Annie closed the door and leaned her back up against it and rolled her eyes. It was always like this. Every date she’d been on in the last, oh, 5 years or so. And there weren’t all that many. Reasonably okay looking guys with reasonably okay personalities and absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. Usually fix ups. Because everyone and their mother, and their aunt, and their next-door neighbor wanted to see Annie find a guy. And they all had the perfect one in mind. Only none of them were. And they never would be. Not that she even needed the perfect guy or any guy at this point.
It was futile and she knew it. At 35, her biological clock was ticking so loud it made a sonic boom seem like a tap. At this rate those 6 kids she thought she’d have was already down to 3 at best. Glancing at the clock, the real one on the wall, she sighed. It was only 9:00. Nine O’Clock on a Friday night, in the world’s greatest city, and she was already home from another fun-filled date. Any other sane woman would be just heading out after spending hours on her hair and makeup, honing her flirting skills in the mirror. Not Annie.
She never was very good at being anyone other than herself. She wasn’t elegant and refined, like her sister. Instead Annie was definitely down to earth with a killer sense of humor. She simply wasn’t into the glitzy nightlife. She wasn’t comfortable in the bohemian part of town either, maybe she wasn’t eclectic enough. She just didn’t seem to fit. Which in New York is kind of virtually impossible. Everyone fits. Except Annie. She belonged in an adorable little house with a white picket fence in a small coastal town with a bunch of kids and an amazing, devoted, faithful husband who would love her till the day she died and beyond.
That’s what Annie wanted. Which is most likely why Annie was never satisfied. Not with her job. Not with the guys she met. Not with her life in general. She was constantly reinventing herself in her mind and imagining what would, or should, happen next. And every one of her daydreams and fantasies took her to the same impossible place. She knew it wasn’t ever to be. She’d had the same fantasy play out over and over since she was 18. The details would change. The circumstances would be different. But always, always she ended up with him in that perfect house in that quintessential little town on the ocean.
Annie gazed out across her living room. Just one more part of her life that was completely out of sync. She’d tried to decorate it right out of an HGTV show. Her gentrified brownstone apartment was meant to be urban rustic contemporary but somehow it just ended up looking like someone delivered the wrong furniture. Interior decorating was just not her thing. Sighing, she crossed over to the way-too-overstuffed sofa, and grabbed the book lying there. She’d barely gotten through the first few chapters, not that it wasn’t good. It was great. And Annie loved to read. She could sit and read all day if she didn’t have to actually go to work to pay the rent. Losing herself in a good book was the next best thing to losing herself to her fantasies. Any good therapist would tell her she needed serious help to confront her escapist personality, but Annie enjoyed it too much. She was perfectly content to live another life in her head. The life that simply must include a devastatingly charming, handsome lover. She flipped open the page she’d dog-eared and continued to read on.
Cliffside was, at first glance, a seemingly quiet, picturesque lakeside town in northeast Ohio. Nestled on the banks of Lake Erie, it had remained true, steadfast, for centuries. Through natural disasters, like the 100-year flood back in’69. Through man-made tragedies, like the Great Depression. It had remained as it ever was. Seeming to renew itself year after year through the lives of its residents. Perhaps it fed itself off their hopes and dreams. Loves and losses. Most of the townspeople were fourth, fifth, even sixth generation Siders, as they were known. The children grew into adulthood, and took their turns venturing outside the town limits. Some for a short while, to attend school or explore parts unknown. Others to seek their fortune. But most eventually came back to settle. That’s just how it always was. And always would be.
Now that’s my kind of town, thought Annie. Closing her eyes briefly, she imagined herself standing atop a rocky cliff looking out over the sea, waiting for her lover to sail home.
Sheriff Colby had done it. Gone off to college to study criminal justice. Took him 6 years. He’d worked his way through, as did most Siders who chose college. Cliffside wasn’t a poor town, nor a rich one. It was mostly working folks. Too far from the city to attract the Cleveland commuters, the small smattering of affluence was attributed mostly to old money, the kind that had always been there. Northsiders. Those that lived just north of the highway that ran through town. Their tasteful, rustic homes were invisible to the passing traffic, tucked away amidst the wooded and ragged coastline.
