclining his head in a male hello. The nod sent a wave of familiar cologne in Cassie’s direction and the knot in her stomach gave a tumultuous twist.
“Hey, Nick.” Mike returned the welcome with an easy smile and Cassie found herself jealous that he found the situation so comfortable. But then, he didn’t know all that had been going on. He wasn’t stuck in the unenviable role of unwanted girlfriend and couldn’t possibly underst—
“Hi, Cassie.” Nick turned to greet her softly, the masculine tone of his voice threatening to melt the glue that held her emotions in check. Squaring her shoulders, she raised her chin a notch. Showtime.
“Hey, Nick. How are you?” She mentally congratulated herself on sounding so normal. Putting the icing on the cake she sent him a brilliant smile.
Nick blinked in surprise but recovered swiftly.
“Fine, and you?” Despite his affable words, his tone was weighted with unspoken challenge, as if he knew what she was playing at and was daring to her to deny her discomfort.
“Just fine, thank you. It’s wonderful seeing you again. How long has it been? Three weeks, or so?” Somehow she produced a warm smile to belay the acidity of the insinuation.
Nick’s gaze narrowed at the sarcasm, trying to ascertain her mood. Despite the forced bravado, he could still see the fear in her eyes, and Nick’s heart clenched with a tight ache. “Cassie, I—“
She saw regret pooling in his eyes, and her heart sank. The breakup was imminent if she didn’t get out of there and fast. She thought quickly. “Well, if you’ll both excuse me, I need to go get the…uh, the salad dressing to put on the table,” Cassie forced the words from a cotton dry mouth. Her falsified confidence was failing and failing fast.
Mike frowned at her. “Hey, I told you I’d go get it in just a sec—“
Cassie sent him a desperate glance. “No, Mike, remember? We agreed that I’d do it and you’d stay to watch the table. I’ll be right back.” She stepped between them to make her way to the kitchen.
“Wait.” Nick’s warm hand captured her wrist. “We need to talk.”
The gentle touch broke her and she fought tears. “Later,” she murmured, keeping her back to him and her gaze averted, “please.” Then she shrugged out of his hold and fled.
Nick watched her retreat in confusion, but Mike didn’t seem to notice as he turned and asked Nick how his last baseball game had gone.
Ten minutes after Cassie had left the stage following her solo, Nick still stood stupefied against the back wall. She’d been amazing. Sure she’d started out nervous at first (he’d noticed her hands tightly clenched into fists at her side), but by the time she’d hit the refrain she was singing beautifully at ease. She was a surprisingly lovely singer, and despite the fact that they’d known one another for nearly four years, he’d been startled to realize that he’d never before heard her sing.
Involuntarily his mind transported him to one of their numerous fights. As was the norm, he’d been complaining about how busy she was, and how she never seemed to have time to be with him. Defensive, she’d pointed out that choir was part of her life and that if he’d ever taken the time to support her at one of her gigs, he’d know that. As if he’d been slapped, he winced. She was right. He didn’t support her, ever.
Memories of the past flooded him. The baseball games when he could hear her voice floating above the rest of the crowd, cheering him on. She’d even hidden behind the concessions stand a time or two, peeking around its corner, when he was at bat to spare him the anxiety of having his girlfriend watch. His dad had teased her for being a curse—he always seemed to strike out when she was watching—but he’d always considered her a blessing. It made him feel good to know she was there, watching him, supporting him, hoping for him to have a great game.
He recalled football games when he knew that she was up in the stands watching him march on the field with his trombone, phone conversations and letters full of support that carried him through some of the toughest trials he’d ever encountered, her voice whispering words of forgiveness and love when he’d done something stupid to hurt her—moments where she’d gone out of her way to show him that she cared.
Moments that he’d overlooked and taken for granted.
And why were they ignoring each other anyway? Because, like always, he’d thought she didn’t care enough about him to make their relationship a priority. But now… he sighed and called himself a fool. She had made it a priority. Maybe not in the way that he thought he wanted and needed, but in her own way she had tried. She’d called him, she’d written him letters, she’d taken the longer routes to class just to be able to see him, but as Jason, his friend, had pointed out, she couldn’t be held responsible to do everything. At some point he needed to decide if she was worth fighting for and start accepting that she had passions and responsibilities that would sometimes conflict with his wants and desires.
Tonight, he decided, he would begin to fight.
