Gigi began to read.


"I wish it was Christmas or New Year's all the time; wouldn't it be fun?"

"Sometimes, but I think it would get tiring after a while," said Emma.

I love snow days.

"Only you Emma," scoffed Cassidy. "The only good snow day is one where we get to miss school."

It's not fair when they happen during winter break, though. A real snow day means you get to miss school.

"See, your book self agrees with me," Cassidy said pointedly. Emma just looked at her friend with a mixture of exasperation and amusement.

The storm started last night right before bedtime, the first flakes drifting down like tiny stars from the dark sky.

"Hawthorne, do you really need a metaphor in every chapter?" Cassidy whined.

"Cassidy that sentence wasn't a metaphor, it was actually a simile because -," replied Emma, but was interrupted by her friend before she could finish.

"Bah! Same difference," said Cassidy, waving her hand in a 'Who cares?" fashion.

It wasn't supposed to be a storm at all – only flurries were predicted. But something must have happened during the night, because when I woke up this morning and looked out my bedroom window our split – rail fence had vanished, and so had the mailbox and the road and all the shrubs in the front yard.

"Blizzard Breakfast!" my dad shouted up the stairs.

"Pity there can't be a blizzard every night. Your pancakes are really delicious," Phoebe said to her husband before she gave him a soft kiss on his cheek.

Dad always makes pancakes on snow days, and afterward Darcy and I always put on our snow gear and go outside. This morning we made snow angels and built a fort under the rhododendrons, just like we used to when we were little. Dad even came out and joined us for a snowball fight. He says a good snowstorm brings out the kid in everyone.

"Can't really argue with that," agreed Stanley, as the rest of the adults nodded their heads.

The only problem is that today is the day of our Little Women Christmas Party. Mom says that since it's still snowing we'll probably have to cancel, because the snowplows can't keep up and the roads are all blocked.

"Maybe the snowplows can't," said Michael, with a sly smile on his face.

I have to admit I'm kind of disappointed. Mom and I baked gingerbread people for everyone and we bought long dresses at the thrift store to wear and everything.

Right now we're camped out in the living room, trying to stay warm. The electricity went off about an hour ago, along with the phones, and Dad built a roaring fire and closed off all the doors to keep the heat in. It's snug and peaceful, like Christmas morning, even though it's afternoon and Christmas is still a week away. Our tree is in the corner, and although the lights aren't working it looks pretty. It smells good, too, the satisfying aroma of evergreen mingling with the scent of wood smoke and wet wool from our mittens and hats sizzling themselves dry on the fireplace screen. My father is stretched out on the sofa reading a book about Thoreau that he's supposed to review, and my mom is wrapped in a quilt on the window seat rereading Persuasion (a Jane Austen novel, of course). Darcy and I are in our pajamas sprawled out on the hearth, playing Monopoly.

My mother's cell phone rings, and we all jump.

"Hello?" she says. "Yes, Clementine. Yes, I agree. There's really no other choice under the circumstances. Such a shame. Do you think we can reschedule for next week? It's such a fun idea, and I'm sure the girls are all really looking forward to it. I know Emma is."

She hangs up, and almost immediately the phone rings again. This time it's Mrs. Wong.

"Yes, Lily, I just got the news too," my mother says. "But we're going to try and reschedule. Clementine's calling the Delaneys right now. Are you staying warm enough out there? Oh, you do? Really? Wow, that's great."

"What's great?" asks my father when she hangs up.

"The Wongs have a generator, so everything's up and running."

"Figures," says my dad, a twinge of envy in his voice. He's been wanting a generator for a while now, but they're expensive, and besides, my mom always tells him, a generator is one of those things you only need once in a blue moon.

"Not to be biased Nick, but I think we all agree with Phoebe," said Shannon, as the rest of the women in the room agreed with her.

"But when the moon is blue, you sure wish you had one," Dad always counters.

"Most ridiculous argument I've ever heard," muttered Phoebe.

