Reunited (The Love You Left Behind #1)

BOOK: Reunited (The Love You Left Behind #1)
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Reunited

BOOK ONE

 

 

 

A Love You Left Behind Novel

 

 

ANNIE KELLY

 

This is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2016 Annie Kelly/Kelly Stultz

All rights reserved.

 

For Josh

 

 

“in a world

full of

temporary things

 

you are

a perpetual

feeling.”

 


Sanober Khan

 

 

 

 

 

PRESENT DAY

 

 

 

Cassandra

 

I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking coming here.

Nervously, I tap my manicured nails on the counter of the Waterfront Hotel’s check-in desk. I glance down at my phone’s screen, black and empty. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Carter, my fiancé –
can I even really call him that anymore?
– rarely texts when he’s at work, even when we’ve had a fight. Even when I left this morning without saying goodbye.

Sure, he knew I was heading to our fifteen-year high school reunion, but you’d still think he’d want to give me a hug or a kiss. Hell, even a handshake at this point would be a welcome change from the sporadic digital interactions we’ve been using these days.

“Mrs. Kline?”

I glance up at the desk clerk who is helping me and shake my head. “It’s Erickson.
Miss
Erickson.”

She gives me a predictably confused look.

“The room was booked under my fiancé’s name, on his card,” I say by way of explanation. “He was supposed to be here with me.”

“Oh, of course. Well, we’ll just need to see some identification and then you’ll be all set.”

I dig my license out of my handbag and present it to the girl, then glance over my shoulder at the impressive lobby around me. The hotel itself is swanky. I’ve been to a few academic conferences for work that were in accommodations this nice, but I wasn’t expecting this to be so formal. A high school reunion isn’t exactly high profile.

There’s a crystal chandelier suspended beneath a panel of skylights and the sun is practically captured and reflected on every surface. The opulent leather banquette seats and mahogany furniture scream luxury.  On the far left side of the room, I see the entrance to the highly recommended spa. If I’m going to be here, alone, for the entire weekend, at the very least I can manage to work a couple treatments into my schedule.

I keep glancing at people as they check in with the handful of other clerks or pass by the desk, wondering if they’re former classmates and I just don’t recognize them. Fifteen years feels like a lifetime some days. Other days, it feels like yesterday.

As the girl helping me continues to punch my information into the computer, I tap my passcode into my phone and pull up Facebook. I have to admit that I’ve been doing some pretty legit social media stalking since I’d RSVP-ed to the reunion invitation. I was already friends with a lot of people I went to school with, but I hadn’t paid much attention to what they were doing or where they’d ended up. Many of my former classmates are still living in the same Virginia county or very close by. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me – small town life has a way of reining you in and not letting you go. Carter’s work is the only thing that ultimately took us north.

But for the last week, my standard operating procedure has been to click on one profile - the same person’s profile every day, to check out any new posts or updates, to see any new pictures. Every time I do it, my heart is in my throat, as though I’m doing something illicit. Something exciting and a little wrong.

So, I do it now, again, for the fourth or fifth time today.

I tap the screen and Jay Shumaker’s face fills the small profile square. Every time I see that face, it’s like I’m shot back into my senior year, just before graduation, when he and I spent one glorious night together at a party I’d never expected to attend.

After going our very separate ways – I attended college and Jay joined the military – it wasn’t until the last few years that I’d even known where he’d ended up. It’s one of the nice things about Facebook, frankly.  You get to find out the details of your old life and your old acquaintances despite the distance. There are a few friends I’ve managed to reconnect with since hopping on social media.

But Jay?

No, I’ve been far too nervous to actually talk to him, to even comment on his status updates or his photos, despite the fact that I’m the one that friend-requested him in the first place. I know that he has two small girls and that he’s been divorced for two years. The truth is that I spend more time looking at his page than anyone else’s. It’s something I wouldn’t admit to unless forced.

Carter would probably flip the fuck out if he even knew we were Facebook friends. He’s accused me of cheating on him for years –with students, with colleagues, even with our mutual friends. I’ve never once given him any reason to worry, but the accusations have piled up over the decade and a half we’ve been together.