It was amazing how quickly the night went by. After an exciting evening of performances, the two groups had easily gained an additional two thousand dollars towards their annual tours. Lined up in the back hall for final announcements, Cassie had all she could do not to stare at Nick, who was doing a perfectly good job of staring at her. Nonstop. He didn’t even attempt to hide his attention.
David Barthlemess, the Director of the Choir program, gathered all of the singers into one group and congratulated them on the success of the evening. Wrapping up the final meeting with instructions to return the borrowed choir robes to the choir room first thing Monday morning, he bid the group goodnight and officially pronounced them off duty. This was the part of the evening everyone had waited for. With the meal over and the guests enjoying a lazy dessert and coffee, it was time to kick back and relax and enjoy the tunes produced by the jazz band onstage.
Cassie and her friend, Russell, hung near the back of the room and watched a few of the elderly patrons rise from their tables to dance. After a few more couples took the floor, the high school students rushed it en masse. Soon everyone was out there boogying to the beat, but Cassie continued to watch from the sidelines. Her solo now behind her, she couldn’t help but remember Nick’s words to her earlier.
We need to talk.
She shivered as goose bumps chased each other across her skin. A sense of impending doom permeated her entire being and she sighed gloomily.
“What’s the problem?” Russell asked her, handing her a balloon that he’d just torn off the leg of the table they were leaning against.
Cassie took it and fiddled with the long string. She debated telling Russell the problem, knowing how much he disliked Nick. It wasn’t that Nick had ever been rude or unkind to Russell. Russell was just the kind of friend who was completely and unerringly loyal. Having seen Cassie hurt so many times by the guy put Nick on Russell’s hit list. It simply couldn’t be helped. Cassie opted for secrecy.
“Nothing. Just tired.”
“Right,” Russell scoffed. “I know this has something to do with him.” He jerked his head in Nick’s direction. Cassie followed the gesture and saw Nick onstage playing his trombone. First chair. She smiled, glad that she’d pressured Nick into staying in the band a year ago when he’d wanted to quit. Maybe someday he’d even thank her for it.
If they were still friends after tonight.
“Fine, you’re right. I’m just nervous around him right now.”
“Aren’t you two dating?”
Cassie hesitated. “Well, yes, we are—“
“Then why would you be nervous around him? He hasn’t hurt you again, has he? You just tell me what that creep did and I’ll--” Russell started mashing one fist in an open palm, his muscles tense and his message clear.
“Russ. It’s no big deal. We’re just rocky right now. Honestly, I think he’s going to break up with me tonight,” she continued, trying to sound cheerful. “So, you can relax and just be happy about that.”
“For crying out loud, Cassie, I don’t want you miserable. I hate the guy, yeah, but that doesn’t mean I want you guys to break up. I just want him to start treating you right.”
Cassie frowned and glanced at the floor. “Well, we’ll see what happens. No use borrowing trouble.” Her mood shifted at the change of songs. The perky, upbeat melody had ended and was being replaced by a slow dance song. Cassie wanted to leave.
“You’re right, Cass. No use borrowing trouble when it’s headed straight for you. Head’s up.”
Cassie looked up at her friend, but saw that Russell’s attention was focused on the stage. Following his gaze she saw Nick. He’d stopped playing with the rest of the band. Instead, he was putting his trombone down on the floor of the stage and… leaving the platform?
“Wha-what’s he doing?” she murmured absently.
“Beats me,” Russ answered. “But I think he’s headed this way.”
Sure enough, Nick glanced about the room until he spotted Cassie leaning against the table at the back wall, then began to weave his way away from the stage and towards her. Cassie’s heart lurched in her chest. She tensed as if preparing for war.
“Relax,” Russell soothed. “Whatever happens, it’ll be for the best.”
Easy for you to say, she thought, wondering if the room had just turned ice cold, or only her heart. Nick was still threading himself between couples, and Cassie could only watch in captivated terror, until finally he had reached her side. Nervous, it was all she could do not to look away. If he was going to break up with her, so be it. She willed herself to hold her composure and allow him to say what he must. With tenuous resolve, she met his gaze and was startled by what she saw.
Nick looked down at her, his eyes soft and tender and full of something she didn’t recognize. Apology, maybe? Whatever it was cause her heart to thaw just a little, and between the cracks of ice, hope rushed in. Holding out an open hand, his lips quirked wryly as he murmured, “Since technically, you’re still my girlfriend, may I have this dance?”
