Manda Rider read the pastel card that she had just received from one of her mails before she crumpled and dumped it into the wastebasket next to her desk.
"What's that?" Michael Mackenzie asked.
"Oh, it's nothing." She waved the subject away. She continued putting her textbooks on the desk and sat down on the chair.
He gave her a long searching look, expecting her to continue, but she made a big show of arranging her books on her desk. Unsatisfied by her hollow answer, he picked up the crumpled card from the wastebasket.
"Michael, I told you it's not that important." She glared at him, looking a tad annoyed as he perused the card.
"You don't throw away a high school reunion invitation without a good reason. This Friday. That's just two days away." He sat at the edge of her bed, which were scattered with her clothes, as he skimmed through the card. "Who's Jackie Foxworth?"
"Are we going to start with Biochemistry or Advanced Physics?" She held up the two textbooks for him to look at.
"Come on, Manda, you're avoiding the subject."
"I think we should start with this subject: Biochemistry. I've got Professor Jensen's class this afternoon. Besides, you only have a couple of hours before you have to go back to work." She put away the other book, and turned the cover of the Biochemistry book.
Now, he was beginning to feel annoyed, too. While she wasn't looking at him, he took the opportunity to slip the card into his jacket. He'd find out one way or the other.
"Just let it go. OK? I can see your reflection in the CD." She pointed to a horizontal CD rack arranged next to her laptop.
"You got me curious. I can't help it. I'll let the subject drop if you tell me why you don't want to go to your high school reunion party."
Her brows furrowed and she bit her lower lip before she continued, "You're very stubborn, you know that?"
"Gee, sounds like someone I know," he retorted.
She plopped the textbook that she was holding on the table with a resounding thud, and folded her arms. "Fine! What do you want to know?"
He suppressed a smile at hearing the word he used so often coming out of her lips. Her flushed face added a pleasant contrast against her cloudy-blue eyes, framed by long black lashes. He could just do nothing and stare into her eyes without growing bored.
"Tell me about Jackie Foxworth."
Her frown deepened. "We used to be in the same class, that's all." She shrugged.
"Gee, how... obvious. So?"
"So what?" Her voice turned strained.
"C'mon, Manda. I can tell you're hiding something. Were both of you good friends?"
He gritted his teeth, trying to still his frustration at her lack of response. Normally, he was good at controlling his patience, but Manda's behaviour was proving to be difficult.
"Do I have to force each answer out of you?" he retorted. "Or is it some kind of information that you can't trust me with?"
She looked embarrassed. "Oh, Michael, I didn't mean it that way. I do trust you." She reached over and patted his hand in assurance.
"But?" His hand possessed hers before it moved away.
She hesitated, glancing down at their hands. "I just... I just don't want to remember everything again. My high school life wasn't that... nice. That's why I couldn't wait to get out of it and start my university year."
Even without saying it, he could tell she was talking about Pearl Sullivan, her ex-best friend who had betrayed her. It all started when Mr. Rider, Manda's father, who was an FBI agent, had made an investigation on Pearl's father. Mr. Rider had suspected Mr. Sullivan of being an accomplice to Rodriguez, an infamous crime lord. Since then, Pearl had ended all ties with Manda and declared her as an enemy.
It had gotten worse when Manda turned sixteen, Pearl's father died from drunk-driving and inadvertently took the life of Manda's mother, who happened to be driving her car on the same road. That was when Pearl began to blame Manda for her father's death, and plan to get her revenge. Michael knew Pearl wouldn't stop until she had Manda's life ruined.
Manda's life wasn't the only thing that had been ruined. Before Mr. Sullivan's death, Michael's father and Mr. Sullivan had arranged a marriage between Michael and Pearl, just because his father had won the trial that he had defended for Mr. Sullivan. If Pearl hadn't been murdered, Michael would have been her husband by now. He hated to be selfish, but he was glad Pearl was gone. Only he didn't relish the way she had died.
