At first Chase didn’t recognize the elegant blonde standing across the room. In heels, she was a head taller than her two companions. The updo added to her height. Her cream-colored dress stood out among all the bright colors. A necklace shimmering at her throat looked like real diamonds even from this distance.
He could not place which of his former classmates she was. Then she looked over his way and their eyes met. He recognized the class valedictorian, Brooke. She used to wear glasses, but she wasn’t wearing them tonight.
“Who is that beauty?” It was Nate who asked. Nate, who flirted with every girl who would give him the time of day, but few did. There was something about the one labeled class clown that annoyed most women. But he’d been a good friend to Chase in high school, even though they did not associate in everyday life now.
Nate gave a low whistle. “Geeky Brooke? The valedictorian?”
Logan nudged Chase. “She doesn’t look geeky tonight.”
Logan was the friend who’d convinced Chase to come tonight. He’d said it would be good for Chase to see how everyone else had let themselves go in the fifteen years since they graduated.
“You haven’t let yourself go. You should be proud to be here.”
Proud was not the word Chase was feeling right now. Awkward would be more like it. The suit jacket was too tight. He’d worn it for Logan’s wedding five years ago, before he began lifting weights again. He hadn’t realized how poorly it fit until he put it on tonight. At least it wasn’t too tight across his stomach, he thought wryly, a problem that many of his former classmates seemed to have tonight, Nate and Logan included.
His gaze wandered back to Brooke. She didn’t appear to be comfortable here, either. Brooke glanced their way again and blushed. No wonder, they were all gawking at her.
Chase turned away. “I think we embarrassed her.”
Nate fidgeted. “I can’t wait until they get the band going, so we can ask the ladies to dance.”
Logan snorted. “You know all the women are going to want to dance with Chase.” As Nate glared at him, Logan clapped Chase on the shoulder. “I can see the way they’re looking at you tonight.”
Chase wanted to escape the stares. Just because he had been the most popular guy in high school didn’t mean he was comfortable being the center of attention tonight.
“I didn’t come here to dance.”
“Maybe you should ask Brooke. She would dance with you, I’ll bet.” Although Logan said the words with a grin, he added, “I’m serious. Go for it. You’re both single now.”
Nate elbowed Logan. “Hey, I’m single. I’m going to ask her.”
“She’s not going to dance with you, class clown.”
Nate crossed his arms over his chest. “She’s not going to dance with you, either. You’re here with your wife.”
“Speaking of which—” Chase nodded in the direction of Logan’s wife. She was smiling at them and walking their way.
Logan gave a low whistle. “Doesn’t she look gorgeous tonight?”
Paige did look gorgeous, in a figure-hugging black dress with a sequined bodice.
“You’re looking good,” Nate said.
Paige barely gave Nate a glance before turning to Chase. She tilted her head to the side as she studied him. “How are you, Chase?”
He shifted his feet. What could he say? That he was uncomfortable? Wishing he was anywhere but here? Chase pasted on a smile. “I’m fine.” From the way her eyes narrowed, he guessed that she didn’t believe him.
“It must be hard being here without Lisa.”
Chase felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Lisa. Cheerleader, homecoming queen. His high school sweetheart and his wife.
Two years after she passed away, her betrayal still stung.
Brooke had decided to come to the reunion at the last minute. Fortunately she had this dress from a fundraiser she’d attended a few years ago. No one needed to know it wasn’t new.
The late July evening was hot, so she had styled her long blonde hair in an updo, not wanting to feel the sweat on her neck. Her feet were screaming in protest at being strapped into high heels.
She’d debated on wearing the diamond necklace. Carl had bought it for her when he made partner in the law firm. He’d told her the diamonds represented the dreams they’d accomplished; his partnership, a beautiful home in a great neighborhood, and a prestigious private school for their two kids.
All of that came crumbling down the day of the plane crash that killed Carl and his father. Brooke had sold their home, moved in with her mother-in-law, and managed to keep the kids in the private school.
That all changed this summer. She’d decided to live life on her own terms. In June, she’d moved back to the small town where she grew up. She was renting a house from her parents, and her kids would be going to public school this fall.
Still, she’d had a successful life in Detroit. Wearing the necklace tonight was a reminder to her former classmates of her success.
Now she realized the dress and necklace were too fancy compared with what the other women were wearing. That was probably why people were staring at her.
She tried to focus on what Megan and Barbara were talking about.
“Two of the best-looking guys in our class right there,” Barbara said. She nodded towards Chase and Logan. “And Nate,” she added sarcastically.
“I’m surprised to see Chase here tonight,” Megan said. “I didn’t think he would come now that Lisa is not here.”
Barbara smiled coyly. “I was hoping he would.”
“He’s not ready to date again, I heard.” Megan was the source of information on anyone in their small town. If Brooke wanted to find out what a former classmate was doing, she only needed to call Megan.
The thing was, Brooke very rarely cared about what anyone in their graduating class was doing with their life. She had not fit in back then, and she could tell she did not fit in tonight, either. She never should have let Megan talk her into coming.
