Thursday, May 7, 1970

Reunion Rendezvous (Sample Chapters)

Chapter 1



“I've often wondered, over the years, how Matt's doing,” Ashley admitted, “what he's doing, and, more importantly, who he's doing it with. I also wonder if he still has any feelings for me, the way I do for him.”

“Our ten-year reunion's your chance to find out.”

“If he shows up.”

“He said he'll be here, Ash.”

“He wasn't at last night's dinner.”

“So he missed the first event. That doesn't mean he's not going to show at all. Maybe he'll be at the picnic tomorrow. Now, where are those streamers?”

“I can't believe you stored reunion supplies in here, against Jeff's wishes.”

“What he doesn't know won't hurt him.”

“What if he finds out, Jes?”

“He won't. He may be the manager, but he hardly ever comes into this storage unit or the other one set aside for company use, and they're off limits to everyone else except his boss, Ben Warner, who owns the facility.”

“Somebody must. Otherwise, why would the sacks of concrete and other stuff be here?”

Jessica shrugged. “Jeff stores maintenance and repair supplies and equipment in here, but by the time something needs to be fixed, the reunion decorations will be out of here.”

“What if he sees the key's gone?”

“He won't, Ash. You worry too much.”

“And you don't worry enough.”

“That's why we're best friends. Opposites attract.”

“I found the streamers, Jes.” Ashley, bent over and grasped a handful. She brushed against something hard, and, setting the streamers aside, she peered more closely. “Jes, look at this!”

Joining her, Jessica grinned. “A trapdoor. I wonder where it goes.”

“I don't know.”

“Let's open it and find out.”

“No, thanks.”

“Why not? Aren't you the least bit curious where it goes?”

“No.”

“Ashley Breslin! You need to show an interest in more than DEA Agent Matthew Moore.”

“And you, Jessica Sperry, need to show a little more caution and think things through.”

“Where's the fun in that? Come on; let's investigate.”

“Wait.” Ashley looked around the large square storage unit. “Ah! Just what we need.” She crossed the unit and returned with an oversize flashlight she'd spied on a shelf.

Jessica lifted the door and peered into the darkness below.

“You sure you want to go down there?”

“I want to know where this tunnel my boyfriend's never bothered to tell me about goes.”

“That might not be such a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“It's trespassing, for one thing. We don't know who it belongs to or what it's used for, for another. What if it's a tunnel for drug smugglers?”

Jessica laughed. “You've always had a great imagination, Ash.”


“We are in Otay Mesa, on the border between the U. S. and Mexico.”

“With you or without you, I'm going.” She sat, extending a leg through the doorway. “You coming?”

“Against my better judgment.”

Jessica smiled. “Thanks.”

Ashley shook her head. “What are friends for, and best friends, at that?”

While Ashley held the flashlight, illuminating the 
tunnel's stone floor, Jessica climbed down the ladder, which Ashley estimated to be ten feet in length. Then, Ashley followed, the flashlight in the pocket of her high school jacket, which she'd brought with her from her home in Phoenix.

At the bottom of the ladder, she paused. Taking the flashlight out of her pocket, she shone its beam around the tunnel's rough stone walls. “I'm glad I'm not claustrophobic.”

“Ash, this place is huge.”

“There's plenty of space, all right,” she agreed, “but I can't help thinking about the tons of earth above us. What if the tunnel caved in? We'd be trapped down here, maybe forever.”

“You're such a pessimist. Let's see what lies ahead.”

As they walked along the side of the tunnel, they could hear their footsteps in the confines of the tunnel.

“I hope nobody's ahead of us,” Ashley said, “or, for that matter, behind us. I have a bad feeling about this place.”

The tunnel flooded with light, blinding them.

“What the hell!” Jessica cried.

“We must have tripped a photoelectric device, causing the lights to come on,” Ashley said.

They crouched against the wall, squinting, as they waited for their eyes to adjust to the sudden brilliance of banks of overhead fluorescent lights.

When their vision returned, they saw they'd come perhaps thirty yards through the large, elaborate passageway―a third the length of their alma mater's football field. Ahead of them, crates and bundles formed a wall some distance along either side of the tunnel, and tracks for a small train ran along the center of the floor, which was completely level. 