He shuddered inwardly when he thought of Pearl. The girl was everything he didn't want in a wife. He couldn't imagine how she and Manda could be best friends. Both of them were different as night and day. Brazen girls like Pearl always made him nervous. If he were to decide who should rather do the chasing game, it was him. Not that he wanted to chase anyone at the moment. Not when the girl he had set his eyes on was sitting in front of him right now.
As days passed by since last summer, he began to wonder if he did the right thing when he had told Manda how he felt about her. The intense yet exhilarating feeling he harboured for her was bubbling to get out that he couldn't help but blurt out his confession. He didn't want to be such a milksop, but he hoped it wouldn't happen again. It had taken him all the courage that he had just to drag out his confession past his lips. So, now she knew how he felt about her, and so far, she hadn't avoided him, and continued to be his friend as usual. Either it was a good sign or a bad one, he wasn't sure.
"... and so, you see why I can't go to that -- Hey, are you listening?" Manda was saying when she looked at him.
She folded her arms and glared at him. "How attentive of you."
"You have my undivided attention now." He fixed his gaze on her face, causing a rosy hue on her cheeks.
She turned away and grumbled something indecipherable under her breath.
"All right, sorry about that," he said. "I was just thinking about some things."
She let out her breath. "Anyway, just in case you've missed it, Pearl was one of Jackie's in-crowd gang, if you know what I mean."
"Like the spoilt rich kids?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah... Not that I'm saying that you're spoilt," she corrected quickly. "I mean, I know you're rich and all that, but --"
He waved the subject away. "There's no need to apologise. I hate to admit I was surrounded by spoilt brats when I was a kid. I was one of them, too." He grimaced when he thought about how he had behaved back then.
"I thought you were in the geek gang in school."
"That was after I moved from England. I went to a high school in New York. I had no one to talk to, and I became the quiet kid in class."
"I guess you probably were suffering from culture shock or something."
"I was homesick for months. I just wanted to go back to Ireland and stay with my grandparents."
"Poor Michael. Your parents probably had their hands full with all your whining that they had to send you to New York, huh?" she said with a smirk.
He decided it was time to change the subject. Speaking about his past was making him uncomfortable. He felt embarrassed when he recalled how different he was back then compared with now. There was nothing to be proud of.
"So, what's this about Jackie that had you all riled up?" he asked.
She hesitated. "Jackie had used me to do favours for her -- you know, stuff like homework."
"What? Were you out of your mind?"
"I was stupid, and naïve."
"What made you did that?"
"She promised me that she could get Pearl to talk to me again, and that she could persuade Pearl to be my friend again, but after a few weeks, nothing changed, so I confronted Jackie. She laughed at my face, and told me there wasn't really any deal. The whole thing was Pearl's idea to get back at me." She kicked at a crumpled paper at the bottom of her desk.
He winced inwardly. "That sucks."
"But why is she inviting you to stay at her home for the reunion party?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe she'll get a kick out of it."
"I guess that means you're not going. Right?"
Manda plopped down her food tray on the table and sat across from Amy Johnson, her dorm roommate. Since Michael had to go back to work and would return late to the campus, he couldn't join them for lunch. Now that he was in his senior year, he had to work in a research company for four days in a week. That left him Fridays, and weekends free for thesis writing. He wouldn't be around in campus that much, and she found herself missing his presence.
"Being a sophomore sucks," Amy was complaining.
"More assignments, more electives. Yuck." She spooned her soup and blew across the surface to cool it.
"I thought you like your electives. Historical Lit. and Creative Writing." Manda stabbed the chicken with a fork and popped it into her mouth.
"Because Rob is taking it, too."
"You still have a crush on that guy? When are you going to speak to him?"
Amy shot her a glare. "Hey, at least my electives are fun. What were you thinking when you picked Criminology, and Forensic Science? Sounds pretty heavy-duty stuff to me. Are you planning to be like your dad?"
