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Pushing aside the large checkbook and pile of bills, he sat at his desk, turned on his computer monitor and opened the program she needed. He set it up for her, then held out his hand for her data disk.
Tami Johanson stomped the melting snow off her boots as she rode the elevator to the top floor of the Minneapolis newspaper’s office building. The elevator eased to a stop, the door slid open and she hurried down the carpeted hall to the office where she worked. Was she late?
The large fluorescent-lighted room hummed as usual. She dropped her purse in her desk drawer, took off her snow boots and slipped her feet into high-heeled pumps. Some people already worked at their desks, but others chatted as they stood around the coffeemaker. Good. Joining them, she poured herself a cup of coffee and closed her eyes in appreciation as she sipped the hot, fragrant brew.
She hurried back to her desk and picked up her mail, determined to make up for lost time. She flipped through the usual business stuff, tossing half directly into the round file. The next envelope surprised her—it was from her best friend in high school, Linda Carnell in Conley.
Her pulse sped up in alarm. She never heard from anyone in Conley and didn’t want to. That part of her life was over. Especially the part with Cal Lentz in it. Her first love gone wrong. It hurt just to think his name, the rat.
What could Linda want? Tami ripped open the envelope and read, ‘It’s time for you to make a visit home, Tami. We need you to help plan our ten year class reunion. Don’t let us down.’
Go back to Conley? No way. “Ten years?” she squeaked aloud. Had it really been that long? She’d love to see Linda again but not back in Conley. Maybe she should invite her up to Minneapolis.
“Feeling a bit old, Sweetheart?” Tami jumped at the sound of her co-worker’s voice in her ear. The stale, acrid smell of his pipe tobacco surrounded her. Arlo dropped his hand on her shoulder and leaned forward to read the letter over her shoulder.
She shrugged his big hand off her shoulder, crumpled the letter and dropped it into her wastebasket. “Damn it, Arlo, don’t sneak up behind me!”
Arlo came around to the side of her desk and reached for the letter. When she grabbed it back and shoved it in her purse, he grinned at her. His bald head gleamed under the fluorescent lights and his blue eyes sparkled from his chubby face.
“Why are you hiding it? I’ll go with you if you don’t have a date to show off. You know I’m always willing to accommodate you, Sweetheart.”
“Don’t call me that! And I have no intention of going back there,” she blurted before she could stop herself. No way would she go anywhere with this guy. Besides being twenty years older than she, Arlo imagined himself God’s gift to women, which he definitely wasn’t.
Darn. She shouldn’t have told him she had no intention of going back to her home town. Arlo loved to dig up embarrassing stuff from everyone’s past and then constantly make lurid jokes about it. Now she’d left herself wide open for trouble.
“Aha. Does the old hometown hold bad memories for you? Maybe there was a love gone wrong in your past?”
Her stomach flipped over at his too accurate guess. If he found out, she’d never hear the last of it. She forced a calm expression and lied, “No. I just don’t care about small town dinner parties and dull reminiscing.”
“Staff meeting time, guys,” Sara Anderson interrupted, effectively ending Arlo’s grilling. Sara, a tall brunette, frowned at them, then moved gracefully past them into the conference room.
Arlo turned back to his desk obediently. Nobody dared be late for Mr. Edwards's staff meetings.
Tami picked up her clipboard and pen, and hurried between the long rows of desks to the conference room. A half dozen others had arrived ahead of them. Long overhead lights brightened the dull green, windowless room. She sat between Sara and another woman, making sure there wasn’t an empty seat beside her. Arlo walked on around the long table and took a seat across from her. That was almost worse because from there he could meet her eyes and watch her. Why did he seem to enjoy tormenting her? Tami sighed and determined to ignore him.
Her friend, LuAnn Miller, dropped into the chair beside Arlo across the table. “You missed a great dinner last night,” LuAnn said, her brown eyes sparkling in her long, bony face. A company function including food was a never-miss occasion for LuAnn, but she never gained a pound to show for it.
Tami smiled. “I had a magazine article deadline.”
LuAnn pulled a face. “Oh. You work too hard. I don’t see how you do it.”
“I enjoy it.” She shrugged and wished she could afford to go into freelancing for magazines full time instead of a side-line as she did now. That would free her from the office politics she hated. Those politics were why she’d settled for a frozen entree cooked in her microwave last night instead of going out to dinner with the other journalists.
She sent their boss a wary glance. He was a tall, thin man with a shock of unkempt salt and pepper hair. He sat at the head of the gleaming mahogany table, staring down at a batch of notes in front of him.
