by Maxine Davis
Success is sweet revenge.
I don’t care what anybody says. They’re not going to get to me again. Not this weekend, not ever. They’ll see!
R.J. Haliday smiled smugly as she brushed a piece of lint from her Channel suit while turning the steering wheel to maneuver around a curve ahead. I knew it was on a mountain, but, damn. Some of the houses were nestled in the rich gold and red of the North Carolina trees. The Grove Park Inn couldn’t look any better than its surroundings. She glanced at the high school reunion invitation lying in the passenger seat and thought of the people she had known and who she had gladly left behind.
Suddenly, she was nine years old again in Miss Lang’s fourth grade class as the childhood memory swamped over her, making her almost physically ill.
Her desk was by the green chalk board, and the chalk dust made her throat feel dry. She heard the students around her shuffling their feet under the desks, anxious to be on their way home.
Only a few more minutes, and she’d be safe. Sh-h-h. Oh no, Miss Lang is standing up. Rose’s eyes squeezed closed. No. Don’t do it. Don’t. She gripped the yellow No. 2 pencil tightly in her hand. As Miss Lang walked by, the waft of Youth Dew perfume hovered, becoming almost toxic to her nerves. Her stomach contracted.
“Class, today is Rose’s birthday. Let’s sing Happy Birthday before the bell rings.”
Rose glanced at Johnny. She saw the evil grin on his face. So much for a happy birthday.
She rushed past everyone and ran out the door, but Johnny Preston, the worst fourth grader in the whole world, was right behind her. She heard him and his buddies singing their taunt:
Rosie, Rosie, prickly thorns
You’re all bones and you wear horns.
Rose Justine Haliday swung her lunch box but missed the laughing boys chanting their made-up rhyme. No damn boy is gonna see me cry. She ran to “her place,” up the hill behind her house and sat on the rock looking out over the trees, still breathing hard. I am miles high, and no one knows I’m here.
“Don’t cry, Rose.” A voice came from behind her.
Rose whirled around, pushing her brown hair off her forehead. “Billy Hunter, go away! This is my place.” She didn’t need anyone else ruining her birthday.
The nine-year old boy came and sat by her as she scrubbed her fist across her cheeks. He looked up at her. “They’re stupid.”
“I know they’re stupid.” She was shouting. “They’re damn stupid.”
“You can cuss if you want to, Rose. I won’t tell.”
“You better not. I’ll tell ’em you’re afraid of ghosts.”
Rose saw him look at her with a big frown on his face before he spoke. “Am not.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Anyway, I’m not gonna tell.”
There was a moment of quiet truce before she sniffed loudly. “Billy?”
“I don’t have horns.” She felt the start of tears, but refused to cry again.
“I know.” He sat crossed legged and watched the trees, not looking at her again.
Her mouth twisted to one side. “I guess I’m a little skinny, though.”
“That’s okay. You’ll grow outta it. My mama always tells me I’m gonna grow up and be tall and handsome.” He let out a big sigh. “I sure wish that’d be next year.”
Rose glanced over at Billy. He’d always been at least a head shorter than she was, but he was always nice. He’d probably always be a head shorter, but why hurt his feelings. She knew how it felt. “I bet your mama’s right.”
There were a couple of minutes of silence.
“I got ya a birthday present.”
She swiped her hand across her face again. “You did?”
“Yeah.” He spoke a little louder in his excitement. “And I didn’t buy it at the drug store. My mom took me shopping.”
He handed her a box with a crooked bow. “I been saving my money for a long time.”
She stopped and looked at him. “You did that, Billy?”
He shrugged his shoulders and his face turned red. “Yeah, I wanted to get you something special. Something special you’d have forever.”
She pulled off the ribbon, opened the lid and looked inside. She stared for a moment before she smiled big. “It’s a bracelet.” She couldn’t take her eyes off it. “Billy, it’s so pretty.”
His voice was so low she wasn’t sure she heard him say, “So are you,” before he cleared his throat and sat up straight. “It’s called a charm bracelet. It’s got one charm on it. You can add others if you want.”
She took it out and clasped it in her hand. “It’s beautiful,” was her breathless reply. “It’s real nice, Billy.”
“Uh-huh.” He sat there watching her turn the bracelet over in her hand and softly stroking the charm. He felt good. He made her happy. “Well, uh, bye. I’m going home now. I’m hungry.”