"But not to be biased Phoebe, but Nick makes a very good point," said Michael, smirking at his wife. Shannon just glared at him for throwing her words right back at her.

Everything's quiet again for a while, then, just as Darcy puts a hotel on Park Place, the cell phone rings a third time. Heavens, I'm the belle of the ball this afternoon!" says my mother. I can't tell who's on the other end of the line this time. "Uh-huh," she keeps repeating, then, "Nope, I won't breathe a word. Promise."

"Who was that?" I ask, curious.

"You'll see," she says loftily, which is mom-code for "I know something you don't and I'm not going to tell you."

All of the mothers in the room snickered at the thought of a mom – code while all the kids in the room groaned at the idea most likely forming in their heads.

"Come on, Mom," I wheedle.

She shakes her head and leaves the room, smiling to herself. I can hear her in the kitchen, rustling around. Something is definitely up.

"What's going on?" I ask my father.

"Haven't the foggiest," he replies, without looking up from his book. "Like your mother says, you'll see."

Parents can be so annoying sometimes.

"We took lessons on how to be annoying to your child," Clementine said with a straight face.

A few minutes later, just as I'm about to collect double rent from Darcy for landing on Pennsylvania Railroad,

"I was on my way to winning too," grumbled Emma.

my mother pokes her head back in the room. "You all need to get warm clothes on," she announces. "We'll be leaving soon."

"Leaving? For where?" I ask

"The party, of course."

"But I thought it was cancelled."

My mother shakes her head. "Plans have changed – it's back on."

"How are we supposed to get there?" Darcy complains. He flaps his arms. "Fly?"

"It felt like we were flying," sighed Clementine.

Mom smiles that smug smile again. "You'll see."

My father peers at her over the top of his book. "Let me guess," he says. "Jerry Wong rented a snowplow. No, wait – he bought a snowplow."

"Guilty," Jerry snickered.

"Nicholas Hawthorne, behave yourself!" scolds my mother, but her eyes are twinkling so I can tell she's not really angry.

"Phoebe, as my friend I thought you would stick up for me," said Jerry, laying a hand over his heart. "You wound me!" he continued dramatically.

"Jerry earned every cent of his money, and he has the right to spend it any way he wants to. Besides, don't forget all the charities they support. The Wongs are doing a great deal of good in this world."

"Ah, never mind then," Jerry said, straightening up, with his voice going back to normal. Phoebe rolled her eyes and looked heavenward for patience.

Dad gets up off the sofa and kisses her cheek penitently. "You're right, as always," he says. "But for the record, I was just joking."

"As long as you know that I'm always right," Phoebe said smugly.

Mom swats him with a pair of mittens, which she then passes to me. Put your warmest things on, okay? And make it snappy!"

By now I'm practically boiling over with curiosity. What has Mom got up her sleeve? Maybe Dad's right, maybe the Wongs really did buy a snowplow.

"I'll have to sell it soon. I don't have room in the garage," said Jerry, mentally making a note.

And then in the distance, I hear something. A faint sound that is definitely not a snowplow. I run to the front of the window and look out. Lowell Road is still deserted. I hear the sound again. Bells? I frown, puzzled. A minute later my eyes nearly pop out of my head and the puzzle is solved when I spot Led and Zep, the Delaney's big Belgian draft horses, over the tops of the snowdrifts.

"It's a sleigh!" I cry in delight, running to the front door and throwing it open. "The Delaneys brought their sleigh!"

"Are you serious?" says Darcy, rushing to join me.

"I was surprised because I haven't seen the sleigh in years," Darcy said.

"We wanted to bring it out for a special occasion and this seemed like the perfect time," said Jess.

Mom and Dad are right behind him. We all wave, and the Delaneys wave back.

None of us have ever ridden in a sleigh before. We watch, entranced as Mr. Delaney pulls up across the street. The sleigh bells on the horses' harnesses really do jingle, just like in the Christmas carols.

