Chapter OnePortland, Oregon, March 2006
"So, I'm stuck, is that what you're saying?" Kristen balanced her cell phone between her ear and shoulder as she leaned back in her desk chair and felt a headache coming on. Though time was definitely running out, she'd held out hope that her friend Aurora had found someone else to be in charge of the damned twenty-year reunion. "No one's willing to take over the job?"
"You were the valedictorian. If you didn't want to head up the reunion, you should have gotten at least one B, okay? Like in PE or calculus or something." Aurora Zephyr laughed at her own joke and Kristen imagined her toothy smile and knowing hazel eyes. Aurora was the one student at St. Elizabeth's that she'd really kept up with over the years.
"If I'd known this was coming up, I would have."
"Fat chance. Now give up the whole glass-is-half-empty thing. It's going to be fun."
"What's got into you? There was a time when you knew how to have a good time. Remember?"
"Good time ..." Kristen murmured skeptically.
"You're just going to organize a big party for kids you knew way back when. Get into it, would ya?"
Kristen sighed and leaned toward her desk. "It's just that I've tried to avoid anything to do with St. Elizabeth's."
"I know. Because of Jake. We all feel that way. But it's been twenty years, for God's sake. Time to get over it. Bury the past and lighten up."
"I can try."
"Hallelujah and amen, sister," Aurora said and Kristen smiled.
"I've already rounded up quite a few volunteers," Aurora added. "Remember Haylie Swanson?"
That psycho who believed that Jake killed Ian Powers? She wasn't likely to forget. "She'll be there?"
"Yep. And Mandy Kim. Her last name is Stulz now."
Mandy Kim. Another girl Kristen hadn't trusted in high school.
"We've got a few others who will show up. I just told everyone to spread the word. The more people involved, the better. I even called Lindsay Farrell and Rachel Alsace, but they both live too far away to help out."
"I know." Kristen still received annual newsy Christmas cards from the women who were supposed to have been her best friends.
"Lindsay's some hotshot event planner in New York and Rachel's ... geez, wait a minute ... I know this ..."
"She's in Alabama. A cop."
"That's right," Aurora agreed slowly. "Like her old man. He was with the Portland Police Department for years."
Kristen felt the muscles in the back of her neck tense. Mac Alsace had been one of the detectives who had worked on the Jake Marcott murder. Despite his and the Portland Police Department's best efforts, the "Cupid Killer" case had ultimately gone cold. Kristen had heard that Detective Alsace's inability to solve the murder of his kid's friend had driven him to an early retirement.
Jake Marcott's ghost haunted them all.
Kristen hadn't seen either Lindsay or Rachel since graduation. She remembered them in their caps and gowns, all surface smiles and unexplained tears. The day had been warm for June; Kristen had sweated as she waited to give her valedictorian speech and later, accepted her diploma from Sister Neva, the Reverend Mother. After the ceremony, she'd found Lindsay and Rachel. They'd hugged, posed for pictures, and sworn to keep in touch, but they hadn't. Not in that first summer before college, not afterward.
Because of Jake.
So many things had changed, because of Jake.
Kristen leaned forward in her chair to watch the aquarium screen saver on her computer monitor where an angelfish was being chased through lengths of sea grass by a darting neon tetra. "Aurora, you should be running this reunion, not me."
"No way. You're not weaseling out of it! I figured I could jump-start it for you, but the reunion is your baby."
"Fine," Kristen capitulated. "Why not? Believe it or not, I've done some work. I've got a couple of places who will cater, if we really elect to have it at St. Elizabeth's."
"It's perfect. We were the last all-girls class to graduate and now the school is closing. It would be weird to hold it anywhere else. I did a quick poll of the first few classmates I contacted and the general consensus is to hold the reunion at the school."
"If you say so."
"Good. I'm sending you an e-mail with an attachment. It's everything I've done to date. From there on in, you're in charge. See you in a couple of hours."
"You got it."
Kristen hung up, popped a couple of aspirin for the impending headache, then buried herself in her work, effectively putting anything to do with St. Elizabeth's out of her head as she polished a human interest story about a man and dog who had spent a year walking from Missouri to Oregon via the Oregon Trail. Once she'd e-mailed the story to her editor, she glanced up from her cubicle. The Elvis clock mounted on the temporary wall over her desk swivelled its hips. As the clock kept time, the King's hands moved around the old-fashioned dial. Right now, Elvis was pointing out that it was nearly six and Kristen, as usual, was running late. She checked her e-mail, found the note from Aurora, and printed out an Excel file which contained more information than she'd ever want on her classmates.