“You never know.” Barbara lifted her shoulder. “A few drinks, a few dances. Anything can happen.”
Megan frowned. “You’re not the only one who has their eye on him tonight. He looks even more gorgeous than he did in high school, and that’s saying something.”
Brooke laughed and shook her head. “You two are as bad as you were in high school.”
“You had a crush on him, too,” Megan reminded her.
“Didn’t everyone?” Brooke glanced over towards the object of their conversation. Chase had grown even more handsome with time. His broad shoulders filled out the suit jacket he was wearing. He apparently kept in great shape. His hair was still thick and wavy, unlike the two classmates who were standing beside him, both with thinning hair.
His gaze locked on hers. Her heart skipped a beat when he smiled. She blushed and looked away.
Barbara pressed her lips together in a tight line. “He’s got his eye on Brooke, anyway. It’s that understated elegance that everybody is noticing.”
Megan looked down at the strapless yellow and black dress she was wearing. She tugged the bodice up. “I’m afraid my dress is saying ‘desperate.’”
The class president stood at the microphone. “Good evening. Glad you all could make it tonight.”
“Speech, speech!” Nate called out.
“I’ll save the speeches for the valedictorian. Doesn’t she look great tonight?”
Brooke’s cheeks flamed. She wanted to escape from all the stares that came her way.
“Of course, the girl voted most beautiful couldn’t be here with us tonight. We’re sorry to hear that Lisa passed away. Chase, you have our sympathies.”
Now all of the attention focused on Chase. He looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole in the floor and disappear. She knew how he felt.
The class president went on with his announcements. “We’ve got Shay Stevens with us tonight. Do you all remember him? He is a DJ with the number one oldies radio station in Chicago, and he has agreed to play some music for us tonight. Not that we’re old, right?” Laughter went around the room. “I’ve got my wife here with me, tonight. Come up here, honey. She wasn’t in our graduating class, but if she had been, I know she would have rivaled Lisa for homecoming queen.”
His wife waved, looking embarrassed. “We’ll start off the dancing. Don’t leave us out here alone on the dance floor, though. Also, the bar is open tonight. Beer and wine are on the house. Hard liquor and mixed drinks are cash basis. And yes, the bar accepts credit cards, for anyone who is paying child support and can’t afford to drink.”
Across the room, Nate lifted his hand. “That would be me.”
Megan turned away and rolled her eyes. “He’s such a jerk.”
When the music started, couples moved onto the dance floor, Logan and his wife among them. Leaving Chase where he was, Nate started to walk their way.
“What is he doing?” Megan hissed. “I can’t stand him after what he did to his wife.”
Brooke patted Megan’s shoulder. “And to you. Remember prom night?”
“Worst night of my life.” Megan shuddered.
Brooke recalled the phone call from Megan sobbing. Nate had parked on a dirt road and tried to have sex with her. Her stepbrothers had taught her self-defense. She’d kneed him in the groin. He’d cursed and driven her home.
Barbara smirked. “Don’t worry, I think he has his eye on Brooke.”.
That was what Brooke was afraid of when Nate came to a stop beside her. With her natural height and heels, Brooke stood a few inches taller than him.
“Looking beautiful, ladies.” He gave his best charming smile, but it had no effect on Brooke.
Megan glared at him.
“You have some nerve coming over here.”
“What, can’t we be friends?”.
“Let’s let bygones be bygones.” His eyes held a warning.
He looked at Brooke. She squirmed uncomfortably at his admiring glance. “I came to ask Brooke to dance. What do you say?”
Brooke tried to think of a good excuse not to dance with him. She was embarrassed that he had singled her out. “I don’t think so. I’m not much of a dancer.”
He looked disappointed, but not surprised.
“Anyone else?” His gaze passed over Megan and landed on Barbara.
She shrugged. “Why not? I’ll dance with you.”
Megan’s mouth fell open. “Barbara? You’re kidding, right?”
“You will? Right this way, then, sweetheart.” Nate took Barbara’s elbow and led her towards the dance floor.
“I’m not going to stand around being bitter,” Barbara said over her shoulder.
Watching them go, Megan put her hands on her hips. “So I’m standing around being bitter?”
Brooked patted Megan’s shoulder. “You’re not bitter. Well, not towards everyone. Just Nate.”
“True. And Barbara loves to dance. We were the wallflowers.” Megan’s voice held a wistful note.
Brooke’s throat tightened as she remembered the high school years of being passed over. “At least you got invited to prom.”
“By Nate, and look how that turned out.”
“Still, no one asked me to prom.”
“That was because they thought you were too good for them.”
Brooke flinched as though Megan had hit her.
“Ouch. Why don’t you say what you really mean?”
“I need a drink. How about you?”
“I could go for an iced tea, if they have it.”
“Still don’t do alcohol?”
Brooke shook her head. “Never developed a taste for it.”
“See, you are too good for them.” Megan linked her arm through Brooke’s. “Maybe tonight is the night to let loose and live a little.”
Brooke followed Megan over to the bar. Megan ordered a glass of wine, and Brooke ordered iced tea.