"All aboard!" shouts Mr. Delaney.

We don't need to be asked twice. My brother grabs the duffel bag with our costumes in it and I grab the container with the gingerbread people and we skid down the front steps and the front walk and wade across the road through the snow. Jess and her brothers are in the back of the sleigh, huddled under mounds of blankets and sleeping bags. Jess scoots over and flips back a corner of one of the blankets.

"Can we all fit?" asks my mother.

"It'll be close quarters, but you'll stay warm," Mr. Delaney tells her.

"When we get to the Wongs', maybe you can put Ryan on your lap, Jess, okay? And Darcy, I thought you might like to ride up here with me."

"No fair, Dad! I want to ride with you!" protests Dylan. Or maybe it's Ryan – even after five years I have a hard time telling them apart.

"They would be insulted yet pleased to hear you say that," Shannon chuckled.

"Where are the twins anyway Shannon?" asked Clementine.

"They're with their grandparents in California," replied Michael. "We thought they deserved a trip before they started middle school."

"You and your brother can take turns on the way home," Mr. Delaney promises. He waits until we're all seated, then flaps the reins. Led and Zep heave their way forward through the snow.

Slowly we pick up on speed, and as the horses break into a slow trot and we begin to glide I suddenly feel giddy. I must be smiling because my mother is smiling back at me, and so are Dad and Jess. In fact, we're all smiling. Riding a sleigh is magical. There's just the wind and the snow and the steady muffled clop of the horses' hooves and the hiss of the sleigh's runners and the rhythmic jangling of bells. It's like flying, only better.

"Now, this is the way to travel," says my mother dreamily, snuggling close to my dad. "I fell like a character out of one of Jane Austen's books."

My dad puts his arm around her. "Or Little Women," he adds, winking at me and Jess.

As we whiz along Lowell Road toward Strawberry Hill, I wonder if this is what the olden days felt like. If so, the olden days were a lot more fun than I imagined.

We reach the Wongs' driveway and there's Mr. Wong, sitting atop a small red snowplow. He waves happily at us and toots the horn.

"See?" my father whispers to my mother. "I told you so."

My mother giggles, which is not a sound she usually makes. She sounds – well, like a girl.

"Really Emma," her mother said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I had no idea that I sounded like a girl. I don't know how this could have happened."

"You know she's annoyed when Phoebe reverts to sarcasm," said Nick in a stage – whisper.

My dad is right. Snowstorms do bring out the kid in everyone.

"Perfect timing!" shouts Mr. Wong. "I just finished clearing a path – I'll go and get Lily and Megan!"

A couple of minutes later the Wongs appear and we all shove over to make room for them.

"Hey, Megs," says my brother, who is one of the few people who can call Megan by her kindergarten nickname and get away with it.

"Not anymore," smirked Cassidy.

"Hey," she replies, giving him a quick smile. For a brief second I see a flash of the old Megan, the pre-Fab Four Megan. The Megan I still miss and wish I had back for a friend. Just as quickly, though, the smile disappears, leaving in its place the Megan who isn't interested in being my friend. The Megan who let Becca Chadwick read my journal out loud.

"She's gone now," smiled Megan from her seat between Emma and Becca.

As the sleigh pulls forward again, Megan avoids looking at me and Jess and fiddles with her cell phone instead. I figure she's probably text messaging the Fab Four, telling them what a stupid idea this is,

"No, I was wishing them a Merry Christmas," Megan said.

but for once I don't let it bother me. I pull the blankets up under my chin and watch the snow drift down over the fields and trees and stone walls that give way to houses as we draw closer to town.

"A real blast from the past you have here, Michael!" Mr. Wong calls to Mr. Delaney, who turns around in the driver's seat and smiles at us.

"I thought you'd like it," he replies. "Historically accurate, too. For the party, I mean. This sleigh's over a hundred years old." He waggles his eyebrows at his boys. "Almost as old as I am."

The twins snicker.

