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Anchor of Hope

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Anchor of Hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kiah Stephens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Kiah Stephens 2015

 

All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

Printed in the United States of America.

First printed in 2015.

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p<>{color:#000;}. This is a work of fiction. All characters and other entities appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons or other real-life entities is purely coincidental.

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p<>{color:#000;}. For more information, or to join our mailing list, please visitwww.authorstephens.blog.com

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Acknowledgements

 

 

First and foremost I would like to thank God for giving me an abundance of grace, mercy, love, and hope.

Secondly, my husband and children – for always encouraging me and supporting me every step of the way.

I’d also like to thank my editor, Iola Goulton, for her countless hours correcting my work and gently encouraging and guiding me to refine my manuscript.

Next, my beta readers – Angela, Faith, Gemmah, John, Julie, Marie, Megan, Nancy, Rachel, Samantha and Trish. Without your feedback, suggestions, constructive criticism, and encouragement this book would not be what it is now, so thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Thank you to Abigail, for my cover art. You are one talented girl.

And last, but certainly not least, you – the reader. Thank you for taking a chance and reading my book. I hope that it entertains you, makes you smile, and brings you joy.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

We have this hope as anchor for our soul, firm and secure.”

Hebrews 6:19 (NIV)

 

 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, they are plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Jeremiah 29:11 (TLB)

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

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Chapter 1

 

Ashley Harper shuffled backwards in the elevator, bumping into the man standing behind her, trying to create more space for Madeleine, the heavily pregnant fashion and lifestyle reporter.

“Sorry, got room for one more sardine?” Madeleine squeezed in, holding her purse flat against her chest above her bulging belly to try to create more room—as if that was possible. It did feel like they were all squished into a sardine tin. Ashley tried not to notice the inevitable bouquet of body odor from many people confined in a small space in the middle of summer. She drew her shoulders inwards, her left arm pressed hard against her friend, Tania’s.

Ashley was a design layout editor at The Brooklyn Times, but she had always envied Madeleine’s role—fashion reporting seemed much more glamorous and entertaining.

“Why didn’t you take the stairs, Madeleine?” the guy standing beside Madeleine teased.

She let out a small laugh. “If I took the stairs, I’d still be waddling down by the time you all got back here on Monday.”

“You must be feeling the heat?” he asked, somewhat sympathetically.

“Oh, yeah.” Madeleine nodded.

July in Brooklyn was hot. The air conditioning in the building effectively concealed the heat wave they had been experiencing the past few weeks.

Tania flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder and leaned even closer to Ashley. “You coming out for some drinks tonight? I think a few of the crew from the sports department are coming.”

Ashley shook her head. “Not tonight. I have an early flight tomorrow, so I need to finish getting organized. And tonight is the only time I’ll get to spend with Steven.”

“Oh, that’s right; I completely forgot. A whole week off of work with no Dianne breathing down your neck, saying, ‘I need it done, and I need it done yesterday!’ Where are you going again? Idaho or something?” Tania fished around in her bag for something, obviously not minding that she was poking and prodding the man standing in front of her as she did so.

“Oregon. Sweet Home, Oregon.”

“I still can’t believe there is actually a place called ‘Sweet Home.’ Hilarious.”

“Home, sweet home.” Ashley’s lips curled into a faint smile and she raised her eyebrows, remembering how her dad would always say that to people visiting the area.

“Do they have roads there?” Tania applied some hot pink lip gloss.

Ashley glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. Was Tania joking?

“I mean, I know they have roads, but are they just, like, dirt roads? I’m picturing tumbleweeds blowing across dirt roads and a whole heap of country folk.” She pronounced ‘country folk’ with an exaggerated accent, and waved her hands in front of her as if creating an imaginary scene. Ashley laughed.

Ding! Ground floor.

The doors opened, and they finally escaped the overcrowded elevator and headed towards the building exit.

“Yeah, it has paved roads, buildings, schools; the usual small-town stuff, I guess. They have an annual country music fair that’s pretty big. Lots of farming, which my brother adores. He’s into all that organic, non-GMO, nature stuff. It’s all so . . . I don’t know . . . slow, unprogressive—”

“Dull?”

Ashley nodded.

“Your mom couldn’t have gone somewhere exciting for the wedding? The Bahamas didn’t sound appealing to her?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Ashley laughed. “Not my mom’s style.”

The thought of returning to Sweet Home made Ashley’s stomach churn and her head spin, but she had missed her family. She had said good riddance to Sweet Home eight years ago, and if it were up to her, she’d never return.

They stepped outside of the building and were immediately blasted with the stifling afternoon air. It felt like opening a hot oven door.

“All right, hon, I’m headed this way.” Tania smiled and pointed to the left, tossing her purse over her shoulder and flicking her hair again. “Have fun, stay safe and look out for banjo players—I’ve seen Deliverance. Oh, and if you come home with the name ‘Billy Bob’ tattooed across your back, I’m disowning you as a friend!”

Ashley laughed and shook her head. They hugged briefly then went their separate ways.

Ashley’s apartment in Prospect Heights was two miles from her office in Brooklyn. She had managed to pick up pace over the past few years and could now walk the route in under twenty minutes.

At 5:30 the evening air was warm and welcoming in the buzzing city. Commuters crowded the streets and walkways, hurrying home or out for Friday afternoon drinks with their colleagues, which, more often than not, lead to late-night drinks.

Ashley adored these sounds and smells—street vendors selling a myriad of different foods, people laughing and chatting with relief that the busy work week was over, and the general hustle and bustle of a city full of vibrancy, full of life.

The usual weekend invasion of tourists were easy to spot with their ‘I LOVE New York’ merchandise, and the fact that they stopped to take photos of random things every few seconds. Ashley smiled to herself as she watched a middle-aged man try to get his wife and embarrassed teenage daughter to smile for what Ashley could only imagine was their hundredth photo of the day.

As she was turning the corner her phone rang. Jane.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, Sweetheart. How are you? All packed and ready for your flight?”

“Yeah, I have my bags ready to go. Heading home now, going to have a quiet night. Steven said he’s going to call sometime after work tonight, whatever time that will be.”

“Tell him I said to take a break every now and then, otherwise he’s going to burn out. It’s a shame he won’t be able to make the wedding next weekend.”

Ashley smiled at the thought. Steven? Take a break? Never!

“I know. He’s disappointed he won’t be there. Oh, that reminds me, did you get his gift? It should have arrived by now.”

“We did. It’s lovely! I left a thank you message with his receptionist this afternoon. A 1979 champagne—it’s older your brother! Piper-Heidsieck. Am I saying that right?” Jane chuckled. “Won’t it have turned into vinegar by now?”

“No, Mom. But if it has, it will be the world’s most expensive vinegar.”

Ashley turned another corner and walked through the entrance to the block of apartments where she lived. Hers was only a small building, ten apartments in total. She shared her two-bedroom apartment with Hallie, whom she’d met through a newspaper advertisement for a roommate when she had first moved to Brooklyn.

Ashley began walking up the steps, still talking to her mom. “Are you sure you don’t want me to bring an outfit for the wedding? I have a ton of dresses sitting in my wardrobe. Is there anything you want me to pick up for you before I leave in the morning?”

“No. No, thanks, darling. Gran and I have your dress ready. We need to get you here for the measurements, so Gina can alter the gown for you.”

Ashley had previously offered to get her measurements taken in Brooklyn and sent to Jane, but her mother had insisted Gina would do it. “I don’t trust anyone else,” she’d said. “Gina is the best of the best. We’ll see her first thing Monday morning.” It frustrated Ashley. She hated surprises, especially when it came to fashion. She had a specific taste, and with designer clothing lines at her doorstep, the thought of having to wear a dress from the outdated country town of Sweet Home seemed absurd. But it was her mother’s wedding, and if she wanted Ashley to wear a specific outfit, then so be it. She could deal with it for one day.

“Don’t forget Bryan will pick you up from the airport,” Jane said, “11:15 isn’t it? And it’s a.m.? Make sure you double-check.”

Ashley laughed. “It’s a.m., Mom.”

“Are you sure? Because I thought it was meant to be a six-hour flight, and that doesn’t seem to make sense to me. If you leave at eight a.m., you shouldn’t be arriving until much later.”

“Mom, it’s the difference in time zones,” Ashley rolled her eyes, aware her mother couldn’t see her. “Just trust me. I’ll be arriving in Portland at 11:15 a.m.”

“I don’t get it, but anyway, you should also take your own snacks on the plane too. Their food is ridiculously overpriced and bad quality.”

“OK, Mom. I’ve got everything under control. Don’t worry. I better go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“OK, Honey. See you then. Love you.”

“You too,” Ashley replied, then hung up and continued along the corridor towards her apartment.

She got her door key out and as she slid the key into the lock, the door opened.

Hallie stood on the other side.

Ashley gasped and raised her hand to her chest. “You scared me half to death!”

Hallie laughed. “I’m sorry. About to head out for work. I was afraid I’d miss saying good-bye before you left tomorrow morning. What time are you heading off?”

“My flight leaves after eight, so pretty early.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be up before midday tomorrow. I hate working Friday night shifts during summer. It’s totally crazy.” She pressed her lips together.

Hallie worked in a sports bar in Manhattan on the weekends. During the week, she was a sales assistant in an upbeat fashion store.

“Umm, so I guess I’ll see you next week? I hope you have a great time.” Hallie gave Ashley a tight hug and kissed her on the cheek, then took off.

Ashley moved inside and dumped her bag and keys on the entry table. She pulled out her hair tie, kicked off her heels, and walked over to the kitchen counter to check if there was any mail for her.

Nothing.

Her phone rang. Steven.

“Hi,” she said, pleased to hear from him so early.

“Hi, are you home yet?” he asked.

“Just walked through the door. Are you still planning on coming over tonight? You want me to pick up something for dinner?” Ashley opened the fridge door, pulled out a bottle of Shiraz, closed the door with her bare foot, and began to pour herself a glass.

“Well, actually, I was thinking we could go out somewhere for dinner.”

“Uh, OK, sure. Where did you have in mind?”

“It’s a surprise. Dress nice, and I’ll pick you up—in oh, let’s say an hour—about seven, OK?”

Ashley smiled. “What have you got planned?”

“Just do it. Love you. Bye.”

He hung up before she had a chance to respond.

Ashley stared blankly at the phone in her hand. It wasn’t unlike Steven to be pushy and demanding, but that was all part of his charm and personality. He knew what he wanted and he wasn’t afraid to ask for it, and he certainly didn’t care if he didn’t come across as being polite. Some people thought he was rude, but Ashley knew Steven was just being Steven. She took a sip of her wine, then dashed off to her room to pick out an outfit.

It was almost seven when her phone rang again, startling her. She had finished applying a coat of lip gloss. It was her brother.

“Hey Bryan.”

“Ashley! How’s it going?”

“Good, good. Mom called earlier. She said you’re going to meet me at PDX at 11:15?” Ashley slipped on her heels as she spoke.

“Yes, I’ll be there. Hopefully, I won’t be running late. I need to meet with a supplier in Wilsonville beforehand.”

“Thank you so much for the ride. Are you sure you want to drive all that way? It’s a long way to go. I can wait around and get a flight to Sweet Home later on that day if that’s easier.”

“Wait around at the airport? No way—that could take hours. I don’t mind the drive. We haven’t seen you in ages, and Mom’s excited to see you. Wait till you see the café. You haven’t been back in what, ten years?”

“Eight! I know. She told me not to eat the plane food.” Ashley giggled.

“That’s actually not bad advice. It could be GMO and full of artificial chemically-laden rubbish.” Bryan sounded serious.

“I’ll pack a bag of snacks for the trip.” Ashley smiled. “You guys worry too much.”

“Well someone has to look out for you. I’d better go. Harley is trying to drown Coco in the bath, and Jess is about to lose it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Ashley had to cover her mouth with her hand to keep herself from laughing out loud as Bryan ended the call.

Jess was Bryan’s wife. They had three children: Meika aged nine, Coco, who was seven, and two-year-old Harley. Bryan was Ashley’s only sibling. He was a few years older than her and had always been one of those over-protective big brothers. Sure, they had their fair share of fights and disagreements, mainly during their teen years, but for the most part they got along. They only saw each other every few years, so they were never near each other long enough to get on one another’s nerves.

Tap! Tap! Tap!

Ashley grabbed her purse and keys and opened the door. Steven stood there, dressed in a fitted gray shirt, navy blue tie, and dark gray suit pants.

He flashed a dazzling smile. He was tall with a slim, athletic build; caused from a combination of good genetics and running track throughout high school and college. Ashley had met his mother once, at a wedding. She was beautiful and it was obvious she had paid a substantial amount of money to remain that way. But she was cold and distant, and currently on her third husband since divorcing Steven’s father.

Steven Cole was an attorney at the law firm of Cole, Irving and Paxton. His father had co-founded the powerhouse firm when Steven was a boy, shortly after his parents were divorced and Steven was sent off to boarding school. Steven had studied business law at Washington College of Law before becoming a junior at his fathers’ firm.

“You look beautiful,” he said, his eyes running up and down her.

She tucked a golden blonde strand of her shoulder-length hair behind her ear. Growing up her brother had teased her about her freckles, pointy chin and dark eyebrows, but Steven had always told her it made her look distinguished.

“Shall we?” He held out his arm and she tucked her arm through his as they exited the apartment.

His driver was waiting for him on the street and Steven held the rear door open as Ashley climbed in. He settled in beside her.

“Why won’t you tell me where we’re going?” she asked, secretly relishing the fact that he had gone to the effort of making plans for them.

He gave her a mysterious smile and shook his head.

A short time later they arrived at the restaurant. Ashley could hardly believe it as she stepped out of the car. It was the restaurant Steven had taken her to on their first date. Le Bernardin, an exquisite French restaurant with an exotic oriental twist—one of the best in the city, and almost impossible to get into on short notice.

“Steven, how on earth did you get reservations? I thought you had to book weeks in advance.”

He retrieved his matching suit jacket from the car and slipped it on.

“Maybe I had this planned in advance.” He grinned and cocked one eyebrow.

Ashley couldn’t stop beaming. This was turning out to be an enjoyable evening indeed.

Inside they were ushered to their seats, offered sparkling mineral water and listened as their host described the various notes of their wines.

Steven took the initiative, ordering for them both, as he usually did.

The décor was incredible, classic with a contemporary twist. Intimate and inviting. An enormous painting of the sea filled almost the entire back wall, fitting seamlessly with the seafood focus of the menu.

Their drinks were poured promptly, and the crisp, fruity tones of the French white wine danced enticingly on her taste buds.

Steven held her gaze across the table; neither of them spoke.

Their first course was served: clams with shaved fennel and an incredible apple ginger broth for Ashley, while Steven had kingfish with caviar.

“Is it as good as you remembered?” Steven asked.

“Better. It’s amazing. This is amazing,” she said gesturing to the whole room.

“Good. It’s a special night and I wanted to make it one to remember—especially before you take off and leave me for an entire week.” He stuck out his bottom lip.

“Well in all fairness, you won’t even be here.” Ashley raised her glass to her lips. “I hope you’ve been working on your Japanese.”

Steven was due to fly to Japan on Thursday to meet with the head of a large Japanese law firm in the hopes of forming a profitable business alliance.

He feigned insult.“Watashi wa, watashi wa shinkō no anata no fusoku ni yotte bujoku shite imasu.”

Ashley raised her eyebrows “Wow, impressive! Does that actually mean anything or were you making it up?” She giggled.

“I said ‘I am insulted by your lack of faith in me’.” He frowned.

“I have faith in you. You’ll do wonderfully—you always do.”

“I’m glad you think so,” he said, “because if we land this client next week I’m going to be announced partner at the Business Awards Dinner in two weeks.”

“Steven, that is amazing! Congratulations!”

Steven nodded, barely able to contain the look of glee on his face. “Thank you. It’s time to get serious and grow up. Take responsibility.”

The main meals were served. This time Ashley had the lobster and Steven had the seared tuna and wagyu beef. Steven motioned for the host to refill their glasses.

“That’s not the only reason I decided to bring you here tonight.” He waited for their host to leave. “I wanted to ask you something and I think now is the right time.”

A million reasons flashed through Ashley’s mind, but only one seemed to make sense. He had said it was time to grow up and take responsibility—was Steven about to ask her to marry him?

No. He wouldn’t. But then why this restaurant? They had been dating for five years, so it was possible. It was the next logical progression in their relationship. Ashley watched on as he began to eat his meal, leaving her in suspense. Her pulse began to quicken and her breathing felt shallow. He chewed his food slowly, and her anticipation grew. Finally he swallowed, took a sip of his wine and dabbed at his mouth with the white linen napkin. Steven took her hand across the table, gently caressing her knuckles with his thumb.

“I think it’s time we took the next step,” he said, meeting her eyes, his expression unreadable. “I’d like you to move in with me.”

Ashley took a moment to register his proposition. She felt relief that the excitement and anxiety of a possible proposal had passed, but at the same time she couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment. She had told Steven in the past that she wasn’t interested in marriage, although, if she were to be honest, that was probably to please him as she knew how much he disliked the entire institution.

“Well, what do you think? I mean we’ve been together for five years now. We spend all of our free time together. If you move in, then we’ll get to be with each other that little bit extra.” He resumed slicing his beef.

Ashley stifled a small laugh, lowering her gaze and pressing a finger to her lips.

“What?” Steven asked as he raised a piece of beef to his mouth.

“Nothing.” She looked at her meal, feeling foolish. Of course he wasn’t going to propose.

“Really?” he asked. “If there’s something on your mind, you should blurt it out. God knows I do.” He chuckled.

“It’s nothing, really. It’s . . .” She looked up. “I don’t know. I thought there for a moment you were going to propose to me.”

Steven froze, then began to laugh as though it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Ashley shifted uncomfortably at his reaction. He ran his hands through his dark hair and sat forward again, trying to suppress his laughter.

“God, no.” He wiped his eyes with the napkin and took a drink of his wine. “You know I don’t believe in marriage. It’s a ridiculous, outdated concept cooked up by religious zealots in order to control the freedom and rights of humanity.”

Ashley shook her head and forced the best smile she could muster. So stupid. She hadn’t entertained the idea of marriage—well, not since she was young and foolish and thought life was one big fairytale which always had a happy ending.

“Besides.” Steven took her hand, serious again. “What we have right now is so perfect, I don’t want anything to come between us. We don’t need a piece of paper or a ring to verify that we love each other, do we?” He raised Ashley’s chin to meet his eyes.

She shook her head. “I suppose not.”

“Of course not.” He released her hand and continued to eat. “Just look at what happened to my parents. My mother has been married four times! And what about Clayton and Amanda? They were the perfect couple. Happy together for fifteen years, got married, divorced four months later. Marriage ruins relationships. I don’t want that, and I thought you didn’t either.”

She didn’t want to ruin their relationship.

“You’re right, totally right. I don’t know what I was thinking. Too much wine.” She looked at her glass and raised her eyebrows, hoping that excuse would suffice.

“You sound disappointed. We discussed this already, remember? We agreed we didn’t want to get married or have kids.”

“I never said I didn’t want kids.”

“Yes, you did,” Steven said, finishing his second glass of wine and motioning for another.

“When your brother came to visit with the girls two years ago, you said kids freaked you out and they were too much hard work.”

“Yeah, they freak me out and they are hard work, but I didn’t say that I never wanted kids.”

Her nieces had been a handful. Full of energy, needy, and awake all hours of the night. That would freak anyone out.

“Well, Ok, do you want kids?” Steven peered at her, eyebrow cocked.

“I don’t know. Maybe.” She bit her lip.

She had always thought marriage came first, then children. If Steven was unwilling to marry her, she would have to settle for children born outside of wedlock. She had been brought up in a Christian family, but had lost her faith following the death of her father when she was a teenager. Marriage wasn’t necessary in today’s society, was it? Children born out of wedlock weren’t frowned upon any more. This was the twenty-first century, after all.

“Maybe? Either you do, or you don’t. I think it’s irresponsible to bring children into this world, and it’s cruel for the child, especially as we both have demanding jobs. We’d never see them. It’s easy for you and I to accept that our careers take first priority and we’re both cool with that, right?” He met her gaze, pinning her to the spot.

Ashley nodded.

“If we had kids, they wouldn’t understand that. They’d end up an emotional mess and resent us for it. Is that the kind of mother you’d want to be?”

Like Steven’s mother? No. That wasn’t the kind of mother she’d want to be. She hadn’t realized he felt so strongly about not having children. The result of his own upbringing, no doubt. She struggled to find the words to respond but decided it was best to let it go and enjoy the evening together. How could she change his mind? If she pushed the subject he might end the relationship. Or worse, relent, then spend the rest of his life secretly resenting her. She didn’t want to spend their last night together arguing, not in this incredible restaurant.

“You’re right.” Ashley smiled.

“I know I’m right. I’ve experienced first-hand what’s it’s like to grow up like that, and it’s not a healthy environment. There’s no way I would ever want children.” He took a sip of his third glass of wine. “How’s the lobster?”

She hadn’t even touched it yet. She had lost her appetite during the conversation, but as soon as she tasted the dish she quickly regained it.

“Delicious.” She made a satisfying sound.

“Well what do you think, about moving in together?”

The idea made perfect sense. It would mean they could spend more time together but she couldn’t shake the growing feeling that something was wrong. It was almost like a little voice was screaming don’t do it! She loved Steven. He was handsome, charming, wealthy, ambitious, motivated, and confident. All admirable attributes. She owed him a lot. If it wasn’t for him she’d probably still be working as a receptionist. Steven had always dictated the way their relationship went, and Ashley believed he deserved to have that right—he was smarter, more hard working and less emotional than her.

Growing up in Sweet Home, she had always been a spirited outspoken little girl, never afraid to say exactly what was on her mind—which often landed her in trouble. After the death of her father, the strong-minded, fearless woman disappeared and she would now describe herself as being more of an introvert, avoiding conflict where possible. New York was a long way from Sweet Home and being outspoken and spirited wasn’t always a good thing. It was much better to fit in, keep your head down, and go unnoticed.

“It sounds good, but can I have some time to think about it?”

She saw the look of confusion on his face, but he nodded anyway.

“Just don’t take too long,” he said, then flashed her one of his charming smiles.

The rest of the evening went smoothly. Dessert was as spectacular as their previous courses—velvet-smooth chocolate mousse with Tahitian vanilla ice cream and an exotic creation of tropical fruits.

 

It was almost 9:30 p.m. by the time Steven walked Ashley back upstairs to her apartment.

As she unlocked the door to her apartment and opened it, Steven followed her in and pulled her towards him. He pressed her close, lowered his head and kissed her.

“You want to stay for a while?” Ashley asked when he finally released her. His hands ran down her back, and she felt her skin cover in goosebumps.

“Tempting, tempting.” His lips curled upwards at the edges and his eyes were hooded. He coughed to clear his throat. “But I have to get that document submitted before midnight if I’m going to stand any chance of nailing this contract next week.”

Ashley was disappointed, but this was Steven’s life. He had always been focused and driven by success. She had to be willing to come in second place if she wanted any place in his life at all.

“I’m sorry about what I said at dinner—”

“It’s fine.” He placed a finger to her lips. “I’m glad we talked about marriage and starting a family. The subject was bound to come up again sooner or later. At least now it’s over and done. We’ve had our say, we’re both on the same page, and we can move on with our lives, together. Like you moving in with me?” He pulled her close again and smiled mischievously.

“I don’t know, Steven. Hallie and I signed another six-month contract, and your apartment in Manhattan is further from my office—”

“I can get Harry to drop you off every morning and pick you up every afternoon. Hallie wouldn’t have any trouble finding a new roommate. This place is a great location with affordable rent it’d get snapped up immediately.”

Ashley hesitated.

“No pressure. Think about it. In fact, take all week, and you can let me know when you get home next Sunday. Or sooner, if you want. Like right now.” He grinned, but moved towards a photo album sitting on the entry table.

“What’s this?” He stepped by Ashley and picked up the dusty pink album.

He began to turn the pages, a smile playing on his lips as his eyes moved over the photos of Ashley as a child and teenager.

“Just trying to prepare myself for going back home.” Ashley peered over his shoulder at the photos.

“Who’s this?” Steven frowned.

Memories returned as Ashley stared at the photo, herself as a teenager next to a handsome young man, his arm draped over her shoulder. She could still remember it all so clearly: the warm breeze, the heady scent of Jay’s deodorant, and the sparkle in his eyes whenever he looked at her.

“That’s Jay.” Ashley hadn’t said his name in so long, yet it still felt familiar. It should feel familiar. They had grown up together. Their parents had been close friends. There had even been a time in Ashley’s life when she actually thought her and Jay might have one day gotten married.

“Jay? Were you two a couple?” Steven cleared his throat.

Ashley smiled. Was Steven jealous? It was unwarranted. “We dated in high school, but it wasn’t anything serious.”

“You never told me about this guy.” Steven pressed his lips together.

“Nothing to tell.” Ashley shrugged.

“Doesn’t look that way to me. What else are you hiding?” Steven narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re not planning on seeing him when you go back to Sweet Home are you?”

Ashley’s mouth dropped open.

“What? It’s a legitimate question.”

She was hurt that he even felt the need to ask that question. “No, Steven. I’m not planning on seeing Jay. He probably doesn’t even live there any more. And even if he did still live there, I’m probably the last person he would want to see.”

Steven’s eyes narrowed further. She shouldn’t have said that. Now he would want to know why Jay wouldn’t want to see her. She needed to come up with a believable excuse, and fast.

“I broke up with him and we never spoke after that.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. They hadn’t spoken since she broke up with him by text message and left. It wasn’t his fault. He’d been the perfect boyfriend. It was Ashley who needed to escape. She had hated herself for everything that had happened. She hated the fact that she’d spent most nights getting wasted with her friends, and she hated the fact that Jay was always there, trying to get her to stop. Most of all, she hated herself for not being there when her father died. Instead she was drunk, dancing around a bonfire.

Steven sighed and the sides of his lips twisted up into a smile. “Well, can’t say I blame the poor kid. I’d be heartbroken if you broke up with me.” He pulled her close and smiled down at her. “Or if you refuse my offer of moving in with me.”

Ashley laughed and relaxed a little. When it came to patience Steven had absolutely none. Growing up in a family with money, she supposed he had learned from an early age that anything was within his means, and his divorced parents often sought to buy his love. As an adult he always got what he wanted, when he wanted. No wonder. He was the perfect catch—rich, successful, good-looking, and so charming he could sell sand at the beach. She knew she was lucky that to have him. His phone buzzed signalling a message, most likely from Christopher, his associate. He checked it.

“That’s Chris. I gotta go.” He kissed her hard.

“Have fun on your vacation.” He cupped her face in his hands and his expression turned serious.

“Stay safe. Be good.” He paused. “And stay away from old boyfriends.”

Ashley giggled and pushed him away. “Thank you for dinner.”

“I love you,” he called, stepping down the staircase.

“I love you, too.”

Ashley smiled to herself as she watched him go, then went inside her apartment.

She wanted to have one final check to make sure she had everything ready for her trip to Sweet Home. She had managed to avoid the place for years, but now she couldn’t put her return off any longer. She would be back in Sweet Home by tomorrow afternoon, whether she liked it or not.

 

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 2

 

The terminal in Portland was busy. Being an international airport, many of the passengers resembled the undead cast from a zombie apocalyptic film as they exited their long flights in search of transport to find the nearest place to rest their heads.

Ashley’s flight had only been a little over six-hours, but even so, her early start meant she felt drained of energy as she collected her suitcase and waited for Bryan in the arrivals lounge. It was amazing to think that sitting there, stationary in a seat for that amount of time, felt like she had completed a marathon.

She sent Steven a quick text message letting him know she had landed.

She spotted Bryan in the distance. His height helped him to stand out—he had been tall and gangly throughout high school, but had filled out slightly since graduating. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and faded jeans. A knit cap hid what Ashley imagined was his dishevelled dark hair, and the strong chin he shared with Ashley—much too long for his face. He had a messy look about him, but somehow managed to pull it off. He smiled when he spotted her and gave an unnecessary wave.

He made his way over to her, dodging the stream of passengers dragging suitcases, and over-tired children throwing tantrums.

“Hi,” Ashley said.

“Hey, welcome home stranger.” He gave her a ribcage-crushing hug.

Ashley smiled as Bryan ducked to collect her suitcases and they cautiously made their way towards the exit through the crowds of people.

“This is crazy,” Ashley motioned to the unusually large number of people nearby

“People have started pouring into town for the Jamboree.”

“Ah yes. The jamboree—are you planning on taking the kids this year?” Ashley sidestepped a woman who was engrossed in a phone call and was dragging her suitcase in a haphazard fashion.

“I’m actually going to be running a food van there on Friday, so Jess is going to take the kids along for a bit. Maybe you could go with her? Keep an eye on them. I’m sure she’d appreciate the help.”

“Sure. Could be fun.”

During the ride back Bryan fiddled with the old turn knob radio, but got mostly static.

“You can pick a station if you want,” he told Ashley.

“You guys get radio out here now? This place has forged ahead since I left.” She began to twist the knob, scanning through the radio stations.

“I can’t believe you’re still driving dad’s old pickup truck. What happened to the Prius?”

“Still got her, but she’s not much good when I need to pick up supplies.” Bryan motioned with a nod of his head to the rear of the truck, which was filled with crates containing various food items—fresh vegetables, eggs, and fruit.

Ashley found a station playing a modern country song. She didn’t particularly like that style of music but her choices were limited, and this seemed to be the only channel without static. It would have to do.

“What’s wrong with dad’s truck anyway? It’s a classic!”

Their father’s old Ford pickup truck had more miles on it that Ashley thought possible. The interior bench-seat had several tears in the leather. There was no CD player, just an old radio. Not even a tape deck. It was red—well, it used to be red. Now it was mostly rust.

Rust is a color, right?

Ashley’s smiled and peered out the window at the passing fields. Oregon was well known for its agriculture. You could find almost any fruit or vegetable—or choice of meat for that matter—within the state.

“Been hot in the city?” Bryan asked.

“Oh yeah—too hot.” Ashley fanned herself with her hand.

“Same here. It was ninety-one on Thursday.”

“That is hot, but not hot enough that you’d need to take your cap off?” She raised her eyebrows as she stared at the ragged looking knit cap perched atop his head.

Bryan flashed Ashley a puzzled expression, then seemed to realize he was still wearing his knit cap. He pulled it off with one hand and held it up. “I don’t even notice I’m wearing it half the time. Jess hates it.” Bryan placed it on the seat beside him.

“I don’t blame her, it looks hideous. How are the kids? Excited to see me?”

“That’s all they talk about! Harley is getting big now and is constantly trying to keep up with Meika and Coco.”

“What was happening last night when Harley was trying to drown Coco?”

Bryan tilted his head back and laughed. “Who knows what goes through that kids head? One of the mysteries of parenting I s’pose. He’ll be three next month.”

“Getting old.”

“So are you coming to dinner at our place tonight? Mom and Martin are going out to that dinner with the Johnsons, remember? You have to say yes, otherwise the kids will whine all night.”

“Yeah, sounds good. What time?”

“About 5:30, but feel free to come earlier if you want.”

“OK.” Ashley nodded and returned back to gazing out of the window at the passing fields.

Endless farms that disappeared into the distance. No skyscrapers, no fancy restaurants. Nothing of interest.

 

Bryan pulled into the driveway of Jane’s house around two. Jane and Martin were sitting on the front porch, waiting.

Their house was a bit further than the town, right on the edge of Fosters Lake. Their property was large and private. It was a classic lake house, with strong white beams running the length of the verandah, gray shutters to match the slate gray roof, and a beautiful manicured garden thanks to Martin’s expertise in landscaping and Jane’s botanical knowledge.

“Here comes the welcoming committee,” Bryan said as they opened their doors. Ashley mentally prepared herself for the onslaught of questions and pleasantries.

“Ashley! Hi, honey. How are you? How was your flight? Are you hungry?” Jane hugged her tightly and Martin followed closely behind.

“Hey kiddo.” He followed Jane’s lead, giving Ashley a hug.

Bryan and Martin lifted her bags from the car and carried them inside.

“Hi, Mom. I’m good. The house looks great. What have you done to it? Something’s different.”

“Martin has re-sanded the porch, and put up some new exterior lights. Come in. Wait till you see what he’s done in the kitchen.”

The kitchen had been completely renovated—new timber cupboard doors, a dark marble counter-top and stainless steel appliances.

“Wow, it looks fantastic Mom.” Ashley was impressed.

“I know—I finally have the big kitchen I’ve always wanted. And wait until you see this.” Jane opened the cutlery drawer, then slammed it closed. It stopped an inch or so before closing and slowly shut.

“They’re called soft-close doors, so you can’t slam them. Isn’t that amazing! Technology these days, it makes your head spin.” Jane shook her head.

Ashley pressed her lips together, hiding her amusement. It was typical for her mom to get excited over something as minor as drawers.

“Now, would you like a tea, coffee, something cold?”

“Coffee, thanks.” Ashley sat down on the stool beside the counter.

Martin and Bryan joined them.

“Bryan, do you want something to drink? I’ve put the coffee machine on.” Jane asked.

“No, I better head off. Jess will be wondering where I am.” He turned to Ashley. “See you tonight?”

“Yes. Thanks again for picking me up, Bryan. I appreciate it.”

“I’m glad you’re going to Bryan’s tonight for dinner. We are having dinner with the Johnsons. They’re going away on holiday on Monday so unfortunately can’t make the wedding but wanted to have a celebratory dinner with us before they left. We tried to make it on a different night, because I was hoping to spend some time with you here on your first night home, but this was the only night we both had available. You can join us if you like.” Jane peered at Ashley. It didn’t sound appealing.

“It’s fine Mom, really. I’m going to be here for the full week, so we’ll have plenty of time to catch up.”

“How does it feel to be home?” Martin asked.

“Well it’s not exactly home now, but it’s nice, I suppose. I’m looking forward to relaxing and unwinding. What’s new with you?”

“Your mother’s got me on a new diet—paleo.” He raised one side of his top lip in mock displeasure.

“It’s not a diet.” Jane said. “It’s a way of eating—and I tell you what, we have both lost weight and have so much more energy now. We don’t eat gluten, sugar, soft drinks—”

“No refined foods,” Martin said. “But plenty of meat, so I can’t complain.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of the paleo diet. Good for you.” Ashley wrapped her hands around the purple mug of coffee.

“How’s Steven?” Jane asked.

“He’s good. Flies over to Japan on Thursday. If he secures this job, they’re going to make him partner at the firm.”

“Wow, that’s great,” Jane said.

Ashley nodded and slowly sipped the hot coffee.

“So, we have a big week planned—the most important thing is getting you measured up first thing on Monday so Gina can get that dress altered.”

“What color and style is it? I brought a lot of my jewellery along to try to match it, but I kind of need to know what it looks like first.”

“It’s a surprise,” Jane said, smiling at Martin, “and Gran and I have already picked the jewelry.”

“Gran? Do you know how difficult this is for me? For someone who loves fashion, and has about a million dresses in her wardrobe, to not know what they are wearing to a fairly important event is like torture.” Ashley groaned to emphasize the extent of her misery.

“You’ll have to trust us.” Jane shrugged, satisfied, and lifted her mug of coffee to her lips.

“Are you tired? Your bed is set up if you want to have a little nap, if you’re feeling jet-lagged?”

“I don’t think I’m jet-lagged.” Ashley laughed. “But I am pretty tired. I didn’t sleep too well last night. I might have a lie down for a while.”

At the top of the stairs was Bryan’s old bedroom. It looked as though it were lived in—the bed was made, and there were mens clothing hanging visibly through the open slit on the wardrobe.

Ashley curiously pushed the door open and stepped inside. There was a photo of Martin and Jane on the bedside table. She frowned as she picked it up. That was an odd photo to put in a guest bedroom. She spun on her heels as she heard Martin cough from behind her. He was standing in the door way.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. Does someone live in here?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

Ashley must have had a confused expression on her face, because Martin explained.

“I . . . well, your mother and I . . . wanted to keep things traditional.” He shifted uncomfortably and Ashley could see a deep shade of crimson rising from his neck line.

Oh!

Now she understood. How embarrassing.

“Oh, I see. Sorry for intruding.” She stepped past him and made her way into her old bedroom as fast she could, closing the door behind her and leaning her back against it. Why hadn’t anyone told her? That embarrassing scene could have easily been avoided. It seemed a little bizarre that they would have separate bedrooms, but it was none of her business how they chose to conduct their lives. Really, she didn’t want to know.

Her room had had a much-needed makeover. She barely recognised it with all the fresh paint and new decor. In fact, the whole house had been made over. With Martins keen eye for restoration, he had managed to brighten the place up and give it a new life.

She eyed her suitcase sitting on the bed. Normally she loved unpacking on vacation. It made her feel settled and prepared to stay a while. But this wasn’t like vacation—this was more like a forced stay in one of the places she had actively avoided. Maybe if she kept her clothes in the suitcase it would feel like a quick stopover, something temporary. Having to unpack would be like admitting defeat, accepting the fact that she was ‘getting comfortable’, which she knew was impossible in this town.

She placed the suitcase on the floor and collapsed on the bed. Lying on her back, she clasped her fingers together across her stomach and closed her eyes. How she wished she were back in the city, back at home and back with Steven.

One day at a time. You can do this. Just one week and you can get the heck out of this place and back to your life.

 

Chapter 3

 

When she opened her eyes the room was much darker. She checked the clock beside her bed: 5:15 p.m. She couldn’t believe she had fallen asleep so fast, or slept so long. Ashley stood up and changed into a pair of dark denim jeans and a black top with a lacy trim. Now, where were the gifts she’d brought. There. She picked up the bag of gifts and went downstairs.

Jane and Martin were in the living room, dressed to go out.

“How was your sleep?” Jane asked.

“Good. I can’t believe I dozed off. I got you guys a little present.” Ashley pulled the large wrapped rectangular box out of the bag.

“Oh you shouldn’t have done that, darling,” Jane said as she accepted the box.

“It’s nothing big. I saw it and thought of you.” Ashley shrugged.

Jane unwrapped the box and opened it. A smile spread across her face as she saw what was inside.

She gasped at the ornate, colorful glass vase. Hand-crafted.

“I know how much you like flowers.” Ashley clasped her hands together. “Martin, there’s a little something inside the vase for you.”

Martin looked surprised and Jane tipped the vase upside down. A small box fell out and Martin retrieved and opened it.

It was a watch. He whistled as he lifted it from the box.

“This is just what I need.” He wrapped it around his wrist, clasping it together, and admiring it.

“It’s waterproof, of course,” Ashley said. “I’m told it has all the mod-cons—I asked the jeweller and she told me it was the best of the best. If you don’t like it, I can always take it back and exchange it.”

“No, I love it. Thanks, kiddo.” He gave Ashley a kiss on the cheek.

Jane rose to her feet and gave Ashley a hug.

“I better get going.”

“OK, honey. You can take my car.” Jane retrieved the keys from the hook by the front entrance mirror. “This is the house key,” she said pinching the key with the blue mark across the top, “in case we’re not home when you get back. Do you remember how to get there?”

“Yeah, Mom. I haven’t been gone that long.”

“OK, drive safe. Love you,” Jane called as Ashley ran down the front porch steps towards her mother’s white Corolla.

“You too,” Ashley called back.

 

She could hear the girls yelling from inside the house before she even had a chance to knock.

“She’s here! She’s here!”

Jess opened the door and the two girls shot straight past their mother. Coco wrapped herself tightly around Ashley’s leg and Meika waited patiently for Ashley to bend down and give her a hug and a kiss.

“Wow! Look at you guys. You’re getting so big!”

Ashley had kept in regular contact with the girls, keeping up-to-date with their lives through Bryan’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, and Skyping them from time to time.

“How are you, Ash?” Jess gave her a warm hug. “Come in, come in.”

Jess was still stunningly beautiful. She had this classic all-American look about her. Her tall and slightly curvy figure hadn’t changed despite having three kids. She had been a medical receptionist before becoming a stay-at-home mom, and now she helped out in the cafe whenever Bryan needed her.

Ashley stepped inside and saw Bryan walking towards her, carrying Harley.

“Oh, Harley, look at you! What a handsome little man you are.” Ashley held out her arms to take him. Harley turned his back and held on tightly to Bryan. An understandable reaction, as he’d never met her face-to-face before.

“No? Too shy?” Ashley giggled and lowered her hands.

“Aunty Ashley, look what I can do!” Coco bellowed and proceeded to do a rather lopsided somersault.

“That’s great!”

“She doesn’t know how to do it properly.” Meika pushed Coco out of the way. “I do. I go to gymnastics.” She then did a perfect somersault.

“Mine was better,” Coco said.

“No it wasn’t—yours was stupid.”

“You’re stupid!” Coco shoved Meika into the wall.

Ashley grimaced and glanced between Bryan and Jess. Were the girls always this loud and argumentative?

“Hey, hey! Girls! Stop that!” Bryan handed Harley to Jess, and dropped down on one knee to come to eye level with the girls. “We don’t speak to each other like that. And especially not in front of guests. Now, what do we do when we hurt someone’s feelings?”

The two girls looked at each other and reluctantly said ‘sorry’ but because they both said sorry at the same time they broke out in a fit of laughter.

“Come on through to the living room, Ash.” They walked up the hallway into the combined kitchen, dining, and living area.

“You’ve done some renovations too I see.”

Jess nodded. “We took the wall out. It feels more open and airy now, don’t you think?”

“Definitely.”