Regretting her decision to explore the tunnel, 
Ashley said, “Let's go back, Jes. Somebody's invested a lot of money in all this. We could be under surveillance.”

“The place is deserted. Besides, if anyone does come along, we'll hear them, and we can hide behind the crates or bundles or in one of the alcoves in the sides of the tunnel, with the 
electrical boxes and pipes.” She started ahead. 
“Come on.”

Ashley shook her head. Pocketing the flashlight, she followed her friend. It would be easier to follow Jessica until she decided on her own that they should return than it would be to argue with her.

As she followed Jessica, Ashley thought of Matt. Why couldn't today be tomorrow, when he'd be at the picnic? She'd be safe with him, and, instead of wandering through a strange tunnel, she might be able to take up with him where old times had left off.

Ten years! Could a decade really have passed since he'd held her in his arms as they'd cuddled inside a dark movie theater, more interested in kissing and exploring the intimate mysteries and wonders of one another than in whatever film was showing? A man now, and a DEA agent, he'd be more interested in law enforcement than in playing football or in the subjects they'd studied in high school.

They stopped, their senses on high alert.

Although the tunnel seemed as vacant and silent as ever, something had changed, something Ashley felt more than saw or heard.

Her forearms tingled, and she looked at them: the fine hair stood erect upon her bare flesh. She was breathing fast, and her heart raced. She gulped, her throat suddenly dry.

It's nothing but a mouse that's gotten into the tunnel and is scurrying along a wall, she told herself. Or maybe it's a bead of condensation dropping from the ceiling or a surge of electricity in the wiring.

The tunnel was a round passageway of silent, motionless stone.

Jessica moved forward, inching her way along the wall.

Ashley followed.

Claws skittered on the stone, and a dark shape streaked toward them, wild-eyed and snarling. Someone had loosed a German Shepherd on them, and the canine meant to tear them apart!

Jessica screamed as the dog launched itself, striking her hard. She went down, sprawling on the floor, her legs and arms draped across the railway, and the dog bit and tore at her flesh.

Voices echoed off the stone walls, and boots pounded the floor. Men were coming, and they were coming fast! Guards, Ashley thought. The tunnel was, indeed, under surveillance. The guards had let them come too far to escape, and, now, they'd be killed.

But Ashley wouldn't die without a fight.

Frantically, she looked around, her eyes darting left, right, up, and down, and she saw a heavy iron bar leaning against the opposite wall. She seized it and, fueled by adrenaline and fear, wielded it like a warrior, battering the dog attacking Jessica.

The German Shepherd howled in pain and rage, backing away, and Jessica scrambled backward, on her hands and feet, crab-walking as fast as she could, until she'd put enough distance between herself and the retreating dog to rise.

She stood, swayed, and fell against the wall, her body slumping. Blood ran freely from the wounds the savage animal had ripped in her arms and legs. “Forget me, Ash! Go!”

“I won't leave you!”

“You can't save me; save yourself!”

“No!”
 

“Don't be a fool. Go!”

The men's voices were louder now, and the sound of their pounding boots filled the tunnel.

The dog growled, moving forward, cautious but determined.

Ashley raised the bar.

The sound of a rifle shot echoed off the stone walls, and Jessica screamed as she was spun halfway around by the bullet's impact. She slumped to her knees, trailing blood down the wall, and pitched forward, onto her face.

A second shot rang out, and a bullet ricocheted from the wall, a few feet from Ashley.

The German Shepherd was on Jessica in an instant, its teeth ripping and tearing her, but she neither resisted not cried out. She merely lay on the floor, flopping and twisting as the animal savaged her.

Jessica had been right: Ashley couldn't have saved her. No one could. With horror, Ashley realized Jes was probably already dead. If she weren't, she'd be fighting to fend off the dog or, at least, be screaming in pain and fear.

If Ashley didn't escape, she'd die, too. She was a hundred yards from the ladder that would lead her to safety, with armed men and a savage dog on her heels.

But she wasn't prepared to die without a fight.

Flinging down the iron bar, she turned, and ran, faster than she'd ever run in her life.

The men gained on her, and the dog, realizing its prey was no longer a threat, left Jessica's body and took up the chase as well.