Sheriff Max Colby grew up south of the highway, but protecting the Northsiders was just as much his job as anything else. And when the call came in for a disturbance at the Helms house, he didn’t waste time getting out there. He was off duty, but none of his three deputies were able to handle it. Or maybe he was unwilling to let them. Either way, he felt he owed it to his major campaign donor, Gwen Helms Forsythe, to check it out personally.
Pulling into the long, winding drive that led to the main house, the Sheriff glanced around uneasily. Something didn’t fit. Nothing looked unusual, but it was dark, and the only light was the moon casting its glow, throwing shadows among the trees. Viola Hammond had called in frantically 15 minutes earlier. Said she’d heard screams coming from the main house. Viola was the Helms housekeeper and had been for over 35 years. She lived in a small cottage on the edge of the property. Gwen had moved her there when she’d gotten married. The first time. Viola was known to have quite the imagination, and was virtually the sole source of all town gossip, but something in her voice made him take notice this time. She sounded desperate, not chatty. The house was dark, and quiet. It was large; more of a manor than a house, and it had stood on the rocky cliff overlooking the lake for over 200 years. Built of stone, it was 3 stories tall, and just as wide. An imposing structure, when it was dark, it was truly eerie. Even for Max Colby.
Getting out of his truck, he paused, his hand resting on his gun, tucked neatly in his side holster. He felt a prickle on the back of his neck and tuned into that gut instinct he’d always been famous for. From the time he was just a small boy, he had an uncanny knack for sensing things. Everyone in Cliffside knew it, which was probably why they chose him for Sheriff to begin with.
He approached the front entrance carefully, glancing around as he did so. The large stone pillars were set widely apart, creating the appearance of a grand entryway. Usually the 1790s streetlamp replicas in front of the pillars were glowing softly, but they were off. As was every light in the house. First sign of trouble, thought Max. Gwen was a nervous woman, and usually the house was lit up like a Christmas tree all night long.
He climbed the steps, still looking around cautiously. As he approached the massive wood entry door, he stopped suddenly. It was open, just a crack. Gwen had the door locked at all times. Maybe he should call for back up, or maybe he was just overreacting. Nope. This was trouble. Big trouble. Pulling his radio from his pocket, he backed himself down the steps, and spoke quietly to Reagan, his dispatcher. “Get Tony, Mike and John down here now. Tell them there’s trouble down here at Gwen’s. Tell them to keep the sirens off and come in the back way. I’m out front. I’ll meet ‘em there.”
Oh for god’s sake, thought Annie, what’s he look like? I can’t envision a character without some description. How annoying, leaving all the good stuff out. “Typical,” she murmured to herself. She began reading again, and noted the change in scene. Always a sign a new character was coming into play.
“Hot damn!” She swore as she put down the newspaper. Gwen Helms. Aka Gwen Forsythe, aka Gwen Talbot. Suicide. Jade couldn’t believe it.
“Aha!” Annie spoke out loud, which, living alone, had become a habit. “The heroine’s name is Jade! How prophetic.” Annie rolled her eyes. “I’ll just put my own image in there. Small, no petite. Light brown hair. Nope, let’s make that golden brown hair. Big expressive eyes. Cute, not sophisticated. OK that works.” She sighed. She still couldn’t picture the Sheriff.
Jade’s journalistic instincts told her something wasn’t right with this story. Not right at all. Of course she hadn’t gotten past the headline yet, ‘Ohio’s grande dame of society commits suicide.’ Jade picked up the paper and scanned through the article.
‘Found with empty prescription bottle still in hand.’ Oh please, thought Jade. Like she collapsed immediately after swallowing the pills. 'Depressed following recent break up of marriage.’ Gimme a break! ‘Always seeking attention.’ Actually, that’s true. No note. If she knew Gwen, and she did, there’d have been a 200-page letter. What kind of dumb-ass investigation was this? She scanned the article again, and dropped the paper as if it burned to the touch.
