The Unexpected Reunion by Cheryl Gardarian by Cheryl Gardarian - Read Online

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The Unexpected Reunion - Cheryl Gardarian

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18

THE UNEXPECTED REUNION

by

CHERYL GARDARIAN

WHISKEY CREEK PRESS

www.whiskeycreekpress.com

Published by

WHISKEY CREEK PRESS

Whiskey Creek Press

PO Box 51052

Casper, WY 82605-1052

www.whiskeycreekpress.com

Copyright Ó 2014 by Cheryl Gardarian

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-61160-841-0

Cover Artist: Susan Krupp

Editor: Sylvia Anglin

Printed in the United States of America

Dedication

Dedicated to my loyal readers who make it all worthwhile; because of you I’m constantly striving to improve my style and content. Much love to my husband, Leo, who continues to be supportive. Love and thanks to my wonderful sister and beta-reader, Debbie Majestic, who is always honest in her opinions. Many thanks to the Lagunita Writers Group, without whom I might never have published a novel; with special thanks to my mentor, Lorna Collins.

Chapter 1

Pacific Coast Highway

Near Huntington Beach, California

August 1974

Becky Bowman sped south in her little red Mustang. It had been a long drive from Oregon, but she was finally close to her destination. Entering the city of Long Beach, she noticed the car’s fuel gauge hovered near empty. She scanned the horizon for a gas station. In a few miles, she was rewarded with the sight of a yellow Shell sign. She pulled her convertible up to a pump, and a clean-cut young man in a striped uniform approached.

Good afternoon, Miss. How may I serve you?

Fill it up, and be sure to clean the bugs off the windshield.

He nodded, lifted the handle, and began to fill the tank. Becky headed for the restroom. While inside the building, she bought a Coke and a candy bar. When she returned, she saw the attendant had lifted the hood. He stepped back, wiped the dip-stick with a rag, and let out an appreciative whistle.

Nice car. Your oil’s a little low. Would you like me to add a quart?

She smiled. That would be great. I’d like to put the top down. Could you help me?

Sure. Where’s your boot cover?

Becky pointed and took a sip of her soda as she waited for him to add the oil and fasten the vinyl top. She paid him, and he walked away to assist another customer.

She reached into the glove compartment for her paisley scarf, knotted it under her chin, and started the engine. It roared to life and she merged onto the highway. Becky loved driving her little convertible. She’d waited until she got to the coast to put the top down; now she felt the rush of the wind and could truly experience the car’s power. She pressed harder on the accelerator and the Mustang leaped forward.

When she rounded a bend near the beach community of Surfside the sparkling ocean came into view. The cool sea breeze held the unmistakable scent of brine. Becky inhaled deeply. After all this time, it still smells like home. I can’t ever forget that salty tang.

She smiled as she looked at the rows of waves dancing with brilliant flashes of light as the sun’s rays glinted off the surface. A pelican glided above the breakers, large wings extended, silhouetted against the brilliant blue of the sea and sky. So beautiful.

While driving open-air, the buzz of road noise overpowered the radio, but Becky caught a few strains of a familiar Beach Boys song, Surfin’ Safari. She cranked up the volume and belted out the next verse along with the Boys. Becky finished the song with an animated flourish, then ducked her head as she noticed the passengers in a nearby car staring at her.

That quick movement loosened her scarf, which whipped off her head, and disappeared down the road. Instantly blinded by a mass of swirling hair, she let go of the wheel and grabbed her wild locks. The little car swerved and the tires hit gravel. Bumping dangerously along the edge, the car shimmied and danced. She forgot about her curls as she struggled for control. Yanking hard to the left, she stomped the brakes. The Mustang spun. Oh, damn. Whirling mane and kaleidoscope glimpses of sea and sky flashed like a crazy merry-go-round.

The careening carousel ride finally ended with her car facing north in the south-bound lane. Becky sat frozen for a minute, too shocked to move. Then she cautiously turned the car around and pulled over to the shoulder. It took a while for her racing heart to slow down, and it seemed like forever before she could breathe normally. Whew, that was a close one. I sure hope it’s not an omen.

She ran shaky fingers through her tousled hair and took a quick peek in the rearview mirror. Two huge blue eyes peered back. Blonde bangs hung in her face. She pushed them aside, then leaned over and fumbled in the glove compartment for the ski hat she hoped was there. Moments later, she felt the wooly material and pulled it loose from the clutter. Gathering her tresses into a ponytail, she shoved the cap down and tucked in a few errant strands. She leaned back and closed her eyes.

While she waited for her hands to stop shaking, Becky lifted her chin and let the sun warm her face. As she soaked in the rays, she tipped her head from side to side and lifted her shoulders. She grinned at the satisfying ‘pop’ she heard when her stiff neck cracked. Ahh, much better. The summer warmth seeped into her tense muscles, and the tension she’d been feeling about coming home slowly began to melt away. After a while, Becky started the engine and pulled onto the highway. The wind caressed her face and tugged at the ski cap. Oh, no you don’t, she scolded, and pulled it down tighter. She hummed along with the next few songs as she tapped her fingers in time to the music.