Jess placed Harley on the ground and he darted behind the couch to hide and keep a watchful eye on Ashley. There was a cheeky smile on his face.

“Red or white?” Bryan asked holding up two bottles of wine.

“Either. I don’t mind.”

“Go with the red, honey,” Jess said to Bryan, then turned back to Ashley. “It’s good.”

“Aunty Ashley, what’s in that bag?” Coco pointed at the bag full of gifts.

“Those are for you guys.” Ashley smiled.

Coco’s mouth and eyes opened wide with delight.

Ashley pulled out the first present. “This one is actually for everyone.”

“Can I open it?” Coco was busting with excitement so Ashley handed it to her. She tore through the wrapping, revealing a huge box of chocolates.

“Ah, they’re actually not allowed those. Not this late at night.” Bryan stepped in to take the box from Coco’s hands.

The kids moaned in unison.

Jess rolled her eyes at Bryan.

Ashley guessed that Bryan was still strict with what he allowed the children to eat—especially when it came to sugar.

“All right, they can have one. After dinner.”

Ashley pulled out the gifts for the kids and handed a wrapped box each to Jess and Bryan.

Jess gasped as she opened the box to reveal a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels. “Ashley, these are incredible! Thank you. I can wear them to the wedding on Saturday. I had a pair picked out but these are so much better.”

Bryan opened his gift. A new iPad. “Thanks, Ash. This is awesome.”

Coco squealed as she unwrapped her gift of a microphone which came with a stand, a mini light-up disco ball, and a speaker. The perfect gift for an energetic seven-year-old.

Meika got a diary, a mixed craft box, and a new dress. She was nine. “Yes!” Meika clutched the diary to her chest and jumped up and down on the spot. “My very own diary. I love writing—and if you ever touch it Coco, I’m going to-”

“Hey. That’s enough.” Bryan turned to Coco. “That’s Meika’s diary. OK Coco? You’re not to touch it.”

“I won’t. I promise.” Coco shook her head then resumed constructing the microphone stand.

Harley got a stacking block set and he busily got started on building a tower.

Bryan handed Ashley a glass of red wine.

“Dinner smells delicious. I’m starving. What are we having?” Ashley asked.

“Spaghetti!”

They all laughed as they turned to see Coco with her microphone set up—and apparently turned up to full volume.

Dinner was satisfying. The conversation flowed spasmodically, due to the constant interruptions and protests from the kids. It was like trying to talk to someone who had to concentrate on several different conversations at once. Ashley couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been easier to feed Harley in the bathtub after watching his attempts to feed himself. Food somehow ended up on the floor, his chair, and some even ended up in his hair.

Afterwards the kids watched Frozen while Jess, Bryan, and Ashley cleaned up, then sat around the table talking and catching up on the recent events in their lives.

“Did you have a rest this afternoon? You looked pretty tired.” Bryan reclined in his chair, resting his hands on the table.

Ashley nodded. “I didn’t realize I was so exhausted.”

“How are you feeling now?” he asked.

“Much better. Wide awake actually.”

“Well, you should go out with Jess.”

“Yes!” Jess placed her wine glass on the table. “You should totally come out with us. I’m meeting a few friends for some drinks.”

“Oh, no. I don’t want to intrude. I’ll go back to Mom’s house and watch a movie or something.”

“What? No.” Bryan frowned. “Mom and Martin won’t be home from the Johnsons for hours. You can’t spend your first night back home on your own.”

Ashley looked down at her outfit. “I didn’t dress for ‘going out’, and I don’t want to have to drive all the way back to Mom’s to get changed.”

“Your jeans are fine and you can borrow one of my tops and some shoes. We have the same size feet after all.” Jess took a deep breath. “Come on, it’ll be fun. I never go out any more—and trust me, if I can get a chance to escape from dirty nappies, screaming children, and mountains of mess, I’ll take it.”

“I don’t blame you. Kids are so much work. Is it this messy every meal time?”

“Oh yeah. They are hard work, but I love them to bits and wouldn’t have it any other way.” Her eyes softened as she looked at them laying on the couch, trying to keep their eyes open long enough to see the end of their movie.

“But, I do need some ‘me’ time every now and then. What do you say, will you come out with me?” Jess stared at Ashley, eyebrows raised and a big cheesy grin on her face.

“Why not?” She didn’t have anything else to do, and her nap had revitalized her, leaving her full of energy.

 

As far as bars go in Sweet Home, there weren’t too many to choose from. Tonight was buzzing though, as the early arrival of the Jamboree concertgoers headed out in search of a warm meal and icy-cold alcohol.

Jess opened the door and entered first, holding it open for Ashley. Ashley had been in here many times before, usually sneaking in with her friends when she was underage.

It was 9:30 and the staff had all but finished clearing up after the evening’s diners. The bar had a long timber counter that ran along three sides of the establishment, dividing the dining area, pool tables, and TV sections.

 

It was so different from her usual drinking spots in the city: people there were more sophisticated—classy, and dressed suitably. It seemed like here people wore whatever they wanted—she even thought she spotted a man wearing what appeared to be pyjamas. It was unrefined, loud, and a bit too easy-going. Doesn’t anyone here have any pride?

Jess waved to several people sitting by the bar, none of whom Ashley recognized. They all smiled and waved as Ashley and Jess walked over. Jess air-kissed them all, then introduced them. Ashley smiled and nodded, hoping she’d heard their names correctly above the loud, boppy music playing through the sound system.

The red-haired woman—Nicole—leaned towards Ashley. She looked almost like a real-life version of Jessica Rabbit. Curvaceous and beautiful. She looked to be in her mid-twenties.

“Must be a bit of a change from the nightlife you’re used to in New York, I’d imagine.” She shook Ashley’s hand. “I teach Meika at school. She’s always talking about you—she brings in clippings of your newspaper articles.”

“That’s so sweet. I can’t take all the credit though. My job is far less glamorous across the bridge in Brooklyn. I mostly design the layout of the articles before they go to print. I don’t actually write any of the articles, although I’d love to someday. If I’m lucky enough.”

“Well, Meika thinks highly of you. She told me when she grows up she wants to go and live in the city and work at the Brooklyn Times with you.”

Ashley laughed. “She’s so creative, I’m sure she’d fit right in!”

“What are you drinking?” Jess asked Ashley as a bartender waited to take her order.

“Uh, I’ll get a beer,” Ashley replied.

“Hmm.” Nicole eyes formed slits and she pouted her ruby red lips. “I figured you for a champagne girl.”

“When in Rome.” Ashley smiled.

Nicole looked momentarily offended.

Jess interrupted, handing Ashley a large glass of beer.

“Thanks,” Ashley said raising her glass.

Jess turned her attention to Nicole. “So Nicole, how are you settling in? Does this feel like home sweet home yet?” Jess grinned and turned to Ashley. “Nicole moved here about six months ago from Eugene. She finished studying and landed a job here, and we’re so happy to have her.” Jess wrapped her free arm around Nicole’s shoulder and gave her a tight squeeze.

“It’s beginning to feel like home. The kids are great, and the parents are awesome.” She flashed Jess a quick wink. “The men aren’t too bad on the eye either.” Grinning, she took the straw between her teeth, motioning with a nod of her head to the sports section at the far side of the bar.

Jess and Ashley glanced over to the dozen or so men who filled the old leather tub seats. It was hard to see in the dim light, but most of them appeared to be either well beyond their fifties or labourers from around town and the surrounding districts.

“Ah, I see,” Jess said giving a knowing nod. Ashley frowned, not knowing who Nicole was referring to. After all she had been away for over eight years. Who knew how many people had moved in—and out of—Sweet Home during that time.

Nicole leaned close to Jess, giggled, and whispered something into her ear.

Ashley took another sip of her beer and spotted him over the top of her glass, sitting in the back row of the sports section. It was no wonder she hadn’t noticed him before. He looked different. Much larger than she had remembered. Strong and solid, rugged looking, like a lumberjack with his full beard, tan, and the hint of a tattoo peeking out from underneath his upper arm. He was leaning across his chair talking to the man sitting across from him. As he went to pick up his drink from the table he glanced back and spotted her.

Their eyes locked and Ashley felt a sudden chill rush through her body. She wasn’t sure if she should wave or pretend she hadn’t seen him but he held her gaze. It was as if time had come to a standstill. His expression was completely unreadable. Despite the drink, her mouth felt dry and everything sounded muffled and distant.

He raised his drink to his lips and returned to watching the game on the TV as though he hadn’t noticed her. Ashley hadn’t even realized she had been holding her breath.

“Ash. Hellooo?”

She blinked a few times and turned to see Nicole and Jess staring at her.

“Excuse me?” Ashley asked, embarrassed about her distracted and obvious lack of attention to the conversation.

“I was telling Nicole about the last time we came to visit you, when Coco was only a toddler and she vomited all over Steven’s couch.” Jess laughed. “I felt so bad. It was brand new and probably worth more than my car!” Jess and Nicole both giggled. Ashley felt her pulse beginning to return to normal and took another sip of her drink. She forced a smile and felt a shudder spread through her body.

“Is the bathroom still near the pool tables?” Ashley asked Jess. Jess nodded, taking another gulp of her beer.

“Excuse me a moment.”

Ashley made her way into the bathroom and paused to look in the mirror. The fluorescent lights made her skin look blotchy and flushed.

She fanned herself with her hand and turned on the cold water tap, running her hand under the cool water and rubbing it on the back of her neck. The toilet flushed and a pretty young girl with dark hair stumbled out. As she washed her hands she stared uncomfortably at Ashley.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” The girl’s voice was slurred.

“No,” Ashley replied.

“I could tell. You’re pretty.” The girl hiccupped. “Are you here for the Jamboree?”

“Thank you, and no. It’s my mom’s wedding next week.”

“Your mom, wow!” The girl struggled to open her eyes wide, like it was the most amazing news she had ever heard. “How do you get your teeth so white?”

Ashley laughed. “I don’t know. I brush them, I guess.” She tried to hide her amusement. “Are you all right?”

The girl flapped her hand through the air. “I’m fine. Fiiiine. F-I-N-E.” She started to laugh hysterically “That spells finny. I’m finny!” The girl placed her hands on the vanity to support herself. “Like a fish!”

Ashley tried not to laugh and moved to tuck an arm around the drunk girls’ back before she stumbled and fell.

“Come on. Let’s go and see if we can find your friends.” Ashley helped her out to the bar area, scanning the room to see if anyone appeared to be searching for someone. A young girl in a cute white summer dress, denim jacket and brown shoulder bag dashed over.

“Stacey, I was looking everywhere for you. Thank you so much,” the girl said as she helped to support her friend.

“Not a problem,” Ashley said. “I think you better get her home.”

“Yeah, we’re leaving. My sisters outside getting the car at the moment.”

“Isn’t she pretty?” Stacey said to her friend.

Her friend nodded and smiled apologetically. “Thanks again.”

“Get her to drink a big glass of water with two alka seltzer’s before she goes to sleep.”

She felt sorry for the girl, and couldn’t help but be reminded of herself when she was younger. She had spent many days hung-over, trying to remember what had happened the night before.

Ashley returned to her friends, and a newly-poured beer was waiting for her.

“You OK?” Jess asked.

“What? Oh yeah, I’m fine. There was an intoxicated girl in the bathroom. I was making sure she got back to her friends safely.” Ashley took a sip and shot a glance over to the sports section.

“He’s gone.” Jess gave a knowing smile.

“What?” Ashley tried to give her best I-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about expression.

“You can relax. He left.”

Ashley took a sip and shrugged, waving her hand in dismissal. “It doesn’t bother me, honestly.” She glanced around again, taking another sip of her beer as she did so.

“Honestly?” Jess raised her eyebrows in disbelief.

Ashley shrugged again and felt foolish, as though she were over-compensating for her lack of credible excuses by fidgeting. She made a conscious decision to control herself. Ashley had dated Jay all throughout high school. They had grown up together in Sweet Home. Ashley couldn’t help but think their relationship had been purely out of boredom and convenience—and the fact that there weren’t any other suitable partners to choose from in such a small town. He was a star when it came to sports, quick reflexes and lots of strength. He was also funny and seemed to like making everyone laugh in class, much to the teachers’ disappointment.

She felt her lip twitch as she recalled his smile, his eyes would sparkle and he had had such a great sense of humour, in fact she couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t making someone smile. “He’s an adult. I’m an adult. We’re free to make our own choices. If he wants to—”

“It’s OK Ash. You don’t have to justify yourself to me.”

Ashley bit her lip and nodded.

“But you’re darn right we’re free. This is ’Merica!” Jess raised her glass and her voice and was greeted by several cheers from nearby patrons who also raised their glasses. Jess and Ashley clinked glasses and continued to down their drinks.

She still felt uneasy; she knew that with Sweet Home being such a small town she was likely to bump into Jay again at some stage. But seeing him in the bar had felt awkward and surreal—and unsettling. Their relationship had ended so abruptly following the death of her father. Ashley had simply sent Jay a text message saying it was over and she was leaving, and hadn’t bothered to answer his phone calls or messages. There was no point. She had made up her mind that she was never coming back to this town. That was until her mother had to go and decide to get re-married.

She couldn’t help but notice Nicole had left as well. Was Jay the man she had referred to earlier? From the looks of the other men sitting in the sports screening area, it was highly likely.

The night continued with a blur of colorful lights, head-pounding music, laughter, and feeble attempts at dancing. It was ironic that her first night back in town was beginning to resemble the same way she had spent most of her nights when she actually lived here—a drunken blur that she would likely forget—and regret—in the morning.

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 4

 

When Ashley awoke the next morning, everything hurt. Her head was throbbing like it was about to explode, and her mouth was so dry she could barely swallow. It was 11:45 a.m. and she groaned as she rolled over in bed and slowly opened her eyes. She squinted as the harsh sun light stung her eyes and she had to blink a few times until they adjusted.

She gasped in horror at the black creature sitting on the bed staring at her with its one beady eye. It was her mom’s old cat, Jasper, although his fur was more patchy than she remembered. She was surprised he was still alive, she thought he’d died already. Surely he’d be close to twenty years old.

He stared at her, a bit of drool dangled precariously from his lower lip.

“Rowr.” His meow sounded more like a creaky floorboard. He lifted a front left paw and began licking it, revealing missing teeth. Ashley felt her stomach churn, repulsed by his appearance.

She slowly stood up, supporting herself on the bedside table, pressing one hand to her face.

There was a glass of water beside her bed and she downed the whole thing. She had slept in an old oversized T-shirt and socks so she ruffled through her suitcase until she found her tracksuit pants, and pulled them on. She was still lacking the motivation to unpack. She made her way downstairs to the kitchen, opened the medicine cabinet in search of the Alka-Seltzer packet and found a note on the counter top.

 

Ash,

Hope you had a good night with Bryan and Jess.

We’ve gone to church.

Help yourself to breakfast.

We’ll be home around noon.

Mom

xx

 

She shouldn’t have drunk so much. Martin and Jane must have known she’d had a big night out, and now they were at church. She could only imagine the lecture she’d get when they came home. Her head hurt too much to even think about it right now. She swallowed a dose of Alka Seltzer, then went upstairs to shower.

She stepped out of the shower and wiped the bathroom mirror to remove the condensation. Her skin looked pale and colorless.

She ran her fingers up and over her cheekbones, pulling the skin taut and admiring the instant improvement. Sighing, she let go.

There was a knock on the bathroom door.

“You in there, Ash?” It was her mother.

She quickly wrapped a towel around herself.

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to make some lunch—is there anything you want? I have some nice gluten-free bread from Bryan’s shop. Do you want a ham sandwich?”

Ashley felt an involuntary lurch from the pit of her stomach and desperately lunged for the toilet bowl as the remainder of last night’s drinks and spaghetti bolognese violently departed in an unladylike manner.

“Honey?” Her mom knocked at the door again. “You all right?”

“I’ll be down in a minute.” Ashley grabbed for some toilet paper to wipe her mouth.

 

When Ashely made it downstairs, Martin was sitting on a bench stool eating a ham salad sandwich and reading the local newspaper, while Jane busied herself preparing a sandwich.

“Here she is.” Jane smiled.

“Whoa! If you’re auditioning for a role on that zombie TV show, consider yourself hired!” Martin said. Jane playfully smacked him on the shoulder.

“Big night?” Martin asked more seriously.

“Yeah. Too big.” Ashley groaned, sitting down beside him. Jane handed her a cup of coffee.

“How was your dinner with the Johnsons?”

“It was lovely. You should see their new Winnebago, Ashley. It’s incredible. Isn’t it incredible, Martin?”

Martin nodded and went back to reading the paper.

“It is like a house on wheels! It has a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom—”

“Lounge,” Martin added.

“Lounge. They’re taking it on vacation next week and travelling all the way to the East Coast. I’d like to do something like that. Wouldn’t you like to do something like that one day, Martin?” Jane asked.

“What? Oh, yeah, one day.” He wasn’t paying attention.

“Grandma and Grandpa are coming for dinner tonight, Ash, or did I tell you that already? I can’t remember if I did or not—my head’s all over the place this week.” Jane smiled as she closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Just this week?” Martin asked.

“Would you stop it?” Jane glared at Martin, suppressing a smile at his comments.

Martin chuckled.

As far as potential step-dads went, Martin Kingsley was great. Her mother and Martin had met six years ago, when she she’d rescued him after a surfing accident while she was on vacation in California. They kept in touch over the internet, which was ironic considering that both of them were technologically challenged. The relationship had flourished from there, and he had moved to Sweet Home three years ago to settle down and retire after selling his painting business in California. Ashley had always thought it was bizarre that someone would willingly move from California to Sweet Home to retire—it seemed like going backwards to her—but Martin explained that love made you do crazy things.

Martin checked his watch. “I’d better get going. I told Pastor Barry I’d meet him around one.” He quickly finished his tea and kissed Jane, then headed for the door.

“Pastor Barry wants his house painted,” Jane said. “And Martin loves any excuse to use his knowledge and expertise in painting.” She smiled contentedly as she watched him leave.

“Well, we’re all set for the wedding on Saturday,” Jane said, changing the subject. “We’ve got eighty guests coming. Can you believe that? The numbers seem to keep growing and growing, but there’s enough room in the garden to accommodate everyone, so that will be fine. We need to finish up getting the lawn ready this week and Jay will be delivering the gazebo-”

“Jay?” Ashley interrupted, recoiling at the mention of his name.

“Yes, honey. I’ve asked Jay Henderson—you remember him—to construct us a gazebo. It’s the prettiest thing you ever did see. And afterwards it will make a stunning focal piece for the garden. It’s big enough for a little table and chairs, perfect for us to have afternoon tea in. I spoke with Jay earlier today and he’s going to deliver it for us on Saturday morning before the wedding. Is everything OK?” Jane asked. “You look a bit pale.”

Ashley sighed. Jay had appeared ambivalent upon seeing her but she’d hoped they wouldn’t be running into each other again any time soon.

Ashley shook her head, managing a small smile. “I’m OK, a massive headache. I knew I shouldn’t have gone out last night. I might go and have a walk around the garden; get some fresh air.”

“That sounds like a great idea. Some sunshine will do you good. Got to get that vitamin D into you.” Jane walked over and kissed Ashley on the top of her head. “It’s good to have you home.”

 

The garden was stunning. The lawn was thick, lush, and green. There were short hedges covered in different colored flowers, and several butterflies and bees busily got to work collecting nectar and pollen.

Just beyond the hedge were several large sugar maples, and beyond them, the lake. Ashley could see glimpses of the water as the sun reflected off the lake’s surface, flashing golden light through the gaps between the trees.

It was warm, and everything smelled clean and fresh and green.

She made her way down the small decline which led to another open lawn area, the larger space where Jane and Martin would have both their ceremony and reception. The view from the lake was much clearer here, and the water looked cool and inviting. To the back of the garden was a trail which led to the small jetty. Ashley strolled along the narrow path, listening to the sounds of the birds calling to one another and the gentle breeze as it rustled through the leaves.

The old timber jetty was still there. It was worn, but stable and Ashley walked along, peering over the edge at the water below. She sat down and dangled her feet in the water.

Ah. That feels better.

She moved her feet backwards and forwards through the cool water, closing her eyes. The sunlight warmed her entire body and her headache seemed to be easing.

Her phone rang.

She pulled it out of her pocket and answered it. Steven.

“Hi.” She was glad to hear from him.

“Hey, how’s it all going?”

“Not too bad. I’m hanging out at Moms. I had dinner at Bryan’s last night and my grandparents are coming over for dinner tonight. How’s everything there? Did you manage to get that work done that you had to finish up on Friday night?”

“Yeah, yeah. Everything’s fine here. I’m packing my things for Tokyo now.”

“I thought you weren’t going until Thursday.” Ashley said.

“I’m not, but this week is going to be flat out at work so I figured I may as well do it while I’ve got the time.”

There was a slight pause.

“Have you thought any more about what I asked you the other night? About moving in?”

“I have. I mean I’ve thought about it, but I’m still not sure. It’s a pretty big step.”

“We pretty much live together as it is. I don’t get why you can’t commit.” He sounded annoyed, angry even.

Ashley was taken aback by his tone.

“It’s not like we’re getting married or anything.”

“I know, I know. It’s just, something doesn’t feel right about it.”

Steven laughed through the phone. “That’s a terrible excuse. No offence, but something doesn’t feel right’ doesn’t even make sense. Facts do, and the fact is, it makes way more sense for us to be living together than paying for separate apartments.”

Why is he pushing so hard?

“I’ll think about it.” It was the best she could do.

“Don’t think about it, just do it. If you spend too long thinking about things you’ll end up missing the opportunity.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Now she was beginning to feel annoyed.

Steven didn’t respond.

“Steven?”

“Nothing. I shouldn’t have even said it. Take all the time you need. I told you I’d wait until you got back, so that’s what I’ll do.”

A million thoughts were racing through Ashley’s mind. One second he was angry and demanding, the next he was sweet and trying to be patient. It seemed hypocritical that he could claim that she couldn’t commit to moving in with him, yet he couldn’t he commit to marrying her. Why was one action totally acceptable to him, yet the other was completely unacceptable?

“Are you mad? I’m sorry, I don’t want to fight.” Steven spoke again. “I get these ideas and want everything to go according to plan and usually they do, so I don’t know how to deal when I can’t get what I want. Guess that’s something I’ll have to learn to get used to, huh?”

Ashley softened. He was pushy—she knew that—but at least he was trying. “With me? Oh yeah.” She laughed.

“Good to hear you laugh. I’d better go and finish this packing.”

“OK, I love you,” Ashley said.

“You too,” he replied and hung up.

She sat there, staring at her phone. It was difficult to tell Steven how she was feeling. He had always been easy to offend. She had learnt to be pleasant, friendly, and often suppressed her own desires and emotions to gain the approval of others—especially Steven’s. He encouraged her to think logically and not to let emotions or feelings get in the way when making decisions, something she’d struggled with. He often dismissed anything she said that began with, “I feel like…”. She knew he loved her and she could rely on him, even if he wasn’t overly romantic. He just liked to do things his own way.

She lay back on the jetty and squinted up at the sky. It was a stunning azure, not a cloud in sight. The conversation had left her feeling unsettled. Watching her parents’ marriage, and her brother’s, had shown her that although the males were clearly the heads of the homes, they not only valued their partner’s feelings, but took them into consideration. Perhaps that would come with time, and she would have to be patient with Steven.

“There you are, Ashley.” Jane appeared on the grassy bank. “I’m heading into town to get some things. Do you need anything from the store?”

Ashley shook her head and waved a dismissing hand.

“OK, see you in a bit.”

 

The house was filled with the delicious aroma of Jane’s pot roast as Grace and Henry, her paternal grandparents, arrived at around 6. Being summer, the sun was still quite high in the sky.

Ashley went outside to welcome them as they arrived. Henry was still driving his old 1961 Chevrolet Impala. It was a classic—baby blue paint with white trim, and well maintained, even after all these years.

“Hi, Gran,” she said, strolling down the front steps to give her grandmother a hug. Grace was a tall woman, slender with a kind face and blonde hair which had all but turned an icy shade of gray.

Grace kissed her on the cheek, cradling her face in her hands. “Oh my Darling, look at you. So beautiful.” Her eyes crinkled.

Henry strolled over, and gave Ashley a hug. “How are you sweetheart?”

“I’m well, Grandpa—how are you? Still driving the Chevy.” Ashley said nodding towards the car.

Henry laughed. “I wouldn’t drive anything else. Besides, this car is the only reason your grandmother married me!” He shot Grace a wink and she swatted her hand at him.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “There were a few other reasons. Of course, I can’t think what they are at this moment.”

It was nice to be around family. They hadn’t changed a bit.

“Something smells good,” Henry said as he stepped in through the front door.

“I’m in the kitchen!” Jane’s voice rang out.

Grace took Ashley by the arm. “Where’s Steven?” she asked. “I thought he was coming.” Ashley’s grandparents hadn’t met Steven yet. He’d been away on a business trip when they last visited New York a few years ago.

“No, Gran. He has to go to Japan this week for work. It’s a shame, he was looking forward to finally getting to meet you and grandpa.”

 

Dinner was great. They ate outside in the garden, making the most of the late sunset—Ashley discovered, surprisingly, how much she had missed her mom’s home-cooked meals. The conversation seemed to centre on Ashley’s life in the city—work, Steven, future plans.

“I still can’t get over the fact that this is your first visit home in eight years,” Grace said.

Ashley shrugged and smiled, a little embarrassed. “Well life has been so hectic and busy, but I know I should make an effort to visit more often. I do love it here. It’s just it brings back some painful memories.” She swallowed hard. “And some good ones too.” She forced a smile and patted her grandmother’s hand.

“Well, we wish you’d visit more often,” Jane said. “It’s good to have you home. I don’t suppose Steven would consider moving here, would he? What with all the technology these days I’m sure he could run his office here and do business online.”

Ashley couldn’t help but laugh at her mother’s suggestion. “Mom, I don’t think you realize how hands-on Steven’s job is. Besides, if he were interested in moving out of the city—which he isn’t—Sweet Home would be the last place he would move to.”

Jane looked offended. “What’s wrong with Sweet Home? This town has progressed over the years. We have a Walmart now.”

Ashley laughed and raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, not helping your case.”

Jane nodded. “All right, all right, but promise me you’ll try to visit more often than once every eight years.” Jane stood to clear the table.

After dinner they had a simple fruit salad with ice cream for dessert. Despite the fact that the sun was just setting at 8, Ashley was exhausted.

“Are you OK, Ashley?” Gran asked. “You look a bit pale.”

“I believe ‘hung over’ is a more fitting term,” Martin said.

“First night back in town and you’re already out partying—I’m shocked.” Henry gawked at Ashley. “I didn’t even get an invite!”

“That’s because you’re usually asleep by 7:30, dear,” Grace said.

Henry shrugged, not bothering to deny the allegation.

“Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t seem to recover as quickly as I did a few years ago.” Ashley smiled.

“Well, don’t stay up on account of us, Ashley. Go and get some sleep. We’ll have plenty of time to chat during the week.” Gran smiled, placing her hand on Ashley’s forearm.

“Thanks, Gran. Mom, can I give you a hand clearing up?” Ashley gestured to the dishes on the table.

“Don’t be silly; go to bed.” Jane waved a hand, signalling for her to leave.

“Are you sure? I feel bad.”

“I’m positive. Besides, the dishwasher does most of the hard work.”

“OK, good night.” She kissed them all on their heads and headed to her room. Her eyes were heavy and she felt like she could collapse on the stairs and fall asleep right there and then.

 

Chapter 5

 

Ashley’s feet pounded against the pavement.

Her lungs felt stretched to their maximum capacity with each breath and her heart thudded a steady rhythmic beat. Ashley ran alongside the quiet street parallel to the river. It was set to be another warm day and she wanted to get some exercise before it was too hot to do anything. The sun was out and an assembly of cicadas somewhere amongst the trees started their monotonous chorus.

It felt good to get moving again.

She was beginning to feel back to her normal self again after getting a good night’s sleep. Steven had always been more disciplined than her when it came to exercise—‘healthy body, healthy mind’, he had always said.

Ashley stopped as she reached the bridge on Pleasant Valley Road, and leaned forward, resting her hands on her thighs to catch her breath. She rose and gazed out over the river as she took a deep drink of her water. It was a pretty spot, with a few tourists having an early picnic on the bank below and a couple of kayaks out on the river.

She still had over five miles to go to make it back to her mom’s house, but that was OK. Running helped clear her mind. Whenever she felt weighed down it was relieving to get some time alone to think things through clearly, like the current situation with Steven. She couldn’t put her finger on whatever it was that was holding her back from making the decision to move in with him. Was it that big of a deal? What’s the worst that could possibly happen? If it didn’t work out, she could always find another place. There were always rooms advertised that were available for rent.

 

When Ashley got back to the house, her mom and Martin were out. There was another note on the countertop.

 

Ashley,

Don’t forget the dress fitting appointment with Gina this morning. I’ll meet you there.

Mom xx

 

She had just enough time to shower and change before heading off. Her mom had left her car for Ashley and had gone with Martin.

Gina’s store hadn’t changed. At all. Ashley walked in to see Jane and Gina leaning over the counter peering into a notebook and nodding their heads. Upon noticing Ashley they closed the book and came over to greet her.

Gina was in her late fifties with short dark hair and a serious, thoughtful expression. She always wore a pair of glasses attached to a thin metal chain that hung behind her neck and dressed eclectically with bold tones, fancy scarves, and caked-on makeup. She could only imagine what these ladies had created for her to wear to the wedding. At least there wouldn’t be anyone there she wanted to impress.

“Ashley, welcome home!” Gina beamed, holding out her arms to hug her. “Oh, you are a tiny little thing aren’t you. Let’s get you measured up for this dress, shall we?”

Gina took the measuring tape that she had slung over her shoulder and began wrapping it around Ashley’s waist.

“Am I allowed to see this dress yet?” Ashley asked. “No way. You won’t be seeing it until Saturday,” Gina said, shaking her head.

Jane watched on, smiling mysteriously.

“Can you tell me the color? Or the style?”

“Nope and nope,” Jane said.

Ashley rolled her eyes playfully at her mother and shook her head. “You know, I could have had my measurements taken in Brooklyn. There is a great little dressmaking shop just down the road from where I work,” Ashley said.

“No, no, no!” Gina gasped, as though Ashley had sworn. “I’ve had someone do that before and their measurements were all out. I spent hours trying to fix everything up. Your mother and grandmother have gone to a lot of trouble with this dress, and there’s no way I’d want to risk ruining it with incorrect measurements.”

After a few more measurements she was all done.

Gina said goodbye, pushed her glasses further up her nose and went back to writing in the mysterious notebook.

Jane and Ashley had to squint as they stepped outside. The sun felt extra hot today, there wasn’t any breeze at all and it was still only early—10:30 a.m.

“Do you need your car back? I was going to go to the cafe and visit Bryan. He wanted me to come and check out the new renovations,” Ashley said.

“No, I have to go and meet Martin at the hardware store. He’s picking up a few things to get the garden in order for this weekend. I’ll see you whenever you get home.” Jane kissed Ashley on the cheek again and began walking down the street towards the hardware store.

Ashley decided to walk, as it was only around the block. Normally there would be plenty of available parking, but with the Jamboree coming up this weekend the parking spaces along the street were few and far between.

Ashley barely recognised the cafe when she stepped inside. Bryan was behind the counter busily preparing two plates of food at the same time. He looked relieved when he spotted her.

“Ashley!” He beamed. “I was about to call you.” He looked stressed—frantic even.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Amanda, one of my waitresses, didn’t come in today and we’re flat out!” He motioned with his hand to the tables around the cafe, all occupied. “I’m desperate—I need your help. Pleeease.” He pressed his palms together as though he were praying.

“Umm, sure, I can try. But I haven’t waitressed in years.”

“That’s fine, that’s totally fine. Thank you—you’re my favorite sister!”

“I’m your only sister.” She cocked one eyebrow.

“Oh yeah.” He handed her a plain black apron and before she had even finished tying it up behind her back he was handing her the meals he had been plating up.

“These are for table four,” he said, flashing her a grin.

 

Ashley couldn’t believe it when she finally stopped to check the time. It was almost 5 p.m. and the constant flow of customers all day had finally died down, leaving only a few stragglers sipping cappuccinos and enjoying Bryan’s organic, gluten-free cakes and slices.

Bryan appeared in the kitchen doorway, walking towards Ashley while drying his hands on the tea towel he had had slung over his shoulder all afternoon.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said, grasping her shoulders. “I literally could not have gotten through today without you—did you see the Hammonds earlier? Remember them?”

Ashley nodded and laughed. “Yes, I remember the Hammonds. More specifically, I remember when you and Will Hammond threw that massive party at their house and then his parents banned you from ever going there again.”

Bryan laughed and ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah, that was a good party. They eventually forgave me. Anyway, I didn’t give you a proper tour earlier—what do you think of the new renovation’s?”

“Yeah it looks excellent. So much more space in here now. And I love the whole black chalkboard wall—such a great idea for the menu, and you can always update the chalk artwork whenever you feel like having a change. It’s very cool.”

“That was Jay’s idea, actually. He put in the new counter and completely rebuilt the kitchen and removed that wall that was dividing the room—you remember that?” Bryan asked.

Ashley nodded. She had a sudden unnerving flashback to Saturday night.

“His business is booming, not just in Sweet Home, but the whole district. He’s getting jobs as far away as Portland.”

Bryan checked his watch. “That reminds me, I need you to do me one more favor. What time do you need to be back at Mom’s?”

Ashley shrugged. “She said any time is fine.”

“Great, because I need to pick up the food van for Friday at 5:30 today and I promised Jay I’d drop off his final check for the work he did. I was hoping you could take it out to him.”

Ashley’s mouth fell open. “Are you serious? Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“I don’t have any other option. Any other day I’d do it myself.”

“I’m the last person he’d want to see, and I’m not that keen on seeing him myself.”

“He’s going to be at the wedding so it’s probably best to get it over and done with now rather than later, don’t you think?”

“What? He’s coming to the wedding?” Ashley couldn’t believe it.

“Of course he is—our parents and his parents have been friends since forever.”

The last of the patrons left and Bryan switched the door sign to closed.

“Can’t you do it tomorrow?” Ashley asked, feeling the anxiety creeping up inside.

Bryan looked at her and she could see from the look in his eyes how much he needed her help.

“Fine! But you owe me. Big time!”

“Thank you. Have I told you that you’re the best? You’re the best!” He quickly ducked into the kitchen, returning with an envelope and a small white paper bag which he handed to Ashley. She looked quizzically at the bag.

“Oh, it’s a lemon meringue pie made with organic lemons and free-range eggs—he’ll love it,” Bryan said.

 

It took more than twenty minutes to drive to Jays place.

Although it had been years since she’d been there, she knew every turn. The road snaked and swerved, twisting through the woods beside the lake.

He had lived there with his parents, until his mother had been killed in a freak car accident when he was a child.

Her palms were beginning to sweat and on more than one occasion she was tempted to turn the car around and head back to town. Country music played quietly through her mom’s car stereo, but it sounded distant and muffled as different scenarios played through her mind.

Will he be happy to see me?

Maybe he’d come walking out smiling and they’d make friendly conversation. A bit of idle chit-chat. Then she’d leave and feel silly for getting herself worked up over nothing.

The old house came into view as she drove up the rise through the trees. It had a partial view of the lake through the trees.

Considering Jay had a ‘booming business’ as a building contractor, the house looked dark and run-down. Maybe he was too busy making everyone else’s homes look beautiful he had no time to work on his own.

There was no car and she felt a flood of relief at the thought that perhaps she could return the check to Bryan, knowing that she had tried to deliver the payment to Jay but he had been out.

She parked the car, almost forgetting to pull on the parking brake. She took a deep breath to compose herself and stepped out of the car, taking the envelope and bag containing the pie with her. It was still light, but visibility was not so good in the thick of the woods, as the trees cast long dark shadows around her.

She slowly climbed the three steps leading up to the porch. The timber porch was old and inundated with cracks, chipped in places. She wondered if it would even hold her weight or if at any second the planks would give way beneath her feet sending her tumbling to the ground beneath.

Holding the bag and envelope in her left hand she took another deep steadying breath and knocked five times.

She waited.

A few birds fluttered somewhere in the distance and the sounds of cicadas filled the air. It was still stifling hot, and she fanned her face with the envelope.

She knocked five times more.

Still no answer.

How long should she wait?

She looked around, no signs of movement. In fact the house looked like it hadn’t been lived in for a while. Cobwebs veiled the window frames. Had Jay moved? She hadn’t even bothered to ask Bryan, but surely he would have told her.

Maybe I should leave it on his front door step?

She wondered if she should give Bryan a call? As she started for the steps, she heard the sound of a car engine approaching.

She stopped at the top of the steps, straining to see who it was. A black Ford pickup truck slowly made its way up the driveway, and her heart began to race as she recognised Jay behind the wheel. He pulled up just yards away from her. An old golden labrador retriever bounded out of the back tray and pranced towards her.

“Benson?” She was surprised the old dog was still alive. “Is that you? Look at you.” She bent over to pat the dog as he sniffed her, his tail wagging so fast the entire back half of his body wiggled.

“You lost or something?” Jay asked from the car. His face was blank, and he avoided eye contact.

“Uh, no. I was looking for you, actually.” She forced half a smile. “Bryan asked me to drop these out to you. I was going to leave them on your front step.” She pointed to the front step.

“Yeah, well, I don’t live here anymore.” His voice held an undertone of anger. She quickly handed him the bag and envelope.

“So what are you doing out here if you don’t live here?” She placed her hands on her hips and looked around, not that it was any of her business.

“I live further up.” He indicated towards a small dirt road that disappeared into the trees.

“Does your dad still live here?”

“Nah, Bill Canby bought this place as a vacation home a few years back.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a beautiful place.” Ashley smiled looking around at the trees. “I can understand why he bought it. I mean, the view of the lake is—”

“Is that it?” Jay interrupted, staring her in the eye, brows furrowed and lips pressed together.

“Pardon?” Ashley was startled by his words.

“I said, is that it? Are we done? Because I’ve got work I need to do.”

Ashley didn’t know what to say. It was obvious he didn’t want her there.

“I’m getting the hint you’re not too happy to see me.”

“You don’t miss a thing.” His voice sounded hostile, and she saw his jaw tighten.

“I’m gonna go.” She raised her hands in defeat and started back towards her car.

“Yeah, well, that’s one thing you’re good at.”

She opened the car door, cheeks burning. “Ass,” she said as she stepped into the car, just loud enough for him to hear.

As she drove away she could see Benson leap back into the tray of his truck and he slowly continued along his path.

Her eyes burned and she almost felt like crying.

He was rude. Seriously, there was no need to act like that.

Since when had he grown so bitter? Then again, she had pretty much walked out of his life eight years ago with no explanation.

She wished she was brave enough to turn the car around and give him a piece of her mind.

But she wasn’t.

And she wouldn’t.

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 6

 

Ashley followed the same path as her run yesterday morning. It felt a bit cooler which was a nice change from the stifling heat of the day before.

She mentally tried to shake off the memories of last night’s encounter with Jay. She still hadn’t gotten over his harsh insults. Any questions she had about how he felt towards her had now been answered.

Oh well, a few more days and I’ll be out of this town and back with Steven.

She was planning on stopping in at the cafe and seeing Bryan but was hesitant, in case he asked her to work again. She could smell the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans from a block away and the enticing scent won her over.

Ashley was relieved when she walked into the cafe and saw that Amanda had turned up for work today, even so, it was still quite busy.

“Hey.” Bryan smiled as he walked out from the kitchen “You’ll be happy to know I’ve decided to give you the day off work.”

“Ha ha,” Ashley said. “Best boss in the world.”

Bryan laughed. “That’s what I keep telling everyone.”

“How’d you go with that check for Jay?” He began making a cappuccino.

Ashley sat down on one of the stools near the counter. “Terrible. He hates me.”

Bryan frowned. “What? He does not.”

“Trust me, he does. Oh, and thanks for telling me that he’d moved.”

Bryan lifted his palm against his forehead and gritted his teeth dramatically. “Ah, I’m so sorry. He hasn’t lived there for years. I keep forgetting that you haven’t been around.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter now, he’s got his check, and I just want to let you know, if you ever need anything—and I mean anything—delivered to him, you’ll have to do it yourself.”

Bryan handed Ashley a cappuccino. She laughed when she saw he had created a little peace symbol in the foam on top.

“You want anything to eat? We still have the breakfast menu going, but if you want an early lunch I can get Dean to whip something up.” Dean was the chef.

“No thanks. Mom made me some of her gluten-free raisin toast earlier. Tasted like cardboard.”

Bryan laughed and returned to preparing a sandwich for one of the customers. Ashley flicked through the local paper. There were several pages were covered with photos and featured different articles about the upcoming Country Music Jamboree. She remembered back to a time when she dreamed about working for the Sweet Home Gazette.

“Well I’ll be.” A loud voice boomed from the entrance of the cafe.

Ashley looked up to see a familiar face. It was Sam, Jay’s father.

“Little Ashley Harper, all grown up!” He smiled as he walked over to greet her and gave her a hug, cutting off her oxygen supply.

“It’s good to see you, Ash. How’s the Big Apple treating you?”

He hadn’t changed a bit. He was tall, with thinning hair. He wore his regular attire—old jeans, leather belt with a big buckle, and a button-down shirt. He used to wear a cowboy hat and Ashley was glad to see he still had it, as he carried it in his hand. Ashley’s father and Sam had been lifelong friends. His face was full of lines, most probably from smiling too much.