As we approach town, people spot us and actually come out their houses to wave and cheer us on. I guess it's not every day you see a sleigh driving through the streets of Concord, Massachusetts.

"Look, dear, there's Calliope Chadwick," says my father, pointing to the doorway of a huge white colonial-style house.

My mother grits her teeth in a smile. "Merry Christmas!" she calls.

Mrs. Chadwick starts to wave, then see that it's us. She scowls and goes back inside, slamming the door.

"Ah, the Christmas spirit," says my father. "Such a beautiful thing."

The grown-ups all laugh.

As did everyone in the room.

"I'll bet this is just what everything looked like when the Alcotts lived here," Jess whispers.

I nod. "Pretty, isn't it?"

Mr. Delaney starts to hum "Jingle Bells," and my mom quickly picks up the tune. Soon, we're all singing – all except for Megan, who's still busy with her cell phone.

Snow drifts down, but more slowly now. The blizzard is finally dying out. We sing all the way down Monument Street, past houses lit by candlelight and past the Colonial Inn and past the festive storefronts of Main Street. We're still singing as we pull up in front of the front of the Sloanes' house. Their front door flies open and Cassidy comes shooting out like a cannonball. Her mother and sister are right behind her.

"No fair!" Cassidy shouts. "I want a ride!"

"Hop in," Mr. Delaney tells her as the rest of us climb out. "I'll take you for a spin around the block."

"Go ahead inside and get warm," says Mrs. Sloane as she steps into the sleigh. "Well, sort of warm. The electricity's still out, but I managed to get a fire going in the living room."

Mr. Delaney passes a bulging backpack down to Darcy. "I brought our old camp stove," he tells Cassidy's mother. "Figured we could make cocoa this way. And there's fresh goat's milk in case you're out of the regular stuff."

"Goat Girl," Megan whispers to Jess, low enough so that the grown – ups can't hear.

"Shut up, Megan," I whisper back. I take Jess's mittened hand and squeeze it.

"Oh, and there are hot dogs and buns, and marshmallows, too," Mr. Delaney adds. "And the apples that Lily wanted."

"Perfect! Thank you, Michael," Mrs. Sloane says, and there's a chorus of "thank – you's" from the rest of the grown – ups. Mr. Delaney flaps the reins. The sleigh glides away.

Inside, the living room had been transformed.

"Wow!" says Jess, looking around in wonder. "It looks just like the movie. Little Women, I mean."

"No kidding," I reply. Everything looks old – fashioned and perfect. The mantel is fringed with boughs of evergreen, and so is the top of the piano and all the end tables. Mrs. Sloane has woven clusters of red holly berries and lengths of plaid ribbon through them, and everywhere I look, there are candles. The room is practically glowing.

"Clementine sure has a knack for decorating," says my mother.

"Thank you Jess, Emma, Phoebe," said Clementine. "It was one of my favorite decorating projects to work on."

My dad and Darcy get right to work on beefing up the fire, and Mr. Wong heads for the back porch with the camp stove. Meanwhile, Jess and I help Mrs. Wong and my mother set out the food. Ryan and Dylan raid the gingerbread cookies the minute our backs are turned, then scamper off with their booty to explore the house. We can hear their footsteps running up and down the stairs, and their shouts of glee when they discover the turret.

By the time Mr. Delaney gets back with the Sloanes, the cocoa is ready.

"Everything looks gorgeous, Clementine," says my mother, handing her a mug of the steaming fragrant drink. "Especially your tree. Are the ornaments antique?"

"They are," Mrs. Sloane replies. "I've collected them for years. David" – she hesitates slightly, then continues – "my husband used to give me one every year. His job took him all over the world, and he was always finding beautiful things."

"He sounds like a wonderful man," says my mother quietly, patting her shoulder.

Mrs. Wong appears carrying a platter of hot dog buns. "Thank goodness they're whole wheat," she says, eyeing them askance. "You don't by any chance have tofu dogs, do you?"

