My moment of hesitation before joining my welcome back party at Millhouse Coffee was just long enough to notice that my hand on the old brass door handle trembled uncontrollably. I pulled my hand away, clenching it into a fist. My feet stayed cemented to the sidewalk while I gathered my thoughts and my courage. Filling my lungs, I braced myself for what lay ahead.
Not just the next few minutes, but the next few days, weeks, and months.
Until last week, I hadn’t been home for ten years. I hadn’t seen my group of closest friends from high school in a decade. Even I could hardly believe it, and I’m the only one, except for my best friend Quinn, who knew what I’d been through since graduation. My road had been long and strewn with obstacles.
I was nervous enough returning to my hometown. Nervous enough that I’d conveniently-oh-so-strategically missed the ten-year Port Camosun High School reunion last weekend. That felt like more than I could handle all at once. A soft re-entry was what I needed, and the casual after-the-party gathering at my best friend’s new café had seemed like the perfect speed. Or so I’d assumed.
Despite avoiding the reunion, I’d ended up reconnecting with pretty much everyone in our group a few days later instead of individually the way I wanted. It transpired that the biggest event at the reunion was Julian and Ruby getting together again. I thought my own history was fraught. But those two, it seemed, had it… Well, at least as bad.
Everyone assumed that from the moment Julian and Ruby set eyes on each other the summer before tenth grade, they’d be together forever. They were that rare couple who seemed like soulmates. But something happened the summer after grad that tore them apart, and broke Julian’s heart, according to Quinn.
I realized that what I found inside Quinn’s café might be hard to recognize. Everyone else would have changed, too. For better, or, like me, for worse. The girl voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ had become the ‘Prodigal Daughter’ returning from exile with her tail firmly tucked between her legs. I dreaded being the focus of everyone’s attention. Fortunately, that day, I was able to reconnect with just a few friends at a time as people wandered in and gathered around the battered old wooden coffee table. For a while, I’d thought maybe it’d all be okay.
Until he walked in.
Initially, I felt most nervous seeing Zach Chapman, my high school boyfriend, after all this time, especially after the catastrophic way our relationship imploded on grad night.
But the incredibly hot, intense guy Zach came in with stole my attention instantly, casting a large shadow over my old beau. Taller, wider, with an imposing presence, his sweat-dampened t-shirt clung to impressive bulging muscles covered in ink like a Men’s Health cover model. He was pure man-candy and sucked the breath from my lungs.
I honestly didn’t know who he was. Just the most perfectly exquisite man to melt my inhibitions and distract me from my restorative mission—exactly the type of man who haunted my pathetic, lonely single-mom dreams.
My belly had swirled with heat and a shiver of excitement at the idea that maybe my future, now that I was home, might include something beyond motherhood, endless study, and hard work. Something decadent and delicious just for me. Now that I’d have my family’s support while I was going to school, maybe there’d be time for a little dating, at last.
When his warm, steady gaze made its way across the room to me time and again, setting my face on fire, I finally leaned over to whisper in Ruby’s ear.
“Who is that tall guy with Zach? He keeps staring at me.”
“Who? Phoenix?” She laughed. “Yeah, he changed a lot, hey? And surprised the hell out of us all when he showed up at the reunion last week.”
“I don’t remember anyone named Phoenix,” I said, mentally scrolling our grad class list.
Her reply turned that thrill of attraction and hope into a solid wall of fiery dread. “Oh, that’s just a nickname he picked up in The Navy. You knew him. I’m pretty sure you took honours math together,” Ruby said. “You used to talk about him sometimes. Had a really rough family situation? His real name’s Peter. Peter Corbin.”
In a nanosecond, everything I knew—about my past, my present, and most certainly my hopeful future—irrevocably changed.
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