"Come on," Kate said, grabbing Tyler's hand and pulling him up the front walk to her house. "It's not going to be that bad."
"Easy for you to say," Tyler joked as he followed along behind her. "You're not the one spending the day with your girlfriend's parents for the first time."
Kate stopped at the door and turned to look at her boyfriend. His black hair was, as usual, tousled but adorable, and his eyes, a peculiar deep gold color, sparkled in the July sun. Her parents had met Tyler a few times and seemed to like him, but she was still a little nervous. This was the first time they'd all be together for more than half an hour. Tyler was the first guy she'd brought home since Scott, and they'd thought that Scott was the perfect boyfriend for her. They hadn't understood when she broke things off with him, and she knew that might make them particularly critical of Tyler, who had replaced Scott as the guy in her life.
"Don't worry," she said, reassuring herself as much as she was reassuring Tyler. "They're going to love you."
Tyler grinned. "That would be nice, he said, but the only one I need to love me is you."
Kate rolled her eyes, but inside she was thrilled to hear Tyler say that. Only recently had either of them said the L-word, and it was still new to her. Every time Tyler said it, she felt like she was the most important person in the world.
"I do love you," she said, leaning up and kissing him.
Just as their lips met, the front door opened and her father's face appeared.
"Am I interrupting something?" he said gruffly.
Startled, Kate pulled away from her boyfriend and instinctively wiped her hand across her mouth in embarrassment.
"Hi, Daddy," she said, trying to keep her composure.
"Hello, Mr. Morgan," Tyler said, doing a much better job than Kate was of pretending that they hadn't just been caught making out. "It's nice to see you again."
Mr. Morgan reached out and took Tyler's offered hand, shaking it firmly while looking his daughter's boyfriend up and down carefully. "Nice to see you again, too," he said evenly.
Avoiding her father's gaze, Kate slipped past him and into the house, drawing Tyler after her. She hustled him through the living room and into the kitchen, where her mother was rushing around doing ten different things at once as she prepared the food for the cookout they were having. "Hi, honey," Mrs. Morgan said as she turned from checking something in the oven and went back to chopping celery at the counter.
When she saw Tyler standing behind her daughter she stopped what she was doing and smiled at him. "Hi, Tyler," she said. "I'd shake hands but I'm afraid they're covered in barbeque sauce, flour, and who knows what else."
"That's okay," Tyler said. "I get the idea, and whatever it is you're cooking, it smells amazing, so the trade-off is more than worth it."
Mrs. Morgan looked at Kate. "This one's a flatterer," she said. "Watch out for those. They'll get you every time. I should know'it's how your father got me."
Kate blushed. "Well, everything does smell great," she said, trying to change the subject. "What's on the menu?"
"The usual Fourth of July picnic spread," her mother replied. "Hot dogs, fried chicken, corn on the cob, potato salad, baked beans, and chocolate cake."
"I smell something else," Kate said, sniffing the air around the oven. She opened the door and peeked inside, where she saw a pan of lasagna sitting on one of the racks. "Lasagna?" she said suspiciously. "You only make lasagna when..."
"When Kyle's home?" a voice behind her finished.
Kate wheeled around, letting out a squeal of surprise when she saw her older brother standing there, a huge grin on his face and his arms held open. She ran to him and wrapped her arms around him as he picked her up and swung her around.
"What are you doing here?" she asked when he finally put her down. "I thought you were staying at the university this summer to work."
"I am," Kyle said. "But I have a little time off. Besides, I had to bring you something."
"Bring me something?" Kate said. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, it's just a little present I picked up on the way here," Kyle answered mysteriously. "Want to see it? It's out back."
Kate looked at her mother, who was also now grinning wickedly.
"Do you know about this?" Kate asked her.
"You'll just have to go and see for yourself, her mother said, pretending to be busy ripping up lettuce for a salad.
Kate headed for the back door with everyone following behind her. She had no idea what Kyle could be talking about. It wasn't her birthday or anything, and she was surprised enough to see him home for the Fourth. What else could he have brought with him?
She burst through the screen door and stepped into the backyard, looking around for her big surprise. What she saw was the barbeque, the coals already glowing, and a picnic table piled with paper plates and plastic utensils. Then she noticed that someone was sitting in one of the lawn chairs that had been set out. When she realized who it was, she gasped.
"Aunt Netty?" she said, not believing her eyes.
"The one and only," said the woman in the chair as she stood up. "Surprised?"