Friday, February 26
Jessica Addison looked out the first-class compartment window onto the monotonous streak of black tunnel wall flashing by, pleased she hadn’t been stuck with unwanted company for the entire two and a half hour journey. In less than fifteen minutes she would reach her destination. There was no turning back. It was foolish to feel this way, but she was more than a little nervous about attending her high school reunion. She tugged her coat tighter about her body and crossed her legs at the knees.
What would her old-classmates think of her now? How long had it been since she last saw any of them—fourteen, maybe fifteen years? She released a silent breath. They weren’t her friends. None of them had ever been her friends. She didn’t have friends.
Her eyes focused on her reflection in the tinted window. Except for the barest touch of lip gloss she wore no further make-up. The insecure, spotty schoolgirl with large owl-like glasses was gone and in her place was a woman who’d grown in confidence these last few years. A woman who believed in herself far more than she’d ever done before.
Jess tightened her fists until her nails dug into the soft flesh of her palms. Despite her newfound strength one thing hadn’t changed, her fear of dark enclosed spaces. She closed her eyes and wished the tunnel would hurry and come to an end.
For most of her life she’d been afraid. To live, to love…to give her heart, and she knew who was to blame for that. Her mother. Tom, on the other hand, had thought the explanation a little less complicated. She was simply incapable of loving herself or anybody else, he’d said. Isn’t that why their marriage had failed?
Tom loved her. That’d been evident in his every look and touch, yet the more Tom had wanted her the more she couldn’t help but despise him for it. Jess grimaced. Marriage to Tom had been neither her desire nor her decision. He’d entered her life when she’d been vulnerable and her own happiness had meant nothing. But she’d never imagined she would be the one to hurt him.
She’d tried to make their relationship work and for six years Tom had been enough. But she couldn’t prevent the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘what could’ve been’ from rising up between them. Or stop the pervasive mist of regret from chilling her heart.
It shocked her that she could still remember her first lover. Still hear his voice whispering to her in the darkness, still feel his weight crushing her as she became a woman in his arms. If only she could go back in time and relive that moment. To have the confidence to believe his words and the courage to say yes to all he’d offered. She shouldn’t have runaway.
The train slowed, its wheels screeching softly along the track. She clasped her hands firmly together on her lap. It was absurd. She hadn’t even remembered his name, but one night, so many nights ago, he’d taken a part of her that Tom could never make whole.
The winter sunshine exploded abruptly behind her closed eyelids and she released a heavy sigh, dispelling the idiocy of her fear. The tunnel would’ve come to an end sooner or later. She blinked her eyes open and gazed out onto the red-bricked terraced houses and snow-covered embankments passing by.
It hadn’t been easy taking Jake away from his father. Yet what she wanted, what she needed, what she longed for was something Tom could never give her. A sense of completion. Tom didn’t complete her. Not like—Jess expelled a deep breath and lowered her gaze to her bare ring finger.
She hadn’t regretted the divorce. Tom had said she would. He hadn’t wanted her to suffer the consequences. He hadn’t wanted to see her hurt.
She frowned, puzzled.
Suffer the consequences. A strange choice of words, funny how she’d never considered them before.
A voice crackled over the intercom. She glanced out the window again, half-listening to the obligatory announcements reminding passengers of this and informing them of that—letting her gaze flick over the graffiti-sprayed walls, high voltage junction boxes and weather-beaten signs welcoming her return to Manchester.
“No regrets,” she murmured.
She uncrossed then re-crossed her legs. Why did she let her mother talk her into going to the silly reunion in the first place? With Tom she’d finally found her voice. She’d learned to stand her ground and defend her decisions. Why couldn’t she do that with her mother? Why did she have to be that weak, lost little girl still seeking her mother’s approval?
She ought to hate her mother, but she couldn’t do that either. God knew she had reason enough, but there was Jake to consider now. There was an undeniable bond between him and his grandmother that she couldn’t bring herself to break. Jess smiled as she remembered her son’s beaming, conspiring face the evening her mother came to collect him. The little traitor had gone without as much as a token struggle or backward glance.
“That’s better,” a masculine voice acknowledged.