Rose held the bracelet tight. “Bye, Billy.”
He had already climbed down when she called, “Billy? Thanks. It’s really nice.”
She wore it every day, and sometimes she’d remember that smile of Billy’s.
R.J. jumped as her cell phone buzzed, bringing her back to reality. Glancing at the screen, she saw it was her personal assistant and pushed “speaker” so she could lay the cell in her lap and talk while she turned the steering wheel, rounding yet another curve. “Yeah, Martin, what’s up?”
“You forgot to sign the Stephenson contract.”
“Damn. You want me to come back?”
“No way. You are going to that high school reunion. And you’re gonna knock ’em dead. Changing the subject, boss, is The Grove Park Inn as gorgeous as it looks online?”
“I’ll let you know. I think I’m almost there.” She made a sweeping turn, applying the brakes. “Damn.” Her voice became almost a whisper, “you should see this place.” She leaned close over the steering wheel so she could better see her surroundings. The worn stones of varying shades of brown on the front porch had to be really old. “Who would have thought The Grove Park Inn would be a cross between a castle and a hotel?”
“See? I told you you’d love it.”
“Yeah, sure.” She laughed. “Why didn’t you talk me out of coming to this thing? I hated school.”
“Because I’m always right. Success is going to be your sweet revenge. Besides, you said it yourself. You wondered what the rest of your class is up to. Now go find out. And that’s why you pay me the big bucks.”
R.J. rolled her eyes. “Right. Gotta go. Valet’s here.”
“Well, you go kick a cheerleader or have a massage. Do something to put yourself in a better mood.”
She was smiling as the young man opened her door and welcomed her to the castle. She pushed her phone into her purse and knew things were looking up. She would not let them get her down again. Ever.
Check-in was fast. In her room, she walked to the window and could see a group of people at an outside bar hugging and laughing. The rolling green of the grounds kept her standing there soaking up the beauty for a few minutes. She sat on the bed and looked at her watch. “Well, it’s time. Might as well get a shower. I’ll go to the damn dance. I’ll hold my head up. And absolutely nothing will get to me. So there.”
A hot bath and a glass of wine from room service, and she was ready to meet the evening. R.J. stepped out of the elevator. She smoothed the sides of her Versace dress, so blue it was almost black. The wide band over one shoulder featured a flower made of the same material. The other shoulder was bare. She touched her earrings. Yep, two. So far, so good. She felt her right wrist. The single charm dangled from the bracelet. A small smile came to her lips. She stopped as she entered the lobby, covering her shoulders with a cashmere shawl. “May I get you a drink?” The young girl in the server’s white shirt and black slacks led her to a huge love seat in front of one of the fireplaces which graced each end of the lobby. The October air made the warmth from the fire feel good.
“Those fireplaces are huge. I wish I’d brought my camera. Nobody’ll believe it when I tell them even I could almoststand up in one of them.”
“People do it all the time.” The waitress laughed. “Well, when there’s not a fire.” The girl flashed a smile and left to get her drink.
She sipped the wine slowly and watched the fire. This was peaceful. But she didn’t come here for peaceful. She came to face her demons. She had been taunted all during school. But no more.
“Could I get you another drink?”
She stood up. “No, thank you. I’m off to this fabulous party.” She laughed just a little too loud and looked back to see the waitress looking after her with her brow furrowed.
At the door to the ballroom, the music was loud. With a deep breath and a smile plastered on her lips, she pushed the door and walked inside.
Her eyes adjusted gradually to lower light, as she sauntered around the room checking out the crowd. She turned and saw a group of three women descending on her. Incoming. One was chubby, but looked very familiar. One was obviously Patty Monroe. She had the same hairstyle she’d worn in high school. The third one was Sue Handy, except she sported a set of huge diamond-encrusted rings and a huge set of boobs that she certainly did not have in high school.
“Hi. We’ve been trying to figure out who you are.” They gathered around her, making her feel as if she were the quarry and they were the hunters. The chubby one introduced herself as Linda Adele. R.J. remembered Linda. She was the most gorgeous girl in the class, and she had never lowered herself to speak to R.J. Patty said she was now Pat Sanders and proudly announced she and her husband had three boys. The third one laughed and said, “I used to be Sue Handy. Of course, I also used to be Sue Townsend and, before that, Sue Rowen.” She winked and held out her hand.
