Caleb Davenport gripped his briefcase, sliding out of the hired car paid for by the company account. After a transatlantic flight it was a relief not having to worry about throwing a few twenty-dollar bills at the driver, or digging out his credit card. He strode toward the double glass doors of the high-rise club in downtown Denver.
Breathing in the crisp fall air, Caleb finally relaxed, even though he was jet-lagged after making the transfer from Hong Kong via Los Angeles.
He was home, and the Rocky Mountains exuded their own sweet, familiar scent. The high altitude was bracing, clean and fresh. No more stifling hot, crowded streets with a hundred different scents of food vendors, perfumes, and body odor.
Eager to meet up with the rest of the owners of DREAMS, Caleb punched the elevator button for the ninth floor. His stomach grumbled demanding food. Maybe he and his partners should have met over dinner. It was later than he’d thought and the small sandwich on the plane hours ago hadn’t exactly been filling.
Waiting for his luggage had taken longer than expected, too, and on this particular Friday night Denver’s downtown streets were packed with taxis, rental cars, the 16th Street mall shuttle, as well as the Light Rail commuter train coming in and out of the convention center tracks. A couple of busses rumbled past, filled with name-tag wearing folks. Must be some big conventions going on this weekend.
Personally, Caleb was convention-ed out. Three of them back-to-back overseas with more than a dozen companies signing onto the hot new app. His baby, DREAMS; the computer site and app he’d spent years working on.
All in all, the past week had been a resounding success. His little company had grown by leaps and bounds over the past three years, serving thousands of consumers with insanely inexpensive products around the world.
It was mind-blowing to think he was going to bank close to a billion dollars by the end of the year—and it all started with his group of high school computer geek friends.
Caleb’s pace turned brisk when he pushed through the glass doors into the posh vestibule of the bar. The five of them; Troy, Brandon, Ryan, Adam, and himself, sent each other a deluge of text messages while overseas—but they often didn’t convey many details. Even more often were missing text messages. As if they disappeared traveling through long distance phone lines in third world countries.
The one message that had managed to get through to everyone was his invitation to celebrate at their favorite bar.
“Meet me at The 54,” he’d texted and, like a ten-thousand-mile miracle from across the Pacific Ocean, he’d received four thumbs up from his partners.
At the end of the plush carpeted vestibule, Caleb opened the second glass door that spelled out The 54 in swirly gold letters. He was greeted by the hostess, a woman of about twenty-five dressed in a black dress that shimmered from a luminescent fabric. Sleeveless, plunging neckline, the woman had a terrific figure, and toned arms as if she had an exercise trainer.
“Good evening, sir. Welcome to The 54,” she purred in a cultured voice with a slight accent. Italian? English? He couldn’t quite detect her country of origin, although he should, he’d been to London and Rome often enough the past few years on business. “Do you have a reservation with us tonight?”
“Reservation’s under Caleb Davenport.”
The hostess placed a red manicured finger on her wait list. A small lamp on the tall desk illuminating the ledger with a golden glow.
“I have you right here, Mr. Davenport,” she said. “Please follow me.”
When she sashayed Caleb to his reserved table in the back, he noted the shapely legs in five-inch high stilettos. With the heels, she was still much shorter than Caleb, who, at six feet four often came across as a big, lumbering bear, even while keeping in shape by running five miles every day. She couldn’t be more than five feet two. Despite the attractive women he ran into making business deals and traveling, most women were too short for his taste. He’d love a girl who was closer to five foot ten or taller, actually. Someone he could dance cheek-to-cheek with. A woman he could kiss without breaking his back.
Of course, Caleb wasn’t planning to hit on The 54’s hostess, despite her beauty and lovely accent. But once again, whenever he saw a woman he admired, Caleb instantly found himself thinking about the woman he did want. The woman he wanted for his wife and the mother of his children. Someone to share all this—this crazy life—the money—the travel. And yes, the burden.
Having DREAMS thrive so quickly was often disorienting. When he returned home, Caleb had to purposely ground himself by spending time with his best friends. He’d eat at his favorite restaurants, kick back at home with a Jason Bourne flick, sit outdoors at the Red Rocks Amphitheater for a concert, or take a hike in the pine forests.
