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Authors: Kiah Stephens

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BOOK: Anchor of Hope
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“Well, you'd think so, but it is gone.”

“Did she check her other folders? It can't have vanished.”

“Yep, she checked everywhere. It is gone—either that, or she deliberately deleted it herself.”

Ashley frowned, confused. “Why would she delete it? Surely she wouldn't do it on purpose?”

“To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised Ash. She wants your job and I have a feeling she’s going to take advantage of you being away this week to play favorites with Dianne. It's embarrassing. She’s following Dianne around like a puppy—getting her coffee and acting ever-so-sweet, and Dianne’s totally buying it! Stephanie even ‘volunteered’ to stay back late tonight to finish the layout herself.”

“Well she lost it so it's only fair that she fixes it.”

“That's the thing, Ash. She told Dianne she never even got the email from you! So now Dianne thinks you took off without finishing your job.”

Ashley’s heart began to race—she’d sent the email. She knew she had, because she worked extra hard to get it finished in time. She knew Stephanie envied her position at the office, but she didn't think she would actually stoop this low. “I can't even access my files from here. They're all stored on my laptop, which I left at home—I knew I should have brought it with me!” Ashley let out a frustrated sigh “I'll give Steph a call and see if we can figure out what is going on.”

“Cool. But don't tell her I told you—I don't want her to know it was me, OK?”

“I won't say anything, promise.”

“So, anyway, how's the country? Are you missing the Big Apple yet?”

Ashley laughed, “Well yes, and no. I miss Steven-”

“And me!” Tania interrupted.

“And you, of course, but it's nice to have some peace and quiet.”

“Peace and quiet? What do you
do
out there?”

“Not much. Just sit in the garden or on the jetty, and relax.”

Tania laughed, “I think I would die of boredom. Ash, I better go, I’m meeting this guy I met at the bar on Friday night—Harry. He’s a web designer and he’s totally loaded!” Tania laughed. “He’s cute too—so it’s a win-win for me! Yay!”

Ashley couldn't help but laugh. “Sounds great—have fun, and thanks for letting me know about work.”

“No prob. Bye.”

Ashley said goodbye and hung up. She immediately dialled Stephanie's number, which went straight to her voice mail. “Hey Steph, it's Ashley. Can you please give me a call as soon as you get a free chance? Thanks.”

She hung up and took a deep breath.

She stared at her phone, willing it to ring, but it didn't. All that could be heard was the steady chirping of the cicadas. She could hear her mother and Martin laughing in the kitchen.

There wasn't a lot she could do from this end. She had no choice but to wait for Stephanie to call her, then she might be able to get to the bottom of it all.

She sighed, trying to suppress her anxiety, and went back inside to help with the dinner. 

 

The phone rang after dinner, as Ashley was getting ready for bed. Steven, not Stephanie.

“Hey stranger,” Ashley answered the phone. “How’s everything going?”

“Great, actually. We managed to acquire another high profile client today—and I looked at an apartment in Upper Manhattan that would blow your mind. Views straight over the city, two bedrooms, massive office, and close to everything.”

“Sounds beautiful,” Ashley said.

“Good, because I put a deposit on it,” Steven stated.

“What?”

“I bought it. For us.”

Ashley was speechless. On one hand she felt excited that he had thought of her in his decision making, but she hadn’t even decided if she was ready to live with him yet, let alone told him.

“It’s empty at the moment, and I pulled a few strings so we can start moving in as early as next week. I’ll arrange a removalist to do all the work so you don't have to lift a finger. I’ll take care of it all—don’t worry about a thing.”

“Steven, I thought you said you were going to wait? I haven't even said I was ready to move in yet. I haven’t had a chance to speak with Hallie and I’m sure she’d be interested in knowing I was moving out in less than a week!”

“I’ve already called Hallie and offered to cover the rent payments for you until she finds someone new.”

“What?” She could hardly believe what she was hearing, and was more than a little angry that he had gone ahead and done all of this behind her back.

“Hallie was totally fine about it,” Steven said. “So now you don't have anything holding you back, right?”

Wrong.

She didn't know what was holding her back, but her gut was telling her it was a bad idea.

“I just . . . I can't believe you did that Steven.”

“Are you serious?” Ashley detected a hint of anger in his voice. “Why can't you be thankful? It’s not like you have to do anything. I can only see positives from your side—a new apartment uptown, plenty of space, we get to spend more time with each other. I’ve already dealt with Hallie and you don’t have to lift a finger. What more could you want? Seriously, I don't want to sound conceited, but there are hundreds of girls who would love to be in your position.” There was a pause. “Is it me?”

