Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61922-577-0
Print ISBN: 978-1-61922-914-3
[ Romantic Comedy, MF ]
She’s home to make amends. He’s out to get a little revenge. But the heart he breaks could be his own.
“Thank you, dahlink,” Melina Kyaskova cooed when Court handed her a double vodka on the rocks. She took an appreciative sip. “Ach. I do not want to give this up when I start training. But Hans is ferocious.” She referred to her trainer, Hans Ashenbach. “No drinking all season.” She sipped some more and gave Court a devilish grin. “But, of course, what Hans does not know he cannot be ferocious about.”
Court grinned. “True.” He took a sip of his drink. Far less vodka than Melina had insisted on combined with lemon-lime soda. As her agent, he liked to keep his wits about him during their meetings. Melina was also practically his next-door neighbor. She’d purchased a double lot behind his in the gated community just outside Atlanta. Her much larger spread included a tennis court and a guest house.
In a different generation, Melina would have been a part of, if not the leader of, that elite, high-powered group known as the jet set. As it was, she’d climbed to fame on the professional tennis circuit and broadened her fan base by making headlines for her fashion choices, clubbing and the number of rock-star hearts she’d broken.
Melina was one of his biggest clients, certainly his most famous, and Court liked to keep her happy…within reason. Like most women of his acquaintance, Melina was happiest when she got exactly what she wanted.
“I wish to start fashion line,” she said.
“You mean clothes?”
“Ach. You are such a man. Of course I mean clothes. I have reputation for fashion in this country. I can make money from selling my clothes.”
“What about tennis?”
Melina waved a hand in dismissal. “I play maybe one—two more years. Not for rest of my life.”
“This clothing line…you’ll be designing it?”
“No. I will hire designer. Designer will do what I tell him to do.”
Court knew it was best to tread carefully when it came to her new interests. “Uh,
Melina, I’m no expert, but I don’t think that’s the way most designers work.”
“I hire. I pay. Designer work for me. Do as I say. Make clothes way I want.”
“I’m sure you’d have some input, but a professional designer—”
“Will do as they’re told because I am boss.”
“You’ve talked to designers? Have you hired someone?” “I looking for right person.” Melina held out her empty glass.
Court set his almost full one on the coffee table and went to the bar. “I have an idea,” he said as he returned and handed her a fresh drink. “I know someone who designs. She’s super talented. She might be just who you’re looking for.”
Melina raised an eyebrow. “Who is this?”
“I went to high school with her.” Court considered the possibility of seeing Jolie here in Atlanta instead of hundreds of miles away in New York. Maybe what he needed was to renew his exposure to her to build up his immunity. Maybe then he could finally get over her. He couldn’t say Jolie was the one who got away because he’d never really had her. She was, however, the one he’d always wanted. Still wanted if he was being completely honest with himself. “Hang on,” he told Melina. “I’ve got some sketches of hers.”
He knew exactly where they were, too. How sad was that? A few weeks ago he’d reorganized one of the guest room closets, which he used mostly for storage. After his last trip home his mother had insisted he take a box of his stuff with him or she would throw it all out. Among the high school yearbooks and photographs, he’d found a folder filled with Jolie’s discarded sketches.
She’d been impatient with what she considered her less-than-perfect efforts and tossed aside as many drawings as she kept. Court, who had no artistic talent whatsoever, had always been impressed with her ability to transform lines and swirls into a dress or a jacket or pants.
He’d made a career using his talent to spot that kind of talent in others. Jolie had started him on that path. He’d always been convinced of her design talent even when she wasn’t.
She’d loved wedding dresses and those sketches were his favorites. For years he’d been trying to erase the vision of her walking down the aisle toward him wearing one.
Once he’d learned Jolie would be attending their ten-year high school reunion he decided it was now or never. Ten years was way too long to still be hung up on a high school crush. He had to prove to himself he was over her.
He retrieved the folder and handed it to Melina. She leafed through the pages, giving them critical attention, before she closed the folder and set it aside. “No. Is not what I’m looking for.”
