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Authors: Kiah Stephens

Anchor of Hope (9 page)

BOOK: Anchor of Hope
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He turned towards her and held out his hand.

Oh no.

“You coming?”

“No, I've already been in. You go ahead.” She waved a dismissive hand.

“Aunty Ashley, come in!” Coco called. Ashley couldn't refuse.

Jay looked down at her, offering his hand.

“I guess I’m coming in after all.” She smiled weakly and took his hand. as she did she couldn't help envisioning the scene in beauty and the beast. Belle had dainty little hands and the Beasts' hands seemed monstrously large in comparison to hers. With one quick movement she was on her feet, and he let go of her hand.

Her skin was burning and she was glad for the coolness of the water as she waded in and headed over to Jess and Harley. Harley was giggling gleefully as Benson paddled by. Meika and Coco were arguing about whether Jay or Bryan would be able to throw them the farthest.

It was evident that Jay had the advantage when it came to upper body strength, , but Coco went further than Meika, much to Ashley’s surprise and Coco's delight. Ashley couldn't quite work out why Jay didn't use his full potential—maybe whatever was responsible for that scar prevented him from full use of his arm, or perhaps it was to preserve Bryan’s ego—after all, a girls’ first hero should always be her daddy. Jay’s ego had always been larger than life, so he must have injured himself at some time .

“You should stop staring,” Jess said to Ashley. “He might notice.”

Ashley felt herself blush again. She couldn't believe it—she never blushed. She was always in control. Cool, calm and collected—until she came back to Sweet Home, that was.

“What? I don't—I wasn't staring. I thought I saw something out in the distance.” Ashley squinted, pointing off into the distance beyond the others.

“Right.” Jess grinned. “Of course you did.”

“I did.” Ashley said, trying her hardest to sound convincing and coming up a long way short. How humiliating.

“So do you think he’s changed? I know you haven’t spent much time with him yet, but he’s different, isn’t he?”

Ashley nodded, “Physically? Oh yeah. But mentally and emotionally? I don’t know.”

“You’d be surprised,” Jess said as she watched Harley, who was trying his hardest to climb onto Benson’s back. He succeeded, and Benson shot off like a rocket. Harley clung on for a few seconds before tumbling off and disappearing briefly beneath the water.

He emerged, spluttering, hair clinging to his face. Jess picked him up. He held out his arms towards Benson. “Again!”

 

After a little while Meika asked if they could go on the rope swing. There were three teenagers using the swing as Ashley and the others walked over to it. Fortunately the other swimmers swung out, dropped into the water, and swam off to find more fun on their own.

Coco insisted on going first, so Bryan helped her and kept a close eye on her as she swung out and dropped into the water.

Meika went next. “Whoo-hoo!”

Next was Bryan, who swung out further than the girls and quickly swam over to them to make sure they got back to the shore safely. Jay held the rope out to Ashley.

“Ladies first.”

“Oh no, I'm not going on that thing.” Ashley frowned. “I only came over to watch. You go.”

“Come on, you used to love this thing—we used to see who could go the furthest, remember?” Jay grinned.

Ashley smiled. “I
do
remember. I'm a little old for that now though.” She folded her arms.

“Never. Go on, you know you want to.” Jay cocked one eyebrow and the side of his lip curled up.

He stared at her for the longest time and she finally took the rope and walked backwards with it to get a bit of a run-up. She slid her foot into the noose at the bottom and pushed off. It hit immediately—the weightlessness, the air whizzing past, the feeling of truly being free and totally enjoying this single uninhibited moment. She closed her eyes, opening them again as she felt the momentum slow as the swing neared the end of its reach, then in one swift movement she slipped her foot out and let go of the rope.

The feeling of falling was like none other—the pit of her stomach rose and there was the briefest moment of fear, but the knowledge that there was water below to break her fall meant she was safe.

As she resurfaced, she saw Jay swing past overhead. His weight propelled him much higher than Ashley, then he let go, hugging his knees and curling up into a ball as he fell. He hit the water so hard she had to turn the other way to avoid being sprayed, not only by the huge splash, but the waves he had created. She struggled to keep her breath while she trod water and laughed.