Mrs. Sloane and my mother exchange a glance. "Sorry, we're fresh out," says Mrs. Sloane.

Phoebe and Clementine were snickering in unison while their friend grumbled at them about being ganged up on.

"What do you say we all get into our costumes?" my mother suggests, distracting Mrs. Wong from the menu's failings.

Jess and Megan and I follow Cassidy upstairs with our things. I look around her room curiously. Her bookcases are stuffed not with books but with sports trophies, and the walls are covered with posters of hockey and baseball players.

"This one's signed," she says proudly, pointing to a picture of someone named Wayne Gretzky. "My dad gave it to me for my birthday two years ago."

"Big deal," says Megan. "Who cares about a stupid hockey player."

"Wrong thing to say Megan," smirked Becca.

"Wayne Gretzky isn't a stupid hockey player!" Cassidy cries hotly. "He's called The Great One, and he's the most famous player in the history of the sport!"

Megan shrugs, unimpressed.

"Now it would be different if you had a signed poster of a world – famous fashion designer," Megan said.

"I wouldn't have that kind of a poster on the wall even if you paid me," replied Cassidy, shaking her head.

We change out of our warm things and pull our dresses on. Jess and Cassidy and I help each other with our zippers. Megan manages on her own. Cassidy leaves her sweatpants and sneakers on underneath her long dress, but the rest of us put on tights and fancier shoes.

"May I have your attention, please!" Mrs. Sloane says dramatically as we troop back down to the living room. She looks gorgeous, of course, in a floor-length red-and-green-plaid taffeta dress that makes her look like a life – sized Christmas ornament.

"I mean that in the best way possible Aunt C," Emma said hurriedly, as Clementine raised an eyebrow and turned her glance on Emma.

"How can saying a person looks like a life – sized Christmas ornament be taken in the best way possible?" asked Darcy.

"Shut up Darcy!" replied Emma.

Stewart opened his mouth to say something but his girlfriend turned her eyes on him. "Not helping, Stewart!" she said.

Stewart mock – frowned. "How do you know I wasn't going to say anything bad?" he asked.

"Because I know you," replied Emma, sighing. "Unfortunately."

"Hey," Stewart shouted as the rest of the room laughed at the exchange.

My parents and Megan's parents and Mr. Delaney and Darcy and Courtney and the twins all turn around to see what's going on. "I'd like to present our own little women!"

Our families break into applause as the four of us straggle rather anticlimactically into the living room. Ryan and Dylan run around the room in excitement, hitting each other with sofa pillows.

"Boys!" scolds Mr. Delaney. "Knock it off!"

"Line up in front of the fireplace," Mrs. Sloane tells us, and we slouch together into a stiff group. Her camera flashes and everyone applauds again.

"Now," says my mother, whose long, faded thrift store calico looks like a relic from Little House on the Prairie, "why don't you tell us who you are?"

We look at each other, embarrassed, then stare at our feet.

"Come on," prods Mrs. Wong, Megan, you go first."

Megan shoots her mother a resentful glance. "I'm Amy," she mumbles.

"Ah, the artist," says my mother, nodding sagely. "Of course. Excellent choice. How about you, Jess?"

Jess's voice is so low we can hardly hear her. "I'm Beth," she replies softly.

"The animal lover!" says Mrs. Sloane.

"Goat Girl," whispers Megan.

"And the musician, too," adds my mother. "Very appropriate."

"How about you, Emma?" asks Mrs. Wong. "Who are you?"

"Jo," I tell her. "Because I want to be a writer."

My father beams at me. "Like father, like daughter," he says proudly.

Mrs. Sloane, who is standing next to him, frowns. "I thought you'd choose Meg," she says.

I shake my head. "Nope," I tell her. "I'm Jo."

"But Cassidy is Jo," she protests. "We need a Meg!"

Everyone looks over at Cassidy, who folds her arms defiantly across her chest. "Mom wouldn't let me be Laurie," she says.