“What! How can you say that?”
“Is too girly.”
“Too girly? Aren’t you designing clothes for women? Do you mean it’s too younglooking?”
“No. Too…” Melina struggled to find the right word in her second language. “Feminine? Dainty? I want—how you say? Harder edge. Tougher. Um, meaner.”
Court chuckled at the idea of mean clothes. “I understand. I haven’t seen this girl in ten years but I probably will in a couple of months. Maybe she’s toughened up. If you haven’t
found anyone by then maybe she can design some mean clothes for you.”
Melina glanced at the folder, her doubt on full display. “Maybe.”
After Melina left, Court spread Jolie’s old sketches out on the coffee table and gave them a closer look. He hadn’t been wrong about her. He’d recognized her raw talent.
He stepped back from the table and realized what he had was a collage of sorts, something that represented the start of his own career. After admiring it for a moment he decided it might look good framed.
“I can’t believe you’re going to your high school reunion,” Val said to Jolie. “It’s so… Midwestern of you.”
“Want to come?”
Jolie chuckled. Valentino Gonzalez, who rarely allowed himself to travel west of the East River, sprawled in a chair in the corner of her bedroom and leafed through her yearbook. With each page he turned he passed judgment on yet another of her former classmates. “Ugh, look at this hair. Someone should have told her plaid is not a good look on her. Oh, honey, get some contact lenses.”
“I’m sure your graduating class was filled with nothing but runway models and budding fashionistas.”
“My class at Glenwood Boys Academy wore matching blue blazers and red bow ties. We were all absolutely divine as I recall.”
“Uh-huh.” Jolie sorted through her underwear and nightclothes, putting those she wanted into the open suitcase on the bed.
“I found you!” Val exclaimed. “Weren’t you the busy bee?” He put his finger on the page and read aloud: “Varsity cheerleader; Drama Society; French club.” He glanced up. “You speak French?”
“Oui, oui, monsieur.”
She turned to the closet as Val continued to read. “Homecoming court; Prom queen.”
He snorted. “Prom queen? How did I not know this about you?”
Jolie laid several items on the bed and began to slip them off their hangers to fold. “I don’t believe you ever asked.”
“There must be pictures.” Val began turning pages until he found them. “Oh. My. God! Look at you! You were a fairy princess amongst the trolls.” He studied the picture. “Your design?”
Jolie made a face. “Of course.”
“I love it.”
“You love everything I design.”
“Yes, but you were only what? Seventeen? Eighteen? Even then you had talent. Good thing you got out of that burg when you did, before the trolls ate you alive.”
Jolie silently agreed. She had escaped Oak Ridge, Illinois, but she hadn’t escaped the person she’d become while growing up there. This trip, she’d already decided, was about making peace with her past, her parents and anyone else she should have treated better or appreciated more.
“Who’s Courtney Harrison?”
Jolie stared at Val as a kaleidoscope of images spun through her brain from childhood to high school graduation.
“Jolie? You okay?”
Jolie snapped out of her memories. “He was the boy who lived next door.” She turned back to the closet and pretended to rummage through her clothes again even though she had everything she wanted.
“He wrote an entire page in your yearbook. The guy worshipped you.”
Jolie returned to the suitcase with two pairs of shoes and focused on wrapping them and tucking them into side pockets.
“Jo-lie,” Val singsonged.
“Tell me about the boy next door. Please?”
When Val smiled like that, Jolie found it hard to refuse him anything. He was the most divinely good-looking man she’d ever met. His bedroom brown eyes melted hearts everywhere. Men either envied him or lusted after him and women wept when they learned he was gay. “I’ll tell you,” she said. “But I’ll need a glass of wine first. Maybe two.”
Jolie gazed out the window of the 727 and tried to put her thoughts in order. Before
last night, she’d never discussed her relationship with Courtney Harrison with anyone. She hadn’t wanted to examine that self-centered, seventeen-year-old self too closely. Even Val, who knew her probably better than anyone, had been mildly shocked by her behavior.
