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Redemption

 

 

Redemption

Reunion Series: Book 1

 

ADRIENNE D’NELLE RUVALCABA

REDEMPTION

 

Copyright © 2015 by Adrienne D’nelle Ruvalcaba.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in and manner whatsoever without written permission except in case of quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, contact The Indigo Plume Publishing Company at [email protected]

Cover design by Heather Smith at Merchop.com

 

PART ONE

 

PROLOGUE

 

Lilah scowled at her computer screen and shook her head for the fifth time in about thirty seconds. “Cheryl, there’s no way I’m going to that reunion. I didn’t even like anyone I went to school with,” she said in her best don’t ask again tone.

“What about me?” Cheryl demanded. “Don’t you like me?”

“Yes, but we’re family,” Lilah countered. “I don’t have to go to a stupid high school reunion to see you.”

“But we graduated together, and I want to go. It would mean a lot to me if you came along. You know how rough this past year was on me, please don’t make me beg,” Cheryl said softly.

Lilah gritted her teeth and relented. “Okay, I’ll reserve my ticket sometime today. I have to go now, so I can actually get some work done today,” she said before disconnecting the call. Cheryl had dealt a low blow when she referenced how rough her year had been. Rough was an understatement; Cheryl had lost her job and been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease all in the same month. The rest of the year had been downhill from there. Cheryl had fought against the reality of the diagnosis and endured a seemingly endless string of medical tests and doctor visits. The end result was an official diagnosis of systemic lupus and a rigorous treatment regimen to bring the disease under control. Lilah had been a valuable source of support during everything.

Lilah minimized the grant application she was currently evaluating and opened the internet browser on her computer. She booked her plane ticket to Texas before she talked herself out of going. The last thing she wanted was to spend a weekend among people who had only noticed her long enough to remind her how far beneath them she was. The bullying, invisibility, and feelings of inadequacy she had endured throughout high school were things she had no interest in revisiting. But she would do anything for her cousin.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Lilah started walking forward when she saw Cheryl’s small, silver Honda pull up to the curb of the arrivals terminal of Houston’s Intercontinental airport. When Cheryl slowed down enough, she yanked the back door open and flung her bag on the backseat.

“Don’t look so happy to see me,” Cheryl laughed as Lilah climbed in the front seat.

“I am happy to see you, silly.”

“You still nervous about the reunion tomorrow?” Cheryl asked.

“Not at all,” Lilah fibbed. Of course she was, but she’d never admit it. She didn’t want to fall back into the role of insecure, quiet, socially awkward, nerd. She reminded herself that she was not a nervous little fourteen year old freshman anymore. She was a confident, professional twenty-eight year old writer. She was a far cry from the Lilah she had been when she left town right after graduation ten years ago.

Lilah had left the small town of Bay City, Texas with barely a glance in her rearview mirror. Currently, she lived in Illinois and worked as a consultant and grant writer for local, community based non-profit organizations.

“Are we driving down tomorrow for the thing?” Lilah asked as she settled in for the ride through Houston’s rush hour traffic. Cheryl’s driving skills could make a Navy Seal’s hair stand on end, so Lilah grappled with the constant urge to pray for her life. Cheryl didn’t seem to notice Lilah’s discomfort; she chattered like a little magpie as she changed lanes and sped down the interstate.

“We’re driving down right now. There’s going to be a mixer tonight at a local bar, and the actual reunion will take place tomorrow. I booked us a hotel room,” Cheryl confessed with a little cringe as she stomped down a little harder on the gas pedal.

Lilah involuntarily gripped the side of her seat as her heart did and uncomfortable flip-flop. She honestly couldn’t tell if it was due to the news that she’d be attending a mixer tonight, or if it was due to her cousin’s driving. “Cheryl, slow down,” she gulped. “You’re speeding.”

“I know, but they want you to speed on the interstate,” Cheryl returned.

“Um, no they don’t!”

“Oh, really?” Cheryl replied as she glanced at Lilah. “If they don’t want people to speed, then why are there so many lanes?”

“Slow down, or I’m not going to the mixer or the stupid reunion,” Lilah said firmly. The results of her strong stance were swift and satisfactory.

“Fine,” Cheryl grumbled as she moved out of the fast lane and piloted the car at a more reasonable speed. “If you want to take four hours getting there, that’s fine by me.”

Lilah sagged with relief and changed the radio station. They made small talk for the remainder of the two hour drive into Matagorda County. When they weren’t talking, Lilah gazed out the window and soaked in the vast expanse of Texas sky. In Illinois, the landscape dominated the horizon, but along the coastal plains of Texas, one could see the horizon in any direction, and the fluffy clouds always seemed as if they were just out of reach. When visiting her cousin, Lilah often imagined she could use a trampoline to jump high enough to touch the sky. In Illinois, touching the sky seemed like some unattainable, foolish dream.

When they pulled into town, Lilah couldn’t stop herself from looking around at some of the changes a decade had brought.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

“Don’t worry; the mixer is supposed to be informal,” Cheryl said as she took in Lilah’s crumpled appearance.

“I wasn’t planning on two events, so I only brought one nice outfit. I’d really rather just sit the mixer out. I don’t want to show up in my travel clothes,” Lilah argued.

After going a few rounds with her outspoken cousin, Lilah finally agreed to borrow a skirt from Cheryl and attend the mixer after all.

“The mixer’s going to be at some bar that just opened up. My friend Shawn told me that one of our classmates opened it about six months ago,” Cheryl said as they settled in her car.

Lilah stared out the window, and tried not to think about all her reasons for leaving this town and never looking back. She glanced at Cheryl and gave her a smile filled with enthusiasm she did not feel. “Someone we graduated with opened a bar?” she asked.

“Yep,” Cheryl confirmed. “One of the guys who was on the football team opened it. Shawn said he calls it La Cantina.”

“How original,” Lilah muttered under her breath.

When they pulled into the parking lot, the glow from the pink and blue neon sign made bright splashes of light across Cheryl’s car. Lilah tugged at the tight skirt, but it wouldn’t go below mid-thigh. She silently cursed her cousin’s personal style. Cheryl loved tight, skimpy clothes; yet another reason why she had been popular in high school and Lilah had not. Nobody liked a prude. Lilah liked to think she had grown out of her prudish ways, but she still wasn’t completely comfortable in a skirt that would show her entire ass if she bent down for something.

“Stop yanking on the skirt; it doesn’t get any longer,” Cheryl said with a smile.

Lilah looked at her beautiful cousin, and a sense of peace suddenly settled over her. As long as she was beside Cheryl, nobody would pay the least attention to her. That’s how it had been in high school, and that’s how it was now. Cheryl was one of those drop dead gorgeous women whom everybody noticed. Lilah was more like the afterthought, and that’s exactly how she liked it.

Cheryl entered the bar like the returning champion of the entire town. Everyone inside recognized her instantly, and she had a bar-full of smiles tossed her way without half trying. Lilah trailed behind her cousin and wondered how their classmates would react when they found out the two of them were related.

Cheryl had never admitted to any of her popular friends that the dowdy Lilah was actually a family member. Lilah had understood her cousin’s need to be circumspect about their relationship, but at times it had hurt her very deeply. Lilah hadn’t just been dowdy and prudish, she had also been very cognizant of the fact that her poverty would have reflected badly on her cousin. Cheryl’s mother and father were still married, and they had been able to provide a secure life for their only daughter.

