Chapter One: The Invite
"How was Japan?" Ashley Vernon asked her friend, Rachel Herwood, as soon as she came through the front door of their flat, panting for breath, toting her massive Louis Vuitton bags on her arms.
"A little help here?" she breathed out, still flushed and out of breath. It was perfect timing that their lifts were undergoing renovation the exact moment she arrived from her trip to Japan, carrying a huge load of bags fresh with souvenirs and give-aways.
"Right, right," Ashley said, snickering, and finally standing from her comfortable position on the sofa right in front of the television. "I knew there was something I had to do."
She dutifully unloaded Rachel's arm from one of the many bags trapping her motor skills and took hold of the travel suitcase she had on one hand and rolled it into their small London flat.
"Thanks," Rachel huffed, plopping herself down on one side of the sofa, and closed her eyes. She was utterly tired, breathless and jet-lagged.
"Did you get me anything?" Ashley asked, digging into her friend's bags and found a box of Japanese tampons. "Oh. Thanks. This is… useful."
Rachel popped open an eye and looked at the box Ashley was holding in distaste. She laughed. "That's not yours, you idiot. I bought that yesterday when I found out it was that time of the month again. Your presents are in that bag you're sitting on."
"Oh! Right," Ashley smiled sheepishly and stood up in a flash, not wanting to do anymore damage to her presents. She dug through the bag and exclaimed over the gorgeous clothes and accessories she found. "Where did you get these? They're all so wonderfully weird! And oh… I always wanted this Louboutin boots!"
"I know," Rachel couldn't resist grinning at her friend's enthusiasm. "The boots was a give-away since I wore them on the runway. The rest of the clothes and accessories, I bought in Harajuku and Shibuya. Cute, eh?"
"Very! We have to go there next time, once I find time out of my very busy schedule."
Rachel snorted. "What busy schedule?"
Ashley was a primary school teacher. Therefore her job hours were from eight to three, Mondays through Fridays, and had summer, spring and winter holidays off. Her busiest day would consist of a toddler being picked up late and she'd arrive home at five instead of four.
"This summer then," she replied brightly, still scrutinising her presents. They were very weird indeed, but in a nice way. Very much like a cross between garbs worn by Gwen Stefani and that Canadian pop singer. April something.
"If I don't have anything lined up then, why not?" Rachel said with a shrug. "So what's happened since I was gone? Oh, did you finally talk to your gardener man yet?"
Ashley groaned. "No. I'm lacking terribly in the speech department," she complained.
She was currently crushing on a landscape artist she saw in one of the exhibits in Piccadilly Circus. She found out he works just near the school she was teaching in, so every lunch, she'd see him in the same restaurant everyday. And everyday, she always made a resolve to do something about it. And so far, she hasn't done anything.
Rachel made a face. "You're boring."
"I know. Oh, but we received something in the post just yesterday," Ashley snapped her fingers, suddenly remembering the dreaded letters they received. She rummaged round their cluttered kitchen, until she found what she was looking for. "Here you go," she said, tossing the envelope to Rachel's lap when she finally emerged from the recess of the kitchen.
Rachel looked at the thick cream coloured envelope that had her name on it. It had on a fancy lettering, but considering all the formal and elegant functions she'd attended, she suspected it to be very low-budget and pretentious. "What's this?" she murmured, flipping open the undone flap and pulled out a busy looking invitation.
"I took the liberty of opening your invite, hope you don't mind," Ashley commented, knowing Rachel wouldn't mind at all. "It's exactly the same as mine."
"A reunion?" she asked, her eyes wide at the very notion of seeing the people she tried hard to bury in her memories.
"Yeah. A five-year reunion to be precise," Ashley replied, picking the invite from Rachel's hand and skimmed through it again.
"Aren't reunions supposed to come every ten years or so?"
Ashley shrugged. "I don't really know. And I don't really care. What I care about is our attendance. We're going, right?"
Rachel looked at her friend as though she were a mental patient with a very severe illness. "You're joking."
"Why would I?"
Rachel just gave her a look.
"Alright, I know it's not exactly very exciting to see them again," Ashley rolled her eyes. "But think about their stupefied faces when they see you again! I mean, for years, we laboured through being ignored or being taunted mercilessly. Wouldn't it give you a little pleasure being who you are now?"