Arlo smirked at her across the table.
I bet he’s sure he’ll beat me out of a choice assignment again. Just once, I’d like to show him up. Yeah, right. Fat chance with Mr. Edwards giving out the assignments.
Tami’s stomach churned as Mr. Edwards began to talk. He handed out assignments, listing the stories and advising reporters of the slant he wanted. As usual, he gave the senior reporters the hard news to cover. She waited, wondering if she’d be stuck with the fillers and feature stories he considered safe for her.
She bit down hard on her lip to dispel the memories of her last real news assignment. She'd gotten a little too nosy for a certain drug dealer's taste and nearly ended up being shot. Luckily, he’d missed her. The police, who’d been watching the man and didn’t appreciate her interference, had closed in before he could try again. She shuddered at the memory. But she still wanted to do real news, not fluff.
Mr. Edwards seemed to be thinking of that, too. He sent her a level gaze, his heavy brows almost meeting as they dipped in a frown. “You did a good job on that piece on escalating wedding costs, Tami,” he said.
She cautiously smiled a thank you. When Mr. Edwards gave her a compliment, it usually meant he was about to hand her an assignment he knew she would hate.
“All the high school and college alumni are planning reunions about this time of year. We haven’t done a story on those for quite a while.”
Arlo grinned smugly at Mr. Edwards. “Tami just got an invitation to one from her home town.”
Mr. Edwards looked interested. “And where was that, again?”
“Conley,” she said through tight lips. “It’s a little town a hundred miles south of here.” She shot an ‘I’ll get you for this’ look at Arlo.
“Perfect,” Mr. Edwards said, sending Tami a pleased smile. “Go down and get us a story on it. Pictures, too. You know, background stuff. Tell us who plans it, what’s involved, what kind of celebration they have, how many people came from how far away and what they’re doing now. That sort of thing. The usual sentimental stuff people love to read about in our ‘About People’ page.”
Tami’s stomach plummeted further with each word. She tried again. “That would be spread out over weeks, Mr. Edwards.”
“So, make a couple of trips down for different parts of the story. No hurry. You can work on other things at the same time.”
Tami sighed. She didn’t want to go back to her hometown. It would be too painful. She’d closed off that part of her life. “I wasn’t planning to go…”
“Why not?” He frowned at her.
“I...hardly know anyone there anymore,” she said, which sounded lame, even to herself. She glanced at LuAnn, whose face held a shocked expression. No encouragement there. Her heart thudding, she went on, “Most of my classmates moved away. Besides, it’s a very small farming community. Not something our metro readers would be interested in.”
His scowl deepened at her resistance and Tami cringed. Now she’d done it. He didn’t like having his views or his assignments questioned. “I’ll be the judge of that,” he said. “We have plenty of small town readers. I shouldn't have to remind you our out-state edition is distributed all over the state, especially the Sunday paper.”
“Yes, of course. But I’d rather not.”
His eyes widened at her. She dared to refuse? “You graduated from there, didn’t you?”
“Yes, of course.” She raised her chin. Did he think her stupid? Why else would she be asked to the class reunion? “At the top of my class,” she added, sending a defiant look at Arlo and taking satisfaction in his surprised look. “I just think a metro suburban reunion would be better for this story.”
“No, your own reunion will be more personal. You can do it, Tami. You’ll know enough people to make the contacts we need.” His tone said the subject was closed.
She shrugged and nodded in defeat. She picked up her water glass and drank to ease the dryness in her mouth. She knew she had little choice. She could do what he wanted, or look for another job. And she couldn’t afford to give up this job yet.
Mr. Edwards turned to Arlo and gave him the high profile assignment of covering a United States senator’s visit to Minneapolis. Arlo grinned at her in smug satisfaction.
She looked away, trying not to let her envy show on her face. She wished she dared kick him under the table. It would certainly make her feel better. LuAnn sent her a sympathetic smile.
Mr. Edwards stood, indicating the meeting was over.
Discouragement and a sense of inevitability filled Tami as she rose to follow the others leaving the room. She walked out of his office, feeling frustrated and defeated. Mr. Edwards meant well. She couldn't tell him it wasn't the assignment she minded as much as returning to Conley.
Mixed with those feelings was an eerie sense of dread. She had no way out. She’d go back to Conley and see Cal again. It would hurt after the way they’d broken up, but she could do it. She’d lived through it once, hadn’t she? She could do it again. Cal Lentz—her lost love.