He came up shaking the water from his hair and beard.

“Good to see you haven't changed.” Ashley laughed as he swam towards her. “Still showing off in front of the ladies.” She nodded over towards the bank where Meika and Coco were laughing and cheering Jay on. Jay smiled as he noticed them and gave them a wave.

“I never showed off in front of the ladies.”

Ashley raised an eyebrow and gave him a disbelieving look.

“Well, maybe one. But you could hardly call her a lady.” He laughed and swam backwards as Ashley tried to splash him.

They had reached the bank by the time Meika swung past again. Jess met them on the bank, carrying Harley, who looked as though he could barely keep his eyes open.

“I’m going to head off and get Harley home for his nap, otherwise he’ll turn into a little terror tonight. Bryan is going to stay with the girls for a bit longer.” She shifted Harleys weight, gave Jay a hug, then Ashley, and walked away.

Bryan and Jay continued swimming with the kids while Ashley retreated to the sandy shores to relax and soak up some sunshine. Those kids sure had a lot of energy. It amazed her that Bryan and Jess managed to keep up with them all the time.

She checked her phone. There were several missed calls from Steven.

They hadn't spoken since two nights ago. Steven was great, really—stable, secure, motivated and ambitious. But he could be demanding. He liked power—at work
and
in his relationships.

She knew this about him right from the moment they met. She had only been working at the newspaper for a few months when there was a massive legal case—a celebrity was trying to sue the newspaper for libel, claiming a story they’d published was false. But, in all honesty, when
had
a celebrity story actually been factual?

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Dianne had retained Steven’s firm to manage their case. He’d just passed the bar exam, and was ready and willing to dive head first into his career, and that he did. One morning, she found a massive bunch of red roses on the front desk, along with a note asking if she would go out to dinner with him. She was shocked—she didn't even think he knew who she was. It certainly made her the envy at the office for quite a while, and if Steven was interested in her, then so was Dianne.

Their relationship grew from there, but now it felt as though they were at a cross roads, and she didn't know where to go next. She phoned him.             

He answered on the first ring.

“Hi, Ashley.”

“Hi.” Was he still angry with her?

“Listen, I just wanted to say sorry about the other night. I was a jerk and I shouldn't have said what I did.”

Ashley nodded—not knowing why she did, it's not like he could see her

“Will you forgive me?”

“Of course I will,” she said. “I want to wait til I get back to talk about it. It's not something I want to discuss over the phone. It seems it keeps making us fight, and I hate when we fight.”

“Me too,” Steven agreed. “We've both had a lot on our minds. I didn't exactly handle the whole issue in the correct way. I won't mention it again until we are face to face. I promise.”

“Thank you.” That was a relief.

“Look, I can't talk for long, Chris is waiting for me to collect all the documents for tomorrow, and I'm going to try to get an early night for once, so I'm ready to fly out tomorrow.”

“That sounds like a good idea. What time is your flight again?” Ashley asked.

“6:15 a.m., but I want to make sure I'm up in time for a workout before I leave.”

Ashley giggled. “I’m sure you could take one day off from exercising.”

“Healthy body, healthy mind.” She could hear the smile in his voice.

“OK, well, take care. I know you’ll be great.”

“Thanks, Ashley. I’ll call you from Japan if I get a free moment.”

“Don't worry if you can't, focus on what you need to do. I’ll still be here when you get back.”

“OK. Well, say hi to your mom and Bryan for me.”

“Will do. Bye, I love you.”

“Love you too,” Steven said and hung up.

Well, that conversation had gone a lot better than she had expected. She placed her phone into her bag and looked up to see Bryan, Jay, Meika, and Coco headed towards her. Bryan picked up a towel and began drying himself off.

“Did you want to have another quick swim before we head off, Ash?” he asked.

“I do! I do!” Coco shot her hand up in the air.

“No, you just had a swim. You need to get dried off and dressed,” Bryan told her.

“Aww."

“You heading home, Jay?” Bryan asked as Jay pulled his shirt back over his still-wet skin.

Jay looked around as the sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky. “Nah, I think I'm going to stick around and do some fishing.”