Cheryl’s parents were the antithesis of Lilah’s mother. These days, Lilah’s mother led a relatively stable life with a man in Las Vegas, but, as a child, Lilah’s home life had been stressful even at the best of times. Lilah’s mother had been the poor relation whom Cheryl’s mother barely acknowledged.

“If it isn’t the fabulous Cheryl Brown,” a deep male voice said almost as soon as they walked through the door. A chorus of greetings rose up as they approached the bar. The homecoming queen, prom queen, and Rice Festival queen had just strutted into the building, dragging her nobody cousin Lilah behind her.

“Hey everybody!” Cheryl exclaimed with one of her trademark smiles. It was the kind of smile that made everyone feel at least a little bit special. When she directed that smile at a man, the poor guy didn’t stand a chance of avoiding infatuation with her.

Lilah hung back and watched Cheryl work the room. Suddenly, everyone seemed more alive, more enthusiastic about being in this small town bar. It was as if a celebrity had walked into the room, and, as usual, no one noticed Lilah. She quietly slinked over to the very end of the bar and perched halfway on the barstool closest to the wall. She was afraid that, if she attempted to climb all the way onto the stool, Cheryl’s skirt would ride up and embarrass her.

As she kept to the bar, she watched everyone chat with her cousin. Even the bartender ignored her presence, and she would have loved to order a drink. She wanted to fly home to Illinois, but getting sloshed and forgetting where she was would also be an improvement on the current situation. Once Cheryl finally sashayed over to sit next to her, the bartender approached them and asked, “What’ll it be ladies?” with a sexy smile.

Lilah was about to request a shot of Tequila when Cheryl giggled and said, “We’ll have Sangria.”

The bartender was about to turn away from them when Cheryl reached out and touched his arm. He looked at her and smiled again.

“You look so familiar,” Cheryl said with a smile.

“I’m not a member of your class, but I did graduate from Bay City High School. I was a senior when you guys were freshmen. You probably know my little brother Diego; this is his bar.”

“Hugo Gonzales!” Cheryl exclaimed with a big grin. “I remember you. I had a huge crush on you freshman year.”

“You did?” Hugo asked with another smile. Suddenly, his manner turned downright flirtatious as his eyes roamed over Cheryl’s perfect, movie star quality features.

Lilah glanced away. She hated being the third wheel, but there was no way she could leave. She silently begged her cousin to tone it down, but Cheryl ratcheted it up instead.

Cheryl arched her back and tossed her long, straightened hair to the side, exposing her neck as she said, “I sure did.”

“If we had been in the same class, I’m sure I would have had a crush on you too,” Hugo answered as he leaned in a little closer. “You’re very beautiful, but I’m sure you’ve been hearing that your whole life,” he added as he focused on her lips.

Lilah wanted to remind Hugo that, as the bartender, he needed to actually tend the bar. However, as he and Cheryl stared at each other, she kept her comment and her underlying resentment to herself. The air crackled with the instant attraction between the two of them, and Lilah looked away again. She had never had that effect on a man, not once.

She remembered Hugo very well. He had been a running back on the varsity football team that had won the 5A division state championship in his senior year. Almost every girl in town had developed a crush on him. Though she would never admit it, even Lilah had secretly admired Hugo.

Cheryl reached out to run one of her delicate hands over Hugo’s firm bicep. “Most guys who played high school football don’t keep themselves in such great shape after the glory days are over, but you did. You look like you play for the NFL,” she purred.

“And you look like you could run for prom queen and win right now with that smile,” Hugo said.

The two of them seemed like they were an inch away from making out right there at the bar. Lilah was on the verge of sneaking away, when another man walked up beside them and said, “Hey, Hugo, are you working the bar tonight, or are you trying to get dates?”

The voice sounded familiar, but Lilah couldn’t place it right away. She turned around and glanced up into the face of the man who had spoken to them. A jolt of pure hatred went through her as she recognized his face.

Hugo’s little brother was a classmate of hers, a classmate that she remembered very well. Diego Gonzales had been on the varsity football team, the varsity baseball team, he had been in the scholars and honors program, and he had been voted most handsome in their senior year. Lilah remembered him very well, because she had spent senior year seated in front of him in Calculus class. She had listened to him make fun of those who were less fortunate than himself and laugh at the very kids she most identified with. On a daily basis, Diego had made her ears burn with his arrogance and his jaded, privileged view of everyone else around him. She had always been just a hairsbreadth away from whirling in her desk and punching him right in his smug face.

She stifled the urge to dash outside and vomit on the curb as he smiled at her. He actually had the nerve to place a hand on her shoulder and give her that cheesy grin he had perfected in high school—the grin all the other girls in her class had said made them go weak in the knees. “Are you a friend of Cheryl’s?” he asked.

“I graduated with both of you,” Lilah said as she tried to keep the disgust she felt out of her voice.

Diego raised his eyebrows in surprise and said, “I can’t believe I don’t recognize you. I was sure I knew everyone from our class. I own this bar, and I also own the local gym.”

Lilah’s response was to shrug his hand off her shoulder and stand up, “Excuse me,” she said with a polite smile. She then went in search of the restroom. She hoped it would be a disgusting hole in the wall that she could vehemently criticize, but it was actually one of the cleanest, nicest ones she’d used in a bar setting.

She returned to find Cheryl and Hugo deep in conversation, like a pair of long lost friends. Hugo was no longer behind the bar; Diego had taken his place as bartender. Suddenly, Lilah was back in the awkward space she remembered well from her teen years. She hesitated at the bar, unsure of what to do next. Should she give her cousin space, or should she resume her original seat right beside her?

The decision was taken out of her hands when Diego caught her eye and said, “It seems like your friend and my brother hit it off pretty good. It only took them about two minutes to discover that they both live in Pearland.”

Lilah responded with one of those semi-nods and smiles she seen other people do hundreds of times. It was the universal symbol for shut up and leave me alone, but Diego kept talking.

“I know just about everyone in town, but I can’t recall seeing you around. Do you live in Houston?” he asked.

“I do not live in Houston,” Lilah answered as she attempted to sit down without letting everyone behind her catch a glimpse of her underwear.

“Where do you live then?” he asked.

“I don’t live in Texas anymore. I left right after graduation.”

“Where did you go?” he asked.

“Why are you asking me so many questions?” Lilah demanded.

“I’m just trying to be friendly and figure out who you are. I know everybody else here tonight, but you are like a little mystery.”

“I’m sure I am, and mysteries are only fun until you’ve solved them,” she returned. “If you remembered who I am, you would instantly move on to the next little mystery.”

Before Diego could reply again, a vaguely familiar woman walked up to the bar and asked for a pitcher of beer. Lilah watched him fill the pitcher and deliver it to a table of their classmates. She recognized everyone at the table; all of them had been part of the popular crowd. Lilah really wished her cousin had mentioned the fact that this mixer was more for the popular people in their class. At least then she would have expected to feel out of place all night.

When he returned to the bar, he approached her again. This time he smiled and said, “Are you Desiree Jenkins? If you are, I must say that you’ve lost a lot of weight. Congratulations on taking charge of your health.”

Lilah’s ire rose as she shot back, “My name is not Desiree. Didn’t anyone ever teach you not to comment on people’s weight? What do you think gives you the right to do that?”

“I own a gym; that’s what gives me the right. Every day, I work with people who are trying to lose weight and get their health back. I always try to be encouraging.”

