Reading Between the Lines

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“I’ll say one thing, Cass. Ethan Sutherland turned out more than okay. Just look at him.”

            Cassidy Wells’ fingers halted mid-flight over the worn keyboard, Audra’s sentiment registering with a stomach-clenching pang. Cass abandoned the anti-virus program she was installing, tucked a strand of long wavy hair behind her ear, and glanced around the two-story Pages Unlimited, Lantano Valley’s premiere throwback bookstore.

            She caught the flash of a black leather jacket and neatly clipped coffee brown hair brushing against the flipped up collar as Ethan moved deeper into the stacks twenty feet away. She didn’t need to see his face to identify that silhouette—the confidence radiating off him, the sturdy build, strong shoulders and “I don’t care what anyone thinks” attitude that was tempered by what she knew would be a twinkle inducing grin and twin dimples in his cheeks. He was every woman’s kryptonite.

            She’d never appreciated the confines of the service counter area more. The mini-office was situated dead center of the ground level of the store, almost like a hidey hole for employees and, in Cassidy’s case, computer techs. At least he hadn’t approached her. Apparently eight years hadn’t been enough time to shake off the humiliation and embarrassment of high school, Ethan Sutherland, and the after burn of his so-called attention. She wasn’t seventeen anymore; wasn’t that young, naïve, desperate for love kid any longer.

            “Cass?” Audra perched on the edge of the counter, blocking Cassidy’s view of Lantano Valley High’s one-time super-jock. In the midst of Cassidy’s crisis, she was calmly elegant in jeans and a simple aqua blouse. “Should I have provided him with a flack jacket when he came in?”

            “Yes,” Cassidy told her long-time friend and client.

            “I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that look of yours.” In typical Audra matchmaking fashion, she aimed a mildly sympathetic look in Ethan’s direction, an action that only irritated Cassidy, who focused her attention on the struggling wireless network. “He’s one of my best customers these days, Cass. Keep those laser beam eyes of yours set to stun, okay?”

            Cassidy eased back on the anger throttle when she found herself pounding on the keys. Days like this, she wished she could hire an employee or two to oversee the personal, in-home/business visits. But she couldn’t do that until she got at least one big consulting job. That meant, for now at least, she was a one woman show. Money was getting tighter than she was comfortable with, but something would turn up. And if it didn’t, she’d make it happen.

            “I knew it was only a matter of time before we’d run into each other again.” Didn’t make the situation any less nerve wracking. Her job as a home tech guru lent itself well to town gossip and Ethan had certainly been that recently. She wished she could say she hadn’t given Ethan a second thought over the years; it had been more like a couple hundred. Not that she’d paid much attention to AAA baseball. Still, word of a local boy coming close to the major leagues had been headline worthy until an injury sidelined him and ended a promising career. “Makes sense he’s home after being cut from the River Cats up in Sacramento.”

            “Especially since his mother’s been ill,” Audra said. “They’re in for a rough time of it.”
            Admiration she didn’t want to feel fluttered in Cassidy’s chest. Despite her own experiences with Ethan, he’d always been devoted to Jeannette Sutherland, his single mother, and while she could hold many things against him, that wasn’t one of them.

            “Never figured Ethan for a romance novel kind of guy.”  Cassidy glanced over again as Ethan scanned the rows of colorful paperbacks.

            “Jeannette probably sent him with a list. You should go say hi.”
            “Why would I do that?”  Cassidy had known Audra for over a decade, ever since Cassidy started coming into Pages Unlimited after school to spend hours either on her laptop or devouring endless paperbacks; her chosen refuge from the warzone that was ironically called home. Audra knew about Cassidy’s past with Ethan.

            “Saying hello would be the polite thing to do,” Audra said. “And because he’s looked over here at least a half dozen times, wondering when you’ll notice him.”

            Cassidy’s  mouth twisted. As if Audra had any idea what Ethan was wondering.

            Audra shrugged. “I know he hurt you, but I’m willing to bet there’s more to the story, Cass. Could be worth it to keep an open mind. Besides,” She leaned over to glance at the computer screen that was currently searching for an Internet connection for the first time all day, “we can all do with a little romance in our lives. You’d see that if you pulled your head out of that screen once in a while.”

            “Easy for you to say when you’ve been married to a hunk of a Marine for almost ten years.”

            “You’d think,” Audra said with the barest trace of regret in her voice. Before Cassidy could inquire further, she heard heavy footsteps approach and ducked her head, ignoring the rapid uptick of her pulse. She willed the computer to give her something—a virus to attack, a Trojan to quarantine, anything—before she had to interact with him. Fear scuttled in her belly before she squashed it. Growing up, fear meant hiding in the back closet waiting for her parents’ rages to pass. Fear was a rumbling stomach and worrying where her next meal was coming from, or whether she’d step the wrong way and end up with a fist in the face. Fear was wondering whether she should attempt going home for a change of clothes or spend another night in the park to make sure she woke up the next morning.

             “Hello, Cassidy.”