Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. She has been published in several anthologies, as well as BioStories, Gravel Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Literary Orphans, Write City, Indiana Voice Journal, Crannog Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review and many others. Her work has won prizes at Women on Writing, The Writing District and Owl Hollow Press. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. You can find her on Amazon Author Central as well as Facebook as Sharon Frame Gay-Writer.
Ashley breezed into the apartment, tossing her scarf and handbag on the hall table, footsteps light on the thick carpet.
"Hey, Mom" she called, heading for the kitchen, opening cabinets, poking through the pantry.
Clare called out from the living room, setting aside the newspaper, smiling at the thought of her daughter home for a while. It's been too long, she thought. Too many years since Ashley had gone off to college, then studied architecture in Paris, only coming home once or twice a year, and when Joseph died two years ago. Since then there was plenty of silence here. Clare was overjoyed when Ashley chose a firm in Boston, moving home for a while until she could get on her feet and find a place to live.
"How was work today, Ash?" Clare sat on a leather stool at the granite counter, winding her feet around the legs, stretching out. Ashley stood across the room, guzzling a small bottle of orange juice, bouncing up and down on her toes, the way she did when excited. It had been two weeks since starting at Biggs, Barton and Malloy with two other new apprentices, all three sharing an office and rotating between architects, hoping to be assigned to one who suited them.
"Good, Mom. Interesting, too."
"Oh," said Clare. "In what way?"
"Well, a man there says he knows you from way back in high school. His name is Jake Edwards, and I was chosen to work with him. Do you remember Mr. Edwards? Pretty nice. Handsome, too."
Clare felt her breath catch, her hand a little unsteady. Jake. "Well, sure, I remember Jake. He was quite popular in school. That was a while ago."
Ashley talked about this and that. Jake. How he was one of the best contemporary architects in the firm. She was going to learn a lot from him. Oh, and he was single now just like you, Mom, and really was pretty handsome. Clare listened intently, interested and yet repelled, the way one might look at a spider that skitters across the floor.
"Are you home tonight for dinner? I made chowder and corn bread." Clare walked across to the pot on the stove, gave it a light stir.
"Nope, I'm going out with Lisa and Charles. It's Friday night, remember?" Ashley danced out of the kitchen into her bedroom, the sound of the shower and music drifting down the hall.
An hour later, alone again in the living room, Clare allowed herself to remember. Jake Edwards. The first boy she had ever loved. Handsome. Popular. Unavailable to a girl like Clare. The small country high school in Iowa was light years away from her townhouse in Boston. Jake was a ghost. A ghost who haunted her even after all these years with Joseph. Maybe you never forget your first love, she thought. Many spoke fondly of their first boyfriend, their first affair. For Clare, it was different. Feet up on the couch, nestled under a blanket, Clare allowed herself to remember.
Clare rode the school bus each morning from the farthest edge of town. The part of town with weathered shacks, unpaved roads, acres of soil. Her dad managed a farm there, working long hours, his face weathered from years in the sun. Claire's mother worked in the cafeteria at school, her worried face peering out from the net around her forehead, scooping potatoes or corn on to the students' plates, cleaning up afterwards.
When Clare first walked into Newsome High, she felt completely alone. She hadn't met any of the students yet. This was her junior year. They moved from Des Moines to Newsome when a large farm hired her father. Clare simply didn't fit in. Her dove gray eyes searched the halls, looking for her locker, study hall, the library. Mom brought her here when the school was empty a couple of days ago. Claire was fairly confident then that she could find her way around, but now it seemed insurmountable. She was twisting the dial on her padlock when a booming voice said "Hey, neighbor." She peered up into brown eyes, wide grin, and the chest and shoulders of Jake Edwards.
"Looks like we live next door to each other" and introduced himself.
Clare smiled back, dipped her head, rummaged through her locker.
Clare did not know Jake's name, how popular he was in school. He sat with kids who were the movers and shakers, but Claire didn't belong in that circle and had few friends at school. Jake found the time each day to said hello to Clare when they met at their adjoining lockers and flashed her a smile.