Slinging her purse strap over her shoulder, Kristen stood up and stretched. She'd been allotted this cubicle while one of the newspaper's more roomy offices was being remodeled. She'd been with the Portland Clarion for fifteen years, long enough to actually warrant an office-a dubious honor given that it felt as if the "higher-ups" scarcely noticed her.
"I'm outta here." Kristen closed her laptop, placing it and her Excel printout inside her computer briefcase.
"Big date tonight?" Sabrina Lacey asked, two cubicles over, as she tossed back the remainder of her double espresso, then crumpled the paper cup in her long fingers and discarded the remains into her wastebasket.
"Yeah, right." Kristen scrounged in her purse for her keys and, once the huge ring was found, headed for the door. Sabrina joined her as she wended her way through the labyrinthine desks, tables, and chairs of the Clarion's newsroom. It had been her first job out of college, the one she thought she'd use as a stepping stone to bigger and brighter newspapers. Though her position had changed over the years-stretching, evolving, mutating-it said something she wasn't sure she wanted to examine that she was still here.
"You should go out," Sabrina, all big brown eyes, cornrows, and metal jewelry, insisted. "Find a guy. Have some fun."
"I'm married, remember?"
"You're separated, have been for a year, and last I heard, you were going to divorce Ross's ass." Sabrina arched a perfect eyebrow.
"I know, I know. It's just hard."
"Nuh-uh. I've done it three times."
"Maybe it'll get easier after the first one."
"You'll never know unless you try." Sabrina stopped at the hallway leading to the restrooms.
"I've got a kid," Kristen reminded her.
"Who's nearly grown."
Kristen snorted. "Sixteen does not an adult make."
"You tell her that?"
"Every day. Besides, I do happen to have a date tonight, only it's with half a dozen women I haven't seen in twenty years. I got drafted into heading the damned high-school reunion."
"Drafted," Kristen stressed. "I didn't volunteer."
Sabrina wrinkled her long nose. "Can't you go AWOL?"
"I'm hoping to pawn the duties off on someone more deserving tonight."
"Good luck." Sabrina laughed and moseyed down the hall.
Kristen shoved open the glass doors of the newspaper offices and a blast of frigid air, smelling of the river and exhaust, rolled toward her. Dark clouds gathered over the spires of Portland's highest buildings, and as she hurried the two blocks to the parking lot where her beat-up Honda was waiting, the sky opened up. Flipping up the hood of her jacket, Kristen made a mad dash to her Honda. The car looked as tired as she felt, and the fun was just beginning.
Kristen shook her head in disbelief. For her, high school had ended that night at the Valentine's Day dance. The remainder of the school year had been a blur that hadn't become clearer with time. But, apparently, one of the perks of being valedictorian of the class was that she got to organize the class reunion.
She'd managed to duck this responsibility for nearly twenty years, but no more. Aurora was making certain that this anniversary of the graduating class of '86 would be celebrated.
The only good news was the hope that she could pass the baton for the next reunion. If there was one ...
Sliding behind the wheel, she rummaged in her purse for her cell phone. Starting the Honda with one hand, she speed dialed her home number with the other. On the second ring, as she turned on the wipers, her answering machine clicked on. "Lissa?" she said as soon as the recorded message beeped at her. "If you're there, answer, okay?" A pause. Nothing. "Lissa, are you home?" But there was no breathless response; no sound of her daughter's voice. Obviously she wasn't home. "Listen, if you get this, call me back. I should be home in twenty minutes." She clicked off, punched in the number of her daughter's cell phone, and heard, "Hi, this is Lissa. You know what to do. Leave your number and, if you're lucky, I'll call you back."
Kristen hung up. Her daughter was undoubtedly screening her calls. Caller ID could be such a pain. "Great," she muttered under her breath as she nosed her car out of the lot and settled into the slow flow of traffic that oozed out of the downtown area. She was ticked that her daughter wasn't home. Didn't that kid know what "You're grounded" meant? Hopefully, Lissa would show up before Kristen had to leave again, in what? Less than an hour? "Save me," she whispered, thinking of the evening to come and the first of what would probably be a dozen meetings of the reunion committee.
Never reaching a speed even close to twenty miles an hour, Kristen edged west onto Canyon Drive, which sliced through the steep, forested cliffs of the West Hills. Her route cut under the Vista Avenue Viaduct, more commonly referred to as the Suicide Bridge, and each time she passed under that arching eighty-year-old stone span, she thought of those who had leapt to their deaths on the very pavement on which she was driving. Shuddering, she watched the fat drops of rain drizzling down her windshield as she reached the turnoff leading to her house. She punched the accelerator and her little car climbed up the hill, along an impossibly winding side road that snaked through the stand of Douglas fir trees to the crest and the tiny dead-end lane that stopped at her house, a cedar-and-glass "Northwest Contemporary" that had been built in the 1970s and boasted a panoramic view of the city far below.