And, of course, make a visit to his parents. Despite the pain that visit brought. Tonight he was feeling guilty, knowing he hadn’t visited them in nearly a year. It was too difficult, emotionally distracting, and exhausting, but his mother’s birthday was coming up and she’d never forgive him if he didn’t bring himself bearing a gift.
It might be crazy to make a list of what he wanted in a woman, but when the hostess showed him their table for five and laid out their menus, Caleb realized he could practically reach down and pat her on the head like she was twelve-years-old. Girls who could wear heels and look him in the eye were hard to find, but a definite priority for his “list”. Harder to find in the Asian countries he was currently visiting setting up accounts for DREAMS. Idly, Caleb wondered if women were taller in London where Troy usually traveled. He’d have to ask, he thought, and then grinned to himself.
Pushing thirty, Caleb was ready to find the woman. A woman he could spend the rest of his life with. His business and travel didn’t leave much time for dating. Let alone women he could talk to without an interpreter. Even if they spoke English and he loved their accent, it wasn’t the same. Whether it was books or music or movies or favorite foods, they had little in common.
Caleb gave a sigh and dropped his briefcase to the floor by the table, glancing about for any sign of his team.
The 54 was quieter than most upscale Denver hang-outs for the rich citizens of this city. And for him, having a membership here was an oxymoron.
When Caleb stared at the art deco on the walls, the polished 1920s furnishings, and the painted ceilings, he felt like an outsider.
Heck, he’d grown up in a poor neighborhood, attended a passable elementary school, but fortunate that it fed into a better high school. His father had been a drunken mechanic working odd jobs at home, his mother a part-time school aide who kept her husband company at night with the bottle.
At ten years old, he used to dream of buying them a new house one day. A house that wasn’t hanging together with duct tape. Mostly because he was the one who wanted to escape his depressing life. He never had friends over. Never told anyone where he lived.
Sitting here now in a posh bar was so diametrically opposite how he’d grown up that his life felt surreal. As if he could blink his eyes and it would all disappear like a dream.
“Hey, buddy, what are you doing here?” a voice came from behind, echoing his thoughts uncannily.
He whipped around to see Troy Thurlow, his best friend since high school, barreling toward him. “Hey yourself.”
“They let riffraff in these places now?” Troy teased.
“Nope, I sneaked in. Like usual.”
“That’s what I figured.” Troy plopped into a seat and grabbed the drink menu.
Caleb still had moments where Troy’s friendship and their partnership in DREAMS felt bizarre. But the two of them discovered they had a talent for calculus and computers so they’d end up at the Thurlow home doing math homework while watching Breaking Bad, and surreptitiously studied the cheerleaders during lunch in the quad.
Caleb was the greasy geek of the school. A loner who purposely stayed under the radar in the computer lab, except for moments with Troy—when he was virtually invisible next to the vastly more popular football player. There were times during high school that Caleb had wondered if he was Troy’s pity project, or a dare. Now he didn’t know what he was. Still a geek? Finally grown up when he turned twenty-nine in January?
“Looks like you’re over-thinking things as usual,” Troy said, slapping him on the shoulder.
Caleb gave a snort. “What makes you say that?”
“Your expression was very studious. Bad flight home?”
“Nope, completely uneventful. Just . . . thinking, like you always say.”
“It’s a woman, isn’t it?” Troy gave a grin, waggling his eyebrows. “Who’d you meet in Hong Kong?”
“Nobody,” Caleb burst out with a laugh.
“The airline attendant must have been hot then.”
Without warning, Brandon appeared and slid into a chair. “You met a babe flight attendant? Tell us more.”
Caleb let out a longer laugh. “I couldn’t even tell you what the flight attendants looked like. Short? Dark hair? Polite? Served food and drinks. End of story.”
Brandon flipped open a menu. “Here I was all ready for a juicy story.”
“You mean you didn’t meet the woman of your dreams in Brazil, Brandon?” Troy kicked back in his seat and placed his hands behind his head after signaling to the waitress.
“Next time please send me to Rio during Mardi Gras,” Brandon told Caleb.
“Nothin’ doin’. You’d never come home again.”
“There are perks to this job, right?” Troy went on. “But, no, our boss is all work, work, work. I spend the other half of my life sitting on planes.”