She ducked into the bathroom, hoping no one else would be there. She sat in a stall and let the tears flow. When she dried her eyes on some toilet tissue and emerged, her friend LuAnn was waiting. LuAnn was one of the few people in her present life who knew about the fiasco of her high school love.
LuAnn hugged her. “I was right. You are upset. You’ve still got it bad for Cal, haven’t you?”
Tami pulled free, shrugged and washed her face, then began repairing her makeup. She met her friend’s eyes in the mirror. “I thought I was over him,” she admitted. “But the thought of seeing him again sort of hit me.”
“You’re still comparing every other man you go out with to him, aren’t you?”
Tami sighed. “Well, can I help it if I’ve never met another rugged hunk like him? He was pretty special, you know, even if he did dump me in the end.”
“Only because you expected too much too soon,” LuAnn scolded. “Neither of you were mature enough for marriage back then. You were only eighteen, for Pete’s sake.”
“Maybe he wasn’t ready then, but he got married only a couple of years later,” Tami reminded LuAnn bitterly. That was the worst of it. He hadn’t wanted to marry her, but he’d married another woman who had had the baby she’d wanted. She bit her lip to keep the tears from starting again.
LuAnn frowned. “Didn’t you tell me his wife died?”
“Yeah, she did. A couple of years ago.”
“So, he’s single again, isn’t he?” LuAnn raised her eyebrow in a challenging gesture.
Tami snorted. “He turned me down flat ten years ago, LuAnn. Do you think I’m going to give him a second chance? To do it again?”
That was her biggest fear. She still wanted him, but he hadn’t wanted her back then and she couldn’t face him again now, could she? She couldn’t stand it if she saw rejection of her or indifference to her in his eyes now.
“I’ve made a good life for myself here. Why can’t I just leave the past in the past? Why did the boss have to think up an assignment involving my home town?”
LuAnn gave her a hug. “I know, Tami. But I was thinking. It wouldn’t hurt to just go with the flow, you know?”
Tami eyed her warily. “What do you mean?”
“I was thinking, if he was still interested, it might do you good to have a hot short-term affair with him.”
“An affair? With Cal?”
At Tami’s gasp, LuAnn put up her hands in a protective gesture. “I don’t mean anything permanent, you know. But you really need to get this guy out of your system so you can move on. You know, like the old song goes, ‘wash that man right out of your hair.’”
Wash Cal out of her head? Fat chance. Ten years hadn’t been long enough to do that. She bit back a laugh and shook her head. “It’d never work, LuAnn. But you’re a sweetheart to try to help.”
“I just thought…well, you know how you ate a whole box of chocolates one Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago?”
She laughed. “Yeah. I got so sick. And I couldn’t stand to eat chocolate for months.”
“Exactly. Overdose on Cal like that and maybe you’ll be ready to fall for another man soon.”
“It’ll never work,” Tami repeated. “But I’ll have to handle seeing him again to please Mr. Edwards. Wish me luck.”
“Always,” LuAnn said with a sigh.
Tami drove back to her apartment building and rode the elevator to her floor. Inside, she dropped her leather purse onto the upholstered chair. Kicking off her snow boots with a grateful sigh, she picked them up and padded down the hall to her bedroom. There she took off her green business suit and carefully hung it up, then put on a soft blue robe and slipped into deerskin moccasins.
Glancing around her immaculate living room as she returned there, she walked to the window and drank in the wonderful view of the city skyline which had convinced her to rent this apartment. The IDS tower dominated with the Foshay Tower now looking small. Many other office towers and apartment or condo buildings pointed heavenward, too. From this high, she could see buildings and roads for miles. She never tired of looking at it.
She grabbed a cola from her refrigerator and curled up in her favorite chair to try to relax. Could she face seeing Cal again? Closing her eyes, she remembered that night after their graduation.
~ * ~
She’d so been looking forward to that weekend. She and Cal had been best friends for years. The summer before their senior year he’d given her his class ring, saying she was his special girl. But their dates had been few. In fact, throughout their senior year she’d seldom seen him outside of classes, because he’d been so busy working a part time job to help pay for college, and studying hard for good grades to get the scholarship he needed. But they’d stolen kisses whenever they had a chance. And lots of late night phone conversations had kept her happy.
After attending his graduation party and the reception her parents had put on for her, they’d gone for a drive and parked on a quiet country lane to make out a bit. But they’d ended up quarreling instead. She’d hoped he’d propose. Certainly she’d been ready to make a commitment to him. But he didn’t propose. Instead, he seemed to be saying goodbye.
