ONE

"Wow! Is that who I think it is?" 

Sarah Jenkins looked up from the reunion registration table and followed Melissa’s gaze to the gorgeous woman exiting the elevator.

She watched as Ashley Trent glided across the polished tile floor. Her black halter-style dress outlined her trim figure, while her blond hair fell in soft waves across her exposed shoulders. Sarah scrutinized every detail of Ashley’s appearance, looking for the slightest hint she’d been unable to defy the aging process. But as always, Ashley Trent looked as perfect now as she did back in high school twenty-five years ago. Her winning smile and golden tan looked natural, unlike some of the other women who showed up with Botox enhanced lips and sprayed on glows.

Sarah subconsciously pushed her vibrant red hair behind her shoulders and adjusted her I.D. tag identifying her as student body president class of ‘93. She and Melissa—the class vice-president—had the best seats in the house to critique the members of their graduating class, at least those brave enough to attend the reunion. They enjoyed dissecting everyone who stepped off the elevator, pointing out receding hairlines, facelifts, bad hair plugs, and expanding waistlines. The class of ‘93 was a walking billboard advertising the lengths people went to in order to stop the hands of time.

But then there was Ashley Trent, looking just like she did twenty-five years ago.

“She seems to have held together nicely,” Melissa whispered as she and Sarah continued to watch Ashley walk the length of the banquet hall.

“Please,” Sarah snapped, “who does she think she’s kidding? I can spot a bottle blond a mile away. And where did she buy that dress? The junior prom section? I hate a woman who refuses to dress her age.”

“Well, I think she looks great. If I had toned arms like hers and a figure to match, I certainly wouldn’t hide it under long sleeves and camouflaging geometrics.”

“Come on, Melissa, she’s probably wearing Spanks from her armpits to her ankles.”

“Even if she is, you have to admit she looks pretty amazing.”

Sarah gave Melissa a darting look, then turned back to watch as Ashley approached the registration table.

 

~®~

 

Ashley tried to exude confidence while her insides twisted with uncertainty. She immediately recognized the two women staring at her from the registration table, and almost lost her nerve.

Sarah Cummings had been class president and one of the most popular girls in school. Of course, that was because she spent more time with the football team than they spent with their coaches. She and Ashley had never gotten along, mainly because Sarah was mean, vindictive, and always had to be the center of attention. Melissa Turner—the class vice-president and Sarah’s loyal minion—wasn’t much better. The quintessential airhead, Melissa did Sarah’s bidding to stay on her good side and keep her “top girls to date” status.

Ashley slowed her steps as she focused in on Sarah, feeling a twinge of satisfaction to see that time had not been overly kind to her. Gravity had attacked the voluptuous figure she showcased in high school, and her wrinkle-free face was stretched so tight she had no choice but to smile.

“Ashley Trent,” Ashley stated as she stood before the table.

“Well of course you are,” Sarah said in a sugary sweet tone as she extended Ashley’s name tag, complete with her senior year cheerleader picture on it. “I would recognize you anywhere. But . . . correct me if I’m wrong, I believe this is the first time you’ve attended a reunion. I don’t remember seeing you at any of the others, and I most definitely would have remembered.”

Ashley smiled, ignoring the coldness in her tone. “Sarah Cummings, right? How nice to see you again.”

“Well, it’s Sarah Jenkins now,” she corrected Ashley with a raised brow.

“That’s right. You married Jimmy Jenkins after graduation.” Ashley remembered Jimmy all too well. He pursued her relentlessly their entire junior year. He was good-looking and the first-string quarterback, but his party antics and persistent flirting were major personality flaws.

“Well, it was nice seeing you again.” Ashley turned, but before she could make her exit, Jimmy Jenkins plopped down in the chair next to his wife, a drink in his hand.

“Come on, Sarah, when is this shindig going to get—” When Jimmy looked up and saw Ashley, he stopped mid-sentence. After taking an indulgent look, he smiled. “Wow! I can’t believe it. If it isn’t Ashley Trent, the hottest girl in school.”

Jimmy’s obnoxious comment earned him a stabbing elbow from his red-faced wife.

“Ouch!” He turned to her and glared. “You can retract your claws, Sarah. I gave up that hunt years ago.” He looked at Ashley with a lecherous grin. “You might have taken me off the market, but nothing says I can’t enjoy the scenery.”

Ashley watched Jimmy’s drink slosh over the rim of his glass as his eyes traveled from her face to her breasts, then down the length of her dress. From the expression on Sarah’s face, her husband’s leering did not go unnoticed. Twenty-five years after high school and he hadn’t changed a bit. Jimmy was still drinking and flirting. Marriage hadn’t changed him in the least.

Ashley couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for Sarah.

“Jimmy, why don’t you make sure dinner is on schedule.” Sarah said in a sharp, bitter tone.