“Quite the bitch, weren’t you?” He’d used a teasing tone, but he spoke the truth, neatly defining her behavior with Courtney in five words.
“I was horrible to him,” Jolie admitted out loud for the first time in her life. “Do you think he’s forgiven me?”
“Let’s see. He was in love with you. You broke his heart. You’ve avoided him for ten years and you’ve never apologized. I’m sure he’s fine.”
Jolie stared into her wine glass, not wanting Val to see how painful this conversation had become.
But Val was highly intuitive about such things. “Come on. It was high school,” he reminded her gently. “I’m sure he’s matured in the last ten years.” Val’s gaze softened on her and he tugged on a lock of her hair. “You did, didn’t you? You’re no longer that self-centered teenager. You’re sweet and kind—”
Jolie giggled. “I am not.”
“—sexy, sophisticated, smart and talented,” Val continued, ignoring the interruption. “I couldn’t be best friends with a snotty bitch.”
But Courtney had. He’d looked past all her faults back then and saw something more underneath. Jolie squirmed in her seat, knowing that was what frightened her the most. The boy next door had known her better than anyone. And had loved her anyway.
Jolie parked in front of her parents’ white two-story house. Home, she thought as a bittersweet longing swept through her. Memories of her childhood warred with her desire to be anywhere but here. You can’t go home again. That phrase had been running through her head for a long time.
But she had to go home. She had apologies to make and things to set right—assuming it wasn’t too late.
She’d attend her ten-year high school reunion and stay for a week beyond that. Ten days in all before heading back to her job as a fashion stylist, dividing her time between New York and LA. Back to churning out her monthly column for New York Style magazine. Back to the grind, the pressure, the deadlines. Back to the emptiness of it all.
Unless the negotiations to design a ready-to-wear line for a superstar tennis player came to fruition. Jolie was afraid to count on it, though. Still, she’d phoned her attorney just in case the contract came through while she was away. She knew better than to jinx things by saying anything to anyone until the ink was dry and it was a done deal.
She rummaged in her purse for her lipstick and glanced at the house once more. The sheer curtains were draped criss-cross over the front windows just as they’d always been. The porch still held the swing, the wicker furniture and her mother’s potted plants.
Nothing had changed. Being back in Oak Ridge, Illinois was like stepping into a time warp. The town itself, the cracks in the sidewalks she’d stepped over every day on her walk to elementary school. Joe’s Ice Cream Parlor. Torelli’s Pizzeria. Even the house she’d grown up in on Wildwood Lane.
“Nothing’s changed. Except me,” she told her mirrored reflection as she checked her hair. She lifted the highlighted strands, fluffing and combing them with her fingers. She gave up and stuck her tongue out then grinned at her reflection. Traces of the child Jolie had been still showed up every once in a while. She’d spent too much time trying to look perfect, trying to be what others expected. It was only recently, in the last year or two, that she’d come to realize she didn’t like the woman she’d become, that she’d lost herself somewhere along the way.
It had been a long road back to finding out who Jolie Kramer really was. Who she’d been all along beneath the façade she’d created, a canopy that kept her safe while it kept others at a distance.
“Not anymore,” she told her reflection as she touched up her lip color. It had taken a long time to find herself, but now that she had she couldn’t go back to that hiding place.
She opened the car door and smoothed the fabric of her rayon and spandex dress. Even though she knew it was what was inside that counted, it was still comforting to know she could look like a million bucks.
Well, what else did she have to do in her spare time lately but work out? After Jeff’s death, during more than a year of self-reflection, she’d found exercise to be a soothing antidote to her often troubling revelations. Val was her workout buddy, her drinking buddy, her shopping buddy. He knew when to keep his mouth shut and when to hit her with hard truths she’d rather not see.
She smiled as she approached the front door of her parents’ home. For the next ten days, she could pretend to be a teenager again, with no adult worries, no thoughts about the future. Her biggest problem could be what it had never been in high school—not having a date on a Saturday night. She thought of all the Saturday nights she’d wasted in pointless conversation or meaningless sex. I was blind. But now I see. She repeated that mantra to herself whenever she felt the need for self-reproach. Mistakes were the greatest teachers. She’d go forward now and try not to make the same ones again.