The other kids barely spoke to Clare. She didn't have the cute clothes or hairstyles like the rest of the girls. She had one pair of flats and one pair of tennis shoes for gym, and that was it. The plain black shoes had to work with everything she had. Clare often wore her mom's old sweaters, buttoned up the back, and switched her only three skirts from black to white to blue every other day, no stockings, even in the dead of winter. Her one coat was ragged at the wrists, tired looking, but warm. She sat in the back of the classroom, keeping her head down. Nobody spoke to her, and Clare didn't initiate conversation.
Only Jake talked to her. Sometimes he stuck around after class, teasing and cutting up, talking about the day and asking her about hers. He was the only reason why she even came to school, she thought. Her feelings mounted for him every day. On weekends she moped around the house, counting the hours until Monday when she saw him again. Clare begged her father to drop her off and pick her up after the home football games on Friday nights. She sat in the stands with the other kids and cheered and chanted, but her eyes were only on Jake. It felt special, just knowing him.
One Monday afternoon, as Clare was getting ready to find the bus, Jake appeared at the locker.
"I saw you in the stands Friday night" he said, and she nodded. "Good game, wasn't it?" he asked, then started embellishing on the highlights, the catches, the runs, the score.
Clare studied his face, every nuance, every gesture. When he stopped talking for a minute, it was as though Clare had been in a trance. She looked around furtively, but knew with a sinking sensation that the bus was already gone.
"Oh, crap," she muttered.
"What's wrong?" Jake asked, peering in his locker for something.
"Nothing. I just missed my bus, that's all. No problem."
But it was a problem. Home was at least 10 miles away and Dad was still at work with the car. It was going to be a long walk home.
Jake slammed the locker door. "No big deal. I'll give you a lift."
"Really? I live pretty far away."
"It's okay" he said. "Follow me."
Clare floated home in Jake's old Chevy, laughing at his jokes, joining in while the radio played the Supremes. It was just like a fantasy.
"Hey Clare, you live way out here near Turtle Tree on the creek," Jake said.
"I never heard of Turtle Tree. What is it?"
Jake slowed and took a right hand turn down a dusty road. "Here, I'll show you."
They drove along for a mile or so, then he pulled the car into a turnabout on the side of the road, a creek right below them. Jake and Clare walked down to the water. A tree had fallen across the narrowest part, and on that tree, sunning themselves, were dozens of turtles. When the turtles heard them coming, they slid off the tree one by one, a waterfall of turtles. Clare laughed in delight. She took a step closer, then slipped and started to slide into the creek, arms pin wheeling. Jake grabbed her arm and hauled her back to the bank. Clare latched on to him, her heart pounding as Jake held her close. When she looked up into his face, he lowered his head and brushed her lips with his. They stood there a long time, kissing gently, his arms holding her against his chest, her knees weak, soul soaring.
It became a ritual after that. At least one day a week after school, Jake drove Clare home, stopping at Turtle Tree, where they talked, laughed, and necked. When the weather grew cooler, they sat in the car, fogging up the windows. Sometimes Jake talked about the future and where he was going after graduation. Clare listened with a heavy heart as he talked about the sports scholarship to the State University, and clutched him even tighter when they kissed. Eventually Jake began to touch her breasts, stomach, thighs. One thing led to another until his fingers found their way under her panties, moist with desire. Clare tentatively touched him too, shy at first, then boldly. They never went any further. Jake didn't asked her out on a date, nor did she come to the school dances. Clare had no way to get there, and only heard about it on Monday mornings from the kids at school. She cherished their moments by Turtle Tree and wished time would stop marching endlessly towards spring.
Jake asked Cindy Spaulding to the Senior Prom. Clare was relieved. Her family had no money for a fancy dress, and she didn't know many of the other students. The school and all the kids and their relationships simply didn't fit into Clare's world as she was left out of their social life completely. For her, the world existed only in the back of an old Chevy along the creek.
Clare scrimped and saved every penny to buy Jake a pen and pencil set for his graduation. The day of the commencement, she hitch hiked to the high school, a terrible risk, but didn't want to miss seeing Jake in his cap and gown, eyes shining as the seniors strutted into the auditorium. There was a party afterwards. Nobody had invited her. It was enough for Clare to see him from afar. He never knew she was there.
