'I'm Sue Olsen and this is my partner...'
Barbie quickly swung around to join Sue and smile at the client.
The smile froze on Barbie's face as recognition hit.
Carole Huntley was Carole Armstrong—Nick's sister!
She'd been stylish at eighteen. She was even more stylish now, her thick black hair brilliantly cut in a short bob and her boutique clothes perfectly coordinated.
'Barbie Lamb?' Carole repeated incredulously. 'You're not...?' Her bright blue eyes stared searchingly at the face that was encircled by a sunflower. 'Yes, you are. Those eyes are unmistakable. Barbie Lamb, after all these years...' She shook her head in amazement. 'I was Carole Armstrong. Remember? Two years ahead of you at school? Danny's and Nick's sister?'
'Carole...' Barbie repeated numbly, her heart sinking like a stone.
'My goodness! It must be...nine years. The last time I saw you was at Nick's twenty-first birthday. You sang.' Her face beamed with pleasure in her recognition. 'And you've made a career of singing?'
'A career of sorts,' Barbie mumbled, barely able to speak over the shock of being confronted by a member of Nick's family, her identity made certain by Sue's introduction.
'How fantastic!' Carole burbled on, delight and avid curiosity in her eyes—the same vivid blue as Nick's. She laughed, taking in the whole of Barbie's appearance. 'I must say you make a beautiful sunflower.' Her gaze slid to Sue in sparkling pleasure. 'Both of you.'
'Thank you,' Sue quickly returned. 'Hope the children think so, too. If you'll show us the way.,.?'
'Yes, of course.' Carole flashed an apologetic smile. 'No time for memory lane right now.
As she turned to usher them down the path to the front door, she looked appealingly at Barbie. 'Perhaps afterwards you'll stay for coffee? I'd love to catch up on your news.'
'We...we have another gig this afternoon,' Barbie lied, desperate for any excuse to get away.
'Not a good idea anyway, Mrs. Huntley,' Sue chimed in. 'It would spoil the illusion for the children. Best that we come and go.'
'Oh! I guess so.' Carole looked disappointed.
'You didn't say whose birthday it was, Stuart's or Tina's,' Sue rattled on, taking the heat off Barbie.
'Neither. Stuart is three and a half and Tina's not quite two. Stuart broke his arm last Saturday and hasn't been able to go to play-school. I thought I'd throw him a party to cheer him up.'
Which explained the short notice, Barbie thought dazedly, still plunged into turmoil by the terrible coincidence of coming face to face with two Armstrong’s through the Party Poppers business, both within a week of each other. And this meeting with Nick's sister could very well blow her cover as Anne Shepherd. Carole was always the gossipy kind.
The discomforting blue gaze targeted Barbie again. 'The accident stopped us from going to Nick's thirtieth birthday party. Which reminds me...'
'These things happen,' Sue cut in sympathetically, waving to the front door. 'Now before we go in, and since the children are in the family room out of sight...perhaps the best idea is for you to take our music box, Mrs. Huntley, and go ahead of us, plugging it in all ready to play. That way we can really make a surprise entrance.'
Barbie was intensely grateful for the timely distraction. She offered the player to Carole who took it and looked down at the control panel as Sue explained what had to be done.
'Yes, fine,' she agreed. 'It's okay for you to wait in the foyer for a minute while I go ahead and switch on. They can't see you from there.'
Finally accepting the focus on business, she ushered them inside the house, leaving them to watch the direction she took to the family room—straight ahead, down the stairs, along a lower-level foyer and through an archway from which the noise of a lively party
'Get yourself together, Barbie,' Sue whispered warningly. 'I can't do this act by myself.'
She took a deep breath, needing the oxygen to clear her whirling head. 'Thanks for taking the flack off me, Sue.'
'You looked like a stunned mullet. Just forget her and concentrate on the toddlers. The show goes on.'
'I won't let you down.'
'You'd better not. If the fat's in the fire, it's of your own making and it's not fair to burn me, too. If you don't perform, I'll kick you.'
'Then let's do it and get out of here.'
They did it. From the moment they showed their sunflower faces in the archway, a dozen or so under fives were goggle-eyed, then enthralled by the act that followed, repeating phrases of the songs when urged to, following the simple dance steps, clapping in time with the sunflowers, and beaming joy in the wonder of it all.
