One Starry NightOlivia Cunning
“Why did I come? Why am I here? I should have said no,” Michelle muttered under her breath as she pushed open the double doors and stepped into her old high school’s gymnasium.
She brushed her damp palms over the red silk at her hips and glanced around looking for direction.
She already wished she had followed her first instinct and avoided this event as if it were a contagious disease. She no longer had anything in common with these people. She still wasn’t sure how her once best friend, Dee Peterson, had talked her into attending their ten-year high school reunion. In her ten-year-old formal gown, no less. Like they were reliving senior prom all over again. She felt like a fool. She was pretty sure she was a fool. Why else would she have agreed to this?
The entire gym was decorated the way it had been ten years before—from the purple and silver balloons to the copious white streamers to the tinfoil-crafted stars taped to the walls and dangling from strings on the ceiling. The theme was written in purple across a huge white banner above the stage. One Starry Night. Who had thought this was a good idea? A prom revival? Really? Michelle struggled to keep her eyes from rolling.
She had been glad to leave the cliques of high school behind. She hadn’t known who she was back then, but she had a pretty good handle on what she stood for now. And she was no longer the scared little follower who’d done anything and everything Dee Peterson asked of her. Well sort of. She was here at Dee’s whim after all. Apparently, old habits died hard. But maybe she hadn’t come because Dee had pleaded with her. Maybe she’d come to see if her so-called friends from high school had become more interesting people or if they were still the same group of mean bitches she’d allowed to rule her social life all those years ago.
Michelle walked up to the reception table and hunted for her nametag among the dozens still there. She recognized several names, especially those belonging to the collection of jocks and cheerleaders who she’d once considered her best friends. One name in particular jumped out at her. He’d been somewhat of a jock—built like a tank in high school and, therefore, recruited by an enthusiastic football coach—but he’d spent more time with the choir geeks than his teammates. And considering he was now a singer, Michelle guessed he hadn’t had the same difficulty in knowing who he was, even in high school.
Sedric Lionheart. She was surprised he’d even consider attending. Michelle glanced up at the attendant. The smiling woman looked familiar, but even the name Claudia Bennett on her badge didn’t ring any real bells.
“Is Sedric Lionheart really attending?” He happened to be the most famous member of their graduating class. The lead singer of the metal band Sinners.
“He’s on the maybe list. Along with Jake Tremaine.”
Michelle’s cheeks went hot. She wasn’t sure how Claudia knew that she’d be interested in seeing Jake. Or more likely avoiding Jake. Jake—the guy who’d claimed her virginity, her sanity, her hold on propriety. Jake—the guy who’d fucked her body right and done her heart wrong. No one knew that she’d met him in secret under the boardwalk late at night or how hot that guy had once made her. Did they? How could they know? Neither she nor Jake had wanted their secret out. She was too goodie goodie to run with his crowd and he was too misfit to hang with hers, but dear Lord when they’d been alone together… There had been more than sparks between them. Their tryst had been an insatiable inferno. And she had definitely gotten burned in the end.
Michelle hadn’t seen Jake since graduation, when he’d pretty much told her he had better things to do than her. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to see him now. Part of her wanted to know what he’d done with his life. Another part was afraid those old wounds would reopen and burn her again. She’d been over him for a while now, but it hadn’t been easy. Their breakup had likely changed the entire course of her life. And, unfortunately, she’d yet to find a lover that made her burn the way he had, so she still compared all men to the guy. And, she couldn’t lie, that really ticked her off.
“Oh, I figured everyone already knew about the connection,” Claudia said.
Connection? That was a nice way to put it. Shit. Maybe Michelle should flee now before she made a fool out of herself over a guy she had never admitted to dating.
“Jake’s a roadie for Sed’s band,” Claudia continued. “So they’ll probably come together, if they come at all. I think Sinners is touring in Europe now.”
Michelle’s breath came out in a whoosh. So Claudia didn’t know about her affair with Jake. Not that it mattered much now, but in her popular-crowd teen years, she hadn’t wanted anyone to know how a troublemaking bad boy had gotten under her skin and between her thighs. And all the while she’d shamelessly worn her purity ring like the other virginal cheerleaders. She remembered being terrified of getting kicked off the squad and somehow that had made being fucked senseless while wearing that preppy cheerleading uniform all the hotter.