“Welcome to the real world,” Ryan Argyle said, coming up to the table and bumping fists with the rest of the men. Right on his heels was the last member of the DREAMS team, Adam Caldwell, pulling off his tie and unbuttoning the top button of a crisp blue shirt.
“Good, we’re finally all here,” Caleb said. “Now we can order.”
“Hey, I came as soon as I shut down the office,” Adam said. “I work longer hours than all of you put together, flying around the world, dancing with luscious foreign women at night.”
“Hardly,” Troy said with a glance upward at the waitress, a thin woman of about thirty-five wearing black slacks, a black blouse and thick black eyeliner. “I’ll have a ginger ale.”
The other guys laughed and Caleb held up his hands to ward off their teasing. “A Coke with vanilla,” he said. “And keep the nachos coming, please. Mini sliders, too.”
“What’s with all the fizzy drinks, guys?” Ryan said. “I know Caleb doesn’t touch anything hard, but what about the rest of you guys?”
“Headache,” Troy said. “Jet-lag is getting to me. I can’t even remember what time zone I’m in.”
“Mountain Time, poor baby,” Adam interjected. “Try sitting at a desk logging orders and shipments until your eyes go numb. I’ll have a cold beer, please.”
“Didn’t know eyes could turn numb,” Caleb laughed, giving the youngest member of their crew a teasing grin. Adam Caldwell had been in the class a year behind them in high school. But his computer skills were ferocious so Caleb had hired him two years ago. “That’s a new one.”
He’d known these guys for so long, but what most of them forgot—except for Troy—was the fact that Caleb never drank. He’d grown up with alcoholic parents and after binge-drinking at a party his senior year, he’d passed out and wouldn’t wake up. Terrified, Troy had called an ambulance, afraid Caleb was going to die from alcohol poisoning.
Caleb would never forget his mother speaking at his hospital bedside in a soft voice. “Isn’t it bad enough that your father does this?”
She’d been so hurt, her tired face so full of despair, that Caleb hadn’t touched a drink since. Despite the teasing during college, the parties going on at his dorm, he just didn’t. It wasn’t worth it. Besides, he wanted to live rather than get a buzz. And avoid liver damage like his father was now suffering with.
Troy ran his hands through his thick dark hair, slouching back in his chair. He was a big man, wide shouldered, with a chest as broad as a football field. Played wide receiver during high school at their alma mater, Southfield High School, but loved the intricacies of computer hardware. He was the guy that could trouble-shoot anything. “Man, it’s good to be home.”
“Homesick, buddy?” Adam teased.
Troy gave a half smile, shrugging. “There’s something about the fall mountain air of Denver that clears your head. South America is just hot and sticky, no matter what time of year you visit.”
“Speaking of autumn, what month are we in?” Ryan said, scrolling a thumb across his phone screen. “I’ve been in too many time zones to remember.”
“Months—times zones—it’s all the same, oh brainy one,” Caleb said, and then added, “Just turned October. We have to hit the office tomorrow, guys. It’s only Tuesday and we’ve got a boatload of data to enter and organize and get on the app.”
“Yeah, yeah, we know boss,” Troy said, stuffing a burger slider into his mouth now. “You don’t have to remind us.”
September had proven to be a grueling month and the guys were just doing their usual complaining when they put in an eighty-hour work week during travel but some days he hated being the CEO. They’d known each since their teens, and it often was uncomfortable to be their boss, having to crack the whip with his high school friends.
Ryan dipped a tortilla chip into the nacho cheese dip. “Only asking because I just remembered that we have our ten-year high school reunion later this month.”
“We couldn’t possibly be that old,” Troy quipped, picking up his second slider in under sixty seconds. “Wasn’t it only last June that we graduated?”
Ryan gave Troy an eye roll. “Oh, wise one, thank you for that. Did your invitations arrive in the mail? I think it’s being held at the Hotel Monaco on Champa Street. Dinner and a DJ, of course. No host bar.”
“Ooh, fancy,” Adam said. “They must think we’re rich.”
Low chuckles erupted around the table while Troy said, “Hopefully they don’t make us play any stupid games. I’ll never forget our senior picnic. Getting dragged in the mud during the tug of war.”
“You should have hung on,” Caleb teased him.
“If I recall the food was good,” Brandon added. “Never-ending barbecue and pie.”
