Gina Granbury rested her chin in her palm, her eyes scanning the drawing she’d been tinkering with for the last two hours. Their deadline was approaching but there were only so many ways to advertise pre-owned cars. She dropped her pencil and shoved the drawing away in frustration.
“Why don’t you let Darrell give it a try?”
Gina shot a wry glance at Tracy, her business partner. “Because he uses a computer for all of his designs, that’s why.”
“So do you.”
“Not until I have my ideas down with pencil first,” she said as she leaned back with a sigh. “These college kids nowadays, they don’t have to have an original thought. They just copy and paste images and then call it good.”
Tracy laughed. “You’re only cranky because you hate car ads. You always have. Why did you take on this account in the first place?”
“Oh? So you think we’re thriving enough that we can be selective in our choices?” Gina stood and held up her coffee cup in a silent question. Tracy shook her head.
“Business has been fabulous, and you know it. And since it’s you who hates car ads—yet you took on this one—why don’t you just give it to Darrell and let him do his computer thing and call it good?”
“Because I’m stubborn.”
“And it has nothing to do with the deal he gave you on your new Jeep?”
Gina childishly stuck her tongue out at Tracy, then slipped into the tiny corner kitchen, suspiciously eyeing the coffee that had been brewed some five hours earlier. Her semi-addiction to coffee had its limits. She took a water bottle from the fridge instead. Leaning against the counter, she gazed out through the kitchen door opening to the office. They’d started their agency six years ago, building it up ever so slowly. The first two years had been lean and they’d talked about quitting, yet they hung on. Their big break came when a new restaurant opened up in their small city. A young couple with a dream of duplicating their parents’ authentic Mexican food recipes—they couldn’t afford one of the larger, more established advertising agencies. Antonio and Norma had come in off the street and pitched their idea to them. The couple wanted to serve delicious, authentic food in an atmosphere that was fun and vibrant. Gina and Tracy had worked non-stop for months, coming up with print and radio ads, each one fresh and original—and enticing. They had to be. There was a Mexican food restaurant on every block. She’d come up with the catch-phrase about two a.m. one morning when sleep eluded her. Is your old Mexican food place holding you like a ball and chain? Don’t let it weigh you down. If you really want to have a ball, bounce over to Antonio’s Café and Cantina, where the fun never stops!
She smiled and shook her head. It was as corny as hell, but Antonio and Norma loved it. Apparently, so did the public. The place had been jam-packed on opening night, and like the ads promised, the fun hasn’t stopped yet.
The same was true for their business. After that successful campaign, more and more of the local businesses started coming their way. So much so that they’d been forced to hire another designer—Darrell. That freed up Tracy to use her marketing skills for their own business, soliciting new accounts while Gina and Darrell designed the ads. The new strategy was paying off. Tracy was bringing in so many new accounts, they’d actually talked about hiring a fourth person.
The slamming of the front door brought her out of her musings and she pushed off the counter, going to see what had Darrell so animated.
“Gorgeous, I tell you. He was absolutely gorgeous.” Darrell spun around, smiling brilliantly at Gina. “Yes, I’m in love.”
“Again?” she asked dryly.
He put one hand on his hip, dramatically arching it in her direction as he looked down his nose at her. “At least one of us is not afraid of love,” he said.
She ignored his comment as she went back to her desk. “You better be careful, Darrell. This city is not that large. You’re going to run out of boys to date pretty soon.” She picked up the car ad and handed it to him. “Do something with this, will you?”
“Used car dealership? How boring.”
“Pre-owned,” she corrected.
“Oh, yes. That makes all the difference.” He shoved the day’s stack of mail at her. “Your turn to sort.”
She waved the mail at Tracy. “Isn’t it your turn?”
Tracy held out her hand. “Give it here. I swear, you two act like it’s a chore to sort the mail. Either it’s a bill or a check, or it’s junk.” She pulled out a bright green envelope and held it up. “This is addressed to you.”
Even though Gina lived in the apartment above their office space, she rarely got mail. She was strictly online and paperless. She took the green envelope and stared at it, the return address bringing in a flood of memories. She turned it over in her hands, then nervously tucked her dark hair behind her ears before breaking the seal.