Then a large flock of seagulls appeared on the horizon. They swooped and dove behind a fishing trawler sailing along the coast. In an instant, Becky’s happy mood ended. The sight of them triggered a flood of painful memories. Memories she’d tried to bury. She shook her head as if to shake away the guilt, but it was of no use. All the hurt and remorse tumbled out of that dark corner in her brain where she’d entombed them. The pain was almost palpable as she glared at the sea. Yeah, you’re beautiful all right, but so deadly.

As she tried to stop the voices of her past from echoing in her mind, Becky spun the volume dial even louder. She recognized the song that was playing. It was by Jim Croce. He was singing Time in a Bottle.’ She listened for a minute. What a great idea. But instead of saving the good times in that bottle, I wish I could capture all the horrible memories, cap the darn thing, and throw it into the ocean.

Becky was suddenly roused from her thoughts by the blaring horn of an irritable motorist she must’ve cut off. Oops, better concentrate on driving. But no matter how hard she tried, the past crowded in, vivid and real. It was as if she were there again, back ten years, to the last day her childhood had been carefree and happy. Her breath caught as the scene unfolded in her mind. The ocean had been wild and tempestuous—the four teenage girls and their horses young and crazy.

Becky scowled, her pulse raced, and a cramp hit her stomach. Stop it, now! she commanded. Quit torturing yourself.

She realized coming back home was a mistake. She’d been doing so much better up north. Now she was back and overwhelmed by guilt and a heavy sense of foreboding. Becky bit her lip. I threw that stupid reunion invitation into the trash. Should’ve left it there. But, no, when I heard the old ranch was being bulldozed, I figured seeing it plowed under might help me move on.

She looked around, and realized she was only a few miles from town. She sighed when she saw the next cross street was Warner Avenue. If she was going to visit the stables, she should turn left. Might as well get it over with.

As she drove up the tree-lined entry, the sense of déjà vu was strong. Everything was familiar, yet so dilapidated and neglected. The asphalt roadway was cracked and full of potholes. And when she passed the once-beautiful farmhouse on top of the hill, she gasped when she saw how deteriorated it had become. Window shutters hung to the side or were missing, the porch sagged, and the roof had lost so many of its shingles it was mostly black tar paper.

She parked her car and walked down the weed-choked path to the paddock area. Her old stall and tack shed were on the right. Except for the weeds and some peeling paint they looked just the same. A few steps farther and she stood in front of her former friend’s horse corral. She stared at the empty paddock, and bowed her head. I’m so sorry, Donna.

Suddenly an image of Donna popped into her mind. Her blonde hair gleamed in the sunshine. It streamed behind her as she ran up the path. Wait, Becky called and started after her, but the vision disappeared. Wow, I’m losing it.

After taking a few minutes to collect her composure, Becky continued down the aisle, past the tall grain silo, toward the barn. Once it had been the typical rusty-red of so many country barns, but now the wood was silver-gray with age. Several warped and broken planks hung askew, and the roof sagged like a sway-backed horse. The door was missing. Becky peeked in and then stepped over the threshold. There was nothing but spider-webs, dust, old pieces of leather, and some miscellaneous tools strewn around. It smelled musty.

A noise made her jump—a loud rustling and a deep, threatening growl. She whirled and spotted the end of a long tail as it disappeared behind a wooden bin. She bent down and picked up a rake, the only weapon she could see, and hollered for help. The sound of her yell broke the silence with a jolt, and it seemed to surprise the animal. It ran out like it’d been shot. Whew, only a dog.

Then a male voice shattered the silence. What are you doing in here?

For the second time, Becky jumped. A large man stood in the open doorway. The afternoon sunshine streamed in. All Becky could see was his outline; a halo of dust motes drifted around him.

In a tremulous voice she said, I used to keep my horse here. I heard they were bulldozing the place in a few weeks. I wanted to see it one last time.

Well, you’re trespassing. Didn’t you see the Keep-Out signs?

Becky was still shaken, and as the big man walked toward her, she realized how vulnerable she was, alone in the old barn. He’s blocked my exit. I’ve got to get out of here.

I know I’m trespassing. I’ll leave immediately, Becky mumbled, as she pushed past him into the sunlight. Once outside, she glanced up and realized who he was. She could see recognition dawn on his face as well.

Don’t I know you? he asked, his voice puzzled. He stepped closer. I’m Clark Stevens. My uncle, Tanner Stevens, owns this place.

Hi, Clark. I’m Becky Bowman.

For an instant, she thought she saw a strange look flit across his face, but she must’ve been mistaken, because the next minute he grinned and apologized for scaring her. Becky stared at him. He’s even more of a hunk than I remember. He was awfully cute back then, but now...

Clark interrupted her thoughts. You were part of the ‘fearless foursome.’

Becky gave him a questioning glance.

He smiled. I used to call you and your friends the ‘fearless foursome,’ because you were always doing the craziest stunts around here.

Really? We were infamous, huh? She giggled.