Jake was working that summer at a local gas station, and two days later Clare tentatively walked up to the garage, and asked for him. He was startled to see her when he stepped out from behind a car.
She peeked up at him, suddenly shy, and said "I have a gift for you, Jake."
"No way" he grinned." Thanks. Hey, wait a minute. It's Friday night. I'll be off in about two hours. Why don't we go for a burger?"
Clare waited for Jake at a picnic table behind the station, watching cars go by on the rural road, counting the clouds, catching her breath every time Jake came out of the garage to fill someone's tank. He always gazed over to the table, then smiled, as though checking to see if she was still there.
When he was through for the day, Jake drove them into the next town to a drive in and parked. The car hop brought them burgers, fries and icy root beer. Clare thought this was the best day of her life. Jake opened the gift, smiling at her.
"I'll be needing these for sure. Thanks, Clare."
On the way home, Jake turned up towards Turtle Tree, even though it was now pitch dark. He killed the engine, then turned to her, reaching in the darkness. They came together hard, more intense than ever. His fingers sought the wetness between her legs, and he growled.
"Let's get in back."
Clare nodded, her breath coming in short gasps. Jake placed her gently on the back seat. She was so tiny, he thought as he buried himself in her hair, kissing her neck, stroking and probing until neither one of them could breathe. Before Clare knew it, her panties had been removed, and she felt his penis pushing against her, warm and insistent. He entered her, and she cried out in pain.
"Stop," she cried, trying to scuttle away from him, but he did not stop. He kept pushing and pushing until she felt like she was being cut in two. In a mighty thrust, he cried out, then collapsed, moaning, stroking her hair.
"That was good" he grinned, but sobered when he saw that she was crying. "What's wrong?"
"It hurts so much. I think I'm bleeding." Clare sat up, her whole body racked in pain.
"Are you okay, Clare?"
"No, I think...I think you need to take me home."
He helped her into the front seat, then gunned the engine.
"Wow, hey, I'm sorry if I hurt you. I figured you were ready for it. You sure have been asking for it, for months now. Don't tell me you were a virgin," he snorted playfully.
Clare stared out the window into the darkness.
"Oh my God, you were, weren't you! I got your cherry! Wow. Hey, I'm sorry. I thought you were looking for a good time."
They rode the rest of the way in silence. Jake braked out in front of a worn mail box near her house.
"I don't know what to say. I'm sorry, I guess. But you've been all over me for close to a year now. And believe me, I liked it. I thought you wanted it. I didn't mean to hurt you."
Clare looked out the window, her hand on the door handle. He didn't say he loved her. He didn't say she was special. Jake didn't seem to care at all. Clare was shaking when she stepped out of the Chevy, and as soon as the door closed, he pulled away, the red tail lights the last she ever saw of Jake Edwards.
Two years later, while visiting relatives in Des Moines, Clare was introduced to Joseph. He was five years older than her, working at an insurance firm. There was an instant attraction between them. For Clare, it was comfortable and soothing. Joseph was gentle and kind, always interested in her thoughts and feelings. It was no surprise when they married just six months later and settled in Des Moines. Two years later they had Ashley, finally settling in Boston. Joseph made his way up the ladder, becoming one of the top executives in the firm, allowing them all the luxuries and blessings they could imagine for over twenty five years, until cancer took him in his prime.
Now, looking out the window at the city streets, Clare sighed and turned towards her solitary bed, thinking that all this time in Boston, Jake had only been a heartbeat away.
Jake Edwards turned toward the office door as three young people walked in, the annual apprentices. He was to pick one to work with over the next several months, teach them the ropes, mentor them. The first thing that struck him was the girl in the middle, walking between two young men. Dove gray eyes, tall and willowy, boots that came over her knees and a short plaid skirt. Ashley Graves. Stunning, really, he thought, could have been a damned model. It was hard taking his eyes off of her. Over the next hour, the three hopefuls sat in front of Jake, while he gave the usual spiel about the company, what their intentions were, the benefits and expectations. The young apprentices asked the right questions, fielded his correctly, showed off portfolios filled with blue prints, drawings, their work. Ashley's portfolio was the weakest of the three, by a long shot. One young man had come all the way from Nevada for this opportunity and wondered aloud if he was ripe for the big city.