"Those are just introductory courses. It's not like I'm going to major in them." As she spoke, Manda couldn't help wondering if she already had chosen her career path. A part of her didn't want to be like her father, who was an FBI agent, but another part was tempted to take the particular field.
"And speaking of your dad, how's he?" Amy asked.
Manda played with the mashed potatoes, idly making a net pattern on it with the fork. "He's still the same, Amy. No change in his condition. It's already the sixth month."
Her father had been seriously injured while he was investigating a case and kidnapped in the process. Not too long after that, Manda herself was kidnapped by the same criminal, and she had seen how the kidnapper had inflicted injury to her father in front of her eyes. She closed her eyes to block out the unpleasant images. She had tried many times to forget, but the memory became vivid every day, especially when she went to sleep at night.
"Hey, I'm sure he'll make it," Amy assured her gently, mistaking the expression of Manda's face as grief.
Manda forced a smile. "That's what I've been told. So, where's Tara by the way? She's not having lunch with us?"
Tara Moore was Amy's best friend since childhood. Though Manda was close to Amy, Tara was still a stranger to her. Tara had made a fact that she didn't quite like having Manda around, and Manda was glad for that. She didn't have to pretend to like her either.
"She's got this drama rehearsal for her Fine Arts class."
"Is this seat taken?" A deep masculine voice suddenly came over their table.
Manda looked up at the person standing next to her, and sprang from her seat in shock.
"The last time I remember, I hadn't changed my name," he replied in humour, and smiled, revealing a set of white teeth. His forest green eyes gleamed, standing out against the deep tan of his skin.
Manda felt her face flushed at her discomposure. "I mean, I'm just s-surprised to see you."
She noticed Amy glanced at both of them with raised eyebrows, looking intrigued and interested at the very handsome young man next to her. Manda couldn't blame her.
"Oh, Amy, this is Damien Grayson. Damien, Amy Johnson. She's my roommate," she quickly gave the introduction.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Amy," Damien said, turning to her with an interested look, and shook her hands.
"The pleasure is mine, too. So, you're that infamous Damien," Amy flirted, and Manda almost rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
"Oh, have a s-seat," Manda told him, at the same time she chided herself for being nervous. She couldn't help it, having Damien's presence around her always made her nervous. It wasn't that she was afraid of him, but she was rather awed that a handsome guy like him would notice and talk to someone like her.
Damien took a seat next to Manda. His broad shoulders filled the space between them that her shoulder kept brushing against his.
"Can I get you something to eat?" Amy asked him.
"That's OK. I've had my lunch."
"What are you doing here?" Manda asked him. "I would have thought you've completed your senior year."
He glanced at Manda and gave her a sexy smile. "I just want to drop by and see how my favourite girl is doing."
Manda was abashed to hear the words he had said that she didn't dare to look at Amy. She could almost see the questioning glance her roommate was throwing at her from across the table. On the other hand, she wasn't sure if Damien was only kidding. She didn't know him quite well to make sense of his remark.
"Things are going great," Manda replied in a casual tone.
"So, how did you two meet?" Amy asked curiously.
"It's a long story," Manda hedged.
"Actually, I was one of her suspects," Damien told Amy.
"Suspect? How can you be a suspect?"
"Remember that murdered campus reporter guy? Somehow, Manda found out I had contacted him before his death," he went on. "She went to my office and interrogated me."
"How come you never tell me about this?" Amy said to her with a hint of accusing tone.
Manda knew her friend wasn't talking about the case. "I thought it wasn't that interesting."
The stereophonic of a latest movie theme suddenly pealed from a cell phone.
"That's mine," Damien said, pulling out his cell phone from his jacket. He turned away from them to talk for a few moments before he slid it back into his pocket. "Sorry, ladies, but I've got to go."
"Well, it was nice meeting you anyway," Amy told him, smiling.
"Me, too." He shook hands with hers again, lingering longer this time. Then he turned to Manda. "I hope I'll be seeing you around soon."
