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Authors: Kiah Stephens

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BOOK: Anchor of Hope
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“There.” She removed her hand. “I think that’s stopped it.”

“Thank you.” His eyes quickly darted to hers then back onto the road.

She stared him for a long time. His right hand was on the steering wheel and his left elbow rested on the window, allowing him to twist the side of his beard with his fingers. Even though the sun had been down for a while, the heat was still stifling.

She couldn’t decide how much he had changed since she last saw him. He seemed the same, but different somehow. Maybe not so self-centred. Gentler. Still funny. He gave her another quick glance and smiled as he caught her looking.

“What?” he asked.

She panicked. She had been caught staring.

She needed to think up an excuse.

“I . . . uh . . . I like your beard.”

I like your beard? Really? That's the best you could come up with?

“It's very Mountain Man-ish.”

“So, overall, you think it improves my face?” he asked.

Was this a trick question? Was he asking her if she thought he was ugly so a beard to cover his face was an improvement, or was he simply asking if she liked his beard?

“I like your face,” she said, then regretted it.

He laughed, that great laugh where his eyes squinted and formed creases at the corners and his mouth opened wide in joy. Ashley laughed too.

“What I mean to say is I think you'd look great with or without a beard. You have a nice face.”

“Thank you,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road.

“Would you ever shave it off?”

“My face?”

“Your beard.” Ashley was surprised at how easy their conversation had flowed. They hadn't spoken in almost eight years, yet it felt like yesterday that they were together laughing and joking.

“Do you think I should?” he asked.

“It’s up to you,” Ashley said. “Doesn’t it get hot in summer?”

“Does yours?” He smirked and cocked one eyebrow.

She swatted his arm. “I don’t have a beard!”

“No, I know you don't have a beard. It’s more like a moustache and goatee.”             

He dodged as she tried to hit him again and laughed.

She leaned towards the rear view mirror, tilting it to check her face, turning her head from side to side making him laugh even more. “I so don’t have facial hair.”

“Of course you don’t. Don’t take things so seriously.”

She tried to keep a straight face but found it difficult. He always had had a way of making her laugh and lightening any situation, and she couldn't help to admire that attribute. Her father had been like that too. It was good to be around someone with that trait, especially considering that she often thought of herself as being too uptight and reading too much into things.

As they pulled up in front of Jane and Martin’s house, Jay put the truck into park and darted around to open her door for her.

“Wow, you
have
changed.”

He scratched the back of his neck again. A nervous habit?

“Thanks for letting me come fishing. I had fun. Probably more fun than you.” She frowned as she glanced at the Band-Aid on his neck and reflecting on the unfortunate action of throwing away his dinner.

“I doubt that, but you're welcome. It was good to see you again.” He placed his hands into his pockets.

They stood there for a moment, in an awkward silence not knowing what to say or do.

Should they hug, or shake hands? A high-five maybe?

“I should probably let you go,” Jay stepped aside to let her pass.

“Yeah, I should probably go.” Ashley smiled briefly and raised her eyebrows. “I'll see you around.”

“Yeah, I'll see you on Saturday.”

As she stepped past him, he grabbed her around the wrist and she felt her heart begin to race. His fingers were warm, and despite the summer heat she could feel the hairs on her arm prickle with goose bumps.

“That’s not too weird, is it?” He frowned.

She frowned too, unsure what he was talking about. “Me. Coming to your mom and Martin’s wedding? If you don't want me there, say the word and I won’t come.” His eyes searched hers and that deep furrow between his brows was back.

“It’s not weird,” Ashley said. “I promise.” She made the sign of a cross over her heart. “You and Bryan are practically BFF’s, our dads were BFF’s and I know Mom would be disappointed if you didn’t come. Besides, we’re cool, aren't we?” She shrugged and gave a friendly smile.

Jay nodded and let go of her wrist. She could still feel the warmth of his skin lingering on hers.

“OK, but if at any time you change your mind, you tell me.”

Ashley smiled. “I won’t change my mind.”

“Still stubborn, I see.” Jay smirked as he backed away towards his car.

“I prefer the term ‘determined’,” Ashley called as he got into his car and began to drive away.

It wasn't until he had disappeared from view that she realized she had been gently rubbing her wrist where his hand had been.

And that she hadn’t stopped smiling.

Chapter 9

 

Thursday.

Only two more days until the wedding. There was a slight drop in the temperature, which Ashley appreciated during her morning run.

Jane had finished juicing from fresh oranges as Ashley arrived back at her mother’s house around mid-morning.

“Thank you.” Ashley sipped the juice. “This is so good.”

“They’re from Jo Murray’s farm, picked fresh yesterday,” Jane said. “What have you got planned for today?”

Ashley shrugged. “Nothing at all, actually. Do you need a hand getting anything ready?”

“No, I think we’re all sorted, sweetheart. Just remember you have the final dress fitting this afternoon at 2:15.”

“I remember, Mom. So tell me how this is supposed to work considering I’m not supposed to see the dress until Saturday, but I’m trying it on today?” Ashley raised her eyebrows.