Rachel sighed. She did have a point. For the entire six years they endured in secondary school, they were nothing but mere wallflowers. Or the butt of several jokes. Ashley didn't have it too bad. She was very meek and timid, which was why she didn't have many friends. Rachel, on the other hand, was not only quiet; she was also a little strange-looking. She was as thin as a rod with very pale skin that looked like it had not seen the light of day, light blue eyes that resembled vampire's eyes (in the Anne Rice version, and not Stephenie Meyer) and very black hair that was long and stringy. In short, she resembled the walking dead. And kids being kids, they did not react kindly to this.
Now, five years later, she's metamorphosed from zombie to model. And not just any model, but the new face of Chanel model.
After her sixth form, she decided to go for a gap year instead of heading straight off to university like most of her classmates. Wanting to break free from dependence, she lived in Paris on her own, working in an old bookstore while breathing in a culture so different from her own.
In her search for independence came her new look. She was still the same, but yet changed completely. Her hair was snipped into a French-bohemian look, her eyes still light sparkled in hidden knowledge, her lips were the lightest shade of pink and very curvy, her milky skin not at all making her as pale as a ghost. If anything, it made her stand out. But in a good way. She was still thin and sadly, still flat (in a Keira Knightely kind of flat-chested way), but she was breathtakingly beautiful. And spending her days outside, she gathered a light-roasted tan that made her sparkle even more. Slowly, she was starting to feel the attention of men who would turn and look at her in an appreciative way when she passed them by. She was no longer a freak—she was beautiful.
It was there she was first discovered by a Frenchman who claimed to be an agent and thought she was just the face he was looking for. At first, she was hesitant. Why shouldn't she be after all? The Frenchman looked a little bit questionable. He resembled Gerard Depardieu, had the name Henri Puree and dressed funny. How could he be in the fashion biz?
It took a while, but they finally sorted it out. He was an agent, and at that moment, he was looking for a model he thought would fit the Longchamp advert he was involved with. Weeks after Rachel landed the job and did it perfectly, Henri phoned her again. This time, his agency was supplying models for Oscar de la Renta for the Olympus fashion week. She landed the job again, and was flown to New York for free, all expenses paid for. Again and again, Henri would phone her. And again and again, she'd land jobs on runways, fashion spreads and advert campaigns.
She returned to London the following year, reuniting with Ashley who was in university, reading early child development, and quickly shared a flat with her. But that didn't end her growing career. Henri was a damn good agent, and he kept booking her jobs, mindless of the body of water separating them. Instead of a gap year, it had been a fast-paced five years of modelling. She rapidly became the next Kate Moss, earning the respect of magazine editors and fashion designers alike. She was very well known not only in England and France, but in major fashion capitals such as Milan, Madrid, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles as well. And after five years of a whirlwind career, she was used to seeing her face plastered in posters, magazine pages and shopping centres.
She was the new It Girl. Who dreaded going to her school's first reunion.
"Rachel?" Ashley asked, seeing her friend's face go blank.
"What?" she asked, snapping out of her reverie.
"We're going, right? This could be like Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, only we don't have to pretend we invented Post-Its. I mean, seeing as you're a bloody celebrity!"
Rachel shook her head adamantly. "I'm not. I can't. It's pure masochism."
Ashley rolled her eyes. "Oh, honestly. I would've thought melodramas are beneath you. You know better than that."
"You weren't the one called Mad Rachel for most of your life in school, you wouldn't understand," Rachel snarled, fiddling with one of her bags until she found what she was looking for, and stood up to light the cigarette by the window.
"I know! It's precisely the reason why I want you to go! It'd be so cool. Like an in-your-face sort of revenge."
"I have no intentions of reliving the worst five years of my life, thank you very much."
Ashley was silent for a minute, listening to the busy street outside their window. "I wonder if Alex will be there."
Alex Bishop frowned at the invitation he received. He wasn't expecting a reunion to happen this early. Not that he was complaining. It had been a while since he last saw his old schoolmates. From time to time, he'd receive emails or text messages inviting him to birthday parties, but more often than not, he hardly communicated with them at all. The only two people he kept in touch with were Owen Philips (because they went to university together with the same degree) and Alicia Denton (because they were cousins).
