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Authors: Kiah Stephens

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BOOK: Anchor of Hope
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“Just trying to prepare myself for going back home.” Ashley peered over his shoulder at the photos.

“Who's this?” Steven frowned.

Memories returned as Ashley stared at the photo, herself as a teenager next to a handsome young man, his arm draped over her shoulder. She could still remember it all so clearly: the warm breeze, the heady scent of Jay's deodorant, and the sparkle in his eyes whenever he looked at her.

“That's Jay.” Ashley hadn't said his name in so long, yet it still felt familiar. It
should
feel familiar. They had grown up together. Their parents had been close friends. There had even been a time in Ashley's life when she actually thought her and Jay might have one day gotten married.

“Jay? Were you two a couple?” Steven cleared his throat.

Ashley smiled. Was Steven jealous? It was unwarranted. “We dated in high school, but it wasn't anything serious.”

“You never told me about this guy.” Steven pressed his lips together.

“Nothing to tell.” Ashley shrugged.

“Doesn't look that way to me. What else are you hiding?” Steven narrowed his eyes at her. “You're not planning on seeing him when you go back to Sweet Home are you?”

Ashley's mouth dropped open.

“What? It's a legitimate question.”

She was hurt that he even felt the need to ask that question. “No, Steven. I'm not planning on seeing Jay. He probably doesn't even live there any more. And even if he
did
still live there, I'm probably the last person he would want to see.”

Steven's eyes narrowed further. She shouldn't have said that. Now he would want to know why Jay wouldn't want to see her. She needed to come up with a believable excuse, and fast.

“I broke up with him and we never spoke after that.” It wasn't exactly a lie. They hadn't spoken since she broke up with him by text message and left. It wasn't his fault. He’d been the perfect boyfriend. It was Ashley who needed to escape. She had hated herself for everything that had happened. She hated the fact that she’d spent most nights getting wasted with her friends, and she hated the fact that Jay was always there, trying to get her to stop. Most of all, she hated herself for not being there when her father died. Instead she was drunk, dancing around a bonfire.

Steven sighed and the sides of his lips twisted up into a smile. “Well, can't say I blame the poor kid. I'd be heartbroken if you broke up with me.” He pulled her close and smiled down at her. “Or if you refuse my offer of moving in with me.”

Ashley laughed and relaxed a little. When it came to patience Steven had absolutely none. Growing up in a family with money, she supposed he had learned from an early age that anything was within his means, and his divorced parents often sought to buy his love. As an adult he always got what he wanted, when he wanted. No wonder. He was the perfect catch—rich, successful, good-looking, and so charming he could sell ice to an eskimo. She knew she was lucky that to have him. His phone buzzed signalling a message, most likely from Christopher, his associate. He checked it.

“That's Chris. I gotta go.” He kissed her hard.

“Have fun on your vacation.” He cupped her face in his hands and his expression turned serious.

“Stay safe. Be good.” He paused. “And stay away from old boyfriends.”

Ashley giggled and pushed him away. “Thank you for dinner.”

“I love you,” he called, stepping down the staircase.

“I love you, too.”

Ashley smiled to herself as she watched him go, then went inside her apartment.

She wanted to have one final check to make sure she had everything ready for her trip to Sweet Home. She had managed to avoid the place for years, but now she couldn't put her return off any longer. She would be back in Sweet Home by tomorrow afternoon, whether she liked it or not.

 

Chapter 2

 

The terminal in Portland was busy. Being an international airport, many of the passengers resembled the undead cast from a zombie apocalyptic film as they exited their long flights in search of transport to find the nearest place to rest their heads.

Ashley’s flight had only been over six hours, but even so, her early start meant she felt drained of energy as she collected her suitcase and waited for Bryan in the arrivals lounge. It was amazing to think that sitting there, stationary in a seat for that amount of time, felt like she had completed a marathon.

She sent Steven a quick text message letting him know she had landed.

She spotted Bryan in the distance. His height helped him to stand out—he had been tall and gangly throughout high school, but had filled out slightly since graduating. He was wearing a plain white tee shirt and faded jeans. A knit cap hid what Ashley imagined was his dishevelled dark hair, and the strong chin he shared with Ashley—much too long for his face. He had a messy look about him, but somehow managed to pull it off. He smiled when he spotted her and gave an unnecessary wave.

He made his way over to her, dodging the stream of passengers dragging suitcases, and over-tired children throwing tantrums.

“How have you been?” Ashley smiled as he ducked to collect her suitcase and they cautiously edged their way through the crowds of people towards the exit.

“Hey, welcome home stranger.” He gave her a
ribcage-crushing hug.

Ashley smiled as Bryan ducked to collect her suitcases and they cautiously made their way towards the exit through the crowds of people.