“I’m well, Sam. The city is great; keeping me busy.”

“Good, good,” he said. “I suppose you’re back for your Mama’s wedding?”

“Yeah, back for the week.”

Bryan watched on with interest as he listened to their conversation.

“When do you go home? You should go and pay Jay a visit. I’m sure he’d love to see you.”

Ashley choked on her coffee and began coughing and spluttering. Sam patted her on the back.

“You all right?” He frowned.

“I’m OK, I’m OK.” Ashley insisted between gasps for air. Finally she cleared her airway enough to speak. “Uh, yeah. I might stop by and see how he’s doing.” She gave a thin smile, knowing she had no intention whatsoever of returning to Jay’s property.

“Here you go Sam.” Bryan interrupted and handed Sam a white paper and a large drink in a takeout cup.

“Thanks,” Sam said and shot Ashley a quick smile. “Best organic, free range, non-GMO, tree-hugging sandwiches in town.” He winked.

Ashley laughed loudly, gaining the attention of several of the patrons.

Sam paid and began to walk out. “I’ll see you on Saturday, Ash,” he called.

Ashley waved, ignoring the fact that Bryan was struggling not to laugh.

“What?”

“Why didn’t you tell him you already saw Jay?”

“And say what? Oh yeah, I did visit your son and he did love to see me. So much, in fact, he told me to get off his property.”

“Did Jay really tell you to leave?” Bryan asked, now serious.

“Not in so many words, but that was pretty much the gist of it.”

“That doesn’t sound like something he’d say. We’re pretty close and he’s never said anything bad about you, even after everything that happened-”

“Everything that happened? What do you mean? I never did anything wrong.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Bryan raised his hands. “I’m just saying after you left, it broke his heart. And I’m not saying it’s your fault, or that you did it intentionally; I know you had to go and so did Jay, but it was hard on him for a long time.”

“We were kids. It wasn’t like it was anything serious.”

Bryan raised his eyebrows.

Ashley opened her mouth to say something but decided against it. She had learned in New York that sometimes in life it was better to say nothing and let it go rather than cause conflict. She sipped the last of her coffee.

“Are you mad?” Bryan asked cautiously.

“No. I guess we’re even now though—you made the effort to drive all the way to Portland to pick me up, and I made the effort to drop the check to Jay.” She shook her head. “I should have smashed that pie right in his face.” She smiled at the thought of seeing his self-righteousness face smeared with pie.

Bryan shook his head, a lopsided smile on his lips. “What are your plans for tomorrow?”

“Nothing yet—why? What are Jess and the kids up to?”

“The girls are at a friends’ house today but we should do something tomorrow.”

“Good idea. It’s not like I’ve got anything to do,” Ashley said. “Literally.” No work had left her with too much free time.

“Cool. I’ll talk to Jess and I’ll give you a call. Maybe we could head out to the lake for a swim.”

“Sounds good. I better get back and see if mom needs a hand with anything for Saturday.” Ashley stood up.

“Have you got Mom’s car?” Bryan asked.

“No, I’ll walk.”

“Are you sure? It’s a long walk. You can take the Prius if you like.”

“Thanks, but I don’t mind the exercise.” Ashley smiled mischievously. “And I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car!”

When Ashley arrived home she discovered her mom didn’t need any help preparing for Saturday. In fact, she and Martin weren’t even home, Jane had left another note informing her that they had gone to play golf.

Why didn’t she text her instead of writing notes?

The rest of the day was uneventful.

Too uneventful.

Ashley paced from room to room, looking for random tasks to keep her busy. A bit of cleaning, straightening the ‘Bless This House’, and, ‘A Family That Prays Together Stays Together’, plaques that hung on the walls.

She always found it intriguing, yet infuriating, that her mother had clung to her faith in the face of the fact that her husband had died a sudden and aggressive death despite all her prayers to the ‘Magical Man’ in the sky.

He must have been too busy to hear her.

Her father was diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, only weeks after she’d graduated high school. He was given a year to live, and told there was no cure. He didn’t even make it that long: within five months he was gone. By then he had deteriorated so much he was barely recognisable. Those few months had been like living within a nightmare. Ashley had watched as her father degenerated from being a strong, capable man to a prisoner trapped within his own body.

She had avoided visiting him at the hospital towards the end—whether it was out of fear of seeing him, or anger that this had happened to them, she didn’t know. Perhaps it was a little of both.

That was the one thing that irked her about religious people—the world could be crumbling around them and they would still be there, claiming, My God will save me’. Delusional.

Then there was the fact that most of them were hypocrites, telling Ashley she had to get right with God as they praised God on Sunday morning, yet spent their Saturday nights shaking their booty in the club. Or at least the ones she knew did.

Her father had held to his beliefs throughout the steep slope of his illness. He spoke of God’s goodness and mercy until he could no longer physically speak—and even then she knew he continued to praise God internally. What a waste of time that had been.

She needed something to keep her busy and keep her mind occupied. She resorted to reorganising the refrigerator.

Hoping to check in with Steven she tried calling him around three in the afternoon, but it went straight to his voice mail. He text her back shortly after saying he was in a meeting and would call her later.

When Jane and Martin arrived home she was glad that she could finally have some conversation.

She helped her mom cook dinner as Martin went out to fertilize the garden. Ashley caught her mother smiling out the window as Martin busily worked away, sprinkling organic fertilizer around the flower garden.

“He loves gardening doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes, he’s so good at it too, a real green thumb. It’s incredible to think of how much the whole garden has grown and bloomed since he came along.” Jane smiled contentedly.

Ashley had been tossing the salad but stopped. “Do you mean the actual garden, or is this a metaphor for your life and love or something?”

Jane smiled again. “I was talking about the actual garden, but I guess you could say he has helped breathe new life into my garden too. After your father passed I thought that that was it for me. I thought I would never find love again. I was OK with that, but I guess God had other plans for me, and His plans are so much better than I could have ever imagined or hoped for.”

“Well, I’m happy for you guys.” Ashley smiled. “I really am. Martin is great—apart from all his lame ‘dad’ jokes.”

“What? I think his jokes are great.” Jane chuckled. “But thanks, honey. I think he’s pretty special too. I can’t wait for the day we get to plan your wedding.”

Ashley felt herself tense up. “Yeah, I don’t know if that’s something Steven and I want to do,” she said.

Jane looked confused. “You don’t want to get married?”

“Not really—I’m mean, it seems like such an unnecessary event—for us, not for you. I’m happy for you and Martin of course, because that’s what you want to do. I don’t think I’m that interested in a wedding.” Ashley shook her head, keeping her gaze on the salad she was tossing.

“You think you might elope or something?” Jane was genuinely puzzled.

“No, I don’t think we’ll bother getting married at all.”

Jane stared at Ashley, eyes wide with surprise.

“What?” Ashley asked after an uncomfortable pause.

“Nothing.” Jane shook her head. “It’s just that comes as a bit of a shock. I thought you always wanted to get married. Well, you did when you were younger.”

“I also wanted a pony when I was younger, but I guess things change. Steven and I don’t consider marriage to be a priority. We don’t need a piece of paper to prove that we love each other.”

Ashley began to chop the carrots, pretending she couldn’t tell Jane was gawking at her. She knew her mother was disappointed by what she had said but it wasn’t like she could force Steven to marry her. Besides, she didn’t really want to get married, did she?

Her phone rang. She wiped her hands on the tea towel and answered it. Tania.

“Hey Tania, what’s up?”

“Oh my gosh, craziest day at work today.” Tania was always over–dramatic, the kind of person who would drop a pen on the floor and declare that the world is ending.

“Why? What happened?” Ashley asked as she strolled out onto the front porch for some privacy. The sun was still out and a soothing melody of birds singing in the distance filled the air.

“Well, for one, Dianne is in a bad mood.”

Ashley scoffed. “When is she not in a bad mood?”

“No, she’s like, furious. Stephanie couldn’t find the editorial layout you created for this weeks’ issue, and Dianne completely lost it at us.” Stephanie was the young, bright new intern at the office.

“What? I emailed it to Stephanie on Friday—it’s in her email.”

“Well, you’d think so, but it is gone.”

“Did she check her other folders? It can’t have just vanished.”

“Yep, she checked everywhere. It is gone—either that, or she deliberately deleted it herself.”

Ashley frowned, confused. “Why would she delete it? Surely she wouldn’t do it on purpose?”

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised Ash. She wants your job and I have a feeling she’s going to take advantage of you being away this week to play favorites with Dianne. It’s embarrassing. She’s following Dianne around like a puppy—getting her coffee and acting ever-so-sweet, and Dianne’s totally buying it! Stephanie even ‘volunteered’ to stay back late tonight to finish the layout herself.”

“Well she lost it so it’s only fair that she fixes it.”

“That’s the thing, Ash. She told Dianne she never even got the email from you! So now Dianne thinks you took off without finishing your job.”

Ashley’s heart began to race—she’d sent the email. She knew she had, because she worked extra hard to get it finished in time. She knew Stephanie envied her position at the office, but she didn’t think she would actually stoop this low. “I can’t even access my files from here. They’re all stored on my laptop, which I left at home—I knew I should have brought it with me!” Ashley let out a frustrated sigh. “I’ll give Steph a call and see if we can figure out what is going on.”

“Cool. But don’t tell her I told you—I don’t want her to know it was me, OK?”

“I won’t say anything, promise.”

“So, anyway, how’s the country? Are you missing the Big Apple yet?”

Ashley laughed. “Well yes, and no. I miss Steven-”

“And me!” Tania interrupted.

“And you, of course, but it’s nice to have some peace and quiet.”

“Peace and quiet? What do you do out there?”

“Not much. Just sit in the garden or on the jetty, and relax.”

Tania laughed. “I think I would die of boredom. Ash, I better go, I’m meeting this guy I met at the bar on Friday night—Harry. He’s a web designer and he’s totally loaded.” Tania laughed. “He’s cute too, so it’s a win-win for me. Yay!”

Ashley couldn’t help but laugh. “Sounds great. Have fun, and thanks for letting me know about work.”

“No prob. Bye.”

Ashley said goodbye and hung up. She immediately dialled Stephanie’s number, which went straight to her voice mail. “Hey Steph, it’s Ashley. Can you please give me a call as soon as you get a free moment? Thanks.”

She hung up and took a deep breath.

She stared at her phone, willing it to ring, but it didn’t. All that could be heard was the steady singing of the cicadas. She could hear her mother and Martin laughing in the kitchen.

There wasn’t a lot she could do from this end. She had no choice but to wait for Stephanie to call her, then she might be able to get to the bottom of it all.

She sighed, trying to suppress her anxiety, and went back inside to help with the dinner.

 

The phone rang after dinner, as Ashley was getting ready for bed. Steven, not Stephanie.

“Hey stranger,” Ashley answered the phone. “How’s everything going?”

“Great, actually. We managed to acquire another high profile client today—and I looked at an apartment in Upper Manhattan that would blow your mind. Views straight over the city, two bedrooms, massive office, and close to everything.”

“Sounds beautiful,” Ashley said.

“Good, because I put a deposit on it,” Steven stated.

“What?”

“I bought it. For us.”

Ashley was speechless. On one hand she felt excited that he had thought of her in his decision making, but she hadn’t even decided if she was ready to live with him yet, let alone told him.

“It’s empty at the moment, and I pulled a few strings so we can start moving in as early as next week. I’ll arrange a removalist to do all the work so you don’t have to lift a finger. I’ll take care of it all—don’t worry about a thing.”

“Steven, I thought you said you were going to wait? I haven’t even said I was ready to move in yet. I haven’t had a chance to speak with Hallie and I’m sure she’d be interested in knowing I was moving out in less than a week!”

“I’ve already called Hallie and offered to cover the rent payments for you until she finds someone new.”

“What?” She could hardly believe what she was hearing, and was more than a little angry that he had gone ahead and done all of this behind her back.

“Hallie was totally fine about it,” Steven said. “So now you don’t have anything holding you back, right?”

Wrong.

She didn’t know what was holding her back, but her gut was telling her it was a bad idea.

“I just . . . I can’t believe you did that Steven.”

“Are you serious?” Ashley detected a hint of anger in his voice. “Why can’t you be thankful? It’s not like you have to do anything. I can only see positives from your side—a new apartment uptown, plenty of space, we get to spend more time with each other. I’ve already dealt with Hallie and you don’t have to lift a finger. What more could you want? Seriously, I don’t want to sound conceited, but there are hundreds of girls who would love to be in your position.” There was a pause. “Is it me?”

“No,” Ashley said, it was barely more than a whisper. “It’s not you.”

“Then what? Are you afraid of commitment? If it doesn’t work out, I will personally make sure you have another apartment to move into. Like I said, it’s not a marriage. There are no legally binding contracts.”

Ashley felt embarrassed when she couldn’t come up with anything to say in her defence.

“Are you there?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Well say something!”

She opened her mouth to speak but was at a loss for words. What could she say?

“You know what. You’re preoccupied with family stuff at the moment, so I’ll go and I’ll give you a call later.”

He hung up.

Her head was spinning and she felt nauseous. Things were going from bad to worse. Here she was, in a relationship with one of the most eligible bachelors in New York, who had just purchased what she could only imagine would be a ridiculously expensive, ritzy apartment in the middle of the city for her and she was. . . what exactly, too afraid to move in with him? She was angry with herself. He was right, she should be thankful. She should be jumping at the chance to move in with him, but something was holding her back. Fear? Maybe her problem, was that she was never satisfied and always striving for more, like the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence—or the other side of the country.

She looked in the mirror at her reflection.

“Get yourself together, Ash,” she whispered.

She picked up her phone and scrolled through her contacts to Steven’s name. She held her finger above the ‘call’ button but decided not to press it. No, she didn’t even know what she was going to say and didn’t want to aggravate him further. He had one of the biggest business meetings of his life in less than two days and she didn’t want to be responsible for upsetting him this close to landing the deal. She put her phone on the dressing table and climbed into bed, switching off the bedside light. She lay down, trying to clear her mind from negative thoughts, hoping a good nights’ sleep would help ease her mind. But as all the different scenarios and possibilities flooded her head, sleep seemed to elude her.

 

Chapter 7

 

Despite the fact that she had gotten very little sleep during the night, Ashley awoke determined to make the most of the day—it was a new opportunity to enjoy the serenity of Sweet Home and share in her mothers’ excitement.

It was only three days until the wedding and the weather forecast was for a warm, balmy day without any signs of strong winds or rain. Martin and Jane wanted to start tidying up the garden and hedges, and getting everything into place. Ashley offered to help.

She wore her faded denim shorts and a black tank top, and had her hair tied back into a simple ponytail. It was too hot for makeup and her skin felt surprisingly soft and clearer after going a few days without the heavy makeup she usually wore in the city. Tania would be horrified if she were to see Ashley looking like this. If the outfits she had seen in the bar on Saturday night was anything to go by, she could stroll down the main street in her pyjamas if she wanted to and no one would bat an eyelid.

It was nearing midday when her phone rang. She stood from the flowers she was weeding and retrieved her phone from her back pocket.

“Hey Bryan.”

“Hi, just wondering if you were still up to getting together with us this afternoon?”

“Of course! I’ve hardly seen the kids since I’ve been here.”

Bryan laughed. “Great. Yeah, they’ve been itching to hang out with you too, but they’ve been keeping busy with vacation care at the school most days. They’re at a friends’ house today. Jess is picking them up around two and we’re going to head out to the lake for a swim. I can pick you up on the way if you’re not doing anything.”

“Sounds perfect.” Ashley wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. Her gardening gloves were filthy.

“See you then,” Bryan said, and hung up.

She was looking forward to a break—pulling out weeds in ninety degree heat was exhausting, and a swim in the lake sounded like heaven.

 

Bryan pulled up in their dad’s old pickup truck shortly after two. He went out the back to inspect Jane and Martin’s handiwork in the garden while Ashley grabbed her bag and sunglasses from inside. When she came out, Bryan was getting into the car and Jane was standing nearby, trying to cool herself down by fanning her face with her hand.

“You sure you don’t want to come, Mom?” Bryan asked.

“Oh no, you guys go, have fun. We’ve still got some work to do here. We’ll finish up soon though. What time do you think you’ll be home, Ashley?”

Ashley paused and looked at Bryan. “I’m not sure. What time do you think Bryan?”

Bryan shrugged. “About five. Is that OK?”

Both Ashley and Jane nodded.

“No rush. We’ll see you whenever you get home. We’ll probably aim for a late dinner—it’s too hot to eat before seven. Make sure you wear sunscreen!” Jane called as Ashley climbed into the truck and Bryan began to reverse out of the driveway.

 

The main swimming area at the lake was crowded. It seemed all the locals had the same idea as the tourists in this heat wave—cooling off in the lake. Several boats were out on the lake, some were water skiing, while others were looking to secure their own private area of the lake to spend the afternoon. Bryan kept driving and Ashley didn’t need to ask where he was going. She knew he’d be going to the swimming spot they had always gone when they were younger.

As they pulled up they could see Jess helping get the kids into their sun protective tops and was liberally applying sunscreen to their arms and faces.

This area was more secluded, with only a handful of other people around. It was a beautiful spot, lots of sandy banks with a jetty on the left, and a swing rope hidden behind the trees off to the right.

The girls came running over to Ashley as soon as they spotted her. They completely bypassed Bryan and wrapped their little arms around Ashley’s waist.

Bryan gave Jess a quick kiss and proceeded to kick off his shoes and started applying the sunscreen.

“Aunty Ashley!” Coco squealed. “I can swim without any water wings. But Harley can’t because he’s a baby. Can you swim?”

Ashley laughed. “I haven’t gone swimming in a long time but yes, I can swim.”

“Good, it’s important to be able to swim in case a shark or an alligator try to get you when you’re in the water.”

“There are no sharks or alligators here, dummy.” Meika rolled her eyes.

They took Ashley’s hands and started walking over to their parents.

“Do you like my swim suit? Grandma bought it for my birthday.” Coco looked down at her pretty pink and purple love-heart patterned simming suit.

“I do, I was going to say it was beautiful—and so is yours, Meika.”

“Sunscreen?” Bryan offered the tube to Ashley.

“Thanks, but I brought my own.” She pulled out a tube from her bag.

Bryan frowned. “Don’t use that rubbish. It’s full of synthetic ingredients—parabens, mineral oil, chemicals.” He listed them off on his fingers. “Use mine.” He handed Ashley his tube.

Jess smiled at Ashley and shrugged. “You get used to it after a while.”

“What?” Bryan asked. “I’m only trying to look out for everybody.”

“I know, baby.” Jess squeezed his cheeks together with one hand and gave him a kiss. “Thank you.”

Soon they were all waist deep in the water, the kids splashing around and attempting to stay on the inflatable toys they had brought to play on. Even Harley was having fun with his water wings. Bryan tossed the girls through the air like rag dolls, and they would hit the water at speeds Ashley thought would knock the wind out of them, but they resurfaced each time with enormous smiles on their faces, ready for more. Meika spotted a friend from school and they ran off together to make sandcastles. Coco decided to join them, so Jess and Ashley went back onto the sand to dry off and lay down in the sun.

Bryan stayed in the shallows with Harley, who couldn’t get enough of splashing around in the water.

“How’s your week been so far?” Jess asked as they both rested back on their elbows, keeping a watchful eye on the kids.

“Relaxing,” Ashley said. “I don’t know how you survive with these kids—they’re so energetic! It looks exhausting.”

Jess smiled and nodded. “It is. All the time. But I love it. Every day they make me laugh—and sometimes cry, and sometimes drink. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re such a blessing. I couldn’t imagine my life without them.”

“Even with all the chaos that comes with having kids?” Ashley asked.

“Even with all the chaos. One day, when you have kids, you’ll understand. They change you—teach you patience, love, forgiveness. You’ll see.”

Ashley smiled, but her heart was hurting. She wouldn’t ‘see’, Steven didn’t want kids. Loving Steven would mean having to make sacrifices in order to make their relationship work.

“Jay! Dad, look. It’s Uncle Jay!” Coco yelled.

Ashley and Jess sat upright.

Coco was running across the sand at full speed towards the road. Bryan scooped Harley out of the water and waved his arms as though he was trying to signal someone. Ashley turned around to see Jay’s truck, driving in the direction of his house. Bryan caught up with Coco and together they waved Jay down. Ashley saw them start up a conversation and turned back to face the water.

She could feel Jess staring at her.

“You OK?” Jess asked.

“Uh huh.” Ashley nodded, wriggling her toes in the sand.

“Is it weird seeing Jay?”

Ashley shrugged then finally said, “It is a bit.”

Jess nodded. “He’s changed you know, since you left. Grown up a lot. Bryan and him are close, so we get to spend a fair bit of time with him. I bet if you talked to him, you’d see.”

Ashley smiled as Coco came running over.

“Jay’s coming for a swim!” she announced, excited.

Ashley’s heartbeat quickened.

She heard Bryan approaching from behind her.

“Is that all right? I invited him over—I hope you don’t mind. He was only going home for the day anyway.”

Ashley smiled. “Yeah, of course it’s fine. It’s not like it’s my lake.” She could feel her temperature rising, but not from the heat of the sun.

“Dad, throw me in the water again. I want to show Jay how high I can go!” Coco grabbed Bryan’s hand, pulling him towards the water. Harley then grabbed Jess’s hand and tried to pull her up.

“Wim, wim!” he said. Ashley interpreted it as ‘swim, swim’.

“All right.” Jess laughed and stood up.

Ashley was left on her own.

Good. Hopefully Jay will walk straight past and join the others in the water.

“Hey.”

Kill me now.

Benson ran straight by and bounded into the lake. Apparently dogs felt the heat too. Jay stood beside her and she squinted up through the blinding sunlight at him.

“Hi,” she said.

He sat down beside her.

This was awkward and uncomfortable. Wearing only a bikini made her feel overexposed in front of him, even though they had spent many summers here wearing only their swimwear in the past. She looked out towards Bryan, Jess, and the kids, silently cursing Bryan for inviting Jay over, and mentally preparing herself to cop an earful of abuse from Jay.

“I wanted to . . . ah . . . apologize for what I said the other night,” Jay said. “It was disrespectful and rude and I was out of line. I had a bad day, a really bad day, and I know that’s not an excuse, so I’m sorry.”

Ashley was genuinely shocked. Jay had always been quite egotistical, so she knew it took a lot of courage for him to apologize.

He sat beside her with his knees bent, arms resting on his knees and hands clasped together loosely, staring out towards the water. “I understand if you’re still mad at me, and I wouldn’t blame you. I just felt bad and wanted to set things straight. You—”

“I forgive you,” Ashley interrupted, surprising herself.

He looked equally surprised and turned his face towards hers. There was a frown line between his dark blue eyes, indicating there was more going on in his mind than he let on.

“Thank you. For apologizing, I mean. I appreciate that you made the effort.”

He nodded then looked down as though he were shy. “That’s OK.” He smiled. “Do you think maybe we could start over? I’d hate to be responsible for ruining your time here for your mothers’ wedding because I had a bad day and acted like a— what did you call me again? An ass?”

She felt her skin flush and looked down, embarrassed. She wasn’t sure if he had actually heard that insult the other day or not. Evidently he had.

He laughed and she bit her lip, cautiously raising her eyes to his face. She could see he wasn’t angry—maybe even a little amused.

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea. Let’s start over. Clean slate.”

He nodded and looked satisfied, she even detected a hint of happiness in his expression.

“Uncle Jay! Watch me!” Coco yelled as Bryan lifted her up and flung her through the air. Jay laughed, a deep, loud sound, and Ashley couldn’t help but smile at seeing the joy in his face. He had a great smile that lit up his whole face.

Meika yelled, “Jay, can you throw me?”

“I’ll be there in a minute!” Jay called back, cupping his mouth with his hands.

Jay stood and removed his shirt in one swift, fluid movement. Ashley quickly looked away, but not before she had had a chance to admire his physique.

He no longer had the mediocre frame he’d had eight years ago. She recalled Nicole’s comment from the bar on Saturday night, about the men being easy on the eyes. If she was referring to Jay, like Ashley thought she had been, she certainly wasn’t wrong.

He had broad, solid shoulders and his chest had a light covering of dark hair which tapered off as it travelled south down his torso. His stomach was more muscular than she would have imagined after seeing him the other night at the bar. Not that she’d had a chance to get a good look at him in the dimly lit room. She’d just assumed that because of his thick beard and unruly hair that he had neglected to take care of his body.

He hadn’t.

She also noticed his tattoos; three of them. A long thin symbol which resembled an anchor on his right inner forearm, what looked to be an X with four letters in each section on the upper right side of his chest and a large tribal-looking pattern with writing she couldn’t quite make out which ran right from the side of his rib cage right up and continued down the inner side of his bicep. He also had an angry-looking scar on his lower right rib, in a large V-shape.

She imagined that being a builder would be keep him physically fit, but he also had a great tan. He must take his shirt off to work in the summer.

Topless.

In the scorching sun.

Hot.

Why am I even thinking this? What is wrong with me? A sudden surge of heat shot through her veins. She was glad he was going swimming so no one would see her blushing. She could sit there on the sand, alone, and take a moment to calm herself down from her completely irrational and totally inappropriate thoughts, and if she was lucky the earth might open her up and swallow her.

He turned towards her and held out his hand.

Oh no.

“You coming?”

“No, I’ve already been in. You go ahead.” She waved a dismissive hand.

“Aunty Ashley, come in!” Coco called. Ashley couldn’t refuse.

Jay looked down at her, offering his hand.

“I guess I’m coming in after all.” She smiled weakly and took his hand, as she did she couldn’t help envisioning the scene in beauty and the beast. Belle had dainty little hands and the Beasts’ hands seemed monstrously large in comparison to hers. With one quick movement she was on her feet, then he let go of her hand.

Her skin was burning and she was glad for the coolness of the water as she waded in and headed over to Jess and Harley. Harley was giggling gleefully as Benson paddled by. Meika and Coco were arguing about whether Jay or Bryan would be able to throw them the farthest.

It was evident that Jay had the advantage when it came to upper body strength, but Coco went further than Meika, much to Ashley’s surprise and Coco’s delight. Ashley couldn’t quite work out why Jay didn’t use his full potential—maybe whatever was responsible for that scar prevented him from full use of his arm, or perhaps it was to preserve Bryan’s ego—after all, a girls’ first hero should always be her daddy. Jay’s ego had always been larger than life, so the only reason could be due to that scar and whatever injury that had caused.

“You should stop staring,” Jess said to Ashley. “He might notice.”

Ashley felt herself blush again. She couldn’t believe it—she never blushed. She was always in control. Cool, calm and collected—until she came back to Sweet Home, that was.

“What? I don’t—I wasn’t staring. I thought I saw something out in the distance.” Ashley squinted, pointing off into the distance beyond the others.

“Right.” Jess grinned. “Of course you did.”

“I did,” Ashley said, trying her hardest to sound convincing and coming up a long way short. How humiliating.

“So do you think he’s changed? I know you haven’t spent much time with him yet, but he’s different, isn’t he?”

Ashley nodded. “Physically? Oh yeah. But mentally and emotionally? I don’t know.”

“You’d be surprised,” Jess said as she watched Harley, who was trying his hardest to climb onto Benson’s back. He succeeded, and Benson shot off like a rocket. Harley clung on for a few seconds before tumbling off and disappearing briefly beneath the water.

He emerged, spluttering, hair clinging to his face. Jess picked him up. He held out his arms towards Benson. “Again!”

 

After a little while Meika asked if they could go on the rope swing. There were three teenagers using the swing as Ashley and the others walked over to it. Fortunately the other swimmers swung out, dropped into the water, and swam off to find more fun on their own.

Coco insisted on going first, so Bryan helped her and kept a close eye on her as she swung out and dropped into the water.

Meika went next. “Whoo-hoo!”

Next was Bryan, who swung out farther than the girls and quickly swam over to them to make sure they got back to the shore safely. Jay held the rope out to Ashley.

“Ladies first.”

“Oh no, I’m not going on that thing.” Ashley frowned. “I only came over to watch. You go.”

“Come on, you used to love this thing—we used to see who could go the farthest, remember?” Jay grinned.

Ashley smiled. “I do remember. I’m a little old for that now though.” She folded her arms.

“Never. Go on, you know you want to.” Jay cocked one eyebrow and the side of his lip curled up.

He stared at her for the longest time and she finally took the rope and walked backwards with it to get a bit of a run-up. She slid her foot into the noose at the bottom and pushed off. It hit immediately—the weightlessness, the air whizzing past, the feeling of truly being free and totally enjoying this single uninhibited moment. She closed her eyes, opening them again as she felt the momentum slow as the swing neared the end of its reach, then in one swift movement she slipped her foot out and let go of the rope.

The feeling of falling was like none other—the pit of her stomach rose and there was the briefest moment of fear, but the knowledge that there was water below to break her fall meant she was safe.

As she resurfaced, she saw Jay swing past overhead. His weight propelled him much higher than Ashley, then he let go, hugging his knees and curling up into a ball as he fell. He hit the water so hard she had to turn the other way to avoid being sprayed, not only by the huge splash, but the waves he had created. She struggled to keep her breath while she trod water and laughed.

He came up shaking the water from his hair and beard.

“Good to see you haven’t changed.” Ashley laughed as he swam towards her. “Still showing off in front of the ladies.” She nodded over towards the bank where Meika and Coco were laughing and cheering Jay on. Jay smiled as he noticed them and gave them a wave.

“I never showed off in front of the ladies.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow and gave him a disbelieving look.

“Well, maybe one. But you could hardly call her a lady.” He laughed and swam backwards as Ashley tried to splash him.

They had reached the bank by the time Meika swung past again. Jess met them on the bank, carrying Harley, who looked as though he could barely keep his eyes open.

“I’m going to head off and get Harley home for his nap, otherwise he’ll turn into a little terror tonight. Bryan is going to stay with the girls for a bit longer.” She shifted Harleys weight, gave Jay a hug, then Ashley, and walked away.

Bryan and Jay continued swimming with the kids while Ashley retreated to the sandy shores to relax and soak up some sunshine. Those kids sure had a lot of energy. It amazed her that Bryan and Jess managed to keep up with them all the time.

She checked her phone. There were several missed calls from Steven.

They hadn’t spoken since two nights ago. Steven was great, really—stable, secure, motivated and ambitious. But he could be demanding. He liked power—at work and in his relationships.

She knew this about him right from the moment they met. She had only been working at the newspaper for a few months when there had been a massive legal case. Acelebrity was trying to sue the newspaper for libel, claiming a story that they’d published was false. But, in all honesty, when had a celebrity story actually been factual?

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Dianne had retained Steven’s firm to manage their case. He’d just passed the bar exam, and was ready and willing to dive head first into his career, and that he did. One morning, she found a massive bunch of red roses on the front desk, along with a note asking if she would go out to dinner with him. She was shocked—she didn’t even think he knew who she was. It certainly made her the envy at the office for quite a while, and if Steven was interested in her, then so was Dianne.

Their relationship grew from there, but now it felt as though they were at a cross roads, and she didn’t know where to go next. She phoned him.

He answered on the first ring.

“Hi, Ashley.”

“Hi.” Was he still angry with her?

“Listen, I just wanted to say sorry about the other night. I was a jerk and I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

Ashley nodded—not knowing why she did, it wasn’t as though he could see her

“Will you forgive me?”

“Of course I will,” she said. “I want to wait til I get back to talk about it. It’s not something I want to discuss over the phone. It seems it keeps making us fight, and I hate when we fight.”

“Me too,” Steven agreed. “We’ve both had a lot on our minds. I didn’t exactly handle the whole issue in the correct way. I won’t mention it again until we are face to face. I promise.”

“Thank you.” That was a relief.

“Look, I can’t talk for long, Chris is waiting for me to collect all the documents for tomorrow, and I’m going to try to get an early night for once, so I’m ready to fly out tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a good idea. What time is your flight again?” Ashley asked.

“6:15 a.m., but I want to make sure I’m up in time for a workout before I leave.”

Ashley giggled. “I’m sure you could take one day off from exercising.”

“Healthy body, healthy mind.” She could hear the smile in his voice.

“OK, well, take care. I know you’ll be great.”

“Thanks, Ashley. I’ll call you from Japan if I get a free moment.”

“Don’t worry if you can’t, focus on what you need to do. I’ll still be here when you get back.”

“OK. Well, say hi to your mom and Bryan for me.”

“Will do. Bye, I love you.”

“Love you too,” Steven said and hung up.

Well that conversation had gone a lot better than she had expected. She placed her phone into her bag and looked up to see Bryan, Jay, Meika, and Coco headed towards her. Bryan picked up a towel and began drying himself off.

“Did you want to have another quick swim before we head off, Ash?” he asked.

“I do! I do!” Coco shot her hand up in the air.

“No, you just had a swim. You need to get dried off and dressed,” Bryan told her.

“Aww.”

“You heading home, Jay?” Bryan asked as Jay pulled his shirt back over his still-wet skin.

Jay looked around as the sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky. “Nah, I think I’m going to stick around and do some fishing.”

“Can we go fishing too Dad, pleeeeease?” Coco asked.

“No way. It’s almost six, and I told your mom we’d be home half an hour ago.”

“Do you like fishing, Ashley?” Meika asked.

“Are you kidding me?” Ashley smiled and placed her hand against her chest. “I love fishing. We used to go fishing all the time when we were kids. I’m the champion. Isn’t that right, Bryan?”

Bryan rolled his eyes. “Your Aunty Ashley caught a trout and it was about half a hair longer than mine. Barely.”

Ashley laughed.

Jay looked at Ashley. “Did you want to stick around and do some fishing?” He raised his eyebrows, causing his forehead to furrow. “I’ve got a good rod you can use.”

Bryan coughed, stifling a laugh and Jay looked horrified as he realized the connotation of what he’d said. His cheeks turned red. Ashley bit her lip to keep from laughing.

“I mean.” Jay cleared his throat. “I have a spare fishing rod in my truck you that can borrow. If you want to, that is? And then I can drive you home afterwards.”

This time Bryan burst out laughing, tears began to form in the corners of his eyes. “Smooth, man. Real smooth.” Bryan slapped Jay on the shoulder.

“Umm, yeah, why not.” Ashley tried to ignore Bryan, still making an effort to hold back her laughter.

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 8

 

Most of the swimmers had left by the time Ashley and Jay found a spot at the end of the jetty to fish from. There were still a few boats out on the water, which looked as though they had a similar idea. Ashley could see their fishing rods sticking up in the air.

“Do you always carry around fishing gear in your truck?” she asked.

Jay nodded. “I do, actually. Whenever I finish work early I like to go for a fish, and a swim too, if it’s hot. It’s nice out here. Just the silence, no one around. The fish usually start jumping as the sun sets, which shouldn’t be too far off.” He cast a quick glance at his wristwatch.

He kneeled down on the jetty and began attaching a colorful lure to Ashley’s rod. He handed it to her.

“Do you know how to cast it out?” He kneeled down to find himself a suitable lure from his tackle box.

“Yes. Dad used to take me fishing all the time when I was younger.”

She drew the rod back and propelled it forward in one quick movement. The lure shot up in the air and clunked directly below her, hitting the jetty. She hadn’t released the bale-arm on the spool. Jay kept a serious face, making a concerted effort not to embarrass her for her simple mistake. He rubbed the back of his neck rising to his feet.

“You, uh, forget to flick the—”

“I know, I know.” Ashley tried not to let her embarrassment show “But so you know, I didn’t forget it, I was having a practice swing.”

“Swing?” Jay asked, he stifled a laugh.

“OK, I might be a little out of practice. I don’t go fishing that much in the city.” Ashley laughed, embarrassed

“May I help you?” Jay asked, holding out his hands.

She nodded. At first she thought he might come up behind her, wrap his arms around her and gently guide her hands, like they always seemed to do in the movies.

But he didn’t.

He simply stood beside her and took her right hand, moving it towards the spool.

“Here,” he said. “You need to flip the bale-arm over, when you cast–not swing—it out.” He pressed the line along the rod with one finger and flipped the bale-arm to demonstrate. “After you’ve cast it, you flip it back, like that.” He flipped it back over, securing the line.

He met Ashley’s eyes, questioning to see if she understood.

She nodded, feeling aware of his presence.

He was much taller than her and about twice as wide.

He smiled. “Good.” He released the rod and went back to attaching a lure onto his fishing rod.

Ashley cast out her rod, this time successfully. “Ha! I did it!”

Jay chuckled. “Just like riding a bike.”

“I don’t think that expression is true, you know. I tried to ride Mom’s bike the other day and was completely uncoordinated, I hit a tree. I’m glad no one was there to see me,” Ashley said, her back turned towards Jay as she slowly reeled her line in.

“You hit a tree?” He laughed.

“Well, it was more like a bush—and I half hit it, half fell into it.”

He laughed again, and although she couldn’t see his face from behind her she could tell he found her unfortunate experience entertaining. She heard the zing as he cast his line out behind her on the opposite side of the jetty.

“I can’t believe I forgot the . . . little flipper thing-”

“Bale-arm,” Jay offered.

“Bale-arm,” she repeated. “After all the time I spent fishing with Dad, you’d think I’d remember something so simple. He’d be ashamed if he saw me now.” She gave a small laugh.

“No, he wouldn’t.” Jay’s voice was serious.

With their backs turned towards one another it was impossible to read his expression.

“Do you miss him?” Jay asked.

“Yeah, I do. Every day.” Ashley cast out her line again. Another successful cast. “I miss his jokes. He had a way of lightening every situation. You know what I mean? Like whenever I was freaking out about something, he’d help me to see the bigger picture and realize that no problem was too big. If that makes sense?”

Jay cast his line out again. “Yep.”

Ashley turned her head, hoping to get an idea of what he was thinking. The sun was beginning to drop below the trees up on the hill tops and the sky turned a brilliant shade of fluorescent orange.

“Do you miss your mom?” Ashley had never asked him that before. Not in the whole nineteen years they had spent growing up together.

“Not really,” he replied, much to Ashley’s surprise. “I wish I did, though. I never knew her. I was only three when she died, so I have no real memory of her. I have her photos, so I know what she looks like, but I can’t remember what she was like, her personality. Dad said she was always singing and dancing, but I can’t remember any of that.”

His mother had died in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver while travelling home one night after attending a wedding. Jay had been staying at his grandparents’ house. She died instantly. Sam had spent a long, painful time in hospital. He had so many broken bones doctors told him it was unlikely he would ever be able to walk again without assistance, but he did.

“Well, from what your dad has said about her, she sounded wonderful. She was really beautiful.” Ashley remembered the photos she had seen in the past.

Jay was silent and she guessed he didn’t want to talk about it. Strong and silent, that was him.

Suddenly her line began to spin. “I’ve got something!” she squealed.

Jay looked over, smiling. “Pull it in!”

She reeled her line in and there on the end of her line was a bass. A very small bass.

Jay stood beside her, ready to assist her if she needed help. Which she would, because she wasn’t quite prepared to touch the slimy, flapping fish. But as she lifted the rod, pulling the fish out of the water, it slipped off the hook and disappeared beneath the surface.

“Aww, I nearly had him.” Ashley frowned.

“Almost, but he was too small to keep anyway.” Jay kneeled down behind Ashley to change his lure. “Keep trying.”

“Oh I will—the next one will be a big one, just wait and see. They don’t call me the champ for nothing!” She grinned confidently and turned to cast off. She flipped the bale-arm over, pulled back and used all her might to propel the rod forward.

Something went wrong.

She heard a sudden sharp intake of breath from Jay and after a moment of pondering why she couldn’t see where her lure had landed, she cast a quick glance back at Jay who had his hands clasped to the side of his neck and was gritting his teeth in pain.

“Oh my gosh!” Her hand shot up to her mouth and she went to help him. The hook had caught him right on the side of his neck.

“I’m so sorry!”

He gritted his teeth and using both hands—one to hold the skin taught and the other to grasp the hook—he pulled it out. It had only made a small puncture, but Ashley felt horrible.

“Are you OK? I’m so sorry!”

He pressed his fingers to the wound to try to stop the bleeding.

Ashley looked in his tackle box and found a few Band-Aids which she pulled out.

“Here, move your hand.”

He moved his hand away and she could clearly see the two small holes—one where the hook went in and another close by where it had come out.

“Are you all right, Jay? You haven’t said anything. Are you mad? I can’t believe I did that. I’m such an idiot.” As she raised her eyes to look at his face she could see he was smiling down at her, and she couldn’t help but smile back.

“I’m fine. It’ll get better. I don’t know about your fishing skills though.”

She laughed and wiped the blood from beside the wound so she could stick the Band-Aid on.

“How does that feel? Should we go to the hospital?” she asked.

“Ashley, relax. I’m fine. Really.”

“I feel terrible. You kindly invite me to share in your fishing experience and I try to kill you . . .” She ran her hand through her hair. He placed both of his hands on her shoulders to steady her, forcing her to look at him. His hands were warm and secure.

Great. Another scar to add to his collection. The silvery line running through his right eyebrow was still visible from the dirt bike accident he had had when he was only fourteen. She was almost tempted to ask him about the more recent scar on his rib but decided not to pry.

“I’m fine.”

She took a deep breath and looked at him apologetically. “OK, if you’re sure. We can go home now if you want.”

“Now? This is the best time for fishing.” He released her and waved his hand through the air. The sun had disappeared below the horizon and the sky behind them had turned a dark grayish-blue color, merging into pink. The almost-full moon was beginning to get brighter and there were even one or two stars that had become visible.

A splash caught her attention. Glancing out over the water, she saw ripples moving in a circular pattern.

“Was that a fish?”

Jay nodded.