Yeah, I remember once I had to carry all the picnic benches out of the arena. You girls had dragged them in there so you could jump them with your horses.

We were sort of wild, I guess. Not much adult supervision.

You’re right. My uncle had a full-time job. He just leased out the stalls, he wasn’t a babysitter. He was lucky nothing really bad ever hap— Clark froze in mid-sentence. His blue eyes flicked to the side for an instant before he stammered, I’m, uh…sorry.

Becky covered her mouth. I bet he’s remembering what happened to Donna. It’s all right, she said.

He pointed toward the barn. I hope I didn’t scare you. It’s just that we’ve had some transients hanging around.

It’s okay.

Hey, I’ve got a couple of beers on ice. They’re in my truck. Would you like one?

Sounds good.

They started toward his vehicle. As they walked, she let her hair fall over the side of her face, and surreptitiously checked him out. Clark was tall, well over six feet. He moved confidently. His striped cowboy shirt covered obvious muscles, and his shoulders were broad and tapered down into slim hips. His brown hair was slightly tousled. He looked every bit the cowboy. The only things missing were the Stetson hat, the lasso, and the horse to complete the picture of the Marlboro Man. Becky was surprised at how being close to him made her heart beat a little faster.

He drove a black Ford truck. She watched as he sauntered over and swung into the bed. In seconds, he hopped down with two beers and a blanket. Let’s go sit in the shade by that big eucalyptus tree.

Becky held the bottles while he spread out the blanket. They sat and chatted while they drank.

You attended Huntington Beach High School, didn’t you? Becky asked.

Yep. Graduated in ’62.

I thought I remembered seeing you around campus, but you were one of the soon-to-graduate elite. You seniors didn’t mix much with us lowly freshmen.

Clark laughed. It’s crazy how just a few years make such a difference at that age.

She nodded. Then you went off to an out-of-state college, right?

Yep, Harvard.

Becky puffed a quick breath through her lips. You went to Harvard? Lots of kids apply, but few get in.

Well, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, so I applied to all the universities with law schools. I lucked out and was accepted. I even got a scholarship.

Jeez, that’s really tough to do.

He shrugged off the compliment. I just studied a lot, that’s all.

So, did you like living on the East Coast?

It definitely took some getting used to. The first year I was able to come back for the summer. He paused, and his eyes took on a faraway look. He opened his mouth as if to say something else but then shook his head. A minute passed before he added, After that I had to stay on campus and work.

Oh, so that’s why I didn’t see you at the ranch very often.

He looked away. Yep, it cost too much to fly home.

Becky nodded. It must’ve been difficult moving from sunny California. I imagine it gets really cold there.

The weather’s a bit extreme, but then I started to like the change of seasons. Fall was my favorite. The autumn leaves were spectacular. Now that I’m back here, I really miss it sometimes.

You’re an attorney?

Yep. I took the California Bar, passed it, and then came home to help my mother. I worked at a law firm in Los Angeles for a while. Later, a friend and I decided to open our own practice.

Her eyes widened. Gee, you’ve accomplished a lot in the last ten years.

Thanks. Did you go to college? Clark asked.

I went to U.C. Berkeley for my undergrad, and then to the University of Washington for my Master’s degree.

Well, that’s an accomplishment, too. What was your major?

I’m a psychologist. Becky changed the subject. Do you live in Huntington Beach?

Nope, I have a condo in Irvine. He took the last swallow of his beer. Where do you live?

I moved up north.

I suppose you still have your horse?

She shook her head. He died a few years ago.

Oh, sorry. He must’ve been getting pretty old.

Twenty-five. He was still really strong, but then he colicked. I miss him.

Well, I have several horses on my ranch in Fallbrook. You’re welcome to ride anytime.

You’re kidding? You have a ranch?

He smiled. If you’re going to be in town for a while, you should come visit.

I’d have liked to, but I’m just here for my ten-year reunion. I won’t be staying long. Hey, I didn’t know you even liked horses. You sure didn’t seem to back then.

He nodded. True. I didn’t like much about the stables. The only time I came to the ranch was when I needed to earn some money. Uncle Tanner paid me to buck hay and muck stalls. He grimaced. That sure was hard, dirty work. I hated every minute of it. Also, I guess my attitude was pretty poor. I was kind of full of myself.

Becky chuckled and mentally agreed with him. I remember him strutting around. All of us girls had crushes on him. If you disliked the stables so much, why are you here?

Clark’s blue eyes flicked down for an instant before he answered. Oh, I just came by to let Roady, my dog, run for a while. He hates to be cooped up. Also, my uncle has been pretty sick. He asked me to check on the place and see if all his stuff’s out. I’m just tidying things before they bring in the earthmovers.

Hmm, that’s too bad about your uncle. You know, he always sorta scared me. He was really grouchy. Will he be okay?

He doesn’t say much.

Roady raced by, chasing a squirrel. His copper coat gleamed in the sunshine and his muscles bunched as he leapt in pursuit.

Leave it alone. Come here, boy, Clark shouted as the dog disappeared into the brush.

"Speaking of your dog, he’s