The balloon she forgot she’d been holding floated freely towards the ceiling as Cassie nodded and allowed Nick to lead her out onto the floor. Her cheeks felt flushed, all traces of the nervous shivers gone. Instead, she felt shivers of a different kind; electric, sparkling, and warm. Nick pulled her close, both arms wrapping tenderly around her waist while hers were caught between them on his chest. Silently, he began to swirl her around the floor. She leaned her head against his shoulder and breathed in the scent of his cologne. He smelled so good, but felt even better. This was where she belonged. This is where she wanted to stay for all times. Wrapped up in his arms as if she were precious and valued. She breathed deeply and sighed, relaxing in his arms.
Nick heard her sigh and his arms tightened. He knew that he should say something, but for the moment, words escaped him. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t act. He could only feel, and what he felt felt right.
Cassie moved her hands from his shoulders and he felt them travel to wind loosely about his neck. Again, he tucked her body closer to his own thankful that she hadn’t rejected him. Everything had just been so confusing. He hadn’t meant to ignore her, but in trying to evaluate their relationship and her feelings for him, he’d just got lost. Confused. Careless. And unless he missed his guess, she’d felt the same way. A sudden insight sparked inside of him and he wondered if she had perhaps felt as uncertain of his feelings for her as he had been of hers for him. He vowed that moment to make sure that things worked out this time—that their relationship would find solid footing and that they’d not be apart again. His heart assured him that he couldn’t bear another separation like this last one.
Nick pulled back from Cassie a bit and smiled tenderly at the peacefulness that glowed in her face. Her eyes were closed as if she were lost in the moment. The thought made his heart warm. He ran his hand up the back of her neck and let his thumb brush lightly over her hair. So soft. Enticing. She leaned back and opened her eyes, and Nick was relieved to see no trace of the fear that had earlier been so evident. Instead, her eyes were questioning and cautious. She felt vulnerable, he realized with a start. Not something he would have ever imagined her to be. Confident, mischievous, playful—sure. But never scared or vulnerable. The revelation shook him and carried with it a whole host of protective urges he’d never felt before.
“We need to talk.” He spoke softly and hesitantly, not wanting to ruin the moment.
Cassie buried her face against his chest and he felt her nod.
“I love you, Cassie,” he whispered into her hair. “We’ll make this work.”
She smiled into his shoulder before squeezing him gently in a relieved hug. “I love you too, Nick.”
“I don’t want us to be apart anymore.”
“Me neither,” she breathed.
“After the concert? We’ll talk all of this out?”
“Uhm-hmm,” she murmured, relieved and peaceful, and so happy that she could burst. They weren’t breaking up! Cassie felt her earlier worries drift away on the slow beat of the music.
“Good,” Nick whispered, and then all speaking stopped for the remainder of the song as they swirled in circles, content in each other’s arms. When the closing refrains of the song began to fade, Nick regretfully pulled away and looked down deeply into Cassie’s eyes. With all of the care and gentleness he could muster, he slowly tilted her chin up and let his lips find hers. The kiss was soft and slow, and Nick took the time to enjoy every moment of it, letting his fingers soothe the sensitive skin below her ear. She returned the kiss sweetly, rising on the tips of her toes in an unconscious attempt to move closer. He felt the shivers chasing along her spine and he smiled slightly against her lips at the reaction. He tipped her head slightly to the side and let the kiss deepen. When he finally pulled away, his eyes were soft and yearning and she was trembly-kneed and light headed. They smiled at each other—his, lovingly triumphant, and hers, charmingly in awe.
“I have to get back on stage or Mr. Johnson will have my hide,” he murmured.
Cassie laughed softly. “I’ll be here when you’re done playing.”
He tweaked her chin and smiled mischievously. “You’re not going to run out on me again?”
“So long as you don’t go home and ignore me,” she returned, tugging on a piece of his short brown hair.
“Those times are behind us. I promise you that,” he answered seriously. “I love you, Cassie.” He leaned into her and kissed her softly once more. Then he gave her one last hug and headed for the stage.
“I love you too, Nick,” Cassie whispered, as he picked up his trombone and began to play. She found an empty chair at one of the nearby tables and sat, focusing on the stage. There was more to be said later, but she knew with confidence that whatever came, together they’d face it and emerge stronger. As if hearing her thoughts and agreeing, Nick turned her way and winked. She smiled in return and thought to herself, Maybe band geeks aren’t so bad after all.