Lilah almost laughed outright at that statement. He had been one of the world’s biggest jerks in high school. He had referred to more than a few normal sized girls as fat, ugly bitches. It had been a daily occurrence in the class they shared. “I don’t need your encouragement. I like my body just fine the way it is,” she said in an even tone.

He seemed taken aback by her tone, but he forged on with his questions anyway. “Give me a clue to help me guess who you are. If I get it right before you leave, you should be my date for the reunion.”

“Your what?” Lilah demanded in shock. Was he flirting with her? She thought he was just being nosey and possibly trying to finagle a way to get closer to Cheryl. Her heart slammed in her chest, and she grew angry all over again. Diego Gonzales was the last man on Earth she would even consider dating, even if he was sincere in his efforts. Something told her he was far from sincere though.

“I wasn’t planning on bringing a date, but I’d like to take you as my date if you agree.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s a formal event, like prom night, and I don’t have a date.”

“What makes you think I don’t have a date?” Lilah demanded.

“Usually women with huge chips on their shoulders have a hard time getting dates,” he grinned. “I’m a nice guy, so I’ll volunteer to be your date. I would hate to see you being a wallflower all night,” he cajoled.

Lilah couldn’t stop the laugh that escaped at that statement. “Okay,” she relented with a little smile.

“Okay, what?” he asked.

“I agree to your little game. Guess my name before the night is over, and I’ll be your date,” she replied. “Here’s your first clue,” she added as an afterthought. “My name is not Rumpelstiltskin.” She knew there was no way he would guess her name. She had been beneath everyone’s notice in high school, especially the crowd he and Cheryl hung with.

He chuckled as if he had no chance of losing the challenge.

Lilah remained quiet as he filled several drink orders and wiped the bar. When he finished, he returned to her and asked, “Are you going to make me guess where you live too?”

“No. I’ll give you that one for free. I live in Illinois.”

“Did we have any classes together in high school?”

“Yes.”

“Which one?”

“Almost all of them in junior and senior year.”

“Really? And we never talked?” he asked.

“Not once.”

“You must have been one of those shy, quiet girls then. All I have to do is look in my yearbook for black girls who look like shy nerds, and it should be pretty easy to find you,” he said with a laugh.

He was giving off a flirtatious vibe, but his comment struck a raw nerve. She turned away from him and looked at her cousin and his brother at the end of the bar. They had progressed to touching each other. His arm rested on the back of her barstool, and she let one of her hands rest on his thigh as they talked.

“You won’t find me in the yearbook. I missed senior picture day, and they forgot to list me in the not pictured section,” she said quietly.

“So, you really are a little mystery,” he said as he leaned across the bar towards her. “It’s a shame you aren’t in there; you have the most beautiful eyes.”

Despite her less than favorable feelings for him, Lilah’s face suffused with heat. She was probably just one in a long stream of women to fall briefly under his spell. He was hot on a scale that most normal men could never even hope to achieve. His tall, muscular frame was a direct testament to the fact that he owned a gym and took good care of himself. Even if his body hadn’t been absolutely perfect, he still would have been a dream to look at. He had flawless olive toned features and pair of dimples that added an irresistible cuteness to his otherwise ruggedly handsome face. In high school, he had been voted most handsome, and it was apparent now that the title had been an understatement. Lilah looked away from him as she reminded herself that the handsome façade could not erase the ugliness he had on the inside.

“I’m sure you’ve said that to hundreds of women over the past year alone,” she countered as she tried to calm her racing heart.

“I’d tell you I haven’t, but you wouldn’t believe me,” he replied with a shrug.

He was absolutely correct, so Lilah didn’t bother to contradict him. She turned away, presenting her back as she observed everyone else in the darkened bar. Quiet conversations and flirting abounded. Part of her still wished she had the capacity to relax and open herself up to being more friendly and engaging like Cheryl.

A thunk on the bar caused her to turn back around. “I believe you ordered sangria, Miss Johnson,” he said as their eyes met.

She reached for the fruity drink as he smiled down at her in delight. “What makes you so sure, you’re correct?” she asked as she took a sip.

“You looked surprised, and you haven’t bothered to deny it yet, Delilah.”

“I go by Lilah now,” she said with a frown. “How did you remember my name? It’s not like we talked even once back in high school.”

“When you turned around, I recognized the back of your head,” he answered with a wink.

“That’s ridiculous; Cheryl must have told you my name.”

Diego glanced at Cheryl and Hugo and said, “I don’t think your friend notices anything but my brother right now.”

“You’re probably right,” Lilah conceded as her eyes followed his. “Okay, how did you really guess? If I think you’re lying to me, I’ll stand you up tomorrow.”

He released a deep, rich chuckle that sent little vibrations up her spine. “I really did recognize the back of your head. You sat right in front of me in Calculus class. Once I recognized your curly hair and the way you hold your posture, it was easy to remember your name. Do you remember how Mrs. Winters always made us pass our homework back to be graded?”

“Yes,” Lilah said quietly.

“I always graded your homework. I remember thinking how great it was that you didn’t have to grade my homework. Yours was always so neat and perfect, I would have been embarrassed if you had seen mine. Of course, if you had been the one grading my homework, that might have inspired me to put a little more effort into it. I always thought Delilah was such a pretty name.”

“Yes, well…now that you’ve remembered my name, I’m sure you want to take back your invitation to be my date. Mystery solved,” she said as she took another gulp of her sangria.

“Why would you say that?” he asked with what looked like genuine confusion in his eyes.

If she didn’t know any better, she would have thought she had misjudged his character. She steeled her nerves against the favorable feelings that were beginning to creep up on her and said, “Diego, let’s not pretend that we don’t both know what type of man you are.”

“What type of man do you think I am?” he asked.

“Charming, handsome, the kind of man who thinks he can have any woman he wants, even if it is just for one night. I steer clear of men like you.”

“Oh? And it’s not even remotely possible that I might actually be curious about you and find you attractive? It’s not possible that I might want to get to know you better? Not just your body, but the whole you?” he countered.

“Anything is possible, but I don’t think it’s very probable.”

“You are definitely a challenge, Delilah.”

“I know,” she sighed. “It would be easier on you if you talked to one of your many friends from high school and left me here to sulk all night. I only came to this thing because my cousin Cheryl guilted me into it.”

“Cheryl is your cousin?” he demanded in shock.

“Second cousin. Our mothers are cousins, but they don’t speak.”

“Why didn’t you guys ever tell anyone you were related?” he asked.

“You’re kidding, right? Why would the most popular girl in school admit that she was related to me?” Lilah chuckled.

“You say that like you’re some sort of pariah. I would have liked to get to know you a little back in high school. Actually, I’m thrilled you’re talking to me now,” he smiled.

“Okay, now you’re laying it on a little thick, Diego. You expect me to believe that Mr. Handsome himself wanted to get to know the quiet girl whose calculus papers he graded, because he thought she had neat handwriting and a nice name?” Lilah asked.

“I thought you had beautiful hair and a hot ass too. Does that make it any more believable?” he returned with a sensuous little smile. “I used to lean forward so I could catch the scent of your hair when you turned your head to the side, but you never bothered to turn all the way around to look at me. It was always like you were in your own little world, and no one else could penetrate it. Ricky and Torrence used to make obscene jokes just to see if they could get you to turn around and glare at them, but you never did. You always just sat there, like you were so prim and proper, and ignored everything we did to get your attention.”

