Timidly, Maia looped her arm through Alex’s, allowing him to lead her across the hall to the secluded room where the family entertained their dinner guests. In comparison to the rest of the home, the dining area decor was far more simplistic. The walls were painted a soft beige up to the ceiling, which offset the cream carpeting beautifully.
The wall on the left had been converted into an accent wall and contained smooth black wooden panels. A plank of wood had been affixed to the panel to serve as a shelf. Atop the shelf sat a glass vase containing a bouquet of silk orchids, a pair of champagne flutes, and a brown wicker basket filled with artificial fruits. Adjacent to the accent wall was a floor to ceiling window framed by long, lace drapes.
In the center of the room was a long black table that comfortably sat ten people with velvet taupe dining chairs on either side and scarlet chairs at the head. Cream dome lights suspended above the table bathed the room in a warm glow. As the group entered, Bella took a seat at one end of the table while Shanna claimed the seat at the other end leaving Maia, Alyssa, and Alex to settle into three seats on the side.
“It’s such a shame that Jose couldn’t join us tonight,” Bella remarked.
Smiling wistfully, Shanna replied, ” The program director added an additional day to the conference that he’s attending at the very last minute. He extends his sincerest apologies.”
Returning the smile, Bella responded, “Perhaps we can all get together again for dinner when he returns. I would very much like to meet him.”
Just then, Pemberly entered carrying a tray containing five coupe glasses filled with a fruity cocktail comprised of pear brandy, apple cider, and bourbon. Giving Bella a reassuring smile, Shanna stated proudly, “You really must try this cocktail. It’s the chef’s specialty, and it’s amazing. Naturally, the kids’ drinks have are virgin.”
As Pemberly set the glass down in front of Shanna, she lifted it to her lips and daintily took a sip. Placing it back down in front of her, Shanna turned to Alex saying, “Alex, your grandmother tells me that you’re on the football team. What position do you play?”
The question caught Maia by surprise as she’d never really known her mother to be much of a football fan. Maybe she was trying to make polite conversation, Maia rationalized.
Grinning, Alex answered, “Yes, I do. I’ve been a wide receiver for the Middleton Heights Vikings for the past two years now.”
Out of her peripheral vision, Maia saw Alyssa roll her eyes. It was a curious reaction, and Maia couldn’t help but be intrigued by the nature of the siblings’ relationship.
“He’s too modest to admit it, but he was the first freshman to make varsity in about 10 years,” Bella volunteered.
Alyssa scoffed, prompting Maia to lift a brow in curiosity. However, before she could question Alyssa, Pemberly entered the room once more.
Starting at Bella and working clockwise, he carefully placed a plate in front of each diner before returning to the kitchen.
Maia glanced down at the plate to find her favorite appetizer; an oyster on the half shell filled with bacon and shallots and seasoned with fresh dill and peppercorns. It was one of the few foods the chef-prepared that she could eat with her hands.
Lightly taking hold of the oyster with her thumb and first two fingers, Maia seized a lemon slice from the plate and squeezed it out over the oyster. Discarding the used lemon wedge, Maia then picked up the tiny fork on the placemat. Using the fork, she gently detached the oyster from the shell.
Just as she had tipped the narrowest end of the shell up to her mouth, Maia could feel Shanna’s eyes boring a hole into her. Sighing softly, Maia put the shell down and dug the oyster out with her fork. Gently, she placed it atop her tongue and chewed it slowly.
As the conversation returned to Alex’s athletic endeavors, Maia began to get a distinct impression that Alyssa felt left out. Being an only child, Maia’s parents doted on her. She couldn’t imagine a world in which she had to battle with another person for their attention. Maia offered Alyssa a sympathetic smile as Pemberly bought in the next course.
Just as Maia dug into the roast beef tenderloin, Bella piped up, “I hear that you’re an excellent pianist, Maia.”
Smiling graciously, Maia responded, “Well, I suspect that the source of such information is a bit biased, but yes, I do play.”