“Well, we have it all planned out—Gina has a blindfold for you–”

“A blindfold?” Ashley squeezed her brows together.

“Yes, then she’ll help you with getting the dress on in the fitting room. That way she can check if she needs to make any final adjustments.”

Ashley shook her head. “Sure seems like a lot of trouble for just a dress.”

Jane smiled at Ashley. “It's not
just
a
dress
.
You'll see . . . on Saturday and not a moment before.”

“OK, OK. But it better not be some crazy ugly bridesmaids dress with ballooned sleeves and stiff fluoro-colored material from the eighties.” Ashley pressed her lips together.

“It’s not,” Jane assured her.

Somehow that didn't ease her mind. Ashley finished her juice and rinsed her glass in the sink, whistling, while Jane began clearing the orange peels off the countertop.

“You're awfully chirpy this morning,” Jane commented.

Ashley detected a certain undertone to her mother’s voice, as though she were trying to imply something but didn't want to come right out and say it.

“Oh, am I?” Ashley said, deciding to play it cool. “Must have been because I got a good night’s rest.”

“Hmm,” Jane said, as though Ashley’s response hadn't convinced her.

“Hmm, what?” Ashley asked turning to face Jane.

“Oh, it's nothing,” Jane said as she wiped the countertop—even though it was already clean.

Ashley folded her arms and gave Jane a look which clearly indicated she didn't believe it was
nothing.

“I thought it might have something to do with a certain somebody.” Jane raised her eyebrows.

“Who? You don't mean Jay?” That was exactly who Jane meant.

“Well, you did spend quite a while with him yesterday and when you walked in that door last night you seemed like a completely different person.”

“What?” Ashley screwed up her face, hoping to give her mother the impression that she was way off. “No, I was glad that we finally had a chance to clear the air after all this time. I had a good time catching up with him. I think he’s a great
friend.

“OK, honey.” Jane smiled and lightly wrapped her hands around Ashley's upper arms, looking at her face to face.

“Well, whatever it is, it's nice to see you smile—I mean
really
smile.” Jane gave Ashley’s arms a light squeeze and kissed her forehead. “I'm going to go and get dressed. I have to meet Pastor Barry to go over our vows, and Karen wanted me to give her a hand in the store but I’ll meet you at Gina’s at 2:15. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t.”

How ridiculous. She couldn't believe her mother actually though there might have been something between her and Jay. She was in a relationship with Steven. And she was happy. Very happy. Maybe she was in a good mood from having had spent so much time with Bryan, Jess and the kids yesterday? Even though initially she had been scared by the thought of spending time with the children, she was actually enjoying it, and couldn't wait to hang out with them again.

She thought she had better shower after her run. As she ran up the stairs her phone rang.

Stephanie.

“Stephanie, Hi.”

“Ashley, I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to get back to you until now. It has been crazy busy at work. Dianne has had me running around non-stop. I haven't even had a moment to myself. How have you been?”

“Good, thanks. Listen, I wanted to talk to you about the file I emailed you. I heard there was a bit of a mix-up and that you somehow misplaced it—”

“I didn’t misplace it.”

“You didn't?” Ashley frowned, confused.

“No. You didn’t send it to me.”

“Yes, I did. On Friday.”

There was silence.

“Do you remember? I even asked you while you were at your desk and you said you’d received the email.”

“I don’t remember that.”

Either she had truly forgotten or she was flat-out lying.

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter now,” Stephanie said. “I designed a completely new layout. I had to stay back late at the office to get it done in time, but I think it turned out pretty well. So it’s not a big deal. Dianne’s happy, everyone’s happy.” She sounded smug.

“Well, you wouldn’t have had to stay back late if you had used the one I sent you.”

There was a long, exasperated sigh on the other end of the phone. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Ashley. You didn’t send me the file. Dianne was super angry.”

Ashley couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Now she
knew
Stephanie was lying. It was all a plot to try to put Ashley down in front of Dianne so Stephanie could be praised as the hero.

“Anyway, I’ve got to go, Dianne is waiting for her coffee and bagel, so have fun wherever you are and we’ll talk later. Bye.”

Stephanie hung up, leaving Ashley reeling. She was so confused. How could Stephanie do something like this? She’d always gotten along with Stephanie—at least, she thought they had. They were always pleasant to one another at work. Who knew Stephanie could be so conniving?

The worst part was that she was on the other side of the country and couldn't speak with Dianne personally to defend herself. Now Dianne would think she was irresponsible and undependable.

She put the phone down on the dresser in the bedroom and stared at it, contemplating whether or not to call Dianne herself. That could sound quite petty though and it all came down to Stephanie's word against hers. She didn't have solid evidence anyway, not from where she was. She chewed the inside of her lip. It seemed like her visit to Sweet Home was having a negative effect on her life back in New York. First it had caused a massive feud between her and Steven, and now there were issues at work and she was in no position to do anything about it.

What she lost her job over this? She felt light-headed, and braced herself against the dresser. In reality there was nothing she could do. She would just have to put the stress aside and get on with her time in Sweet Home. When she went back to New York next week she’d have the opportunity to explain herself, and hopefully reassure Dianne that she wasn’t irresponsible.