Lilah fought against the heat that swamped her body at his confession. The hottest, most popular boy in school had not only noticed her on a daily basis; he had wanted to get to know her better. It was impossible not to be flattered by that knowledge. It was also impossible for her to forget her reasons for hating him. She staunchly reminded herself that he was still just as ugly on the inside as he had been back in high school. That would never change. His charm and phenomenally good looks were only temporary diversions from his personality. “So, you really do remember me,” she conceded with a small smile. “Good for you.”

“Yes, good for me,” he said in a husky voice that sent a cascade of shivers down her spine. He left her side to work the rest of the bar, and she fought the near constant urge to watch him. He gave off all the appearance of being a good person.

After about ten minutes of mixing drinks and handing them out, Diego announced that Karaoke hour was upon them. His announcement met with enthusiastic applause, and a number of people clamored to go first. Diego took the microphone and looked directly at Cheryl as he said, “I think it’s only fair that the prom queen go first.”

Cheryl squealed and jumped out of her seat to approach the stage. The opening bars to Whitney Houston’s hit I Will Always Love You sounded over the speakers, and everyone in the bar clapped and buzzed in anticipation. Her dark skin glowed as she centered herself and took on what Lilah liked to think of as her diva persona. Looking at her now, one would never be able to tell that Cheryl was battling kidney disease and a host of other complications from lupus. Cheryl was nothing but radiant as she belted the song out with triumph in every note. She finished to chants of “Encore! Encore!”

Cheryl’s eyes met Lilah’s across the crowded bar, and she winked at her before beginning the next song.

“Your cousin is really something. It’s hard to believe the two of you are related,” Diego said as he took the seat next to her.

“It’s too bad your brother got to her first,” Lilah said as Cheryl left the stage.

“He’s welcome to her,” Diego snorted as he looked at Lilah again. He gave her a full on smolder as he continued, “I noticed you both before you walked through the door, and I knew exactly who I wanted to talk to when you sat down at the bar.”

Lilah tried to look away, but his deep brown eyes held her captive in that instant. She wasn’t supposed to be attracted to him, but she was. That fact appalled her beyond words. Her body betrayed her with its constant awareness of his presence. Every breath he took reverberated through her, and she felt the heat emanating from his muscular frame. She wished she could escape his orbit, but she didn’t want to encroach on her cousin’s private space with Hugo, and the thought of mingling with anyone seated at the tables was a little too intimidating at the moment.

He seemed to notice her discomfort, and he looked away for a moment. When he spoke again, there was a friendlier vibe to his voice. “What do you do in Illinois?” he asked.

“I’m a grant writer. I consult with small community based non-profit organizations and guide them through the process of applying for federal grant money. I’ve helped secure over five million dollars in state and federal grant funding over the past seven years. I’ve also helped open three Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs recently,” she said.

“I can see you doing those things. You always seemed like the serious, do-gooder type back in school. Those articles you wrote for the school paper were always thought provoking,” he replied.

“What do you do?” she asked him. She hated to admit, even to herself, that she was the least bit curious about the past ten years of his life.

“I run the local Gold’s Gym, and I just recently opened this bar. It’s the only place in town that does Karaoke,” he answered.

“Why did you want to settle here?” Lilah asked.

“Why not?” he asked with a smile. “All of my friends are here. My family has lived here for several generations. This is a nice quiet town, a good place to raise a family, and it’s close enough to the coast that I can see the beach on a regular basis. I’ve always loved it here, and it honestly never occurred to me not to come back after college.”

“Where did you attend college?”

“You’ll get a kick out of this, but you have to promise you won’t tell anybody else,” he leaned in and said in her ear.

“I promise,” she whispered back.

“I went to Rice University. When I first started, I was an engineering major. After my first three semesters, it became apparent that I couldn’t handle the math courses. The calculus sections for mathematics and engineering majors were way harder than the ones for business majors. I actually thought about you a lot during my calculus classes. If we had gone to the same college, I would have begged you to study with me,” he confessed.

“So, you have a degree in engineering?” Lilah asked.

“No. I couldn’t handle the curriculum, so I switched majors to business. I stayed through grad school and left with an MBA.”

“Did you come back to Bay City immediately?”

“No. My father would have killed me. I actually spent a few years in Austin, working at Apple as a logistics analyst. The money was good, and the city is beautiful…”

“But it just wasn’t for you,” Lilah finished for him.

“Yeah, I’m a small town person at heart. I bet you hate being outside the city. That’s probably why you couldn’t wait to leave after high school.”

“Not at all,” Lilah chuckled as she looked back at him. “I don’t live anywhere near Chicago. I actually live in a small town closer to Southern Illinois. Saint Louis is the closest city to me, but I only go there when I have to.”

He shifted closer, and suddenly she was surrounded by the scent of his subtle cologne mixed with his unique brand of masculinity. With a jolt, she realized that she was enjoying his company again. She looked down at her empty glass and tried not to be so aware of him.

“Can I get you another drink?” he asked.

“No thanks. I think I’ve had one too many already,” she admitted.

“You’ve only had one!” he exclaimed.

“Okay, one more. It’s been a while since I’ve relaxed and had fun,” she smiled.

He returned the smile, and her insides lit up again. Part of the warm glow surrounding her was due to the alcohol, but the larger portion of it was due to his constant attention. He hadn’t looked at another woman the entire evening. He left her side, and returned a short time later with another drink.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“I thought you’d like to try a mimosa. If it’s too much for you, just let me know and I’ll get you something else,” he said.

Lilah took a sip of the fruity mixed drink and said, “Wow, this is good. I wish I had tried one before now.”

“I’ll bet there are a lot of things you haven’t tried yet, but if you step outside your comfort zone, you’ll probably like them” he replied.

“Things like what?” she asked with a challenge in her voice.

“Things like coming out of your shell and giving us the chance to get to know you. All the kids who were popular in high school turned into some pretty nice adults. Why don’t you try getting to know some of us instead of just assuming that we won’t like you?”

“You think I’m shy?” she asked as she took a big gulp of her drink.

He reached out and patted her shoulder as he said, “Yes. Painfully shy, but that’s okay. I actually find it very cute.”

Lilah made up her mind in that moment to show him just how shy she was. There was a lull in people volunteering for Karaoke, so she stood up and approached the DJ before she managed to talk herself out of singing tonight. She hadn’t been very shy in high school, and she certainly wasn’t shy now. She was extremely introverted, but far from shy.

She relished the look of shock on everyone’s faces as she centered herself at the microphone. Diego sat forward and eyed her with an expression that she couldn’t begin to identify. Even Cheryl looked stunned as she started singing Selena’s hit Tejano song, Tu Solo Tu. Lilah knew her voice wasn’t nearly as powerful as her cousin’s, but what she lacked in power and control, she thought made up for with her emotional commitment to the song. She wasn’t afraid to let her vulnerable side show as she thought about her ex-fiancé throughout the song. It had been six months, but her emotions still went a little raw when she thought about their breakup. James had been the perfect guy in many ways, but he had snagged his dream job in New York City. Rather than try to drag out a long term relationship, when she knew she would never live in the city, and he knew he had no intention of giving up a lucrative career for her, they had said goodbye.

There was a smattering of applause as she left the stage to return to Diego’s side. “Still think I’m shy?” she asked as she looked up at him. Even from his seated position, he was still a little taller than she was standing up.