She found Jake’s badge in the lineup right below hers, but it was the badge resting above hers that she touched with bitter regret. Devlin McAllister. The sweetest boy she’d ever known. He’d asked her to prom in front of all her friends and she’d had to turn him down. None too gently, she recalled. If he’d have asked her in private, she’d have been more careful with his feelings. She might have even asked him on a date. Not prom—she’d been expected to go with the football team’s star running back and had willingly done her duty as vice squad leader and Dee’s fucking minion. But because everyone had been watching the scene and had heard Devlin ask her, she’d shredded him. And she still felt like a complete bitch for doing so. When she’d tried to apologize to him later, he’d avoided her. Not that she blamed him. She would have avoided seventeen-year-old-Michelle too. She’d been horrible to people. And not just to Devlin. It made her sick to her stomach to think of how mean she’d been to some of her classmates. Why had it taken her so long to grow a goddamned spine and stand up for what she believed in? She doubted she’d ever figure out the answer to that question.
“Was I ever mean to you in high school?” she asked Claudia.
The round faced woman shook her head. “I don’t think we ever crossed paths in high school. All I ever cared about was singing in the choir.”
“I’m glad I wasn’t mean to you,” Michelle said.
“You did make my best friend, Joan Carmichael, cry once.”
“I did? Is she here? I want to apologize to her for whatever I did.” Maybe this was why she’d really come. Not because Dee had begged her or because she cared what her co-bitches had become, but to make amends with everyone she’d ever hurt in high school. Michelle hoped she hadn’t done any permanent damage to anyone. She hadn’t realized how long a person could carry emotional scars. She had a few from Jake Tremaine that still pained her on occasion.
“Joan said she wouldn’t come to this thing for a million dollars,” Claudia said, “but I’ll tell her you’re sorry…”
“For?” Michelle asked.
“Telling her she was too fat and clumsy to be on the cheer squad.”
Michelle’s face went numb and she rubbed her lips with two fingertips. “I didn’t say that, did I?”
Fuck. She was sure she had. Dee had hand selected who she wanted on the cheer squad and had employed her friends to make the other hopefuls feel so bad about themselves that they didn’t bother to try out. It had worked for the most part. The only girl who’d been brave enough to try out against Dee’s wishes had been Phoebe Gates. She’d made the squad because the coach had recognized her talent, but she had never been welcomed into the group because Dee had never wanted her in the group in the first place.
“Tell Joan I was wrong. And I wish she wouldn’t have listened to me and had tried out anyway. I’m su
re she was good enough and no one had the right to make her feel otherwise. Not me. Not Dee Peterson. Not anyone.”
Claudia stared at her with wide eyes. “I’ll tell her. She won’t believe you actually said that, but I’ll tell her.”
“Is Phoebe Gates here?” Because Michelle wanted to apologize to her next.
Claudia shook her head. “I think Dee intentionally forgot to invite her.”
Michelle wondered why she’d ever called that woman her best friend. She didn’t even speak to Dee anymore and as far as she was concerned she never wanted to speak to her again.
“Mishy!” a loud and enthusiastic voice carried across the gymnasium followed by the rapid clicking of stilettos in her direction.
Michelle cringed. Never was apparently a very short span of time. Only one person called her Mishy and refused to stop no matter how many times Michelle told her that she didn’t like to be called that. It seemed she’d be unable to avoid speaking to Dee after all.
Michelle turned to find Dee standing uncomfortably close. “Oh, just look at you!” Dee squealed and smacked a kiss near each of Michelle’s cheeks. “Stunning as always. And in your actual prom dress.” She whispered close to Michelle’s ear, “None of the others can still fit in theirs. Not a single one of them. Can you believe they all let themselves go?”
“I see you were able to fit into yours,” Michelle commented as she scanned Dee’s perfectly maintained figure and the deep purple satin that encased it. The six-foot tall, willowy blonde still looked as svelte and athletic as she had when she’d been leading the cheer squad.