Panicking, she’d suggested she go to the university he was attending, so they could move in together. “The U is so huge, and we’ll hardly have any of the same classes. We’ll need an apartment there anyway, when we both get jobs after we graduate.”
“Tami, I told you before—I’m coming back to Conley after I finish Ag school. I hate living in the city.”
“Come back to Conley? To your dad’s farm? Don’t be silly, Cal. With an Ag degree, you’ll get lots of job offers from big companies that manufacture stuff from agricultural products. You can make a lot more money in the city.”
Cal had pulled away, saying nothing at all at first. He sat staring out into the dark night through the windshield of his old Ford jalopy.
At his silence, her heart began hammering in nervous dread. “Don’t you think living together is a good idea?” she asked in a small voice. “We’ll hardly ever see each other otherwise.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Tami, it’s not that I don’t care about you or want to be with you,” he began.
She raised her chin, knowing he was going to refuse her offer. Tears stung her eyes, but she forced them back. “But?”
“You’d never be satisfied going to the U instead of that classy eastern college you and your mother have always talked about. You don’t want to settle for less.”
“I’ve been accepted at both colleges. It’s no big deal.”
“Yes, it is,” he said in a determined voice. “You’d hate it and resent me later for missing out.”
“No, I wouldn’t, Cal.”
But he wasn’t listening to her. “Besides, I’m not ready to settle down and I don’t think you are, either. I have a lot of things to do before I can support a wife and kids.”
“Like knocking around Mexico and some Caribbean Islands with your ‘friend,’ MaryAnn?” she snapped, jealousy curling sourly in her belly. MaryAnn was the girl who lived on the farm next to Cal’s parents and Cal had known her forever.
“You’re jealous because my uncle invited me and MaryAnn on this tour and not you.”
“Well, shouldn’t I be? You’ll be spending weeks with her instead of me.”
“He’s the professor in charge; he has to pick qualified people, not just ones who want to tag along.”
“Oh!” She fought back tears. “That was mean. Your trip will separate us for most of the summer. But you don’t mind that a bit, do you? You care more about the trip than about me!”
He turned to look straight at her then and said, “Our trip is a worthwhile fact-finding tour of their agriculture and how our countries can help each other, to study how we can help them progress and modernize.”
Her voice came out ragged. “And that’s more important to you than us?”
He heaved a long sigh. “There is no ‘us’ right now. We have four long years of college ahead of us. Neither of us is ready for anything like that. Be reasonable, Tami. What if you got pregnant?”
“That would be a disaster?” She raised her chin, tears threatening again.
“You know it would. We’d end up dropping out, not being able to afford a family and college. Now isn’t the time for it, that’s all.”
“Then, I guess I won’t be wearing this anymore.” She reached up behind her neck and unsnapped the gold chain with his class ring she’d worn there so lovingly for over a year.
She hadn’t taken it off even to shower. To her going steady had meant they were already promised to each other. Obviously it didn’t mean that to him. She’d been a fool!
She yanked it free, pulled his class ring off the chain and thrust it at him.
He shrugged, took it and slipped it in his pocket as though it meant nothing to him. Nothing, when her heart was breaking. For a moment, she thought she saw regret in his face, but she couldn’t be sure in the dim moonlight.
“Tami, I’m sorry. I didn’t want it to be like this…”
“Please take me home, Cal,” she said, her voice dripping ice.
With a long sigh, he turned back to face the front and started the car.
Neither had spoken on the drive home. Tami stared out the window, blinking back tears. He was not going to see her cry.
When he stopped in front of her parents’ house, he turned to her and said, “Tami…”
“There’s nothing more to say. Goodbye, Cal. Have a nice life.”
She got out and slammed his car door, then strode up the sidewalk, her chin high. She managed to hold in the tears until she’d gotten to her room and flopped onto her bed. Then she let them fall freely. So much for her silly dreams of a happy future with Cal.
So, she’d gone off to college and tried to forget about him. But LuAnn was right. She unconsciously compared every man she met to her first real love. And they’d always come up short. They all had some flaw he didn’t. But Cal had the biggest flaw of all—he hadn’t loved her back. Why couldn’t her silly heart accept that?
She’d never even told him or anyone else back in Conley that she’d never gotten to that fancy college out east, either. Her father had died that summer and her mother had finally had to admit they’d been living way beyond their means. Even with the scholarship she’d won, they couldn’t afford it.