He unfolded his long, lean frame and pulled her closer. She allowed herself to be held by him. She told herself that it was okay to enjoy his attention just for tonight. In two days, she would fly back to her quiet life in Illinois, and he would once again be nothing more than an unpleasant memory.

“Okay, so you’re clearly not shy when it comes to singing,” he murmured in her ear.

She melted into him, and hated herself for every moment that she enjoyed with him. “I’m not really shy at all. I’m introverted, but not shy. There is a difference, you know,” she whispered.

“Just when I thought I had you figured out, the mystery deepens,” he said as he looked down at her again.

Lilah was so focused on Diego; it took her a moment to realize that almost total silence had fallen over the bar. She glanced back to see everyone else staring at the two of them. Several of the women shot daggers at her with their eyes, and she resisted the urge to cower in shame. Judging by the way Diego’s hands tightened on her waist, he probably noticed the stares as well.

“Excuse me,” she whispered as she backed away from him and made a beeline for the restroom. She went into the last stall and tried to collect her thoughts, but the alcohol she drank was clearly clouding her judgment. She had no intention of venturing back out until she could think straight.

After about ten minutes, Cheryl entered the restroom to check on her. “Are you okay, Lilah?” she asked with concern in her voice.

“Of course I am,” Lilah insisted as she opened the stall door. “I just needed some time alone.”

“Diego is concerned about you,” Cheryl said. “What’s going on with you two?”

“Nothing!” Lilah said in a furious whisper.

“Okay…” Cheryl said, her voice dripping with skepticism. “Lilah, it really didn’t look like nothing.”

“Well it was nothing,” Lilah insisted. A moment later she recanted with, “Maybe it wasn’t nothing… but I wish it was nothing. I think I had too much to drink.”

“Maybe we should just go back to the hotel for the night,” Cheryl offered.

Lilah shook her head and said, “Absolutely not. You are having a great time with Hugo, and I don’t want to ruin it. I can just stay in here until you’re ready to leave.”

“That won’t work.”

“Why not?” Lilah asked.

“First of all, everybody out there knows you’re in here. If you stay in the restroom all night, they’re going to think you’re weird.”

“They never liked me anyway,” Lilah countered.

“Lilah, that’s because they didn’t know you! Obviously Diego likes you after spending less than two hours with you tonight.”

“You think he likes me?” Lilah asked.

“I think every woman out there wants to scratch your eyes out because he likes you so much. He hasn’t talked to anyone else since you walked through the door,” Cheryl said with a reassuring smile.

“This is so terrible. He can’t like me,” Lilah moaned.

“Why can’t he?” Cheryl asked.

“He just can’t.”

“Okay. Well, Hugo and I have already made plans to go out next weekend, so if you want to go now, we can do that. You are not staying in the restroom all night. Either you go back out there with your big girl panties on, or we both walk out the door with our heads held high. I’ll drive since I’ve had less than half of my drink.”

“I think it would be best if we go,” Lilah surrendered with a sigh.

She emerged from the restroom to find everybody else chattering away in their own little groups. No one paid the least attention to her as she approached the bar. Diego was once again behind the bar, waiting on customers. “I’m here to pay my tab, so we can head out for the night,” she said as their eyes met.

Was that disappointment that darkened his expression as he nodded? “Don’t worry about the tab. It’s on the house,” he said with a smile.

“Thanks, Diego,” Cheryl replied with an enthusiastic smile before Lilah could come up with a suitable protest.

“Thanks,” Lilah said in a lackluster little echo. She then trailed behind her popular cousin as she made the rounds to tell everybody good night.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Diego felt like he could breathe again after Delilah and Cheryl left the bar. What on earth had prompted him to pretend he didn’t know who she was? He had recognized her the second she had stepped out of the car and started yanking on that tight, little skirt she wore tonight. She hadn’t changed a bit since high school; if anything, she was more attractive.

While he was behind the bar thinking about Delilah, Hugo took a turn singing Karaoke. Diego shook his head at his brother’s off key and pitchy rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean.

“Boo! Get off the stage!” someone shouted from the audience.

Hugo stopped mid-song to look at the heckler. “If you think you can do better, get up here!” he said with a big grin.

Former cheerleader Carrie Jones jumped up and rushed the stage as she squealed, “Let’s do a duet!”

The next thing he knew, the bar was once again jumping with the party atmosphere that had gone flat for a moment after Cheryl and Delilah’s departure. He stayed busy filling drink orders as he listened to his brother’s second most horrible performance ever. When Hugo rejoined him behind the bar, Diego said, “I see you saved the singing for after Cheryl left. Good call.”

“What? Are you saying I can’t sing?”

“Si,” Diego replied with a smile. “I’m saying you can’t sing, and I’m saying I noticed you hitting on my classmate all evening.”

“You got it backwards, bro. Your classmate was hitting on me all night. It’s all good though,” Hugo chuckled.

“Please. You two were all over each other,” Diego snickered. “You weren’t acting very much like a dignified doctor tonight, old man. First, you didn’t even want to come tonight, but you flipped the script when she started flirting with you.”

“What can I say? She’s hot. I can put up with drunk people and karaoke if I get to talk to a woman like her,” Hugo said.

“A woman like her? What do you mean?” Diego asked.

“I think she’s a good person. She’s been through a lot with her health recently, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she acted tonight. She’s very positive and upbeat about everything. I think I spend too much time with pessimists, so Cheryl was a breath of fresh air. We’re going on a date next weekend, but I’m thinking about staying in town an extra night to see her at the reunion tomorrow.”

“You didn’t even go to your own ten year reunion,” Diego reminded his brother.

Hugo shrugged and said, “I know.”

“What did you and Cheryl talk about?”

“Work, life, that sort of thing. Why?”

“Because you aren’t exactly Mr. Chatty, but you two had a lot to say to each other,” Diego answered.

“I could ask you the same thing. What’s up with you and Cheryl’s friend?” Hugo asked.

“Delilah is her cousin. She was in all of my classes senior year,” Diego answered.

“Did you know her?” Hugo asked with a probing look.

“Yeah, I knew her.” Diego didn’t mention that he’d had a huge crush on Miss Delilah Johnson back in high school. The one girl he would have most loved to date had existed in a completely different social sphere. She was one of the mature intellectuals, and he was the stereotypical jock. The pressure of coming up with a greeting smart enough to impress her had gotten to him on multiple occasions, and she hadn’t been the kind of girl who sent clear signals on what she was thinking. He had never been able to work up the nerve to ask her out, or even talk to her.

“Was she one of your little girlfriends?” Hugo asked.

“I wish,” Diego snorted. “She wouldn’t have given a guy like me a chance back then.”

“What are you talking about? Weren’t you top dog in your class?”

“Top dog? I’m not sure I should even try to answer that question. I was a good athlete, I got good grades, I was popular, and all the regular girls seemed to like me. I guess I did have it pretty good, but Delilah wasn’t impressed by the same things that other girls seemed to like,” Diego said.

“If she couldn’t like you for who you are, then she’s not worth the effort, man. I thought you knew that,” Hugo chastised him with a frown. “There are plenty of girls out there. Don’t get hung up on the one who plays hard to get.”

“That’s the thing, Hugo. She wasn’t playing hard to get in high school. I never even tried to talk to her, because I was so sure she would think I was the typical idiot jock who only cared about football and partying.”

“Isn’t that exactly what you were?” Hugo asked with genuine confusion in his eyes. “Minus the idiot part, of course.”

