“You cut your hair.”
Jon White Feather pocketed the keys to his Land Cruiser and followed the sound of his niece’s voice. She was sprawled on a concrete bench in an alcove between the driveway and the flower garden. He kissed the top of her head. “Raven, Raven, you been misbehavin’?”
“That is so lame, Uncle Jon. I’m not four anymore.”
“True.” He sat beside her. The last time he’d hung out with his niece, he realized she’d morphed into the too-cool-for-anything teen. As the fourth kid in a family of eight, she sometimes faded into the background.
It didn’t help that Raven had entered that awkward stage, sporting acne, wearing braces on her teeth, glasses on her face and carrying baby fat. In the last year the normally outgoing kid had retreated into the world of books and video games. His brother and sister-in-law were concerned. Jon remembered Raven’s older sisters had both gone through this gawky phase and now were pretty, confident young women. But Raven believed this was her final transformation and she’d always be the ugly duckling in a family of swans. And that broke his heart.
“So why did you cut your hair?” Raven persisted.
He shrugged. “I needed a change. Got tired of the braid. Needed something hipper.” He exaggerated, tossing his mane like a supermodel. “So? Whatcha think? Is it rad?”
“No one says rad anymore, dork face.” Raven brushed his hair back and inspected the ends that touched now his shoulders. “Actually, it looks good. Makes you look younger. Cooler.”
Jon cocked an eyebrow at her. “Okay. What do you want? ‘Cause you never give your old Uncle Jon compliments.”
When she didn’t answer, he patted her leg. “I was kidding.” She finally raised her head and her soft brown eyes held such guilt Jon’s heart sank. “Hey, little bird. What’s really goin’ on?”
“Don’t get mad, but you’re right. I do want something from you. But I didn’t say that stuff about your hair to butter you up, because you really do look more like a rock star than you did with that old-man braid.”
He didn’t point out that her father wore a braid. Then again, his brother Jim was old. That made him smile. “What do you need? If it’s money, I’ll have to ask your folks first—”
“It’s not money. It’s…” Her finger swirled around the hole in her sweatpants. “I signed up for a dance class at the community center.”
“Raven, that’s great!” Her parents would be thrilled their daughter had taken an interest in something besides video games.
“But it’s a couples’ dance class.”
“You want me there when you tell your parents about the boyfriend you’re taking a dance class with?”
Raven rolled her eyes. “Do I look like the type of girl who’d have a boyfriend?”
“Not with that scowl.” Jon kissed her nose. “Tell me how I can help you.”
“I need you to take the class with me,” she said in a rush.
He went still. Not what he’d been expecting. At all.
Before he could say no, she rattled off, “It’s a three-week class, two hours a night, four nights a week. It’s the really cool kind of dancing you see couples on TV doing, in those fancy dresses, all classy and romantic. I want to do it so bad, more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my entire life. I signed up before the class filled up, hoping I’d find someone to go with me before it started. And I haven’t. I didn’t tell anyone in my family because I thought they’d laugh at me.” Her eyes were glossy with unshed tears. “You never laugh at me, Uncle Jon. You always tell me I can do anything I put my mind to. So please. I need you to be my partner.”
Like he could deny her now. “Fine. Twist my arm. Make me say uncle.”
Raven sighed. “You’re such a dork.”
“That’s dancing dork to you, little bird. But I gotta warn you, kiddo. I am a shitty dancer. Like a scarily shitty dancer.” When Raven opened her mouth to protest, he held up his hand. “I promise you, it’s true. So I’ll be your partner as long as you know it’s at your own risk of broken toes.”
“Same goes. Although I have been practicing some moves.”
Jon watched as she popped off the bench and did some gyrating thing with her hips that he’d seen in strip clubs. Did all girls aspire to dance like that these days?
She held out her hands. “Come on. Let’s go tell Mom and Dad.”
“When does the class start?”
“Ah. Tonight. In an hour.”
“I would’ve asked you sooner, but you haven’t come over. And we’re not allowed to call you in case you’re recording.” She folded her arms over her chest, giving him an imperious look. “How long have you been home from your last tour?”
Two weeks. Two blissful weeks where he hadn’t seen anyone. No one asking him questions. He’d slept in his own bed. Cooked in his own kitchen. Messed around in his studio until the wee hours. He’d needed to decompress after living on a tour bus for the last three months. So yeah, he’d avoided his brother and his large brood. Not because he didn’t adore them, but he hadn’t been the laidback, fun uncle they expected. He’d been a grumpy dick, so he’d stayed away for their own good.
“I know you’re trying to come up with a plausible lie,” Raven said with a sniff.
Jon grinned at his precocious niece. “I haven’t been in hiding as long as you’ve been hiding your secret dance lessons from your parents.”
Raven grinned back. “Busted. Now we hafta keep each other’s secrets.”
He draped his arm over her shoulder and they walked toward the house. “Please tell me I don’t have to wear a damn leotard to this class.”
She giggled. “A leopard-printed leotard. Like Tarzan. But you won’t be able to pull it off with your short hair now. Maybe you can borrow a long-haired wig.”