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By:Lulu Pratt & Simone Sowood

"Totally different skill set," I call out. Mom and I settle the table on the ground, making sure to sit it firmly in the grass, so it won't wobble. There's a pile of tablecloths ready, a bottom layer that's a pale, dusky pink, and a top layer that's some kind of lace, and boxes of candles on the porch where Bev stands.

"I think there's one more," Mom says, counting the number of tables we've already put together.

I look around the backyard and picture it the way I think it will be that evening, with the sun going down, the candles and flowers, the way it would look kind of dreamy. It was going to be beautiful.

"Yep," I agree. "One more table and then we can get to work on decorating them."

Zane tacks down the lights he's handling with a few more cracks from the staple gun in his hand. I look in his direction. I've been doing that all morning. I can't seem to make myself stop.

I'd thought I'd gotten a good idea of his newfound gorgeousness the night before, but in the daylight it's even more obvious. In jeans and T-shirt - both of them fitting him perfectly - I can see how much muscle he put on. His face lost most of the boyish look too and it really suits him.

"Don't work too hard," Bev says, sitting on the patio. "I want you both to be able to actually enjoy the party tonight."

"Maybe I'll take a nap," I suggest.

"You are far too young to need to take an afternoon nap before a party," Mom tells me.

Zane snickers from where he's almost finished hanging up the strings of lights.

"It's just good sense," I point out. "I used to do it in college too. Take a nap, that way you can stay up until four in the morning."

"Just admit it, you've turned into an old woman already," Bev says, grinning at me.

I roll my eyes. "Not at all!" I can feel my cheeks heating up.

"Harper was always an old woman," Zane chimes in.

"Hush, you!" I scowl at him playfully. "You don't get to have an opinion about me, considering you spent an entire year after high school doing little more than partying."

"I'd rather have been a party-boy in my younger years than old before my time," Zane says, sticking out his tongue at me. Something about the way he does it, in spite of the fact that he's done that to me hundreds of times from childhood through when we parted ways after high school, sends a little jolt of heat through me.

"I'm not old before my time, I just believe in balance," I say primly. "Besides which, I highly doubt this party is going to keep going until four in the morning."

"You never know," Bev says. "Before we became mothers, we could have partied until dawn and then gone to work."

"Yeah, but that was before you had us," Zane said. "You're out of practice."

Mom and I grab the last table and pull it open, settling it onto the grass and making sure it's not going to wobble, and we head for the patio, where Zane is finishing the lights.

"Tables down, lights done," Zane says, jumping from the last rung of the ladder. "What else have we got to do, Mom?"

"Your dad and I have the living room cleared, so as soon as the flowers get here, we'll be ready to finish everything up," Bev says.

"Do you want any help with the food before people start arriving?" Mom starts sorting through the candles, putting them into the groups that they should be in for the tables, and I help her.

"I think I've got it under control," Bev replies. "Besides, aren't you bringing something too?"

"We're going to make a couple of things," I say. "That yogurt dip everyone likes and Mom talked me into making pasta salad."

"I didn't know you knew how to cook," Zane says, giving me a little look that I might have thought was flirty coming from anyone else. "Five years out of high school and you've become the perfect woman."

"She works too much for that," Mom counters. "Never goes out, always staying up late on some project."

"That's because she hasn't found a guy to sweep her off her feet yet," Bev says. "Besides, nothing wrong with a woman who isn't afraid of a little hard work. Most men are hard work." She gives Zane a nudge. "If this one ever finds someone willing to put up with his crap, I will get down on my knees and worship her as a saint."

"I thought you army types got married young," I tell Zane.

"Some do," he admits. "The rest of us enjoy being footloose and fancy free for a while."

"Neither of our children is ever going to give us grandkids," Bev tells my mom with a sigh. "Maybe we should pool money and adopt a grandchild."

I roll my eyes and Zane does too. "Haven't you heard? Our generation in general is having kids later," I point out. "It isn't that you won't get grandkids, it's that it's not financially feasible for us to give them to you until we're over thirty."

"You tell ‘em," Zane says.

"All right, all right," Bev says. "I can wait a few more years to have grandkids. But if neither of you are married in five years, we're going to get you both green card spouses."

"Besides, how do either of you expect to get to twenty-five years of marriage if you don't get started until you're over thirty?" My mom asks.

"As proud of you as I'm sure both of us are," I say, "I don't know if I can even imagine being married for twenty-five years."



It's about an hour and a half before the party, and everything for it is finally just about done. Mom has left the kitchen to get changed. Dad's sitting in the living room waiting for people while watching a recap of the last football game. Harper and Nadine have even gone home. All I have left to do is to take a shower, put on some of my better clothes and present myself.

I strip out of my sweaty T-shirt and jeans, kick off my shoes and grab a towel from the closet before I head to the shower. The house looks great, I can't deny that. It's nice to know I won't be on duty for another several days and good to see Harper again too. I take off my boxers in the bathroom and kick them onto the floor, starting the water in the shower and giving it a chance to warm up before I step in. Really, really good to see her again.

I grin to myself as I step over the ledge and let the water rain down on me. Before I'd left to start basic, Harper had still had that school nerd vibe down. All she was missing was glasses and one of those grandma sweaters to look like the campus librarian.

I lather up and start scrubbing down, and I can't help thinking about Harper a little more. If it weren't for the fact that we lived next door to each other our entire lives, I don't think we would have hung out at all in high school. We didn't hang out that much anyway, at least not at school. I was busy with my buds, and Harper was busy doing all that extra-curricular stuff like honor society and drama club and whatever else it was she was doing.

But this new Harper, the grown woman she'd become, was actually kind of cool. Living in the city, looking really good, with a good job. How the hell is she not with someone? I rinse myself off and get started on washing my hair, thinking about the question.

I remember Harper's mom and mine teasing her about being old before her time and joking about her lack of social life. It really isn't all that surprising, when I think about it. Thinking about Harper makes me start to get hard, and I turn the water on cold for a quick blast. What's wrong with me, thinking like that?

I get out of the shower quickly before I can be tempted to indulge myself, and dry off and go back to my room. I look out through the window and catch sight of just a second of Harper moving past her own window. She's got a bra and panties on, her hair done, but other than that she's undressed and unaware that she's being watched.

I turn my back on the window, close the blinds and start getting dressed. I force myself to stop thinking about her like that. It's not a formal event, so I decide to wear a pair of khakis and a dress shirt. I put on a pair of socks and my dress shoes, check to make sure my hair looks all right, and I'm done.

Dad's sitting in the living room, still watching the TV, and Mom is hurrying through the house back to the kitchen, her clothes on but her make-up not done yet.

"Are you sure you don't want me to help with anything, Mom?"

"Thanks, sweetie. I've got everything under control." Mom runs around the kitchen, pulling something out of the oven and setting it where it can cool. I have no idea what it is, but it smells amazing. After spending half the day setting up the house for the party, I'm already starving, but I know better than to ask Mom if I can snag some.

"Wait until she goes to do her make-up and hair, and then we'll grab some of the meatballs," Dad mutters to me, and I snicker.

"Done," I agree.

We wait for Mom to do whatever it is she's doing in the kitchen, and she scurries back to the master bathroom to finish getting ready before people start coming over. As soon as Dad and I are both pretty sure that she's occupied, we head into the kitchen and grab some of the meatballs simmering in the crock pot.

"So it's been a while since you saw Harper. She's looking good these days," Dad says, as we eat in the living room as quickly as we can.

"Yeah, she doesn't look bad at all," I agree.

"Weird she isn't with anyone," Dad adds. "Usually girls get into the city and then get involved with one guy after another until they find a good one."