"Uh... yeah," she replied rather unconvincingly. Before she knew what was happening, he leaned forward and gave her a peck on her cheek. She felt the spot on her cheek had grown warm.
After Damien had gone, Amy leaned back against her chair with arms crossed. Uh-oh, it's interrogation time.
"I never thought you had it in you, Manda. How did you manage to get two hunks to fall in love with you at the same time? First Michael, now Damien? Tara would have been green in envy if she knows this."
"They're both not in love with me. We're just friends," she insisted.
Amy scoffed. "You and Michael are just friends? I saw the way he looked at you during breakfast this morning." She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.
"He's still a friend." Manda pushed the green peas to one side of the plate with her fork. One of the peas rolled into the mashed potatoes.
"Come on, don't tell me something didn't happen during last summer? Both of you have been acting so lovey dovey. Anyone without a brain can see something's going on."
Hot flush rose up her cheeks involuntarily, and Manda ducked her head a little to hide her face. She remembered clearly what happened on that one summer day. The memory of it still imprinted in her mind, playing over and over like an old movie. Since then, she couldn't decide if she had been in a dream or not. She wasn't sure if she was ready to share Michael's feeling the same way, but she knew she liked him a lot.
"Nothing happened, Amy." She winced inwardly, noticing how strain her voice sounded.
"Liar. You took too long to answer."
Manda shifted on her seat, feeling trapped. "Really --"
"Manda, that's not fair. I've told you the silly things I did to get Rob to notice me." Amy pouted, rather uncharacteristic of her that Manda almost laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.
"All right," Manda finally conceded, feeling her face grew hot by the second.
"Ooh, you're blushing! This must be good."
"Amy! It's nothing really."
"Come on. Tell!"
"We..." She stopped, having second thought.
"You and Michael what?"
"We..." She cleared her throat. Amy looked as if she wanted to strangle her for delaying her answer. "We... uh, we... kissed." Her voice lowered a decibel.
"You kissed!" Amy let out a whoop that everyone in the cafe turned their heads toward her.
"Amy!" Manda hissed. "This isn't a public announcement!"
"Sorry, I can't help it." She chuckled. "What about Damien?"
"You can take him if you want."
"I'll keep that in mind. So, I guess you and Michael are dating now, huh?"
This time Manda decided not to reply.
The next afternoon, Manda went straight to her dorm after her Forensic Science class. For some reason, she couldn't wait to start with the lab work next week. She knew she wouldn't be doing anything sophisticated yet, but the prospect of examining the blood splatter on a murder scene and lifting fingerprints for a case study almost made her giddy with excitement.
She dropped her books on her desk and went to her closet. Jackets, and shirts on hangers filled a quarter of the space in the closet. On the bottom left of the closet was a chest of drawers. She pulled out the top drawer and frowned down at the hollow space. Drat! Her stock of chocolate bars was running low, and she needed them a lot while cracking through her notes. Letting out a frustrated sigh, she grabbed her jacket and walked out of her room.
It didn't take long to arrive at Sweet Treats, her favourite candy store in Greenwood, where all varieties of chocolates and candies were sold. The little shop was located at the corner of Blanc and Elmwood Street, on the commercial side of Greenwood. Profuse with cobbled streets, the steeply pitched roofs, prominent cross gables with the structures lavishly covered with ornamental half-timbering, this part of town gave her an archaic feeling. She felt as if she had stepped into medieval time. Michael had told her the building design along Elmwood and Blanc Street was a smaller reproduction of a town called Chester in England.
A bell jingled as she stepped through the doorway. A waft of sweet candy and chocolate filled her nostrils that made her mouth water.
"Hello, Manda," Mr. Robinson, the storekeeper greeted her with a jovial smile.
"Hi, Mr. R."
"Shall I wrap up the usual for you?" he asked.
"Yeah." She hesitated for a second before she told him, "Make it double."
His white bushy eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Sure thing." He went to the chocolate section and began filling in her favourite chocolate bars into a paper bag.