Then she saw a fish jump. It was a silvery color. Then another, and another.

“Ha! That is so cool.” Her mouth dropped open.

Jay picked up his fishing rod and cast it out.

Ashley picked up her rod too. Jay gave her a suspicious glance and jokingly took a few steps away from her.

She cast it out and smiled in triumph.

This time it was Jay’s reel that spun fast. He pulled in a trout, but it was too small, so he released it. After a few more minutes he caught another one. This was a good-sized trout, it would make a decent meal.

“Are you going to let it go?” Ashley asked as he kneeled on the jetty and removed the hook from its mouth.

“I wasn’t going to. Why?”

“It looks so sad. I feel sorry for it.” She pouted.

He paused for a moment. “Tell you what. If you’re willing to pick it up, I’ll let you release it.”

Ashley cringed. It looked slimy and stinky, and the way it was flipping back and forth on the jetty made her feel uneasy.

“OK,” she said, rubbing her hands together. She let out an audible breath through rounded lips, as though preparing for some mammoth task.

Jay laughed as she attempted to pick it up by the tail using her thumb and forefinger. That turned out to be impossible, as its tail swished backwards and forwards and was far too slippery. She took a deep breath and using both hands grabbed it firmly around the midsection.

“Ewww!” She held it over the water and gently let it go. After a brief pause it swam away. “Yay! Swim free, little buddy.” She held out her hands as if they were contaminated.

Jay laughed and scratched the back of his neck again.

“Well, there goes my dinner.” He looked out at the water.

“What? Seriously? You shouldn’t have let me throw it back!” Now she felt guilty.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think you’d have the guts to pick it up.” He laughed.

“Gah! I’m sorry. I must be the worst fishing partner ever. I can try to catch you another one.” She went to reach for the rod.

“No, it’s getting dark. I better get you home. Don’t worry about it at all. I’m sure I’ve got a potato or something at home I could eat. Maybe some stale bread.”

“I feel bad now. Again,” Ashley said as Jay picked up the tackle box and his fishing rod. Benson had been sleeping at the entrance to the jetty, and now stood waiting for them as they made their way towards him.

“I’m only joking, Ash,” Jay said. “I’m capable of cooking for myself. I’m glad you decided to stay.”

“Even though I injured you and lost your dinner?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Wouldn’t be the worst injury I’ve had, or the biggest fish that got away.” He shot her a quick glance but she could barely make out his expression in the darkness.

Was he referring to her? Had she injured him so badly when she left all those years ago?

Was she the fish that got away?

She was glad she had stayed too. The last thing she had imagined she would be doing during her short trip back to Sweet Home was spending time with her high school sweetheart. But that was then. Now they were just friends. Old friends, catching up and hanging out. Nothing serious. Totally innocent.

He tossed the tackle box and rods into the back of his truck and Benson leapt in with ease. He opened the door for Ashley.

“Are you sure you want to give me a lift back? It’s out of your way. I could call Mom or Martin to pick me up if that’s easier.”

“Not at all. I don’t mind.”

She hopped into the truck.

He came around the other side and climbed in. As he started the engine, Ashley noticed a small trickle of blood running down his neck. She pulled a tissue out of her purse and reached over to wipe the blood away. He mustn’t have been expecting it because as she touched his skin she felt him tense up.

“You’re bleeding,” she said. She gently dabbed at the blood and held the tissue against the Band-Aid to stop the flow. He kept his eyes straight ahead, unmoving.

“There.” She removed her hand. “I think that’s stopped it.”

“Thank you.” His eyes quickly darted to hers then back onto the road.

She stared him for a long time. His right hand was on the steering wheel and his left elbow rested on the window, allowing him to twist the side of his beard with his fingers. Even though the sun had been down for a while, the heat was still stifling.

She couldn’t decide how much he had changed since she last saw him. He seemed the same, but different somehow. Maybe not so self-centred. Gentler. Still funny. He gave her another quick glance and smiled as he caught her looking.

“What?” he asked.

She panicked. She had been caught staring.

She needed to think up an excuse.

“I . . . uh . . . I like your beard.”

I like your beard? Really? That’s the best you could come up with?

“It’s very Mountain Man-ish.”

“So, overall, you think it improves my face?” he asked.

Was this a trick question? Was he asking her if she thought he was ugly so a beard to cover his face was an improvement, or was he simply asking if she liked his beard?

“I like your face,” she said, then regretted it.

He laughed, that great laugh where his eyes squinted and formed creases at the corners and his mouth opened wide in joy. Ashley laughed too.

“What I mean to say is I think you’d look great with or without a beard. You have a nice face.”

“Thank you,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road.

“Would you ever shave it off?”

“My face?”

“Your beard.” Ashley was surprised at how easily their conversation had flowed. They hadn’t spoken in almost eight years, yet it felt like yesterday that they were together laughing and joking.

“Do you think I should?” he asked.

“It’s up to you,” Ashley said. “Doesn’t it get hot in summer?”

“Does yours?” He smirked and cocked one eyebrow.

She swatted his arm. “I don’t have a beard!”

“No, I know you don’t have a beard. It’s more like a moustache and goatee.”

He dodged as she tried to hit him again and laughed.

She leaned towards the rear view mirror, tilting it to check her face, turning her head from side to side making him laugh even more. “I so don’t have facial hair.”

“Of course you don’t. Don’t take things so seriously.”

She tried to keep a straight face but found it difficult. He always had had a way of making her laugh and lightening any situation, and she couldn’t help to admire that attribute. Her father had been like that too. It was good to be around someone with that trait, especially considering that she often thought of herself as being too uptight and reading too much into things.

As they pulled up in front of Jane and Martin’s house, Jay put the truck into park and darted around to open her door for her.

“Wow, you have changed.”

He scratched the back of his neck again. A nervous habit?

“Thanks for letting me come fishing. I had fun. Probably more fun than you.” She frowned as she glanced at the Band-Aid on his neck and reflecting on the unfortunate action of throwing away his dinner.

“I doubt that, but you’re welcome. It was good to see you again.” He placed his hands into his pockets.

They stood there for a moment, in an awkward silence not knowing what to say or do.

Should they hug, or shake hands? A high-five maybe?

“I should probably let you go,” Jay stepped aside to let her pass.

“Yeah, I should probably go.” Ashley smiled briefly and raised her eyebrows. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you on Saturday.”

As she stepped past him, he grabbed her around the wrist and she felt her heart begin to race. His fingers were warm, and despite the summer heat she could feel the hairs on her arm prickle with goose bumps.

“That’s not too weird, is it?” He frowned.

She frowned too, unsure what he was talking about.

“Me. Coming to your mom and Martin’s wedding? If you don’t want me there, say the word and I won’t come.” His eyes searched hers and that deep furrow between his brows was back.

“It’s not weird,” Ashley said. “I promise.” She made the sign of a cross over her heart. “You and Bryan are practically BFF’s, our dads were BFF’s and I know Mom would be disappointed if you didn’t come. Besides, we’re cool, aren’t we?” She shrugged and gave a friendly smile.

Jay nodded and let go of her wrist. She could still feel the warmth of his skin lingering on hers.

“OK, but if at any time you change your mind, you tell me.”

Ashley smiled. “I won’t change my mind.”

“Still stubborn, I see.” Jay smirked as he backed away towards his car.

“I prefer the term ‘determined’,” Ashley called as he got into his car and began to drive away.

It wasn’t until he had disappeared from view that she realized she had been gently rubbing her wrist where his hand had been.

And that she hadn’t stopped smiling.

Chapter 9

 

Thursday.

Only two more days until the wedding. There was a slight drop in the temperature, which Ashley appreciated during her morning run.

Jane had finished juicing the fresh oranges as Ashley arrived back at her mother’s house around mid-morning.

“Thank you.” Ashley sipped the juice. “This is so good.”

“They’re from Jo Murray’s farm, picked fresh yesterday,” Jane said. “What have you got planned for today?”

Ashley shrugged. “Nothing at all actually. Do you need a hand getting anything ready?”

“No, I think we’re all sorted, sweetheart. Just remember you have the final dress fitting this afternoon at 2:15.”

“I won’t forget, Mom. So tell me how this is supposed to work considering I’m not supposed to see the dress until Saturday, but I’m trying it on today?” Ashley raised her eyebrows.

“Well, we have it all planned out—Gina has a blindfold for you–”

“A blindfold?” Ashley squeezed her brows together.

“Yes, then she’ll help you with getting the dress on in the fitting room. That way she can check if she needs to make any final adjustments.”

Ashley shook her head. “Sure seems like a lot of trouble for just a dress.”

Jane smiled at Ashley. “It’s not just a dress. You’ll see . . . on Saturday and not a moment before.”

“OK, OK. But it better not be some crazy ugly bridesmaids dress with ballooned sleeves and stiff fluoro-colored material from the eighties.” Ashley pressed her lips together.

“It’s not,” Jane assured her.

Somehow that didn’t ease her mind. Ashley finished her juice and rinsed her glass in the sink, whistling, while Jane began clearing the orange peels off the countertop.

“You’re awfully chirpy this morning,” Jane commented.

Ashley detected a certain undertone to her mother’s voice, as though she were trying to imply something but didn’t want to come right out and say it.

“Oh, am I?” Ashley said, deciding to play it cool. “Must have been because I got a good night’s rest.”

“Hmm,” Jane said, as though Ashley’s response hadn’t convinced her.

“Hmm, what?” Ashley asked turning to face Jane.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Jane said as she wiped the countertop—even though it was already clean.

Ashley folded her arms and gave Jane a look which clearly indicated she didn’t believe it was nothing.

“I thought it might have something to do with a certain somebody.” Jane raised her eyebrows.

“Who? You don’t mean Jay?” That was exactly who Jane meant.

“Well, you did spend quite a while with him yesterday and when you walked in that door last night you seemed like a completely different person.”

“What?” Ashley screwed up her face, hoping to give her mother the impression that she was way off. “No, I was glad that we finally had a chance to clear the air after all this time. I had a good time catching up with him. I think he’s a great friend.

“OK, honey.” Jane smiled and lightly wrapped her hands around Ashley’s upper arms, looking at her face to face.

“Well whatever it is, it’s nice to see you smile—I mean really smile.” Jane gave Ashley’s arms a light squeeze and kissed her forehead. “I’m going to go and get dressed. I have to meet Pastor Barry to go over our vows, and Karen wanted me to give her a hand in the store but I’ll meet you at Gina’s at 2:15. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t.”

How ridiculous. She couldn’t believe her mother actually thought there might have been something between her and Jay. She was in a relationship with Steven. And she was happy. Very happy. Maybe she was in a good mood from having had spent so much time with Bryan, Jess, and the kids yesterday? Even though initially she had been scared by the thought of spending time with the children, she was actually enjoying it, and couldn’t wait to hang out with them again.

She thought she had better shower after her run. As she climbed up the stairs her phone rang.

Stephanie.

“Stephanie, Hi.”

“Ashley, I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to get back to you until now. It has been crazy busy at work. Dianne has had me running around non-stop. I haven’t even had a moment to myself. How have you been?”

“Good, thanks. Listen, I wanted to talk to you about the file I emailed you. I heard there was a bit of a mix-up and that you somehow misplaced it—”

“I didn’t misplace it.”

“You didn’t?” Ashley frowned, confused.

“No. You didn’t send it to me.”

“Yes, I did. On Friday.”

There was silence.

“Do you remember? I even asked you while you were at your desk and you said you’d received the email.”

“I don’t remember that.”

Either she had truly forgotten or she was flat-out lying.

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter now,” Stephanie said. “I designed a completely new layout. I had to stay back late at the office to get it done in time, but I think it turned out pretty well. So it’s not a big deal. Dianne’s happy, everyone’s happy.” She sounded smug.

“Well you wouldn’t have had to stay back late if you had used the one I sent you.”

There was a long, exasperated sigh on the other end of the phone. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Ashley. You didn’t send me the file. Dianne was super angry.”

Ashley couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Now she knew Stephanie was lying. It was all a plot to try to put Ashley down in front of Dianne so Stephanie could be praised as the hero.

“Anyway, I’ve got to go, Dianne is waiting for her coffee and bagel, so have fun wherever you are and we’ll talk later. Bye.”

Stephanie hung up, leaving Ashley reeling. She was so confused. How could Stephanie do something like this? She’d always gotten along with Stephanie—at least, she thought they had. They were always pleasant to one another at work. Who knew Stephanie could be so conniving?

The worst part was that she was on the other side of the country and couldn’t speak with Dianne personally to defend herself. Now Dianne would think she was irresponsible and unreliable.

She put the phone down on the dresser in the bedroom and stared at it, contemplating whether or not to call Dianne herself. That could sound quite petty though and it all came down to Stephanie’s word against hers. She didn’t have solid evidence anyway, not from where she was. She chewed the inside of her lip. It seemed like her visit to Sweet Home was having a negative effect on her life back in New York. First it had caused a massive feud between her and Steven, and now there were issues at work and she was in no position to do anything about it.

What if she lost her job over this? She felt light-headed, and braced herself against the dresser. In reality there was nothing she could do. She would just have to put the stress aside and get on with her time in Sweet Home. When she went back to New York next week she’d have the opportunity to explain herself, and hopefully reassure Dianne that she wasn’t irresponsible.

After her shower, she got dressed into a pair of navy cotton shorts with a pretty lace trim and a simple oversized white shirt with a single pocket on the left side of the chest. Her hair was still damp from the shower but she didn’t mind—in this heat, it was a welcome relief.

She still had a while until she had to meet her mother in town, which was a good twenty-minute walk. She loved the trail, especially in springtime when all the flowers were in full bloom and the air was sweetly perfumed with an intoxicating blend of scents.

She grabbed the local newspaper from the counter, poured herself a glass of cold water and strolled out into the back garden. She sat on one of the white wrought-iron garden chairs and popped her feet up onto the other one.

It was so peaceful.

She watched as three butterflies fluttered by, disappearing amongst the tree branches.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath.

Opening her eyes she looked around at all the natural beauty and color. She missed this. The serenity, the calm, the ability to be totally present in a single moment without any distractions or obligations.

She flicked through the newspaper. There were a few stories about the local sporting teams, charity fund-raisers, local markets and general small town politics.

She looked at the faces of the people in the article photographs—they looked happy, content even. She was willing to bet that they all knew one another; in a town this small, everyone knows everyone. Everyone always waved ‘hello’, asked how you were and was always willing to lend a hand when you needed one.

It made her think of her own home back in New York, millions of people, standing side by side on the subway, walking side by side on the streets and working cubicle by cubicle in the offices, yet no one ever seemed to make an effort to communicate to the person right next to them. Odd. Surrounded by millions of people, yet you could still feel utterly lonely.

After she finished reading the newspaper she leaned back on the chair and closed her eyes enjoying the moment.

 

She decided to start walking half an hour before she was due for the dress fitting, carrying her purse and a bottle of water. As she neared town she spotted a few teenagers running barefoot in the direction of the lake, clad only in their swimming costumes. She used to spend her summers in the exact same way.

Ashley’s mother, grandmother, and Gina were all waiting by the time she reached the dressmakers, even though she was ten minutes early.

“Hi.” She waved to everyone as she walked in. “What’s everyone doing here? Is this some kind of surprise party or something?”

Jane laughed. “Were all excited to see you in the dress.”

Ashley laughed. They obviously didn’t get much entertainment in this little old town. Her mother took her purse as Gina showed her to the change rooms, with a black satin eye mask in her hand.

She left Ashley alone in the change room to remove her shorts and shirt. Gina slipped her hand in through the curtain holding out the eye mask for Ashley. She felt ridiculous putting it on but obliged.

“OK honey, if you’ve got the mask on, I’ll help you get into the dress now.” Gina said from outside the curtain.

“I’m ready,” Ashley called back. She heard the faint rustle of the curtains as Gina stepped in and carefully helped Ashley step into the dress, and guided her arms under the thin straps.

She felt Gina zip the dress up at the back. It felt heavy, but not so heavy that it would be painful to wear for a long period of time. The dress was made of a soft stretchy material, and the snug fit meant she could tell it was floor length. It was driving her insane that she wasn’t allowed to peek.

Gina turned Ashley towards her left and she heard the curtains draw open.

She could hear the gasps from Jane and Grace, then nothing but silence.

“Well?” Ashley asked.

“Oh my,” Jane said.

“It’s perfect,” Grace added.

“I don’t think it needs any adjustments,” Gina said as she guided Ashley around in a circle.

She could hear them as they walked around her. This would have to go down as one of the more unusual experiences of her life.

“Mmm, I think you’re right, Gina. It doesn’t need anything else done,” Jane said.

“All right, let’s get you changed.” Gina took Ashley’s arm and slowly led her back into the change rooms.

Once the dress was off, she heard Gina sneak out through the curtain.

“OK,” Gina called. “You can take off your mask now.” Ashley lifted the mask and finished getting dressed.

When she emerged from the fitting room the dress had vanished from sight, much to her disappointment. Jane and Grace both looked pleased. They finished talking to Gina and the three of them walked outside.

“What have you got planned now, Mom?” Jane asked Grace.

“I’m meeting Nancy and Patricia for our usual Thursday afternoon catch up.” She turned to Ashley. “We play cards.”

“Oh.” Ashley smiled and nodded.

“I’m a bit of a shark.” She winked.

“Ash, Karen has asked if I can manage the shop this afternoon while she does some deliveries. Are you all right to find your own way home?” Jane asked.

“Yeah, not a problem. I was thinking of going to visit Bryan and see what the kids are up to anyway. I’ll make my way home later on, if that’s OK with you?”

“Of course, honey.” Jane leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Is that Jay?” she asked peering over Ashley’s shoulder. “It is!” Jane began waving her hands to signal him.

Ashley glanced over her shoulder and spotted his truck coming down the street towards them. He pulled his car over and got out. He seemed to be popping up everywhere Ashley went, but then again, of course he would—Sweet Home was a small town.

“Good afternoon ladies.”

Ashley gave a quick smile, feeling a bit awkward about their close interactions from the night before. Maybe it was too close.

“Jay,” Jane said, “I was going to call you this afternoon about the gazebo. Are you still OK to deliver it on Saturday morning?”

“Yes, that’s fine. What time do you need it?” Jay asked.

“Early if possible, so we can decorate it with flowers and some material. About eight, if that’s not too early.”

“Not at all. I’ll be there at eight.” He smiled.

“Thanks, you’re an angel.” Jane smiled at him. She looked at her watch. “Oh, look at the time! I better get back to Karen. See you later, honey,” Jane called as she started walking away.

“Me too, if I want to make it in time for our mock-tails!” Grace said. “See you at dinner tomorrow night.” She gave Ashley a hug and departed.

Ashley stood there with Jay, a little uncomfortable and unsure what to say.

“How is—” Ashley began.

“I just—” Jay said. They laughed, easing the awkwardness.

“You go first,” Jay offered.

“I was going to ask how your neck was. You know, after I almost killed you last night.” Ashley grimaced.

“It’s OK. Sore, but I think I’ll survive. You’ll have to try harder next time.”

“What? Oh yeah, very funny.” She shuffled her feet on the ground, shifting her weight. There was that uncomfortable pause again. Jay raised his arm and scratched the back of his neck.

Nervous.

“So I—” Ashley began.

“Do you—” Jay interrupted again.

They laughed.

“I was going to get a coffee from Bryan’s, If you’re not doing anything, maybe you’d like to join me?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure,” Jay said.

“OK. Great.” Ashley tucked her hair behind her ear.

They started walking side by side. Jay had his hands in his pockets.

“Have you finished work for the day?” Ashley asked. “It seems a bit early.”

“Yeah, I tend to start earlier in summer so I can finish earlier. It gets too hot otherwise.”

Ashley nodded, having a sudden unwelcome flashback to her thoughts about him working shirtless. She swallowed. “Do you like being your own boss?”

“Yes, I get to set my own hours and I make sure I go away on vacation each year, but I also have a lot of responsibility because I have to sub-contract other workers. I have a few employees as well.”

“From what I’ve heard, you do an amazing job. Both Bryan and Mom are pretty impressed.”

“Well I never was too good with words, but I do like to work with my hands.” He held up his hands.

Jay opened the door for Ashley and they stepped inside.

Bryan tried to hide his look of surprise, but failed miserably. “Fancy seeing you two here,” he said, leaning on the countertop.

“The good coffee shop around the corner was closed, so we had no choice but to come here instead.” Jay frowned.

“He’s a liar, Ash. Don’t listen to a word he says,” Bryan said, pointing at Jay.

“Hey, I was about to tell Ashley how you make the best cappuccinos in Oregon.” Jay held up his hands in front of him.

“He’s an honest man, Ash, speaks only the truth.”

They laughed.

“So, two cappuccinos?” Bryan asked, straightening up and holding up two fingers.

“Yes, please,” Ashley replied.

They sat down at a table by the window. It was quiet in the cafe.

“I saw your dad in here the other day,” Ashley said.

“Did you?”

“Yeah, he looks well.”

“He is. He bought a little one-bedroom house on the other side of the lake, a bit closer to town.”

Bryan brought their drinks over. Jay eyed him suspiciously, as if expecting him to say something, but he didn’t. He just kept a smug smile on his face the whole time and casually strolled away.

“Right. So where is your house? Now that you don’t live in the old house.” She took a sip of the coffee. Liquid Gold.

“You just keep following the road up from the old place, and it’s about two miles on.”

The cafe phone rang and Bryan answered it.

“Do you miss your old house?” Ashley asked.

“Not really.”

“I thought it might hold some sentimental value.”

“Nah, it’s just a house,” Jay said, matter-of-factly.

Bryan hanged the phone up, looking stressed. Again. “Ash, can you do me a huge favor?”

“Depends,” she said. She was a little wary after her last experience doing a favor for Bryan.

“Jess is at the hospital with Harley-”

“What? Is he OK?” Ashley’s mouth dropped open.

“Oh yeah, he’s fine; he stuck a pea in his ear and Jess couldn’t get it out—”

“Again?” Jay asked, sipping his coffee.

“Yep, again,” Bryan replied. “The girls finish vacation care at the school at three and I’d pick them up myself, except I don’t want to leave Amanda here on her own.”

“I would, but I don’t have the car. Mom has it. I suppose I could race down to her work and borrow it.”

“I could do it,” Jay offered.

Bryan and Ashley both looked at him.

“Really?” Bryan asked.

“Yeah.” Jay shrugged.

“Thanks, man, you’re a lifesaver.” Bryan patted him on the shoulder. “Just drop them off back here and Jess can pick them up when she’s done. Didn’t I tell you he’s a good man?”

“Pretty sure you called him a liar.” Ashley cocked one eyebrow.

“That was in the past, Ash. Let it go,” Bryan said.

They quickly finished their drinks and took off.

Jay parked the truck on the opposite side of the street to the school. There were several kids coming out of the school, hurrying over to their parents. Jay and Ashley walked over together. As soon as Meika and Coco spotted them, they started smiling and raced over to hug them.

Ashley also spotted Nicole, the red-headed woman from the bar the other night. She was wearing a pretty little striped dress. She saw Ashley and walked towards her.

“Hi, Ashley.” She flashed a perfect smile.

“Hi. Nicole, isn’t it?” Ashley asked.

Nicole nodded.

“Bryan asked us to pick the girls up. They’ve had a little medical emergency with Harley.”

“Oh no. Is he OK?” Nicole asked, raising a hand to her chest.

“Yes, apparently he has a pea stuck in his ear or something.”

“Again?” Nicole asked.

“He always does it,” Meika said.

“That’s because he’s a boy and boys do weird stuff.” Coco was balancing on one foot.

Nicole turned her attention to Jay. “Jay, I was wondering if I could have a quick talk to you. If you’ve got a minute?” She ran her tongue along her lower lip.

“Uh, sure.” He glanced at Ashley to check that it was OK. She smiled and gave a little nod, uncertain why he felt as though he needed her permission to talk to Nicole.

“Come on, girls. Let’s get you in the car.” Ashley smiled. “I’ll see you later, Nicole.” She gave a small wave and took the girls’ hands, leading them across the road and over to the car. She helped them up into the back seat and buckled up their seatbelts. She couldn’t help but notice Nicole talking animatedly to Jay. She was laughing and playing with her hair and kept on touching his arms.

Ashley climbed into the front seat and tried not to pay attention. But curiosity got the better of her, and she shifted uncomfortably as she saw he had his phone out and Nicole appeared to be giving him her number. Something stirred inside her and she swallowed.

Where had that come from?

She had no romantic feelings for Jay whatsoever, and that unwanted tinge of jealousy left her feeling confused, and even angry with herself.

“Aunty Ashley, can you come to my assembly?” Coco asked.

“When is it?” Ashley turned to look over her shoulder at Coco.

“Next month.”

“Oh honey, I won’t be here then. I have to go back home in a few days.”

“Why?” Coco’s eyes looked sad.

“Because I have a job I need to return to in New York, and that’s where I live,” Ashley said.

“I wish you could stay here forever,” Coco said softly, lowering her head.

Even though Ashley hadn’t been frequently present in her nieces and nephews lives they had already formed a strong bond. Ashley’s heart ached with the thought that she wouldn’t be able to attend their school concerts and birthday parties.

Meika spoke up. “Miss Davis is my favorite teacher.”

“Who’s Miss Davis?” Ashley asked “Is that your teacher? The one talking to Jay?”

“Yeah,” Meika replied. “She is nice. She doesn’t yell at us.”

“That’s good. It’s good to have a nice teacher.”

“Yeah, but she has a really big bottom.” Meika giggled.

“Meika!” Ashley tried to keep a straight face, although she felt like laughing at Meika’s honest remark. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why not?” Meika asked.

“Maybe she’s having a baby,” Coco said.

“Dummy. You get a big tummy when you’re pregnant, not a big bottom!” Meika said.

“Mommy had a big bottom when Harley was in her tummy,” Coco said.

“Girls, girls. Let’s change the subject,” Ashley said.

“Was Miss Davis your teacher, Aunty Ashley?” Coco asked.

Ashley laughed. “Sweetheart, I think Miss Davis is a bit younger than me.”

“So . . .?”

“No. She wasn’t. I had a teacher named Mrs Gibson. She had curly gray hair and a big pointy nose and glasses—and she was cranky.”

Jay opened the door and got in, starting the engine.

“Hey Aunty Ashley, did you know your name starts with an ‘A’?” Coco asked. “Can I call you AA?”

“Well, I guess so,” Ashley replied, hesitant.

Jay laughed quietly.

“Uncle Jay,” Meika spoke up. “Today we learnt about different countries and we all had to pick a place to do a talk on and I chose Afghanistan. Where you went.”

Ashley noticed Jay tense up as he drove.

He cleared his throat. “Did you?”

Ashley was puzzled. When did Jay go to Afghanistan? He did say he managed to get away on vacation every year, but Afghanistan didn’t seem like the ideal holiday destination.

“Can you help me with my project?” Meika asked.

“Yes,” he said, nodding slowly.

The girls sparked up a conversation in the back seat as they continued along on their drive but Ashley had noticed the discomfort Jay had experienced at the mention of Afghanistan. He seemed to be deep in thought. Ashley didn’t know what those thoughts were exactly but she got the general impression that it wasn’t pleasant. He didn’t offer an explanation, so she didn’t ask.

Ashley held the girls’ hands as they walked into the café, and Jay carried their school bags.

Bryan came around the counter to meet them, giving both girls a hug and a kiss.

“How was school, girls?”

“Good,” they replied in unison.

“It’s not school, Dad. It’s vacation care,” Meika corrected him.

“You want to head out the back and I’ll bring you both a hot chocolate and cupcake?”

Their eyes lit up. “Yes, please,” they called as they ran off.

“Bye girls,” Ashley called.

“Bye AA!” Coco called as she disappeared through the rear door.

Bryan looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “AA?” He frowned. “What have you been teaching my children?”

“She’s decided that’s my new name.” Ashley laughed.

“Kids are so weird.” Bryan shook his head slowly.

He walked back around to the other side of the counter. There weren’t as many customers in the café now, and Bryan began making the girls a hot chocolate each.

“I thought they weren’t allowed sugar?” Ashley asked.

“Don’t tell Jess,” Bryan said, and looked outside the windows in case Jess was approaching. “You guys want anything?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Jay?” Bryan asked.

Jay was still quiet. “Hmm? No, I’m all right.”

“Are you thinking of going to the Jamboree tomorrow?” Bryan asked Ashley. A bus drove past, probably full of concert-goers arriving in town.

“I wasn’t planning on it. Why?” Ashley asked.

“I think Jess was hoping to take the kids, but she might need a hand looking after them as I’ll be running the food truck.”

“If she needs a hand, tell her to give me a call. I don’t have anything planned.”

“You going Jay?” Bryan asked.

“Me? Nah. I think I’ll give it a miss.”

“Well I should probably head off,” Ashley said.

“Where are you going?” Bryan asked.

“Home. Well, Mom’s house.”

“Walking?”

“Yeah, it’s not that far.”

“Can I give you a lift?” Jay asked.

“Are you sure? I don’t mind walking.”

“I actually wanted to check out the back garden, to figure out how to get the gazebo down there on Saturday.”

“Oh, yeah. Do you want me to give you a hand on Saturday?” Bryan asked.

“Only if you’re not too busy.”

“No, I’ve got extra staff rostered on, so that’ll be fine,” Bryan said.

“OK, thanks,” Jay said.

“I guess I’m coming with you then.” Ashley smiled.

“Guess so,” Jay said as he opened the door for her.

It was almost four by the time they arrived back at Jane’s house. They stepped out of the car and started walking around towards the back of the house.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Ashley asked as she climbed the front steps to the porch.

“A glass of water would be great, thank you.”

Martin was in the kitchen, sitting on one of the bar stools by the counter. He was reading the newspaper and had a cup of coffee in front of him.

“Hi, Ashley. How did the surprise dress fitting go?” he asked.

“Ha! I can only assume it went well, as I didn’t get a chance to see it. Mom and gran seemed happy.”

Martin smiled and sipped his coffee. “You want a cup? The coffee machine is on.”

“No, I’m fine thank you.” She cast a quick glance out the back window and could see Jay. He had one hand on his hip and his other hand was rubbing his beard as he stared at a patch towards the back of the garden.

That must be where the gazebo is going.

Martin followed Ashley’s eye line.

“Is that Jay Henderson?” Martin craned his neck to get a better look.

“Mmm hmm,” Ashley said getting a glass out of the cupboard. “He’s checking the spot for the gazebo on Saturday.”

“Have you seen it yet?” Martin asked as Ashley filled a glass with cold water from the fridge.

She shook her head.

“He’s done a great job. Your mother is going to be beside herself. You should ask Jay if you can go and have a look.”

“Hmm, maybe.” She considered. “Do you know what time mom will be home tonight?”

“Not til late tonight. She called me about twenty minutes ago and said she was going to stay back at work, and then Karen and her were going to go over the final details for all the flowers on Saturday, getting the ribbons ready and so on. One of the advantages of working in the floral shop is that she can get access to a huge assortment of flowers I guess—and you know how crazy your mother is about flowers.” He raised his eyebrows and took another sip.

Jane did love flowers. In fact, Ashley couldn’t remember a time when there wasn’t a bunch of beautifully arranged fresh flowers on the table.

Jay knocked on the back glass door and slid the door open.

“Come in, Jay,” Martin called.

“How are you, Martin?” Jay asked as he walked into the kitchen.

“I’m well. How’s it all coming along?” Martin asked.

“Good, it’ll fit easily down the back.”

Ashley handed him the glass of water.

“Thanks.”

“I was telling Ashley that I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if she went and had a quick look at the gazebo.”

Jay turned his head towards Ashley and shrugged. “Yeah, if you want to.”

“Well I wouldn’t mind seeing it, but only if you’re not too busy.”

Jay shook his head.

“OK, well I guess I’m going with you—again.” Her lips curled up. She had already spent a lot of time with Jay, more than she had expected. She hoped she wasn’t becoming an unwelcome guest.

“I’ll see you on Saturday.” Jay waved to Martin as they left the kitchen.

As Jay opened the front door, Jasper scooted through, almost running into Jay’s feet. “Whoa.” He lifted his foot quickly to let the hideous-looking beast through. “I thought that thing died already. Twice.”

Ashley laughed.

 

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 10

 

They barely spoke as they drove towards Jay’s place. It was isolated, a good twenty-minute drive from Jane’s house. The road trailed off from the highway, and a dirt road lead them up a winding path, past his old house where they’d had their disagreement on Monday afternoon.

Jay seemed distant again. His right hand was on the steering wheel, left elbow on the window sill, and he was chewing his left thumbnail.

“Sorry for inviting myself over.” Ashley bit the inside of her lip.

“Huh? Oh, that’s all right.” He shifted his weight.

“Do you ever get lonely out here?” Ashley looked around at the thick trees. It was getting close to 5 and the late afternoon sun gave everything a warm golden glow.

“I like it. I like my privacy, and I‘ve got Benson to keep me company.” He gave a half smile.

They drove up over a small rise and the house came into view.

Ashley gasped.

The trees seemed to open up and there was a magnificent view of the lake to their left. It was a two-story log house. The exterior was made from deep honey-colored lengths of horizontal timber. Upstairs had an enormous glass windowed wall overlooking the lake. A small chimney peeked over from the rear of the house. There was an inviting outdoors retreat area on the lake side of the house, with a large fire pit and three oversized outdoor sofas which would be fantastic at night. Across from that was a large red timber barn.

Benson came running over barking and wagging his tail from side to side excitedly.

It looked like something out of a home and lifestyle magazine. Picture perfect.

“Jay, this is amazing!” Ashley shook her head in disbelief.

“Thanks.” He smiled, and stopped the car.

“Did you really build all this?”

He nodded.

“It’s beautiful.” She stared out the car window at the house.

He opened his door and Benson jumped up on him, apparently glad to see him. Jay patted him and Ashley hopped out of the car. Benson came around to greet her too, not jumping on her—thankfully—but sniffing and wagging his tail.

“Come, Benson.” Jay patted his thigh and started walking towards the house.

Ashley followed.

There was a small front porch. It had a beautiful rustic appeal. Jay opened the front door.

“Was that unlocked?” Ashley asked.

“Yeah, I never lock it.” Jay held the door open for Ashley.

“Sorry about the mess, I wasn’t expecting visitors.” He reached up, scratching the back of his neck yet again. Ashley couldn’t help but smile.

As she stepped inside she couldn’t help but feel in awe. The interior was beautiful. So inviting and cosy.

“I’ll give you a quick tour, if you want,” Jay said. “Or I can just go and show you the gazebo?”

“No, I’d love to have a look around in here.” Ashley widened her eyes.

She still couldn’t believe he had created this masterpiece.

“Uh, this is my office.” He pointed to the right. “This is the spare bedroom, in here.” He pointed to the opposite side of the hallway they were in.

“There’s a laundry in there,” he said as they moved farther down the hallway. “And a bathroom in here.” He motioned to the left.

As they exited the hallway, the room widened to an open living space. His kitchen was to the right, furnished with dark, rich materials. A timber dining table big enough to seat eight people stood in the centre of the room, while a love seat, two oversized chairs and a television were off to the left of the room, along with a big stone fireplace. Six huge thick timber beams ran around the edges of the room.

Each of the three walls had a large window, letting in the light and providing a great view of the surrounding woods. The house felt like a part of the natural environment.

“Are you hungry?” Jay stood in the centre of the kitchen.

“A little, but it’s OK. I can wait til I get back to Mom’s house,” Ashley replied.

“I was hoping to be having leftover fish for dinner.” He smirked and Ashley giggled as she remembered throwing his dinner back into the lake the previous evening.

“But I was going to make risotto for dinner. I can make enough for two.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to put you out.” Ashley frowned.

“I was going to make it anyway, so you’re not putting me out.”

“OK, thank you. That would be lovely.” As she turned, she noticed the rear wall near the lounge was covered with photo frames. She placed her purse on the floor beside the wall and strolled over to take a look while Jay took a large copper pan down from the hooks hanging over the counter.

There were so many photos.

She recognised some of the faces. There was Bryan and Jess with the kids—Harley looked like he was only a newborn. Ashley smiled at the mop of thick black hair Harley had as a baby. There was a photo of Jay and Ashley at prom. She couldn’t help but laugh at her dress. How quickly fashion changes, thankfully. Jay was thinner, with a crew cut. He wore a light gray suit with a bright blue bow tie—to match Ashley’s cobalt dress.

Jay saw her smiling. “Prom photo?” He cocked one eyebrow.

She nodded. “What were we thinking? I don’t know how we made Prom King and Queen,” she said, turning back towards the photo.

“Because you were the most beautiful girl there.” Jay turned his attention to chopping an onion.

“Well, that’s only because there were only a handful of girls in our class.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered if there were ten thousand girls in our class.” Jay started peeling a clove of garlic. That was a lovely compliment. Of course, that was nine years ago, and she had changed quite a lot since then. She was no longer the carefree, beautiful young woman she had been back in high school.

She spotted another photo she recognised. Her and Jay at the lake. She was in a red bikini and he was in his board shorts. He didn’t have any tattoos then, nor did he have as much body hair.

“I remember this day,” Ashley said, pointing at the photo “It’s the day I finally learned how to ski.”

“Yeah, that was a good day.” Jay smiled, keeping his eyes on the food he was preparing.

“Ha!” Ashley said. “You and I remember it very differently.” She turned towards him. “If I remember correctly this photo was taken about half an hour before you broke your foot and then were rushed to hospital and ended up having to have surgery to screw your bones back together.”

Jay laughed, still keeping his focus on the food. “Yeah, that was a painful lesson to learn.”

“What were you doing? Didn’t you try to put your foot through the ski rope handle or something, while skiing barefoot?” She laughed.

He nodded. “I was trying to impress someone.” His cheeks began to turn red.

“Tsk-tsk. Always showing off in front of the ladies.” Ashley shook her head.

“Only one,” Jay said not raising his eyes.

Ashley’s heart seemed to quicken and she cleared her throat. She turned her attention back to the photos.

There was a photo of Jay and Benson, when Benson was a puppy. He was cute and fluffy, and his coat was a lighter color. There were photos of Jay with his dad, fishing.

A photo of his mother, holding Jay as a baby. She was beautiful, with auburn hair which reached all the way down to her waist. Big eyes and beautiful full lips—just like Jay’s.

She didn’t recognise the two men in the next photo at first, but as she looked closer she realized one of them was Jay. He was in an army uniform with his arm around the shoulders of another guy, also dressed in an army uniform. In the background were khaki tents in a dry, arid looking environment.

“What’s this photo?” she asked, frowning.

“Which one?” Jay scraped the contents of the board into the frying pan and wiped his hands on the tea towel, then came over to stand beside her.

“Oh, that’s me and Mike.” He smiled as he stared at the photo.

“Mike?”

“When I was in the army.”

“Wait. When were you in the army?” She was surprised by this information, even though Meika had mentioned something about Afghanistan earlier.

“I joined up not long after you left,” he said, scratching the back of his head.

Ashley stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate further.

The stock began to boil and he returned to the kitchen to reduce the heat.

“You never told me that,” Ashley said, watching him.

“You never asked.” He shrugged. “It’s not like we kept in touch after you left.”

He had a point. She looked at the other photos. Lots of unfamiliar faces and places. There were photos of families—none of whom were familiar. There were a few photos containing landmarks that Ashley did recognise, like the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, an Aztec temple, and an old castle, which looked to be in Europe somewhere. Plus many, many others.

“Where are all these photos from?” she asked.

“Different places.” Jay shrugged, with his back to her as he stirred the rice.

“Who are all these people?” They looked foreign.

“Full of questions tonight.” Jay smiled over his shoulder at her.

“Well, you don’t give much away. I’m surprised at all this new information I’m discovering about you. This house, the army, travelling the world . . . I’m starting to think you’re an imposter. You seem like a completely different person.”

Jay laughed. “I’m the same person—but I am a different person.”

Well, that clarifies things.

“So are you going to tell me about these photos?” She pointed over her shoulder at them.

He nodded. “After dinner. If you really want to know, I’ll tell you.”

She raised her eyebrows.

Why was he being so mysterious and secretive?

As he placed the plate in front of her she felt hungry, and realized she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Would you like something to drink?” he asked.

“Water is fine, thank you.” He got her a glass of cold water and came to sit opposite her at the table.

“This looks good. Thank you so much.” Ashley took a deep breath of the enticing aroma wafting up from her plate.

“Do you mind if I say grace?” Jay peered at her, raising his eyebrows.

Ashley’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. Was he serious?.

“Really?”

“Yeah.” He was keeping a straight face, so Ashley nodded.

“Uh, sure.”

He held out his hands and Ashley reluctantly placed her hands in his. They were warm.

He bowed his head.

She kept waiting for him to look up and laugh and say, “Got ya!” but he didn’t.

“Thank you, Lord, for our food and thank you for good company.” He shot Ashley a quick glance and smiled. “Amen.”

He let go of her hands.

Well that was bizarre. Almost as strange as the blind dress fitting earlier that day. She stared up at him.

“What?” he asked as he took a forkful of risotto.

“Nothing. I didn’t think you’d be the praying type of man.” She picked up her fork.

He smiled but didn’t say anything.

“So I guess you found Jesus or something?”

“Something like that.” His eyes thinned slightly. “You don’t believe in God?”

“No. I used to, but you know . . . things change, stuff happens and I guess I started believing in what was logical instead of what I’d been told as a child. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for freedom of religion. You can believe in whatever you want—Jesus, Buddha, the flying spaghetti monster—whatever floats your boat. I think it’s nice people have something to turn to. I know mom still believes in God. I just don’t think it’s for me.” She took a forkful of the meal.