Her startled gaze lifted to the tall man leaning with nonchalant ease near the exit doors. Everything about him—from his muscular physique encased in an expensively tailored dark suit to the confident curve of his lips and amber colored eyes glittering from beneath straight, dark brows—exuded power and position.
In years gone by Jess would’ve crumbled under the sheer intensity of his scrutiny, but time had taught her to control her emotions and hide her feelings well. She calmly released the breath she was holding and schooled her features into one of blatant disinterest. She tilted her chin and forced herself not to look away.
“Your smile,” he said. “Very pretty and all too fleeting.”
Jess lifted a finely shaped eyebrow with practiced indifference. “Really,” she said, unconvinced.
He chuckled. A soft, sexy sound that fluttered down her spine and nestled with incredible precision between her thighs. “Yes, really.”
She tightened her arms across her chest and ignored the unaccustomed warmth spreading up her cheeks and pooling in the pit of her stomach. She turned her face toward the window glad the train had finally pulled into the station. In a matter of moments they would be going their separate ways and she would never think about this man again. Or the way her body stirred to life under the feral heat of his gaze.
The final few passengers in the car filed past her toward the exit. She slid from behind the table separating the double seats and stood, reaching for the overnight bag on the luggage rack above her head. To her dismay it’d shifted during the journey and now lay beyond her searching fingers. She rose on her toes and tried again.
She tensed at the sound of his voice behind her. She’d thought he’d gone. She briefly closed her eyes and remembered to breathe.
There was no longer any distance protecting her from their attraction. It practically ignited the air between them and melted her insides. She locked her knees and stiffened her spine, fighting the urge to listen to her body and succumb to the sensual aroma of faint aftershave and masculine scent seducing her senses.
It’d been a long time since a man affected her like this. But she hadn’t simply divorced Tom to get laid by the first handsome man who turned her head or sent her pulse racing. She’d made that mistake a long time ago. She didn’t intend to make it again. She clenched her fists and sought to control her breathing.
His hand stretched above hers as he reached for the travel bag. And whether by accident or design their fingers touched. Jess jerked backward taking her hand with her and collided into the solid frame behind her. He placed his free hand against her stomach and used the length of his body to steady her.
“I’ve got you, Jessica.”
He’d murmured her name. He knew her name.
That sudden realization took hold of her brain sending a cold chill down her spine. She spun sharply from his embrace as quickly as the small space between his body and the table would allow. She craned her neck to meet his gaze and wished she were wearing three-inch stilettos. No one ever called her Jessica, not even Tom had called her that.
Loud voices and approaching steps broke the tensed silence as new passengers in search of seats for the return journey to London moved through the train. Some stayed in the car while others jostled up the narrow aisle behind him en route to the next wagon, pushing him steadily closer into her comfort zone.
The heat of his body seared through her clothes to her flesh, branding the sensitive peaks of her breasts until they swelled, heavy and tight and screamed for relief. She took a step backward, mortified by the very power of her response to him. The table pressed against the back of her thighs, hindering her movement.
He suddenly pulled back and held out the bag to her. She grabbed it with more force than was necessary and clasped it to her chest. She studied a point on his suit.
“H-How do you know my name?”
“Another time, Jessica,” he said.
Was that a threat or a promise? She raised her eyes to his. A hint of a smile tugged at his lips before he turned and walked away from her. She sank back against the table and, expelling a ragged breath, willed her body once more under her control.
Her ex-husband’s name exploded through her mind and her heart skidded against her ribs. Tom had threatened to take custody of Jake. He was also wealthy enough to afford the best of everything and everyone—including lawyers.
Jess spun to the window in time to see the tall, dark-haired figure weave through the crowded platform and disappear from view. She rushed from the train. If he worked for Tom she wanted to know.
She stared down the platform.
Shit! Where is he?
A loud, shrill voice greeted her with obvious delight from the gate at Platform Seven and she was forced to turn her thoughts to the woman waving with frantic enthusiasm at her. It was Claire. Claire who’d sent the invitation for the reunion and who’d invited Jess for a pre-party get together.
Jess cast a final glance about her and, relaxing her features, commanded her brain to function. She walked with purposeful steps across the platform, although she couldn’t bring herself to return Claire’s genuine smile and warm welcome.
Shakespeare Masquerade- coming July 13th from Resplendence Publishing