The Bandbox Hat
Previously: SarahJane and Cassie arrive at a bowling date with Austin and his mom. SarahJane notices there are no cameras around and no Nathan, even though he’s supposed to be on the show now too.
A half hour later we were finishing up the first game. I’d thrown a couple gutter balls, a strike and a few spares. Cassie and Linda did about the same. Austin though was a natural.
“Strike!” Cassie hollered as Austin turned and bowed toward us. “Well done.”
“Thank you, fair lady.” Austin strolled back to the ball return. “Last frame. Let’s see if I can do it again.”
The machine clunked and shuddered and spit the shiny green ball along the track. He resumed his place at the approach. Stepped. Swung the ball back. And let go.
I gasped and ducked as it sailed past my head and thunked on the floor behind me.
Austin whirled. “SarahJane!”
“Are you all right?” Cassie and Linda hurried to me.
“I’m okay,” I said, waving them off. “But what are you doing, Austin? Downsizing the dating pool by taking us out one by one instead of withholding bracelet charms?”
“I’m so sorry.” He skidded to a stop and dropped to his knees in front of me. “I don’t know what happened.”
“No harm. At least to me.” In truth, I shook from the close call. The ball hadn’t touched me, but I felt the tailwind as it sailed by.
“Let me make it up to you.” He stood and reached out a hand. “Mom, Cassie, we’re taking a break. Be back in a few. You go on and play.”
Linda and Cassie waved and moved back to the electronic scoreboard.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
He took my hand and led me up the stairs to the upper level of the bowling alley. We headed toward the neon sign announcing the Strike Zone diner.
“Right here.” He pushed the door open and held it for me.
Instead of the dingy greasy spoon I expected, the Strike Zone was a darling café, decorated like a 1950s soda fountain. One white wrought iron table sat in the middle with two chairs. Burgers and fries in red plastic baskets and two chocolate shakes in glass mug waited.
“This is for me?” My voice faltered and I cleared my throat. “I mean, you didn’t have to invite me to a private date just because you nearly killed me. You already apologized.”
His dimple grew as he grinned. “I already planned to ask you to lunch. The thrown ball just a nice excuse to get you away from the others.”
Oh. My cheeks felt warm as we took our seats.
“To you.” Austin lifted his shake and toasted me.
I clinked my mug to his and took a sip. “Hmmm. Malt. I haven’t had a real malt since I left Rosedale.” To my horror, tears filled my eyes.
“SarahJane.” Austin gave me a stricken look. “I’m so sorry. I swear it was an accident.”
“I know that, silly.” I sniffed and managed to keep talking. “When I thought of Rosedale, I guess I got a sudden jolt of homesickness. I’m fine. Really.” I shook salt over my fries. “How did they get the food ready at the perfect moment?”
“Well, they are professionals.” He waggled his eyebrows as he took a bite out of his cheeseburger. “Now, I think today’s date agenda is sharing something from our childhood. Since we already know that you’re homesick, you want to go first and tell me all about Rosedale?”
I swallowed before answering. “Not much to tell. It’s a small town in Central California. I love it there.”
“What brought you to L.A.?”
A clatter sounded. “That came from the kitchen.” I nodded toward the double doors with the round windows behind Austin.
“Liam?” Austin called. “Is that part of the date? What do we do?”
Silence. Then another sound, like something metal dropping onto a hard floor. Followed by a giggle and a hushing sound.
Austin and I exchanged a glance. He put a finger over his lips. I pointed at the doors and raised my brows. He nodded.
We tiptoed to the door and together poked our heads up to look through the portholes.
I gasped and pushed the door open. It clanged against an aluminum table.
“Nathan! What’s going on?”
My brother pushed away the girl he’d been kissing. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind one ear and flashed me a look of triumph. Amanda.