“To you, the food is always good,” Troy told him. “You have a bottomless pit for a stomach. Your travel reimbursement for restaurants is astronomical.”
“Have we made a pact to go—or not?” Ryan asked. “Don’t want to show up alone and make small talk with people I don’t recognize.”
Caleb had forgotten about the reunion, actually. It wasn’t in his planner. He shook the hair out of his eyes and stared around the table. All the guys were gazing at him. Like he was the boss of the high school reunion, too. “We could draw straws,” he said with a half-smile.
“Better than tossing a coin,” Adam said, pulling out his calculator to figure out the odds.
An odd shiver ran through Caleb. Recalling the insane stuff that had happened with his parents during high school still felt surreal. He’d basically been on his own since seventeen, but instead of a fierce independence without having to care about anybody but himself, the opposite had happened.
Traveling the world, making bigger bucks than he could ever have dreamed, had produced a lonely, un-tethered life. Sure, he could do whatever he wanted, but running a company on which hundreds of employees relied on you in twenty different countries, including a team of accountants and lawyers watching your every move created stress that was also far greater than he could have imagined.
He relied on the men sitting around the dinner table very much. Not just for business, but for friendship and support, saving him from total loneliness. They’d certainly become his surrogate family, and having the support of his friends meant that he avoided obsessing about the past and his derelict parents—except for one person that had never left his memory.
The girl he’d had a crush on since he was a freshman. English class. Staring at the back of her head like a dunce. Caleb sat two desks behind her, fantasizing about running his hands through the silky strands of her shiny hair that swayed along her shoulders and down her back like a waterfall. Yeah, typical teenage boy stuff.
But that girl was untouchable. Far above his low-class life. She was soft-spoken and gentle with a laugh that used to make him smile. She wasn’t annoying or loud like most girls in high school, vying for attention or queen bee status. She was perfect. The kind of girl you could fall in love with and live happily ever after—if there was such a thing. Unfortunately, he didn’t know many happily ever after’s. None of his friends were married. A few of his international clients were happily divorced or living up the bachelor life.
He must be the most peculiar man out there to crave a traditional marriage and family. A house that smelled of fresh-baked cookies and filled with people who loved each other and didn’t have yelling matches or drunken stupors.
There were a lot of reasons Caleb used to hide out in the computer lab, learning C++. When he created computer games it was like submerging himself under water. He could be immune from the world until the janitor kicked him out.
But that girl topped the list of reasons. Seeing her every day made him drown with a desire like a vice squeezing at his heart. Caleb just made sure he didn’t drool on his desk.
The most bizarre thing was the fact that he still thought about her. More than ten years later. Images would flash through his mind of her standing at her locker spinning the combination lock. In the cafeteria thoughtfully eating French fries. Bent over a class assignment, scribbling furiously while her satin hair draped her arm.
He’d get up to sharpen a pencil just so he could sneak a peek at her touching the tip of her tongue on her top lip in concentration, erasing a line, rummaging in her purse, or drumming her slender fingers on the desk as if practicing piano scales. Everything about her mesmerized him.
So, the question was, would she be at the class reunion?
Caleb gulped down his drink, inwardly shaking his head at his idiocy.
She was probably married and had three kids. Plus, a mortgage and an accountant for a husband in the ritzy suburb of Greenwood Village.
Of course, maybe she’d moved far away, like California, South Dakota, or Florida.
For all he knew, she could be serving as a Red Cross nurse in Africa.
When Caleb discovered the high school reunion notice in his mail a couple of months ago, fresh hope had lodged firmly in his throat.
“Hey, earth to Caleb, earth to Caleb,” Troy said punching him on the arm.
Startled, Caleb knocked over his glass, soda drizzling across the white tablecloth. He grabbed napkins and blotted it out. “Hey, watch it,” he joked in an attempt to hide his daydreaming.
“You alright, Mr. Boss?” Ryan said, motioning to the waitress for more napkins and a fresh drink for Caleb.
“I’m fine,” Caleb said, glancing around the table at his co-workers. “Never better.”
“Jet-lag, I tell you,” Brandon said. “Especially when you’ve been in Hong Kong. It’s the worst. You lose a day, you gain a day. Over and over again.”
Deftly, their waitress served a fresh glass of soda and ice, mopped up the spill, and then scooped up handfuls of soggy napkins.
