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"This is really great lasagna, Mr. Lake," Carole Hanson raved as she wiped her mouth with her napkin.
"Maybe the best ever," agreed Lisa Atwood.
"This is one of the bonuses when you guys spend the night," Stevie Lake chimed in. "My dad has to dig out this awesome recipe."
Stevie's father glowed with pleasure at the shower of compliments. "Mushrooms," he declared. "The secret is mushrooms!"
"Lasagna's the only good thing about having a bunch of girls sleeping over," grumbled Stevie's youngest brother.
"Michael, don't be rude," Mrs. Lake scolded. "It's always a pleasure having you girls stay with us."
"Mom's got a point," Chad muttered from across the table. "With the two of you to distract Miss Motormouth, the rest of us may actually get a chance to use the telephone."
Stevie glared at her brother. He might have been older, but there was no way she was going to let him get away with that comment. "Here's a quarter, Chad," she said, flicking a coin at him. "Why don't you call someone who might care?" The quarter landed closer to her twin brother Alex's plate. Faster than a rattlesnake, he snatched it off the table.
"Hey!" Stevie protested, holding out her hand for its return.
"Finders keepers!" He grinned at her in triumph.
"That's enough, you three," said Mrs. Lake. "Now, girls, what time is your Horse Wise meeting tomorrow?"
Horse Wise was the name of their Pony Club. They all looked forward to the regular meetings at Pine Hollow Stables.
"Mom," groaned Stevie. "It's been at the same time every Saturday for years."
"I think your mom was just testing you, sweetheart," her father teased.
Chad reached for some more buttery garlic bread. "It's a good thing that test was about horses, otherwise she'd have had zero chance of passing it."
"At least I know something about something," Stevie replied tartly. "Even with all the riding lessons you've taken, I could still write what you know about horses on the head of a pin!"
"Chad is a pinhead, Chad is a pinhead," Michael began to chant.
"Oh, shut up!" said Chad, pinging him with a small bread ball from across the table.
Michael ducked. "You shut up!"
"No, you shut up!"
Michael had an amazing ability to bring older kids down to his own level.
Carole and Lisa watched and listened in stunned silence. Neither one of them could ever recall a scene remotely like this taking place in her own home.
Carole lived with her widowed father, who was a Marine Corps colonel, and although he was a lot of fun and loved to share silly jokes, there was no way he would put up with this kind of behavior at the table.
As for Lisa, she knew the very idea of raising her voice at dinner would upset her mother, who was a stickler for good manners at all times. Even if her older brother had been around more often, she couldn't imagine the two of them behaving like this.
"Chad! We do not throw food at the table," his mother chastised him. "Now, don't you have something to say to your brother?"
Chad lowered his head. "All right. I'm sorry I dinged you with a bread ball."
"And I'm sorry you didn't use something heavier," cracked Alex. Stevie and her twin brother laughed and high-fived each other.
Their father ran a hand through his hair. "Settle down, kids. By the way, someone left the back door open again."
Chad looked up with the face of pure innocence. "That was Stevie--as usual." He returned to scarfing his food.
Stevie ignored the comment and rested her chin on one hand. "What happened today, Chad? Didn't like your packed lunch?"
He stopped eating. "How did you know--Hey! So that was you?" He rose partially to his feet. "I should have known!"
"Chad, sit down!" His mother pointed a finger at him. "Didn't you like your meat loaf sandwich?"
Chad lowered himself back into his chair but his eyes never left his sister. "I didn't get a meat loaf sandwich, Mom. Did I, Stevie?"
Lisa could tell from Stevie's face that her friend had just been caught in her own net. Stevie was known for her practical jokes, which were as irresistible to her as catnip is to a cat, and she and Chad were particularly ruthless with one another.
Mrs. Lake's gaze shifted to her daughter. "All right, Stevie, what did Chad get for lunch?"
"Stevie?" her father said with authority.
Stevie looked sheepish. "Sardines on rye bread."
"Come on, keep it coming," prodded Chad.
"Okay, okay." She broke. "Sardines on rye with sauerkraut, pickles, and ketchup."
"Ew!" squealed Michael.
"But I did leave him a nice cream soda to wash it down with," Stevie added in her own defense.
"Oh man, Dad!" cried Chad. "I took a big bite of it and almost puked!"
"Well, it serves you right, you creepoid!" Stevie turned to her two friends. "Last week he poured water into Madonna's kitty litter box and the clay stuck to her paws. She practically had cement boots when that stuff hardened!"
Alex began to snicker. "Man, that was a good one."
"Yeah, a good one," mimicked Michael.
"You two just shut up," Stevie practically yelled at them. "Remember, you're not immune, either."
Alex bristled. "Oh yeah? You just try something and see what comes your way!"
"Yeah, we're not scared of you!"
With that, pandemonium broke out at the table, with all the kids yelling at once.
Mr. Lake slammed his hand down on the table hard enough to make the glasses and silverware jump. "Enough!" he shouted. "That is enough!"
"Absolutely," their mother added, rising to her feet and throwing down her napkin. "You've reduced this house to complete chaos with your bickering. Your father and I want some peace and quiet for a change! Is that too much to ask?"
"Well, is it?" she demanded, eyeballing her children. Stevie, Chad, Alex, and Michael all hung their heads in shame. "No, Mom," they mumbled together.
Mr. Lake turned to Lisa and Carole. "I'm sorry you girls had to see this. I'd like to think tonight's behavior is the exception, not the rule, for this house." He shifted his angry gaze to the Lake children. "Under the circumstances, I think everybody should just be excused."
Stevie was totally embarrassed. She had rarely seen her father so angry, and he'd certainly never lost his temper in front of company before. "Mom, Dad, I'm sorry," she said.