“Ma’am?”

I look up at the desk clerk, who hands back my license with a smile.

“You’re on the seventh floor – it’s second from the top, and one of the best views of the harbor.”

I smile back at her, although it’s a little forced, then smooth a hand over my black pencil skirt. I came straight from my last course of the day, a creative writing seminar that’s both incredibly challenging and really rewarding. I’ve always liked teaching a lot, but it wasn’t until I started teaching college that I learned how much I enjoyed getting out of the house and away from my computer for a few hours a day. As an author with a handful of novels under my belt, it’s good for me to get some fresh air and adult interaction.

I stow my license back in my bag, then wheel my small suitcase from the desk to a bank of elevators. I look myself over in the mirrored doors. I think if someone from high school saw me, they’d probably still recognize me. I mean, sure, I’ve aged. I’ve got a few lines around my eyes, a few stray grey hairs that have appeared over the last year or so, but I essentially look the same as I did.

Same brown hair, dark and shiny, that falls below my shoulders. Same clear blue eyes and fair complexion that burns in just about any sun exposure. Same bad habits of chewing my nails and biting my lip and generally losing confidence in myself when I have to promote my work. My fashion’s a little better – my cashmere sweater and Jimmy Choos are something my parents never could have afforded to buy for me. Not to mention the diamond hoops in my ears or the (frankly) ostentatious rock on my left hand.

But in other ways, I know that I’m completely different. I’m not as innocent as I used to be. Certainly not as naïve. Living with Carter has given me all kinds of insight into how the world really works. The girl my classmates knew is only present in the most basic ways. The rest of me? She’s cut from completely different cloth.

I press the UP button and readjust my laptop bag, which is sort of perched on top of my suitcase. As I wrap the strap around the handle, the doors open in front of me and I struggle to pull my bags into the large elevator. Once inside, I’m half-holding my luggage and punching the button for my floor with one fist when a voice calls out for me to hold the elevator.

“Shit – sorry, hold on,” I say, pushing the button to reopen the doors. They stay open a few seconds and a man wearing dress slacks and a pale grey shirt strides inside. He’s carrying a duffel bag that’s clearly military issue. When I glance up at his face, I freeze.

Suddenly, I’m eighteen years old all over again. Suddenly, I’m at a house party my senior year of high school, lying half-naked on Peter Moore’s parent’s bed. I’m giving myself over to pleasure for the very first time. Giving myself over to the younger version of the very man standing before me.

“Wow. Hey,” Jay Shumaker says, his chocolate brown eyes wide with surprise. Maybe pleasure. I’m honestly not sure. At this very moment, I’ve forgotten how to breathe, let alone speak.

 

Jay

 

I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking coming here.

In fact, I didn’t even RSVP to the invitation until maybe two days ago. It wasn’t until my boss heard I was blowing off my reunion that he practically ordered me to go.

              “Sir, with all due respect,” I say to Company Commander Perkins, “I really don’t want to risk the possibility of running into my ex-wife or her new fiancé. It’s not worth the hassle.

Perkins is my direct superior at Fort Bragg, where I’ve been stationed for the last eight years of my Army career. He’s no-nonsense and that’s something I usually appreciate. The higher ups who waste my time with politically correct nonsense and a personal agenda can fuck right off.

But today, the Company Commander’s persistence is pretty goddamn annoying.

“Sergeant, I’d rather not have to
order
you to take some time for yourself, but I will certainly do it if that’s what it takes.”

I clear my throat and attempt to choose my words carefully. Disrespect wouldn’t be tolerated, but no one is going to force me to go to my fucking fifteen-year reunion. Hell, since when do those even exist? I thought it was ten and twenty years as a rule.

“I’d really prefer to use my time to prepare to deploy, sir. There’s less than a month until we ship out.”

But Company Commander Perkins has already moved back behind his desk and started shuffling his papers, a clear sign that the topic is no longer open for discussion.

“Shumaker, I’m expecting a full report on Monday about your reunion. Argue with me any further and I’ll make you write it out.”