With her energy fiercely channeled into connecting with the children, Barbie was barely aware of the mothers who sat watching. She couldn't risk a look at Carole for fear of being put off her stride, and the other women present were simply blurs in the background. However, they did come in useful, keeping the children from following them as she and Sue bowed out after forty minutes of highly concentrated entertainment.
Carole, of course, had to follow them, bringing their sound system with her. 'That was absolutely marvellous!' she enthused, once they were outside with the front door safely shutting the children in the house. 'My friends thought so, too.'
'Great!' Sue replied, whipping out a small bundle of business cards she'd tucked in her sleeve. 'Please pass these around. It's lovely to work from recommendations.'
As Carole took them, Sue deftly relieved her of their property. 'Thanks so much for your help with the music. Perfect timing. Why not go back to Stuart and Tina now? Enjoy their excitement. We'll see ourselves off.'
'Yes. Nice seeing you again, Carole,' Barbie quickly put in, desperately hoping Nick's sister would take the hint and let her escape reminiscences which were not welcome in any shape or form.
Unfortunately the dismissal didn't work. 'No, I'll walk up to the car with you. I understand you have to get on your way, but I've just been thinking, Barbie...'
Somehow she stretched her mouth into a polite smile as they started walking up the path, but she wished Carole Huntley onto another planet.
'It's Mum's fiftieth birthday this coming weekend,' she went on, 'and my husband and I are throwing a party for her on Saturday night. Danny's even flying home from San Diego for it. A big family and friends get-together. Like Nick's twenty-first. It would be lovely if you could come...'
The reminder of Nick's twenty-first set up an instant and violent recoil. Words spilled out before she could even begin to relate the invitation to her current situation with him.
'That's very kind of you, Carole, but I'm not free.'
'Oh! What a shame! It would have been a great surprise to have you sing "Happy Birthday" to Mum. She always said you had a beautiful voice.'
The sheer insensitivity of that comment had Barbie grinding her teeth. 'I get paid for doing that now, Carole,' she bit out.
Carole instantly looked stricken by her blunder. I didn't mean for you only to come for that. I'm sorry if it sounded...' She heaved a mortified sigh, her eyes begging forgiveness. 'Our families used to be close. I just thought it would be nice to...'
'Perhaps another time.'
'Barbie, I honestly wasn't asking for a...a professional freebie. I wanted your company. The whole family would, I'm sure. And there'd be other old friends from Wamberal for you to catch up with.'
It took a huge effort to stretch her mouth into another stiff smile but Barbie managed it as her hand reached for the handle to the passenger door of the car. 'Well, it sounds like your mother will have a wonderful fiftieth. I hope you all have a marvellous time together.'
Hearing Sue open the driver's door—the cue for a fast getaway—Barbie nodded a farewell. Thanks again for the invitation. I'm afraid we must go now.'
'Yes, we must/ Sue echoed across the hood of the car. 'And may I say, Mrs. Huntley, you're very lucky to have such beautiful children. They're a delight.'
Which was a better exit line than any Barbie had given. It held Carole silent while they got in the car. Sue gunned the engine, and they were off, but not quite away. They had to use the turning circle at the end of the cul-de-sac, which brought them back past Carole who hadn't moved.
She stood on the verge of the road, her hands interlacing worriedly, her face obviously troubled. Barbie lifted her hand in a last salute, wishing she hadn't taken such quick offence at the tactless invitation. It would make the next meeting with Nick's sister awkward...if there was a next meeting. One thing was certain. She couldn't spin out the Anne Shepherd cover much longer with Nick. If brother and sister were in contact over plans for celebrating their mother's fiftieth...
'I take it Nick hasn't asked you to this big family do?' Sue inquired sardonically.
'No. Not yet.'
'Didn't even mention it in all the hours of talking you had last night?'
The mocking emphasis on talking goaded her into a heated defence. 'Why should he? To all intents and purposes Nick has only just met me. He doesn't know I know his family.'
Sue slanted her a derisive look. 'He's been stringing you along, probably to get what he wants, and I'll bet you spent more time in bed with him man anywhere else.'
'That's my private business!' Barbie grated, her hands clenching at her friend's cynical attitude.
'Then at least get the blinkers off your eyes and see it right,' Sue sliced back at her in exasperation. 'By the end of your night with him, it wasn't Anne Shepherd Nick Armstrong had in his head or anywhere else. He knows who you are. Or suspects strongly enough to put it to the test. What do you think that gig with his sister was about?'