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High School History 101
When she spied the invitation amid the pile of bills and junk mail, Chloe McDaniels's lips pulled back in a sneer. She'd been expecting it, but that didn't make her reaction any less visceral.
Tillman High School's Class of 2001 was set to celebrate its tenyear reunion.
Chloe did not have fond memories of her New Jersey high school. In fact, she'd spent her four years at Tillman ducking into bathroom stalls and janitors' broom closets to avoid the unholy trinity of Natasha Bradford, Faith Ellerman and Tamara Kingsley.
She'd known the girls since grade school. They'd never been friends, but neither had they been enemies until the start of their freshman year when, for reasons that had never been terribly clear to Chloe, she'd become their favorite target.
Somehow on that first, already awkward day of high school, they managed to attach a "Kick Me" sign to the back of her shirt just before the start of first period. It was the last time Chloe ever accepted a friendly back slap without taking a gander over her shoulder afterward. As cruel pranks went, it wasn't terribly original, but it was effective. She'd taken enough sneakers to the seat of her favorite jeans to feel like a soccer ball.
Then, between third period and lunch, Simon Ford had happened along.
"You might not want to wear this," he'd said simply, removing the sign and handing it to Chloe. That was his way. Understated.
Good old Simon. He always had her back. Or backside, as the case had been. They'd been friends since his family had moved into her family's apartment building at the start of third grade and their friendship continued to this day. Thinking of him now, Chloe picked up the phone before realizing the time. It was well after five on a Friday. He was probably out with his girlfriend.
Chloe realized she was sneering again. Well, it couldn't be helped. She didn't like Sara. The longlimbed and lithe blonde was too too perfect.
She glanced down at the invitation. Perfect Sara would never find herself in this position. Perfect Sara would have been the homecoming queen and the prom queen and the every other kind of queen at her high school. Unlike Chloe, whose only class recognition had come in the form of "curliest hair" and "most freckles."
Yeah, that was what a girl wanted to be remembered for, all right.
Her gut told her to ball up the invitation in a wad, spit on it and, with expletives she knew in four languages, send it whizzing into the trash can. Her heart was a different matter. It was telling her to reach for a spoon and the pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream in her freezer.
Diet in mind, she went with her gut. Sort of.
She lavished the invitation with every foreign epithet she could think of before heaving it in the trash. But, while she bypassed the ice cream, she booted up her computer and downloaded a recipe from her favorite cable cooking show, Susie Kay's Comfort Foods. If it was all but guaranteed to clog the arteries and contribute to heart disease, Susie Kay made it.
Tonight's dinner selection was a case in point. Macaroni and cheese with not one, but four kinds of cheese and enough butter and calories that Chloe swore her clothes fit tighter just reading the ingredients. Not good considering she was already wearing her fat pants.
Actually, the pants were elasticwaist exercise gear that she didn't exercise in but instead reserved for days when she felt particularly bloated. Today was just such a day. Strap a few cables to her and she would be right at home gliding down Sixth Avenue like one of those huge helium balloons in the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. Even so, that didn't keep her from making the mac and cheese and eating half of the six servings.
The wine she poured for herself was an afterthought. She'd been saving the pricey bottle of cabernet sauvignon for a special occasion. This definitely was not it, but three glasses later, she didn't care.
Chloe set the wine aside and went to her stereo. Music. That's what she needed now. Something with a wicked beat and a lot of bass. Something she could dance to with reckless abandon and maybe work off a few extra calories in the process. She chose Celine Dion.
As one weepy ballad after another filled Chloe's Lower East Side studio apartment, her willpower wilted like the waterdeprived basil plant on her kitchen windowsill. Again muttering foreign curses, this time aimed at herself, she fished the crumpled invitation out of the trash. When the telephone rang, she was still sitting on the kitchen floor smoothing out the wrinkles.
It was Simon.
"Hey, Chloe. What are you doing?"
Anyone elseher older and uberchic sister, Frannie, for instanceand Chloe would have felt compelled to come up with some elaborate reason why she could be found home alone on the official start of the weekend.
Since it was Simon, she confessed, "Drinking wine, wearing Lycra and listening to the soundtrack from Titanic."
"No ice cream?"
How well he knew her. Despite her best intentions, the mint chocolate chip was next on her list. "Not yet."
"Want some company?" he asked.
Did she ever. She and Simon always had a good time together, whether it involved going out or just hanging out. Still, his question surprised her. Wasn't he supposed to be with his girlfriend tonight? She liked thinking he'd throw over Perfect Sara to be with Comfortable Chloe. Liked it so much that she immediately felt guilty. She was a terrible friend. To make up for it, she would share her ice cream and what was left of the wine. "When can I expect you?"
"Right now. I'm standing on the other side of your apartment door."
If he were a boyfriendnot that Chloe had had one of those in several monthsthis news would have sent her into a panic. Her apartment was a mess. For that matter, so was she. Her red hair was a riot of curls thanks to the day's high humidity. And what little makeup she'd applied that morning was long gone. But this was Simon. Simon, she reminded herself, after a glance down at her unflattering attire had her wanting to flee to her bedroom and change.