Jay didn’t say anything, just watched her.

“Sorry, did that sound rude? I didn’t mean it to sound offensive.”

“It’s all right.” A hint of a smile played on his lips. “You didn’t offend me.”

“It’s just that sometimes my mouth moves faster than my brain.”

He smiled and continued eating his meal in silence. She was glad her comments hadn’t caused an argument. She knew better than to argue with ‘religious’ people. It was a pointless conversation, mostly because she based her arguments on facts, logic and scientific evidence, whereas they based their opinions on faith and fairy tales. Even when presented with all the evidence, Christians would still point to the Bible and state that they believe in God because the Bible says he exists. That was like saying you believe in Santa Claus because you’ve read ‘The Night Before Christmas’’. It drove her crazy. She didn’t know why, but for some unknown reason she got frustrated that Christians were so stubborn. Either that, or they were too stupid to recognise the truth when it was staring them in the face.

Each to their own.

“Oh, this is so good, Jay.” She gently tapped the fork against her plate. “I didn’t know you could cook. A man of many talents.”

Jay smiled.

“So who’s the spare room for?” Ashley took a sip of her water.

“A kid.”

“A kid?” Ashley frowned, puzzled.

“My kid, I should say,” he added and took another mouthful of the rice.

What?

Her eyes widened, confused. She rested her fork against her plate and leaned forward, staring at him. “Is this something else I don’t know?” Ashley asked. “You have a child?” She was genuinely shocked.

“Not yet.” He smiled, not giving much away.

“OK, so are you expecting a child sometime soon?” she asked, trying to get him to give more than two-word responses.

“No, but I’d like to have kids one day.”

She nodded. He was talking about future plans. “Oh, OK. Are you seeing anyone at the moment?” Nicole sprang to mind.

“No,” he replied.

“All right, because it usually helps if you have a partner when you want to have kids, you know.”

“I know.” Still with the short answers.

“So are you dating?” she asked, intrigued.

“No, I believe the right woman will come along when the time’s right.”

Ashley laughed. “Well if you’re expecting the right woman to show up on your doorstep you might be waiting a while—unless you’ve purchased one of those mail order brides online or something.”

“I don’t mind waiting.” He shook his head and smiled mysteriously. “I’m a patient man.”

“I don’t mean to sound rude, but I don’t think it works like that. If you want something in life, you have to go out and take it. You’re responsible for your own happiness. But good luck with it anyway.” She raised her eyebrows and returned to eating her dinner.

He has changed. He’s insane.

He didn’t respond, as usual. He smiled politely, but she couldn’t help but feel he had something going on in his mind. Some secret too mysterious to try to figure out.

They finished their dinner and Jay stood to take her plate.

“Thanks again. That was delicious. Can I help you clean up?”

“No, I’ll do it later on,” he said. “Do you want me to show you the gazebo now?”

“Actually, I’d rather you tell me about the photos.”

Jay nodded.

“If you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to. Am I being too nosey?” Ashley asked. Had she stepped over the line?

Jay laughed. “No, it’s all right. It’s a pretty long story though?”

“That’s OK. I don’t have anywhere I need to be.”

He led her over to the photo wall.

“Well, not long after you left I tried to . . .” his voice trailed off. “Well, I tried to change things, but when I realized I couldn’t, I tried to change myself.”

Ashley was unsure what he meant by that, but he didn’t say anything more so she figured it must not have been too important.

“I finished my building trade then enlisted in the army.”

He pointed to the photo with Mike.

“I was deployed in 2007. That’s when I met Mike, on our first tour of Afghanistan. He was from Illinois. We became good friends.” Jay smiled at the photo. “We were over there for twelve months and nothing happened—it was nothing like I had expected. It was easy really. We were involved in a few missions but we didn’t see much excitement and when we got home we thought, well, that was a piece of cake.” He shook his head smiling. “We were paid well, for sitting around in a dusty camp out in the desert for a year. Everyone praised us when we got home, and for some unknown reason we actually thought we were worthy of their praise. When people label you as a hero enough, you start to believe it. We figured if people wanted to put us up on a pedestal we weren’t going to stop them—we were young and we had big egos. That’s when we got these tattoos.” He raised his shirt to reveal the tattoo which ran up the side of his rib cage and under his arm. It was a tribal pattern with the words ‘For those I love I will sacrifice.

She recalled seeing that tattoo yesterday at the lake.

“Pretty silly when you think about it. We never had to sacrifice anything. Mike had a girlfriend who he had to leave behind, but I didn’t have anything. I’d had girlfriends, of course, but nothing serious or lasting.” He scratched the back of his neck and Ashley knew he was beginning to feel uncomfortable. More surprising was that the mention of girlfriends made her feel emotions she knew she had no right to feel.

“We went over for our second tour the following year—July 2008. Mike had proposed to his girlfriend and asked me to be his best man. But it was different this time.” His jaw tightened as he stared at the photo. “A few weeks in, we were sent to a neighbouring village. Mike was in the truck in front of mine and I remember I was sweating like crazy with all the gear you have to wear. It’s heavy, and it’s scorching hot over there. We were thinking it was just another perimeter check, and we’d already starting placing bets who would win that night’s card game.” He smiled, but it faded quickly.

“I remember seeing this flash of light and feeling a sudden rush of heat. I didn’t hear the explosion until later—it was like it was delayed. I could feel the truck being lifted off the ground. I closed my eyes as we were hit, and when I opened them again I couldn’t hear anything, except this ringing sound. We’d been ambushed. I kept shouting out to Mike. I saw him lying on the ground ahead of me so I crawled over to him. He wasn’t moving and he was covered in blood. I tried shaking him but he didn’t respond. The medics came and said ‘he’s been shot,’ and it took me a while before I realized they were talking about me. I took a bullet right in my lung.” Jay said, rubbing his chest. “I kept telling them to help Mike, but he was already gone.”

Ashley realized she had been holding her breath. How did she not know this?

“They took me to the field hospital, and as soon as I was stable enough they flew me back to the States. I missed Mike’s funeral.” She saw his jaw clench again and he swallowed hard.

“After the surgery I developed pneumonia. It was pretty touch and go for a while, and they didn’t think I was going to make it. I didn’t care, to tell you the truth. I had nothing of value to come home to. No one would miss me—I mean Dad would, sure, but I didn’t have a partner who needed me. I’d given up hope. But then Henry came to visit me.” Jay finally drew his eyes away from the photo and turned to Ashley.

“Henry? As in Henry, my grandfather?”.

Jay nodded. “He told me some of the stories from when he was in the Royal Navy, in the UK. Sometimes he came and sat beside me and didn’t say anything at all. Just sat there. Sometimes he read to me—the Bible, of all books. He said he wouldn’t give up on believing in me and that unless I developed hope and a sense of purpose, I wouldn’t make it through. I didn’t know what he was talking about at first, but I looked forward to him visiting and he started to teach me more and more about living with purpose. I know it sounds crazy but that’s how I came to know God—through Henry.”

Ashley nodded slowly.

“I asked Henry how he could believe in God. With so much suffering in the world, why doesn’t God do something to stop it? And he said to me, ‘Jay, I’m sure God would ask you that same question’.”

Ashley felt her eyes brimming with tears but she blinked them back, grateful Jay hadn’t seen.

“So I decided to live my life with hope.” He lifted his sleeve revealing the anchor tattoo.

“An anchor?” Ashley frowned. “I’m not following”

“Hope is an anchor for my soul,” he said. “It’s from Hebrews.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes things don’t work out regardless of how much hope you have.” Ashley thought of her father.

“It all depends on where you place your hope.”

“So you decided to travel the world?” Ashley asked, waving her hand towards all the photos on the world of different places and faces and changing the subject.

“Something like that. Each year I try to spend a bit of time where ever I feel I’m led to go—usually somewhere that has suffered devastation and needs help with rebuilding. That’s something I can actually help with. The earthquake in Haiti, landslides in Columbia, bush fires in Australia. There are always people in need—you only have to look around to see that.”

Ashley mouth dropped open. “Wait. So, you use your vacation time building in countries which have had natural disasters?”

“Part of it, not all of it. I figure if I’m willing and able, why not?” He turned to the wall of photos. “I’ve met some great people, and we’ve developed friendships that will last forever. It helps put life into perspective when you see all the chaos and destruction. But the thing I love the most is that even in all that darkness and despair, there is a light that shines through. When those who are suffering see the world reaching out to help them, they start to develop hope. That’s what they need most, hope. So I get something in return. It might sound greedy, but it makes me feel better about myself, knowing that while I can’t change the world, I can make a difference.”

Ashley was speechless. She cleared her throat. “I don’t know what to say. I feel horrible that I never knew this about you.”

“Would it matter if you had known?” Jay asked.

“Well, no. I don’t know. Maybe. But I’m surprised Bryan or mom didn’t tell me.”

“Maybe they thought it wasn’t important. I’m sure you’ve had more important things to focus on.” Jay smiled lopsidedly.

She had thought so, but after hearing about Jay’s life for the last eight years, all her goals and actions seemed to fall short. A long way short.

“Don’t you have another tattoo? I thought I saw one on your chest as well. Are they someone’s initials?” she asked, mentally preparing herself to hear about a romantic partner.

“It stands for Awareness, Sacrifice, Dependency and Humility. It’s from Thessalonians: ‘Aim to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.’”

Ashley looked around at the house he had built. “Well you’ve certainly done that. But I didn’t think Christians were allowed tattoos. Isn’t that one of the commandments? Thou shalt not get tattooed?” She raised an eyebrow.

Jay smiled. “Fortunately God looks at the heart. It’s only man who judges by the outside appearance.”

“Aren’t you worried about what they’ll look like when you’re old?” Ashley asked.

“Not really.” Jay shrugged. “I can’t imagine I’m going to be a cover model when I’m eighty.”

He could be wrong about that. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from his smile, that same sensation she had felt in the bar on Saturday night. Pinned. She shook her head, clearing her mind and tried to find something to change the subject .

“Where’s your room?” Ashley asked realizing she hadn’t seen a door leading to his bedroom.

“Upstairs.” He headed towards a staircase that was behind them, between the wall to the laundry and the kitchen.

“Can I have a look?” Ashley asked, “I don’t mean to pry, but I’m curious. I saw that massive window when we were outside, so I’d love to check out the view. Do you mind?”

Jay shrugged. “If you want to.”

She nodded. She knew it was probably a little intrusive, but she was in awe of this house and wanted to explore it all.

As she climbed the steps she looked up to the wall in front of her. It was an exterior wall but it was one of the most unusual things she had ever seen. The entire wall was made of what appeared to be colorful glass bottles cemented into the wall.

“Wow, what is that?” She paused and looked back at Jay, who was still at the base of the stairs.

“Bottles,” he replied “I laid them on their side and incorporated them into the wall.”

It was breathtaking. The combination of the golden glow from the sun and the rainbow of colors shining in through the bottles made it feel as though she were in a dream world. She shook her head in disbelief.

“This is . . . I don’t even have the words . . . I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Do you like it?” Jay asked.

“I love it!” She ran her fingers over the colored glass.

She saw something flash in his eyes. He seemed almost relieved that she approved. She turned and continued to the top. Upstairs was one big massive room, with a railing around the stairwell so she could see downstairs to the kitchen, dining and living area.

Again, the walls were raw timber planks, but a huge glass window nearly covered the front wall and two sides. His bed faced the window and the stunning view of the lake. A massive plush brown rug was thrown on the floor in front of his bed.

“No curtains?” Ashley lifted an eyebrow as she noticed the lack of window dressings, realizing he would be getting dressed—and undressed—in full view of anyone standing outside.

He shook his head. “No neighbours.” He grinned.

She felt herself blush.

The sun was sinking below the horizon creating a spectacular sunset which resembled a dreamy watercolor painting.

“What a view.” She sighed as Jay stood beside her, gazing out the window at the shimmering water. “I could get used to this. The view from my bedroom window is a brick wall.” She could feel Jays gaze upon her and she looked up at him. His eyes were full of questions and she was surprised to find herself feeling so comfortable with him. Especially considering she was standing in his bedroom.

There was silence except for the radio playing softly in the background downstairs. The last remaining rays of light danced on his face defining that strong jaw line and those deep, thoughtful eyes. Her breathing seemed irregular like she couldn’t get enough oxygen and her skin felt warm.

Her phone rang and she jumped.

“Bryan.” She answered the phone, coming back to the present moment.

“Ash, we’re at the hospital—”

“Don’t tell me Harley’s stuck another pea somewhere!” She looked up at Jay and smiled.

“No, Ash, it’s Grandpa. They think he’s had a heart attack. You better get down here.”

Ashley hung up the phone. A rush of fear shot down her spine.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Jay asked.

“It’s Grandpa. He’s had a heart attack. Can you take me to the hospital?”

“Let’s go,” he replied.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

Ashley’s head began to spin as Jay drove into the hospital grounds and the familiar building came into view. It wasn’t that she hated this place: it was that it terrified her. She recalled the long nights she’d spent there by her father’s bed as he slowly and agonisingly succumbed to ALS.

She clenched her fists as she felt her pulse getting faster and faster.

Jay noticed. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

She nodded, unable to speak.

He found a parking spot with little trouble. As they dashed across towards the entrance, he took her hand in his. She was amazed at how much that one small action helped to soothe her.

Jay asked the receptionist which room Henry was in.

Ashley stood behind Jay, under the harsh fluorescent lights as people dressed in hospital scrubs walked by. She folded her arms, unable to focus on what Jay was saying. She felt him take her by the arm and guide her towards the elevator.

Please God, don’t let me be too late. I can’t go through this again.

The trip to the second floor seemed to take forever. As they stepped out into the foyer, everyone was there. Jane and Martin. Grace. Bryan, Jess, and the kids. They all turned and saw Ashley and Jay.

“It’s OK. He’s OK,” Jane said as soon as Ashley appeared. Ashley sighed in relief and Jane wrapped her arms around her, holding her tight.

She tried to hide her trembling. “What happened?” Ashley asked.

“It wasn’t a heart attack,” Grace spoke up. “It was acute angina.”

Bryan shook Jay’s hand. “Thanks for bringing Ashley.”

“Not a problem,” Jay said.

“Where is he? Can we see him?” Ashley looked around.

Jane nodded. “Yes, you can see him. Bryan and Jess were about to leave and take the kids home for the night.”

“We’re here so often they really should just give us our own room.” Jess smiled.

Ashley smiled back. Seeing everyone in such good spirits helped to ease her anxiety.

Bryan gave Ashley a long hug, and grasped her by the shoulders as he pulled back, looking directly at her. “You OK?” he asked with a voice full of concern.

She nodded and let out a deep breath. “Yeah, I think so. I was scared I would, well, that I might not—”

“It’s all right. He’s fine. He’s probably in there cracking jokes with the nurses.”

She smiled weakly and nodded.

Bryan and Jess said their goodbyes and left.

“We might head home too,” Jane said. “We’ll let him have some peace and quiet for the night.”

Grace said goodbye to them and they also left.

“Jay, Henry will be glad to see you.” Grace smiled as she looked up at him, and pointed to the room closest to where they were standing.

Jay smiled back and knocked lightly on the door. He poked his head in and Ashley could overhear Henry welcoming Jay into the room.

“He’s a good man,” Grace put her arm around Ashley’s waist.

“I know. I was so scared tonight, Gran. I thought we were going to lose him.”

“Oh no, dear. I’m talking about Jay.”

“Oh.” Ashley was beginning to see how much of an impact Jay had made on everyone’s lives.

“Let’s go and get some coffee.” Grace smiled.

“Shouldn’t we wait for—”

“They’ll be a while,” Grace said. “Once they get started talking there’s no stopping them.”

Ashley was perplexed. How often did they get together and talk?

The cafeteria was empty and they had to buy their coffee from the vending machine.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I met your grandfather?” Grace asked as the paper cups filled with the hot coffee.

“Yes. You met him in New York. After the war.”

Grace nodded. “Ah yes, but there’s a bit more to it than that.” Grace took her cup and sat down at one of the empty tables. Ashley sat down opposite. Most of the lights were out, except for a few fluorescents near the entrance to the cafeteria.

“I never knew my father,” Grace began. “My mother had told me from an early age that I was an accident. She was an entertainer, you see—she would sing and dance in various gentlemen’s clubs. I grew up feeling unwanted, unloved, and always knowing that I was a burden. She often blamed me for the fact that she never married. Once I grew up, she taught me how to perform and how to earn a living in show business. I travelled from club to club, singing and dancing.”

“Sounds very glamorous.” Ashley sipped her coffee.

“It was at first. That’s how I met Arthur Livingstone. Oh, he was a dream. He was much older than I was, and upper-class. He bought me expensive gifts— jewelry, perfume, dresses. He would even take me out for dinner at the finest restaurants. I was only eighteen, and Arthur was well in his thirties. He was a married man. I knew that right from the beginning, but he promised me it was a loveless marriage and he only stayed with her because of the children. I loved him, and he treated me like a queen. Right up until the point where I fell pregnant.” Grace paused taking a sip of her coffee.

“In those times it was a scandalous thing to be pregnant outside of marriage. I told Arthur, hoping this would be the thing that would finally cause him to leave his marriage and marry me. I had wild dreams of us growing old together with our child, living in the lap of luxury. Instead he told me to get rid of the child. He gave me a lot of money to find a doctor who would be willing to ‘deal with the problem’. When I refused, he told me that if I chose to keep the baby, I would lose him. He would never speak to me ever again. My mother encouraged me to abort the child too. She told me no one would want me with a child. That I couldn’t make a living with a child, and that if I chose to keep the child we’d both end up in the gutters.”

Grace stared off into the distance as she recalled this painful moment.

“So what did you do?” Ashley asked, entranced by Grace’s story.

“I kept the child. I had to give up my showgirl job, and ended up working in a laundry in the city. I was five months pregnant by then. I was having my lunch break in one of the alleys—I didn’t venture out into the public eateries much as I couldn’t stand the looks I would get. Everyone knew I was unwed and pregnant. It was such a shameful thing. I still remember, clear as day. Henry was riding by on his bike when he saw me. He rode straight past the entrance to the alley. Then he came back again. He looked at me and didn’t seem bothered in the slightest that I was pregnant. He said to me, in his British accent, ‘Sorry to trouble you madam, but I was wondering if you might be kind enough to give me some directions.’” Grace laughed.

“He was lost in the Big Apple. Turns out he had moved here after the war had ended. He’d served in the Royal Navy, made many American friends during the war, and was looking to start a new life in the US. He looked at me, and instead of seeing the decay and filth that my life had become, he chose to see the beauty within, beauty I didn’t even know I had. He looked at me as though I were a rare and precious diamond, who had, over time, gathered dust and had been left to lay by the wayside.”

Ashley swallowed as she tried to comprehend what her grandmother was telling her.

“He didn’t look at me with pity; he looked at me. That was the first time in my life I had felt love—true love. It wasn’t lust—I mean there was that too, not that Henry let on of course, he was such a gentleman, but a woman always knows when a man fancies her.” She smiled at Ashley and Ashley felt her cheeks flush.

“For the first time I didn’t feel like an unwanted burden. It was a surreal feeling to be wanted for the first time—not for my body or my looks, or my intellect—which paled in comparison to Henry’s—but simply for being me. Henry welcomed me in with open arms and we moved to Sweet Home to start our lives together. It took me many, many years to learn to trust him. I kept waiting for him to hurt me, to get sick of me and throw me out, but he didn’t. Despite all my failures—and there were more than I’d care to admit—he continued to show grace and forgiveness. I didn’t know how to be a wife or a mother, but he stood by my side every step of the way, encouraging me. When I thought my life was destined to be miserable, full of suffering and pain, Henry showed me that God had a plan for me—a good plan, to give me a hope and a future. I was valued. Your father, Thomas, was born and the rest is history.”

Ashley stared, open mouthed. She never knew any of this. She had always believed that Henry was her real grandfather.

“Did Dad ever find out that Henry wasn’t his real father?” Ashley asked.

“Oh yes, we told him. He didn’t care. Henry was all he had ever known as a father, and all he needed. I contacted Arthur to let him know he had a son. He didn’t care either. He’d been married and divorced three times and had several children, none of whom had fond memories of him from what I gathered at his funeral. He died a lonely man. He built up incredible wealth here on earth, but what use is that? He had no one to share it with, and he certainly couldn’t take it with him after he passed.”

Ashley shook her in disbelief. This had been a day full of surprises.

“I see a lot of Henry in Jay.” Grace smiled. “He has a good heart, Ashley.”

“So I’ve discovered.” Her coffee had gone cold as she had been so wrapped up in her grandmother’s story she had forgotten to finish it.

“Steven has a good heart too,” Ashley said, feeling the need to defend him. Was she was attempting to convince her grandmother, or herself?

Grace raised her eyebrows. She’d never met Steven.

“He’s career-orientated, so he has to spend a lot of time working. He would spend more time with me if he could. I understand though.” Ashley licked her lips.

“And what does Jay think about Steven?” Grace looked at Ashley.

“I haven’t told Jay about Steven.”

Where Grace was leading with that question?

“Why haven’t you told him?” Her eyes narrowed into slits, awaiting Ashley’s answer.

Ashley shrugged. “I don’t know. He never asked if I had a boyfriend so I figured he wasn’t interested in knowing. We’re just good friends, that’s all.”

“Hmm. Good friends, and yet he doesn’t know you’ve had a boyfriend for the last five years. Do you love him?” Grace asked.

“Jay? No, of course I—”

“I meant Steven.”

“Well I guess it depends what you mean by love,” Ashley replied. “We don’t love each other like when you want to spend every second of every minute of every day together. That would be silly. We’re both quite mature in our relationship—”

“Yes, but do you love him?”

Ashley was confounded. “I think I do,” she replied. “He’s good to me, and I owe him a lot. He’s a hard worker. There are a lot of women out there who would love to be in my shoes.”

“Do you want to be in your shoes?” Grace raised one eyebrow.

Ashley frowned, unsure of how to respond.

“C.S. Lewis said, “Ceasing to be in love need not mean ceasing to love.” Being ‘in love’ and ‘loving’ are two different things, yes, but they are both interconnected—it is on this ‘love’ that the engine of marriage is run; but being ‘in love’ is the explosion that started it.”

Ashley frowned as she pondered Grace’s words. She’d never felt the ‘explosion’ with Steven; their entire relationship had remained on a constant, mediocre plateau when it came to passion and excitement. That mad, crazy, passionate love didn’t exist. Did it?

“How do you know if you’ve found ‘the one’?” Ashley asked, doubting there could be a one size-fits-all answer.

Grace smiled sweetly. “That’s an easy one. Simply dance with God, and He will let the perfect man cut in.”

“Ooh, that’s good Grandma. Is that from a famous novel or something?”

“Oh no, honey. I got that one from Pinterest.”

 

When Grace and Ashley walked back into the room, Jay was sitting on the chair beside Henry, and they were laughing together.

“Hey, here she is.” Henry held out his hand.

Ashley smiled and walked over, taking his hand and bending over to give him a kiss on the forehead. He wore a white hospital gown and was reclining back in the bed, with an oxygen tube attached to his nose.

“Prettiest girl in town. Wouldn’t you agree, Jay?” Henry smiled.

“Yes sir.” Jay nodded and Ashley felt herself starting to flush.

“Takes after her grandmother, that’s for sure.” Henry’s eyes creased as he smiled.

“How long do you have to stay in hospital?” Ashley asked Henry.

“I’d go home right now if they’d let me. I feel fine.” Henry waved his hand through the air.

Grace spoke up. “He has to stay until Saturday, but he’ll be at the wedding. They want to monitor his vitals, seeing as he’s not a spring chicken any more.”

“I am,” Henry objected.

Grace rolled her eyes.

“I’ll let you get some rest.” Ashley smiled. She turned to Jay. “Are you ready to go?” He nodded and stood up.

He patted Henry’s hand. “Get some rest and I’ll see you on Saturday.”

“OK, buddy. Look after my granddaughter.”

“I will.”

Grace kissed them both and they left.

As they walked out to the car Ashley looked at Jay. He looked happy.

“Sorry I ditched you in there.” Ashley gave him an apologetic smile. She had spent so long talking to Grace he must have felt as though he had been abandoned.

“Huh? Oh, it’s cool. I haven’t caught up with Henry in a while so it was good. He’s a pretty cool guy.” Jay gave a half smile.

“Yeah, I know.”

She did know. According to Grace he had always been selfless and kind. If it weren’t for Henry, Ashley might not even be here today.

Jay opened the car door for her. When he climbed into his seat she placed her hand on his forearm.

“Thank you for tonight. It means a lot to me. I don’t think I would have had the courage to go in if you hadn’t come with me.” Her brows pulled together.

“It’s OK. I knew you didn’t want to go in alone.”

“I . . . I was scared I’d be too late and I’ve already made that mistake once. I don’t think I could handle it again.” She fought back tears.

“Hey, he’s going to be all right. If I know anything about Henry, it’s that he’s a stubborn old man. He’s going to live to a ripe old age.” He started the engine.

They drove home in silence, listening to the music playing on the radio. Her conversation with her grandmother had left her confused about her true feelings for Steven. There was so much to take in. Maybe she didn’t love Steven, not in the true sense of the word, but they did have a strong connection. They were compatible. Wasn’t that enough?

Ashley was absolutely exhausted and the soft music playing soothed her. She yawned and decided to close her eyes, just for a minute.

A gentle swaying motion woke her and she opened her eyes. It took her a moment to work out what was happening. She was moving, but she wasn’t sitting in Jays car any more. In fact, she wasn’t sitting at all. She was being carried. She looked around in the darkness and recognised the, ‘Bless This House’ cross-stitch hanging on the wall: she was on the staircase at her mom’s house. She peered up and realized Jay was carrying her up the stairs. Her eyes shot open.

“What are you doing?” she whispered, struggling to keep her eyes open.

“Shh, you’ll wake your mom. You fell asleep. I tried to wake you but I don’t think you could hear me over the sound of your snoring.” He grinned, still carrying her.

“I don’t snore.”

He smelled of timber and an enticing cologne, which reminded her of something comforting but she was too tired to think what it was. He opened her bedroom door using his foot.

Normally this would be odd, but given the day she had experienced, nothing seemed strange any more. He laid her gently on the bed and slipped off her shoes. As he pulled the cover up over her, she said softly, “I didn’t see the gazebo.”

He didn’t say anything, just watched as she snuggled in.

“Goodnight,” he whispered and she heard his footsteps disappear down the stairs before drifting off once more.

Chapter 12

 

Ashley awoke refreshed and full of energy. She almost put off going for her regular morning run, but decided she’d better as she wouldn’t have a chance tomorrow, considering it was the day of the wedding.

After she returned she had a quick shower, got dressed, and went downstairs to make some breakfast. There was no cereal in the cupboards. Jane had cleaned out everything containing gluten, artificial colors, artificial flavours, sugar . . . pretty much anything that tasted good.

She settled for an apple and more of the cardboard-textured gluten-free raisin toast. Through the window she could see Martin in the back garden, giving the hedges a final trim. As far as Ashley could see everything looked perfect and didn’t need any improvement, but Martin, with his love of gardening, could always see room for improvement.

She could hear a faint melody and realized it was her phone. In her room. She dashed up the stairs two at a time and retrieved her phone from her purse.

It was Steven’s father.

Ashley frowned. She hadn’t heard from Steven since he had left for Japan.

Had something happened to him?

“Hello?”

“Ashley, hello. It’s Robert here.”

“Mr Cole, how are you?”

“I’m well, thank you. I take it you haven’t heard from Steven yet?”

A wave of panic washed over her again. “No, I haven’t. Have you?”

“Yes, I have, and unfortunately things haven’t gone quite as well as we’d hoped.”

Ashley gnawed at the inside of her lip.

“I’ll keep this brief, Ashley. I know you must be busy helping your mother. I understand Steven has asked you to move in with him.”

Ashley nodded, then remembered he couldn’t see her. “Yes, he has.”

“Right. Steven has informed me that you are a bit reluctant to take this next step, so I would like to personally ask you to consider accepting his proposal.”

What?

“May I ask why?”

“As you know, we have been having discussions regarding promoting Steven to partnership. However Graham and Michael want him to demonstrate maturity and responsibility. We were also counting on this deal with the Tokyo firm to be established, but now that that seems unlikely, he is depending on you to help him prove he can commit.”

That sounded ridiculous.

“Did Steven ask you to call me?” It felt like an ambush.

“No, and I appreciate your discretion about this conversation. Steven is a good boy. He has worked far too hard to be overlooked for this role now. All I’m asking is that you make the right decision. If he lands this position, I can assure you that you will be a very happy woman. You will want for nothing. If it doesn’t work out, you can always move out down the track—once this has all been secured. But I know you won’t. You seem like a smart woman and I’m glad Steven found you. He needs you to come through for him, now more than ever. If you care about him like I think you do, you’ll say yes.”

Ashley stood there, stunned, struggling to find the words to respond.

“Are you there?” Robert asked.

“Uh, yes. I’m here. I just don’t understand how us living together would be such an important issue.”

Robert sighed impatiently, making Ashley feel as though she were too young and too uneducated to understand. “Because we have a reputation as being a family firm. If Steven can demonstrate commitment in his personal life, that will reflect commitment in his professional life. All the partners are married with families. It’s an attractive feature for our clients.”

Ashley pressed her lips together. They’ve all been married for a long time, but they all have frequent affairs.

“I’ll leave it with you. I need you to trust me, and think of Steven. Please don’t let him down.”

“I’ll think about what you’ve said.”

“That’s all I ask. I’ll see you at the dinner next week.” The line went silent.

For the life of her she couldn’t make sense of his rationale. She would have thought their private life was just that—private. Separate from his career. Irrelevant. It seemed shallow that they would make such an important decision based on his relationship status. As ridiculous as it appeared, they did have to fit a certain ‘mold’ to be one invited into the partnership. This decision was turning out to be more important than she’d realized.

Robert was right. If she truly loved Steven, she should be willing to move in with him. To take this next step, not only for his career, but for their relationship. She wanted to say ‘yes’ for Steven’s sake, although a part of her couldn’t help but feel he was asking her to move in to help him get his promotion. It was all so confusing and complicated.

“Ashley?” Martin called from down stairs.

“Yeah, I’m here.” She walked to the top of the staircase.

“I’m heading out for a bit. Did you need a lift anywhere?”

“No. I think I might be going to the Jamboree later with Jess and the kids but I’m all right for the moment.” She tried to smile.

“Are you OK? You look a bit upset.” Martin frowned.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Some personal business—nothing to worry about.” She waved a hand through the air, dismissing his concern.

 

She sat down on the sofa. Everything was quiet except for the rhythmic ticking of the old grandfather clock as the pendulum swung side to side. She held her phone in her hands, contemplating calling Steven. But if things had gone as badly in Japan as Robert had made out maybe he wouldn’t want to talk to her right now. She would have to trust that he would call her when he was ready. She sighed. She should have known that returning to Sweet Home would only cause problems. Everything in the small, sleepy town had gone wonderfully—better than she had even imagined—but her life back in the city was being thrown into chaos.

Her phone beeped. A message. From Tania.

 

OMG Stephanie is driving me insane.

You need to get back here ASAP, I swear if she even tries to talk to me one more time I’m going to claw her eyes out!

 

She giggled at Tania’s over-dramatic text, but couldn’t help but feel anxious about what exactly Stephanie had gotten up to while Ashley was on the other side of the country.

She didn’t want to sit around anymore, so she decided to head into town. She wore her usual attire—shorts and a T-shirt. It was too hot out to wear any of the fancy outfits she had packed.

She had almost made it into town when her phone rang. Jess.

“Hey Jess.”

“Hi Ash. Just checking to see if you wanted to come to the Jamboree with me and the kids?”

“Yeah, I’d love to,” Ashley replied, smiling. She looked forward to spending time with the kids more and more with each passing day.

“Do you want me to pick you up? We’re leaving now.”

“No, actually, I’m walking towards town now. I can meet you at the gates in about five minutes.”

“Perfect. See you then.”

Sankey Park was packed with tourists and concert goers. Many returned year after year for the famous Oregon Jamboree Music Festival. The landmark Weddle Covered Bridge provided the ideal backdrop for people snapping photos on their way to seeing their favorite country music stars.

Ashley spotted Jess near the fence. Meika was trying to see the stage and Coco was running around in circles with her arms stretched out to the sides. Harley was perched on Jess’ hip, observing all the people walking by.

Jess waved as Ashley walked over and together they entered the park. They found a nice grassy spot to the rear left of the park and Jess laid out their picnic rug. Ashley could see the food vans off to the far right and assumed that’s where Bryan had set up his van to serve coffee and cakes. With the amount of people around, he’d make a killing this weekend. Meika spotted some of her school friends and asked Jess if she could go and dance with them.

“Yes, but you have to stay where I can see you and you can see me, OK?”

Meika nodded and ran off.

Coco and Harley danced along to the music, providing great entertainment for Ashley and Jess, although the volume made conversation difficult.

Jess leaned close to Ashley so she wouldn’t have to shout so loud through the noise.

“Have you heard anything about how Henry is doing today?”

Ashley shook her head. “Not yet, but I’m assuming if mom hears anything she’ll let me know.”

She hadn’t been too concerned about her grandfather since visiting with him last night. He looked well, and she knew someone would contact her if he did take a turn for the worse.

Jess nodded. “Bryan said he visited him earlier and he looks good—ready to go home, but they won’t let him leave yet.”

“It’s probably best that he gets some rest.”

“Mom,” Coco called. “Can we get a hot dog?” She had her eyes locked on a man nearby eating one.

“No, darling. Look I’ve got some yummy strawberries and watermelon here. Or you can have a ham and salad wrap?”

“Aww, you never let us have treats.”

“Those hot dogs do look good.” Jess licked her lips. “All right, but don’t tell Daddy?”

She turned to Ashley. “He’d kill me if he knew I gave them processed food.”

Ashley laughed. If only Jess knew Bryan had given them cupcakes yesterday.

They sat, listening to the music, observing the passers-by, and applying sunscreen on a regular basis. It was almost 2 p.m. when Harley announced he had a sore tummy.

“Too much refined food and fizzy drink,” Jess said, giving him a hug and rubbing his back. He promptly vomited all over her shoulder. Ashley covered her mouth and felt her stomach churn as the smell hit her. Jess didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that she had chunks of hot dog on her arm.

“Oh my gosh. What do you need? I don’t know what to do.” Ashley tried not to laugh as she looked around for something Jess could use to clean up the mess.

Jess laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s not the first time I’ve been spewed on. I think there’s a towel in my bag. Could you hand it to me, please?”

Ashley did as she was asked.

“All right kids, it looks like it’s home time.”

“No, Mom, why? Can’t we stay a bit longer?” Meika asked, pouting.

“I can’t girls. Harley has a pain in his belly, and he’s due for a nap. We’ve been here long enough anyway.”

“But Mom, we haven’t even seen the good singer yet,” Coco whined.

“There are lots of good singers, darling.” Jess stood up and began to pack the bag.

Coco drooped her shoulders dramatically. “No, Miss Davis said he was going to be here later on today.”

Ashley saw the disappointment in the girl’s eyes. “I can stay with them for a bit if you want to take Harley home.”

“You don’t have to do that. I’m sure you’ve got other things you want to do.”

“Actually, no. I’d be happy to hang out with the girls. It’ll be fun.”

Coco and Meika cheered and hugged her.

“Are you sure, Ash? They can be a bit of a handful.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

Jess raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together.

“Don’t answer that!” Ashley said. “You take Harley home, and we’ll hang out here for a bit.”

“OK, give me a call when you’ve had enough and I’ll come back and pick you all up before we visit Grandpa.”

Ashley helped Jess pack the rest of her bag. Jess picked up Harley, who was looking rather pale, and headed off towards the exit.

“Dance with us, AA,” Coco pleaded. She and Meika took Ashley’s hands and began to dance. She felt ridiculous, but she didn’t recognise any of the faces around her so she began to sway and move to the music, spinning the girls around. Country music had never been her thing, but some of it was all right. The kids seemed to have an endless supply of energy and Ashley started to think they’d dance long into the night if she let them. After about half an hour Ashley collapsed on the picnic rug and the girls jumped on top of her, trying to tickle her. She laughed and struggled to fight them off.

“Still ticklish, I see,” came a familiar voice.

They all turned around to see Jay standing nearby, hands in his pockets, looking rather amused at the spectacle in front of him. He was wearing beige chino shorts with a dark blue T-shirt. Ashley sat upright, trying to catch her breath. Her hair was messy and she had a tomato sauce stain on her top.

“You’re it!” Coco squealed, tapping Meika on the shoulder and running off. Meika sprang to her feet and chased Coco.

“Stay where I can see you!” Ashley called.

“We will,” Meika called back.

Ashley stood up, brushing the grass from her knees and trying to straighten her hair. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

He shrugged. “I wasn’t going to but I saw Jess heading home and she told me she had left you here with these two. I thought you might like some help.” He plucked a piece of grass from her hair. “How are you feeling today, Sleeping Beauty?”

She blushed and smiled, looking down as she remembered him carrying her to her bed last night. She tucked her hair behind her ear.

“Very well, thanks.” Ashley turned to watch the girls as they dodged and weaved their way through the crowds of people sitting on the grass and camping chairs.

“So you like country music now?” Jay turned towards the stage where a man wearing a cowboy hat sang into the microphone whilst strumming his guitar.

“No, not really. I came along to spend some time with the girls.”

“Is that why you were dancing?” He kept his eyes towards the stage, a smirk on his face.

Ashley’s mouth dropped open. “OK, they made me dance with them, but it was only for one song.”

“That was more than one song.” His smirk turned into a grin.

“How long were you watching?” she asked.

“Long enough.” He cast her a quick glance.

She laughed. “Well, that’s just totally embarrassing.”

The current singer finished and they began to re-set the stage.

Coco ran over, excited. “Jay! This is Miss Davis’s favorite singer!” Then she ran off to join Meika and a few other girls they’d been running around with earlier. The mention of Miss Davis’s name caused Ashley to experience emotions that made her feel uneasy.

“Miss Davis seems lovely,” Ashley said, hoping to gauge Jay’s reaction.

“Huh? Yeah, I guess.” Jay shrugged.

“I think she likes you.” Ashley raised one eyebrow as she recalled Nicole’s obvious flirting from the other day.

“Who? Nicole?” Jay frowned. Ashley couldn’t tell if he was playing dumb or if he really hadn’t noticed.

“Yes, Nicole. I saw the way she was talking to you at the school. It’s obvious she likes you.”

“She wanted me to have a look at one of her walls,” Jay said.

Ashley raised her eyebrows, smiling.

“Strictly business,” he said. “She wants to put a doorway in.”

Ashley didn’t believe him, but it wasn’t any of her concern.

“Besides, she’s not my type,” Jay said, turning back towards the stage and folding his arms across his chest.

“A girl like Nicole is everyone’s type,” Ashley said, thinking of Nicole’s beautiful long red hair, piercing blue eyes and rosy red lips. A natural beauty.

The next singer came out on to the stage and the crowd went wild. Ashley and Jay sat down on the rug and watched the girls dance, twirl and spin to the music. Totally uninhibited. Ashley envied them—their innocence, unexposed to the harsh realities of the world.

Jay didn’t say much, as usual. Ashley usually talked enough for the both of them but this time they sat, side by side, content with one another’s company.

It was almost five by the time the singer came to his last song. It was a slow love song.

“Dance!” Coco yelled to Ashley and Jay. Coco had a little entourage of kids behind her, all giggling and watching Jay and Ashley.

Ashley laughed and shook her head.

“Dance!” Coco yelled again, giggling.

“Well, we can’t disappoint our audience, can we?” Jay stood and held out his hand to Ashley.

She shook her head and reluctantly took his hand. He pulled her to her feet and spun her around straight away. All the little girls laughed and pointed. Ashley felt embarrassed and out of her comfort zone, but Jay looked as though this was a completely normal thing to be doing. He placed his left hand on her lower back, grasped her left hand with his right and spun her around, much to the delight of their young spectators. Ashley couldn’t stop laughing.

Then he stopped and leaned forward towards her, dipping her back so far she thought she was going to fall over backwards. Coco and her friends clapped and joined hands, trying to copy Jay and Ashley’s movements. A few other spectators had started watching on with interest. Jay straightened Ashley up and lifted her into the air, slowly spinning her around. She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked down into his eyes. She had been laughing so much her cheeks were beginning to hurt.

He looked happy, enjoying himself as he watched her laugh and step out of her comfort zone. She felt the smooth muscles contracting and expanding as he slowly lowered her and they stood there face to face trying to catch their breath, still laughing. The whole time they had been dancing he never took his eyes off her once, seemingly oblivious to the onlookers.

The song finished and they cheered and clapped along with everyone else.

“Well, thank you for the dance,” Ashley said.

Jay laughed. “Thank you.”

“We’d better get going. We have to back at Mom’s for dinner at 5:30.” Ashley looked around at the girls.

“Do you need a lift?” Jay asked.

“You aren’t going to stick around? There are still a few more performers tonight,” Ashley said.

“Nah, I’m exhausted now,” he said, rubbing his back as though he had injured it.

Ashley laughed. “Well, in that case, that’d be great. Thanks. I’ll text Jess and let her know.”

She called the girls over and they said good bye to their friends.

Jay turned around as he heard a voice over his shoulder.

“Nice moves.”

There were two young men, who both looked to be in their early twenties.

“Hey.” Jay smiled. “What are you two doing here?”