“Might I entice you to play something for us when dinner is concluded,” Bella questioned?
Nodding somewhat unenthusiastically, Maia answered, “I’d be delighted.”
“Excellent,” Bella remarked.
For the first time since they had sat down, Alex’s gaze returned to Maia.
“Your mother tells me that you’re to start at Middleton next week. I could show you around if you like,” Alex offered.
Maia could feel the eyes of both her mother and Bella upon her as she replied, “Thank you, Alex. That’s very kind of you to offer. I would like that very much.”
~The following week~
Maia hadn’t even arrived at school yet, and already the brunette was a wreck. Attending a school that required uniforms had spared her the indecision of being unsure what to wear. Now that she could wear whatever she chose, the teenager felt somewhat overwhelmed by her options.
For the first time in her life, Maia found herself regretting having a closet full of name brand clothing. At Oak Hills, the objective had always been to stand out. However, at Middleton Heights Maia wanted nothing more than to fit in.
The problem was that Maia had no idea how to do that. Dressing from head to toe in Prada might make her seem too rich. The last thing that she wanted to do was flaunt her wealth and give her peers the impression that she thought herself better than them. Particularly, as she’d been unable to convince her mother to allow her to take public transportation instead of being chauffeured.
Deciding that there wasn’t anything suitable in her closet to wear, Maia and Victoria had made an emergency shopping trip the day before to a store called Forever 21. Maia had changed clothes at least three times before settling on a button-down knit cardigan with a plunging neckline and shark bite edges. Maia paired the sweater with a pair of high rise jeans with a self-tie belt and paper bag waist.
A pair of pointed-toe faux leather booties with a stiletto heel and a side zipper completed the look. Having taken so much care with makeup, Maia realized that there wasn’t enough time to straighten her hair. The brunette drew her curly locks atop her head into a messy bun leaving a few curly tendrils to frame her face.
Grabbing her off-white coach backpack from the bed, Maia darted out of her room and raced downstairs. Snagging half of a bagel smeared with brie cheese from a platter on the countertop and a bottle of orange juice, Maia kissed her mother’s cheek and dashed out the door. As the Lincoln town car pulled up in front of a three-story brick building with a short white veranda, Maia was struck by how small and restrictive the school seemed compared to the open campus layout to which she had become accustomed.
Thanking the driver, Maia slid out of the vehicle and followed the signs to the office where she and Alex had agreed to meet. As Maia drew closer to the administrative office, she could make out a lean figure leaning against the wall with their arms crossed over their chest.
As Maia took in Alex’s appearance, it was clear that he wasn’t at all concerned about being viewed negatively. There wasn’t a stitch of clothing on his body that wasn’t designer. Suddenly, it was clear to Maia why her mother had been so insistent upon her meeting Alex. Not only was he pleasing to the eye, but Alex’s family must be well- off.
Catching sight of her, Alex pushed himself off the wall, smiling brightly, as he greeted, “Mandy, it’s so good to see you again.”
“It’s Maia, actually,” Maia retorted.
“Maia, right,” Alex corrected.
“Well, Maia there is a lot of ground to cover, so we best get going,” Alex continued.
Just as the pair stepped into the corridor, a group of boys clustered around a phone called out to them, “Yo, Al! You got to see this man.” Glancing in their direction and then back at Maia, Alex held a finger up towards them to indicate that he’d be with them momentarily.
Turning back to Maia, Alex explained, “Ok, so straight ahead is the cafeteria. The food is gross, so you may want to bring your own. To your left is the library. The restrooms are just across from the library. To the right is the home economics room. The music room and the art room are on the lower level. Just through that set of doors is a flight of stairs that will lead you to them. That should about cover it. Well, the basics anyway. I have to go.”
Turning his back to her, Alex started towards the group of boys as she yelled after him, “Wait, what about the biology lab?”
Calling over his shoulder, Alex merely replied, “Welcome to Middleton.”