Tonight she would have loved to throw on her most comfortable sweats, light the fire, and curl up by the windows with a good book. The last thing she wanted was to leave home again to deal with some of her ex-classmates. She could do without their exuberance to connect with friends, enemies, and unknowns after twenty years of virtual silence. Nothing sounded worse.
As she reached her house, she suddenly realized how wrong she'd been: the reunion meeting was not at the top of her "things I don't want to do" list. That first, dreaded spot was reserved for dealing with her soon-to-be ex-husband. And it looked like she was about to have the pleasure of another face-off with him as well. Ross's monster of a black pickup was blocking the drive.
"Give me strength," she silently prayed as she parked her car across the street.
The day was quickly sliding from bad to real bad.
"Perfect," she muttered under her breath. She sent up another quick plea for patience in dealing with the man she'd married during her sophomore year in college. It had been a rash, hasty decision, one she'd come to regret. If not for their only child, the now "out of cell range" Melissa, the entire marriage could be considered a colossal mistake.
She just hadn't had the guts, heart, time, or energy to end it.
Neither, it seemed, had he.
No divorce papers had been filed.
"More fun to come," she whispered under her breath as she grabbed the mail from the box. With her orange tabby nearly tripping her, Kristen made her way through the open door of the garage, past the lawnmower, ladders, and recycling tubs to the door leading to her kitchen, where, big as life, Ross was seated at the nook cafe table, sipping one of her light beers and reading the paper.
Just as he'd done thousands of times during their years together.
Wearing a white shirt with the top two buttons undone, his sleeves rolled up, his tie tossed casually over the back of a chair, he scanned the business section. His wallet and keys were on the table.
"Been here a while?" she asked as he looked up, his gray eyes, as always, assessing.
Her heart did a funny little glitch. Even after all the years, the fights, the differing paths of their lives, she still found him sexy. Her downfall.
"I thought I'd take Lissa to dinner. She hasn't shown."
"Just like that?"
She was stunned. "Did you consider calling?"
"Yep." He took a swallow of his beer and leaned back in his chair to stare at her. "Thought better of it."
He lifted a shoulder. "I figured you might try to talk me out of it. Or, if I got your okay, then I'd have to go through the whole thing all over again. This seemed easier."
"So you just let yourself in?"
"Still own half of the house. Got my own set of keys." Those damned eyes skewered her, challenging her to argue with him. Kristen decided not to rise to the bait. She didn't have the time or energy to argue.
"Where is she?"
"I thought you'd know." He stretched, his shoulders and arms tugging at the seams of his shirt, the black hair at his nape a little too long and ruffling over his shirt collar.
Uneasiness crawled through Kristen's blood. "Lissa was supposed to come home straight after school."
"You told her that?"
"Oh, yes." The ugly scene this morning was fresh in her mind. They'd argued, the gist of it being that Lissa was furious with her mother for finding the progress reports from the school. Even though the envelope had been addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ross Delmonico, Lissa had considered the contents about her failing grades to be no one's business but her own. She'd thrown a fit and refused breakfast. Her eyes, so like her father's, had snapped gray fire and she'd half run out of the house to catch a ride with her boyfriend. "I grounded her because of the progress reports from her school," Kristen explained.
Ross waited, eyebrows raised, for Kristen to continue.
"She's flunking chemistry and German." Kristen picked up the progress reports from the dining room table and handed them to him.
"Flunking?" he said, eyeing the page with the teacher comments.
"She claims it's all a big mistake, that the teachers haven't entered a couple of grades, so I told her to get everything fixed and have Mrs. Hanson and Mr. Childers call me, send me notes, or e-mail me. So far, I haven't heard from either teacher, so I figure until the grades are up, she's going nowhere."
"Isn't that a little Dickensian?"
"You got a better idea?" She didn't need a lesson in parenting from a man who for years was a ghost in the marriage, spending all of his waking hours working. When Ross didn't reply, she said, "I didn't think so."
"She still going to school with Zeke?" Kristen nodded, and Ross said maddeningly, "Doesn't sound much like grounding to me."
"I was running late and-" Kristen stopped short, clenching her teeth. She glared at him. "Why am I explaining this to you? It's not like you were around to drive her."
"Your decision, not mine," he reminded her in that irritating way of his. That much was true. She'd asked him to move out and he'd complied. Now he shifted on the chair to face her and she noticed the square cut of his jaw, still as strong as it had been when she'd met him nearly twenty years ago.
"Okay, let's not go there. The blame game doesn't really work."
Damn the man. Was that a twinkle in his gray eyes? Was he finding some humor in this impossible situation?