“No,” Ashley said, it was barely more than a whisper. “It's not you.”

“Then what? Are you afraid of commitment? If it doesn't work out, I will personally make sure you have another apartment to move into. Like I said, it’s not a marriage. There are no binding legal contracts.”

Ashley felt embarrassed when she couldn't come up with anything to say in her defence.

“Are you there?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, say something!”

She opened her mouth to speak but was at a loss for words. What
could
she say?

“You know what. You're preoccupied with family stuff at the moment, so I’ll go and I’ll give you a call later.”

He hung up.

Her head was spinning and she felt nauseous. Things were going from bad to worse. Here she was, in a relationship with one of the most eligible bachelors in New York, who had just purchased what she could only imagine would be a ridiculously expensive, ritzy apartment in the middle of the city for her and she was. . .
what exactly
, too afraid to move in with him? She was angry with herself. He was right, she should be thankful. She should be jumping at the chance to move in with him, but something was holding her back. Fear? Maybe her problem, was that she was never satisfied and always striving for more, like the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence—or the other side of the country.

She looked in the mirror at her reflection.

“Get yourself together, Ash,” she whispered.

She picked up her phone and scrolled through her contacts to Steven’s name. She held her finger above the ‘call’ button but decided not to press it. No, she didn't even know what she was going to say and didn't want to aggravate him further. He had one of the biggest business meetings of his life in less than two days and she didn’t want to be responsible for upsetting him this close to landing the deal. She put her phone on the dressing table and climbed into bed, switching off the bedside light. She lay down, trying to clear her mind from negative thoughts, hoping a good nights’ sleep would help ease her mind. But as all the different scenarios and possibilities flooded her head, sleep seemed to elude her.

 

Chapter 7

 

Despite the fact that she had gotten little sleep during the night, Ashley woke up determined to make the most of the day—it was a new opportunity to enjoy the serenity of Sweet Home and share in her mothers’ excitement.

It was only three days until the wedding and the weather forecast was for a warm, balmy days without any signs of strong winds or rain. Martin and Jane wanted to start tidying up the garden and hedges, and getting everything into place. Ashley offered to help.

Ashley wore her faded denim shorts and a black tank top, and had her hair tied back into a simple ponytail. It was too hot for makeup and her skin felt surprisingly soft and clearer after going a few days without the heavy makeup she usually wore in the city. Tania would be horrified if she were to see Ashley looking like this. If the outfits she had seen in the bar on Saturday night was anything to go by, she could stroll down the main street in her pyjamas if she wanted to and no one would bat an eyelid.

It was nearing midday when her phone rang. She stood from the flowers she was weeding and retrieved her phone from her back pocket.

“Hey, Bryan.”

“Hey, wondering if you were still up to getting together with us this afternoon?”

“Of course! I've hardly seen the kids since I’ve been here.”

Bryan laughed. “Great. Yeah, they’ve been itching to hang out with you too, but they’ve been keeping busy with vacation care at the school most days. They’re at a friends’ house today. Jess is picking them up around two and we’re going to head out to the lake for a swim. I can pick you up on the way if you're not doing anything.”

“Sounds perfect.” Ashley wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. Her gardening gloves were filthy.

“See you then,” Bryan said, and hung up.

She was looking forward to a break—pulling out weeds in ninety degree heat was exhausting, and a swim in the lake sounded like heaven.

 

Bryan pulled up in their dad’s old pickup truck shortly after two. He went out the back to inspect Jane and Martin’s handiwork in the garden while Ashley grabbed her bag and sunglasses from inside. When she came out, Bryan was getting into the car and Jane was standing nearby, trying to cool herself down by fanning her face with her hand.

“You sure you don't want to come, Mom?” Bryan asked.

“Oh no, you guys go, have fun. We've still got some work to do here. We'll finish up soon though. What time do you think you'll be home, Ashley?”

Ashley paused and looked at Bryan “I'm not sure. What time do you think Bryan?”

Bryan shrugged. “About five. Is that OK?”

Both Ashley and Jane nodded.

“No rush. We’ll see you whenever you get home. We'll probably aim for a late dinner—it’s too hot to eat before seven. Make sure you wear sunscreen!” Jane called as Ashley climbed into the truck and Bryan began to reverse out of the driveway.

