She walked in, the harsh fluorescents of the hallway giving way to warm, shaded lights in the ballroom. A banner, welcoming everyone to their fifteenth class reunion, was strung along the far wall–a table stood beneath it, laden with wrapped packages and cheap trophies.
She stopped at a desk by the door, finding her name badge and pinning it on her lapel. She permitted herself a look around the room, forcing down the unease that sprang up the moment she recognized some of the faces.
This was a bad idea.
Motion caught her eye, and she smiled broadly in relief. “Julie!”
The woman who’d waved at her hurried to her side. “Dawn! I’m so glad to see you. I didn’t know if anyone would actually make it to this thing.”
Julie smiled, rolling her eyes. “As if Ron would miss this. How else is he going to relive his glory years?”
“Ah, the Great Debate of ’98.”
“Oh, shut up. You just wish you’d been on the team.”
“Because I needed one more reason to be a pariah?”
Julie took her hand and tugged her, leading her across the floor to a small cluster of people. “Hey, Dawn made it.”
A circle of smiling faces greeted her, and she relaxed. This isn’t going to be so bad, after all.
What was I thinking?
She was trapped at a table between Julie and a brunette she didn’t know, waiting for the former class president to finish doling out “awards.” So far, it was a mish-mash of cute and insulting titles: Longest Marriage, Shortest Marriage, Most Children, Furthest Traveled. The pile of prizes was still too large for comfort.
She wanted out. Now.
She cringed, standing. The titters and whispers followed her to the podium, and Marianne Houseman (now Patel) stood beaming, a gift-wrapped block in her hand.
“Congratulations, Dawn, you’ve not changed at all!”
She didn’t miss the not-quite-in-jest jab.
“Is there anything you’d like to say?”
She froze, feeling every eye on her. Looking out across the crowd, she felt the flush climbing her neck, saw the knowing smiles on some of the faces. She set the gift down, tearing the corner of the paper and pulling it back enough to glimpse at the contents. The Dirty Minds Game. She could sense her blush darkening. She swallowed, forcing a smile, and looked back at her former classmates. The tears began welling up, and then she saw him, recognized the shaggy dark hair, those lips curled in a knowing smile. He dipped his head.
She felt a surge of happiness. Here–finally–one person she could trust absolutely.
She turned her body half toward Marianne. “Thanks, Marianne. Actually, there is something I’d like to say.” She picked up the gift, peeling back the paper. She smiled down at it, then tossed the box at her old classmate. “Fuck you.”
The people closest to her gasped.
Dawn smiled out at everyone. “I’m here because I wanted to see someone, someone I haven’t talked to since I was in college. The rest of you don’t matter. So…thanks. For reminding me.” She stepped away from the podium, making a loop past her seat for her purse.
Julie grabbed her hand. “What the hell, Dawn?”
Dawn shrugged. “I gotta run.”
Marianne was yelling obscenities into the mic.
When Dawn reached the door, he spoke, pushing away from the wall and glaring up at the stage. “Shut the fuck up, you damn harpy.”
Marianne screamed at him.
He flipped her off with both hands, hitting the doors as Dawn exited.
She could hear him walking behind her.
“Language, Miss Flicker.”
She stopped, biting back the smile as she turned to face him. She couldn’t stop the bright blush that painted her cheeks at his words. “Mark.”
He wrapped his arms around her and let her bury her face in his chest.
His hand slipped over her hair. “You always let them get to you.”
“I can’t help it.”
She snaked her arms around his waist. “I’m so glad you were there.”
“Yeah, well, you got lucky.”
She squeezed him once, hard, making him grunt in protest. “You were always there.”
He didn’t say anything, just stroked her hair. Then, quietly, “You always needed someone.”
She laughed, then, pulling away and wiping her nose on her jacket sleeve.
They looked at one another. She was grinning at him.
“You are so my John Bender.”
He snorted, looking across the lot and back to the hotel’s entrance. A beat, then–“Does this mean I get to watch you put on lipstick with your boobs?”
She punched him in the arm. “No, you jackass.” She looked down at her chest. “Besides, I doubt the girls could’ve done that trick then, let alone now.”
He flinched. “That’s a new side of you.”
She frowned. “What? Speaking my mind?”
She laughed, again. “Blunt? You have no idea.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “So, you don’t mind if I say you were completely fuckable back there?”
Her face turned crimson. “Mark!”
He turned to walk away, bumping her shoulder with his. “I just wanted to see if I could still make you blush.”
She fell into step beside him. “You always could. Why do you do that?”
She reached out, clutching at his elbow. “Mark.”
He stopped, brows lifted in question.
“I saw it. What you wrote.”
“In my annual.”
He stiffened. “I forgot about that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged, again. “Wasn’t important.”
She rolled her eyes. “You all but admitted you were in love with me. That’s not important? You should’ve told me!”
He shook his head. “Dawn–you’ve always been the good girl.” He pointed back at the hotel. “That’s why they always gave you hell. And I was never the nice guy, you know that.”
“You were always nice to me.”
He smiled. “I didn’t want to be.”
“Then why were you?”
He leaned against a sedan, crossing his arms. “I couldn’t not be nice to you.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You wouldn’t talk to me anymore, Dawn. If I’d said one thing outta line, that would’ve been it.”
“That’s not true! We were friends. I wouldn’t have just cut you off for one little thing.”
He tilted his head back, looking up at the stars. “Dawn…”
“You should’ve asked me out.”
His head snapped forward. “What?”
“I said, ‘you should’ve asked me out.’ Who knows what would’ve happened.”
“Nothing good, I can promise that.”
She made a noise like a hiss. “How do you know that?”
“Because I wasn’t what your mom and dad wanted you with. I’d have been a bad influence.”
Her face was practically glowing. She stepped toward him. “That’s not fair. It’s not true.”
“Trust me, I have a knack for screwing shit up.”
“Shut up. Just shut up.”
He threw her a dark look.
She waved him off. “Keep your glares to yourself.” She stepped between his legs, nudging his knees apart, and tugged on his arms until he loosened them and they hung by his sides. She wrapped herself around him, tucking her body closely into his, her face against his chest, above his heart.
He let his arms curl around her, and held her there.
She clung to him, not moving or speaking until he shifted under her.
“What about now?”
He cocked his head. “Meaning?”
She looked up at him. “Now. What would you do now?”
He turned away. “I’d kiss you.”
She tugged his jacket sleeve, and when he looked back, she pressed her lips to his.