"Who's Laurie?" asks my brother. "I thought there were only four sisters."

"Laurie is a boy," my mother replies.

"A boy named Laurie?" my brother sounds incredulous. "How lame is that?"

"Actually he's Theodore Laurence," says my mother. "The March girls call him Laurie for short."

"Except girls back then wouldn't wear this," says Megan, her hand darting out. She hoists up the hem of Cassidy's dress, revealing the sweatpants and sneakers underneath. Everybody laughs. Cassidy twitches her dress away angrily.

"Courtney bet that I would be able to get through the entire night without Mom knowing. But because of a certain someone," said Cassidy, sending Megan a pointed glance, "I lost and had to sit quietly while she did my nails."

"Sorry Cassidy," Megan said, sending a sheepish glance towards her friend.

"Don't be sorry Megs I owe you quite a bit for what you pulled then because there is no way I'll be able to get Cassidy Anne Sloane to let me do her nails again," said Courtney, sending a wink towards to Megan and a glare to her younger sister. "Anytime you want to collect feel free to let me know."

"Well," drawled Megan, as she smirked at the red – haired girl across from her. Cassidy shifted in her seat and narrowed her eyes. What was Wong planning?

Megan turned her head to Courtney. "I always wanted to give our resident tomboy over here a makeover. Any blackmail I could borrow, maybe, possibly use?"

Courtney smirked. "We'll talk after we finish reading the book," she said as Cassidy shifted her glare between her friend and her older sister.

"Be afraid," said Darcy and Stewart in unison. "Be very afraid."

"Actually," says my mother, "that's exactly what Jo would so. She was a tomboy, remember? Just like Louisa."

"So we don't have a Meg?" asks Mrs. Sloane, still looking dismayed.

"Auntie C, I'm hurt! I didn't know that I don't exist in your eyes," Megan said dramatically.

Clementine rolled her eyes and glanced at Lily and raised a questioning eyebrow. Lily shook her head. "As you can see, she gets it from him," Lily said, pointing to her husband, who was looking at her innocently.

"It's okay if we have two Jo's, Clementine," says my mother soothingly. "Really, it's okay."

"How about if I'm half Jo, half Meg?" I volunteer. It is Christmas, after all.

Mrs. Sloane brightens. "Oh, good!" she says, relieved. "Now we can take the other picture."

She arranges us in a pose that looks like the Jessie Wilcox Smith illustration on the cover of our journals. Jess sits on a chair, and I stand behind her between Megan and Cassidy. "Perfect!" says Mrs. Sloane, and her camera flashes again.

"How about you three visions of loveliness?" asks my father. "Who are you supposed to be?"

My mother and Mrs. Wong and Mrs. Sloane all look at each other.

"I, uh-"

"Are you-"

"Well, I-"

They all speak at once, then stop, flustered. My mother turns to my father. "I think we all came dressed as Marmee," she tells him, laughing.

He laughs too. "Naturally!" The perfect mother. Which you all are, of course."

I look them over. Maybe my dad is right, maybe there's a little bit of Marmee in all of them. But I can't help thinking that my own mother is the most Marmee-like. Beside me, Jess shifts uncomfortably. Mr. Delaney pokes busily at the fire. I wonder if they're thinking about Mrs. Delaney. Would she have dressed as Marmee too?

"I'm positive I would have Emma," said Shannon, with a small smile.

"Now, boys," says Mrs. Sloane to my brother and the Delaney twins, "how about you start roasting hot dogs for us?"

While they're busy doing that, we spread an old quilt out in front of the fireplace and get to work making the apple slump. In a flash Mrs. Sloane has us peeling apples, chopping nuts, and mixing ingredients. Courtney brings an old – fashioned kettle from the kitchen, which my dad carefully hangs from an iron hinge on the fireplace. He swings it into position over the fire. Megan and Cassidy add in water, sugar, and cinnamon.