“Can we go fishing too Dad, pleeeeease?” Coco asked.

“No way. It’s almost six, and I told your mom we'd be home half an hour ago.”

“Do you like fishing, Ashley?” Meika asked.

“Are you kidding me?” Ashley smiled and placed her hand against her chest. “I love fishing. We used to go fishing all the time when we were kids. I'm the champion. Isn’t that right, Bryan?”

Bryan rolled his eyes. “Your Aunty Ashley caught a trout and it was about half a hair longer than mine. Barely.”

Ashley laughed.

Jay looked at Ashley. “Did you want to stick around and do some fishing?” He raised his eyebrows, causing his forehead to furrow. “I’ve got a good rod you can use.”

Bryan coughed, stifling a laugh and Jay looked horrified as he realized the connotation of what he’d said. His cheeks burnt red. Ashley bit her lip to keep from laughing.

“I mean.” Jay cleared his throat. “I have a spare fishing rod in my truck you that can borrow. If you want to, that is? And then I can drive you home afterwards.”

This time Bryan burst out laughing, tears began to form in the corners of his eyes. “Smooth, man. Real smooth.” Bryan slapped Jay on the shoulder.

“Umm, yeah, why not.” Ashley tried to ignore Bryan, still making an effort to hold back her laughter.

Chapter 8

 

Most of the swimmers had left by the time Ashley and Jay found a spot at the end of the jetty to fish from. There were still a few boats out on the water, which looked as though they had a similar idea. Ashley could see their fishing rods sticking up in the air.

“Do you always carry around fishing gear in your truck?” she asked.

Jay nodded. “I do, actually. Whenever I finish work early I like to go for a fish, and a swim too, if it’s hot. It’s nice out here. Just the silence, no one around. The fish usually start jumping as the sun sets, which shouldn’t be too far off.” He cast a quick glance at his wristwatch.

He kneeled down on the jetty and began attaching a colorful lure to Ashley’s rod. He handed it to her.

“Do you know how to cast it out?” He kneeled down to find himself a suitable lure from his tackle box.

“Yes. Dad used to take me fishing all the time when I was younger.”

She drew the rod back and propelled it forward in one quick movement. The lure shot up in the air and clunked directly below her, hitting the jetty. She hadn't released the bale- arm on the spool. Jay kept a serious face, making a concerted effort not to embarrass her for her simple mistake. He rubbed the back of his neck rising to his feet.

“You, uh, forget to flick the—”

“I know, I know.” Ashley tried not to let her embarrassment show “But so you know, I didn't forget it, I was having a practice swing.”

“Swing?” Jay asked, he stifled a laugh.

“OK,  I might be a
little
out of practice. I don't go fishing that much in the city.” Ashley laughed, embarrassed

“May I help you?” Jay asked, holding out his hands.

She nodded. At first she thought he might come up behind her, wrap his arms around her and gently guide her hands, like they always seemed to do in the movies.

But he didn’t.

He simply stood beside her and took her right hand, moving it towards the spool.

“Here,” he said. “You need to flip the bale-arm over, when you
cast
–not swing—it out.” He pressed the line along the rod with one hand and flipped the bale-arm to demonstrate. “After you’ve cast it, you flip it back, like that.” He flipped it back over, securing the line.

He met Ashley’s eyes, questioning to see if she understood.

She nodded, feeling aware of his presence.

He was much taller than her and about twice as wide.

He smiled. “Good.” He released the rod and went back to attaching a lure onto his fishing rod.

Ashley cast out her rod, this time successfully. “Ha! I did it!”

Jay chuckled. “Just like riding a bike.”

“I don't think that expression is true, you know. I tried to ride Mom’s bike the other day and was completely uncoordinated, I hit a tree. I’m glad no one was there to see me,” Ashley said, her back turned towards Jay as she slowly reeled her line in.

“You hit a tree?” He laughed.

“Well, it was more like a bush—and I half hit it, half fell into it.”

He laughed again, and although she couldn't see his face from behind her she could tell he found her unfortunate experience entertaining. She heard the
zing
as he cast his line out behind her on the opposite side of the jetty.

“I can't believe I forgot the . . . little flipper thing-”

“Bale arm,” Jay offered.