It was sad to admit, but he'd seen her looking worse. Much worse. Such as when she came down with the chicken pox in the sixth grade or the time in high school when she'd succumbed to salmonella after her cousin Ellen's bridal shower. Aunt Myrtle made the chicken salad, which was why, henceforth, the woman was only allowed to bring paper products or plastic cutlery to family gatherings. The coup de grace, of course, was last December. Three days shy of Christmas, the guy Chloe had been dating for the previous six months dumped her.
Via text message.
And she'd already bought him a gift, a Rolex watch, which she couldn't return since the street vendor who'd sold her the incredibly authenticlooking knockoff had moved to a new location.
So, now, she flung open the door, feeling only mildly embarrassed by what her hair was doing, by the macandcheese stains on her shirt or the fact that her lips had probably turned a slightly clownish shade of purple from the wine she'd enjoyed.
As usual, his smile made her feel as if seeing her was the highlight of his day.
"Hey, gorgeous." He kissed her cheek as he always did before waving a slim, square box beneath her nose. "I've got pizza. Thin crust with extra cheese from that new Italian place just shy of Fourteenth."
Any other time, the aroma of pepperoni and melted mozzarella would have had her salivating. Right now, it reminded her of how full she felt. "Thanks, but I just finishing eating."
His gaze took in the stained shirt. The sides of his mouth lifted. "So I see. What was on today's menu and why?"
Yes, he knew her way too well. "Mac and cheese."
"Ah." He nodded sagely. "Comfort food."
She touched an index finger to the tip of her nose. "You got it in one."
He smiled in return. Simon had a great smile. She'd always thought so. With perfectly proportioned lips in a face that wasn't dropdead gorgeous but handsome and pleasingly male. Over the years, his cheeks had gotten leaner and more sculptedlooking, but his ready smile kept him from ever looking hard.
"How much did you eat?" he asked.
"Save me any?" He glanced in the direction of the stove.
"Enough." She tapped the box he held. "What about your pizza? "
He shrugged. "You know pizza. It's even better cold." Then, with the pad of his thumb, he pressed down on her lower lip. She ignored the sensation his touch sent coursing up her spine. "And what about the wine? Did you save me any of that?"
Chloe laughed. How did other women manage to drink a few glasses of cab and not wind up with stained lips? For that matter, how did other women manage to eat a meal's worth of carbs and not have to do deep knee bends so they could breathe in their jeans?
"There's almost half a bottle," she told him.
"Pour me a glass and tell me about your day."
He set the pizza box on the kitchen counter and shrugged out of his trench coat. He was wearing his usual business attirecrisp white shirt and tailored suit with a perfectly folded handkerchief peeking from its breast pocket. The matching silk tie, however, was pulled askew. It struck Chloe then. "Did you just come from work?"
It was nearly eight o'clock.
"The merger with that other software company I mentioned is eating up a lot of my spare time." He dropped heavily into one of the kitchen chairs.
How had she missed how tired he looked? She wanted to go to him, wrap him in her arms. Friends hugged. But she held back. More and more lately, she found herself doing that. She blamed Perfect Sara and the bevy of beauties that had come before her.
"Sorry to hear that." She switched on the stove to reheat the mac and cheese, and poured him a glass of wine. After handing it to him, she stood behind his chair and began kneading the knotted muscles in his neck and shoulders.
His moan of pleasure nearly made her stop. Instead, she kept at it and asked, "So, how does Sara feel about the long hours you're keeping?"
"Not happy," he admitted. His tone was rueful when he said, "We were supposed to go to a Broadway show tonight."
"You stood her up?" That wasn't like him. Simon was the kindest, most considerate man Chloe knew even if he had really lousy taste in women.
Apparently, she'd massaged a little too vigorously.
"Actually, when I called to tell her I was running late and we'd have to skip dinner beforehand, she told me to go Never mind." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. The relationship wasn't heading anywhere anyway."
Before Chloe could help it, the feeling bubbled up inside her with all of the effervescence of champagne. Maybe this day didn't totally stink after all.
However, because she knew a friend wasn't supposed to feel happy upon hearing such news, she kept her expression sympathetic when she slid into the chair opposite his.
"Ooh. Dumped. Sorry."
"It was mutual," he muttered, reaching for his wine. "Sara just said it first."
"My heart's not broken, Chloe. Hell, it's not even dented or mildly scratched." He sipped his wine and sighed heavily before squinting at her. "That's not right, is it? I should feel.a little sad, shouldn't I?"
Jubilation made another appearance, but she carefully tucked it behind a bland expression.
"Not one bit." He studied his wine a moment before his gaze lifted to hers. "I guess we weren't suited."
No kidding. It had taken him nearly a year to figure that out? Chloe had concluded as much within mere minutes of meeting Sara for the first time.
"But that's neither here nor there," Simon was saying. He rallied with a smile. "We were going to talk about your day."
Her day. Ick!