“Oh, back off, Sarah, you know my bark is worse than my bite.” Jimmy stood, a smirk on his lips. “See you around, Ashley. Maybe you can save a dance for me. You know . . . for old-times’ sake.” Jimmy walked away leaving an awkward silence in his wake.

Sarah cleared her throat as she shuffled papers in front of her. “Dinner starts in forty-five minutes. The number on your badge coincides with the table you will be dining at. Hope you enjoy your evening.”

Ashley knew Sarah’s good wishes were only out of courtesy and to save face in front of Melissa. She read Sarah’s body language loud and clear. It said, ‘back off.’ A warning Ashley didn’t need. She had no intention of spending time with Jimmy Jenkins. Not even one dance.

Walking into the crowded ballroom, Ashley immediately felt overwhelmed by the names and faces from her past. Her heart raced as panic set in.

What am I doing here?

This was a stupid idea!

She took a step back, feeling the need to slip out as easily as she had slipped in. But then she heard her name. She turned to the left and saw Julie Moore—one of her cheer teammates—frantically waving her arms in an effort to get her attention. Standing next to Julie was Christy Clark and Heather Jones. Her three closest friends in school.

Pasting a smile on her face, Ashley made her way across the room. After the squealing died down, and they all exchanged hugs, Ashley’s friends introduced her to their significant others. Then, the assault of questions she had braced herself for began. Ashley avoided pointed questions and responded to others with vague, ambiguous answers. Ashley could tell Christy and Heather had already made quite a few trips to the bar, so it wasn’t difficult to dodge their questions. Besides, she peppered them with plenty of questions of her own. When the band started playing the classic ‘90s tune “Jump”, by Kriss Kross, Christy and Heather dragged their dates onto the dance floor, leaving only Julie for Ashley to contend with.

Julie leaned in close to Ashley with a mischievous smile on her face. “So, what do you think of Christy’s date?”

“He seems nice,” Ashley replied, not sure where Julie was going with her question.

“He’s a hired escort. I bet he’s not even thirty.”

“What happened to Joe Marsh? I thought they were going to get married.”

Julie laughed. “They did. Right after graduation but divorced less than a year later. Christy moved to New York to work on her acting career and became an informercial spokesperson. She’s rolling in the dough and living the good life. She swore off marriage and instead dates guys looking to break into the business. They use her for her contacts, and she uses them for . . . well, you know.” Julie turned to Ashley. “Hey . . . didn’t you move to New York after high school?”

“Yeah, I was there for a brief time, but believe me, it wasn’t as good to me as it was to Christy.” Ashley laughed, trying to keep the mood light. When she saw another question forming on Julie’s lips, she quickly cut her off. “How about Heather? She and her husband look happy.”

“Oh, they are. It’s true what they say, third times a charm.” Julie chuckled.

“You mean—”

“Yep. Marriage number three and counting. But this one might actually last. Darren is good for Heather. He’s willing to keep her in the lap of luxury and put up with her five kids. She’d be stupid to walk away from him.”

Ashley didn’t miss the cynicism in her friend’s voice and assumed there was a reason behind it. “What about you, Julie? Are you married?”

Her friend shrugged and tossed her mousy brown hair over her shoulder. “I gave marriage a shot. Had two kids, a dog, a house in the ‘burbs. It was good while it lasted. Then Tom told he didn’t want to be married anymore. But what he really meant was, he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. The week our divorce was final, he ran off to Bermuda and married his secretary.”

“I’m sorry, Julie. That had to be rough.”

Again, Julie shrugged as if it was no big deal. “It wasn’t so bad. California law gave me half of everything. I took him to the cleaners and collected a tidy sum in child support. He got what he deserved, and I got everything else.” She smiled and took a swig of her drink, but Ashley could tell her bitter tone was a coverup for the hurt she must’ve felt.

When the song ended, Ashley watched as Christy and Heather made their way back toward her and Julie.

“Look, I need to make a call,” Ashley said quickly. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“You better be. You still haven’t told me why you went to New York.”

“No problem, I’ll catch up with the three of you when I get back.”

Ashley hurried to the open doors on the far end of the ballroom. She walked across the expansive patio, clung to the wrought-iron rail, then let out the breath she was holding. A light breeze blew across her face, taking strands of her hair with it. Pushing them behind her ears, she looked out over the balcony. The view was spectacular, but it was lost on her.

What am I doing here? She lectured herself once again. What did I think it would accomplish? Ashley realized too late she’d made a monumental mistake. When she saw the Internet pop-up listing upcoming high school reunions, she thought it was a sign. No, you were grasping at straws.

She paced the length of the patio, milking her hands, knowing she would have to walk back through the ballroom in order to leave.

Hey . . . didn’t you move to New York after high school? Julie’s question taunted Ashley, stirring up memories she had suppressed long ago.