"I came from a small town, too. In Iowa", Jake smiled. "Don't let that intimidate you when you show your work. It really doesn't matter. All that matters is what you do."
Ashley raised her hand. "Where in Iowa are you from, Mr. Edwards?"
"Newsome?" That's where my mother went to high school! Did you know Clare Easton?"
Jack drew back. Of course. The grey eyes. Clare.
"Yes, I knew your mother" he said slowly, "but I don't remember too much about her," then changed the subject back to their portfolios.
An hour later, they were ushered out the door. Jake sat back down at the desk, shaking his head in wonder. Clare Easton. What a small world. And what a gorgeous girl her daughter was. Ashley seemed to light up from within. Her chestnut hair framed a lovely face and her enthusiasm was catching.
Clare was a little farm girl, who lived west of town, Jake remembered. She lived in a rundown shack, and her mother worked in the school cafeteria. Clare had the locker next to him and sometimes they talked. She used to sit in the stands and cheer him on during the football games, even gave him a cheap pen and pencil set that he tossed long ago. Poor shy thing. Dressed in rags, if he remembered, but her skin was soft as the finest silk. She was one of several girls he had slept with that year. His girlfriend Cindy wasn't putting out back then, but there were always horny girls willing to give it up to Jake and no harm, no foul, the guys always said.
Clare was a little different from the other girls, though. She didn't party with the rest of the kids and kept to herself. He remembered driving her home from school one day and one thing led to another. Before they knew it, it was a regular necking session, several times a month. She really wanted him, Jake thought. They hardly ever talked, or at least Clare hardly talked. She was content to hold him and kiss him and let his hands rove all over her, moaning and brushing up against him until he thought he would burst. She kept holding out, though, and it started to get annoying.
Finally one night things changed. Jake drove her out of town to a drive in, so nobody he knew would recognize them. The kids at school called her Rag Doll, after the Four Seasons song. It would be awkward if anybody saw them together. He bought her a burger, took her to their usual spot at Turtle Tree and things escalated. Then Clare cried out like she was in pain and told him to stop. It was too late, because Jake was already too far gone to pay attention. He couldn't stop if he tried, and when he finished he realized that she was crying. He could hardly believe that she was a virgin, after all those months of rubbing up against him! Huh. She doubled up into herself and wanted to go home afterwards. Jake drove her up to her crappy broken down house, she got out of the car, and that was the last he ever saw of little Clare Easton.
Jake was a little nervous for a month or so after that. His dad had warned him back then that a lot of girls try to get you to knock them up, then they want to get married. Clare seemed the type. But July and August came and went, and in September he was off to school.
Jake never thought of her again until just know. Clearly, she must have gotten married and lived a life here in Boston, he mused. And produced one hell of a good looking daughter along the way. His thoughts roamed back to Ashley again. She was decades younger, and the daughter of somebody he had a little fling with one night. Impulsively, he picked up his phone and told Jan, his secretary, to call Ashley and tell her that she would be working with him. Maybe he was an idiot, he thought. It had been really lonely lately, since the divorce a year ago. Cindy had followed him to college, they had gotten married right after graduation, and tried to have a family for years. No kids, though. Eventually they both realized that their marriage was crumbling, and it dissolved quietly into nothingness. Cindy was already seeing somebody else. Jake was dating a lot of different women, here and there. The rest of the day he thought of Ashley with her high boots and her short skirt. It probably wouldn't be a crime to date her, would it? Was it appropriate? Awkward? Against the company human resources rules? He barely knew Clare back then. It was high school kid stuff, right? No big deal. Small world...