I swallow back a groan, then give him a curt nod before exiting his office. When I make it out into the hall, I have to force myself not to punch something. I clench my fists at my side and stalk back to my desk.

“Everything all right, bro?” Kenneth, one of the other intelligence analysts in my unit, takes one look at my face and immediately knows I’m pissed. I shake my head as I log into my email and pull up the invitation to the reunion, sent nearly four months ago.

“Fucking Perkins has basically ordered me to go to my fucking high school reunion,” I mutter under my breath.

Kenneth snorts a laugh, but stifles it when I shoot him a glare. I click on the email from the reunion committee and start filling in the embedded response form with my information.

“When’s the reunion?”

I exhale hard and lean back in my desk chair, turning to face Kenneth.

“This weekend. I was so hoping to skip this shit. I guarantee my ex-wife will be there and that’s some fucking drama I do not want in my life.”

“You graduated high school with Diana?” Kenneth asks, brow raised.

I nod. “Yeah. Married her pretty soon after I got back from Iraq the first time. She’s definitely going to show up at this shindig – she wouldn’t miss a chance to show off her new man and her fake tits and her bullshit.”

He nods thoughtfully. “Yeah, but I mean – high school, man. Think about it. Aren’t there any other people you’d actually like to see?”
              I shrug and turn back to my computer.

“I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone. Haven’t really wanted to.”

The truth is that after three deployments to the Middle East, I can’t really imagine having much in common with the mostly privileged, mostly upper-middle class former classmates I used to hang with on a daily basis. I know the world and it’s darkest places in a way that civilians just couldn’t fathom. Sometimes talking to them feels like a useless exercise, and one that I try not to expose myself to that often.

“But what about the chicks, man?” Kenneth waggles his eyebrows suggestively. “There’s gotta be some pussy that’s still viable.”

I don’t say anything to that. I’m too busy logging into Facebook. I start scrolling through my newsfeed, scanning the various status updates by former classmates I haven’t seen in person in years. I can act like this is a random thing, like I’m not looking for anyone in particular, but that’s total bullshit. When I don’t see her in the feed, I give up and click over to my friends list. After a few scrolls down, I find her.

Cassandra Erickson.

We only shared one night in high school, just before graduation, but it was fucking epic

But, after that, I never saw her again. I left for basic training at the end of that summer, then for Korea six months after that. It was in Iraq a year later when I hooked up with Diana online. We’d dated on and off in high school and I thought she might be the woman for me – the one who could silence the rocket fire in my head, who could pull me back to earth when my memories sent me spinning out into nothingness.

When I got back from that deployment, we married quickly, as is commonly done in the military. But three years ago, Diana got restless. When she met her now-fiancé, she conveniently left out the fact that she was married in her description of her personal life. I was away on TDY when she packed up and left me a “Dear John” letter. She was moving north to Pennsylvania to start a life with Rick – or “Prick,” as I like to call him. She wouldn’t go after my retirement if I paid her an ass load of alimony. I told her where she could go – specifically, to fucking hell.

I move my mouse indicator arrow over Cassandra’s photos, her status updates, her bio. She’s a college professor now, something that probably suits her. She was always a good student in school. She also writes – books, I think, and maybe some poetry or something. She’s got multiple degrees and she lives in a DC suburb and she is so fucking out of my league, it’s insane.

And the worst part – she’s engaged. To Carter-Fucking-Kline. I never would have seen that pairing coming. He was one of those dude-bros from high school that surrounded himself with his buddies and beer and basketball. The three B’s in this case. Add on to that the scads of chicks he slept with and handful of sports he’d lettered in and that pretty much summed up his entire high school career.

But now he seems to be really goddamn successful. He’s a lawyer in DC. I’m not friends with him on Facebook, but I can see the basics of his page and it looks like his days are filled with lifting at the gym, duking it out in court, and heading out to ritzy-ass dinners I couldn’t afford in a million years.

Cass, though? It’s like she’s not even living the same life he is. Mostly she’s got posts about writing or cooking or her students or her pets. No kids. Not many pictures of her with Carter, save a photo from a wedding that she has in her past profile pictures.