No! I’m not the same person I was back then. I’m stronger. Better. I survived, and I don’t need to explain myself to these people.

She stopped her pacing and took a deep breath, once again holding onto the patio railing for support. Starring at the shimmering lights of the city, she gathered the strength she would need to walk back through the ballroom and leave the past behind.

She turned to leave but couldn’t move.

There, in the doorway, stood Austin Taylor.


 

 

 

 

 

 

TWO

 

“Hello, Austin,” Ashley whispered, even though the emotion welling inside her made it difficult to speak.

“I can’t believe you’re here!” Austin rushed to her side and pulled her into an embrace.

Ashley breathed in his signature cologne—familiar after all these years—then took a step back.

Austin quickly let her go. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s just . . .” he shook his head, “I looked everywhere for you when I got back to the states, but you just disappeared—vanished into thin air. What happened, Ashley? The last thing you told me was that you were going to New York on a business trip with your dad. The next thing I know, your house is up for sale, and no one knows where you are. What happened?”

“It’s complicated.” Ashley fiddled with the silver clasp on her evening bag, avoiding eye contact, not wanting to see the unanswered questions in his eyes.

“Well, maybe we could sit down and un-complicate things.”

When Ashley dared to look into Austin’s piercing hazel eyes, she was completely mesmerized. He hasn’t changed at all. He still had the slight scruff on his neck she used to stroke, and his broad shoulders and sturdy chest exuded confidence. He radiated charisma the minute he walked into a room. Just as she remembered.

“What is it, Ashley?” He stepped forward, reaching for her hand. “Have I changed that much?”

His touch was like an electric shock, causing Ashley to drop her handbag. When Austin bent to retrieve it, it gave her a few seconds to compose herself.

I thought this was what I wanted. A chance to explain. But I can’t. It’s in the past. Where it should stay.

“Austin, I—”

“There you are.” A beautiful blond glided across the patio to Austin’s side and hooked her arm through his.

Ashley was speechless, the air surrounding them swallowed by an unseen vacuum.

“They’re getting ready to serve dinner,” the young woman said, casting a look in Ashley’s direction.

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” Austin patted her hand where it rested on his forearm before she walked away.

He turned back to Ashley, but she averted her eyes. “I’d better find my seat. I’m sure we can talk more later.” She quickly walked away, masking her disappointment with a smile.

How foolish she was to think Austin would have gone twenty-five years without finding himself the perfect wife. Perfect definitely described the blue-eyed blond who had attached herself to him like a string to a kite. My gosh, Austin, she looks half your age. I never would’ve thought . . . she shook her head. It didn’t matter. She had no right to judge him.

Not stopping at the table that coincided with the number on her badge, Ashley kept walking . . . through the ballroom . . . into the elevator . . . and out into the parking lot.

Disorientated when she reached the sea of cars, Ashley pressed the button on her key fob and hurried down the aisle where the headlights flickered. When she reached for the door handle of the over-sized truck, a hand grasped her shoulder from behind. Startled, Ashley spun around to see Austin standing behind her.

“Ashley,” Austin gasped, trying to catch his breath, “where are you going? I thought we were going to talk.”

Unable to make eye contact, Ashley fidgeted with the keys in her hands. “Austin, I was wrong to come tonight. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s obvious you have someone special in your life, and I have a very special man in mine. The past is the past, and I think it would be best to leave it there.”

When Ashley chanced a glance at Austin, she saw hurt and betrayal in his eyes. But it didn’t matter; she needed to leave. “I’m sorry, Austin.”

She got into her extended cab truck, started the engine and roared out of the parking place. Ashley willed herself not to glance in the rear-view mirror. She didn’t want the look of disappointment on Austin’s face to be the last memory she would carry of him in her mind and heart forever.

Driving home, tears streaming down her face, memories of Austin played like a cinematic scrapbook in Ashley’s mind. Her senior year had been magical because of him. Austin had made her feel special. Loved. He’d been her knight in shining armor, her chance at a happily ever after. But she had never told him about the ugliness in her life—the emotional and psychological abuse caused by her father. She had promised herself time and time again that she would tell Austin, explain to him the things she’d done, how she’d compromised herself for the sake of gaining her father’s love. But she never did. It was too hard. And though Ashley knew Austin loved her, she was afraid the spell would be broken once he found out the things she had done. Unfortunately, her happily ever after came crashing down around her one night in New York City.

That night changed her life forever.

Her fairytale ending was not to be.

Ashley sobbed as she drove home, the road ahead of her a blur of cars and lights. “I only wanted to protect you, Austin. I couldn’t stand to see you get hurt. That’s why I left,” she sobbed out loud. “Just like I am now.”

What was I thinking going tonight? I can’t go back. It will never be the same. She brushed the tears from her eyes, but it was no use. They continued to fall. “I never wanted to hurt you, Austin. I loved you. I’ve always loved you.”