Diego shook his head. “Only on the surface,” he admitted. “I remember wishing I could have been one of those quiet kids sometimes—the ones who nobody expects anything from. It would have been so much easier if there hadn’t always been that insane pressure to always be the guy that everybody liked, the guy that everybody thought was cool.”

“So, you didn’t enjoy partying at all?”

“Of course I enjoyed it, but I would have been okay with half the partying. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Why were you so sure Lilah wouldn’t like you back in high school?” Hugo asked.

Diego sighed as he thought about the first time he’d laid eyes on her. It had been during lunch in the first semester of their freshman year. His status as popular jock had already been cemented in junior high, and having an older brother on the varsity football team had only added to it in high school. Living in Hugo’s shadow that first year had been both empowering and incredibly suffocating at the same time. He was popular, but he was expected to be a great football player, just like his older brother.

The first time he saw Delilah, she had been seated at the chess-nerd table. All of the students who had been involved in sports and other, more physical, extracurricular activities had sat on their side of the cafeteria and snickered at the chess club. The chess-nerds had taken an entire table and set up ten tournament sets, complete with their chess clocks and notation pads. They ignored the giggles and stares of all the other students as they played their practice games during lunch.

Diego had been seated in the middle of the table right next to the chess club, directly across from Delilah. She was both the only girl and the only black student on the entire team, so she had stood out like an orchid among daisies. He had been too busy watching her concentrate and wishing he knew how to play chess to notice his two good friends harassing her. Torrence had flung a few crumpled straw wrappers at her, and she had ignored them as she focused on her chess game. Her patience finally broke when Ricky had used his straw to shoot a spit wad directly at her face. When it hit her square in the forehead, her eyes snapped up and alit on him as both Torrence and Ricky ducked out of view. In that moment when their eyes met, Diego had done the only thing he could think of; he had smiled and waved at her. Her lips had tightened, and she’d raised her eyebrow once before going back to her game. The look she gave him that day had practically screamed, you are so immature!

“Hello? Diego?” Hugo interrupted his thoughts. “You never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“What makes you so sure she wouldn’t have liked you back then?”

“She was into things like chess club, speech and debate club, and writing for the school paper. She never hung out with anyone I hung out with. I think my friends would have gotten on her nerves,” Diego answered.

“Newsflash, bro. You still have the exact same friends! Don’t you think they’ll still get on her nerves if she’s such a goodie-two-shoes?”

“She’s not a goodie-two-shoes,” Diego said quietly.

“What is she then?” Hugo asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” Diego answered just as someone approached the bar.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Diego tried not to stare at the steady stream of people arriving for tonight’s reunion. He kept a friendly smile plastered to his face as he made small talk with everyone who showed up. He pretended to be interested in all their stories about things they did back in high school, all the while his mind was on someone who hadn’t yet arrived.

Someone was talking his ear off about something that had happened at one of the many parties they had both attended in their senior year when he heard the familiar sound of Cheryl’s boisterous greeting. When Cheryl walked into a room, everyone noticed. Diego turned away from Carrie just in time to see Delilah follow her cousin through the door. While everyone else was busy flocking to Cheryl, Diego was trying to calm his body’s reaction to seeing Delilah in the low-cut, slinky dress she wore tonight.

Her eyes briefly scanned the foyer before they landed on him. She looked taken aback for a brief instant, but she also looked happy to see him. He smiled at her and started making his way toward her, and all the while his heart was racing. This moment was like the day he realized he had a crush on her. He didn’t know how to interpret the look in her eyes, and suddenly he was in high school all over again, wondering if the girl standing before him would like him.

“Hey, Delilah,” he said when he reached her.

“Hi,” she responded with a smile. She turned her face up to him, and he noticed that the lighting in the room did magnificent things for her complexion. She looked flawless, but, unlike all the other women who had showed up so far, she didn’t have on a bit of make-up. Cheryl and her crowd sparkled and glittered like glammed up movie stars, but Delilah reminded him of a little flower among jewels.

“You look really pretty,” he said. She responded with another smile, but he cringed on the inside because of the inadequacy of those words. The way she looked tonight brought to mind images that were way more poetic and descriptive than pretty, but he couldn’t get his brain to make sensible words out of all the feelings bombarding him as he looked at her.

“And you look very handsome tonight, Diego,” she said with a little sparkle in her eyes.

“So is my appearance acceptable? I know the prettiest girl at the reunion can’t be seen with a scrub,” he joked with a smile.

She took a step back and let her eyes roam all over his body. When they made it back to his face, he had to suppress the urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her right there. “You know very well that you’re the best looking guy here, Mr. Handsome,” she quipped.

He offered his arm, and the two of them entered the party together. His hand settled at her waist as he escorted her to their table in the far corner of the room. He noticed that Cheryl and his brother had selected the most boisterous table in the place—the one filled with the homecoming court and a host of former cheerleaders and dance team members. This was the first time in his life that Diego didn’t sit at the popular table, and he loved the freedom of not having to dazzle everyone all night. Here in his quiet corner with Delilah, he could concentrate on getting to know her better.

“Thanks for not standing me up tonight,” he said as he pulled out her chair for her.

After he took his seat, she glanced at him and said, “As if Cheryl wouldn’t have dragged me here kicking and screaming tonight.”

“Nice,” he returned with a chuckle. “I can only get a date with a smart woman when she’s forced by her cousin.”

“I was joking,” she said.

Diego noticed she didn’t say she wanted to spend time with him, but there was no way he’d ask her. “So, Miss Johnson, how long are you staying in town? You know there’s going to be a picnic tomorrow at Le Tulle Park.”

“Cheryl and I aren’t staying for that. I fly back to Illinois tomorrow, and Cheryl can’t be in the sun.”

Diego tamped down on his disappointment as he smiled at her again. His mind immediately started churning out ways to see her again. “I guess we better make the most of tonight then. I’ll have to drag you out to dance every dance.”

“What happens when I get tired?”

“You can lean on me and let me lead,” he said.

Just then, the host of tonight’s reunion took the podium to start the formal events for the evening. Nominees for most successful were announced, and pictures of everyone from then and now were displayed on a screen in a continuous loop. Delilah giggled several times as pictures of their classmates popped up on the screen. Diego noticed that not one picture of her was included, but she didn’t seem to mind.

When the music started up, he and Delilah wandered over to the refreshment tables and helped themselves to some drinks. On the way back to their secluded little table, Diego was stopped by several people wanting to talk to him. None of them remembered Delilah, and he had to introduce her over and over again to his friends. His brother’s words from last night echoed in his head as he watched Delilah’s interactions with everybody. She seemed perfectly nice and reasonable, and everyone they came across seemed to like her. She didn’t even seem to mind the few minutes they had spent talking to Torrence. Of course, Diego had warned Torrence to keep his razzing to a minimum tonight. He didn’t want to give her any reasons to shy away from him.

The first ballad of the night came on, and Diego coaxed Delilah onto the dance floor. He put his arms around her as they moved their bodies in sync, and she melted into him. His hand rested at the small of her back, and the skin on skin contact drove him ever so slightly crazy as he imagined her stretched out naked in his bed as his kissed every inch of her smooth skin. The entire time they danced, his body was just short of actual arousal. He wondered if she knew the effect she had on him tonight. She wore a barely-there, backless dress that she couldn’t possibly be wearing a bra or underwear with. When he glanced down during their dance, his suspicions were confirmed. He caught a glimpse of the tops of her unbound breast, and had to forcefully make himself look away.