So, yeah. I’ve stalked the shit out of her page.

But as I look at her picture now, I search her face in the photo, a professional headshot from one of her books. Her eyes are as clear blue as ever and she’s smiling, but the happiness doesn’t seem to reach her eyes at all.

“Yeah, maybe,” I finally say to Kenneth, who has already moved on to whatever report he’s working on today. I exit out of my Facebook page, then look over the information I’ve inserted into the reunion sign-up form. I push submit and the screen clears.

Fuck, I hope I don’t live to regret this.

But when I’m dragging my ass out of bed two days later for Friday morning’s PT, I’m beginning to have legit second thoughts about going. I can guarantee my ex-wife will be flouncing around with her fat-ass diamond ring and smug fucking smile. She is the last person I need to see on a weekend of free time.

I sprint my requisite miles and hit the showers, already hell-bent on blowing off the entire thing. But something stops me as I look in the mirror while I shave. I used to be looking at a kid every time I stood in front of the sink. He was cocky on his best days and isolated on his worst. He was good at soccer, decent at math, horrible at writing. He was raised in a normal, middle-class family – the oldest of three boys – and he had no idea what it meant to fight for what you believe in. To be willing to die for the rights you hold close to your chest.

But the man I am now?

He’s a completely different person than the kid who went to school with these people, these strangers I only knew when they were children. While it’s certainly possible that some of them haven’t changed much, I would imagine most of my classmates feel the same way I do – completely transformed.

I rinse off the last of the shaving cream and squint at my reflection. My hair’s a little too long for the Army’s liking and my eyes have dark circles beneath that I never managed to get rid of, even after I started sleeping through the night again after getting back from Afghanistan this last time. I wonder if anyone would even recognize me if I walked through a crowded room of my former peers. I bet I could even stay incognito if I fucking wanted to. Throw on a clean dress shirt and slacks and saunter on through like I own the place, then decide if sticking around is really worth it at all.

After work, I sign out on weekend leave. Whenever I cross state lines, the military requires me to notify them – a measure I’ve never had a problem taking before. Today though, it fucking annoys me. I like the idea of taking off on my own with no one knowing where to find me. For the last fifteen years, the Army’s been able to track my every move.

              But as I close in on coastal Virginia and the Waterfront Hotel, my F-150 chugging gas like it’s its fucking job, I realize that this is the first time I’ve taken a trip by myself since Diana and I split. I’ve headed to the beach a few times for the day and to see my dad and his new wife down in Georgia. But this is the first time I’ve actually gone on a road trip, alone, and headed to a location that doesn’t involve something the Army’s roped me into doing.

              It’s pretty fucking liberating, truth to tell.

              But, as I pull into the parking garage of the Waterfront Hotel, I’m wondering if an entire weekend at this hotel would really be necessary. There’s a fancy cocktail hour tonight and a dinner tomorrow, but otherwise I don’t have any plans. It’ll just be me, a television, and a mini-bar. I know from personal experience that combination isn’t always a smart one.

              Walking through the lobby, I immediately feel out of place. I hate that fucking feeling – the shit where you know something’s too rich for your blood. If I could be, I’d be rocking jeans and a t-shirt right now. No question. Still, as I check into my 7
th
floor room, I’m looking forward to a little bit of luxury in my world. I’m so used to frozen dinners and late night television. A departure, even for a weekend, will at least be a good change of scenery if nothing else.

              I heave my duffel bag over my shoulder and head toward the elevator. As I approach, I can see the doors begin to close and I call out for the person inside to hold it. Mere inches from closing, it stops and reopens. I step inside and turn to thank them.

              And then everything stops on a fucking dime.

              She looks the same. Like, so damn similar to the girl I knew, the girl I touched for one brief night at the end of high school. How is it possible to go  back in time in a single instant?

Right now, seeing Cassandra Erickson in the hotel elevator, staring up at me with the same wide eyes as her eighteen-year-old self, I am catapulted back to a place I never imagined I’d travel to again…

             

             

 

 

 

                           

BOOK: Reunited (The Love You Left Behind #1)
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