While Mr. Robinson was busy, Manda began inspecting around the store, checking to see if there were new kinds of chocolates for her to try. The bell chimed again, and she heard Mr. Robinson conversing with someone.
She found a new Swiss chocolate with peach yoghurt filling, but once she glanced at the price, she could only stare longingly at it. If she could just have a sample of the yummy white chocolate with creamy --
"Manda? Manda Rider? Is that you?"
She snapped out of her thoughts, and turned to the speaker. Standing next to her was a girl about Manda's age with long mousy brown hair, which looked limp and weary as the pair of large brown eyes that was looking up at her now. With nervous fingers, the girl clutched the sides of her long brown skirt, emphasizing the long sleeves of her faded pink sweater that hung so low they almost covered her entire hands.
Manda blinked, trying to place the familiar face with a name. She knew the girl from Apple Point High; they had hung out a few times, and they even had graduated on the same year, too. She couldn't believe their graduation had happened only a year and a half ago. Gosh, it feels like eons. So much has happened.
"Rachel?" Manda asked, relieved that she hadn't forgotten the girl's name.
"I thought you didn't remember," Rachel Donovan replied, smiling shyly.
"Not quite. What are you doing here? Shopping for candies, too?"
Rachel looked a little embarrassed. "I've a sweet tooth. I thought you knew that. It always drives my brother crazy."
Manda had forgotten and she felt guilty, for Rachel was one of her friends ever since Pearl had joined Jackie's crowd. At least she remembered Rachel had an older brother. That should count for something, right?
Ritchie Donovan, dropped out of high school when he was seventeen, he never ceased to tangle with the wrong kind of crowd, and the wrong side of law. When Rachel had introduced Manda to him when she was fifteen, she'd thought he was the most frightening person she had ever seen, but at the same time, she was a little intrigued. He was rugged-looking, rough around the edges, and too wild. The only thing she could associate Ritchie with was his Harley Davidson and his leather attire. That was years ago. She figured his age now to be twenty-five, a year older than Michael.
"How's your brother doing now? The last time I heard he was in jail for vandalism."
"Ritchie works as a mechanic now. Typical of him. He couldn't part with anything with wheels," Rachel answered, wrinkling her nose in distaste.
"As long as he has a decent job, I'm sure he wouldn't get into trouble, would he?"
"He's trouble with a capital 'T'. No matter where he goes, there's always trouble." Rachel folded her arms around her, as if cold. "I've heard things about you, too."
"Me?" Manda echoed in puzzlement.
Rachel nodded with a small smile. "Just from what I've read in the newspapers. Seems like you're some sort of crime fighter -- like that case with the guy... Rodriguez?"
This time Manda felt embarrassed. "I'm actually not really into crime-fighting stuff. Well, I thought I did... but not seriously, you know... Those cases were more like personal stuff... to me. Anyway, what have you been doing?"
Rachel shrugged. "Just doing this and that. Nothing major. Hey, listen, have you received Jackie's invitation?"
"Uh... Yeah... You received it, too?" Manda tried not to look surprise. She'd once overheard Jackie and Pearl talking about Rachel, and it certainly wasn't anything complimentary.
"I wouldn't be asking about it, would I?" She forced a laugh. "Are you going?"
"Actually, umm... no. Why would I want to face Jackie again?"
Rachel looked unsure. "You won't go?"
"Are you going?" Manda asked her.
She genuinely looked upset by Manda's decision. "Sort of. Ritchie's been dating Jackie."
Manda hoped her mouth wasn't hanging open. "You didn't say."
"Look, I know it's none of your concern, but I have a bad feeling about the party," Rachel said, clutching her sweater against her protectively. "With Ritchie around, there's bound to be trouble. Would you consider changing your mind about your not going to the party? I... I don't want to be alone, and -- and I really need, well, like a moral support or something. You've been very nice to me since high school. So, would you?"
"So, what did you say to her?" Michael asked, shifting the phone receiver to his right ear.