She raced forward, the dog nipping at her high school jacket, which bore the pin Matt had given her when they were dating. A fresh horror rose in her mind: if she were killed, she'd never see him again!

But she didn't intend to die, not today, anyway.

As she approached the stacked bundles and crates, she paused to topple as many as she could. They fell onto the stone floor, several bundles bursting, and she saw their contents pouches of marijuana and packages of cocaine.

Among the parcels, something caught her eyea bright red foil package. Cigarettes. An imported brand she'd seen in a specialty tobacco shop her father used to frequent here in San Diego. She dismissed it as irrelevant, focusing on the dire situation at hand, pushing over another wall of the parcels and wooden boxes, and saw, with satisfaction, that she'd created a fairly good barrier in only a few seconds. 

She sprinted forward. The dog was brought up short by the spilled drugs, the broken crates, and the mounds of bundled marijuana. The men cursed at the sight.

What fools she and Jes had been to enter this place. Their folly had cost Jessica her life, and it might cost Ashley her own as well.

The dog cleared the debris of toppled crates and bundles, and it was again in full pursuit. The men wouldn't be far behind it.

She gritted her teeth, fighting for breath, ignoring the sharp, insistent pain under her ribs. It hurt so bad she could hardly breathe. She must stop, she told herself; she couldn't go on, not another step, not with the agony writhing inside her. 

The thought of Matt inspired her. She saw his handsome face; his magnificent brow; his mischievous blue eyes; his black, wavy hair; his high cheekbones; his sharply delineated jaw line and his strong, dimpled chin. Each of his rugged features conspired against her willingness to surrender. The very image of him was a seductive force drawing her forward, against her pain and fear, and she ran, the second group of crates and bundles getting closer and closer with each stride.

Teeth snapped shut on the hem of her jacket, but fell away. The German Shepherd had not managed to sink its teeth firmly into the fabric; it had merely nipped at her, and it did so again.
 

She turned, kicking at the dog. Although she landed a solid blow, the animal seemed not to feel it in the least. It lungedjust in time to encounter the first stack of wooden crates Ashley overturned, and the wooden boxes fell on and around the startled, yelping beast. 

She'd bought herself a few seconds, and she put them to good use, knocking over more crates and bundles, until the floor was heavily strewn with the boxes and packages. With luck, they'd slow the dog and the men long enough for her to reach the ladder and freedom.

She imagined Matt standing at the end of the tunnel, his arms open to her, waiting to kiss her, to stroke her hair, and to wrap her tightly in his strong, protective arms. Although it was just a mental image, the thought of him was like magic; she fought the pain in her side, repressed the horror of her dead friend's bloody body, and ignored the pursuing dog and men. Concentrate on Matt, she told herself; he's waiting for you. Just get to him, and all will be well.

A bullet kicked up a spark from the rail at her feet. It must be difficult to aim at a run, she thought. If she could keep enough distance between her pursuers and herself, she just might make it out of this tunnel alive, after all.

Another gunshot, and another, reverberated through the cylindrical corridor. Feeling no heat or pain, she continued to run, her steps faltering now, despite her fantasy of Matt waiting for her at the end of the tunnel.

“Come to me,” she imagined him to say, “back into my arms, where you belong.”

“I can't,” Ashley surprised herself by speaking aloud, as if Matt were really here, when she knew he was not. Still, she sensed him as strongly as if he were, saw him, heard him, felt him. In her thoughts, he was as he'd been the last time she'd seen him, a youth on the verge of manhood, already powerful, muscular, virile, with strength and stamina, agility and speed to match his courage and determination, a teenager who, as a man, would become a fierce protector and a powerful ally against wickedness and injustice.

“Come to me!”

Tears were wet on her face; they streamed down her cheeks. “I can't.”

“You can, you will,” he asserted, and, for a moment, he seemed actually to take on flesh and to stand where she'd only imagined him to be. Young and handsome, he urged her to close the short distance yet remaining between them, between him and her and all they had once shared and might share again.


A bullet struck the wall beside her, but she hardly heard or saw it; she had eyes and ears only for Matt, who called to her, imploring her to return to him.

When she reached the ladder, he was gone. 

He'd never been there at all, Ashley told herself. He'd been a fantasy born of terror and desperation, an image cast by her frightened brainand, she admitted, her passion-tormented heart. 