“Making the most of our free time. This would have to be the first weekend in a while our boss has given us off.” The man speaking turned towards Ashley, smiling. “Our boss is a real tyrant.”

“So this is the reason you’ve been skipping out of work early, is it?” he asked Jay, nodding his head in the direction of Ashley.

Jay frowned, rubbing the back of his neck again.

Ashley couldn’t help but smile.

“Hi.” She held out her right hand. “I’m Ashley.”

The man placed his beer in his left hand and shook her hand. “James. This is Tyler.” He nodded towards the other man.

“So you guys all work together?” Ashley placed her hands on her hips, looking at Jay and the two younger men.

“I guess you could say that,” James smiled. “He’s our boss.”

“Not for much longer if you two don’t get out of here.” Jay feigned anger.

“We’re going.” James laughed and held up his hands, palms towards Jay. “You two have a good night. Nice to meet you, Ashley.” James smiled, and so did Tyler.

“Hey boys,” Jay called. “Don’t drink too much. I don’t want any phone calls on Monday morning saying you’re too hung-over to show up for work!” He smiled, but Ashley couldn’t help feel that he would be a stern, no-nonsense kind of boss.

As they were walking they passed Nicole. She was with another woman. Nicole was wearing a white sundress which left little to the imagination. With her curves and stunning features, she caught the attention of men from all around the park. Ashley felt guilty that she was with Jay when she knew Nicole fancied him. Nicole’s eyes rounded when she spotted Jay with Ashley, and she looked as though she wanted to reach out and talk to Jay but he simply nodded in acknowledgement and continued walking beside Ashley, leaving Nicole standing stunned, mouth ajar. Perhaps she wasn’t used to being rejected by men—or at least, not by the man she had her eyes set on.

 

It was still light but the sun was beginning to go down as they headed towards the exit. The girls spotted the animal petting tent. It had baby rabbits, lambs, piglets, and ducklings.

“Can we go in?” the girls asked.

“I don’t know girls. We don’t want to be late.”

“Pleeeease?”

“All right, but quickly.” Ashley succumbed to their irresistible pleadings.

The lady operating the tent looked to be in her late forties, plump with brown hair and a friendly face.

“Hi, Jay. How you been doing?” she asked as the girls went in to play with the baby animals.

“I’m well thanks, Donna. How’s the family going?” They sparked up a conversation. It appeared that Jay and Donna were acquaintances.

Ashley had her hands full of rubbish—empty drink cans and hot dog wrappers. Perhaps she should throw the trash out while the girls played.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said to Jay, holding up the rubbish to indicate that she was headed to the trash cans.

He nodded in acknowledgement and continued his conversation with Donna. If Ashley remembered correctly, there were two large trash cans around the rear of the toilet block near the back fence.

As she turned the corner three men were standing around the bins, laughing about something. They looked drunk and Ashley hoped she could dump her trash without drawing any attention to herself. There wasn’t anyone else around and something about the men made her feel uneasy.

She dropped the rubbish in the bin and turned to leave.

The shirtless man jumped in front of her, blocking her exit. He had a can of beer in his hand and he reeked of alcohol.

“Where are you off to?” His words came out slurred.

“Home, actually. Excuse me.” Ashley tried to step past him. He sidestepped, blocking her again, and his two friends came up beside him, laughing and spurring him on.

She turned around deciding she would go in the opposite direction, but as she did she felt the shirtless drunk grab her backside.

“Hey!” She spun around, smacking his hand away.

He held up his hands in self-defence.

She was angry but they weren’t worth her time. She turned to walk away again and heard them laugh.

“Come on,” he taunted. “You wouldn’t be wearing them shorts if you didn’t want it.”

His friends laughed and she felt a rush of anger surge through her.

She spun on her heel, facing them. “How dare you! I can wear whatever I want without having to defend myself from morons like you!”

They all laughed harder, as if entertained by her outburst.

“You have no right to touch me. You should be ashamed of yourself!”

She saw the drunk men look behind her and she turned to see Jay standing directly behind her.

“Everything OK here?” Jay asked, looking at the men, then at Ashley.

Ashley nodded, not wanting to get him involved.

“You her boyfriend or somethin’?” shirtless drunk asked.

“No,” Jay replied, coolly.

“Husband?”

“No.”

“Brother?”

“No.”

The guy laughed, looking at his two friends for encouragement before turning back towards Jay. “Then you got no business here.” He spat on the ground, tucking his thumbs into the front of his belt buckle.

Ashley saw the muscle along Jay’s jaw clench and his hands formed fists.

She intervened, placing her hand on his forearm. “It’s OK, it’s nothing. Let’s go. I’m fine, really.”

He slowly turned his eyes to hers. He nodded once and together they turned to walk away. After a few steps Ashley was sprayed with beer. The shirtless drunk had thrown his can at Jay, hitting him between the shoulder blades, spraying alcohol everywhere before bouncing off onto the ground.

Jay stopped walking and tensed up. Ashley bit her lip, not knowing what to expect. She could see he was furious and trying his hardest to control his anger.

The shirtless guy said something inaudible, but Ashley knew it was offensive and she held her breath, hoping Jay wouldn’t react. She could see he was using every ounce of strength not to turn around and pound them all.

Before she even had time to grasp what was going, on the shirtless guy had run up behind Jay and was poised ready to hit him in the back of his head with his closed fist. Ashley’s hand involuntarily shot up to cover her mouth as she watched on in shock. In one swift movement Jay ducked, dodging the blow, rotating 180 degrees on his heel as he came up and brought his right fist up, impacting with a sickening crunch on the shirtless drunks chin. Ashley was stunned at the speed and ability with which Jay moved. If there had been any previous doubt as to the functionality of Jay’s upper body following his war injury, it was dismissed now. The drunk dropped to the ground as though his legs had failed to operate. He lay there moaning, blood beginning to seep out of the side of his mouth. He spat. Saliva mixed with blood pooled onto the ground.

He cursed as his friends ran to his side. “You broke my tooth!”

Jay stood there, breathing heavily, anger burning in his eyes. His fists were still clenched. It was all over before Ashley had had time to comprehend what was happening. Jay looked at Ashley, his face blank and unreadable.

He blinked a few times and looked back at the guy on the ground. He was sitting up now rubbing his jaw.

Ashley frowned as Jay held out his right hand towards the man on the ground. The drunk slapped his hand away but Jay held it out again, not saying a word. The drunk spat out blood again and reached out, accepting Jay’s hand. Jay pulled him to his feet and the two met face to face.

Ashley waited expecting Jay to throttle him again, but he didn’t.

“You don’t ever touch a woman again without her permission,” Jay said.

The man raised his hand to his jaw, moving it from side to side as though testing out it to see if it still worked.

“Got it?” Jay demanded.

“OK, got it,” the man said, holding up his hands in surrender.

“Now apologize.” Jay loomed over the man.

“Man, I—”

“Apologize!”

The drunk man winced as he prepared for another blow.

“All right, all right. I’m sorry!”

Jay nodded once. “I’m sorry about the jaw.”

The man was speechless.

Ashley didn’t think anyone understood what was going on, least of all her. With Jay turned and walked towards her.

“Are you all right?” His eyes had softened and they were full of concern.

She nodded, still unable to open her mouth. She didn’t know whether to throw her arms around him and thank him, or to be afraid of this strong mountain of a man. He took her hand in his so gently she could hardly believe the comparison between what she had just witnessed and how gentle and caring he could be. Her fears vanished. She felt safe and didn’t think anything could possibly harm her. Not while Jay was around.

“Let’s go and get the girls.”

 

Chapter 13

The girls sat chatting quietly in the back seat of Jay’s car as they drove back towards Jane’s house. Ashley felt embarrassed and couldn’t help but blame herself for what had happened.

Perhaps the drunk was right—maybe her shorts were too short.

“I’m sorry.” Jay broke the silence.

Ashley blinked at him. Why was he sorry? He had only been defending himself. And her.

“I’m sorry,” Ashley said raising her hand to her chest.

Jay frowned. “What are you sorry for?”

“Well it was my fault. I should have walked away. I shouldn’t have reacted.”

Jay lowered his brows. “You aren’t seriously be blaming yourself for a drunk guy groping you, are you?”

When he put it like that, it did seem a bit silly to be blaming herself.

“Don’t ever blame yourself for something like that—you are not responsible for someone else’s actions.”

She noticed a small cut on his middle right knuckle. “Your hand.”

“Huh?” Jay turned his hand to see the small cut. “Oh, it’s all right. It’ll heal.”

Ashley felt horrible, first his neck and now his hand. “I’m a dangerous woman to be around.” She pulled the edges of her lips up, trying to force a small smile.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, first I stick a fishing hook in your neck, and now I’ve caused you to hurt your hand. You’d be far safer keeping your distance.” But in all honesty, she didn’t want him to. She had felt so much joy from being around him these last few days, much more than she had expected.

Jay laughed. “Flesh wounds. I already told you I’ve had worse.” Ashley guessed he was referring to his bullet wound. “Besides, I’d rather take my chances with y—”

“Hey, Uncle Jay?” Meika spoke up from the back seat. “Do you have any other music we can listen to besides elevator music?”

Ashley and Jay both laughed.

 

As they arrived back at Jane’s, Bryan and Jess’s car was parked in the driveway. Meika and Coco jumped out and raced each other inside. Jay got out and walked around to Ashley’s side of the car. She had already gotten out and was collecting the girl’s bags.

“Did you want to come in?” Ashley asked.

Jay had his hands in his pockets and looked down. “Nah, I better get home. Benson will be starting to think I’ve abandoned him.”

Ashley smiled and nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “For coming to my rescue.” She pictured him wearing shining armour.

“Yeah well, I imagine you could handle yourself well enough. I don’t know what came over me. I was just so angry.” He ran his teeth over his lower lip.

“Well thank you. Again. I better get inside and see if mom needs a hand with anything. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, of course; the big day.” Jay smiled, raising his eyebrows.

She walked up the front steps and he waited by the car to make sure she got inside safely.

She couldn’t help but smile at his protectiveness towards her. He really did make her feel safe and secure.

 

Everyone was in the kitchen area when Ashley walked in. Even Grace. Jane was tossing a salad and Martin was getting a tray of sausages and steaks ready for the grill. It was a perfect night for it—warm and relaxing.

“Hi Gran. How’s the patient?” Ashley asked.

“Miserable,” Grace said. “Utterly miserable. To tell you the truth, he’s worse than a child. He just wants to go home, and they said he can’t leave until tomorrow morning at the earliest.”

“Are they worried about anything?” Why did he have to stay in for so long if it was as mild as Henry had made out?

“Just observation. He’s actually in surprisingly good health considering the amount of junk food he sneaks when I’m not looking.” Grace shook her head.

“So he will be able to make it to the wedding?”

“Oh, yes. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Grace looked around the room.

“Was that Jay’s car I saw pull up outside?”

“Yes. He gave us a lift home,” Ashley responded.

“How thoughtful of him.”

Harley looked to have recovered well from his stomach ache and was running around the kitchen, weaving through the adults’ legs.

“Hey, who wants to kick the soccer ball around outside?” Bryan asked.

“Sounds like a good idea,” Jane said as Coco ducked by, almost hitting her head on the kitchen counter.

Jane and Grace remained inside while Ashley and the others headed out the back. There was a light breeze, enough to cool them down so they weren’t too hot. Jane joined them after a minute, bringing a tray of cold drinks for the kids, some empty champagne flutes, and the bottle of champagne from Steven.

“It’s such a shame Steven can’t be here to celebrate with us.” Jane placed the tray on the table and picked up the bottle.

She examined the label carefully. “Oooh, it’s French. You know it will be good because the French always make good champagne.”

Ashley stifled a laugh, wondering when her mother had become such an expert on fine wines.

“1979 Brut. Brut? Am I saying it right? Sounds like men’s deodorant,” Jane said, popping the cork. She quickly started filling the flutes and handed one to each of the adults.

“Cheers.” Jane raised her glass.

“Here’s to many happy years.” Martin drew Jane close and kissed her on the lips.

Meika and Coco ‘eww-ed’ in unison.

They all sipped their champagne. It was delicious. Crisp, clean, and had exquisitely balanced flavours.

 

Dinner was great. Simple and uncomplicated. Everyone serving themselves, sitting around casually laughing and talking. By now Bryan had found out that Jess had given the kids junk food during the day, but he wasn’t angry.

How could he be? He does the exact same thing!

Ashley didn’t talk much. She sat back and took it all in, enjoying the inviting atmosphere in such a perfect setting. Her mind kept wandering to Jay, and several times she caught herself smiling without even realizing it. The thought disturbed her. She had no right or reason to be thinking so fondly of him.

After dinner, the women all pitched in and helped clean up while Bryan and Martin played board games with the kids in the lounge. Martin joined them in the kitchen and put the coffee machine on.

“Who wants a cuppa?” he asked.

“Meeeee!” Coco yelled as she walked into the kitchen. She only had one volume: loud.

“Me too, please. A hot chocolate,” Meika said.

“Well you girls can give me a hand then.” Martin smiled.

 

Ashley walked into the lounge and saw Bryan sitting on the couch with Harley fast asleep on his lap. He looked so peaceful. He had beautiful long dark eyelashes and Ashley couldn’t help but feel envious of them. She sat down beside Bryan, admiring Harley’s handsome little features.

“He’s had a big day.” Ashley smiled.

“We all have.” Bryan covered his mouth as he yawned.

“How did you do today at the concert? Good business?” Ashley brought one leg up and folded it under the other.

“Good. Really good, actually. A few of the staff are going to run it tomorrow too, while I’m at the wedding,” Bryan said, barely more than a whisper.

“Oh, good. I keep telling you you’d make a killing in the city with your business. Organic and healthy is all the rage now.”

“I know,” Bryan said.

“So what’s stopping you? I think you’d like it in the city—I could spend more time with the kids.” Ashley stroked Harley’s thick, dark hair. She never thought she’d be saying those words.

“I don’t think I could ever leave here,” Bryan said.

“Why not? Are you scared?”

“No, I love it here. It’s ‘home’,” Bryan said.

“But don’t you feel like you could be missing out on a whole other world? I mean, you could be raking in big money.”

“I’ve thought about it.”

Ashley stared at him with rounded eyes.

“But after seeing friends move away only to return here years later, I’ve realized it doesn’t matter where you go in life: home will always be home. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence, Ash. The grass is greener where you water it.”

That hit a nerve with Ashley.

She had expected life to be better—somewhere else, anywhere else—than Sweet Home. She had more money, a higher status career and a steady boyfriend. Things were better . . . weren’t they?

“I’ve envied you,” Bryan said. “You have all the freedom in the world to go where you want, do what you want, be who you want. But then there are moments like these, where I look at my kids and I think wow, where did this tiny human being come from? I can’t believe that Jess and I created something so perfect. I have an amazingly beautiful wife who I get to wake up next to every morning, and I have to pinch myself to check I’m not dreaming. We have three awesome kids who at times make me want to pack my bags and run away.”

Ashley laughed as Bryan continued.

“But at the same time, I wouldn’t even want to imagine my life without them in it. I love my job. I get to chat with all my regular customers each day and I look forward to seeing them come in and tell me about their families and what they’ve got planned for their weekend—even if it is the same old stories day in and day out.” He smiled “This, right here, this is what I love. I’m living the dream. Well, I’m living my dream. It’s moments like these that make life worth living.”

Ashley sat silently. Bryan was happy and content, and that made her happy. Harley grunted and did a noisy burp. Ashley covered her mouth so she wouldn’t laugh too loudly and wake him up.

“And then that moment passes.” Bryan laughed.

It was then that she saw Jasper around the side of the couch, sprawled out in an unnatural way. He wasn’t moving and she watched his belly, looking for an indication he was breathing. It didn’t move.

“Oh my gosh,” Ashley kept her voice low so as not to alert the others and upset the girls. “Bryan, I think Jasper is dead.”

Bryan looked over his shoulder at the mass of black fur lying motionless on the floor.

“Jasper!” Bryan said, then made a kissing sound with his lips. Jasper’s head shot upright and he stared at Bryan with his one beady eye. Ashley breathed a sigh of relief.

“Wouldn’t be the first time we thought that thing had died.” Bryan chuckled. “At least we didn’t bury him this time.”

Ashley shook her head. “I don’t know why mom doesn’t get the poor thing euthanized.”

“Why?” Bryan asked. “He’s not in any pain. He goes for regular check-ups at the vet. He’s just old—and really ugly.”

 

Chapter 14

The sound of the birds singing outside and the sun streaming through her window woke Ashley. The forecast was clear skies, warm weather and a gentle breeze in the afternoon. Ideal for a garden wedding.

She went downstairs and was greeted by Jane and her Aunty Rhonda. Rhonda and Jane looked nothing alike. Where Jane was slender and tall with blonde hair, Rhonda was short, plump, and had curly auburn hair. Rhonda lived by the coast with her husband Richard.

“Oh, Ashley. Welcome home, baby girl,” Rhonda said. She held out her arms and squeezed Ashley so tightly Ashley was worried she might be crushed to death.

“Haven’t you grown?” Rhonda said looking her up and down. “You’re the spitting image of your mother, but you have your father’s nose, that’s for sure.”

Ashley smiled, still trying to wake up.

“Coffee’s ready if you want some,” Jane said. “The hairdresser will be here around eleven, then makeup afterwards.”

Jane had already told Ashley all of these details, but Ashley nodded in acknowledgement anyway. She was still wearing her bathrobe and had borrowed a pair of her mother’s fluffy pink slippers. After she had poured herself a cup of coffee, she yawned and simultaneously tried to smooth down her hair which seemed to have formed a knotted mass at the back of her head during the night. She stirred her coffee and raised it to her lips, glancing out the back window. Jay stood there, staring straight at her. He gave a broad smile and a quick nod and Ashley froze to the spot, silently willing the earth to open up and swallow her whole.

She had completely forgotten he was delivering the gazebo this morning and felt foolish for not making an effort to brush her hair or get dressed before coming downstairs. And now he was coming towards the back door. Awkward. He knocked twice and slid the door open.

“Good morning.” He smiled.

“Uh, good morning,” she replied, tucking her hair behind her ear.

Jane walked into the kitchen. “Oh, I thought I heard you, Jay.”

“Good morning Mrs Harper,” Jay said. “Just wanted to let you know the gazebo is up and ready to be decorated whenever you’re ready.”

“Oh, wonderful!” Jane clapped her hands together. “Would you like a cup of coffee? It’s fresh.”

He checked his wristwatch. “Uh, sure, thank you.”

Rhonda walked into the kitchen carrying a large box which appeared to be full of ribbons and a soft ivory colored fabric.

“Where do you want these, Jane?” she asked.

“In the spare bedroom, I think. Ashley, could you pour Jay a coffee? I’ll be right back.” Jane and Rhonda walked into the other room, leaving Ashley and Jay alone in the kitchen.

She got him a cup and poured the hot coffee. He was watching her, and she felt herself flush. After their public display of dancing yesterday—if you could even call it dancing—she hadn’t thought she could get any more embarrassed. Wrong.

“Um, do you want milk or sugar?”

“Black is fine.” He smiled. “I like your slippers.”

Ashley looked down at the fluffy monstrosities on her feet. “They’re Mom’s, not mine.” She handed him the cup.

He was still smiling, evidently amused by her dishevelled appearance. They stood in silence, sipping their coffees. She coughed and cleared her throat

“So you dropped off the gazebo?”

He nodded, swallowing a mouthful. “Yep, all done.”

She nodded and they went back to standing in silence.

“Did you want to have a look?” He raised his eyebrows.

She didn’t want to risk going outside dressed like this, in case anyone else saw her. She scanned the backyard through the window.

“No one’s out the back. You look a bit worried.” Did he read minds as well?

“Me?” Ashley asked, “I don’t care if anyone sees me.” She lowered her eyebrows and pushed her lips to one side.

“So?” Jay asked.

“Yes, I’d love to see the gazebo.”

She finished the last of her coffee and joined him outside. They walked to the rear of the garden in silence. She couldn’t help but gasp as she saw the gazebo. It was truly stunning, a perfect centrepiece for the garden. It was large, with six strong spiralled pillars which were ivory colored. The roof was domed, made out of a rust-colored metal with intricate details of leaves, vines, and birds.

“What do you think?” Jay asked as they approached the gazebo.

“This is incredible.” Ashley ran her hand over the smooth timber pillar. “I can’t believe you made this, well, I mean, I can, after seeing your house, of course you could build this.”

“Well, to be honest, I only made the base. The roof I had designed by my good friend in Portland. I sketched a rough draft of what Jane had asked for, and she crafted it out.” Jay looked up at the beautiful domed top.

“What’s this?” There was an inscription on one of the posts: Martin. She looked at the other posts. They all had names etched into them too: Thomas, Ashley, Bryan + Jess, Meika + Coco + Harley and God.

“Your mother wanted this to be space where she could sit and reflect on her life, surrounded by love,” Jay said, looking at the names.

Ashley was astounded. What a perfect addition to the garden. It was then that she noticed the small anchor pattern at the top of each post.

“An anchor?” Ashley glanced over her shoulder at Jay. “What is it with anchors? Seems to be a running theme with you and my mom.” Ashley looked at the anchor tattoo on Jay’s forearm.

“Everyone needs an anchor wouldn’t you say? Something to hold to when the storms hit.”

“Like an anchor for your soul, right?” Ashley pointed at his tattoo.

Jay nodded. “Firm and secure.”

Ashley swallowed hard.

An anchor? Lately she had felt like a rusty old boat, filled with holes, adrift at sea with nothing secure to cling to. She desperately wanted her own ‘anchor’.

“So do you like it?” Jay asked.

She cleared her throat and blinked a few times. “I love it! It’s so beautiful—I wish I had one.”

“I could build you one.”

Ashley laughed. “I don’t have anywhere to put it. I live in an apartment, so no backyard—or frontyard, for that matter.”

“Ah, the concrete jungle.” Jay sat down on one of the side rails that connected the pillars, watching as Ashley made her way around the gazebo, observing the handiwork.

“Do you ever miss this?” he asked. “Living out here in the country?”

“Sometimes,” Ashley admitted. “I do love it here. It is beautiful, but . . .” She sighed heavily. “There are so many painful memories that are conjured up everywhere I go in this town. Things I’d much rather forget.”

Jay didn’t press her. He knew more about her painful past, her father’s death, than Steven did. In fact, she had told Steven very little about the passing of her father and of her heavy drinking habit, fearing he would reject her and think less of her.

“I should probably get back in. The hairdresser and makeup artist will be here soon and they’re going to have their work cut out for them.” She looked down at her gown, fluffy slippers and general untidiness.

“I doubt that,” Jay said, rising to his feet. “You can’t improve on perfect.”

Her breath caught in her throat and she could feel that unflattering shade of red returning.

“I’ll see you in a few hours.” Jay smiled and walked away, leaving her standing in the gazebo feeling both flattered and confused.

She needed to have a shower and wash her hair before the hairdresser arrived.

 

After she got out of the shower, she found she had missed two calls from Steven. She smiled and closed her bedroom door, still dressed in only her bath towel.

She quickly called him back.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Hi stranger.” Ashley was glad to hear his voice again. “How’s everything going?” She didn’t want to let on that his father called her yesterday and informed her that things weren’t going according to plan—whatever that meant.

“Not good,” Steven replied, shortly.

“Not good? It can’t be that bad, surely.”

“No, really, not good. The deal fell through. They’ve signed with another firm.” She could hear the disappointment in his voice.

“Oh, Steven, I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help?”

He laughed. “Yeah, how about you fly over here and make them change their minds!”

She was stunned by his aggressive tone. She was only trying to help. “I’m sorry.”

“Pretty stupid thing to say, don’t you think?” he said. “How the hell are you supposed to help?”

She didn’t know what to say.

“My dad is angry and now who knows what’s going to happen with the supposed promotion.”

Best to just stay quiet, listen, and let him vent. No matter what she said, he was likely to be angry anyway.

“I’m going to be stuck in my position for the rest of my life. I’ve worked too hard, for too long for this to all fall apart now!”

This was it. This was the moment Ashley needed to step up to the plate and take responsibility in their relationship. He was relying on her to help him. It was like Robert Cole had said, Steven needed her to come through for him now more than ever.

She took a deep breath. “I’ve decided I want to move in with you.”

She waited for him to respond with happiness but instead she got the opposite.

“What? Why? Out of pity? Did my father put you up to this?”

“What? No, Steven. I love you and I—”

“Don’t give me that bull! The other day you were harping on about how ‘it doesn’t feel right’, then I tell you that possibly the biggest deal of my career goes up in flames, and now you want to move in with me?”

“I . . . I thought you’d be happy,” Ashley said, scared of what his next response might be. “I thought this was what you wanted.”

He was silent for a long time.

“Steven? Are you still there?” she asked.

“To be honest I don’t know what I want anymore.”

“What do you mean?” A lump caught in her throat.

“I mean, I don’t know if we’re heading in the same direction. You should have come through for me when I first asked you, not now, and certainly not out of sympathy.”

“Steven, it’s not out of sympathy—”

“I think I need some time to think things through.”

Tears stung at Ashley’s eyes and she blinked them back. “Don’t give up on us, Steven. We’ve been together five years. You can’t throw that away.”

“Yeah, but if we’re not right for each other, it means we’ve already thrown away five years of our lives. I don’t want to waste another five.” He took a deep breath. “I can’t deal with all of this at the moment.”

How could he do this to her now? On her mother’s wedding day, of all days. She felt like crumpling into a ball on the floor.

“I gotta go,” he said.

“I love you.” Ashley waited, but he didn’t reply. The phone line went dead. She sat on the bed, staring at the phone, then redialled his number. He couldn’t just end the conversation like that. Not with everything being left up in the air like that. Her call went straight to voice mail.

Surely he didn’t mean it. He couldn’t. He was hurting because the Tokyo deal didn’t go as he had hoped. There’d be other deals.

She tried to call him again. Still no answer.

Despite the pain and uncertainty, she knew she had to suppress those feelings and press on with the day. She couldn’t let anyone know what had happened. Goodness, she didn’t even know what had happened. This entire week she had felt as though there were so many issues arising that she was struggling to hold below the surface. Trying to appear to be in control, while her whole life was spiralling out of control.

When I return to New York, we’ll sit down and work it all out. It’s going to be OK .

 

The day flew by. Ashley managed to get a few bites of food in between helping with the decorations and having her hair and makeup done, and she was able to hide the fact that she was still struggling with the upsetting phone call from earlier. She wanted to know where she stood with Steven. But that would have to wait, as he hadn’t bothered to return her phone calls.

Her hair was styled perfectly—romantic and whimsy, the hairdresser called it. It was a messy up-do, with several small braids intertwining at the back in a low bun with a few loose curls.

Her makeup was equally flawless—neutral smoky tones of brown with a dusty nude-pink lipstick. It was drawing nearer to the time to finally see the dress—and hopefully find out what the big deal was all about. For some reason she kept picturing the dress being ugly—really ugly. Layers and layers of taffeta ruffles and big puffy sleeves.

Jane came into the bedroom looking radiant. She had managed to remain patient and graceful all day, on a day where most women would be panicking and anxious—Ashley had done enough of that for the both of them, not that she let on, of course. Jane’s hair was styled simply—hanging down to her shoulders with soft curls. Her make-up was similar to Ashley’s, natural and understated. She already had her dress on—it was white, sleeveless and slim–fitting, with a modest neckline which flowed up and over her shoulders hanging low down her back. It was ankle length, and simply chic. Just like her mother.

“Wow, Mom. You look amazing.”

“Thank you, honey.”

Grace walked in holding a large cardboard box: Ashley’s dress. Grace was dressed in a classy dusty rose dress with a cream-colored cardigan. She wore several rows of pearls and had also had her hair and makeup done.

“This is for you.” She handed Ashley the box.

“Thanks, Gran. Is Grandpa here?”

“Yes, he’s downstairs. He’s fine, back to his usual self.” Grace smiled.

“We’ll leave you to get dressed.” Jane said as they both moved towards the door. “Call us in when you’ve put it on.”

They closed the door and Ashley sat down on the bed, resting the box on her lap.

Here goes. If I hate it I’m going to have to spend the day pretending I love it seeing as they’ve put so much effort into getting it ready.

She had spent so much time already ‘pretending’ everything was OK. One more thing wouldn’t matter too much.

She took a deep breath, readying herself. She took the lid off and placed it beside her.

First impressions were good, really good. The dress was an ivory color and had a romantic vintage feel to it. She lifted it out of the box and held it up to get a better view.

The soft fabric fell and moved easily and the entire length from knee to the top had a thin layer of lace fabric covering intricate beadwork, patterned with diamantes and miniature pearls. The thin straps contained layers and layers of strands of tiny pearls and diamantes. It was incredible.

She undressed and slipped the dress on, careful not to pull on the beadwork. The layers of fine lace and silk fit snug round her waist, cascading to the floor. She couldn’t have picked a more perfect dress.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” she said.

Just as she suspected, it was Jane and Grace. Their faces lit up when they saw her dressed.

“Well, what do you think?” Jane asked.

“This is stunning.” Ashley turned back to the full length mirror and moved from side to side to see the material swish loosely around her legs. “Are you sure it isn’t too extravagant for me to be wearing? It is your wedding, after all.”

“It’s your grandmothers dress.” Jane smiled.

Grace smiled, “It was my wedding dress, I couldn’t stand to see it gathering dust in the wardrobe so I asked your mother if we could find some way to use it. She kindly agreed and so we took it to Gina’s and asked her to help us find a way to give it a new life.”

Ashley was overwhelmed. “I love it. I think it may be the most beautiful dress I have ever worn.”

Grace dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and gave Ashley a kiss on the cheek.

“See,” Grace cradled Ashley’s face in her hands. “Even old things can be made new again. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”

Grace closed the door as she left, and Ashley felt as though something else was coming.

“I wanted you to wear this,” Jane said and she handed Ashley a long box. Ashley opened it to reveal a necklace.

It was a silver chain, thin and plain, but the large teardrop pendant caught her eye. It was surrounded by a cluster of crystals running around the edge. It matched the dress perfectly.

“Your father gave this to me on our first date.” Jane took it out of the box and opened the clasp. Ashley turned around so Jane could put it on her. “I wanted to hang onto it until your wedding, but if you and Steven don’t want to get married, I thought now would be a good time.” She fastened the necklace and Ashley raised her hand to touch the cool stone.

“Your father would be proud of you,” Jane said, admiring the necklace in the reflection of the mirror.

“I’m not sure he would be.” Ashley felt tears sting the back of her eyes. She blinked them away, fearing that once they started they would never stop. She sat down on the bed.

“What makes you say that?” Jane sat down on the bed beside her.

“I’m so confused. I thought I knew what I wanted, but now I’m not so sure.” Ashley was surprised at the words coming out of her mouth. She wasn’t one to open up about the deeper issues, but for some reason the words kept coming.

“I don’t know what to do. I thought the only way I could be happy after Dad died was if I got as far away from this place as I could. He wouldn’t want me to waste another moment of my life, and I’d already wasted too much.” She choked on the words, recalling his final days. “He would want me to be successful and happy. To make the most of my life.”

“Oh, honey. Life was never meant to be easy. It’s full of ups and downs. But I think you may have misunderstood the true meaning of success and happiness. They are not always connected. Not in the way the world sees them anyway. Success—from a worldly point of view—doesn’t always bring happiness. You could own all the money in the world and still not be happy. What good is it for man to gain the world, but lose his soul? We were created for a higher purpose. It’s up to us to find our purpose in life. That’s where our true treasure is.” She closed her eyes as if recalling a quote. “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”

Ashley sniffed and fanned her eyes with her hands. “That’s good. Is that from Pinterest?”

“Pinterest?” Jane laughed. “Honey, that’s from the Bible.”

Ashley laughed, then stopped, uncertain. “But what if my heart is in one place, but my mind is in another?”

“Well, that is a tough one. One that only you can work out. But I like to look at it this way. You can change your mind, but you can’t change your heart. You’ll make the right decisions. Just have a little faith.”

There she went with the ‘faith’ word. Here was the God talk Ashley had been expecting. Well, she’d had faith before. Faith that her father would get better, and look how that ended up.

“How can you believe in God, after everything Dad went through?” Ashley asked. “I don’t understand.”

Jane sighed. “I know because I know.”

That made perfect sense. Not. No one in this town ever said anything that made sense.

“I never told you this, Ashley. I don’t know why. I suppose I didn’t want to upset you further, but in the moments before your father passed I witnessed what I believe to be a miracle. I sat by your father’s bed, holding his hand like I had done every night, watching the clock tick. You know I prayed for him to be healed and whole again, and I thought God hadn’t answered my prayer. But I know now he heard me, and he answered my prayer, just not in the way I had wanted.”

Ashley sniffed and dabbed beneath her eyes, trying to prevent her makeup from running.

“We knew the end was near. Your father hadn’t been able to move or speak for quite some time, but something amazing happened. He opened his eyes and focused on something. It was as though he was looking at something at the end of his bed. I don’t know how to describe it. At first I was terrified and was about to call the nurse in, but then he raised his hand as if reaching out to someone. He smiled—he shouldn’t have been able to do that, but he did. Then, just, like that—” Jane clicked her fingers—“He was gone. It was unexplainable and I know it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how I know that God answered my prayers. Thomas was healed and made whole, but not in this world—in heaven.”

Ashley’s chin trembled as her mother continued speaking.

“Our time on earth is temporary, but that doesn’t mean our lives are temporary. God has set eternity in our hearts. Ashley, I don’t know why your father had to die, and there are some things I don’t think we will ever fully be able to understand until that day when we meet our Maker. But I can tell you this, your father was ready to go and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I’ll see him again in heaven. I’m certain.”

Ashley struggled to comprehend her mother’s words. It was a lot to take in and although she couldn’t believe in God, she wrestled with the story about her father regaining muscle control before passing. It was not possible. She had goose bumps.

“I’m sorry to drop this on you now, of all days. But you’re leaving tomorrow and I wanted to tell you face to face.” Jane wrapped her arm around Ashley’s shoulders.

“It’s OK. Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry, I’m emotional today and I don’t know why.” Ashley smiled, sniffing again. She did know why: Steven.

“It’s a big day, and I know it must be hard on you and Bryan to see your mother marrying another man. He will never replace your father, Ashley.”

Ashley’s heart ached. She would have given anything to have her father back, to see him again. “I know.” Ashley forced a smile. “Martin is great. I’m happy for you. I really am.”

Jane kissed her on the temple and stood up. “You coming downstairs?”

“I’ll be down in a minute.” She smiled and Jane walked out of the room.

Ashley stood and looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were red, but that would soon dissipate. She appeared beautiful and composed on the outside but inside she was crumbling like a house built on sand.

Focus, Ashley. Do not let your emotions get the better of you. You know better than to rely on feelings. Fact over feelings. Every day.

She took a deep breath, steadying herself. Ready to go downstairs and make it through the rest of the day. One more day, then she could go home. To her new home. With Steven, if he was prepared to take her back. Then she could return to work and keep herself busy—so long as Stephanie hadn’t taken her position. So many what-ifs. She felt unstable and uncertain and wished desperately she had something—anything—solid to keep her anchored and secure.

 

Chapter 15

There was an eruption of noise as Bryan, Jess, and their entourage of children burst in through the door. The ceremony was due to begin in less than fifteen minutes, and although Jane and Martin didn’t appear nervous, Ashley certainly was. She downed a glass of champagne in the hopes that it might calm her nerves.

The family were all in the living room, tightening ties, straightening flowers and smoothing hair. Meika and Coco looked adorable in matching dresses. Harley wore a suit and was throwing a tantrum on the floor trying to pull the bow-tie off. Jess wore a floor-length dress with layers of pink, purple, and dark blue in a lightweight flowing fabric.

Bryan wore a tan colored suit to complement Ashley’s dress. They were going to walk their mother down the aisle to Martin, who wore a suit in the same color, and appeared to be struggling with the heat. Jane had reassured him that he could take off the suit jacket after the ceremony, but not a moment before.

Henry and Grace were also present. Henry looked perfectly normal, as if nothing had happened, which was a relief.

The guests made their way out to the back garden, leaving Ashley, Bryan, and Jane inside. Ashley peered out through the windows as people wandered past, all heading towards the ceremony area. She picked up a glass of champagne and drank quickly.

“You OK?” Bryan asked.

She nodded.

“You sure? Because you look like you’re about to have a nervous breakdown.” He smirked as he started pulling his jacket on.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel all jittery,” she said, shaking her free hand in an effort to get it to stop trembling.

“Stop drinking so much champagne then. Now I know why Coco calls you AA.” He took the glass out of her hand and set it on the table. “For what it’s worth, you look beautiful—which is surprising considering you were such an ugly kid.” Bryan smiled and straightened his tie.

Ashley gasped and whacked him on the shoulder, then laughed.

“See, that’s better, isn’t it?”

She was glad he was here to help ease the anxiety.

The music started outside, a beautiful string orchestral piece, Canon in D.

“You ready, Mom?” Bryan asked.

“Let’s do this.” Jane smiled and took his arm.

Ashley linked arms with Jane on the other side, holding her bouquet of fresh cut white roses in her spare hand. Henry and Uncle Richard opened the glass doors and the three of them stepped outside together. The music instantly grew louder and the bright sun reflected off all the white: the white timber chairs, white flowers and white carpet runner. Ashley wished her mother had chosen a different color for the decorations as she would probably end up blinded from all the glare before they reached the gazebo where Martin stood waiting, hands folded together in front of him.

Ashley recognised a few of the faces, but many were unfamiliar. She looked around discreetly, trying to spot Jay’s telltale beard but he was nowhere to be seen. She continued to smile although she couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment that he wasn’t there. Maybe he was standing somewhere off to the side.

As they reached the gazebo, Ashley and Bryan released Jane’s arms and she took the final few steps towards Martin, taking his hands beneath the beautiful new gazebo. It had been decorated with lengths of long billowing white chiffon, which gently blew in the gentle afternoon breeze. White rose petals were strewn all across the ground, and bunches of roses adorned the sides of the gazebo.

Pastor Barry began the service, with his back to the guests so that the bridal party faced the guests. He had always performed ceremonies this way, allowing the bridal couple to look out at the faces of their much loved friends and families. Ashley and Bryan stood on either side of Martin and Jane.

It was then that Ashley spotted him. Sitting towards the back, on the left hand side. It was no wonder she hadn’t recognised him—his beard was gone. The strong angular jaw that had been hidden by his beard was now visible, making his features seem even more perfect. His hair had been cut as well, not short, just shorter and neater. He wore gray suit pants and suspenders with a simple powder blue shirt which brought out the blue in his eyes. No tie or bow tie. His top button was undone and his sleeves were rolled up almost to his elbows. Perfect for a summery outdoors wedding.

Ashley found it hard to swallow. Her mouth felt dry and she became aware of her breathing. The temperature seemed to jump twenty degrees.

He smiled and nodded as he caught her eye, and it was if she had only now realized how attractive he was. Not just attractive, but strikingly handsome.

She found it difficult to concentrate as Jane and Martin read out their handwritten vows. She cleared her throat and turned to face them. They stood beneath the gazebo and she was glad for the shade overhead, otherwise she would be sweating off her makeup.

Ashley held her mother’s flowers as they exchanged rings. Both had a simple plain gold wedding band.

“. . . so with God as my witness, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride,” Pastor Barry said.

Martin leaned in and planted a soft kiss on Jane’s lips, then dipped her back.

The guests clapped and cheered at the spectacle.

Ashley spent most of the afternoon catching up with relatives she hadn’t seen in years, and old family friends she’d grown up with in Sweet Home. She could predict the conversations before they had even begun speaking: “Wow, haven’t you grown,” “Aren’t Bryan’s children adorable,” “Your mother’s done a wonderful job with the garden” and, of course, her all-time favorite, “Perfect weather for a wedding.” So cliché she couldn’t help but giggle inside.

She still hadn’t spoken with Jay, and several times she noticed him standing on the outer edges of the garden, laughing and conversing with other guests, one hand tucked into the pocket of his suit pants. He was a sight to behold, as though he’d stepped straight out of a fashion catalogue.

She caught his eye more than once, causing her smile to broaden unconsciously and she couldn’t help but wonder if he had noticed the effect he was having on her.

The wait staff continuously floated through the gardens offering flutes of champagne and carrying silver platters decorated with an assortment of tasty hors d’oeuvres.

A string quartet played to one side of the garden. The band consisted of some of Martins friends from his old home back in California. A small group of admiring guests stood around watching with pleasure. Bryan and Jess had their hands full constantly chasing after Harley. Coco and Meika were keeping themselves and their great-grandparents entertained singing, dancing, and showing off their limited gymnastics skills.

As Ashley returned from a quick trip to the bathroom, she felt a presence draw near behind her. It was Jay. He had been reclining against the exterior wall, evidently awaiting her return.

“Hey,” he said.

“Oh, you scared me.” Ashley smiled as they continued to walk side by side.

“Not an uncommon reaction when I try to talk to girls.” He grinned.

She found that hard to believe.

“You look beautiful,” he said, and she felt her heart skip a beat.

“It’s amazing what a bit of makeup and hair styling can do.”

“It’s not your makeup, or your hair. Even if you were still wearing those fluffy pink slippers, you’d still be beautiful.”

She laughed. “Well, thank you. So do you. I mean, so are you. Not beautiful, but handsome—uh, you know what I mean.”

Why am I rambling so much?

“What happened to your beard?” She raised a hand to his newly shaven jaw. She expected it to be a casual gesture, but as her fingers touched his face she felt an electrifying jolt. She could see in his eyes that he had felt it too.