 

The main swimming area at the lake was crowded. It seemed all the locals had the same idea as the tourists in this heat wave—cooling off in the lake. Several boats were out on the lake, some were water skiing, while others were looking to secure their own private area of the lake to spend the afternoon. Bryan kept driving and Ashley didn’t need to ask where he was going. She knew he’d be going to the swimming spot they had always gone when they were younger.

As they pulled up they could see Jess helping get the kids into their sun protective tops and was liberally applying sunscreen to their arms and faces.

This area was more secluded, with only a handful of other people around. It was a beautiful spot, lots of sandy banks with a jetty on the left, and a swing rope hidden behind the trees off to the right.

The girls came running over to Ashley as soon as they spotted her. They completely bypassed Bryan and wrapped their little arms around Ashley’s waist.

Bryan gave Jess a quick kiss and proceeded to kick off his shoes and started applying the sunscreen.

“Aunty Ashley!” Coco squealed. “I can swim without any water wings. But Harley can't because he's a baby. Can you swim?”

Ashley laughed. “I haven't gone swimming in a long time but yes, I can swim.”

“Good, it’s important to be able to swim in case a shark or an alligator try to get you when you’re in the water.”

“There are no sharks or alligators here, dummy,” Meika rolled her eyes.

They took Ashley’s hands and started walking over to their parents.

“Do you like my swim suit? Grandma bought it for my birthday.” Coco looked down at her pretty pink and purple love-heart patterned simming suit.

“I do, I was going to say it was beautiful—and so is yours, Meika.”

“Sunscreen?” Bryan offered the tube to Ashley.

“Thanks, but I bought my own.” She pulled out a tube from her bag.

Bryan frowned. “Don't use that rubbish. It's full of synthetic ingredients—parabens, mineral oil, chemicals.” He listed them off on his fingers. “Use mine.” He handed Ashley his tube.

Jess smiled at Ashley and shrugged. “You get used to it after a while.”

“What?” Bryan asked. “I’m only trying to look out for everybody.”

“I know, baby,” Jess squeezed his cheeks together with one hand and gave him a kiss. “Thank you.”

Soon they were all waist deep in the water, the kids splashing around and attempting to stay on the inflatable toys they  had brought to play on. Even Harley was having fun with his water wings. Bryan tossed the girls through the air like rag dolls, and they would hit the water at speeds Ashley thought would knock the wind out of them, but they resurfaced each time with enormous smiles on their faces, ready for more. Meika spotted a friend from school and they ran off together to make sandcastles. Coco decided to join them, so Jess and Ashley went back onto the sand to dry off and lay down in the sun.

Bryan stayed in the shallows with Harley, who couldn't get enough of splashing around in the water.

“How’s your week been so far?” Jess asked as they both rested back on their elbows, keeping a watchful eye on the kids.

“Relaxing,” Ashley said. “I don’t know how you survive with these kids—they're so energetic! It looks exhausting.”

Jess smiled and nodded. “It is. All the time. But I love it. Every day they make me laugh—and sometimes cry, and sometimes drink. But I wouldn't have it any other way. They’re such a blessing. I couldn’t imagine my life without them.”

“Even with all the chaos that comes with having kids?” Ashley asked.

“Even with all the chaos. One day, when you have kids, you'll understand. They change you—teach you patience, love, forgiveness. You'll see.”

Ashley smiled, but her heart was hurting. She wouldn't ‘see’, Steven didn't want kids. Loving Steven would mean having to make sacrifices in order to make their relationship work.

“Jay! Dad, look. It’s Uncle Jay!” Coco yelled.

Ashley and Jess sat upright.

Coco was running across the sand at full speed towards the road. Bryan scooped Harley out of the water and waved his arms as though he was trying to signal someone. Ashley turned around to see Jay’s truck, driving in the direction of his house. Bryan caught up with Coco and together they waved Jay down. Ashley saw them start up a conversation and turned back to face the water.

She could feel Jess staring at her.

“You OK?” Jess asked.

“Uh huh.” Ashley nodded, wriggling her toes in the sand.

“Is it weird seeing Jay?”

Ashley shrugged then finally said, “It is a bit.”

Jess nodded. “He's changed you know, since you left. Grown up a lot. Bryan and him are close, so we get to spend a fair bit of time with him. I bet if you talked to him, you’d see.”

Ashley smiled as Coco came running over.

“Jay’s coming for a swim!” she announced, excited.

Ashley’s heartbeat quickened.

She heard Bryan approaching from behind her.

“Is that all right? I invited him over—I hope you don't mind. He was only going home for the day anyway.”