She grabbed a rung of the ladder and stepped up, pulling her body upward as she reached for the next rung and stepped yet higher.

She was going to escape!

She was going to live!

When she was halfway up the ladder, the German Shepherd reached her. Leaping, the animal bit into her shoe. It tugged ferociously, with frightening strength in its jaws and body.

Ashley kicked frantically, but the dog held on. It pulled her down, and her foot slipped, but her grip held, and she struggled, kicking wildly until he dislodged the canine. It had taken her shoe with it, and she lost no time scrambling up the rungs of the ladder.

Recovering quickly, the dog sprang again, catching her other foot. Ashley was surprised to realize she still had the flashlight she'd brought with her into the tunnel. Absently, she'd slipped it into the pocket of her jacket when the lights had come on in the tunnel, forgetting all about it as she and Jessica came under attack. She grabbed it. Holding it tightly, she swung it fiercely at the dog's head. The impact sounded terribly loud, almost like a gunshot, and the canine yelped, fell, and lay still, stunned and whimpering, on the tunnel floor.


Cramming the flashlight back into her pocket, she scrambled up the remaining rungs of the ladder.

It had been a close call, but she'd survived her ordeal.

Her head was out of the tunnel; she could see the decorations Jessica had stored in the unit, and Ashley felt immensely sad as grief for her lost friend swept through her. She braced her forearms against the storage unit's concrete floor and pushed herself up with her feet and legs, twisting and turning as she fought for leverage and traction.

A hand grabbed her ankle, just as she lifted it clear of the tunnel, and she kicked again, thinking, at first, it was the dog. No, she could feel fingers close, digging into her flesh. The man who'd grabbed her was strong, and he began to pull her back, toward the open trap door. She grunted, then screamed.

She kicked hard, and his hand slipped. She shoved away from her would-be captor and, rising, lunged forward, slamming the trap door down, onto her predator's head. The heavy wood banged hard against his skull.

She found the padlock where Jessica had left it, closed the hinged hasp on the trap door, and ran the lock's shackle through the loop on the floor, locking the entrance to the tunnel. The lock was strong, and the door was sturdy, but to make sure no one got out anytime soon, Ashley also dragged several bags of concrete onto the trapdoor. That should hold whoever wanted to kill her until she could get help. 

And help would be easy to summon. In addition to brief biographical notes, the reunion notices had included the names and telephone numbers of alumni who'd provided them for that purpose, and Matt, like Ashley, had obliged. She'd saved his number as one of her cell phone contactson speed-dial. 

Before she called him, though, she wanted to get as far away from the self-storage facility as she could. Her car was parked outside; she could call Matt on the way to her hotel. It was illegal, in California, to talk while driving unless she used a hands-free device, which she didn't own, or the situation was an emergency. If nearly being killed by a gang of drug smugglers who'd murdered her best friend right before her eyes didn't count as an emergency, Ashley didn't know what did.

As soon as she was on the road, Ashley speed-dialed Matt. He answered on the third ring.

“Matt, it's Ashley Breslin,” she almost shouted into her cell. 

“Ash! I was going to call you, but I got delayed. I was hoping we could get together while you're in town, just the two of us, maybe for dinner and a movie.” His deep voice, full of confidence and quiet strength, sent a thrill along Ashley's spine, and she shivered, despite the heat of the California sun. “It's been a long time, too long, and―”
 

She interrupted, breathlessly reciting the incidents that had transpired within the last half hour: her discovery, with Jessica, of the trap door in the self-storage unit; their investigation of the tunnel; her finding the marijuana and the cocaine; the attack of the German Shepherd and the cartel thugs; Jessica's murder; and her narrow escape. “I don't know what to do, where to go,” she confessed. “I had your number from the alumni list, and I knew, from your biographical sketch, that you're a DEA agent, so I called you.”

“You did the right thing, Ash.”

His use of his nickname for her, from their high school years, made it seem to her as if it were only yesterday that they'd spoken, instead of ten years ago. Although Matt sounded concerned, Ashley also heard excitement in his voice, and she hoped more than an interest in the tunnel had put the thrill in his tone. Just the sound of his voice, masculine and self-assured, had been enough to make her as giddy as the schoolgirl she'd been the last time she'd spoken to him. She found herself liking the feeling.