Ashley loved working for Jake. She had learned more in the past month than she had in years. There was nothing more impactful than learning from a pro, not a textbook. And besides, he was pretty sexy, for an older guy. Her mind slipped that way once in a while. He was a lot older, but there was nothing wrong with that, and Ashley saw him steal a few glances at her legs, her breasts, when he thought she wasn't looking. It would be okay to date somebody in the office, she thought. After all, she was a short time apprentice. She might not even end up in this firm. They would have to offer a job. She might not take it. You never knew. Wait and see, and in the meantime, life was good. It was great coming to work every day. One of the other apprentices, James, was nice too, and they hung out together at lunch a lot. Ashley liked the possibilities. She liked the job. It was all pretty damned cool, really. Who knew how this whole thing could play out.
Monday afternoon, Ashley was working a little late, going over a set of blueprints. There was a light knock on the door and she muttered "come in." It was Jake. He was all boyish grin and laughing eyes.
"Girl, what are you doing, working late? We don't pay overtime to apprentices, you know."
Ashley grinned back. "No, but I need to impress the boss."
"You already did." Jake stopped at her desk, ran his hand along the top, took a breath, then said "I was wondering if I could cook you dinner Friday night? My place?"
"Sure" she said, closing the portfolio and leaning towards him. "Sounds like fun."
"I'll send a car for you, then, say around seven?"
Tuesday morning, Jake picked up the phone in his office. "Jake Edwards here" he said, while taking his coat off, one arm out, the rest of the coat dangling on the other, trying to shrug out of it while holding the phone to his ear.
"Jake, this is Clare Easton Graves."
Jake froze, held the phone up closer to his ear. "Clare? Really? Well.. how are you?"
Her voice seemed so far away, soft, yet cold. "I understand my daughter Ashley is working with you right now."
He nodded into the phone. "That's right. Lovely girl. How the heck are you, Clare? It's been a long time."
Her voice clipped, colder. "I would very much like to discuss something with you today, if possible. Do you know the coffee shop about two blocks from your building? Java Joe's?"
"Sure." He got the rest of the coat off, let it fall to the floor, intrigued. "I'm open this afternoon, around three? Is everything okay with Ashley this morning? Is there something wrong?"
A soft sigh, then, "Jake, if it's all the same to you, I would like to talk with you first before sharing with Ashley that we are communicating. Okay?"
"Well, okay, Clare. I don't understand this shroud of mystery, but three o'clock it is, down at Java Joe's. I look forward to it."
She hung up without another word. Jake rubbed his chin and peered down from the window, as though searching for the coffee shop. What now, he thought. He felt uncomfortable. It was awkward, seeing Clare after all these years. Was she interested in him or something? That would be a real pisser. She didn't seem to care much years ago. It was just a high school screw, right? He spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about Clare, Turtle Tree, his last year in Newsome.
Jake was already at a table, nursing a latte, when Clare walked in. She was still so tiny, like a sparrow, but the clothes and hair were different. Adult. Mature. Worldly. Little Clare from the wrong side of the tracks walked towards him with an air of self confidence that wasn't there years ago. Jake stood up, reached down to brush her cheek with his lips, when she stuck out her hand instead. He shook it, peering down into those gray eyes and seeing nothing but turbulence.
"Sit down, Clare" he gestured. "It's good to see you."
She nodded and slipped into the booth, waving away the waitress, clasping her small hands together.
"I'll get right to the point, Jake. I understand that you have a date with my daughter this Friday night. I would like you to cancel it."
Jake drew back, surprised. "Look, this is no big deal. I like Ashley and want to get to know her better."
Clare cut him off. "Leave her alone, Jake. That's all I'm asking of you. As a favor to me."
Jake clenched his jaw, anger rising. "Clare, if I want to date your daughter, I don't think it's any business of yours. She's an adult, and so am I. Does this have something to do with the little fling we had way back in high school?" He looked at her, shook his head . " It is, isn't it. What the hell, Clare. We're grownups now. That was a lifetime ago. It meant nothing."
A sheen of tears graced those gray eyes. Clare swallowed hard, rose from the table.
"Nothing, Jake? It meant nothing to you? It meant everything to me."