So, they’d moved to Mankato and she’d lived at home while attending the local college and working part time. Her mother still lived there, but Tami seldom saw her now. She’d gotten involved in college and made new friends, even married. Well, that hadn’t lasted long enough to count, had it? It had been a spur of the moment thing, when she’d been feeling down after hearing that traitor Cal had married in college after all, to the neighbor girl and they were expecting a baby. He hadn’t wanted to live with Tami for fear of that happening, but then married Mary Ann only two years later? Boy, had that hurt.
So when Harvey, whom she’d been casually dating, had proposed for the third time that week, Tami had accepted and married him. Big mistake, as they both agreed only a few months later. And divorced. She sighed at the memory and got up and paced her apartment.
Now, this class reunion meant she would have to face Cal again. For a moment, hope surged as she had a thought. Maybe she’d get lucky. Maybe Cal wouldn’t even show up for the reunion. There were always no-shows at every reunion, weren’t there? Maybe she could do this assignment without even meeting him. That thought warmed her for all of thirty seconds before she faced reality.
Yeah, fat chance. He’d be there. He still lived there and Aunt Cora, who also lived there, gave her an unasked for update on him every time she talked to her. That was the main reason she hadn’t gone to see that dear soul in years, though she’d invited her to Minneapolis several times.
Tami weighed her options. No matter how she looked at the situation, the answer was the same. Short of quitting her job, she didn’t have any choice but to do the assignment Mr. Edwards had given her. With a sigh, she took the reunion invitation from her purse and dialed Linda, who still lived near Conley.
“Oh, Tami! I’m so glad to hear from you,” Linda enthused. “Are you really coming to help with the reunion plans? That’s great! You’ll stay with me, won’t you?”
“No, I’d better stay with Aunt Cora,” Tami said, thinking with a shudder of Linda’s three little ones. She wasn’t used to kids and knew she’d better not chance trying to stay there. “I owe Aunt Cora a visit. She’s been unhappy with me for quite a while for not coming to see her.”
“Yes, she mentioned she’d only seen you when she went to the Twin Cities shopping. Will you be down in time for a planning session tomorrow night?”
“Sure. I can leave around noon tomorrow.”
“I’ll pick you up at Cora’s about quarter to seven, then. See you tomorrow night.”
~ * ~
In her home near Conley, Linda hung up the phone and gave a whoop. “All right!”
Immediately she phoned her friend and former classmate, Sally Kenner, and broke the news. “Tami’s coming back to town, Sally! She'll be here for the meeting tomorrow night. Isn’t that great? I told you she’d come to the reunion! It’s high time we got her and Cal Lentz back together.”
“She’s really coming? I wonder why?”
“Because I wrote and asked her, of course. Maybe she just needed a little reassurance she was welcome.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Linda. It must be more than that. After all, it’s been ten years since she and Cal broke up. She didn’t even come back for his dad’s funeral or Mary Ann’s.”
“Well, you can hardly expect her to come to his wife’s funeral,” Linda scoffed.
“You’re right. Guess I’d feel funny doing that, too, if my boyfriend had married someone else. Even Sam agreed it was better she didn’t come, and you know my husband seldom thinks I’m right about anything.”
“Well, she’s coming back now. And it’ll work out, you’ll see. So, I’ll bring her along to the planning meeting tomorrow night. Don’t say anything to Sam or Cal, or Cal might not come. He can be contrary, you know.”
“I’m not so sure this is a good idea, Linda.”
“Come on, Sally, I know I’m right. They just need a little push to get back together. I never did understand their breaking up.”
“What if they’re barely polite and ignore each other?”
“Then, we’ll have to give them a nudge. Hm, what will work? I know. I’ll say I’m too busy to work on finding all the addresses for the invitations. You refuse, too. You’ve got a good excuse with your job of babysitting. We’ll assign that job to Cal and Tami. Then they’ll have to talk to each other. You’ll have to get Sam to go along with our plan.”
“Okay, but if Sam’s mad at me, I’m telling him you made me do it.”
Linda laughed. “Make his favorite supper and put him in a good mood.”
“That’s exactly what I had in mind. It’s probably the only thing that’ll save our hides. Fried chicken it is. Why don’t you and Tami come for supper, too?”
“Sounds great, but no, I’m afraid their meeting again may be too upsetting to handle over a meal. You’d better feed the men first and soften them up, and then I’ll pop in with Tami.”
“All right. Whatever you think will work.”
“I’ll see you at tomorrow night at seven.”
Book Publisher: Class Act Books
No. of Pages: 175
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