“I’ve seen her photo before,” I reply with a nod. “And I’ve met Leo before too.”
“Yeah, he and Starla are, um, friends.” I bite my lip, not wanting to tell him that Leo and Starla were much more than that way back when.
“I think Sam mentioned that before. Small world. Okay, let’s see.” Mark scans the back yard. “Over there is Caleb and Brynna with Isaac and Stacy.”
“Yep, I know them from class.”
“That’s right. You know my parents.” He points to one of the tables where it looks like all of the parents have gathered. Some are holding babies. The women are talking and the guys are laughing. “There are also Gail and Steven Montgomery, and Brynna and Stacy’s parents.”
“That’s right, Brynna and Stacy are cousins, right?”
“Yep. And that’s Matt with his girlfriend, Nic.”
“Lots of people.”
“I think that’s it.”
“Who’s the hot Italian guy?” I ask without thinking, earning a cocked brow from Mark.
“That’s Dominic. He’s a half brother to the Montgomerys. I’ll tell you that story later. I’ll also be watching you around him. He’s the last single one among them.”
“Hey, you’re here!” Jules jogs over to us and hugs us both. “I’m so glad you came,” she tells me.
“Thanks for having me,” I reply.
“Come on, I’m going to introduce you to everyone.” She smiles widely, looking beautiful in her red sundress and sandals. “Don’t you just love this weather?”
“Yes, I’m so ready for summer,” I reply and smile as Jules introduces me to everyone in the back yard. When we make our way to Sam and Leo, I feel my heart rate pick up and the nerves go crazy in my stomach.
Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
“Hey, Leo and Sam, this is Meredith. She’s here with Mark.”
Sam’s face goes pale in shock. Her jaw drops and then she blinks and looks around for her brother.
“Hi, Leo,” I say lamely.
“Meredith.” He pulls me in for a hug and smiles happily. “It’s been a while. You must be the Meredith that teaches dance class for the girls.”
“One and the same,” I confirm.
“You two know each other?” Jules asks.
“Yes, I used to tour with Starla,” I reply. “The music community is a small one.”
“Ah yes, the bimbo you banged years ago, right?” Sam asks with a smirk and rolls her eyes.
“According to you, I banged everyone,” Leo replies with a smile.
“I know for a fact you banged Starla.”
“There’s no video proof,” Leo replies and Mark laughs next to me. Holy shit, these people are funny. At least, I hope they’re being funny.
“That we know of,” Sam replies and watches me with narrowed eyes.
“How is Starla?” Leo asks.
“She’s great. She’s getting married in Paris this fall and goes back on tour next year.”
“Good for her. I’m glad to hear it.” Sam walks away and Leo pats my arm before following her. “It’s great to see you, Mer.”
“You too,” I reply and nod, then feel myself blush under Jules’ stare. “What?”
“You have gossip,” she accuses me. “Admit it.”
I laugh and shake my head, finally feeling myself begin to relax. “I’ve signed nondisclosure agreements, Jules.”
“Oh, honey,” she says as though I’m a child with so much to learn. “I’ll give you liquor. That’ll loosen those lips right up.”
“I’ll have to remember not to bring Jax around. Pretty girls and liquor will make him spill his guts every time.”
Jules leads me back to Natalie and Luke, who both hug me tightly. I’ve felt Mark’s eyes on me the whole time, and he smiles at me from Luke’s side.
“Meredith has gossip. We need to take her with us on girls night out to liquor her up and make her spill the beans.”
“I’m telling you,” I insist. “Jax is better at that than me.”
“Is Jax your partner?” Natalie asks.
“Yes, he’s been my dance partner for years and now we’re business partners.”
“He’s hot,” Jules informs everyone. “I saw him at the recital.”
“Is he now?” Nate asks calmly and kisses a sleeping Stella’s head. Holy hell, Nate is one fine specimen of man. He’s all dark and toned and… wow. “Something you need to tell me?”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist, ace.”
“No worries,” I assure him as well. “Jax is very gay.”
“Oh my god,” Natalie exclaims. “We’re bringing you both out for girls night out.”
“We’d love that.”
“Miss Mer!” Josie and Maddie both run over to me and throw themselves in my arms, hugging me tightly. “You’re here!”
“I’m here,” I say and hug them back just as Sophie joins them. My arms are full of little girls.
“This is our baby cousin Livie,” Maddie says, introducing a tiny little dark-haired girl who smiles up at me shyly.
“I remember you from the recital. How old are you, Livie?”
“She’s two,” Natalie says with a smile.
“She’s beautiful.” Livie giggles and holds her arms up for me to lift her into my arms. I can’t resist her. “Hello, gorgeous girl. Don’t you have the prettiest hair?”
“She has hair like her mama,” Luke says and kisses Natalie’s forehead.
“Will you dance with us?” Maddie asks hopefully.
“Dance!” Livie exclaims, making us laugh.
“Maybe later, sweetie.” Someone has piped music outside, and Kelly Clarkson is currently singing through the speakers.
“Yes!” Josie yells and the girls run away. Livie squirms in my arms, wanting to follow her cousins, so I set her on her feet and she toddles away.
“At what age can we put her in class?” Natalie asks.
“I recommend after three, after potty training.”
“Hold a place open for us.”
“There is always space for you guys,” I assure them and feel Mark slip his hand possessively on my lower back. I lean into him and sigh in contentment.
Over the next few hours, I make the rounds with Mark around the party, speaking with Will and Meg and the other siblings. Jesus, the Montgomerys are gorgeous. Every single one of them. It’s a visual feast that I don’t mind in the least. Mark’s parents hug me warmly. I’ve never been welcomed so quickly by a group of people in my life.