“This is crazy,” Ashley motioned to the unusually large number of people nearby

“People have started pouring into town for the Jamboree.”

“Ah yes. The jamboree—are you planning on taking the kids this year?” Ashley sidestepped a woman who was engrossed in a phone call, dragging her suitcase in a haphazard fashion.

“I'm actually going to be running a food van there on Friday, so Jess is going to take the kids along for a bit. Maybe you could go with her? Keep an eye on them. I'm sure she'd appreciate the help.”

“Sure. Could be fun.”

 

During the ride back Bryan fiddled with the old turn knob radio, but got mostly static.

“You can pick a station if you want,” he told Ashley.

“You guys get radio out here now? This place
has
forged ahead since I left.” She laughed as she began to twist the knob, scanning through the radio stations.

“I can't believe you're still driving Dad’s old pickup truck what happened to the Prius?”

“Still got her, but she's not much good when I need to pick up supplies,” Bryan motioned with a nod of his head to the rear of the truck, which was filled with crates containing various food items—fresh vegetables, eggs and fruit.

Ashley found a station playing a modern country song. She didn't particularly like that style of music but her choices were limited, and this seemed to be the only channel without static. It would have to do.

“What's wrong with Dad's truck anyway? It's a classic!”

Their father’s old Ford pickup truck had more miles on it that Ashley thought possible. The interior bench seat had several tears in the leather. There was no CD player, justan old radio. Not even a tape deck. It was red—well, it used to be red. Now it was mostly rust.

Rust is a color, right?

Ashley’s smiled and peered out the window at the passing fields. Oregon was well known for its agriculture. You could find almost any fruit or vegetable—or choice of meat for that matter—within the state.

“Been hot in the city?” Bryan asked.

“Oh yeah—too hot.” Ashley fanned herself with her hand.

“Same here. It was ninety-one on Thursday.”

“That
is
hot, but not hot enough that you'd need to take your cap off?” She raised her eyebrows as she stared at the ragged looking knit cap perched atop his head.

Bryan flashed Ashley a puzzled expression, then seemed to realise he was still wearing his knit cap. He pulled it off with one hand and held it up. “I don't even notice I'm wearing it half the time. Jess hates it.” Bryan placed it on the seat beside him.

“I don't blame her, it looks hideous. How are the kids? Excited to see me?”

“That's all they talk about! Harley is getting big now and is constantly trying to keep up with Meika and Coco.”

“What was happening last night when Harley was trying to drown Coco?”

Bryan tilted his head back and laughed. “Who knows what goes through that kids mind? One of the mysteries of parenting I s’pose. He'll be three next month.”

“Getting old.” Ashley laughed back.

“So, are you coming to dinner at our place tonight? Mom and Martin are going out to that dinner with the Johnsons, remember? You have to say yes, otherwise the kids will whine all night.”

“Yeah, sounds good. What time?”

“About 5:30, but feel free to come earlier if you want.”

“OK.” Ashley nodded and returned back to gazing out the window at the passing fields.

Endless farms that disappeared into the distance. No skyscrapers, no fancy restaurants. Nothing of interest.

 

Bryan pulled up to the driveway of Jane’s house around two. Jane and Martin were sitting on the front porch, waiting.

Their house was a bit further than the town, right on the edge of Fosters Lake. Their property was large, and private. It was a classic lake house, with strong white beams running the length of the verandah, grey shutters to match the slate grey roof, and a beautiful manicured garden thanks to Martin’s expertise in landscaping and Jane’s knowledge of flowers and plants.

“Here comes the welcoming committee,” Bryan said as they opened their doors. Ashley mentally prepared herself for the onslaught of questions and pleasantries.

“Ashley! Hi, honey. How are you? How was your flight? Are you hungry?” Jane hugged her tightly and Martin followed closely behind.

“Hey kiddo.” He followed Jane's lead, giving Ashley a hug.

Bryan and Martin lifted her bags from the car and carried them inside.

“Hi, Mom. I'm good. The house looks great. What have you done to it? Something’s different.”

“Martin has re-sanded the porch, and put up some new exterior lights. Come in. Wait till you see what he’s done in the kitchen.”

The kitchen had been completely renovated—new timber cupboard doors, a dark marble countertop and stainless steel appliances.

“Wow, it looks fantastic Mom.” Ashley was impressed.

“I know—I finally have the big kitchen I've always wanted. And wait until you see this.” Jane opened the cutlery drawer, then slammed it closed. It stopped an inch or so before closing and slowly shut.

“They're called soft-close doors, so you can't slam them. Isn't that amazing! Technology these days? It makes your head spin.” Jane shook her head.

Ashley pressed her lips together, hiding her amusement. It was typical for her mom to get excited over something as minor as drawers.