Adam stared after her retreating figure, obviously wishing he could flirt with her. The guy flirted with every female within ten feet.
“So,” Caleb said, glancing around the table. Most of the food was gone, but he dipped a tortilla chip into the last of the salsa with a nonchalant air. “Everybody going to the reunion, then?”
Adam snorted and Ryan cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah, Mr. Boss. Five minutes ago, we decided we were all going together. Stag. It’ll give us a chance to check out the girls who broke our hearts ten years ago. Fourteen years for old Troy here since he’s been dopey about some girl since his freshman year. Now I call that pathetic.”
Caleb gave a forced laugh, hoping the guys hadn’t noticed that he’d missed the last thread of the conversation. He reached for the menu, still hungry. “Where’s our waitress?”
“You just zoned out,” Troy said, staring at him. “We’re leaving The 54 and just waiting for the check. We decided we need real food so we’re going to Rossi’s for dinner. This was just appetizers.”
“Okay.” Caleb wondered if he could stay awake. “Haven’t been to Rossi’s in ages.”
The check came and he stuck his American Express on the plastic plate. The waitress whisked it away and was back again in moments. Caleb scribbled his signature and rose, suddenly needing fresh air.
The other guys filed out noisily, talking, catching up, while Caleb followed, tucking his wallet into his back pocket.
It was only eight o’clock. He’d look like a wimp if he went home without treating the guys to a nice dinner after their ten days of travel. It was a tradition, actually. But man, he was dead tired. What was wrong with him?
A stupid question. It was the class reunion. The thought of it depressed him. He could imagine getting dressed up, making the effort, only to find out she was living in a village in Bulgaria teaching English to eight-year-olds.
The October air was brisk, smacking him in the face while they congregated around the taxi circle in front of The 54. The bar’s sign blared a bright neon blue behind them while they waited for a taxi to come around the block.
Standing just outside the circle of light spilling from the lobby, Caleb surreptitiously reached into his wallet and flipped open the billfold. Tonight’s talk had made him nostalgic.
Inside the leather billfold was a small compartment. For years, he’d kept a secret within the small pouch—a dainty chain of silver with a red garnet dangling from the bottom.
He’d kept the necklace with him for almost eleven years. Ever since she’d accidentally dropped it the middle of their senior year and he’d snatched it up.
Caleb didn’t take it out very often. The necklace was one-part guilty pleasure, the other part pure guilt that he’d never returned it.
While clenching the necklace in his fist, a taxi pulled up and the other four guys piled in, leaving the shot-gun spot free for their CEO.
“Let’s hit the road,” he heard them call while the vehicle’s doors slammed shut and the engine idled, waiting for him.
Caleb slipped the red garnet necklace with its two miniscule diamonds back into the tiny pouch of the billfold, jammed it into his rear pocket, and clenched the handle of his briefcase.
Enough was enough. He had to return it. It was wrong to have kept it. But first he had to find the girl who used to wear it, the red gemstone dangling in the air when she hovered over her math homework in the corner of Algebra class. Far away from him.
Over the years, he’d run into old classmates at the movies, or at restaurants. But never her.
Not that he hadn’t made an attempt. He’d looked all right. Her parents were still in the phone book but on a different street than where she had grown up.
But she wasn’t listed.
And she wasn’t on Facebook.
He was too embarrassed to reach out to her old friends. Or to call her parents.
Even though they’d been in classes together, off and on, she had never given him a second glance. Heck, he would have died and gone to heaven for a first glance, but he’d been a geek in every sense of the word. Frizzy hair. Dorky glasses. Nerdy jeans that never fit properly, bought at second-hand shops, and perpetually hiding his family’s secrets from the world.
Years had become a decade.
Caleb gave a snort of self-derision. Wow, his lack of confidence when it came to women had become a numbing force that froze him into limbo.
“Where to?” the cab driver asked, pulling into traffic.
“Rossi’s,” Caleb said, noticing how the other guys let him answer. Deferring to him as the boss. It was still odd, even after five years.
Her necklace had become a memento of his stupid high school years, but she was lost to time and distance.
How did you get over a girl you never had in the first place?
A small surge of hope rose up his throat. Would she be at the high school reunion? It might be his only—and last—chance.