Twenty-four years earlier
Gina dribbled the basketball blindly, her eyes never leaving the cheerleaders as they practiced on the other side of the gym. She pretended to eye them all, but it was only Ashleigh Pence who held her interest.
“Yo, Gina. You going to pass the ball or what?”
Embarrassed, she turned, firing a one-handed bullet at LaQuita, nearly knocking her down from the force. “I’m going to pass the ball, of course,” she said as she jogged past her.
The whistle blew and she stopped dead in her tracks, waiting for Coach Beam to yell at her.
“Gina! I don’t care if you are our top scorer. You sit your butt on the bench the rest of practice. I won’t have showboating.”
Gina sulked as she walked over to the bench, wishing she could keep her mind on basketball—her one love—instead of Ashleigh Pence. Even now she found her eyes straying across the gym, picking Ashleigh out of the group of nearly identical looking skinny blond girls.
Having gone to Catholic school through the eighth grade, she’d never laid eyes on the girl before. Now that they were at the same high school, she found herself running into her constantly, each time more distressing to her. Her hormones were alive and kicking but instead of directing her to boys, they led her directly to Ashleigh Pence. She rolled her eyes. A cheerleader, for God’s sake. A popular skinny blond cheerleader. And Gina was all legs and arms, having grown five inches over the summer, all the while working on her basketball skills, knowing a scholarship was the only way she’d get to a university. Her folks had told her if she didn’t get a scholarship, she’d be going to a community college instead.
So with hormones raging, she avoided the boys, most shorter than her anyway, and she avoided the popular girls, already knowing at this young age where her preference was. She tried to fade into the background as much as possible, never wanting anyone to know her secret. However, making the varsity team as a freshman wasn’t exactly the way to avoid notice.
But making the varsity team had its perks. The cheerleaders went to every game, home and away.
She flicked her eyes again across the gym, her heart stopping completely as Ashleigh Pence stared back at her, her gaze as intense as Gina’s.
“Earth to Gina. Hello?”
Gina looked up, blinking several times, trying to focus on Tracy. “What?”
“I said, who is it from? You’re as white as a sheet.”
Gina turned away, dropping the envelope and accompanying invitation on her desk. “It just . . . took me back is all. Twenty-year high school reunion,” she said.
“Twenty? Good Lord, how old are you?”
Gina picked up the stress ball she kept on her desk, tossing it at Tracy who caught it expertly. “I’m the same age as you are.”
“God, are we that old? Twenty years out of high school?”
“Well, are you going?”
Gina shook her head. “No.” She shrugged. “I haven’t seen any of those people since the day we graduated.”
“I know. I think that’s the point. You go to catch up and see who’s made a success out of themselves and who let themselves turn into old, fat, frumpy married women.”
Gina laughed. “And you would fall into the latter category,” she teased. She caught the stress ball without looking as Tracy tossed it back at her in mock anger.
“I’m not fat. And married with two kids does not make me old and frumpy.”
“No. But your poofy hairdo and your insistence on wearing those formal business suits do.”
“So I should dress like you? Shorts and flip-flops?” She eyed Gina’s attire with just a hint of envy. “There are certain rules one has to follow in the business world, Gina, even if we do live in a coastal town. I am the face of our little company when I am out and about mingling with the money shakers of this city.”
“And you do it very well.” Gina tossed the ball back at her. “I also know you love it.”
Tracy grinned. “Yes, I do.” She squeezed the stress ball between her hands, her perfectly manicured nails grazing the surface. “So, this high school reunion thing. Why won’t you go? It could be loads of fun. You haven’t been back to your hometown in forever, have you?”
Gina pulled her chair closer to Tracy’s desk, then slouched down in it, her long bare legs stretched out in front of her. Dare she even consider going back?
“You remember back in college when we first met?”
“I was dating a girl from high school.”
“Oh, yes. Your first love. What was her name?”
Gina swallowed. “Ashleigh. Ashleigh Pence.”
“That’s right. But you broke up with her, didn’t you?” Tracy leaned closer. “That’s when you turned into a whore dog, right?”
