Just like her cousin Rory on the hugely popular TV show Saturday Morning Dance, Thea loves to dance. She learns the show's routines off by heart each week, despite her mother's attempts to convince her that dentistry would be a far more fulfilling career choice.
We chat as we stop at all the stop signs and slowly make our way to Sunset Boulevard. At one stop sign, someone honks and waves at us, and Rory waves back. "That's Cindy, one of our neighbors," she says before moving forward again. "Hey, you'll love this juice bar. It's fantastic-everything's organic and they use this raw sugarcane sweetener…yum."
"Sounds good," I say as we make a right-hand turn and hit the main road. As we do, someone sitting and waiting at the set of lights honks and waves. "Who's that?" I ask Rory.
"Beats me," she says. "We'll get a lot of that. Just ignore it."
"Oh, right. I see." I guess the combination of pink Bentley and RORY plates attracts a bit of attention. Which is what SMD is after, I suppose.
Over the next few minutes, I get to see why Rory's not so keen on her new wheels. The few times I've been allowed to let Rory drive me somewhere in Frank, I didn't realize there were quite so many sets of lights on Sunset Boulevard. Back then, she went largely undetected, especially if she wore a baseball cap, and I was free to enjoy the views, the palm fronds bobbing high above us, the unfamiliar billboards, everyone busily coming and going. Sure, there were a few paparazzi who knew her regular plates, but not too many. But now…every time we have to slow down for traffic or stop at a red light, people honk, people stare in the windows, people wave. At one point, we pull up next to a yellow school bus, one kid spots us, and then the whole bus begins rocking as the kids jump up and down in excitement at seeing Rory going about her everyday business.
"Am I supposed to wave?" I ask Rory.
She shrugs. "If you want."
I give a small, half-hearted wave at the kids, and they go absolutely crazy. "Hmmm, maybe that's not such a good idea," I tell her as one kid in particular waves her arms around, tries to get closer to the window, and accidentally slams another kid's face into the glass.
"I know you guys don't travel together and everything, but you really don't ever get this with your mom?" Rory sounds confused.
"You know how she operates." I shrug. "Mom and Dad tag-team it-one of them works and the other one sticks with me. If we do have to travel together, I stick with Beth, my tutor. And believe me, no one's the slightest bit interested in Thea Wallis and Beth Gibbs, her tutor."
"Well, I am," Rory says as we pull away from the school bus and leave the kids behind.
"Thanks," I say flatly.
"What's up?" She frowns, concentrating on the road.
"Oh, the usual. Can't go anywhere by myself, can't do anything for myself. If Mom had her way, I'd still be collecting Barbies and getting pushed around in a stroller."
"Ah, that," Rory answers me, her voice sympathetic. "Maybe now that Allie's better we could start hassling them about sending you to her school again?"
"Maybe." The truth is, however, I can't see my mom changing her mind. Still, I let it go. I don't really like complaining about my mom issues in front of Rory and Allie, who don't have a mom. Well, not one that's around, anyway. Rory and Allie's mom, Margaret, left when Allie was two. They still see her now and then, but she remarried and they bought the whitest penthouse you've ever seen. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of room in her new life for Rory and Allie, though I bet she likes to brag about Rory plenty. Every so often, when Mom forgets I'm in the room, she'll say something nasty about Margaret that I'm not supposed to hear. I get the feeling my grandmother might have hand-picked Margaret (the daughter of a senator) for Uncle Erik. And Uncle Erik did what he was told. Which is probably why Uncle Erik sees more of my mom now than my grandmother. I guess they have a lot in common.
I shake my head slightly. "Anyway…" I reach forward and turn the radio down. "We're supposed to be talking about you. So, spill already."
Rory shrugs. "What am I supposed to say? Ugh…I don't know. I'm just over it, that's all. There're changes going on at SMD, okay? Big changes I don't really agree with."
"Oh?" I say, hoping she'll continue and tell me more. "Like?"
She pauses then seems to brush my question away. "Oh, I don't know. Lots of things. And I can't wait to get going on this Vegas bus trip tomorrow. Cooped up for three days with Sonja, her gutless assistant Melinda, and Mara. That's my idea of a good time." She couldn't sound more sarcastic if she tried.
"Hang on," I say. "Sonja's the new producer, right? The crazy one?" Last season, the SMD ratings had started to dip, and a new producer had been brought in. Sonja was that producer, and from what it sounded like, she was going to make this show successful again if it was the last thing she ever did.
"Crazy's the word," Rory agrees. "As in, crazy about making SMD the highest-rated show every single week forevermore. Talk about driven. And speaking of driven, she's making us drive to LA. Together. Wait till you see it-we've got this big touring bus with SMD plastered all across the side. Almost as inconspicuous as this car. We're supposed to be bonding."
"But…" I start.
"I know! We've been a team for the past five years. And some of us for years before that, on Saturday Morning Kids. You'd think we'd have bonded by now if we were going to, right? Anyway." Rory sighs. "It doesn't matter. Let's not talk about that right now. I'm even over talking about it, which is all Dad ever wants to do-talk, talk, talk, talk, talk."
"Mmm," I answer, really uncomfortable with how all this is going. Rory is acting… very un-Rory-like. Kind of hyper and odd. And I can't remember a time she actually told me she didn't want to discuss something before. Maybe now's not the best time to bring up the fake boyfriend?
"Hey, we're almost there. Only one more set of lights. The owner is really sweet. He lets me park in the back so the car's hidden away, which I totally love him for."
We pull up at the set of lights Rory mentioned, and she points across the road. "It's over there."
I'm craning my neck to see the shop she's pointing to when I'm distracted by a tapping on my right-hand side. When I check to see what's going on, the guy from the lane next to us is holding a piece of paper up to the window.
"Is that his cell number?" I say, not believing my eyes.
Rory glances over. "Well, I doubt it's his IQ," she says, unimpressed. "It's about eight numbers too long."
I take a second look. "He's, um, pretty cute. And so is his friend."
Rory takes a second look as well now. "Maybe. If you like that kind of thing. Not my type, though."
"What's your type?" I ask her.
"Guys who don't pick me up at the lights."
I laugh at this. "Not all of us can be so choosy. I'm not lucky enough to have a 'type.'"
Rory becomes a tad more animated on hearing this and twists around in her seat, her hands still gripping the wheel. "Wait. What are you saying? Are you into boys now? My little cousin is into boys?"
"I was always into boys. They just weren't into me. Or aren't into me. Or don't know I exist. Or something."
"What? You can't be serious. Guys don't like you? I don't believe it." She frowns.
I think about this for a second. "Well, maybe that's not fair. I don't ever actually get to meet any boys, guys, you know-members of the opposite sex. Maybe a few at dance workshops and stuff, but they're pretty few and far between. It's mostly girls who go to those."
Rory gets an expression on her face then. One I've seen before-one that generally means we're about to do something that could get us into a lot of trouble, but we'll be sure to have a good time doing it. This is a girl hell-bent on looking for distraction. "Well, how about it, then? Want to meet some?"
I glance over at the two guys then back at Rory. "Them?"
"Yes, them. I think they might be willing. You know how I can tell? Because they're holding up a cell number to the window."
"Very funny." I throw her a withering look.
"Well?" Rory's waiting for my answer. "What'll it be? Yes or no?"
"Um, yes? Maybe? I don't know?"
"Oh, for goodness sake." Rory leans over me now and points out the juice bar we're going to, then gestures for the guys to follow us.
And then, as the lights change to green, they do.
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