"I told her I'd let her know later," Manda replied.
"You have less than a daybefore the party."
"I know, I know." He heard her grumbling something unintelligible, a sure sign that she was frustrated. "And the weird thing is, after I talked to Rachel, Casey came into the store. It's like everyone was having a sweet tooth on that day."
"Casey Larkin. She used to be in Jackie's in-crowd group."
"Larkin? Like Paul Larkin, the governor of New York?"
"That's her father."
He let out a low whistle. "Sounds like you'll be having a blast over there."
"You make it sounds like I'm going. Do you think I should go? I really feel bad about Rachel. What if she's right that there's going to be trouble?"
"It's your decision. If I were you, I would go, just for the sake of curiosity. Find out what this Ritchie is up to."
"I... I don't know, Michael. I know how she feels -- to be alone at a party where no one else would notice or talk to you."
"You can talk to Rachel."
"I know, but -- but I don't really know her. It's not that we're not friends, we are -- but we're not that close, you see. And I don't know everyone else who's going to be at the party. I mean, I know their names and all that but --"
"I get what you mean."
"The invitation says I can bring a friend. W-Would you like to -- I mean, like Rachel said, just as a moral support..." Her voice faltered slightly at the end, as if sounding embarrassed. "I know it sounds silly. You're the only one I could trust at the party."
"Sure, I'll go, Manda," he said, smiling, secretly pleased that she was putting her trust on him.
"You will?" She sounded as if she was controlling her delight. "Uh... I -- I hope I'm not interrupting with your thesis writing or your work."
"Don't worry. That can wait. Besides, there's nothing I'd rather do than spend my weekend with my lovely dame."
"Michael! Stop exaggerating." He could almost imagine her expression right now. Her cheeks tinged with pink, and her lovely eyes blazed with indignant. He wished he was with her now to see the effect. There was a short pause before she said, "Umm... I'd better start packing. The party is at Goldworth Isle, off coast from Salisbury. Jackie had invited us to stay there. Should we take a bus?"
"We'll go with my Land Rover. We can start going in the afternoon. The ride won't be that long. Do you have a class on that day?"
"Good. Just my curiosity, why haven't you mention to me about Rachel before? Are you two still keeping in touch with each other since graduation?"
The silence went on for a while before Manda answered in uncertain tone, "No, we aren't. This afternoon was the first time I talked to her since graduation."
"I -- You know how busy we are -- with lectures, assignments, a-and cases... I couldn't think about anything else." She sounded nervous.
"You told me you wanted to forget everything from your high school life. Is Rachel a part of it, too?"
"I -- Oh, Amy's just came back. I've got to go now. Anyway, thanks Michael, for coming to the party. I... I really appreciate it," she said shyly.
"Hey, it's no problem."
After hanging up the phone, his brows furrowed, wondering if Manda purposely was avoiding his question. He didn't mean to pry, but he wanted to know who her friends were before she left high school. Except for Pearl, she never mentioned once to him about her old friends since they'd met. He chastised himself. Not that he'd never told her about his old friends, it was hard to find real friends that he could hang out with when his parents moved around a lot before settling down in Greenwood.
Michael turned back to his computer, staring at the opening sentence he'd typed for his thesis. He knew it had been only three months he'd started his thesis project, but he liked to start writing early even though there were a lot more work to be done. That way by the end of the year, he could have ample time to fix his first draft before he sent the final version to his supervisor.
But right now, he didn't feel like typing the first chapter. He saved his file before exiting out of the word processor. He couldn't stop thinking about Manda's high school reunion party. Though he was looking forward to go to the party with her, at the same time, he couldn't help feeling a little uneasy. Normally, he never trusted gut feelings, but this time he felt something bad was going to happen -- all because of that invitation card Manda had received. It sounded harmless, but after what he and Manda had been through together, danger always lurked around the corner, waiting to spring on them. He just hoped this time his gut feeling was wrong.