“Listen carefully,” he said.

“I'm listening.” He could count on that!

“You could still be in danger.” 

His statement perplexed her. “I don't see how. I'm out of there, in my car, on the freeway, returning to my hotel―”

“You've seen something you weren't meant to see; you know something you weren't intended to know, and the men you encountered in that tunnel are cold, vicious killers, relentless and merciless.”

“You're scaring me, Matt.”

“You'd be wise to be careful. You can't assume your hotel is safe anymore, not when we're dealing with men like the ones you've described, Ash.”

“Ash” again: Matt could still set her soul aflame with just the utterance of a single syllable, especially when it was the pet name he used for her.

“Do you really think they know where I'm staying?” she asked, frightened at the thought. “I mean, they don't even know who I am, right?”

The cartel knows where the tunnel connects. Chances are good they know a lot more. It's likely they'll find out you're the other woman who was in the tunnel. Maybe they already know. If they do know, you can believe they'll soon have photos of you, and a lot more information, including why you're in San Diego, rather than in Phoenix. 
They're tech savvy, Ash, and they have a network of informants they motivate by bribes and intimidation.” 

“Okay, you've convinced me: I won't go back to the hotel.” She paused. “I'm not sure where I will go, but―”

“You'll stay with Don and Rachel Carson,” he said. 

It hadn't been a suggestion; it had been a command. Ashley blushed. She was as independent as the next woman, but she appreciated a take-charge kind of guy, and Matt had always been Mr. Assertive. “Just like that? I mean, sure, we were all friends in high school, but they haven't seen me in ten years. I'm supposed to just walk into their house, and―”

“While I'm on TDY, I'm staying with them,” Matt announced.

“TDY?” 

“Temporary duty. I've been assigned to the San Diego Division for thirty days, which, luckily, happens to include a few days of our high school reunion. I'll speak to Don and Rachel. I'm sure theyll understand.” 

“I'll call the hotel and have them send my things over, then,” Ashley acquiesced.

“Don't!” 

“Why not? I have to have clothes.” She grinned as the thought of her without clothes flashed across her mind: her, naked, with Matt, and

“If you have them sent to the Carsons, the cartel might be alerted; they'd know where you are. I'll send someone to claim your belongings and check you out.”

“I hadn't thought of that,” she admitted. Again, she thought how fortunate she was to have Matt looking out for her. She couldn't have chosen a better protector than he was and had always been, even before they'd dated in high school. 

They'd collaborated on a science fair projectshe'd been the nerdy girl next door to his football quarterback, about as unlikely a pair as could be imagined, and he'd defended her to his friends, the other athletes and the cheerleaders who were too good for the likes of herand, on top of it all, they'd won first prize at the fair. Soon after, they'd started dating, and Ashley the Nerd's status had soared. 

Now, Matt was back, and, although she wasn't exactly what anyone would describe as a “nerd” anymore, she experienced the same surging passion now as she'd felt for him then, and she wanted to be with him, to hold him and to be held by him. She imagined them together, their faces inches apart, their lips hungering for each other's touch.

“Where are you now?” 

“Chula Vista.” She was shocked to realize how much distance she'd already put between the self-storage facility in Otay Mesa and her current location. She checked her speedometer and slowed downbut not too much. 

“Do you remember how to get to Ramona?”

“Of course.”

“That's where Don and Rachel live now. Call me when you get to Lakeside. We'll meet there. I want you beside me as soon as possible.”

Roger that, Ashley thought.

“What kind of car are you driving?”

“A red Toyota Camry.”

“Your own or a rental?”

“My own.”

“Is it in good condition?”

“Brand new.”

“Okay. Don't call anyone else. Do you have enough gas to get here without stopping?”

She looked at her gauge. “Three-quarters of a tank.”

“Don't stop for fuel, then.” 

“I won't,” she promised. Ashley wanted to be by his side as soon as possible, toofor many reasons. 

Traveling north on Interstate 805, she exited onto Interstate 15, taking it to Interstate 8, and drove east, past San Diego State University, high above the highway, on what appeared to be a precipitous perch. After passing Lake Murray, she drove through El Cajon, before exiting onto Winter Gardens Road. Driving north again, over a steep hill, she arrived in the small, scattered town of Lakeside, She called Matt, arranging to meet him in a strip mall parking lot sandwiched between two fast-food restaurants.

