“Why am I here? Why am I here?” 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 high school 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 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 actually 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 coach—but he’d spent more time with the choir geeks than his football teammates.
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.
“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 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 sure 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. She never had recognized the worth of a beautiful soul and that obviously hadn’t changed. Wearing that dress and looking fabulous allowed Dee 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.