Stephanie puts the tray on the table and serves us like she's a waitress in a cluttered, nerdy teahouse. "Try the square ones. They have dark chocolate in the center."
I'm convinced this is why Mom gently persuaded the production company to pick Stephanie as our talent coordinator. Stephanie and Mom share a mutual love of afternoon tea. They dissect PBS's Masterpiece Theatre on Monday mornings like other people discuss The Bachelor. They are also both graduates of Oxford University, though a good twenty-plus years apart. You want to push either of their buttons? Put a tea bag in a mug of water, nuke it in the microwave, and refer to it as tea.
"Steph, can we see if McGuthrie Farms is willing to move our shooting date to the weekend instead of Monday?" Mom helps herself to one of the heaping pile of chocolate-covered biscuits—"Do not call them cookies"—in the center of the table.
Stephanie raises a quizzical eyebrow. "Are you sure you want to do that, Dakota?"
"Yes," I say.
"Okay then. I'll make it happen." Stephanie taps a quick note on her laptop before placing it on the bookshelf next to some antique-looking fabric samples.
I thought my contented sigh was Mr. Inside Voice, but apparently it wasn't because Stephanie says, "Are you ever going to ask Leo out on a real date?"
"No." I nibble on a biscuit. "At least, not until my contract is up and the cameras are gone."
"Good plan," Mom says. It's one thing for people to make a bingo game out of your unintentionally overused catchphrases, but the Great Homecoming Disaster cut my parents—especially Mom—deeply too. "One last season, then we can all try something new. In fact, I was thinking about going back to Oxford for a visit this summer while Dakota is in Japan on her school trip. Solo."
My face must telegraph my concern because Mom adds, "It's fine. Your dad and Uncle Ted are already talking about some big fishing trip up in Alaska around the same time. It will be a great chance for everybody to disconnect from our previous life and try something new. Maybe grow a little bit. Definitely a chance to refresh and recharge."
"If you need someone to carry your luggage while you're at Oxford." Stephanie raises her hand. "I volunteer as tribute."
"Tell you what, Steph. You decide where you want to go after we wrap the show, and I will make it happen. Airfare, hotel, the whole nine yards. You deserve it after all the network nonsense you've helped us navigate over the years."
"I would love that, Tamlyn. Where to go, though?" Stephanie taps her lips with her index finger.
Mom's phone pings. "Doug is finished. He wants us to come next door and see it."
"He couldn't take a picture and show us?" I shake my head and chug the last of my tea.
"Humor him." Mom puts a few cookies on a decorative napkin. "Here, bring your dad some biscuits."
"Wait. Before you two go." Stephanie quickly tidies the table and rearranges it a bit. She takes a bite out of one of the cookies and places it back on the plate. She opens up the camera app on her work phone and frames the shot.
"Please don't put me in it," I beg. "I've got a huge zit on my forehead."
Stephanie shuffles the tea set around. "Both of you caress the fine bone china teacups. Yep, that looks good. I'll load it up and tag Cadbury and Noritake in thanks. Don't forget, Koty, you need to post today too. Got to keep The Network happy."
"Can you send me a picture and caption? I have a ton of homework tonight."
"It's supposed to be your feed, Dakota. Phil wants authenticity. And 'spark.'" Mom mocks Phil's jazz hands "spark."
Stephanie and I look at each other and let out derisive snorts.