Ashley smiled. “Yeah, of course it’s fine. It's not like it’s my lake.” She could feel her temperature rising, but not from the heat of the sun.

“Dad, throw me in the water again. I want to show Jay how high I can go!” Coco grabbed Bryan’s hand, pulling him towards the water. Harley then grabbed Jess’s hand and tried to pull her up.

“Wim, wim!” he said. Ashley interpreted it as ‘swim, swim’.

“All right.” Jess laughed and stood up.

Ashley was left on her own.

Good. Hopefully Jay will walk straight past and join the others in the water.

“Hey.”

Kill me now.

Benson ran straight by and bounded into the lake. Apparently dogs felt the heat too. Jay stood beside her and she squinted up through the scorching sunlight at him.

“Hi,” she said.

He sat down beside her.

This was awkward, and so uncomfortable. Wearing only a bikini made her feel overexposed in front of him, even though they had spent many summers here wearing only their swimwear. She looked out towards Bryan, Jess and the kids, silently cursing Bryan for inviting Jay over, and mentally preparing herself to cop an earful of abuse from Jay.

“I wanted to . . . ah . . . apologise for what I said the other night,” Jay said. “It was disrespectful and rude and I was out of line. I had a bad day, a
really
bad day, and I know that’s not an excuse, so I'm sorry.”

Ashley was genuinely shocked. Jay had always been quite egotistical, so she knew it took a lot of courage for him to apologise.

He sat there beside her with his knees bent, arms resting on his knees and  hands clasped together loosely, staring out towards the water. “I understand if you’re still mad at me, and I wouldn’t blame you. I just felt bad and wanted to set things straight. You—”

“I forgive you,” Ashley interrupted, surprising herself.

He looked equally surprised, and turned his face towards hers. There was a frown line between his dark blue eyes, indicating there was more going on in his mind than he let on.

“Thank you. For apologising, I mean. I appreciate that you made the effort.”

He nodded then looked down as though he were shy. “That's OK.” He smiled. “Do you think maybe we could start over? I'd hate to be responsible for ruining your time here for your mothers’ wedding because I had a bad day and acted like a— what did you call me again? An ass?”

She felt her skin flush and looked down, embarrassed. She wasn't sure if he had actually heard that insult the other day or not. Evidently he had.

He laughed and she bit her lip, cautiously raising her eyes to his face. She could see he wasn’t angry—maybe even a little amused.

“Yes, I think that's a good idea. Let's start over. Clean slate.”

He nodded and looked satisfied, she even detected a hint of happiness in his expression.

“Uncle Jay! Watch me!” Coco yelled as Bryan lifted her up and flung her through the air. Jay laughed, a deep, loud sound, and Ashley couldn't help but smile at seeing the joy in his face. He had a great smile that lit up his whole face.

Meika yelled, “Jay, can you throw me?”

“I'll be there in a minute!” Jay called back, cupping his mouth with his hands.

Jay stood and removed his shirt in one swift, fluid movement. Ashley quickly looked away, but not before she had had a chance to admire his physique.

He no longer had the mediocre frame he’d had eight years ago. She recalled Nicole’s comment from the bar on Saturday night, about the men being easy on the eyes. If she was referring to Jay, like Ashley thought she had been, she certainly wasn't wrong.

He had broad, solid shoulders and his chest had a light covering of dark hair which tapered off as it travelled south down his torso. His stomach was more muscular than she would have imagined after seeing him the other night at the bar. Not that she’d had a chance to get a good look at him in the dimly lit room. She’d just assumed that because of his thick beard and unruly hair that he had neglected to take care of his body.

He hadn't.

She also noticed his tattoos; three of them. A long thin symbol which resembled an anchor on his right inner forearm, what looked to be an X with four letters in each section on the upper right side of his chest and a large tribal-looking pattern with writing she couldn't quit make out which ran right from the side of his rib cage right up and continued down the inner side of his bicep. He also had an angry-looking scar on his lower right rib, in a large V shape.

She imagined that being a builder would be keep him physically fit, but he also had a great tan. He must take his shirt off to work in the summer..

Topless.

In the scorching sun.

Hot.

Why am I even thinking this? What is wrong with me?
A sudden surge of heat shot through her veins. She was glad he was going swimming so no one would see her blushing. She could sit there on the sand, alone, and take a moment to calm herself down from her completely irrational and totally inappropriate thoughts, and if she was lucky the earth might open her up and swallow her.

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