Sheriff Colby. Sheriff Max Colby. It couldn’t be. No way. No fucking way. Jade took a deep breath and shook her head. God she needed a drink. Something. Her body was tensing up and she suddenly felt as if she’d stuck her finger in a socket. Jolts of electricity just humming through her veins. Max. Her sweet, beautiful Max.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” said Annie.
Her friend Max. Although she’d never seen him quite as a friend. That was his take on their relationship, not hers. She’d fantasized at least once a day, every day, for the last 10 years reliving those times with him. What could she have done differently? No. More like who could she have been that would have made him notice her. Actually, he did notice her. He just didn’t make a pass at her. Ever. She could have walked across the room naked and he wouldn’t have blinked. Not that she ever went that far. Unrequited love. And for Jade, it had lived with her for far too long. It was a schoolgirl crush for christ’s sake. Well, college schoolgirl crush anyway. But her feelings were so strong, so deep, she’d never gotten rid of them. Never moved on.
“You and me both! I know just how you feel, girl.” Annie was really into the character now.
Seeing his name in print made him real again. It made her feel again. She felt like screaming. So she did. AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH. There that was better. Her neighbors probably heard that. She screamed again for good measure. They wouldn’t say anything. Nobody ever said anything in her building. The old brownstone was one of dozens lining the boulevard in her uptown Manhattan neighborhood. A quiet, sedentary neighborhood where everyone nodded their greetings, but rarely spoke more than 2 words to each other. Everyone busy with their own little lives. Caught up in their own little dramas. Not wanting to care about anyone else's. It wasn’t what she’d wanted. What she’d hoped for.
Annie put the book down and sighed. Then frowned. Then sighed again. Then scrunched her face up in a curious look. It was as if he was writing about her. Not the journalist part, unless you actually considered ad copy journalism, but she did recognize herself. Parts of her anyway. Maybe she shouldn’t keep reading. Maybe whatever happens will make her depressed, or maybe give her hope? Keep reading. That’s the only way to find out. She picked up the book and curled up in the corner of her sofa. It was Friday after all; no work tomorrow, she could sit and read all night if she wanted to.
Yawning, and straining to open her eyes, she glanced at the clock and saw it was past 3am. She opened her eyes wide in a kind of stretching exercise, hoping they’d stay open that way. She couldn’t go to bed now, she was halfway through with the book and couldn’t possibly put it down. This guy had hit too close to home on so many levels, she had to finish it. Was her life so ordinary, so common, that this guy could write a bestseller and include all her thoughts and emotions without even knowing her? Were so many other women out there suffering the same existence? One more chapter, she thought, and I’ll go to bed. Maybe.
Emotions roared through him. She could still make him feel like a teenager in heat. He’d loved her from the start. He never had a chance to fall in love slowly, or suffer the heartbreak of loss. It was as if he plunged in an instant, and never came up for air.
He turned away, not wanting, nor allowing his emotions to be seen or felt. He walked over to his truck, opened the door, climbed in and started her up. He knew he was out of control when he heard his tires screech as he floored it. Escape. He had to escape. He sped out the long drive and hit the highway blacktop with a bounce and thud. Easing up on the accelerator, he took a deep breath, then another one. Calm down! He screamed inside his head. He swerved suddenly to avoid the cottontail in the road, who’d eyed him with nothing but curiosity. Damn bunny he thought. Taking another deep breath, he felt starved for oxygen. Pull over! Yeah. Pull over. That’s what he needed to do, and did. Swerving off the highway onto the shoulder, he stopped short and cut the engine. Leaning his head back he closed his eyes and tried to shut out the flood of memories, but it was futile. She was here. Here. She was here! The image of her face, her deep expressive eyes, the soft, kissable lips. Thoughts swam through his head.