“Bale-arm,” she repeated. “After all the time I spent fishing with Dad, you’d think I’d remember something so simple. He’d be ashamed if he saw me now.” She gave a small laugh.

“No, he wouldn’t.” Jay's voice was serious.

With their backs turned towards one another it was impossible to read his expression.

“Do you miss him?” Jay asked.

“Yeah, I do. Every day.” Ashley cast out her line again. Another successful cast. “I miss his jokes. He had a way of lightening every situation. You know what I mean? Like whenever I was freaking out about something, he’d help me to see the bigger picture and realize that no problem was too big. If that makes sense?”

Jay cast his line out again. “Yep.”

Ashley turned her head, hoping to get an idea of what he was thinking. The sun was beginning to drop below the trees up on the hill tops and the sky turned a brilliant shade of fluorescent orange.

“Do you miss your mom?” Ashley had never asked him that before. Not in the whole nineteen years they had spent growing up together.

“Not really,” he replied, much to Ashley’s surprise. “I wish I did, though. I never knew her. I was only three when she died, so I have no real memory of her. I have her photos, so I know what she looks like, but I can't remember what she was like, her personality. Dad said she was always singing and dancing, but I can't remember any of that.”

His mother had died in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver while travelling home one night after attending a wedding. Jay had been staying at his grandparents’ house. She died instantly. . Sam had spent a long, painful time in hospital. He had so many broken bones doctors told him it was unlikely he would ever be able to walk again without assistance, but he did.

“Well, from what your dad has said about her, she sounded wonderful. She was beautiful.” Ashley remembered the photos she had seen in the past.

Jay was silent and she guessed he didn't want to talk about it. Strong and silent, that was him.

Suddenly her line began to spin. “I've got something!” she squealed.

Jay looked over, smiling. “Pull it in!”

She reeled her line in and there on the end of her line was a bass. A very small bass.

Jay stood beside her, ready to assist her if she needed help. Which she would, because she wasn't quite prepared to touch the slimy, flapping fish. But as she lifted the rod, pulling the fish out of the water, it slipped off the hook and disappeared beneath the surface.

“Aww, I nearly had him.” Ashley frowned.

“Almost, but he was too small to keep anyway.” Jay kneeled down behind Ashley to change his lure. “Keep trying.”

“Oh I will—the next one will be a big one, just wait and see. They don't call me the champ for nothing!” She grinned confidently and turned to cast off. She flipped the Bale arm over, pulled back and used all her might to propel the rod forward.

Something went wrong.

She heard a sudden sharp intake of breath from Jay and after a moment of pondering why she couldn't see where her lure had landed, she cast a quick glance back at Jay who had his hands clasped to the side of his neck and was gritting his teeth in pain.

“Oh my gosh!” Her hand shot up to her mouth and she went to help him. The hook had caught him right on the side of his neck.

“I'm so sorry!”

He gritted his teeth and using both hands—one to hold the skin taught and the other to grasp the hook—he pulled it out. It had only made a small puncture, but Ashley felt horrible.

“Are you OK? I’m so sorry!”

He pressed his fingers to the wound to try to stop the bleeding.

Ashley looked in his tackle box and found a few Band-Aids which she pulled out.

“Here, move your hand.”

He moved his hand away and she could clearly see the two small holes—one where the hook went in and another close by where it had come out.

“Are you all right, Jay? You haven’t said anything. Are you mad? I can't believe I did that. I'm such an idiot.” As she raised her eyes to look at his face she could see he was smiling down at her, and she couldn't help but smile back.

“I’m fine. It’ll get better. I don't know about your fishing skills, though.”

She laughed and wiped the blood from beside the wound so she could stick the Band-Aid on.

“How does that feel? Should we go to the hospital?” she asked.

“Ashley, relax. I'm fine. Really.”

“I feel terrible. You kindly invite me to share in your fishing experience and I try to kill you . . .” She ran her hand through her hair. He placed both of his hands on her shoulders to steady her, forcing her to look at him. His hands were warm and secure.

