"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 now touched 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."
"Smart aleck. Seriously, what's the dress code?"
"The sheet said comfortable and casual. What you're wearing is fine. I'm gonna change."
Part of him wanted her to ditch the baggy clothes; part of him was glad for them because if she followed in her sisters' footsteps for the next teenage girl phase? She'd be wearing cleavage-baring shirts.
Once they were inside the house, a little person shouted, "Uncle Jon!"
Kids raced out of every corner, jumping like eager puppies. Six-year-old twins Jace and Hannah, ten-year-old Stephie and twelve-year-old Garth all talked a mile a minute.
The house was chaos central and the oldest three kids weren't home. "Where are Micah, Bebe and Cecily?"
"Micah is supervising at the youth forestry camp all summer. Cecily is lifeguarding at the community center pool." Garth peeled Jace off his back. "You'd know all this family stuff, Uncle Jon, if you ever called any of us."
"Ouch. You know that making me feel guilty ain't the way to change that, right?"
Garth snorted and threw a squealing Jace on the loveseat.
"What about Bebe? Doesn't she have her driver's license? I thought the two of you would be ripping it up, looking for trouble," he said to Raven.
"Bebe's working at Dairy Queen part-time and she's got a full-time boyfriend, so I never see her. Been a boring summer since I've been stuck babysitting."
"You babysitting for anyone besides the White Feather brat pack?"
"No." Raven stood off to the side, arms crossed, watching her siblings with the look of a put-upon older sister. "Dealing with them is enough."
"I smell food," Jon said.
When they reached the kitchen, Jon's sister-in-law, Cindy, exclaimed, "Jon White Feather. You chopped off all your hair!" She hugged him before she removed her oven mitts. "It looks great. Maybe you can convince your brother to do the same."
"I heard that." Jim rose from the table and hugged Jon. "Happy to see you, little bro." He held him at arm's length and studied him. "The hair does look good. But I ain't cutting off my war braids." He gave Jon a sly grin. "We've already got one good-lookin' rock star in the family. I'd hate to get a cool new hairdo and steal your thunder, eh?"
Jon laughed. "I missed you, old man."
"How long you back for?"
"Awhile. I'm burned out and need a serious break."
Jim's eyes went comically wide. "Wow. Never heard you say that before."
He shrugged. "Guess I'm finally ready to make some changes."
"I, for one, am happy about that. So can you stay for supper?" Cindy asked.
"That'd be great. But first Raven and I have something we want to talk about with both of you."
Jim and Cindy exchanged a look. "That sounds ominous."
"It is. Because I don't know any other way to break it to you."
Jon hung his head. "Raven and I have been infected with boogie fever. And the only cure is to put on our dancin' shoes and head on down to funky town."