Gina narrowed her eyes. “I hate when you call me that.”
“Yes, the truth hurts.”
Yes, it did. She looked away. “It would be weird, that’s all. You know, to see her again.”
“Gina, sweetie, that’s twenty years of water under the bridge. That’s the point of going back to these things. To reminisce and to see these people you dated in high school. And then to be so thankful you didn’t settle down with one of them. Trust me, these high school reunions are what makes you appreciate your current life.” Tracy tossed the ball back at her. “I went to my tenth reunion. The guy I was madly in love with was there with his wife. He was mostly bald and had a beer gut. His wife was eight months pregnant and looked like she worked as a prison guard.” Tracy wrinkled up her nose. “Gross. To think I wanted to marry that guy.” She grinned. “That night, Sammy and I had the best sex in years.”
“I coulda gone without hearing that.”
“I’m just saying.”
“I know. And I may decide to go. It would be a good excuse to see Aunt Lou again.”
Actually, she hadn’t seen Aunt Lou since her father’s funeral six years ago. And she hadn’t been back to Calloway since the day she’d left for college. To her surprise, her parents had sold their house and moved to San Antonio that fall. And more shockingly, they divorced a year later. She was angry at both of them and resented them terribly for not only selling her childhood home, but for breaking up the family. It was a chasm in their relationship that they never really got over. Of course, her mother’s disapproval of her lifestyle didn’t help either. Yes, she had finally accepted that Gina was gay, but no, she wasn’t happy that her only child would never marry and give her grandchildren, a fact she reminded Gina of nearly every time they spoke, which wasn’t often. Aunt Lou, on the other hand, had always been understanding and accepting. Even though they didn’t see each other, they spoke on the phone frequently.
“Hey, Gina. What do you think?”
Gina turned her eyes to the large monitor that hung on the far wall. It was where they projected their designs, bouncing ideas off each other. Darrell had whipped up the car dealership ad in record time, using an environmentally friendly theme—recycle, reuse—to urge potential car buyers to adopt these pre-owned beauties instead of buying new.
“Maybe we can get him to hang a Go Green sign in his lot.”
“Somehow I don’t picture Bubba Clarkston as a Go Green type of guy.”
Darrell grinned wickedly. “Then maybe I need to go over there and flirt with that cute son of his. Maybe I could persuade him.”
“And maybe you’ll get shot,” Gina said, tossing the stress ball at Darrell.
He dropped it.
Ashleigh gasped for air as she struggled to keep pace with Pam. She hated running. She’d much rather be on a bike but running was Pam’s passion. They met up every other day at the gym, then took one day a week for either biking or jogging, today being Pam’s day.
Her friend finally slowed, taking it down to an easy jog, allowing Ashleigh to catch up. Ashleigh reached out an arm, tugging Pam to a stop. She bent over, hands on her knees as she sucked in air.
“It’s psychological, you know.”
“You don’t do this when we ride.”
“Exactly my point,” Ashleigh said as she straightened up, her breathing returning somewhat to normal. She pushed her hair off her face, tucking the stray strands behind her ears. Her hair was just barely long enough for a ponytail and she pulled it out now, shaking it loose.
“You’re in excellent shape and you’re not winded when we ride. That’s why I’m saying it’s psychological.”
“The bicycle was invented for a reason.”
“Yeah. For lazy people who didn’t want to run.”
“Well, let’s be lazy and walk back to my apartment. I could use a cold drink.”
“That was barely three miles.”
Ashleigh shrugged. “It’s getting too hot.”
“Since when do we make excuses?”
Ashleigh laughed. “Let’s start today.”
She turned and headed back, knowing Pam would follow. The hike and bike trail was two blocks from her condo and they knew it like the back of their hands. On a good day, they’d make the loop once when running, twice when biking. Today wasn’t a good day.
“Want to tell me what’s bugging you? Bad day at work?”
“Every day’s a bad day at work,” she said.
“You have a cushy job and you make lots of money. How bad can it be?”
“I hate my job. I hate the people I work with. I hate dealing with oil and gas bigwigs. I hate all the bullshit politics that I have to deal with. I hate my job,” she said again.