As soon as he saw the red Camry enter the lot, Matt was out of his own car, a late-model blue Ford Mustang. He rushed across the parking lot, all but pulling her out of her seat. 

She grinned, blushing deeply. “I'm glad to see you, too, Matt,” she said, “but―”

“We have to move!” he told her, all but dragging her toward his own car.

She frowned at him. “Give me time to get my keys and lock the door.”

He released her, escorting her back to her Camry. “Be quick!”

She snatched the keys from the ignition and locked the door.

They ran to Matt's car, and she rounded the trunk of the vehicle, opened the passenger's door, and climbed into the seat, locking her belt in place. “By the way, what am I supposed to do about my car? Just abandon it?”

“I'll have the same man who picks up your things at the hotel pick up your car.” Matt was already behind the wheel, with the car started, and he wasted no time peeling out of the lot.

“How? I have the keys.”

“He'll call a locksmith or have it towed.”

As he negotiated the town's surface streets, he zipped in and out of traffic, sped through amber traffic lights, and streaked toward State Highway 67, which would take them to Ramona.

“When did you start driving like a maniac?” she asked.

He didn't reply, keeping his attention on the road.

If their earlier telephone conversation had alarmed her, Ashley felt even more concerned now. The way Matt was driving suggested they were in imminent danger. She put her anxiety into the form of a question. “You're driving as if our lives are in peril, Matt. Are they?”

“I want to take every precaution possible to ensure your safety.” 

“I'm surprised you didnt end your statement with 'Miss Breslin,'” she told him. “Can the public relations talk, Matt. If my life's at stake, I deserve a straight answer, don't you think?” 

“All right. Yes, I think your life is in immediate danger. It has been since you entered that drug tunnel. For anyone who's unacquainted with the utter depravity of drug lords and their associates, the horror they're capable of is hard to believe. I've seen it many times, up close, but until you entered the picture, it's never been personal.”

She was silent, absorbing the implications of his assertion. She'd been naive, she saw now. She'd assumed that, in the United States, a country of laws, police officers, and largely uncorrupted politicians, she'd be safe. There were resources here to support law enforcement. There was a system opposed to crime. There was a willingness to enforce the law. In her own country, men of honor routinely put their lives on the line, Matt among them. Such men believed in justice. Their presence, she'd supposed, protected her, and others, from danger.
 

Now, she understood how naive her beliefs had been. Despite the police, the judicial system, and prisons, a person could be gunned down anywhere at any time, as Jessica had been gunned down in the same tunnel in which Ashley herself had almost been killed. All that stood between her and her would-be assassins was the man beside her, Matt Moore, agent of the DEA, the man who'd once been her lover and with whom she was still in love and had probably never stopped loving. 

Maybe that's why she focused on himon themnow, despite Jessica's recent, gruesome death. If she dwelt on Jessica's brutal murder, Ashley would be overcome by grief and horror. 
She couldn't handle the memory of her best friend lying dead, in a pool of her own blood, in a cold, underground corridor of stone. Ashley needed, for sanity's sake, to stay focused on the here and now. She could, and would, deal with the shock and sorrow of Jessica's death when she had the strength to handle such potent emotions. She'd never forget Jessica, but she forced herself, for the present, not to think of her the way she'd been when she'd last seen her. 

She glanced at Matt, out of the corner of her eye. He'd been handsome as a teen; he was even better looking now that his looks had matured, time chiseling his features and sculpting his physique. He was strong, decisive, determined. In addition, she had every reason to believe, he could be deadly. Moreover, it seemed to her that he still shared the same intense feelings for her as she felt for him. If she had to stake her life on the skills of one man, Matt would be her pick.

After they passed Slaughterhouse Canyon Rock Quarry and San Vincente Reservoir, the terrain rose in a series of increasingly steep hills. The town of Poway lay to the northwest, connected to Highway 67 by both Scripps-Poway Parkway, to the south, and by Poway Road, to the north. The highway was dangerous. Its sleep slopes and tight curves did little to reduce the speed of reckless drivers, and the road had been the scene of many serious, sometimes fatal, accidents.