He cleared his throat. “I decided it was time for a change.”

“Well it looks good. You look good with a beard too though, just so you know.”

She felt as though she were gawking at his face. Time to change the subject.

“Your dad looks well,” Ashley nodded towards where Sam was standing on the opposite side of the garden. There were three women eagerly holding on to every word he said, all laughing.

“Quite the ladies’ man, isn’t he?” Ashley laughed. “I can’t understand why he’s never remarried. It’s not like there’s never been a shortage of women throwing themselves at him.” She took a new glass of champagne from the waiter as he held out the tray of drinks towards her.

Jay shrugged. “He says it’s because no other woman could ever have compared to my mother.”

“She must have been something special to have had such a lasting effect on him.” Ashley smiled as she sipped the champagne.

“I guess there are some women you never really get over,” Jay said, gazing down into Ashley’s eyes. She felt pinned there, unable to move, and increasingly light-headed. From the champagne, or from the electricity she felt standing this close to Jay?

He leaned in close so that no one would hear. “You know, you’re quite a distraction in that dress,” he whispered, then walked away with his hands in his pockets to talk to some other guests, as though nothing had happened.

She stood there, stunned. It was inconceivable that those few single words had had such an overwhelming effect on her.

Martin tapped the microphone, breaking the moment.

“If everyone could make their way to their seats, please. The first course will be served shortly.”

Ashley looked around. While everyone had been chatting, the staff had packed away the ceremony chairs and set tables and chairs throughout the garden. Each table seated six, and was covered with a simple white tablecloth, adorned with a lavish centrepiece of white roses, and several unlit white candles of varying sizes.

The bridal table was to the left of the gazebo. It was a rectangular table, with Martin and Jane seated in the centre and Bryan and Ashley on either side. The string quartet had moved into the gazebo and continued to play their romantic melodies. Jay was seated with his father, Sam. Jess, Meika, Coco, and Harley also sat at the same table.

The first course was a simple yet tasty salad with fresh prawns and a zesty lemon aioli.

Ashley watched on with contentment as Coco sat on Jay’s lap. He joked and played with the girls, keeping them entertained and laughing while Jess concentrated on Harley, who was visibly tired and getting irritable. It was evident that Jay had been a big part of their lives, and that made Ashley grateful but also deeply regretful that she had been so absent. He wasn’t even their real uncle, yet he knew so much more about them and they loved him for it. She noticed Bryan had left his half-eaten meal to attend to Harley. Jess looked relieved as Bryan picked him up and carried him inside.

“Looks like someone needs a nap.” Jane smiled, watching.

“No, I’m all right,” Martin said.

Ashley laughed. “Already starting with the dad jokes?”

Martin laughed. “I thought that was pretty good, actually.” He returned to eating his meal, still smiling at himself.

Jane shook her head and laughed.

As the light gradually began to fade, the garden lit up.

Literally.

Ashley hadn’t noticed before now, but there were strings of fairy lights too numerous to count hanging from the trees, interspersed with small white paper lanterns. The wait staff lit the candles on the tables and the whole garden began to glow. It was awe-inspiring. Bryan still hadn’t returned to his seat at the main bridal table when the main meal was served. She scanned through the faces of the guests and spotted him sitting beside Jess, one arm draped around her shoulders, and he was whispering in her ear. She laughed. There was a baby monitor on the table and she assumed Harley was asleep in the spare bedroom. Meika and Coco were coloring in a picture and Coco had her tongue poking out of her mouth in deep concentration.

She caught a quick glimpse of Jay leaning forward in his chair, one arm resting on the table in front of him and the other elbow on the table while he ran his thumb across his lips. He was watching Ashley and she blushed. How long he had been staring? His expression was blank, and she wished she could read his mind.

He was interrupted by the waitress as she placed his plate in front of him.

“You can sit at one of the other tables if you want,” Jane said, leaning across to Ashley.

Ashley smiled. “No, it’s OK. I’m happy here.”

She was referring to her seat at the bridal table, but that single, uncomplicated sentence carried so much more weight. She was happy here.

In this town.

With the people she loved. Right now there was nowhere else she would rather be.

 

Chapter 16

As the dinner plates were being cleared the MC announced that it was time for speeches.

The wait staff refilled everyone’s glasses for toasting.

First up was Martin’s brother, Charlie, who had travelled from California along with his wife and two adult sons to attend the wedding. Ashley was astounded at the similarities between the brothers, not only in their looks but in their mannerisms and affinity for lame jokes. She couldn’t help but laugh as Charlie recalled the story of when he first learned that his ‘baby surfer brother’ had announced he was moving to the country. The rest of the family had thought he was insane, but as they came to know Jane they understood why he was willing to leave the beach life behind.

A few others spoke, and with the completion of each speech the wedding guests raised their glasses and drank.

Ashley only took small sips, as she knew from experience how quickly one could become intoxicated sitting through wedding toasts.

Finally Henry stood up and slowly made his way to the gazebo, taking the microphone in his left hand and tucking his right hand into his pants pocket.

“For those who don’t know me, I’m Henry, Jane’s father-in-law. Jane was married to our son Thomas for many, many years until he passed away. We couldn’t be more proud of you, Jane. You’ve raised two beautiful children and three wonderful grandchildren with grace and determination, despite the hardships you’ve had to endure.”

Grace walked over to stand beside Henry, placing her hand on his shoulder and giving Jane a loving smile.

“Jane, you may not be our biological daughter, but we love you like you are our own flesh and blood. Martin, we are so thankful to God for bringing you into Jane’s life. She deserves to be happy, and Martin, we welcome you into our lives with open arms. I’d like to read a verse from the Bible.”

Henry pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. “It’s from Corinthians. ‘Love is patient, love is kind.’” He lowered the paper but continued to speak. “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never ends.’”

Ashley recognised the verse, she had heard it many times before, but for some reason she felt her eyes welling up with tears. As the guests applauded Henry, she wiped the tears away, hoping no one had noticed.

Martin concluded the speeches for the evening telling the story of how he first met Jane. “I had just finished up work for the day. I was a painter, you see, so I headed to the beach for a bit of a surf. That’s when I spotted her. She was the loveliest woman I had ever laid eyes on. She was sunbathing on the beach, reading a book and I thought I’d try to impress her with my awesome boarding skills. Well, I came off mid-wave and put my back out. She asked if I was OK, and I remember I was in a lot of pain but didn’t want to let on in fear of scaring her away. Long story short, I invited her out to dinner but had to cancel at the last minute as I couldn’t get out of bed. She came to my aid and we spent the evening in the hospital.” The guests laughed.

“We stayed in touch, and found ourselves making trips to visit one another until I finally worked up the courage to ask her to marry me. I couldn’t believe my luck when she said yes.” He turned to Jane.

“Thank you, Jane, for giving an old man like me a second chance at love, and for not laughing at me when I failed abysmally in attempting to impress you.” He raised a glass and Jane did the same, smiling at her new husband.

 

After the speeches the wedding cake—a chocolate mud cake—was cut and served with fresh cream and raspberry coulis. The staff then cleared the plates and moved the tables to make a space for the dance floor in front of the gazebo.

Ashley smiled as the dramatic intro to the bridal waltz song began; At Last by Ella Fitzgerald. Martin took Jane’s hand gently in his own and she gazed up at him as they swayed on the dance floor. Ashley watched on, a feeling of love and joy filling her. She felt a nudge on her arm and looked up to see Bryan standing beside her, holding out his hand. She looked puzzled.

“Come on. We have to dance too.”

“Really?” Ashley asked, looking around. No one else was dancing.

“Yeah, we are part of the wedding party.”

She took his hand, feeling flustered at the thought that they would be dancing in full view of everyone. Jane smiled at Ashley as they joined the bridal couple on the dance floor, and Ashley couldn’t help but notice everyone watching. Bryan took her hand and lightly put his hand on her lower back, keeping a safe distance between them.

“This is awkward,” Ashley whispered.

“Don’t worry. I told Jess and Jay to come and save us after thirty seconds.” Bryan smiled.

That should have been a relief, but the thought of dancing with Jay rattled her even more. Soon a few other couples joined them on the dance floor, including Henry and Grace. Jess took Jay’s hand and pulled him up to dance, while Meika and Coco followed suit. As the song concluded, another began. ‘Have I told you Lately’ by Van Morrison; one of her mothers favorites.

Bryan let go of Ashley and leaned towards Jess and Jay. “Mind if we swap?”

Jay willingly obliged.

Ashley was scared her palms would be clammy.

Jay took her left hand in his and slowly ran his left hand down her back, pressing his palm flat against the small of her back. His hand was large and warm, sending chills down her spine and causing the hairs on her arm stand on end.

“I don’t think we ended up dancing together by accident.” Ashley smiled nodding towards Jess and Bryan, who were whispering and smiling in their direction.

Jay leaned in close, his lips brushing against her ear as he whispered, “I don’t mind.”

He didn’t pull away but remained close enough that she could feel his breath against her hair. Her pulse raced and her feet moved clumsily as she struggled to gain control. She was expecting him to twirl her and spin her playfully like he had done at the Jamboree yesterday, but he didn’t. He was serious. He moved slowly and they swayed from side to side, allowing the music to carry them, blissfully unaware of the other dancers around them.

She closed her eyes, allowing her head to rest on his chest. He felt warm, solid, and secure and she couldn’t recall a time when she had felt so safe and at rest. Finally the song ended and she opened her eyes to see Sam approaching.

“May I?” he asked.

“Of course.” She smiled and Jay stepped back to be met by Meika and Coco, who were waiting to dance with him. He took their hands and spun them around, and they squealed with delight.

Ashley smiled at them as Sam began to dance with her.

“It’s good to have you back.” Sam smiled and his eyes creased up at the corners.

“It’s good to be back.”

She could see the concern in Sam’s eyes despite his smile. “I know you’re going home tomorrow, but I need to say this. Be careful. With Jay.”

She frowned. “I will. We’re friends, that’s all.”

“Does he know that?” Sam held her gaze.

Ashley swallowed.

“I mean it. He’s not as tough as he makes out,” Sam said. Ashley knew how deeply Sam cared for Jay. “He has a big heart and sometimes that works to his disadvantage.”

Ashley hadn’t considered how Jay would feel after she left. She had been telling herself over and over that they were just friends and their time together hadn’t meant anything, but perhaps she was fooling herself. She didn’t want to think about it, but now that her time there was coming to an end she would have to face the reality that this would be their last day together—and that affected her in ways that she couldn’t understand.

She nodded, not able to find the words to say. Sam seemed to understand.

“Excuse me.” She let go of his hand and turned to leave. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic amongst the other guests on the dance floor. Where to go?

The jetty.

No one else would be down there and she needed to be alone to think. A sickening feeling overcame her as the reality of saying goodbye hit her. Only hours ago she couldn’t wait to get back to her normal life back in Brooklyn, yet now the thought terrified her. She stepped onto the jetty, heart racing. She walked to the end and gazed out over the water.

Everything was dark except for the slight ripples of water reflecting the light of the moon. She clasped her fingers behind her neck and took a few steadying breaths. This week had not gone as she had expected. Instead of spending her week in utter misery, missing Steven and her work, she had savored every moment. Everywhere she turned she saw only acceptance and happiness, and— most of all—love. She hadn’t felt this alive in a long, long time, and the thought of leaving pained her.

She stood there, unmoving, unaware of how many minutes had passed, until she heard footsteps on the pier behind her. She turned to see a large dark figure walking slowly towards her. Jay. The lights from the party were still visible, glowing through the gaps in the trees and the hypnotic sound of the violins carried on the breeze.

“I’m beginning to think you’re stalking me,” Ashley said.

“I wouldn’t call it stalking. More like admiring from a distance.”

She laughed. “Eww, you’re not like one of those creepy Facebook stalkers, are you?”

It was his turn to laugh. “I don’t use social media, so you’re safe.” He stepped closer to her, closing the gap. “You all right?” Jay asked. “You just took off. Did my dad say something?”

“No, I’m OK,” she replied. “Just getting some air.”

“Well there’s plenty of air everywhere, even up at the party.” She could see him smiling and it began to ease her worries.

She looked up at the sky. The stars were shining brightly, and the Milky Way was clearly visible. She couldn’t help but sigh.

“Those are called stars,” Jay said, lightening the mood further.

“I know what they are. You never see them this clearly in the city though—all the light pollution. It’s easy to forget how many they are. It’s weird to think they’re there, even when you can’t see them. It’s such a beautiful sight,” she said, admiring the night sky.

“It is,” Jay agreed and although she hadn’t turned to look at him she knew he was watching her.

“I’m going to miss this when I have go back home tomorrow.” She smiled weakly.

“You don’t have to go you know, you could stay here.”

The idea was tempting, but she quickly dismissed it. “New York would miss me too much. The newspaper wouldn’t be the same without me.”

There was silence as she wondered if she even still had a job to return to.

“We have beautiful lights in the city too. You should see Times Square lit up at night. It is incredible. The colors, the atmosphere, the people—the whole city is incredible. If you ever get the chance you should go and see it one day.”

“I did. Once,” Jay said.

“Really, when?” Ashley was surprised at his confession.

“Years ago.” He was back to his short answers, giving the hint that he didn’t want to say any more.

“So have you had a good night so far?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s been great. Everything has been good.”

“Good food, good champagne.” She smiled.

“The food was good, but I can’t comment on the champagne. I don’t drink.” He almost sounded hesitant to admit it.

“What? at all?” She laughed. “Since when?”

“A while.” He shrugged.

“Why? That’s so weird.” Ashley was trying her hardest not to offend him, although the concept of abstaining from alcohol sounded strange.

“I find alcohol tends to dull my senses, and makes me forget things. Life is too short not to feel everything it has to offer—the good, the bad, all of it. And there are too many moments I’ve lost in the past because I was too drunk to remember. I don’t want to forget another moment,” he said, staring directly at Ashley.

She sighed and turned towards him. “I can’t figure you out.”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem so . . . I don’t know . . . perfect. Too perfect. You’re not the Jay I remember, that’s for sure.”

“I’m the same Jay, I can assure you, and I’m far from perfect.”

She snickered, “Oh yeah? Well, I can’t seem to find any flaws, and it’s weird. Everyone has flaws.”

He laughed. “I have many flaws.”

“Go on then,” Ashley said. “Tell me.”

He raised his elbow and scratched the back of his neck. She laughed out loud.

“What?” he asked.

“You do that all the time. When you’re nervous or uncomfortable I think,” Ashley said, pointing to his arm.

“I hadn’t noticed.” He lowered his arm. “Is that counted as a flaw?”

“More of a nervous habit. So come on, let’s hear it.”

“OK . . . uhh . . . I’m overprotective and quick-tempered. Take yesterday for example.”

Ashley recalled the incident involving the drunk guys at the Jamboree.

“I’m sorry, again. I don’t know what came over me. I got so angry when I saw those guys disrespecting you. No woman deserves to be treated like that.”

“Well I’ll thank my lucky stars there was a knight in shining armor to defend me! But it’s not a flaw. Besides, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone knock another guy out in self-defense then apologize for it.” She laughed.

“OK well, let’s see. A flaw. I snore, so I’ve been told.”

“Again, that’s not really a flaw. Haven’t you got anything good?”

“I find it difficult to let go and move on.” There was serious undertone to his words.

“I’m not sure how that could be considered a flaw. That only proves that you’re not a quitter. Why would that be a bad thing?”

“No, it is. Especially when the one thing you want is the one thing you can’t have.” He stared intently at Ashley.

“Well, what is it you want?” she asked, unsure if she prepared for the answer.

He stepped closer to her and his eyes narrowed on hers through the darkness. “I think you know what I want.”

She found it difficult to swallow as she stood there frozen on the spot, unable to tear her gaze away from his.

“It’s the same thing I’ve always wanted.”

She felt like no matter how a big of a breath she took, it wouldn’t fill her lungs. The music had faded and all she could hear was the steady beating of her heart.

“You.” The word came out raspy and his lips were on inches from hers.

His fingers held her chin and his eyes stared intently on her lips. Neither of them dared to move as they stood for what seemed like an eternity. The world seemed to disappear from around her. Her skin was covered in goose bumps, but she wasn’t cold.

“Kiss me,” she breathed, and before she realized what she was saying he swooped down and pressed his lips against hers. His hands pulled her close and her hands slid up the back of his neck and into his hair.

It was a mixture of tender emotion and desperate need. Her head was spinning and she couldn’t think straight. His lips were warm and soft, and his hands moved firmly up and down her back. She slowly pulled away, and realized that her feet weren’t even touching the ground.

He lowered her and they stood there breathless, facing one another, her arms still around his neck. Her lips stung and her cheeks burned red. Her chest was heaving, and so was his. She felt light-headed, but so secure wrapped in his arms she didn’t care. She had never experienced that intensity of passion and desire before.

“I’ve been wanting to do that since I first saw you in the bar last week,” he said softly.

Ashley remembered seeing him sitting there, near the big screen watching the football game.

“When I’m with you I can’t take my eyes off you, and when we’re I apart I can’t take my mind off you.” He stroked the side of her face and stared deep into her eyes. It felt as if he were looking right into her soul, and a part of her was beginning to resurface. A part that she had buried deep down, many years ago. A part that wanted to escape, but she had been too afraid to let out.

“I don’t want you to leave tomorrow.” He ran his hand through his hair, his eyes were wide. “Ashley, I think I’m in l—”

A cough from the end of the pier disturbed them. Ashley squinted through the darkness to see a woman in a long dress moving towards them, the fabric billowing around her legs as she walked. Jess. Ashley straightened up and moved away from Jay, wondering if Jess had witnessed what had just transpired.

“There you are, Ashley,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Is something wrong?” Ashley asked.

“No, no, everything’s fine. Your mother would like to see you in the living room. Now, if you don’t mind.”

Whoa, that seemed a bit abrupt.

The three of them walked the length of the jetty and back onto solid ground. As Ashley started up the rise towards the house, she saw Jess step between them and tuck her arm through Jay’s, holding him back.

“Jay, I was wondering if I could talk to you about something.”

Jess looked back over her shoulder to make sure Ashley continued up along the path. That was strange. Very strange. Why would Jess be so eager to get Jay on his own, and why did she appear uneasy when she found them together on the jetty? Something was going on.

Ashley followed the path back up to the garden. The beat of the music had picked up now and almost all the guests were up dancing. She spotted Henry and Grace sitting at one of the tables. Henry was about to tuck into what looked to be his second piece of cake when Grace pulled the plate away from him.

“Uh, uh.” She shook her head.

“You have no power here!” Henry said dramatically. Meika and Coco giggled.

“Yes I do, unless you want to end up back in hospital.” Grace raised an elegant eyebrow.

“Filthy Muggle,” Henry muttered, causing them all to laugh again.

Ashley laughed as she continued towards the house. There were a few people in the house as she arrived, including a lot of the wait staff , busy in the kitchen and dining room, cleaning up from the evening.

Ashley she made her way into the living room, smiling as she ran her finger along her lower lip. It was still tingling from Jay’s kiss.

It took a moment for Ashley to grasp what she was seeing. She could see her mother, talking to a tall man, dressed in a slick blue-gray suit and tie.

Steven.

Steven was here.

Here.

He was standing by the mantelpiece, a glass of champagne in one hand. He spotted her and smiled, and the others in the room turned to look at her as well. Bryan was there, and Martin too.

“Steven,” Ashley forced a smile. “What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be in Tokyo.”

“Well hello to you too, darling,” he said, making everyone in the room laugh.

“I’m sorry,” she said, walking over to him. “I didn’t think you were coming. I wasn’t expecting you.” Especially after their previous discussion where he had said he wanted to ‘take some time.’

“Surprise.” He smiled and leaned down to give her a quick kiss, then wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close.

“So, Steven, Ashley tells us you’re going to be made partner at the firm. That’s exciting,” Martin said.

“It is. Not as exciting as our other news, though. Ashley, would you like to tell them?” The only other news she could think of was that he had asked her to move in with him, but after their discussion that morning she figured that couldn’t possibly be it. Everyone stared at them with anticipation.

As she opened her mouth to speak, the door leading outside opened and Jay walked in, followed by Jess. Time seemed to slow down and it was as if someone had turned down the volume on the world except the sound of her heart thudding in her chest. He stopped mid-step and watched on in confusion as the events were unfolding before him. Ashley wanted nothing more than to run to him and explain.

“Ashley?” Steven asked.

She looked up at Steven, unable to speak.

“We’ve bought an apartment together in Upper Manhattan; we’re moving in next week,” Steven said, a triumphant smile on his face.

Martin and Jane smiled and congratulated them. Ashley tried to smile but couldn’t. She raised her eyes towards Jay. He looked as though he had been physically wounded. His eyes were full of pain and disbelief as the realisation of what was going on finally hit him. He took a step back as though he had been struck, and shot out the door. Jess followed him as Ashley stood, bewildered, in what should have been one of the most exciting moments of her life. She felt as though she had had the wind knocked out of her.

How could she be so stupid.

She’d let herself fall for Jay, although she already had a boyfriend. In all fairness, until two minutes ago she wasn’t sure she did have a boyfriend. Not after their phone call earlier on.

Bryan was frowning between Ashley and Steven, and judging from the expression on his face she could tell he knew she was upset about something. He politely excused himself and exited out the back door.

“We had better get back out there,” Jane said. “Don’t want people to think we’d skip out on our own wedding.”

Once Ashley and Steven had been left alone, she turned to him, angry. “Why did you say that?”

“What?” He shrugged, feigning naiveté and sipping the champagne.

“That we were moving in with each other?”

“Oh that’s right,” Steven said, raising his palm to his forehead. “I forgot your mom is into all that religious mumbo-jumbo. Surely she knows now though that we’ve been, ahem, ‘intimate’?”

Ashley’s jaw dropped open. “I can’t believe you’re here. You said you needed time to think things through”

“I just spent six hours on a plane thinking things through.” He shrugged.

“I thought you meant we were over. Through,” Ashley said, still struggling to believe he was actually here, standing in her mother’s living room.

“Ashley, what’s wrong with you? You said yourself that you were ready to take this next step with me. This morning you said you wanted to move in with me!”

What could she say? How could she tell him she’d just kissed another man?

“I did.”

“You did? I don’t know what’s going on with you, Ashley. It’s like your head is all over the place. We’ve finally achieved everything we’ve worked so hard for, and now you can’t make up your mind. Either you do want us to move in together or you don’t. So which is it? Because I’m getting tired all of your mood swings.” Steven grasped her by the shoulders, forcing her to look up at him.

“I do. Want to move in with you,” she said, trying to sound convincing. Difficult when even she didn’t believe it.

He hugged her tight. “I’ve missed you,” he said, his face buried in her hair. “I’m sorry I was such an ass on the phone earlier. Things have been going from bad to worse. But at least I’ve still got you.” He kissed the top of her head, continuing to hold her. “As long as I’ve got you I know everything will be all right.”

He felt so foreign, and there was no spark between them. It took every ounce of her strength not to run. Run from Steven, and find Jay. Run into his arms, which were so safe and secure. But being in Steven’s arms reminded her she had to use her head. Realistically it would never work out with Jay. Where would she live? Where would she work?

“This whole week has been so hectic and I think we’ve both gone through a lot. I can’t wait to get home with you and get back to our normal lives together,” he said.

Facts over feelings.

That was his mantra and she repeated it over and over in her head.

Facts over feelings. Feelings may fade, but facts last.

And the fact was Steven could provide a life for her; a lavish life, a life full of the finer things. She knew everything she had accomplished at the newspaper was thanks to him. Together they would climb the corporate ladder side by side to reach the pinnacle of success.

That was what she wanted.

But why did that now feel like a lonely, unfulfilling path? Maybe it was the alcohol and being in this house that was confusing her.

She had to see Jay. She didn’t know how, but somehow before she left tomorrow she would find a way. She had to at least get a chance to explain herself—and to say goodbye.

Chapter 17

 

Ashley hardly slept at all that night. Jay had been on her mind. He’d left the wedding by the time she and Steven had gone outside to join the other guests.

Steven had already woken up and gone downstairs. She could hear him talking to someone in the kitchen below. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, and she couldn’t concentrate.

It was only half past seven. She finally got up, wrapped her bathrobe around herself, and headed downstairs to join them. Steven stood by the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee in one hand. He was dressed in his running shorts and a plain gray T-shirt. Martin stood beside the counter placing food items into a shopping bag.

“Good morning.” Steven smiled as he saw Ashley descend the staircase.

“Good morning.” She smiled back. “Have you already been for a run?”

“Not yet. I was waiting to see if you wanted to join me. Martin was telling me there’s a nice path that snakes around the other side of the lake.”

“That’s a long run, Steven.” Ashley reached for the coffee machine. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’m up for it.” She covered her mouth as she yawned.

“OK, looks like I’m on my own then.” He smiled and finished his coffee.

He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and after a few stretches he headed out the door.

She watched him disappear down the driveway and began stirring her coffee.

“What are you doing here?” Ashley asked Martin. “I thought you and mom would been having a sleep in this morning, and don’t they include breakfast in your package? I thought that’s why they called it a ‘Bed and Breakfast’.” Ashley peered into the bag which now contained a jar of homemade strawberry jam, a stick of organic butter and a loaf of gluten free bread. Her mom and Martin had spent their first night as a married couple in the quaint little B&B on the other side of the lake.

“They do, but you know your mom— she likes her paleo diet.” Martin smiled.

Ashley raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think butter was paleo.”

“It’s not, but we all have our little guilty pleasures don’t we?” He smiled.

Ashley raised her coffee to her lips and blew gently.

Guilty pleasures? Is that what Jay was?

“What are you doing?” he asked, staring at her as though she were an unwelcome visitor.

Ashley shrugged. “Having a coffee?”

Martin nodded. “Yes, I can see that.”

Ashley blinked vacantly.

Martin leaned his elbows on the countertop and looked her in the eye. “I’ve just sent Steven off on the longest running path I could possibly find.” Martin glanced at his watch. “By my calculations, you have about an hour and a half before he gets back.”

Ashley couldn’t grasp what he was talking about.

“Jay.” Martin’s eyes opened wide “Go and see Jay. Everyone knows he’s crazy about you and if I’m right, which I think I am, you’re just as crazy about him.”

Ashley opened her mouth to object, but she couldn’t. There was nothing to disagree with. She knew that deep down those feelings she had once had for Jay were re-emerging. She didn’t bother asking how he knew what he did, but figured being a small town, news travelled fast.

Martin had created an opportunity for her to see Jay, to try to set things straight. She smiled and dashed upstairs to change, leaving her hot coffee on the counter. By the time she got back downstairs, Martin was waiting at the bottom with the car keys. She took the keys and kissed him on the cheek before racing out the door.

She drove along the road to Jay’s house as fast as legally possible. Every second it took meant one less second she could spend with him. It was twenty agonising minutes to his house.

What was she going to say? She rehearsed everything as she drove, and it all sounded perfectly logical.

Would he even be there? It was Sunday. Church didn’t start for another two hours. Hopefully he wouldn’t be out working anywhere.

As she arrived she was greeted by Benson. It was much cooler today, windy and overcast. Gray clouds filled the sky, blotting out the sun.

She got out of the car and began walking towards the house. She was almost at the front door when she spotted Jay packing tools into the back of his truck over by the shed. She waved as he looked over and she could tell immediately that he wasn’t pleased to see her.

He walked over, hands in his pockets. Today he wore faded jeans with a dark hooded top. His hood was up and the long sleeves were rolled up to his elbows.

“Hi.” Ashley broke the ice, trying to gauge his response.

He didn’t say anything, gave a quick nod to acknowledge her. His brow was furrowed and his jaw was clenched together.

“Jay, I didn’t get a chance to explain myself last night.”

“What’s there to explain?” he asked, avoiding eye contact. “You have a boyfriend.” He inhaled sharply through his nose and glanced around looking at the tree line as if searching for something.

“I didn’t want it to end like this,” Ashley said softly.

“How did you want it to end, Ashley?” He stared directly into her eyes, challenging her. “Tell me, how did you see this playing out? Because from where I stand, I can only see it ending one way—and that ending doesn’t work out for me.” He was angry, hurting.

“What did you expect me to do Jay? Stay here?”

“We both know you’d never do that. So why don’t you do us both a favor and go. You’ve already caused enough damage.” He turned and began to walk away.

Ashley was furious. Normally she would have held her tongue, avoiding confrontation at all costs, but considering she was leaving and never likely see him again, she decided to risk it.

“You said your flaw was that you found it difficult to let go. Well, I call bull. Eight years ago you watched me walk away and you didn’t do a thing to stop me. Not a thing. So from where ‘I’m standing,’” she quoted him, “I’d say you’re pretty good at letting things go!”

He spun around facing her and marched towards her with such speed and force she feared he was going to hit her. Anger blazed in his eyes and she could see his muscles were tense and his fists were clenched. He stopped inches from her face.

“So the constant texts and calls meant nothing to you?” He glared at her. “You asked me when it was that I went to New York—it was two weeks after you left. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. It drove me insane that I couldn’t hold you in my arms, so I drove my car across the country to find you. I went to the city and I found you. I saw you, sitting in a café—Cafe Espresso. It was pouring down with rain, and you were sitting at a small round table talking to an older woman with long black hair and you were laughing. You looked happy. I knew I couldn’t ask you to leave with me. I stood there, watching you, and it took every ounce of my strength to walk away even though it felt like my heart was being ripped right out of my chest.” His voice was raw with emotion as he stood there, chest heaving.

Ashley struggled to understand what he was telling her. She remembered that day clearly. She had applied for a waitressing job. It had been pouring down and her resume had gotten wet as she darted through the rain, trying to get inside the cafe before the ink ran. He’d seen her job interview, acting cheerful to impress the manager.

She felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. If only she would have known Jay had followed her all that way. Maybe then her life would have been different.

“That’s the thing about free will.” His voice sounded raspy and strained. “You have to be able to be free to make your own choices. I couldn’t force you to leave. I wanted to pick you up and throw you over my shoulder and carry you home, but I couldn’t.” He stared at her face, holding his fists in front of him, and slowly opening his hands as his anger began to dissolve. He swallowed. “I loved you too much.”

Ashley mustered all the courage she could to reply. Her head was spinning and her heart was aching. “Don’t you see I couldn’t return, Jay? I couldn’t stand to look at you because every time I did, all I could see was my failures. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye without feeling guilty and being reminded that at the moment my father took his final breath, I was out getting wasted!” Tears threatened to spill out as she recalled that fateful night.

She hadn’t been to visit her father in the hospital for days. He wasn’t the man she remembered. He was weak and frail. Frightfully thin. He couldn’t move or speak, trapped inside his own failing body. He had died a little bit more each day in the most horrific way, and she was powerless to do anything about it. She had spent every night partying and drinking, trying to stay high so that she wouldn’t have to face the lows. Jay had tried to stop her, knowing she was wasting the limited time her father had left. She pushed him away. He had only been trying to help her. On her father’s last night on earth, her mother and Bryan had both tried to contact her and tell her that he wouldn’t make it through the night, but she didn’t even check her phone until the next day. She could never forgive herself for not being there; she had lost her chance to say goodbye.

“Nobody blamed me for not being there. No one was even mad at me, it was liked no one cared and they should have cared!” Ashley didn’t even recognise her own voice. It was thick with emotion—anger, and most of all regret.

Jay listened, not daring to speak. His eyes had softened and Ashley could see the compassion in his expression.

“I didn’t even have the guts to say goodbye to him and he deserved better! Everyone acted like I didn’t do anything wrong. But I did. Every time I see my mother or Bryan, all I can see is how badly I hurt them!”

“The only person you hurt was yourself, Ashley. And the only person you’re waiting for forgiveness from is yourself, but you’re too stubborn to see that!”

She didn’t believe that. She couldn’t. How could they ever forgive her? She shook her head.

“I’m stubborn?” Ashley pointed to herself. “I may be stubborn, Jay, but that’s the only way to get ahead in life. At least I have the guts to go out and get what I want. I don’t sit back and wait for the ‘good Lord’ to provide.” She was mocking him and although she knew her word were vicious and hurtful, she wasn’t going to stop.

“You’re deluded, Jay—and you’re wasting your life sitting around expecting the perfect wife to end up on your doorstep. Didn’t you ever want more out of life? You’re a smart guy. You always got top grades in school. You could have been anything you wanted to be! Yet you’ve chosen to squander it all away. I have wasted too much of my life in this messed-up town already. I will not waste one more second of it!” She was infuriated by his apparent lack of ambition.

“More, more, more. You keep talking about ‘more’ like it’s some magical key to happiness. Tell me, what ‘more’ is there? What more could you possibly want? When is it enough, Ashley? No, I didn’t want ‘more’. I had everything I could possibly ever want—I had you, and that was enough. There was no ‘more’ for me.” He paused for a moment as if thinking whether or not to continue speaking.

“I told you I’d been wounded far worse before, and I had, but it wasn’t from a bullet in the chest I got crawling through the sand out in some desert.” His voice was gravely, and she knew he was referring to her. “You know, when I saw you standing on the verandah at my old house I thought that God had finally answered my prayers that you had come back to me. Do you know I prayed for you? Every day. I was a fool for believing you’d ever love me the way I loved you.”

Her heart ached, and she could feel it being tugged in two opposing directions. She struggled to find the words to say. He was right: ‘more’ for her was career success, to prove she could do something right, as though it would atone for the fact she had not been there for her father when he needed her most. She had failed him once, and she vowed she wouldn’t do it again. ‘More’ for Jay had simply been Ashley. It wasn’t her fault that he had been hurt. She couldn’t stay here after her father died, she couldn’t. Why couldn’t he see that?

“I can’t give you what you want, Jay. Why can’t you understand that? I can never come back here, even if I wanted to.” Ashley struggled to compose herself. There was no way she was going to let him see her cry. She had too much pride. She had to end this conversation quickly before she began to doubt herself.

She tilted her chin upwards. “I have everything I need and more.”

There’s that word again. More.

“Then why did you kiss me last night?” He met her eyes.

She felt her breath catch in her throat and she froze on the spot. Why did she kiss him? Because she wanted to, because she missed him and because it felt so right. She couldn’t tell him. The truth was too painful, even for her.

She shrugged and he stared at her, his eyebrows raised, questioning, awaiting her response. Excuses flashed through her mind and she knew she had to say something before the truth came out. This charade had gone on long enough. It was time to end it.

“It was a mistake,” she said, clenching her jaw in an effort to steady herself.

His eyes widened and his shoulders slumped, defeated.

Ashley knew she was breaking his heart all over again, but it was for the best. They had no future together. He was perfect, a saint. What kind of man uses his annual vacation to build houses for the homeless? Good guy Jay. She was a mess. She’d never even donated a single cent to charity. She passed homeless people every single day on her commute to work without even looking twice.

They were too different. Sure, they shared a connection and they both were attracted to each other but that’s not what a relationship was built on.

“Do you love him?” Jay asked as he clenched his jaw.

Ashley looked around. “It’s not like that. We’re compatible, we have all the same goals . . .”

“What is it, a business partnership? You didn’t answer my question—do you love him? Tell me that you love him, and I’ll move on. If you truly love him, then that’s all I need to know. Because then I’ll know that is what you want.”

Ashley sighed, impatient with Jay’s questions. “Love is just an emotion. It doesn’t last, it’s not real. Hard work and dedication—that’s what lasts. Sharing the same goals.”

“If that’s what you think love is, you’ve never truly experienced love,” Jay said, a look of disappointment on his face.

How dare he? He didn’t know that. Just because they had different ideas of what love is didn’t make her version of love any less real.

“You know what, I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” She raised her hands and looked around. “I don’t have to explain myself to you. This is pointless, and frankly, a waste of time. I know what it takes to succeed in life and I’m going to do that. I should have never come back here.”

She stood there, waiting for his next move. Waiting for him to try to stop her. But he didn’t. He stared at her, brow creased, clenching his jaw and making that little muscle along his jawline move in and out. She couldn’t tell what was going on his mind, and if past behaviour was anything to go by, he wouldn’t tell her anyway. She saw him flinch as though he were about to reach out for her, but then something held him back and he slid his hands into his pockets and dropped his head. He nodded twice and turned back towards his shed where he had been loading his work tools.

Away from Ashley.

Letting her go.

 

Chapter 18

The view over the city from the new apartment was breathtaking, and the apartment itself was fabulous. Steven hadn’t done it justice when he had described it to her on the phone. It was spacious—the living area alone was larger than the entire apartment she had shared with Hallie. Floor to ceiling windows made it feel even larger.

They had arrived home late on Sunday night and Steven couldn’t wait to give her a tour of their new home. She was exhausted and felt emotionally drained, but as soon as she stepped foot through the door, she began to feel much better.

It had two bedrooms, one for them, and one to be used as an office for storing all of Steven’s files. His office at work was large, but it seemed that his work life was spilling over into his private life more and more often.

The bathroom had a sunken spa bath in the centre of the room, as well as a two-head shower to one side, and even a small steam room to the rear. The kitchen was sophisticated in black and white, with all the modern appliances she would expect in a full chef’s kitchen. She wondered if they’d ever get to use it much—with their hectic work schedules and long hours, they never had much time for cooking.

It was everything she had ever hoped for. Finally all of her hard work over the past eight years had paid off and she had hit the jackpot, big time. She folded her arms and stared out the window at the city lights below. Steven was walking around rattling off all of the features of the apartment and planning where the furniture would go. Now that she was here, now that she had finally made it, she should be happy. But she wasn’t. Something welled up inside her, and she tried to force it down.

Don’t be stupid. Don’t be ungrateful. You’re tired—it’s been a long day. You’ve spent far too long back in that town, and it’s messing with your mind.

Steven approached her from behind and she felt his hands on her shoulders.

“Wouldn’t you agree?” he asked.

“Huh?” She turned to face him—she hadn’t been listening. “Sorry, I missed that last part.”

He laughed and hugged her. “I was saying that this is perfect for the two of us. There’s even a gym downstairs so we don’t have to exercise outside in the heat or the rain. I’ll tell you something: those cicadas at your mom’s house were driving me insane when I went for that run.”

Ashley smiled. “I love the sound of cicadas.”

“Really? They’re irritating. The grass is itchy, the ground is uneven. Birds flapping and fluttering around.” He shuddered. “I prefer this any day.” He gestured out the window.

There was that unsettling feeling again.

Once you get back to work tomorrow you’ll feel better. Just wait and see.

 

Ashley arrived at work a few minutes early. As she stepped out of the elevator she was greeted by Tania who hugged her tightly, swaying from side to side.

“Oh, I missed you! How was your mom’s wedding?” She moved back to look at Ashley’s face.

“It was good, so pretty.”

“Were there any cute single cowboys?” Before Ashley even had a chance to respond, Tania flapped her hand through the air. “I’m kidding. You know I prefer a man with a brain and an education.” Tania flicked her hair over her shoulder and laughed.

Ashley smiled, although Tania’s comment had been inappropriate, inaccurate, and more than a little rude. However, it was only a week ago that Ashley would have been laughing right along with Tania at such a comment.

“I haven’t seen Stephanie about this morning. Thank God. With the amount of sucking up she was doing to Dianne, I’m worried she might have stolen your job.”

Ashley began to feel nervous. She didn’t need this on her first day back at work.

Dianne opened her office door and looked around.

“Ashley, can I have a word with you please?” It was more of a demand than a question.

Tania remained quiet but her eyes widened and she frowned at Ashley.

Ashley smoothed her top and walked to Dianne’s office, trying to remain confident and calm. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, so she might as well face the music. She closed the door behind her. Dianne was sitting behind her desk and smiled as she looked up at Ashley.

“Ashley, glad to have you back. How was your mother’s wedding?”

“It was lovely, thank you. It was nice to spend a bit of time with the family.” Ashley smiled and folded her hands on her lap.

Dianne smiled briefly then looked down over the paperwork on the desk in front of her.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you in.” Dianne lifted her face to make eye contact with Ashley.

Ashley shifted in her seat.

Here goes. Say goodbye to your career.

“I’m sure Tania has filled you in on the little mix-up we endured last week?”

Ashley knew she was referring to the missing file. “Yes.”

“I say ’little’ but it was actually a pretty big deal. We almost missed the deadline because of it.” Dianne stared at Ashley. Her face was blank, unreadable.

“As you know Ashley, we pride ourselves on organization. When one member of the team fails, the whole team fails.”

Here it comes. Get it over with already.

“I cannot have anyone working here who is not on-board and willing to work as part of the team. You understand that, don’t you Ashley?”

Ashley nodded. She could feel her forehead beginning to perspire.

“I’ve had to let Stephanie go.”

What? Ashley’s eyes widened—this was unexpected.

“She let the team down, then tried to shift the blame onto you.” Dianne shook her head, clasping her hands together on the desk.

“But how did you know?” It was as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

“Do you remember when you were first employed here, Ashley? You had to sign some paperwork. Most people don’t read through it all, and I don’t blame you—it’s tedious. But one of those conditions you signed was agreeing to have your work emails scanned and accessible to me. Stephanie signed the same paperwork. Everyone here has signed the same paperwork. I knew you emailed the file to Stephanie last Friday. I saw the email. I knew Stephanie had deleted it deliberately, because she kept saying you’d never sent it. I wanted to give her the chance to admit to her actions and be honest. I gave her the whole week and she still chose to lie to my face. We don’t build our careers on the backs of others, Ashley. We build our careers together—as a team.” Dianne sat back in her chair and smiled.

“So I’m not fired then?” Ashley asked, checking.