Great. Another scar to add to his collection. The silvery line running through his right eyebrow was still visible from the dirt bike accident he had had when he was only fourteen. She was almost tempted to ask him about the more recent appearing scar on his rib but decided not to pry.

“I'm fine.”

She took a deep breath and looked at him apologetically. “OK, if you're sure. We can go home now if you want.”             

“Now? This is the best time for fishing.” He released her and waved his hand through the air. The sun had disappeared below the horizon and the sky behind them had turned a dark greyish-blue color, merging into pink. The almost-full moon was beginning to get brighter and there were even one or two stars that were becoming visible.             

A splash caught her attention. Glancing out over the water, she saw ripples moving in a circular pattern.

“Was that a fish?”

Jay nodded.

Then she saw a fish jump. It was a silvery color. Then another, and another.

“Ha! That is so cool.” Her mouth dropped open.

Jay picked up his fishing rod and cast it out.

Ashley picked up her rod too. Jay gave her a suspicious glance and jokingly took a few steps away from her.

She cast it out and smiled in triumph.

This time it was Jay’s reel that spun fast. He pulled in a trout, but it was too small, so he released it. After a few more minutes he caught another one. This was a good-sized trout, it would make a decent meal.

“Are you going to let it go?” Ashley asked as he kneeled on the jetty and removed the hook from its mouth.

“I wasn’t going to. Why?”

“It looks so sad. I feel sorry for it.” She pouted.

He paused for a moment. “Tell you what. If you're willing to pick it up, I'll let you release it.”

Ashley cringed. It looked slimy and stinky, and the way it was flipping back and forth on the jetty made her feel uneasy.

“OK,” she said, rubbing her hands together. She let out a loud through rounded lips, audible breath as though preparing for some mammoth task.

Jay laughed as she attempted to pick it up by the tail using her thumb and forefinger. That turned out to be impossible, as its tail swished backwards and forwards and was far too slippery. She took a deep breath and using both hands grabbed it firmly around the midsection.

“Ewww!” She held it over the water and gently let it go. After a brief pause it swam away. “Yay! Swim free, little buddy.”  She held out her hands as if they were contaminated.

Jay laughed and scratched the back of his neck again.

“Well, there goes my dinner.” He looked out at the water.

“What? Seriously? You shouldn’t have let me throw it back!” Now she felt guilty.

“In all honesty, I didn’t think you'd have the guts to pick it up.” He laughed.

“Gah! I’m sorry. I must be the worst fishing partner ever. I can try to catch you another one.” She went to reach for the rod.

“No, it’s getting dark. I better get you home. Don’t worry about it at all. I’m sure I’ve got a potato or something at home I could eat. Maybe some stale bread.”

“I feel bad now. Again,” Ashley said as Jay picked up the tackle box and his fishing rod. Benson had been sleeping at the entrance to the jetty, and now stood waiting for them as they made their way towards him.

“I’m only joking,  Ash,” Jay said. “I’m capable of cooking for myself. I’m glad you decided to stay.”

“Even though I injured you
and
lost your dinner?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Wouldn't be the worst injury I’ve had, or the biggest fish that got away.” He shot her a quick glance but she could barely make out his expression in the darkness.

Was he referring to her? Had she injured him so badly when she left all those years ago?   

Was
she
the fish that got away?

She was glad she had stayed too. The last thing she had imagined she would be doing during her short trip back to Sweet Home was spending time with her high school sweetheart. But that was then. Now they were just friends. Old friends, catching up and hanging out. Nothing serious. Totally innocent.

He tossed the tackle box and rods into the back of his truck and Benson leapt in with ease. He opened the door for Ashley.

“Are you sure you want to give me a lift back? It’s out of your way. I could call Mom or Martin to pick me up if that’s easier.”

“Not at all. I don't mind.”

She hopped into the truck.

He came around the other side and climbed in. As he started the engine, Ashley noticed a small trickle of blood running down his neck. She pulled a tissue out of her purse and reached over to wipe the blood away. He mustn’t have been expecting it because as she touched his skin she felt him tense up.

“You’re bleeding,” she said. She gently dabbed at the blood and held the tissue against the Band-Aid to stop the flow. He kept his eyes straight ahead, unmoving.

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