“Now, would you like a tea, coffee, something cold?”

“Coffee, thanks.” Ashley sat down on the stool beside the counter.

Martin and Bryan joined them.

“Bryan, do you want something to drink? I've put the coffee machine on.” Jane asked.

“No, I better head off. Jess will be wondering where I am.” He turned to Ashley. “See you tonight?”

“Yes. Thanks again for picking me up, Bryan. I appreciate it.”

“I'm glad you're going to Bryan’s tonight for dinner. We are having dinner with the Johnsons. They’re going away on holiday on Monday so unfortunately can't make the wedding but wanted to have a celebratory dinner with us before they left. We tried to make it on a different night, because I was hoping to spend some time with you here on your first night home, but this was the only night we both had available. You can join us if you like.” Jane peered at Ashley. It  didn’t sound appealing.

“It's fine Mom, really. I'm going to be here for the full week, so we'll have plenty of time to catch up.”

“How does it feel to be home?” Martin asked.

“Well, it's not exactly home now, but it's nice, I suppose. I'm looking forward to relaxing and unwinding. What’s new with you?”

“Your mother's got me on a new diet—paleo.” He raised one side of his top lip in mock displeasure.

“It's not a diet.” Jane said. “It's a way of eating—and I tell you what, we have both lost weight and have so much more energy now. We don't eat gluten, sugar, soft drinks—”

“No refined foods,” Martin said. “But plenty of meat, so I can't complain.”

“Yeah, I've heard of the paleo diet. Good for you.” Ashley wrapped her hands around the purple mug of coffee.

“How's Steven?” Jane asked.

“He's good. Flies over to Japan on Thursday. If he secures this job, they're going to make him partner at the firm.”

“Wow, that's great,” Jane said.

Ashley nodded and slowly sipped the hot coffee.

“So, we have a big week planned—the most important thing is getting you measured up first thing on Monday so Gina can get that dress altered.”

“What color and style is it? I brought a lot of my jewellery along to try to match it, but I kind of need to know what it looks like first. I guess I can pick something on the day ?”

“It's a surprise,” Jane said, smiling at Martin, “and Gran and I have already picked the  jewelry.”

“Gran? Do you know how difficult this is for me? For someone who loves fashion, and has about one million dresses in her wardrobe, to not know what they are wearing to a fairly important event is like torture.” Ashley groaned to emphasize the extent of her misery.

“You'll have to trust us.” Jane shrugged, satisfied, and lifted her mug of coffee to her lips.

“Are you tired? Your bed is set up if you want to have a little nap, if you're feeling jet-lagged?”

“I don't think I'm jet-lagged.” Ashley laughed. “But I
am
pretty tired. I didn't sleep too well last night. I might have a lie down for a while.”

At the top of the stairs was Bryan’s old bedroom. It looked as though it were lived in—the bed was made, and there was men’s’ clothing hanging visibly through the open slit on the wardrobe.

Ashley curiously pushed the door open and stepped inside. There was a photo of Martin and Jane on the bedside table. She frowned as she picked it up. That was an odd photo to put in a guest bedroom. She spun on her heels as she heard Martin cough from behind her. He was standing in the door way.

“Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to pry. Does someone live in here?”

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

Ashley must have had a confused expression on her face, because Martin explained.

“I . . . well, your mother and I . . . wanted to keep things
traditional
.” He shifted uncomfortably and Ashley could see a deep shade of crimson rising from his neck line.

Oh!

Now she understood. How embarrassing.

“Oh, I see. Sorry for intruding.” She stepped past him and made her way into her old bedroom as fast she could, closing the door behind her and leaning her back against it. Why hadn't anyone told her? That embarrassing scene could have easily been avoided. It seemed a little bizarre that they would have separate bedrooms, but it was none of her business how they chose to conduct their lives. Really, she didn't want to know.

Her room had had a much-needed makeover. She barely recognised it with all the fresh paint and new decor . In fact, the whole house had been made over. With Martins keen eye for restoration, he had managed to brighten the place up and give it a new life.

She eyed her suitcase sitting on the bed. Normally she loved unpacking on vacation. It made her feel settled and prepared to stay a while. But this wasn't like vacation—this was more like a forced stay in one of the places she had actively avoided. Maybe if she kept her clothes in the suitcase it would feel like a quick stopover, something temporary. Unpacking was almost like admitting defeat, accepting the fact that she was 'getting comfortable', which she knew was impossible in this town. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

She placed the suitcase on the floor and collapsed on the bed. Lying on her back, she clasped her fingers together across her stomach and closed her eyes. How she wished she were back in the city, back at home and back with Steven.

One day at a time, you can do this. Just one week and you can get the heck out of this place and back to your life.

 

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