Dianne laughed. “No, Ashley. In fact, I’d like to know if you would be interested in taking over the role of one of our columnists. Madeleine is taking an extended maternity leave soon and I’m going to need someone I can trust to fill in for her. With your keen eye for detail, and I know you love fashion—just like Madeleine—I think you will be perfect.”

Ashley couldn’t believe her good fortune. This was the role she had always wanted. It was her chance to show the world what she had, and she was going to give it her best.

“Can I assume by the smile on your face that you’ll take it?” Dianne’s mouth curled up on one side.

Ashley nodded. “Absolutely. Thank you so much, Dianne. I won’t let you down.”

“I know.” Dianne straightened in her chair and picked up the phone. “You may have to work longer hours. You’ll need to attend catwalk shows and fashion shoots for some of the stories. Some of the shoots go longer than planned, and some shoots can only take place at night for certain location shoots. That won’t be a problem, will it?”

“No,” Ashley replied. It wouldn’t be a problem. Steven didn’t get home until late most nights anyway, and it sure beat sitting around all alone in that enormous apartment.

“Great, I’ll have Madeleine show you the ropes on Thursday. Mostly you’ll be observing, taking notes, with a little interview here and there. I know it doesn’t sound glamorous at the moment, but there is room for growth if you play your cards right.” Dianne smiled and Ashley began to feel like the events from yesterday were beginning to fade into the distance.

 

Ashley walked in through the open door to the apartment on Tuesday afternoon, juggling her purse and two brown paper takeout bags. The removalists were finishing up for the day.

They had done most of the work on Monday but Steven had bought a few new pieces of new furniture at the designer furniture shop that he didn’t want delivered until the older furniture was taken out. He refused to bring his old leather sofa, saying it was well past its prime. The new one was almost identical but he insisted it was far superior.

He was reclining on the sofa, flipping through a wad of paperwork. The TV was on, but he wasn’t watching it. Ashley knew it was for background noise. She dumped the bags on the counter and he looked up as he noticed her. He had his pen clenched between his teeth and looked relieved to see her.

“You’re home early.” Ashley began to pull the cartons of Chinese food out of the bags.

He put his head down, continuing to scan the papers. “Huh? Oh yeah, thought I’d come home for a bit.”

“So you have to go back to the office today?” Ashley frowned.

It was already after six. “Yes.” He nodded as he flipped the page.

She sighed. She’d been hoping they’d get to celebrate her temporary promotion at work and their new apartment, but it would have to wait.

The two removalists came walking out of the spare room.

“All done?” Steven rose to his feet.

“Yes sir, all done.”

“Great.” Steven retrieved his wallet from his back pocket, tipped them and walked with them to the door. The sound of the TV changed as the newsreader introduced a live report about a typhoon which had swept through the Philippines overnight. Thousands of homes had been destroyed, and the locals were without food, clean drinking water and electricity. Many had been killed and still more were missing. Her hand rose to her mouth as she saw the devastation on the screen. Children crying in what was left of the streets. Elderly women lying in the ruins, and rubble everywhere.

Steven returned and sat opposite her at the kitchen counter. “Let’s eat. I’m starving, and this smells delicious.” He noticed her concern and followed her gaze to the TV. “Oh yeah, the typhoon. I heard about this this morning. Pretty, bad huh?” He turned back to Ashley.

“Those poor people.”

Steven let out a small laugh and she looked at him, puzzled.

“What?” she asked.

“Well it’s not as if they don’t know it’s a disaster-prone area, Ashley.” He opened a box of noodles and reached for the chopsticks. “If you know an area is likely to be hit by typhoons—or earthquakes, or tornadoes or whatever—you’d be pretty silly to live there, wouldn’t you think?” He started eating.

Ashley was dumbfounded. “Steven, most of these people wouldn’t have a choice. They have no money. Where are they supposed to go?”

“Whoa, whoa.” Steven lifted his hands, palms towards her. “I’m just saying. Stuff like this happens all the time. Why do you suddenly care so much?”

She didn’t know why. “I feel sorry for them, I guess. Maybe we should send them some money?”

He laughed again. “Go ahead. You can send all the money you want, but I’m not. None of the money you send to these third world countries and disaster zones ends up in the hands that need it most. Most of it goes into the pockets of the fat cats who stand to benefit most from these types of things.” He continued eating, not even bothering to elaborate further on how exactly he knew this information.

After he finished dinner he had to return to work.

“Just for a few more hours.” He stood by the door. “Get a movie and we’ll watch it when I get home later.” He winked and left.

As the door closed, the sound echoed off the walls and Ashley sighed. Steven was right, about not wanting children. It wouldn’t be fair on the child, not with the responsibility he had at work. Ashley could put up with it because she was an adult and she understood that he was a busy man, but a child wouldn’t understand.

Maybe she could get a cat? Or a small dog? That way she would have some company when she was home alone. She pictured Benson and smiled. He had such a happy face and she found it hilarious the way the entire back half of his body swayed from side to side as he wiggled his tail whenever he saw her.

 

She sat on the sofa. The lights were dimmed except for the new studio floor lamp. She pulled a blanket over her as she sat flicking through the TV channels, a glass of fine red wine in one hand. It was 9:30 p.m. and Steven still hadn’t returned home. She started the movie, deciding she couldn’t be bothered waiting any more. A comedy. She needed a good laugh. She rested her head on the arm rest, but could barely pay attention to the film.

 

She awoke to the sound of the fridge door closing.

Her eyes shot open and she felt disorientated. It took her a moment to realize she was still on the sofa. It was morning. She had spent all night on the sofa. Steven was in the kitchen, dressed in his running gear. The front of his shirt was wet with perspiration and he was drinking out of the milk carton.

“Good morning.” He smiled when he noticed she was awake.

She rubbed her eyes, blinked, and sat up.

“You OK? You look a bit shell-shocked,” Steven said.

“I didn’t know where I was for a moment. I didn’t expect to wake up on the sofa.” She stretched her arms out. It felt good after being so cramped all night.

Steven shrugged. “Well, that is where you fell asleep.”

“I thought you might . . . never mind.” Her voice trailed off.

“What? You thought I might what?” Steven tipped the milk to his lips again.

“I thought you might have carried me to bed,” Ashley said, feeling silly.

Steven laughed and choked on the milk. “That’s a good one Ashley. Carry you? I’m not your father-” He stopped abruptly, realizing his mistake.

“I’m sorry Ash. I didn’t mean that.” He walked over and sat beside her on the sofa, took her hands in his and kissed them. “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?”

Ashley smiled. “Yes, it’s fine. Honestly. I’m not upset at all.” She wasn’t. The truth was she hadn’t even thought about her father. She had been thinking of a completely different man altogether.

“Do you start the new job today?” Steven asked. He barely knew anything about it. Only what Ashley had sent through to him in a text message, but she hadn’t been able to have a real sit-down face-to-face conversation with him for days.

“Tomorrow.” Ashley smiled as she checked the time on the oversized modern clock on the wall.

“We’re both going to be late if we don’t get moving.” Ashley stood up and pulled Steven to his feet.

“I’m beginning to think we’re going to have to schedule time for us to be together.” He took her chin in his hand and tilted it upwards to face him. He grinned mischievously.

Ashley laughed.

“I’m serious,” he said. “In fact, it’s probably a smart thing to do. That way we have a block of time pencilled out where we can be together. Totally uninterrupted and alone.”

She liked the sound of that. The last part, not the part of needing to ‘book in’ to see him. It felt ridiculous. Surely she didn’t need an appointment to spend time with her boyfriend?

Her phone vibrated. It was a message. From her mother:

 

Hi Ashley,

Martin and I have arrived safely in Florida.

We miss you already, would love for you to visit more—and Steven if he’s not too busy.

Love Mom xx

 

She smiled at the message.

“Who’s that?” Steven asked.

“Just mom.”

He grinned. “What’s she up to? Church?”

Ashley frowned.

“What?” He shrugged, looking both surprised and annoyed at her reaction.

Normally she would have laughed along with him and made some derogatory comment about Bible believers, but since her visit to Sweet Home something had changed inside of her and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“Nothing.” She smiled, dismissing the comment. This was not like her at all.

 

Ashley had enjoyed every minute of her day shadowing Madeleine. They went out to watch a photo shoot featuring gowns from a fabulous new European fashion designer. The job was everything she had imagined it would be and more. The models were all drop-dead gorgeous, well over six feet tall, with flawless skin and fabulous facial features. The outfits were breathtaking. At first she was worried she wouldn’t fit in, but Madeleine was kind and friendly. She showed Ashley where to stand to ensure they didn’t get in anyone’s way, and what to look out for in terms of detail and what the readers would want to hear about.

They decided to head out for lunch. They found a cozy little cafe on the corner and ordered lunch.

“I’m starving!” Madeleine announced after the waitress took their order and left. “The worst thing about being pregnant is I’m always hungry but because my stomach is so squished I can never eat much. I feel like I’m eating and starving at the same time, all the time!” She laughed. “Have you got any kids, Ashley?”

“Me? No. No kids for me,” Ashley said. “I have two nieces and a nephew though. They’re so awesome. They live over in Oregon, so I don’t get to spend much time with them.”

She pulled out her phone and flicked through the photos to show Madeleine a photo of herself with Meika, Coco, and Harley. She had missed them this week.

“Oh, they’re adorable. It must be hard living so far away from them. You never wanted to be a mom?”

“Yeah, I did, when I was younger. My partner works a lot, long hours and we don’t feel like having children would be a responsible decision. For us,” Ashley added, to make sure Madeleine didn’t get the wrong idea and think that Ashley thought no one should have children.

“Where does your partner work?” Madeleine asked.

Their food arrived. Madeleine had an open gourmet chicken burger and Ashley had opted for pasta primavera.

Madeleine bowed her head, closed her eyes and whispered inaudibly, then looked up as if nothing had happened.

Did she just pray?

“Sorry, where does he work?” She popped a fry into her mouth.

“He’s an attorney at Cole, Irving and Paxton.”

“The law firm?”

“Yes.” Ashley nodded.

“Wow, that’s awesome.” She took a bite of her burger, moaning in satisfaction.

“Yeah, he’s actually going to be announced as a partner tomorrow night at the Business Awards Dinner.”

“That is so cool. I’ve always wanted to go to one of those Dinners. I should say ‘ball’. It’s more of a ball, isn’t it? Well, dinner and a ball. Unfortunately my husband’s not quite up there with the big guns.” Madeleine smiled.

“Oh, what does he do?” Ashley asked, intrigued.

“He’s an engineer actually. In the army.”

That did sound interesting.

“He specialises in electrical warfare. It’s all very technical and complicated.” Madeleine laughed. “I have no idea what he’s talking about most of the time but he loves it. I mean, really loves it.”

“So does he work here? In the city?” Ashley asked, devouring her pasta which was delicious and satisfying.

“Sometimes. He’s spent a lot of time overseas, and around the country—he’s back now, but I was a bit worried for a while that he wouldn’t be here for the baby’s birth.” Madeleine smiled and rubbed her belly.

“Do you know if you’re having a boy or a girl?” Ashley asked.

Madeleine shook her head. “Whatever God chooses to bless us with. We waited for so long to become pregnant—that was a nightmare in itself. I won’t go into detail but it was tough on us. We’ve been married for eleven years and we started trying right from the get-go. After I did finally become pregnant we thought we had waited so long for this baby, that we could wait to find out if it was a boy or a girl.”

She wouldn’t have picked Madeleine for a religious person—she seemed too smart, and non-judgemental and, well, normal.

“So you believe in God?” Ashley asked, out of polite interest.

Madeleine nodded as she hurried to swallow the mouthful of food she had been chewing on. “Yes, I do. I didn’t until I met Chris. He invited me along to church and I went along to be polite—you know what it’s like when you’re first dating. You take an interest in everything your partner likes. Well, his church totally blew my mind. It was nothing like I thought it would be. We still go to church here in the city, and seriously, it’s insane. It’s like going to a massive music concert—lights, fog machines, and music I would actually listen to. The pastor doesn’t even look like a pastor—he’s cool. We love it. They have something like five thousand people at the services and they run the services back–to-back on Sundays. Are you a Christian?”

“Me? No, I’d be too afraid to step foot in a church—God would probably strike me down.” Ashley laughed.

“But you do believe in God.” Madeleine said. “You said God would strike you down.”

“I don’t know what I believe, to tell you the truth,” Ashley admitted. “I would like to believe in God, but most Christians I’ve met have been hypocrites. I don’t think anyone could be perfect enough to consider themselves a real Christian.”

“That’s interesting.” Madeleine raised her eyebrows and Ashley looked confused. “I don’t think it’s fair to base your belief in God on how people act. I mean, sure, there are a lot of Christians who are hypocrites, but there are also a lot of non-Christians who are hypocrites. That’s just what people are like in general. Do you think you need to be perfect in order to be saved?”

Ashley shrugged. “I think you have to try, at least.”

“I agree. I think we should all try to be Christ-like, which means loving, forgiving, accepting, caring—but we’re only human and of course we are going to fail—miserably! No one is perfect. But we are saved by God’s grace, not by our works or deeds. God sees our hearts and he knows we stuff up, myself especially, but he loves me regardless. And he loves you, too.”

Those words pierced straight in Ashley’s heart and she could feel herself begin to sweat.

Surely God couldn’t love someone like her. Not after she had refused to acknowledge Him in her life.

This conversation was making her feel uncomfortable and she could feel the knots forming in her stomach. She had to change the subject.

“How long is your maternity leave? When do you think you’ll return to your job?”

“Why? Do you want it?” Madeleine grinned.

Ashley hoped she hadn’t given Madeleine the wrong idea. That position was Ashley’s dream job, but she would never want to steal it out from under someone else.

“I don’t know if I want to return yet,” Madeleine said. “Chris wants to move out of the city. He grew up on a farm, so he’s always wanted a little patch of land somewhere where we could live the quiet life, raise a family.”

“Sounds like a big change from the city. Wouldn’t you miss it here?” Ashley asked as she finished the last of her lunch.

“Not really. Don’t get me wrong. I love it here—and I couldn’t ask for a better job—but after a while you get sick of the plastic people and the fakeness. I mean, there are a lot of beautiful, genuine people here whom I love and adore, but it all gets a bit repetitive after a while—fashion changes all the time but people’s insatiable appetite for materialistic things never changes. It gets to me. It’s like no one is ever satisfied. They always want more, more, more—I’m sure you’ll figure that out soon. If we moved away, I’d be with the ones I love and who mean the most to me. That’s all that matters, really. Whether we’re here, on a farm, or in another country, so long as we’re together, I’ll be a happy woman.”

Ashley couldn’t help but smile at Madeline’s contentment. These days, it was unusual to see a couple who had been married for more than three years and who were still happily in love with one another. She couldn’t help but envy Madeleine in a small way.

 

As they headed back to the office they passed several small cafes. Ashley stopped as she recognised Tania in one of the eateries. Tania was sitting by the bar, chatting with another girl who had long brown hair. Her back was towards Ashley so she couldn’t see if it was someone she knew. They were laughing hysterically at something and looked to be enjoying themselves.

Ashley waved, trying to get Tania’s attention. She did. Tania looked over and appeared to be embarrassed, much to Ashley’s confusion. It wasn’t until the other girl turned around that she knew why.

It was Stephanie.

Ashley forced a smile and gave a quick wave then turned and walked away. Why had Tania lied to Ashley about her relationship with Stephanie? It didn’t make sense and she couldn’t help but feel the sting of betrayal. Tania could be friends with whoever she wanted. she didn’t have to lie about it. Unless she had an ulterior motive. Ashley tried to shake the feeling that maybe Tania and Stephanie had been plotting against Ashley this past week. She refused to entertain the thought.

She remembered something her mother had told her when she was younger—If someone is willing to gossip about another friend to you behind their back, then they will be willing to gossip about you behind your back too.

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 19

“I know, I know, I’m late. I’m sorry,” Ashley called as she rushed into the apartment. “The shoot went longer than expected and I only just made it to the store to pick up my dress before it closed.” She dumped the bags onto the dining table.

She had picked up a simple knee-length black dress, with thick straps and an elegant square neck line.

Steven poked his head out from the bathroom. He was dressed in only a towel wrapped around his waist. He had already showered, and judging from the specks of shaving cream left on his face, he had finished shaving. He didn’t look impressed. She knew this was an important night for him and she didn’t want to let him down.

“I’m so sorry, Steven. Any other day I would have been here earlier, but with the new position I couldn’t bail early. I’ll be ready on time, I promise.” She flashed her sweetest smile and watched as his angry exterior cracked and he smiled back.

“You’d better be.” He pointed at her and took off towards the bedroom to get dressed.

She took advantage of the empty bathroom to shower. It must have been the fastest shower of her life as she calculated the time it would take to dry and style her hair, get dressed, and do her makeup. She would be struggling to get ready on time, but she was determined.

She wrapped a towel around her hair and another around her body, moving to grab the box containing her dress from the table and scooting to the bedroom as quickly she could. She slipped on a strapless bra and some figure-sculpting underwear. Not that she needed it, but she didn’t want any visible panty lines showing under the fabric of the simple black dress.

As she opened the lid to the box she froze.

This was not her dress. It wasn’t even black.

She frowned and reached into the box, lifting the dress so she could get a good look at it. She recognised it instantly. It was the dress that she had seen in the photo shoot yesterday. She caught sight of Steven out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning on the doorway, dressed in his black tuxedo.

He looked every bit like a partner at a prestigious law firm.

“Do you like it?” He nodded towards the dress.

“Did you do this?” Ashley asked.

He nodded.

“But how? This dress hadn’t even been released in the stores yet.”

“I called in a little favor from my old friend Dianne. She told me you couldn’t stop raving about this dress from the photo shoot yesterday. You interviewed the designer or something? It was lucky Dianne is a personal friend of that designer.”

Ashley couldn’t believe it.

It had a Grecian feel to it, with several layers of lightweight chiffon in a golden blush color, with a dusty pink satin underskirt. Two thin golden string straps came together at the back and a length of sheer flowing fabric draped down from the centre seam. A long slit ran up to the thigh. It was fitted and sculpted across the bust with gold applique across the neckline.

The designer was from Russia and was taking the New York fashion world by storm with her unique and exquisite designs. It was a surreal feeling to know she would be wearing one of her dresses. Ashley slipped the dress on and was relieved it fit her so well. Which came as a shock, as she was nowhere near as tall as the model who wore it yesterday. With her heels on, the hem fell to the floor perfectly.

Ashley opened her jewelry box and pulled out her mother’s tear drop necklace, and began to put it on.

Steven rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure that necklace works with the dress. How about this one?” He handed her a long jewelry box.

Another surprise.

She opened the box to find several strands of pearls. She was touched by the gesture, but also disappointed that he preferred pearls over her mother’s necklace which held such sentimental value for her. But it wasn’t as though he knew it was her mother’s necklace, and if he wanted her to look a certain way for his big night, then she was happy to oblige. It was not about her, after all.

He draped the pearls around her neck and stood back to admire them.

“Perfect.” He smiled, then checked his watch, “Ash, you had better get your hair and makeup done quickly. Harry will be here in less than an hour.”

 

She managed to finish getting ready with time to spare.

They made their way downstairs. Steven was nervous, he had always hated public speaking. Ashley took his hand, intertwining her fingers through his.

“You’ll be fine. Relax and enjoy your night. You deserve it,” she said as they waited for the car to arrive.

Steven audibly let out a deep breath. “Easier said than done. Especially when I’ve got shoes as large as my fathers to fill.”

“Well that’s true, but it’s not like he’s retiring. He’s just taking a step back so you can step up. He’ll still be there to guide you along.” Ashley smiled, trying her hardest to help ease his anxiety.

“I just want tonight to be perfect,” Steven said.

“It will be. Don’t worry.”

“You said that when I went to Tokyo, and things didn’t exactly go according to plan then.

She knew he was anxious and nervous—that was to be expected—, but she could do without the insults. It wasn’t her fault the Tokyo deal hadn’t worked out.

Her phone vibrated. It was a picture message from Bryan, a photo of their whole family pulling stupid faces. “All the best to Steven tonight —we love you.”

Ashley stifled a laugh as she looked at their ridiculous expressions. Even Harley had gotten in on the action and was pulling down his cheeks and poking out his tongue.

“Bryan and Jess wanted to wish you good luck for tonight,” Ashley said to Steven.

Steven nodded in acknowledgement, checking his watch and straining to see if his driver was nearby.

Harry arrived and they travelled the distance to the function centre in silence.

 

Harry delivered them to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the great hall entrance. They got out of the car, Steven waited for her as he straightened his tie. She joined him on the staircase and tucked her arm under his as they made their way to the entrance. Other guests were arriving, and the area was filled with clean-shaven men in black and white suits, and women in designer gowns and heels

It was like stepping into another world. Outside had been dark and noisy with traffic and the occasional siren wailing past. Inside was illuminated with warm glowing light from the many crystal chandeliers. A chamber orchestra provided background music, and the sound of chatter and laughter filled the room.

They were immediately handed champagne and Steven drank his a little too fast, hoping to take the edge off, perhaps. He took another glass, and scanned the room looking for his father and soon-to-be business partners.

An older gentleman touched Steven on the shoulder and smiled as he turned to greet the man. They shook hands and the older man congratulated him.

“Ashley, I’d like to introduce you to Dr James Fitzpatrick.”

The older man shook Ashley’s hand and smiled. He had receding gray hair and wore thick glasses. He appeared to be in his late sixties.

“James was one of my professors in college.”

“It’s nice to meet you Dr Fitzpatrick,” Ashley said.

“Please, call me James,” he said. “I’ve known young Steven since he was a boy. Robert and I went to college together, if you can believe it.”

The night continued on with similar introductions. Ashley felt herself growing tired from smiling and pretending to be interested in every detail of the inner workings of the corporate world.

When it was time to sit down for dinner she was relieved. She didn’t think she could stand listening to one more person tell her she must be a lucky woman to have caught Steven’s eye. As though her only valuable asset was Steven.

The food was served by immaculate wait staff dressed in formal black and white. Everything was done flawlessly. The champagne was flowing, the music was heavenly, and no expense had been spared on the décor. Several speeches were given throughout the night and Ashley’s mind wandered. At one point she slouched forward, resting her chin on her hand, elbow propped up on the table. But Steven motioned to her, letting her know that was inappropriate behaviour for such an occasion as this.

Dessert was a medley of pastries and fruits, and then it was finally time for the Cole, Irving and Paxton annual report. Robert and his two partners stood together on the stage thanking everyone and continued to discuss their advances and achievements for the year. There was no doubt about it, theirs was one of the finest and most successful boutique firms in the city, with an exclusive client list and a long list of international alliances. Robert then took the microphone to announce his departure as senior partner, ensuring he wouldn’t be leaving the company but merely stepping back to allow his son to fill his place as senior partner at the firm.

There was a loud round of applause as Steven was asked to join them on the stage. Ashley was so proud of him. This was his moment, the moment he had been working for his whole life. Even his mother was there with her newest husband, clapping in delight. At least Ashley assumed it was delight—all that plastic surgery made it difficult to tell.

Steven took the microphone as the guests seated themselves. He began to thank the hosts of the ball and complimented the chefs on the quality of the food. He then went on to talk about the future goals and plans of the firm and what they hoped to achieve over the next few years as they continued to build their empire. Next he thanked his father and mother, and also Graham Irving and Michael Paxton, promising to strive hard and endeavouring to maintain the integrity on which his father had established the business all those years ago. Then that was it. It was over.

The crowd stood and applauded him again as the four of them left the stage. Ashley clapped and smiled but couldn’t help feel as though he had forgotten about all the sacrifices she had made over the past five years to ensure he continued to grow in his career. She felt unappreciated and, even worse, guilty for feeling unappreciated.

He returned to his seat and pulled her close, kissing her forehead.

“How’d I do?” He adjusted his tie.

“Perfect,” she replied, hiding her disappointment.

Once the speeches had concluded the guests took to the dance floor, moving to the sounds of the orchestra as the music shifted into more lively, danceable tunes.

Steven had left her alone so he could discuss work issues with men she had never even met before and Ashley sat at her table, staring into her glass of champagne and watching the tiny bubbles rise to the surface. They rose in a never-ending pattern, the same thing over and over again. The tiny bubbles could never escape their glass prison.

It was at that moment that it hit her. She gazed around the room at all of the faces, laughing and talking with their fancy dresses, their stiff, Botoxed faces and plastic bodies. She couldn’t help but feel she was like that tiny bubble, desperately trying to escape, believing everything would be all right if she could reach the surface. But no matter how hard she tried, she could never be free. It would always be the same. A constant struggle to rise to the top. She felt as though she were drowning. She had a sudden vision of her life in twenty years. Still with Steven, childless, unwed, and utterly bored with her life. A non-stop merry-go-round, filled with balls and dinners and endless days and nights spent alone with only her material possessions for company.

She had reached the pinnacle of all of her dreams and hard work combined—and all she felt was empty. It all became clear.

She had to go.

She stood up and retrieved her clutch purse. Steven walked over, seeing the dazed and confused look on her face. He reached out and wrapped his fingers around her arm.

“Are you OK?” He frowned.

“I . . . I have to go.” She tried to pull free. Steven wouldn’t want to cause a spectacle, and so far, no one seemed to have noticed.

“Let’s get you some water,” he suggested. “I think you’ve had a bit too much to drink.”

“Actually, I’ve only had two and a half glasses all night.” She didn’t feel intoxicated at all. In fact she felt the exact opposite—as if her head was clear for the first time in years.

“Ashley, you’re causing a scene. People will think—”

“I don’t care what people think!” Ashley pulled her arm away from his.

“I don’t understand. What are you doing? Are you mad at me?” he asked, creasing his brows together and pointing his finger at his chest.

“No, I’m not, not at all. I just don’t want this anymore.” She waved her hand, gesturing at the whole room.

He looked understandably confused. “Well what do you want?”

“I want to get married.” She said it. And it felt so good to hear the words on her lips. Finally she had the courage to tell the truth, and was willing to speak the truth no matter what the cost. He frowned as though surprised by her admission.

“And I want children. Lots of children. Chaotic, messy, loud children.” She laughed, knowing she sounded crazy and completely out of character.

He let go of her arm and stood there, dumbstruck.

“And most of all, I want a gazebo. In a garden, where I can sit surrounded by my loved ones.” She smiled and her heart leapt with joy.

“Ashley, I can’t offer you that.” Steven spoke slowly.

“I know, and I don’t expect you to.” She placed her hand on his cheek and he kissed her palm.

“I am thankful for everything you’ve done for me, Steven. You are an incredible man and you deserve an equally incredible woman—but that’s not me. I think we both know that.”

She saw the realisation in his eyes and he nodded in agreement.

“Do you realize what you are walking away from, everything you are giving up?” he asked. “I could offer you a life of luxury.”

“I know you could. But I’d much prefer a life of love.”

Ashley could see from the expression on his face that Steven realized that she was right. If those were the things she truly wanted, then he wasn’t able, or willing, to give them to her, at least not in the ways that she wanted.

He pressed his lips together and nodded.

“You understand, don’t you Steven?” She raised her eyes to his.

They stood there for a period of time, coming to terms with the fact that it was over.

“Yeah, I do. I get it. I’m sorry it had to end this way.” He gave a thin smile.

“Don’t be. We had some good times, some great times. But it’s time for us to go our separate ways.”

She smiled and turned to walk away.

“Ashley,” he called after her.

She turned and smiled up at him.

“Will you be OK? Where are you going?”

“I’ll be fine, Steven,” she said. “I’m going home.”

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 20

 

Ashley’s heart raced as she swerved to the side of the road. The clouds of dust billowing around the car lights swirled like angry tornadoes in the rearview mirror.

It was nearing 4 a.m. Oregon time, and there was still no sign of the sun rising.

Ashley put the transmission into park and pulled on the brake.

She was struggling to breathe, and her hands felt wet and clammy on the steering wheel. Why was she trembling? She opened and closed her fists several times in an attempt to stop the shaking.

It didn’t work.

Her chest felt tight, as though she were being squeezed by an invisible rubber band. She fumbled to unbuckle her seatbelt, hoping it would ease the tension. She felt dizzy, almost as though she were going to pass out.

What is happening to me?

Ashley raised her hand to her chest and could feel her heart pounding, sending thuds echoing through her. It was beating so hard she thought it might explode.

The necklace. It was constricting her. She clawed at the necklace, struggling to unclasp it. In a panic, she ripped it off, spilling hundreds of tiny pearls throughout the rental car. Aching chest, shortness of breath, and paralyzing fear. Was she having a heart attack?

She was only twenty-seven years old, but what else could it be?

She needed to call for help. Her phone was in her purse. Scrambling, she retrieved it and held it up before her eyes. No service. She let it fall from her shaking hands onto the passenger seat beside her.

There was no one nearby. The closest house could be miles away and it was unlikely any cars would pass her on this road at this time of night. Terror coursed through her veins.

This is it. I’m going to die. I’m going to die here, alone in this car.

“Breathe!” she said, willing her body to resist the growing darkness. “Just breathe.”

She gripped the steering wheel, leaned forward and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths in through her nose and slowly out through her mouth, sitting there for what seemed like an eternity.

It was almost incomprehensible to imagine that only a few hours ago she was sipping champagne, dressed in a unique, jaw-dropping designer gown with the man she had been in a relationship for five years with, at one of the most lavish events she had ever attended in New York—or anywhere else for that matter—and now here she was. On the road to nowhere.

Literally.

Please God, don’t let me die here. Not yet.

Praying was pretty ironic considering she didn’t believe there actually was a God who was capable of saving her, much less of listening to her desperate pleas for help.

She tried to focus on something, anything, to take away the realisation that these could be her final minutes on earth.

She sat unmoving in the rental car waiting for something to happen, to pass out, or for the aching pain in her chest to get worse.

But it didn’t.

There was an immense feeling of terror, although she was well aware there was no immediate presence of danger. After an age, she felt her pulse begin to slow and the nausea lessened. She began to calm down a little. She took a few steadying breaths as it finally dawned on her that she was not in fact having a heart attack, but a panic attack. It must have been. She had suppressed all of her emotions over the past two weeks and her body had finally had enough.

As she looked down at the hundreds of tiny pearls scattered throughout the car she couldn’t help but feel as though they represented her life—broken and incomplete. Could she ever be whole again? Where would she start? How could she even begin to put the pieces back together?

Everything she had done, everything she had tried, had left her feeling empty and unfulfilled. Moving to the city, money, career, a fancy apartment and a boyfriend hadn’t been able to fill that gaping hole in her soul like she had thought they would. Her chin quivered as the only solution became more and more apparent. She needed an anchor to hold her fragmented life together.

“God.” She almost laughed as she heard herself call out to Him. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what to do. I need you. Please help me. Forgive me.”

A single tear trickled down her cheek, the first in an unstoppable torrent. She sobbed. Ashley didn’t even try to fight the tears. They burnt her cheeks and dripped from her chin.

She had held it together for so long, through the myriad of emotions she had experienced over the last few weeks, but now her heart ached and she couldn’t stop crying. At least there was no one around to see her.

Gradually, but increasingly, she felt an unexplainable peace settle over her. The tears stopped flowing and she felt calm and steady, as though the burdens she had been carrying had been lifted from her shoulders. Ashley sniffed, checking her reflection in the mirror, and ran her fingers over her cheeks, wiping away the mascara that had left long black streaks down her face.

She turned the key and the engine ignited. She refastened her seatbelt, and gripped the steering wheel, determination compelling her on.

 

The sky was beginning to lighten by the time the log house came into view.

It was dark inside and Ashley fought the rising urge to turn the car around and leave, but she knew she had to do this.

As she stopped the car a tired-looking Benson poked his head out of his kennel. His eyes were squinting and his yawn revealed his canines. He wagged his tail and approached her.

She stepped out of the car and made her way towards the front door. Her breath was visible as the first light of dawn began to illuminate the sky. Dark silhouettes of trees bunched on the horizon.

She raised her hand to knock, steadying herself. She didn’t know what was going to happen next. She knocked three times and waited.

Every second was agonising. Maybe he hadn’t heard. Maybe there was still time for her to turn and make a run for it, back to the car, back to safety.

She raised her hand, poised to knock again when she saw the glow of the interior light illuminate the hallway beyond the front door.

The door swung open and Jay stood there dressed in light gray track pants and a plain white tank top.

He froze, as though he had seen a ghost.

Ashley tried to smile but couldn’t.

His eyes scanned her, up and down.

“You’re a little overdressed to be wandering about in the woods at this time of the morning, don’t you think?” Jay said.

She was still wearing the designer gown. The same gown she had worn to the ball less than twelve hours ago, the same gown she had worn as she rushed to the airport, flew across the country, and drove a hired rental car to Jay’s doorstep.

He raised one arm and leaned on the door frame, staring at her. He looked as though he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or if she was really here.

“I have to tell you something,” she said, controlling the emotion in her voice.

“You know they’ve invented phones for that sort of thing.” His lip lifted at the corner. He was trying to lighten the mood as he always had, a characteristic she had always loved and admired. It was his way of acknowledging that he knew she was afraid and he was there to reassure her that it would all be all right.

It was then that she noticed the backpack on the floor behind him in the hallway.

“Are you going somewhere?” she asked.

“Yes, Manila. In the Philippines.”

“The typhoon?”

He nodded. “I fly out on Monday for two weeks,” he said. “I’m part of a team that’s helping to begin the rebuilding process over there.”

Of course he was. She should have known he would be one of the first people to volunteer for something like this.

“What are you doing here, Ash?”

“I need to say this, before I forget and it all comes out wrong.” She struggled for composure.

He placed his hands in his pockets and gazed at her, willing her to go on.

“I lied. When I said that kiss was a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake, but I didn’t want to admit the truth. I was too afraid to tell you I wanted you to kiss me, and that I want you, because that would mean allowing myself to be vulnerable and if I allowed myself to be vulnerable then I might get hurt. For so long I have been in control . . . I’ve done everything I could to be better, to do better.”

Jay frowned and folded his arms across his chest without uttering a single word.

Ashley raised her chin, determined to continue. “When my father died, I blamed God. All I could see was forgiveness on everyone’s faces and I thought what I had done—not being there to say goodbye to my father—was unforgivable. I couldn’t look at you without being reminded of my failures, and I hated myself for it. How could I stand to be near you when every time you touched me I felt unworthy—”

“What?” Jay straightened up and stepped towards her. “Ashley, I never meant to—”

She held up her hand to stop him. “I thought if I left, if I started a new life and earned lots and lots of money and had a good career and a good partner, if I was successful, that it would make me happy. I thought if I could make something of my life, I could make up for not being there for my dad. Like somehow he could be proud of me. I would be able to fill that hole that ached inside of me.” She pressed both hands to her chest and could see Jay’s jaw clenching, as though he wanted to say something, but she hadn’t finished yet.

“I thought I’d be free if I left Sweet Home, but the truth is I had never felt so trapped in my life. I was wrong, so wrong. I have been a fool. I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of what that means—I’m ready to forgive myself and I’m ready to accept that God loves me, even though I didn’t think I deserved His love.”

A tear fell from her eye and Jay reached out to wipe it away.

“I never meant to hurt you.” She closed her eyes as his thumb, so soft and warm, gently smoothed across her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Jay. I was searching for happiness and I didn’t even recognize happiness when it was staring me in the face. This past week everything I thought I knew has been turned on its head. I feel like I’m home when I’m with you. I love the way you make me smile. You make me forget that the whole world is spinning around us. I love that when I look at you, you’re already staring right back at me. I love the way you protect me and care for me, the way you make me feel treasured. I love that in a crowded room full of faces, the only one I search for is yours.”

The sky had begun to turn a dusty purple and only a few stars remained in the sky.

“I know it sounds crazy, but all this time I thought God had deserted me, and now I know He was always there. It was me who left Him. He was just waiting for me to return to Him, and I have. And I’m returning to you, if you’ll have me. I don’t have anything to offer you except my heart.” Her voice broke and she bowed her head as she waited for his reaction.

She wouldn’t have blamed him if he slammed the door in her face.

“That’s all I ever wanted.” His voice was barely more than a whisper. “Your heart.” He reached out and raised her chin so he could meet her eyes. He was smiling and Ashley saw the hope in his eyes.

“Can you ever forgive me?” Her chin quivered.

“There is nothing to forgive, Ashley. I was just waiting for you to forgive yourself. I would have waited for you forever.”

She nodded, accepting the growing realisation that the unforgiveness she had endured so painfully for the last eight years had not come from others, but from herself.

“But I walked out on you. I left without any explanation.” She swallowed as she remembered the last time she had seen him all those years ago. The heartache she must have caused him. He was completely unaware that the next day he would receive a text message from her saying it was over and that she had moved to New York. It must have been horrible.

“I’m not going to lie, that hurt. More than you could ever imagine.” His jaw clenched. “I couldn’t understand how you could do that, how you could walk away that easily. But then I saw you in the city, and you were happy. That was the first time I had seen you smile in many, many months and I knew I would have to sacrifice my happiness in exchange for yours.”

Ashley took a sharp intake of breath and thought of his tattoo, ‘For those I love I will sacrifice.’ Jay had said he thought the tattoo was silly, that he never had to make any real sacrifices for anyone. He had sacrificed though; for Ashley’s happiness.

“You said you had loved me once. Do you think you could you find in in your heart to love me again?” She felt ashamed as she tried to look into his eyes.

He cupped her face in his hands. His voice was full of certainty. “I cannot promise you a life of fame or fortune. But if you’ll let me, I can promise that I will love you. I have loved you since the first day I saw you, since we were kids. I loved you when you left the first time—and the second time. I loved you when I saw you sitting in the café in Brooklyn and I loved you every second of every day ever since. I loved you when I saw you standing in the bar two weeks ago and I will never stop loving you until the day I take my final breath. I love you with every fibre of my being. I love you, Ashley Harper. I. Love. You.”

His eyes searched hers.

Then she said the words she had been longing to say for far too long. “I love you, too.”

He pulled her close and kissed her tenderly. She felt all of the tension and fear drain out of her body and love took its place.

Never in all her life had she felt this kind of love, this kind of forgiveness. With all her flaws and all her mistakes, he chose to see her beauty. Not the external beauty, but the beauty that comes from within the heart. She forgot all about how tired she was or how she was ever going to explain this to her family—or Dianne. She would get to be a part of her nieces and nephews lives, and she would be able to spend time with her mother and Martin. It was an exciting thought. Maybe Bryan might be willing to employ her at the cafe—considering she had demonstrated such capability the last time she had worked there. It wasn’t her dream job, but it was a job, and it would suffice.

She felt as though her knees might give way at any moment but she knew that wrapped in Jay’s strong, supporting arms she had nothing to fear. He would catch her if she fell.

She felt his lips form a smile and she pulled away to see him grinning from ear to ear.

“What?” she asked, perplexed.

“Do you still think I’m crazy?” He cocked one eyebrow, smirking.

She frowned, not understanding what he was referring to.

“You said I was delusional to expect the perfect woman to end up on my door, yet here you are.” He looked smug and content, and she couldn’t help but smile.

“I’m far from perfect.”

“Maybe. But you’re perfect for me.”

God did indeed work in mysterious ways.

“But what do we do now?” Ashley asked. “You’re leaving in two days.”

Jay gave a small laugh. “Only for two weeks. We’ve waited almost eight years to be together, I’m sure we can wait another few weeks. Unless . . .” He smiled and shook his head, dismissing the thought.

“What?” Ashley asked, intrigued.

“It’s nothing. I just had a thought. Maybe you could come to Manila with me. If you wanted to.”

Ashley had never considered that option. It would mean stepping outside of her comfort zone. “I don’t have any skills,” Ashley said. “But I do have a passport.”

“Pastor Barry is putting a team together to go over and distribute food and clean water as well as clothing and blankets. If you’re interested, we could talk to him about it.”

She swallowed and nodded. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

“You don’t have to decide right now. Come inside and we can talk about it later—after you’ve had some rest.”

He smiled and she knew everything was going to be all right. She was exhausted—physically, mentally and emotionally. She hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours.

“Welcome home.”

He held out his hand and she placed her hand in his as he held open the door, inviting her inside to rest for a while.

Before she entered, she looked towards the horizon. Dawn approached, the first rays of light spilling over into the valley, illuminating everything and expelling the darkness that had lingered for much too long. She smiled as she felt that same sensation. The unconditional love and light shining through Jay, breathing life into parts of her heart that she thought had died. There would be adventures and countless obstacles ahead, but she wouldn’t face them alone any more. She was overwhelmed by Jay’s forgiveness and willingness to accept her, regardless of her past.

Giving her a second chance at life—at love.

 


Anchor of Hope

27-year-old Ashley Harper has it all—a secure job in the city, a cozy apartment in a great neighborhood, and a high-profile boyfriend who is on his way to becoming one of New York's top business attorneys. She is successful and has it all. . . or so she thought. After fleeing from Sweet Home eight years ago following the devastating death of her father, Ashley vowed she would never return. But when her mother decides to get married there, Ashley is forced to return to the sleepy, little town she once called home in Oregon. Having to spend an entire week in the very place she fought so hard to escape she expects to find nothing but anger, resentment, and hostility but instead finds forgiveness, love—and her ex-boyfriend, Jay. Things are not what she expected in Sweet Home. Once again, Ashley finds herself at a crossroads. Faced with an impossible decision—will she trust her head and return to her life in the city and live the life of luxury she has worked so hard to achieve, or will she trust Gods' gentle guiding and follow her heart back home.

  • ISBN: 9781370907519
  • Author: kiah stephens
  • Published: 2016-11-25 21:20:22
  • Words: 71277
Anchor of Hope Anchor of Hope