Dee slid her hands down her slim waist and rested them on her narrow hips. “My husband would divorce me if I let myself go,” she said and tossed her head to send long golden waves dancing about her shoulders.
Michelle struggled not to scowl. “Nice man you have there.”
“He’s such a wonderful provider. I have everything I want. Come say hello to the girls.” She whispered out of the corner of her mouth, “I must warn you. Most of them look like hell.”
So that’s why Dee had insisted on a prom revival. So that she could boast that she still fit in her prom dress. That her outer beauty hadn’t faded—yet—and she didn’t much care if her inner core was as rotten as ever. Dee never had recognized the worth of a beautiful soul and that obviously hadn’t changed. Wearing that dress and looking fabulous allowed her to brag and make others feel inferior to her. It’s how she’d once maintained her iron fist over the young women of the cheer squad, who had so desperately needed to belong—by giving everyone an inferiority complex. Including Michelle. She hadn’t recognized it in her youth. She’d been too naïve to see it. Michelle had always assumed Dee was just a bitch, but seeing her now made Michelle realize that Dee was a sad and empty person. Had she always been that way? Michelle wondered if she could get through an evening of dealing with the woman’s bizarre emotional needs. She doubted she’d tolerate it long. She didn’t have much patience for this kind of bullshit anymore. She’d seen too much of the world and its true horrors to tolerate First-World pettiness. And that’s exactly what this was: pettiness.
“I don’t keep slim on purpose,” Michelle said, wishing she’d worn anything but her prom dress tonight. Even flannel pajamas would have been preferable. “It’s more of an occupational hazard in my case.” Crawling through savannahs and jungles and tundra with a camera practically glued to her face kept her fit and often hungry. Her photography didn’t provide much opportunity for gluttony or laziness. There weren’t any McDonald’s restaurants in Madagascar and Greenland and if she was running, it wasn’t for recreational purposes. It was for her life.
“You do have a unique career, Mishy,” Dee said, gazing down her nose in such a way to indicate that she thought such work was beneath her.
“I have been lucky in that regard,” she said. She wouldn’t trade her job for the world. Not even for Dee’s once-coveted approval.
“Dee!” Caroline Mitchell and Jenna Farrow started waving Dee over from across the room, looking positively giddy when Dee waved back. Apparently, Michelle was the only one who no longer coveted that approval.
“Are you coming?” Dee asked. “Jenna knows all the latest gossip on Phoebe Gates. Did you know she’s on food stamps now? I guess that’s what happens when you marry a loser and pop out five kids in the span of ten years.”
Michelle didn’t want to gossip about Phoebe. She’d been such a sweet girl. Michelle was certain there was more to Phoebe’s story than Jenna knew or cared to share. But if the details didn’t somehow elevate Dee’s self-worth, she wouldn’t want to hear them.
“I’ll be over in a bit,” Michelle said. “I need a drink.” She eyed the punch bowl, doubting it contained the kind of drink she would need to get through the evening. And while she wouldn’t mind getting caught up with the rest of her friends, she didn’t want to be anywhere near the joy-poison that was Dee Peterson. Or the women who still felt the need to feed her hunger for superiority.
Michelle feared this particular starry night was going to be the longest, most unbearable night of her life.
Devlin smiled at Claudia Bennett who tilted her head at him and scowled. “Were you in our class? Or are you a guest?” she asked.
“You don’t remember the guy who tutored you in algebra for two years?”
“Devlin McAllister tutored me in algebra.”
“So you do remember me.” He smiled again and took his name badge from the dwindling collection. He automatically searched for Michelle Tanner’s badge. She was the only reason he’d come, but either she wasn’t attending or she was already here.
“Oh my God! Dev? I didn’t even recognize you. When did you become a hottie?”
Devlin chuckled. “Well, it wasn’t in high school, was it?”
Claudia circled the table and wrapped him in a fierce hug. “I would have never graduated without your help in math.” She snuggled her face into his chest and inhaled. “God damn, Dev, not only are you diabetes-inducing eye candy, you smell good too,” she said with a laugh.
He returned her hug but set her away from him quickly. He didn’t like to be felt up like a piece of man meat and female hands seemed to wander when he allowed them to get too close. “So how are your algebra skills these days?” he asked as he pinned his badge to his tuxedo jacket.