After her shower, she got dressed into a pair of navy cotton shorts with a pretty lace trim and a simple oversized white shirt with a single pocket on the left side of the chest. Her hair was still damp from the shower but she didn't mind—in this heat, it was a welcome relief.

She still had a while until she had to meet her mother in town, which was a good twenty-minute walk. She loved the trail, especially in springtime when all the flowers were in full bloom and the air was sweetly perfumed with an intoxicating blend of scents.

She grabbed the local newspaper from the counter, poured herself a glass of cold water and strolled out into the back garden. She sat on one of the white wrought-iron garden chairs and popped her feet up onto the other one.

It was so peaceful.

She watched as three butterflies fluttered by disappearing amongst the tree branches.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath.

Opening her eyes she looked around at all the natural beauty and color. She missed this. The serenity, the calm, the ability to be totally present in a single moment without any distractions or obligations.

She flicked through the newspaper. There were a few stories about the local sporting teams, charity fund-raisers, local markets and general small town politics.

She looked at the faces of the people in the article photographs—they looked happy, content even. She was willing to bet that they all knew one another; in a town this small, everyone knows everyone. Everyone always waved 'hello', asked how you were and was always willing to lend a hand when you needed one.

It made her think of her own home back in New York, millions of people, standing side by side on the subway, walking side by side on the streets and working cubicle by cubicle in the offices, yet no one ever seemed to make an effort to communicate to the person right next to them. Odd. Surrounded by millions of people, yet feel utterly lonely.

After she finished reading the newspaper she leaned back on the chair and closed her eyes enjoying the moment.

 

She decided to start walking half an hour before she was due for the  dress fitting, carrying her purse and a bottle of water. As she neared town she spotted a few teenagers running barefoot in the direction of the lake, clad only in their swimming costumes. She used to spend her summers in the exact same way.

Ashley's mother, grandmother, and Gina were all waiting by the time she reached the dressmakers, even though she was ten minutes early.

“Hi.” She waved to everyone as she walked in. “What’s everyone doing here? Is this some kind of surprise party or something?”

Jane laughed. “Were all excited to see you in the dress.”

Ashley laughed. They obviously didn't get much entertainment in this little old town. Her mother took her purse as Gina showed her to the change rooms, with a black satin eye mask in her hand.

She left Ashley alone in the change room to remove her shorts and shirt. Gina slipped her hand in through the curtain holding out the eye mask for Ashley. She felt ridiculous putting it on but obliged.

“OK honey, if you've got the mask on, I'll help you get into the dress now.” Gina said from outside the curtain.

“I'm ready,” Ashley called back. She heard the faint rustle of the curtains as Gina stepped in and carefully helped Ashley step into the dress, and guiding her arms under the thin straps.

She felt Gina zip the dress up at the back. It felt heavy, but not so heavy that it would be painful to wear for a long period of time. The dress was made of a soft stretchy material, and the snug fit meant she could tell it was floor length. It was driving her insane that she wasn't allowed to peek.

Gina turned her a quarter of a turn towards her left and she heard the curtains draw open.

She could hear the gasps from Jane and Grace, then nothing but silence.

“Well?” Ashley asked.

“Oh my,” Jane said.

“It’s perfect,” Grace added.

“I don’t think it needs any adjustments,” Gina said as she guided Ashley around in a circle.

She could hear them as they walked around her. This would have to go down as one of the more unusual experiences of her life.

“Mmm, I think you're right, Gina. It doesn't need anything else done,” Jane said.

“All right, let’s get you changed,” Gina took Ashley's arm and gently led her back into the change rooms.

Once the dress was off, she heard Gina sneak out through the curtain.

“OK,” Gina called. “You can take off your mask now.” Ashley lifted the mask and finished getting dressed.

When she emerged from the fitting room the dress had vanished from sight, much to her disappointment. Jane and Grace both looked pleased. They finished talking to Gina and the three of them walked outside.

“What have you got planned now, Mom?” Jane asked Grace.

“I'm meeting Nancy and Patricia for our usual Thursday afternoon catch up.” She turned to Ashley. “We play cards.”

“Oh.” Ashley smiled and nodded.

“I'm a bit of a shark.” She winked.

“Well, Ash, Karen has asked if I can manage the shop this afternoon while she does some deliveries. Are you all right to find your own way home?” Jane asked.

“Yeah, not a problem. I was thinking of going to visit Bryan and see what the kids are up to anyway. I'll make my way home later on, if that's OK with you?”

“Of course, honey,” Jane leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Is that Jay?” she asked peering over Ashley's shoulder “It is!” Jane began waving her hands to signal him.

Ashley glanced behind her and spotted his truck coming down the street towards them. He pulled his car over and got out. He seemed to be popping up everywhere Ashley went, but then again, of course he would—Sweet Home was a small town.

“Good afternoon ladies.”

Ashley gave a quick smile, feeling a bit awkward about their close interactions from the night before. Maybe it was too
close
.

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