“You’ve hated your work since the day I met you. Why don’t you get out?”
“Because corporate law is what I studied for, what I trained for . . . what I know. And you’re right. I have a cushy job and make lots of money.” She waved her hand dismissively. “That’s not what’s bothering me anyway.”
“My second guess would be your love life, but since you’re not dating—again—that can’t be it.”
“I haven’t been in the mood to date. It’s depressing. The older you get, the less there is to choose from.”
“I have introduced you to some very nice, attractive, professional women in the last couple of years, so don’t say it’s depressing.”
Ashleigh sighed. “I know you have. There’s just never a spark. I want there to at least be a spark if I’m going to sleep with them.”
“I’ve known you almost ten years, Ashleigh. I only recall you dating two women for any length of time. Two. And I really liked Sara. She was fun.”
“Yes, she was fun. So much fun that she liked to date three or four women at once. No thanks. I don’t care for sloppy seconds.”
“So is that what’s bothering you? That you’re not dating?”
“No. What’s bothering me is I have a high school reunion coming up and all of them will know I’m not dating. Again.”
“I went to my tenth reunion. I wasn’t dating anyone then, either.”
“And this is what?”
“Oh, my God! How old are you?”
“You know very well how old I am.”
Pam laughed. “Yeah. Two years older than me.” She bumped her arm. “So don’t go.”
“I have to go. I was class president. I was Miss Calloway the year we graduated. And the damn prom queen. Besides, my mother would kill me if I didn’t go. It’s a small town. If I didn’t go, everyone would talk and wonder why. My mother hates it when people talk.” Ashleigh stopped. “That’s not really what’s bothering me either.” She pulled Pam to the side of the trail as a group of bike riders sped past. “She might be there.”
Ashleigh rolled her eyes.
“Oh. That she. The girl you lost your virginity to?”
“Gina Granbury.” God, Ashleigh thought to herself, just saying her name brought back a rash of memories. Memories she’d tried so hard to repress over the years.
“And you think she’ll be there?”
“She wasn’t at the tenth, thank goodness. But twenty? Everyone goes to their twentieth reunion, don’t they?”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”
Ashleigh started walking again. “My first semester in college. I transferred. She was sleeping with practically every girl at school. It was disgusting.”
“Is this the one who broke up with you without giving you a reason?”
“You were still in love with her?”
“Madly. But we were kids. What do kids know about love?”
Twenty-three years earlier
Ashleigh hurried down the hall, not bothering to stop at her locker to dump off the books she didn’t need. She smiled and waved at Crissy, another cheerleader, but didn’t stop to chat. She knew Gina Granbury rode her bike to and from school, so she hurried out the side door where the bike racks were. For some reason, the tall, dark-haired girl intrigued her. She often felt her eyes on her, often caught her staring. There was just something about the way Gina Granbury looked at her. It was mysterious. It was also a little frightening. She didn’t know Gina. Not really. They’d had a class together their freshman year but they rarely spoke. Now their sophomore year had all but passed and they’d only said a handful of “hellos” to each other. They had only one class together this year—American History—and they sat at opposite sides of the room. Even then, whenever she turned, she found Gina watching her. The other girl would look away, embarrassment showing on her face each time. This confused Ashleigh more than frightened her. Gina Granbury was obviously harmless. But the look in her eyes . . . well, it was almost like how a boy would look at a girl. That frightened her. Only a little.
There was a whirr of bikes and bodies as everyone raced away from school. She spotted Gina in the middle of the pack, her long dark hair flowing out behind her as she peddled away.
“Crap,” she murmured. It was Friday. She wouldn’t have a chance to see Gina again until Monday. She spun around, wondering what her mother would say if she suddenly started riding her bike to school each day. She would think she’d flipped out, of course. The cool kids didn’t ride their bikes to school. The cool kids either drove themselves or, better yet, rode with a cute guy.
She walked back inside, slower now. She was a cheerleader. She was officially one of the cool kids. She couldn’t ditch her new car for a bike. She’d waited too long to be able to drive to go back to bikes.