He’d have to go back, he knew that. Not yet. He needed to collect his thoughts. Calm down, and brace himself. He knew his life was about to change. He just couldn’t figure out how.
Annie hadn’t even known she’d fallen asleep. Waking up so suddenly startled her. The book lay open on her lap. The phone. Damnit, that’s what was causing all the noise. Right now she was regretting her choice of ringtone. Sounded like a screaming banshee. Now, where was that phone? She almost jumped up, but stopped herself, and instead carefully placed the book on the coffee table, almost reverently, as if parting from it was almost painful. Realizing the noise was coming from somewhere nearby, she searched around the sofa cushions till she found it and quickly answered.
“Hi there ducky! Rise and shine!”
Annie groaned, very dramatically, to make a point.
“Hey sis. Little early for this, don’t you think? Especially since you know I was out last night with that charmer you set me up with.”
“Precisely why I’m calling. So how’d it go? Cute, huh?”
“I’m coming over. I need to hear everything.”
“Yeah, of course you do. Whatever.” Annie hung up and sighed. There was no way she could deal with Luce right now but there was no way to stop her.
She surveyed the room, then looked down. She hadn’t even changed out of her “date” clothes. Boy would her sister get the wrong idea. Annie smiled wickedly. Wouldn’t that be a kick! She could have some fun here with this. Anything to liven up her day. She was grinning now. Let the games begin!
She started to hum as she snuggled back down with the book. No sense getting dressed now.
Max kept his eyes closed as his breathing became steadier. The horrible pit in his stomach seemed to just grow bigger and more painful. All those years had gone by, and yet when she’d looked up at him, it seemed time had just stood still. Oh she was a little older, a little curvier, but it didn’t matter. It had never mattered. From the first moment he’d seen her, standing in the doorway on that long-ago evening, he’d been captured. She’d come in with a friend, and the party was being held in a small room on campus. Most seats were taken already, and there was a crowd of students practically standing on top of each other. So she had paused, scanning the room for a clear area. He’d looked up from his perch in the corner, and had caught her glance as it passed over. They’d stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. She’d smiled. He’d smiled.
After a moment’s hesitation she came into the room, and spotted a seat near him. She’d sat down quickly, smiled at him once more, then began the greeting ritual so common at these informal parties. Finally Rick, the host and his best friend, had come over and introduced them. Without a second thought, he’d gotten up and decided to sit next to her. He wasn’t subtle or casual about it either. He felt like a piece of metal being pulled by a magnet. She turned her head as he sat down and smiled at him one more time. That was it. They’d spent the next 5 hours talking. About what he’d never remember. He hadn’t really been listening anyway, just watching her lips move as she spoke. They were soft and red, naturally. Her skin was fair, like peaches and cream. No makeup. No pretenses. Her soft golden brown hair hung long past her shoulders. Her eyes were enormous pools with little flecks that seemed to sparkle like gold.
“Ha! See, golden brown. I knew it,” Annie announced to herself.
He could tell she wasn’t very tall. Probably wasn’t more than 5’3 or so. And even at 18, she had the curves that so many girls were missing. He didn’t much care for stick figures, and she was filled out in all the right places. Too soon his ride told him it was time to hit the road. He’d gotten up, smiled down at her, and said goodbye. Didn’t get her number. Didn’t get her last name. He’d been a complete fool.
The next time he saw her he’d been an even bigger fool. He’d been visiting a friend in her building, and gone upstairs to see if he could find her. Rick had filled him in on who she was and where she lived. He got lucky. She was headed out of the shower room and in the hall. He could have let her just go into her room unnoticed since she was dressed in nothing but a skimpy towel, but no. He did what any fool would do and called out her name and waved. She’d glanced over, and he realized too late the look on her face was pure embarrassment. She smiled weakly and gave a little half wave, then practically dove into her room. She didn’t come back out, though he waited for quite a while. Who could blame her?
“No no no no no no.” Annie whispered in horror. “This is soooo not happening.”