He smiled. There was a particular person he'd been meaning to catch up with for a long time now, but because of the quick parting of ways during graduation, they never really kept in contact. He was a bit of a popular kid back then, while she was completely his opposite. But he never cared about those things. That was probably the reason why he was so popular in the first place. He was always so sure of himself.
And he was sure he fancied her. Even if she was what polite society would call nice-looking. Or sometimes plain-looking. But there was just something in her, her mysterious eyes, her shy smile, the way her pale skin would flush so red it was almost impossible… all those things came flooding back in his mind. The same nervy spasms came back so quickly as if it had never left. He was never sure how she felt towards him.
Oh, how nervous he was to see her again.
Rachel froze. Alex Bishop. His name rang so many memories that made a small difference in her five years of torture. He was handsome, funny and very kind. Genuinely kind. Even at the age of fourteen, he had his manners well rehearsed. He was the one person who belonged in the so-called 'in-crowd' that never said a bad word about anyone, and was the only one to actually extend friendship to everyone—everyone including Rachel who was considered the lowest of low in the horrible food chain of teenage hell.
He would often sit with her during lunch when he would see that she was alone because Ashley was absent, paired up with her during Bio lab when no one wanted to sit next to her and always waved a greeting her way in the school corridors when they'd pass each other. It was a very small gesture, especially since he'd greet everyone he knew, but it housed a special place in Rachel's heart. She increasingly harboured a steady crush on him for a full three years until the end of their sixth year. She never made it known (why bother since she knew it would end up in heartache anyway), but it was because of him that made school reasonably tolerable.
She remembered one time in fifth year, it was nearing the end of the school year and final exams were just a few days away, when he ducked to a cubicle next to hers in the library to study his history textbook before class.
"Hey, gorgeous," he whispered to her with a smile. "What're you studying?"
Rachel blushed a deep shade of red. "Literature," she mumbled, and stuffed her face back into her book, not knowing what else to say.
It was their shortest conversation ever (including one sided conversations they'd have in third year when they were lab partners and he'd try to converse with her with a cheerful smile on his face. She'd mumble answers and try to smile back at him, but it was too hard for her as she was still socially inept at those kinds of matters) but it was the one that she planted in her mind and never forgot.
"I'll think about it," she whispered.
"It'll be fun. I promise I won't ever leave your side. And you know what else would me so in-your-face?"
Ashley walked over to Rachel and grinned up at her. While Rachel was short for a model (174cm), she still stood a head taller than Ashley.
"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me."
"If we bring Aidan and Brandon along."
Rachel laughed, seeing Ashley's eyes glimmer in hope. Aidan White and Brandon Humphrey were two of Rachel's close male friends who were stunning in looks beyond belief. They were both models as well, Aidan usually for Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss and Brandon usually for Burberry.
"What?" Ashley demanded, her eyes wide. "We'd have the most perfect looking escorts there!"
"You're only saying that because you want more quality time with Aidan. But you can stop right there, I'm telling you, you won't change his thoughts on commitment even if you promise him a lifetime supply of Wine Gum."
"There's no harm in dreaming, is there?" she harrumphed.
"What about your gardener?"
"It's very unlikely we'd ever meet and speak with each other face to face. I might as well throw in the towel."
"I didn't know you were a quitter, Vernon."
"I didn't know you had such nifty distraction skills, Herwood," Ashley shot back. "Now are be going to the damn reunion or not?"
Rachel bit her lip. "I'm not yet sure."
"Come on, it's been five years now. We're twenty-three, not eighteen. What's the worst they could say to you? Especially since you're on the cover of last month's Vogue while the most they could brag about is being featured in the Weekly Telegraph informing people how to grow the best mushrooms."
Rachel looked at her quizzically.
"I was reading the paper a while ago. Very sad Mr What's-His-Name growing mushrooms in his garden or something to that effect. But the point of the matter is, I want to see Alicia Denton's face when you walk into that door with Brandon next to you. I want to see her reel in jealousy. I want her to feel as inferior as she made us feel."
"You have a lot of issues, you know that? Would you want me to recommend a good therapist?"
Ashley rolled her eyes. "Alright. I accept that. But you must be curious about Alex?"
There was a long pause before anyone spoke.
"I am," replied Rachel.
"So, for the last time: Are. We. Going?"