He hadn’t gone to prom. Not because he hadn’t wanted to. The girl he’d asked—the vice-captain of the cheerleading squad—had turned him down flat and then laughed with her friends that he’d had the nerve to ask her. So he’d decided he’d crash this little soiree full of people who’d never appreciated the nice guy who was good at math and videogames, who wore thick glasses, braces and had suffered from horrible acne. And maybe it was small of him to want to rub his success in their cruel, stuck-up faces, but he supposed he was entitled to a little boasting after the four years of hell he’d endured at the whims of these people. Well, not all of them. Just the ones who were standing in the jock huddle across the room, still cliquing it up after all these years.
“I’m still terrible at math, I’m afraid, but I don’t really need algebra as a stay at home mom,” Claudia said.
“How many children?” he asked more out of politeness than interest.
“Four,” she said, holding up four fingers. “All boys.”
“I’m sure they’re a blessing.” He patted her arm and turned away scanning the crowd for a certain gorgeous brunette.
“Most days. You have kids?” Claudia asked.
“No,” he said, “I haven’t had time for that stuff yet. Excuse me.”
His eyes found Dee Peterson, the meanest girl he’d ever had the displeasure of knowing. Tall, blonde and uncommonly beautiful, she was surrounded by the majority of the varsity cheerleading squad, who were all twittering excitedly about how wonderful their lives in suburbia were. Michelle was conspicuously absent from foray. He guessed she had decided not to attend. He’d done a
bit of snooping on her Facebook page—so sue him—and had enjoyed looking through all the pictures of her travels around the world. As a nature photographer, she was absent from her stunning scenic and wildlife shots. The only self-portrait on her page was her profile picture where she was bundled up in parka, hat and scarf—the only visible inch of her were a set of sparkling blue eyes, crinkled at the corners from laughter. Michelle had made quite a life for herself. And he wasn’t surprised. Of all the pretty, popular girls in his class, she’d been the only one he ever considered worth his time, even if she’d never felt the same for him. He wasn’t sure why he wanted her to recognize how wrong she’d been about him. He was good enough for her—had been then, and definitely was now—but it was probably pretty juvenile of him to want to show her up. Prove her wrong. He’d had such a crush on her in high school and he didn’t fall for women easily, so there had to be something great about her. Something he’d picked up on in high school when she’d been glued to Dee Peterson’s hip. He’d hoped that seeing her in person would remind him why after ten years he still thought about her. Either that or it would show him that she wasn’t as wonderful as he recalled and he could stop thinking about her for fuck’s sake.
But she apparently wasn’t here, so it didn’t matter.
Deciding he might as well leave, Devlin turned to head out the door and caught sight of Michelle standing at the punchbowl. He almost swallowed his tongue when she slid her silky red dress up her leg, glanced around to make sure no one was watching and removed a flask from a black garter on her thigh. She unscrewed the top, took a swig, shrugged her shoulders, and then poured the remaining amber-colored liquid into a clear plastic cup before topping her beverage off with nauseatingly pink punch from the bowl on the table.
Things were definitely stirring below his cummerbund when she showed off more thigh and returned the flask to its hiding place.
So she was here. And she was even more stunning than he remembered. Watching her, he was instantly transported back to his awkward teen years and his hard-won adult self-confidence took a sudden nose dive. It was almost instantly returned by Dee’s distinctive false laugh and the roll of Michelle’s eyes as she glanced at the obnoxious woman who Devlin had assumed was her bestest best friend in the whole wide world for all eternity. So Michelle no longer worshipped the local high school goddess? Interesting.
Michelle collected her glass of modified beverage and left the buffet table. He expected her to wander over to the huddle of ex-cheerleaders and ex-football players, but she headed in the opposite direction to an empty table in the corner. He followed, oblivious to everything in the room, but the sway of her hips and the way the silk of her dress danced around her long legs as she walked a dozen paces ahead of him. He had no idea what he’d say to her when he caught up with her. She’d probably think he was a creepy stalker for coming to the reunion just to see her. Hell, he was starting to think he was a creepy stalker.