RITA Award Winning Romance Novel by Inglath Cooper
Are you brave enough to attend?
When Olivia Ashford first receives the invitation to her high school reunion, she dismisses it. After all, she’d left Summerville—and John Riley—and never looked back. But her life now seems incomplete, and she begins to wonder if she’s ever really moved on. In order to lay some ghosts to rest, Olivia goes home. She rediscovers friendships, visits old hangouts and comes face-to-face with John. She remembers how much she once loved him, how safe he made her feel, how he was always there for her—except for the one time she needed him most.
A LITTLE WHILE later, John made his way out to the front yard of the house where the second night of reunion festivities was now in full swing. There was a DJ tonight, and the music was loud. It would get louder as the night wore on, he was sure. No one was dancing. Too early, he supposed. Not enough cocktails dealt out by the bartender yet to turn inhibition into courage.
He got himself a Coke and ended up in a corner of the yard next to a potted fig tree that looked about as conspicuous as he felt.
The moment she arrived, John knew it. His face went warm, and his hands started to tingle. He looked up at the front table just as every head in the crowd swiveled in the same direction.
People flowed toward her, then clustered around her. She smiled, was more than polite, but she wasn’t comfortable with the attention. He could see that from here, even with fifty yards and fifteen years between them. It was there in the rigid way she held her shoulders, the way her hand kept fluttering to the base of her throat.
John tried to look elsewhere, but his own gaze betrayed him, and he found himself taking a good long look at her. She’d worn green again tonight. A sleeveless sweater with a rounded neck and skinny black pants. Her hair was loose, just barely glancing her shoulders.
A memory hit him like a punch to the stomach.h. Liv with a ponytail. It had been longer then. And sun-lightened. They’d been sitting on the grass beneath the very same oak tree under which she now stood. It was springtime, early May, and they were supposed to be doing calculus homework, but with Liv on his lap, her head on his shoulder, there had been no way he could keep his mind on anything that boring. He remembered her clothes: cut off Levi’s, a white tank top with skinny straps and yellow flip-flops, the kind you got at the drugstore for ninety-nine cents. Her arms and legs were smooth and tan from Saturday afternoons spent on the dock at the pond behind his house. He remembered pulling the rubber band out of her hair, the way it had fallen across her shoulders, spilling over his hands, the sensation the most sensual he’d ever known.
And he also remembered now, as clearly as he’d ever remembered anything, the feeling he’d had that afternoon. His sense of absolute completeness, fulfillment, the undeniable rightness of his love for her. He had thought they were forever. Eighteen years old, and he’d been totally certain that if he never achieved another thing in his life, finding Liv would be enough.
She’d come back to see him all those years ago. She’d come back, and he’d never known.
The knowledge left him feeling like a sailboat without a rudder, and just the simple act of keeping himself upright took all his concentration.
He looked around for Cleeve, but didn’t see him.
Needing a few minutes away from the crowd, he headed down to the barn to check on Nadine. She’d thrown a shoe that afternoon and was confined to her stall tonight because the farrier couldn’t come until the morning. The other horses were all out, except for Popcorn, whom he’d left in to keep the filly company.
He let himself in the barn’s side door, not bothering to flick on the aisle lights. The moon would cast enough shadow through the open Dutch doors for him to see the two horses and throw them some hay if they needed it.
He heard her before he saw her. That voice was unmistakable. He stood there in the center of the darkened aisle with his feet bolted to the floor, unable to move while something heavy and a little painful settled in his chest.
This voice was familiar, one he remembered, thought he’d forgotten, and realized now that he hadn’t. This wasn’t the one she had cultivated for her TV audience. That voice belonged to a woman he did not know. This belonged to a girl he had once thought he’d known better than he knew himself.
He followed the sound.
Naddie’s stall door was slightly open. And there was Liv, standing inside with her forehead tipped against the filly’s mane, smoothing a hand across her neck and speaking to her in that voice women reserve for babies and animals, soft and crooning. The filly was nosing around her pockets, looking for carrots the same way she did with Flora.
John couldn’t make his voice work.
Liv looked up, starting at the sight of him. Naddie jumped, saw it was only him and went back to her carrot search.
“John, I. . .you scared me,” Liv said, her eyes wide.
“Sorry.” He folded his arms across his chest as if planting them there would make his heart stop beating so damn hard.
“Actually, I guess I shouldn’t be in here. I was just. . .” She threw a hand back toward the party. “I kind of wanted to get away for a few minutes. Regroup. Is True still here?”