She turned and walked away so fast Jake couldn't even rise up to stop her. He leaned back in the booth in astonishment. Where did this come from? A quick five minute screw in the back of his old Chevy and she's still upset about it? He ran his hand across his mouth. Stared out at the street. Tossing some bills on the table, Jake wandered outside, started towards the office, but turned left instead, and walked down by the river. Wow. If every girl he'd poked since he was a kid wanted to meet up and rag on him at a coffee shop, he'd be there for days. Who the hell does Clare think she is, manipulating a situation that has nothing to do with her, or the past. He softened a bit, though, remembering that little girl in rags down at Turtle Tree. She was a just a fling. Somebody to kiss because Cindy wasn't putting out. Clare opened up to him like a flower. It was fun. But beyond that, there were no feelings there. How on earth could she make something out of nothing at all? He decided not to go back to the office the rest of the day, but wandered the streets of Boston instead, trying to get a grip on things.
When Ashley got home Thursday night, there was a note from her mother, propped up on the kitchen counter.
"Hey Ash," the note read, "I left for the lake cottage for a long girlfriend's weekend with Shirley and Becky. We're going to play cards and air out the place, maybe get the boat out of dry dock and tool around. I won't be home until Sunday. You can reach me on my cell. Love, Mom."
Ashley blew out a sigh of relief. This was great. Mom needed to get out with her friends more, and it was easier for Ashley to go out to Jake's tomorrow night, maybe not even get home until Saturday, or if things went really well, Sunday morning. At least, that's what Ashley was thinking. She was attracted to Jake. A lot. One thing may lead to another. He might become her older, more worldly boyfriend. She loved the fact that he was so mature, so sure of himself, work, his place in the world. It was enticing. She'd never been with an older man before, and Jake was perfect. Even Mom would eventually approve. After all she knew him in high school, so she could vouch for him. It wasn't like he was some creepy older stranger. But, all in all, she was glad she wouldn't have to sneak in, all disheveled in the wee hours. Mom knew that Ashley was an adult, but it might be awkward walking in the door, looking like she'd just had sex. Yes, better all the way around.
Promptly at seven on Friday night, the town car driver rang Ashley's door bell. She took the elevator down to the lobby and settled into the limousine. This is the life, she thought. A grown man does this, not some young kid picking her up and dragging her along on foot or a seedy taxi. She could get used to this. The driver called ahead a few blocks before arrival, and Jake was standing on the sidewalk waiting, dressed in jeans and a soft green sweater. She liked what she saw. He handed her out of the car, and they took the elevator up to the condo.
"Wow, nice" she breathed, taking in the sights of the city below.
"Thanks" Jake said. "I designed this building. When I got divorced, I thought it might be a kick to actually live in one of these places. I don't do many residential designs, as you know. I'm enjoying the hell out of living here."
Jake guided her into the dining room, drew out a chair.
"Have a seat. Dinner is heating up." He laughed then. "I know I said I was going to cook dinner, but believe me, you wouldn't like it. My idea of cooking now is warming up take out in the microwave. It'll be up in a minute."
Ashley watched him disappear into the kitchen, then come back a few minutes later with some lasagna on two plates. He poured the wine, lit the candles, dimmed the lights. Very romantic.
The talk at the table was about architecture, and Ashley paid rapt attention to his disclosures, advice, his thoughts. He answered questions thoroughly, always going back to make sure she understood the different nuances. Jake kept refilling Ashley's goblet until her head felt a little light. They were on their second bottle, when she placed her hand over the glass. "Sorry Jake, I think I've had enough for now."
Jake rose then, pulled out her chair and they walked over to the coffee table in the living room. There were papers strewn about haphazardly. As Ashley sank into the soft couch, and Jake sat down next to her, she noticed that this was her own portfolio on the table.
"Is this my stuff?" she asked, fingering the pages.
"Yep", Jake said. "I wanted to point out a few things to you here. First of all, the biggest thing I have noticed is that you have a real knack for residential design. Actually, far more superior than commercial, if I can be honest here."
Ashley smiled. "You're right. I picture people living in the spaces I design and I pretend that there's a family and a dog, furniture and drapes. Gives me a complete feeling."
Jake nodded, moved a little closer, leaning across her to pick up a design. She smelled his aftershave, the soapy aroma of a clean shirt, could feel the warmth of his arm as he brushed across her breast. He continued to talk about the portfolio, all the while sipping lightly on his wine, touching her leg from time to time to make a point.