She opened the door and felt tears prick her eyes when she saw the familiar furniture. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the windows. The scent of lemon Pledge lingered on the air. Home, she thought again. She’d never looked at it quite this way, or appreciated it quite so much. It was silly to get all emotional because the living room sofa was still the same, wasn’t it?
From the vicinity of the back porch she heard voices. Her parents and others. Had her mother planned a surprise party? She crossed the living room to the kitchen and opened the back door.
“Jolie! I didn’t hear you come in.” Sue-Ellen Kramer popped out of her seat and embraced her daughter. Jolie was aware of the others assembled, but for the moment she closed her eyes and returned her mother’s hug, breathing in Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew mixed with Suave hair spray.
“Hi, Mom,” she managed to choke out, suddenly filled with emotion.
When her mother let go, her father Martin took his turn, holding himself a bit awkwardly and patting her shoulder as he always did.
“Jolie, sweetheart, it’s so good to see you.” Becky Harrison from next door, her mother’s closest friend, stepped up for her turn. Jolie had always liked Becky and her husband George, who also offered her a quick hug.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a party. Just old and dear friends.
There was someone else, though.
The seas parted as the others stepped aside and all Jolie could see was him. She knew she was staring and knew she shouldn’t. Her stomach did an odd little flip-flop as her eyes ate up all six feet plus of his physique, grayish-green eyes and dark wavy hair. He looked like a stranger, yet so familiar at the same time.
She took a step forward and then stopped, trying to regain her equilibrium. “Courtney?” No. No way. This could not be Courtney Harrison, George and Becky’s son. The Courtney Harrison who’d befriended her in childhood and worshiped her until they’d graduated high school. This man had never been the gangly kid with the buck teeth and thick glasses who’d doted on her every day of junior high, seemingly immune to her subtle put-downs. He couldn’t be the kid she’d practiced her feminine wiles on during early adolescent, or the one she’d laughed at when he’d mistakenly taken her experimentation seriously. Back then he’d been an even nerdier version of Clark Kent.
He smiled and she got a glimpse of perfectly aligned teeth and strong lips. Where were the crowded teeth? The braces? The headgear?
“Most everyone calls me ‘Court’ these days,” he said as he came forward. “It’s good to see you again, Jolie.”
He put his arms around her. Jolie’s head swam as she caught a light whiff of citrusy cologne. Her spine tingled and her toes curled before he stepped back.
Clark Kent had turned into Superman, complete with the stray lock of hair that fell over his forehead.
“Wow!” Had she said that out loud? “It’s, uh, good to see you, too.” Everyone chuckled and sat back down.
Was it her imagination or did Courtney—Court’s gaze linger on her? He relaxed back into his seat and sipped iced tea, but Jolie felt attuned to him nonetheless, even as she engaged in small talk with her parents and their friends.
With one part of her brain she tried to analyze her reaction, while outwardly she kept up with the conversation. In truth, she felt shell-shocked and longed for the retreat of her childhood bedroom where she could sort out the feelings Court’s embrace had churned up.
She watched him laugh at a story her father told, noted his long manly fingers curved around his glass, the breadth of his shoulders and the depth of his chest. She felt herself flush as her mind traveled elsewhere while her gaze lingered on the parts of him not covered by a dark blue shirt and khaki slacks.
Had she been twelve or thirteen when she’d convinced him to practice kissing her? Not that she’d had to try too hard to convince him of anything back then. He’d been her willing slave, hopelessly smitten with her since the third grade. She could still remember the touch of his lips against hers, and when they’d progressed to open-mouth kissing, the prickle of his braces.
He’d been crushed when she moved on to a real boyfriend and ended their practice sessions. But not so crushed he wouldn’t help her with her algebra homework or her science projects.
Courtney Harrison. She’d used him her whole life, even going so far as to spend the night of their senior prom with him in her twisted quest for male attention.