They took a break from dancing and went back to their table. As soon as they sat down, she looked up at him and asked the last question he expected from her tonight. “Why aren’t you married yet?” she asked.

“I’ll get married as soon as I develop a relationship with the right woman,” he answered as he leaned in a little closer. He caught a whiff of her hair as he asked, “Why did you ask me that?”

“Last night, you mentioned coming back here because it’s a good place to raise a family, and I was curious why you don’t have a family already. I’ve counted at least ten women here tonight who would probably love to help you out with that,” she said.

“Are you one of them?” he asked.

Her eyes met his, and she looked horrified for a moment, prompting him to adopt a relaxed posture and say, “I was kidding,” in a light hearted tone. The truth of the matter was that he hadn’t been kidding at all. If she gave him the least bit of encouragement, he could see himself being wrapped around her little finger and loving every minute of it. Before his mind wandered too far down that path, he changed the subject. “How long have you known how to speak Spanish?” he asked.

“I don’t speak Spanish,” she said.

“Last night, you sang the hell out of that Selena song…”

“Oh, that!” she exclaimed with a chuckle. “I can sing in Spanish, but I can’t hold an actual conversation. I memorized that song over the past few months as therapy for a bad break up,” she admitted.

“What happened?” he inquired.

“My fiancé got his dream job in New York City, and I didn’t want to go along with him. We said goodbye about six months ago. It was really hard on me.”

“Why didn’t you want to move to New York with him?”

“It’s not that I didn’t love him… I’m just…”

“You’re just not a city person?” he finished for her.

“Yes,” she sighed. “Is that bad? Is it horrible of me to not want to give up my entire way of living for a man I love?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think that’s horrible at all. I think it’s brave to go against years of the status quo. Society always expects the woman to follow the man wherever his job takes him, and when it’s the other way around, people always say she chose her career over her man. You have to do what feels right to you, Delilah. I’m glad you stood up for yourself. I don’t recall you doing much of that in high school.”

“No, I didn’t, did I?” she asked with a tiny smile.

He reached out and placed his hand over hers. “I knew you had to be thinking about somebody while you were singing that song. No woman sings a song like that unless she has some experience to connect it to. You have a really lovely voice, by the way.”

“You really think so?” she asked.

“Yes. I bet if you had talked more in high school, half the guys in our class would have been in love with you,” he said without thinking.

That brief panicked look crossed her face again before she laughed off his comment. “I’m okay with the fact that they were in love with Cheryl instead of me. She was born to be adored by the masses. I was born to get things done,” she said.

“What kind of things were you born to do?” he asked.

“Work. Write grants. Hopefully, publish a book someday,” she said with a little shrug.

“Are you happy where you are right now?”

“Do you mean where I am geographically or where I am career-wise?” she asked.

“Both,” he said. She looked down at her hands, and he realized he was leaning in too close to her again. He could see her pulse flutter in the hollow of her neck as she thought about her answer.

“Career-wise, I have a lot to be proud of. I’ve worked with a lot of community leaders in my area, so they pretty much all know me. I’ll probably run out of community programs to consult with next year. Soon, I’m going to start branching out to other counties that have underserved, at-risk populations. Once I do that, I’ll have to decide if I want to stay where I am and travel for work or move to a completely new area. Geographically, the town I live in is okay. It’s a typical Midwestern industrialized area. I have to drive a little bit to get to anywhere worth hiking,” she explained.

Hope blossomed in his chest; the fact that she was open to moving to a different area meant there was the chance that she might eventually find herself in Texas again someday. “So, you like hiking?” he asked.

“Yes. That’s something that James and I used to do together quite often. Sometimes we’d go on all-day excursions.”

“And James is your ex-fiancé?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Diego looked into her eyes and thought that James must be one of the stupidest men alive to choose a place over her. Lucky for him, she didn’t seem too bitter or heartbroken over it. She shivered, and he asked, “Are you cold?”

“A little, but I’ll be okay,” she responded with another little shiver.

He scooted his chair closer and wrapped his arm around her. Just like on the dance floor earlier, she melted into him and leaned her head against his shoulder. He tried his best not to overthink this moment, but it was difficult for him to keep his façade of cool when she was pressed this close to him.

***

 

Lilah tried to breathe past the massive lump in her throat as Diego’s arms went around her. This entire night had been perfect, from the moment she had arrived all the way up until now. She would never forget the look he gave her as soon as she’d walked through the country club doors. Nerves had threatened to overtake her, because she had never been privileged enough to set foot on the country club grounds as a child. She had existed on a completely different tier of society. As a child, she had been one of the many nameless faces of poverty. And suddenly, after one look from Diego, years of inferiority had melted away under the heat of his gaze. She was sure he wasn’t pretending; the man liked her; he really liked her. That knowledge was both a source of joy and a source of crushing pain at the same time. She would never be able to effectively separate the man he was now from the boy he had been in high school. It would be unforgivable of her to forget what he had done, no matter how much she wished she could.

She raised her head from his shoulder, and he smiled down at her. “Are you warm again?” he asked.

“Yes. Thanks for sharing body heat with me, but I need to find the ladies’ room,” she said.

“Let me show you where it is. The one near the entrance stays crowded, but there’s another one not far from us.”

He led the way down a dim corridor with several closed off rooms. At the end, was a small restroom.

“Thanks,” she said as she entered.

She used the first stall, washed her hands, and checked her appearance. She hadn’t truly looked at herself in a long time, because she was always so busy working. Tonight, she was struck by the radiance of her own face. For the first time in a long while, she actually looked and felt beautiful. No doubt Diego’s constant attention had added to the glow she felt tonight. She was busy tucking stray curls back into place when another woman entered the restroom.

“Delilah?” the old woman in a custodial staff uniform asked in shock.

Lilah whirled to face the woman. She looked familiar, but Lilah couldn’t sift through her memories fast enough to put a name to the face before her.

“You don’t recognize me, do you?” the woman asked with a sad look.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but this is the first time I’ve been back to town in ten years. Do I know you from school?” Lilah asked.

“You used to be good friends with my daughter. I’m Mirabel’s mom,” the woman answered softly.

And just like that, Lilah’s night came crashing back down to earth. “Oh,” she breathed, feeling as if she had just been punched in the stomach. “It’s been a few months since I’ve had a letter from you. How have you been? How has Mirabel been?” she asked.

“Mirabel works over at the plant in Sweeny now. I don’t think I mentioned that in my last letter. Her boys are both in elementary school now. And I’ve been pretty good. I still live in the same place if you want to stop by and say hi before you leave town.”

“I actually have to leave pretty early in the morning tomorrow to catch a flight out of Houston,” Lilah said. Tears gathered in her eyes at the thought of returning to her old home to visit Mrs. Horta. She wondered if Mrs. Horta had recognized Diego out in the hall waiting for her.

“Well, I get up at six every morning, so stop by if you can. José would like to say hello. Do you still play chess?” Mrs. Horta asked.

Lilah shook her head. She hadn’t played a game of chess since her senior year in high school. She had been unable to rekindle her love for the game after what happened.

“You should go back to it. Adrian loved chess so much… I still have all the pictures from the tournaments you guys went to.” At the mention of her late son, Adrian, Mrs. Horta started to cry.

Lilah rushed forward and wrapped her arms around the older woman’s delicate frame. “I’ll play again,” she promised as she held her for a few minutes.