Jake turned towards her, as if to ask her something, their faces were inches apart. Slowly she moved forward. He did not back away. She brushed her lips along his jaw line, and he reached out, pulling her close, tilting her face up to him and placing his mouth over hers gently. Ashley responded, deepening her kisses. He drew her in even closer, now, his hand caressing her back, smoothing along her sides, her breasts, her collar bone. Moaning, Ashley laid back, pulling him down with her.
Suddenly Jake stopped, pulled back, looked deep into her gray eyes. "I gotta ask. Are you a virgin?"
Ashley laughed softly. "Hardly. I'm almost twenty-five. I even brought protection." She ran her hands along his legs, reaching between them, stroking.
Jake sat up abruptly, ran his hands through his hair. He took a deep breath.
"Ashley, I'm so sorry. You're a beautiful girl and I am intensely attracted to you, but this isn't why I called you over here tonight. I wanted to treat you to dinner for all the hard work you've done. And to tell you that when I noticed your talent for residential, I thought of Annie Collins over in our suburban office. She's practically running the place now. She's doing fantastic things with homes. When I told her about you, she jumped at the chance to mentor you. What do you think?"
Ashley sat up, bewildered. The wine and the kissing clouded her mind for a moment. She was a little confused.
"What? Do you mean you want to transfer me to the suburban office?"
Jake nodded. She thought a second, then brightened.
"That would be really terrific! I'd be working closer to home and not having to commute. I've heard great things about Annie. Wow, Jake, I love the idea!" And she did. Her dream of designing houses was coming true.
She sobered a bit, turning towards Jake, her hand on his thigh. "I have to ask, though. What about us?"
"Us? There is no us. I wasn't interested in a relationship, Ashley", he said bluntly.
'You could have fooled me, you old fart,' Ashley thought to herself. His eyes had been on stalks for weeks now, and she got all the sex vibes from him that emitted like a homing beacon. Oh well, forget it. James was better looking anyway.
"Let me get you a cab," Jake offered, and they both rose from the sofa, straightening their clothes. When he put her into the taxi downstairs, Ashley didn't look back. She was dialing Lisa to tell her the good news about her new position as an apprentice for Annie Collins. Lisa asked how the date went.
Ashley sighed. "It wasn't even a date, really. I thought he was hot for me, but apparently I got my radar wonky. That's okay. He's a little bit of an asshole. I'll have to ask Mom what he was like in high school. Like I said, Lisa, it's okay. Nothing at all."
Jake sank back down on his sofa, fingering the portfolio on the coffee table. Ashley was really a stunner. And he was wildly attracted to her. But it really upset Clare. He felt a tiny bit bad about their fling that summer, so long ago. She was such a quiet little thing. There were plenty of lovely women here in Boston. It was a small kindness to honor Clare's request. The least he could do, he thought. Not a big deal. None of it. No harm, no foul, as the guys said back then.
Clare sat on the dock in the moonlight, listening to the waves lap gently on the rocks. She had come out here alone. There was no girls' weekend. She needed this time to think. Looking out on the water, Clare saw a pair of loons paddling past in the soft glow of evening and wondered if they mated for life. Did one love the other more? Did they even care? Or did they just procreate in the weeds, along the banks of the lake, or in the back of a Chevy. A tear slid down her cheek.
She had married Joseph for life. He was a good man. They had carved out a solid marriage for themselves, filled with contentment. But throughout the years Clare thought of Jake, and how easily she had given her heart away to somebody who handed it back to her in ashes.
The moon was large, milky, slightly blurred through her tears in the night sky like the downy head of an infant.
There were two slender gold bangles on her wrists. She rubbed them thoughtfully. Under each one was a ragged scar. Joseph never asked what happened. Instead, he gave her the bangles on their wedding day, his eyes searching hers.
"You're safe now, Clare" he said, and she stepped into his arms.
In all those years, she never took them off. Now they looked like hand cuffs, binding her to the past, hiding the truth. Removing them, she kissed each wrist gently, then understood for the first time that they had healed on their own years ago.