“Hey, Ashleigh. Wanna go swimming?”
Ashleigh stopped at her locker, her fingers moving automatically over the combination lock, turning it at precisely the correct spot. “Where?”
“Jennifer’s house.” Crissy leaned against the locker next to hers. “James will be there,” she said, her sing-song voice teasing Ashleigh. Everyone knew James had the hots for her.
“Yeah. Jennifer’s mom said she was finally old enough to have unsupervised parties with boys.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “As if we weren’t old enough last year.”
Ashleigh took two books out of her backpack, then slammed her locker shut. “Yeah, she wouldn’t allow it if she knew that Jennifer’s been screwing Seth since last summer.”
Crissy laughed. “Speaking of that, when are you going to give in and go out with James?”
Ashleigh shook her head. “I don’t like James. Not like that.”
“What’s not to like? He’s one of the cutest guys in school.”
“There’s just no spark there. I need there to be a spark,” Ashleigh said, surprised that her mind flashed to Gina Granbury and those dark eyes that often watched her.
“Maybe if you’d go out with him, there’d be a spark,” Crissy said, tugging at her arm as they walked down the nearly empty hallway.
Ashleigh shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Oh, and you know that basketball player? The one who made the varsity team last year as a freshman?”
Ashleigh stopped. “Gina Granbury?” she said, the name sounding strange to her and she realized it was the first time she’d spoken it out loud.
“Yeah, her. Jennifer invited her to the party, too.”
“Why? Does she even know her?”
“Not really. But Brian thinks she’s hot.”
“Brian? But he’s—”
“They broke up.”
“When?” Ashleigh started walking again, her mind racing. Gina Granbury at the swim party? She didn’t know whether she was happy or annoyed. Yes, she wanted to get to know her. She just didn’t necessarily want the whole gang to get to know her.
“They had a fight last weekend. Cheri told him to go fuck himself,” she said, breaking into a fit of giggles.
“He’s an asshole.”
“He’s the quarterback. What do you expect?”
Ashleigh’s mind wasn’t on Brian. She chewed her lip as she wondered what she’d wear. Boys would be there. It stood to reason she’d wear her bikini. Then she imagined those dark eyes watching her and she felt an involuntary chill. Maybe she should wear the more conservative one-piece. She tilted her head thoughtfully, a slow smile forming.
Or maybe not.
Ashleigh pulled her long T-shirt off, conscious of the tiny bikini she wore. She expected wolf whistles from the guys and she wasn’t disappointed. Pity not a one of them stirred any interest in her. She stood at the edge of the pool, then dove in, disappearing under water, loving the cool, clean feel of the water on her heated skin. When she surfaced, she wasn’t surprised to find Gina Granbury watching her. Gina pulled her eyes away immediately but not before Ashleigh felt the heat of them.
Again, she didn’t understand the pull, didn’t understand her fascination with Gina. They weren’t friends. They never ran into each other outside of school. In fact, she doubted anyone at the party had ever spent time with Gina. Yet here she was, at their swim party because Brian The Asshole thought Gina was hot. She’d seen Brian talk to her, had seen the other girl smile at him, but Gina still sat alone, removed from the others, her red one-piece suit revealing little, other than she had a perfect athlete’s body.
Ashleigh lifted herself out of the pool, pausing as her thoughts sunk home. Gina was invited because Brian thought she was hot. But that wasn’t the reason Gina was here. No, Gina was here because Ashleigh was here. She turned slowly, again finding Gina’s eyes on her. This time, she didn’t look away as quickly and Ashleigh held her gaze for seconds longer, acknowledging the totally unexpected—and completely foreign—spark between them.
Oh, God . . . finally a spark. Not from James Simpson, no, but from another girl. Gina Granbury.
Embarrassed, she turned away, walking quickly to a lounge chair and plopping down. She grabbed a towel to cover her face, pretending the need to dry herself. She heard laughter and splashing, knowing the others had jumped in. She lowered the towel, making an effort to keep her eyes from straying to Gina. It didn’t matter though. She knew she would go over to talk to her. She had to. It wasn’t every day that she got chills just from looking into someone’s eyes.