“Sorry, mija,” Mrs. Horta sniffed as she stepped back. “I know it’s been ten years, but it’s still hard, you know. I still think about him every day.”

“Mrs. Horta, I’m so sorry. I think about him too, but I just don’t know what to say,” Lilah said as tears slid down her cheeks.

“You make sure to give Mirabel a call. She would love to hear from you. I’ll let you get back to your reunion now. It was good to see you looking so beautiful. You clean up real nice,” Mrs. Horta said. With one final squeeze of Lilah’s hand, she let go and slipped into a stall.

Lilah dried her eyes before venturing back out into the open. She thought she had done an admirable job of getting her emotions under control, but as soon as she saw Diego, she started crying again.

“What’s wrong?” he asked as he rushed to her side in concern.

“Nothing,” she lied as she frantically wiped at her eyes.

“Delilah, I can tell you’re upset about something. What happened?” he asked as he raised a hand to her wet cheek. He gently blotted her tears with his thumb as his eyes caressed her.

She turned away with a quiet little sob. What had she been thinking earlier? Why had she chosen to go along with a stupid fantasy instead of dealing with reality and ignoring him?

“Come with me,” he said softly. “I’ll take you somewhere quiet.”

Lilah allowed herself to be led by the hand, like a child, through the empty corridor. He turned down a smaller hallway and pulled her into a darkened room filled with billiard tables and padded chairs. “No one should come in here,” he assured her.

“Won’t we get in trouble for being in here?” she asked as she looked around.

“I used to work here when I was in high school. Trust me, no one is going to care that we’re in here. It’s not like we’re trashing the place.” He wrapped his arms around her as he spoke, and she fought the urge to lean into him.

She shook her head to clear her emotions and backed away from him. “You should go,” she said, her voice shaking with emotions.

“Lilah, what’s wrong?” he asked as he closed the distance between them again. When she failed to answer, he lowered his face towards hers. She knew he had every intention of kissing her, and she knew she shouldn’t let it happen, but she did. For an infinitesimal instant, her entire being rejoiced as his lips met hers. Her initial, unrestrained reaction was one of intense pleasure. He spanned her waist with his warm, capable hands and pulled her tight against his body. There was no mistaking the barely contained passion and tension in his hard frame as he held her. There was also no mistaking the tenderness he lavished on her lips before his tongue delved into her mouth to caress hers. Head swirling, and knees weak, her mind dropped every other concern and her entire world was encapsulated in the circle of his embrace for a moment.

He ran a trail of kisses down her neck and rasped, “You’re thinking about your ex, aren’t you?”

She wasn’t capable of anything other than a weak little whimper as he exposed her breasts and reverently licked her nipples.

“He’s not worth your tears, Lilah. I’ll help you forget all about him,” he promised with a smile.

He stood up and resumed kissing her lips until she was lost in sensation again. Romantic fog kept her darker thoughts at bay, but not for long. Eventually an image of Adrian Horta popped into her head, prompting her to push Diego away. “I can’t do this, not with you!” she cried.

His eyes were still heavy with passion as he looked down at her in confusion. “Why?” he asked quietly. “You seemed to like me earlier this evening… I don’t understand what’s changed. Are you really that hung up on the fact that I was more popular in high school than you were? Lilah, we’re both adults now. Why does the fact that I was one of the cool kids and you weren’t matter so much to you?” he demanded.

“This isn’t about popularity or lack of popularity,” she sniffed as he looked down at her.

“Then what is this hot and cold act all about?” he asked.

Lilah took a deep breath and let the bomb drop. “Adrian Horta,” she said.

He obviously recognized the name, because he looked as if someone had just slapped him in the face. He sat down hard in the chair behind him and looked up at her. “What does that kid have to do with us?” he asked.

Lilah tried to stifle her tears and the uncontrolled trembling of her body as she lambasted him. “Your girlfriend killed him, and everyone in town knows it, but she never had a single consequence—never even lost her license. She actually ran over that poor kid, and left him in the street to die, and nothing happened to her, because her daddy was the mayor—still is the mayor. I’ll never forget the day after it happened, sitting there in Calculus class, listening to you and Ricky and Torrence make light of the fact that one of the poor kids from the projects was run over and left to die. I wanted to turn around and scream at all of you to just shut up, but I knew it wouldn’t make a difference, so I settled for hating you in silence. What you didn’t know about that kid was that he was a friend of mine. He had a 4.0 GPA, and he was the youngest kid in the chess club. He was in junior high, yet he played in the AAA division of the high school tournaments. He was also my best friend Mirabel’s little brother. You probably don’t remember Mirabel, because she was a junior, and a nobody—just like me! The night your girlfriend ran over Adrian and abandoned him to die, I listened to his mother cry all night long after the police left her apartment… The walls in the projects are very thin, Diego, but you wouldn’t know anything about that, because you grew up on the nice side of town. That was the longest night of my life, and then I had to spend the next morning listening to you and your stupid, immature friends talk about my best friend’s little brother like he was nothing! Like his life had absolutely no value because he was from the projects! His death was nothing but entertainment for you! All year, I had listened to you guys joke about people from my neighborhood, and I always tried not to let it hurt me too much. I counted the days until I could graduate and leave this place. Your group talked about people like me as if we weren’t even worthy to breathe the same air as you guys. The morning after Adrian’s death was the last straw for me; it cemented the fact that you have no redeeming qualities. I will never be able to look at your smug face and think of you as anything other than a disgusting person, a very charming and good looking one, one that I’m way more attracted to than I should be, but a disgusting person nonetheless. How does it feel now to know you’ve been flirting with a girl who grew up in the ghetto part of town? I bet you’re horrified, and you’re hoping that none of your stupid friends know where I used to live! I never should have let you touch me, you disgusting jerk.” With those words, Lilah walked away from him and left the reunion. She took a cab back to the hotel, and texted Cheryl to let her know she had decided to turn in early. She didn’t give any details on why.

***

 

Diego felt as if the world had tilted on its axis and dumped him off as Delilah quietly left the room. He sat there for the next half hour and allowed his long buried memories to wash over him. He deserved every word that had flown out of her lovely mouth, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. He remembered responding to the terrible jokes Ricky and Torrence made that morning, but he didn’t remember starting any of his own. Of course, responding to them was just as bad as making them, and he had known that at the time. He had squelched the instinct to tell them it wasn’t cool to joke about such things, because he was supposed to be one of them. If he had criticized them in class, they might have turned against him, and he had cared way too much what all his friends thought about him back then. Now, he fervently wished he could have developed a strong moral compass a little earlier in life. He wish he had been strong enough to stand up for what he knew was right at the time, and now he might regret if forever.

***

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Redemption

How far will he go for love? Lilah Johnson returns to her hometown with a chip on her shoulder and resentment in her heart. A decade after graduation, she is forced to interact with the very people she disliked most in high school--the popular crowd. During their ten year reunion, a scorching encounter with her former nemesis awakens feelings she did not know she was capable of. She is determined to leave town with her heart intact, but she may not be able to resist his charm. Diego Gonzales is a small business owner who is used to getting what he wants, especially when it comes to women. When the girl of his dreams returns to town for their high school reunion, his long buried feelings for her roar back to life like a raging inferno. The only problem...she hates him. Can he redeem himself before it is too late?

  • Author: The Indigo Plume Publishing Company
  • Published: 2015-11-05 06:05:07
  • Words: 65717
Redemption Redemption