R.J. shook her hand. “I’m R.J..” Before she could finish, a man grabbed her hand and twirled her onto the dance floor. She grabbed her shawl before it hit the floor and threw it over one arm. Moving with the music, she stepped back to get a good look at her dance partner.
Her eyes widened. “Johnny? Johnny Preston.” Still in shock, she stared at him. The former fourth-grade monster and high-school star quarterback smiled. At least in high school, he hadn’t gone around singing she was all bones. In fact, she couldn’t remember him speaking to her. “Yep, gorgeous, and I’d know you anywhere, Linda A-dele!” He sounded so sure of himself. “I hear you and Mike divorced last year.” He didn’t have to lean very close for R.J. to smell the beer as he whispered in her ear, “Want to go up to the room, for ‘ole times’ sake?” He winked. “I’m in 715. What’d’ya say?”
So those rumors were true back then. She patted his cheek, “Sure. Meet you there in ten minutes, Johnny.” She smiled and waved turning away from him. When she looked back, he was already leaving.
“Oof!” She collided with a hard body. At five feet, seven inches and in heels, she still had to look up at him. “I’m so sorry.” She stopped when she saw he had a huge grin on his face.
He looked past her at Johnny. “Not nearly as sorry as I bet Johnny Preston’s gonna be in about ten minutes.”
Her fingers rubbed the charm on her bracelet, which had been a nervous habit for years. “Um-m. That wasn’t very nice of me.”
He laughed a deep, rich laugh. “But he is so deserving of that. Way to go.” He held one arm up with his hand ready for her to lay her hand in his. He opened his other arm at the level of her waist. “Finish the dance with me?”
“Sure.” She looked around his shoulder in time to see Linda Adele waltz up to Johnny Preston. “Uh-oh.” As her new dance partner drew her closer, she noticed him looking in the same direction.
“Want to see what happens?” he asked mischievously. He smoothly danced her around several couples and toward a tree in a planter by the wall. They both crouched slightly but watched Johnny and Linda.
Linda tapped Johnny on the shoulder and said something. He stopped and said something to her. Linda put her hands on her hips and said something back. The conversation looked short and not so sweet. At the same time, both Linda and Johnny turned and seemed to be searching the crowded dance floor for someone.
“Want to step out on the balcony for some air?” Her partner held out his arm and she slipped hers though it.
“Good idea,” she whispered as they made their way out the door.
R.J. shivered slightly. It’s gotten downright cold out there, but it might be worth a slight case of pneumonia to find out how this tall, handsome fellow knew Johnny Preston deserved his comeuppance.
Her partner quickly took her shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders steering her toward one of the tall lamp-post style heaters. They glanced back, then leaned on the balcony and laughed.
Something about him was familiar. “Did you graduate with us?”
“Actually, I didn’t finish at this high school. We moved in the tenth grade, but I got an invite and decided to come.” He laughed. “And it is so worth it. Johnny was a jerk in high school.”
“He was a jerk long before that,” R.J. muttered then cleared her throat and looked at the man at her side. “You left in the tenth grade?” She couldn’t place him. “Who are you?”
“Hi, Brad.” The words dripped like honey from the mouth of the twenty-something woman walking by. Ignoring R.J., the girl leaned toward the man beside her, trying her best not to drool. She flashed a big smile as her hand moved down “Brad’s” sleeve. “It’s good to see you.”
He turned back to R.J. “I’m…”
“Brad. Yeah, I heard.” R.J. raised one eyebrow at the well-endowed girl as she walked away with a sway of hips that could conjure a wind storm. “Well, that’s part of the answer, Brad.” Anything else she was about to say was cut short by voices coming their way.
“Hey!” Johnny shouted, and he came straight at R.J. with Linda in close pursuit.
Brad stepped forward at the same time R.J. did. Linda jumped in front of Johnny, hands on hips and looking furious. She spat the words, “Okay, R.J. Just who the hell are you?”
R.J. stood straight and announced. “I’m R.J. Haliday, that’s who, and I can tell you right now…”
“Holy shit.” Johnny was looking at R.J. like she had two heads. He moved in closer to her face as Brad’s arm protectively encircled her shoulders. Suddenly, Johnny stood straight, throwing his shoulders back and straightening his tie. He cleared his throat. “You wouldn’t happen to be R.J. Haliday of The Haliday Modeling Agency in New York, would you?”