The question flashed before him an image of Liv cantering bareback and bridleless on the old quarter horse he’d learned to ride on and had taught her on as well when they’d first started dating in the spring of their junior year in high school.
“He died a few years ago,” he said, swallowing hard.
Sadness washed across her face. “Oh. I’m sorry. I guess he would have been pretty old by now. I know you must miss him.”
The words went straight to the core of him. Maybe because he knew she had loved that horse as much as he had, spoiling him with carrots and apples so that it got to the point that every time she walked in the barn, True knocked on the stall door with a front hoof until she came back to see him, treats in tow.
She stepped out of the stall now, giving Naddie a last rub on the neck. John slid the door closed behind her and hooked the latch.
They stood there in the aisle, moonshadows lighting their faces. Popcorn moved in his stall and rattled his feed bucket, no doubt looking for a last morsel of grain left over from dinner. Neither John nor Olivia said a thing, the silence between them so awkward that he didn’t know how to begin to tackle it.
“I probably shouldn’t have come down here,” she said, her voice startling in the quiet.
“Probably not,” he agreed, although not for the reasons he would have given last night at this time. She was stirring up way too many memories. Things he thought he’d forgotten. Things he’d needed to forget and did not want to remember now.
Even in the half-dark, he could see her face go a shade paler with his response. Something between satisfaction and regret stabbed through him, and there was nothing at all palatable in the combination. He felt mean, like one of the boys on the playground who tried to yank Flora’s pigtails at recess. He wanted to qualify what he’d said, but how did he qualify fifteen years worth of hurt without baring his soul, without reopening wounds that were still just beneath the surface, wounds that had never healed?
She stepped away from him then, the movement quick and awkward. She lost her balance and banged her shoulder on the stall door. His arm shot out to steady her. He caught himself just short of touching her, making for a couple of word-defying awkward seconds. He jerked his hand back as if someone had just lit a flame under it. And they stood there, two strangers who had once known one another’s most intimate thoughts, with him thinking that there had been a time when he would have kissed that shoulder and made it better. In a moment frozen between then and now, he saw himself doing exactly that, imagined brushing his lips across the ridge of that shoulder, following line and curve to the spot just behind her left ear where he had discovered as a green seventeen-year-old boy that she had loved most to be kissed.
Did she still?
Want kicked up inside him, as overpowering as any need he had ever known. And although self-preservation shouted in his ear, he could not make himself look away. A piece of hay clung to her hair. Sawdust speckled her pants and sandals. He reached out and brushed away the hay, the action so impulsive, that his intention never even registered until the gesture was complete.
He saw her quick intake of breath and realized she was as thrown by the lapse as he was.
“I owe you an apology for this morning.”
That he had surprised her was clear. She started to speak, stopped, and then said, “It’s all right.”
“No. It wasn’t.”
Neither of them said anything for a string of moments, the silence full as if they were both trying to figure out where they stood with one another.
Oscar, one of the barn cats, hopped off his perch above Popcorn’s stall door and sidled around Liv’s legs. She squatted down, picked up the cat and rubbed the back of its neck. The cat purred with contentment. “I didn’t come back here to hurt you, John,” Liv said.
The John of this morning would have fired out a blustery denial of her ability to have any effect on him at all. But the John of tonight let it stand. “Liv. After you left that summer. . .I never knew you came back to see me.”
She looked down at the concrete floor beneath their feet and tipped a sandaled foot on end, her hands fluttering a little as if it were information she didn’t quite know what to do with. “That was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, it was.” A pocket of awkward silence hung between them, and then, “So why did you, Liv?”
She shook her head, then glanced up at him, her eyes meeting his, carefully shuttered of emotion. “It was a silly impulse.”
“The same impulse that made you just decide to pick up your life and start it all over somewhere else without me?” It would have been nice to think he’d just asked that question with something close to indifference in his voice. He would have been kidding himself.
She met his gaze, a wounded look in her eyes. “All the way here, I kept telling myself that so many years had passed you would have forgotten all about me.”
“How could I forget—” Whoa, John. Wrong turn. He backed up, tried another direction. “You’re right. It was a long time ago. We were just kids.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She nodded.
Her lips parted as if she were about to say something, then made a seam beyond which the words couldn’t pass.
“What was it you had to have, Liv, that I couldn’t give you?”
It was a long time before she answered him. And finally, “Oh, John, it wasn’t you.”
“No. It sure wasn’t.” He took a couple steps back, certain that if he didn’t leave now, he’d say something he would later have cause to regret. “Stay as long as you like, Liv. The horses always like the company.”