"Pop the apples in when they're ready," Mrs. Sloane instructs the grown – ups. She turns to Jess and me. "How are you coming along with the dough?"

"Almost done," I tell her, as Jess and I sift together the rest of the dry ingredients. "You can add the milk, Jess."

She carefully pours it in, and I stir everything together. "Ready!"

The apple slices are boiling now in the sugar water, and Mrs. Sloane drops spoonfuls of dough on top of them. She puts a cover on the kettle and swings it back over the fire. "Should be ready in half an hour," she tells us.

"Everybody ready for hot dogs?" asks Darcy, placing a heaping platter of them in the middle of the quilt.

"What a feast!" says Mr. Wong, digging in.

"Even if it's not historically accurate," jokes my father.

"Or organic," adds Mrs. Wong regretfully. "Well, except for the apple slump."

Mr. Delaney wipes his hands on his jeans. He clears his throat. "Um, Shannon wanted me to tell you that she wishes she could be here today. Since she wasn't able to, she sent along some presents for everyone."

"That's so sweet of her!" says my mother. She puts her arm around Jess and gives her a squeeze. "You have such a wonderful mother."

Jess's eyes fill with tears. Poor thing. Her mother is staying in New York for the holidays. She sent train tickets for Jess and her brothers, and they'll spend Christmas at Half Moon Farm and then travel down to New York for New Year's. It's not the same, though. Jess was really hoping that her mother would have come home by now.

Shannon winced at the implication. She should have been done "finding herself."

Mr. Delaney reaches into his backpack and distributes some packages. There are books about historical Concord for all the fathers, and bags of penny candy for the older kids and for the twins. "And these are for the members of the Mother – Daughter Book Club," he says, handing us each a flat book with a bookmark stuck inside.

All of those who were there at the party said in semi – unison "Thank you Shannon/Aunt Shannon/Mom!"

"You're welcome everyone," Shannon grinned.

"Little Women paper dolls?" cries Cassidy in disgust. "What am I supposed to do with these?"

"Cassidy!" says her mother sharply. "Manners, please."

Cassidy heaves a dramatic sigh. She turns to Mr. Delaney. "Please tell Mrs. Delaney that the paper dolls are great!" she chirps. "Just what I wanted!"

"I have a hard time believing that one, Cassidy dear," said Gigi.

Mrs. Sloane shakes her head. "Hopeless," she says wearily. "Just hopeless."

"With the amount of times you say that, I'm beginning to think that will end up being my name," Cassidy said to her mother. "You know Hopeless Anne Sloane had a ring to it, don't you think?"

Clementine groaned and held her head in her hands while her husband patted her on the back and did his best to hold in his amusement.

I pull out my bookmark. On it is a quote from Louisa May Alcott: "I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship." Somehow I don't think she's talking about sailing. She's talking about life. I read the quote again. I like it.

Across the quilt from me, Megan is inspecting the paper dolls. "They didn't get these dresses right," she says.

"How do you know that?" her mother asks.

"Oh, some book about fashion history I found at the library. That Mrs. Hawthorne helped me find, I mean."

Mrs. Wong frowns, and my mother looks sheepish.

"I forgot to tell you, but I really enjoyed that book you found for me Aunt Phoebe," said Megan, smiling at Emma's mom.

"You're welcome Megs," she replied.

Megan turns her attention back to the paper dolls. I watch her for a minute, then suddenly I get a flash of inspiration.

"Mrs. Sloane, do you have any colored pencils and paper we could use?" I ask.

"Sure, honey," she replies, pointing to a desk across the room. "Third drawer down."

I retrieve them and put them in front of Megan, who is still scrutinizing the book. "If the dresses in there are wrong," I say hesitantly, "why don't you draw some that are right?"

Megan glances up at me through a wing of dark hair that's partially obscuring her face. I can't read her expression.

"That was the general idea," said Megan.

She looks down again. Her fingers wander over to the pencils almost automatically. Without a word she picks one up, and in a flash her hand is moving swiftly over the paper and she's completely absorbed, just the way she used to be when she was designing clothes for our Barbies.