Linda still had her hands on her hips and now her mouth was slightly open. She looked at each of them in turn. “How would you know that?”
Johnny leaned over and whispered. “Magazine. Dentist’s office.”
She answered with a vague, “Oh,” then focused a stern look at him.
Johnny stepped back as he felt R.J.’s eyes bore into him.
When she spoke, her voice was clear and succinct. “Yes, I am, Mr. Preston. What’s it to you?”
Even in the dim light she could see Johnny’s face turning red. “I was just joking back there, you understand.” He forced a smile. “Just a joke.”
“No, I don’t understand.”
“Look. My daughter just won a contest. She’s going to be working for your agency this summer. She’s really excited. I, ah, hope this won’t change things.”
R.J. could hardly believe her ears. “And who is your daughter?”
“Lilith. Lilith Preston. But she wants to go by her first name only.” He swallowed. “I’m sorry, R.J., I am really sorry. Don’t let this change your mind about Lilith.”
She saw, for the first time in her life, a sincere pleading look from Johnny Preston. How the mighty are fallen by love, she thought.
R.J. crossed her arms. “I remember your daughter and her mother.” She looked Johnny up and down. How could that sweet young girl she met last week be the spawn of this devil? “I look forward to working with her. I believe she has talent.”
Johnny’s relief showed in his huge smile. “That’s great. I’ll tell her I met you.” He paused and his eyebrows drew together. “Well, no I won’t. But, uh, well, good night, R.J.” She saw his eyes quickly dart to Brad’s name tag before he added, “And good to see you again, Brad. A quick hitch of Brad’s head acknowledged Johnny.
Everyone was silent for a moment. That is, everyone but Linda. “Hey! What about what you said to…”
At that moment, Johnny put his arm around Linda and whispered something to her as he guided her away with her still talking to him. “I can’t believe you, Johnny Preston. And who the hell is R.J. Haliday? Wait. I know…”
They were no longer close enough for R.J. to hear their conversation, but turning toward Brad, she glimpsed Linda and Johnny whirling around and taking one last look at her.
R.J. smiled to herself as she and Brad turned and walked back to the warmth of one of the heaters.
Brad moved closer to R.J. “That was very nice of you.” He looked in her eyes. “But I always did think you were nice. And gorgeous.” He paused a long time. “I’ve wanted to tell you for years,” he said, his hand touching her hair, “how beautiful you’ve always been.”
Good Lord, if only I could remember who you are. Her mind was racing. I should know you… R.J. was holding the charm on her bracelet as her eyes searched his face. “Brad? I…”
“When I changed high schools, I started going by my first name, Brad. I guess they just accidently used my first name on the invitation.”
He took her hand in his and raised the wrist with the bracelet to his lips. Never taking his eyes off her face, he held her gaze as his finger traced the shape of the single silver charm. “It’s a seashell,” and he placed a soft kiss on the palm of her hand.
Her entire being was focused on that one kiss, that kiss that told her who he really was. Her head swam, and the beating of her heart made her breathless. She looked at him in wonder.
At last she breathed the word. “You. After all these years.” She moved a step closer to him. “Bradley William Hunter.” She felt the tears sting as she told him, “Did you know I cried when you left?”
He pulled her closer.
“Rose Haliday, did you know I have dreamed of holding you like this for years?” He tilted his head back and smiled to the heavens. “And tonight the angels answered my prayers. I am finally going to kiss the girl I have never been able to forget.” His lips touched hers as her arms went around his neck.
The next kiss wasn’t soft. It was hungry. Rose stood on tiptoe, feeling her body fit his perfectly and knew this was only the beginning of many kisses to come.
One of today’s commenters will win a Starbucks gift card – something to keep you awake as you read.
Maxine Davis writes humorous contemporary romance and romantic mysteries. She is a retired educator who loves traveling to other states and countries as long as she can return to her native Georgia. Her hobbies include reading, crocheting, swimming, and spending time with family and friends, and with her husband and her dog, Tillie. Find out more about Maxine and her novels, novellas and short stories at PetitFoursAndHotTamales.com.
I love a happy ending, don’t you? Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for our last story by the fabulous Sally Kilpatrick. Sometimes the Tree of Knowledge isn’t a tree…
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