Hope flutters inside me as I watch her draw. It's the old Megan, the pre-Fab Four Megan. I haven't seen her like this since the last time we played at her old condo. Back in fourth grade, before that awful summer when she decided Becca and Ashley and Jen were cooler than me and we stopped being friends.

Megan finishes and hands me a piece of paper. I look down at the dress that she's sketched.

"Wow," I tell her. "This is amazing."

Megan smiles. A real Megan smile, not a fake wannabe one. I smile back.

"I was remembering when you used to say that when we were younger, making those Barbie outfits," Megan smiled at her friend/

"It's okay if you like that sort of thing," adds Cassidy, craning over my shoulder to see. Her mother gives her a sharp look and mouths a word. "Contact," maybe, or "contract"?

"Yup, it was contract," said Cassidy.

Cassidy sighs. "I mean, yeah, cool. Good job, Megan."

"Thanks, anyways Cassidy," said Megan.

"I love it!" I tell Megan, and I mean it.

"I'm glad you did," Megan grinned.

I grab the scissors and cut it out. The pink gown that she's drawn fits my paper doll perfectly. Over on the sofa, Mrs. Wong watches us, a thoughtful look on her face.

Courtney comes over to take a peek. She whistles. "Mom, you've got to see this!" she says, whisking the paper doll away from me and passing it to her mother.

Mrs. Sloane's eyes widen as she examines the pink dress. "Megan, they're right – the dress is gorgeous," she says. "You have real talent. When you get older, if you're still interested, there are fashion designers I'd love to introduce you to."

Megan smiles again – another real, honest – to – goodness Megan smile. "I could make accessories for them, too," she offers shyly. The flutter of hope inside me is now waving like a flag. Maybe the real Megan is still in there somewhere, like a chick trapped inside its shell, not sure how to peck its way out.

Megan shakes her head. "It wasn't that really. It was more like trying to find a way where I can be half in my shell and half out of it. And by the looks of things, I think I found my perfect balance."

Maybe there's a way we could still be friends.

Emma inwardly groaned at what her mother was about to do that made the whole process take more time than necessary.

And then my mother ruins everything.

"Sorry about that Emma," Phoebe said, sending a sheepish glance to her daughter.

"Say, Megan," she says, "I heard Mrs. Adams talking at the PTA meeting right before school got out, and she's needing help with costumes for the play. I know you're busy learning your part, but maybe you'd be willing to help out in the design department?" She smiles over at Jess. "Our Jess – I mean our Belle – is going to need a spectacular ballgown for the final scene. How about a Wong original?"

At the mention of the play, Megan's smile disappears. She shoots Jess a swift glance, sharp as a needle

"That was quite appropriate," mumbled Gigi, before she continued to read.

and puts her pencil down.

With a sinking heart I realize that I'm not getting my old friend back for Christmas. No way.

"You are. You're just getting her a few months after Christmas," said Becca.

The Christmas truce is over.

"That's the end. Who wants to read next?" asked Gigi, closing the book.

"I will," replied Courtney, taking the book from her.

A/N: Hello everyone. I hope everyone has been having a great summer. I know this probably won't be what you want to hear. But I have good news and I have bad news. Bad news first. I have been sorta kinda grounded from fanfiction until I get really, really good grades at school. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but my book has been taken away from me and I can't get to it. So, until then this story will be put on hold. Hopefully, I'll be able to continue this next month. Keep your fingers crossed, knock on wood and all that.

Now for the good news, which my MDBC fans might not like. I'll be able to continue writing all of my other original stories, one – shots and the like when I get a chance to use the library at school. So I haven't completely stopped working. That's everything, I think. Again, I hope to continue this story soon.

A huge thanks to all of my readers who I owe a ton too. Without you all, I think I would have stopped writing this a long time ago. You all are amazing people and make it all worthwhile!

Love from,