Letting Matt focus on his driving, Ashley refrained from conversation, although there were a hundred questions on her mind. He, too, was silent, his eyes scanning the road ahead of him. He also occasionally peered into the rear-view or side mirrors, whether to check traffic approaching from the rear or to spot something more sinister, Ashley couldn't tell. For the first time, she was beginning to glean how different his life, as a DEA agent, was from the life she lived as an optometrist.

Maybe, over the last decade, they'd grown too far apart, had lived lives too different from one another, and had had experiences too unconnected to the more intimate fun times they'd once shared as teens to ever be close again or to ever be anything more than just friends.

Maybe, in hoping to take up with Matt romantically again, where they'd left off, she was entertaining an impossible fantasy. What had Thomas Wolfe said? “You can't go home again”?

Maybe that was true, but Ashley meant to try. As teens, she and Matt had had too many good times together to let the chance to reignite their passion pass without an attempt to relight the desire that had once ruled them. Memories flooded her mind: movies, where they'd spent more time gazing into each other's eyes than they'd watched the films being played; walks taken hand-in-hand, past beds of flowers in city parks; sultry nights together in Matt's car, parked on a lonely lover's lane; basking on the silver sands of Mission Beach. She wanted those good times back; she wanted Matt back, for the next few days, at least, if not forever.

Chapter 2

Don Carson had certainly changed in the ten years since they'd graduated from high school, Ashley thought, and for the better. He'd filled out, muscle swelling his once-thin arms and legs. His shoulders had broadened, and his chest had deepened. His voice was lower, and there was a more measured cadence to his speech, reflecting the deliberation behind his words. Where once he'd been more than just outspoken, he'd learned to be more deliberative, to think before he spoke. Unless Ashley missed her guess, Rachel had had more than a little to do with this last element of her husband's transformation. 

Rachel, on the other hand, had changed but little in the past decade. She was still tall, thin, and pretty, with wide green eyes and bow-shaped lips. The smattering of freckles she'd hated as a teen were still there, like pixie dust, across the bridge of her nose, but the sprinkle was lighter now, almost invisible. She still wore her red hair up, pinned in a French roll twist accentuating the display of her dangling earrings. She was still the same soft-spoken, demure sweetheart who exuded a devastating, if paradoxical, innocence coupled with sensuality that had driven Donand many other teen suitorswild. 

The couple lived in a stylish California bungalow two blocks off Main Street, which is what Highway 67 was called in Ramona. They'd integrated the house well with their yard's trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Don had parked his black Cadillac Escalade on the street, allowing Matt to park his Mustang beside Rachel's Subaru Forester in the detached two-car garage at the end of the driveway beside their house. The men had arranged the vehicle's parking ahead of time, Ashley suspected. If members of the cartel were looking for her, they might be aware that Matt drove a blue Mustang; with it in the garage, they'd see only Don's Escalade. She was impressed, once again, by Matt's professionalism.

“I can't thank you enough for putting me up for the night,” Ashley told her hosts.

“We're happy to do it,” Don said.

“Anytime,” Rachel agreed.

“You have a lovely home,” Ashley stated. 
According to their biographical sketches in the reunion booklet, Don was a motivational speaker, Rachel a research librarian at San Diego State.

“You're an optometrist, right?” Rachel asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I have an office with my partner, Gwen Hanley, in Phoenix.”

“I'm sorry about Jessica,” Rachel said.

“Me, too,” Don added.

Ashley felt tears rise in her eyes, but, with an effort, she repressed them. “They'll pay for what they did,” she declared. She looked at the DEA agent. “Right, Matt?”

“They will,” he affirmed, “if I have any say in the matter, and I will, make no mistake.”

After an awkward silence, small talk resumed, which led to reminiscences about their teenage years. They had dinner, Rachel serving a superb meal of shrimp cocktail, sirloin steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, asparagus, and, for dessert, a deep-dish apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

Time passed quickly, and, before long, they decided to turn in.

“Right after I take a long, hot shower, that is,” Ashley declared.

“You want me to watch your back?” Matt quipped.

“Of course,” she teased, smiling, “but from outside the bathroom.”

“That could be a little difficult.”

“That's the point.”

She excused herself, entered the bathroom, doffed her clothes, and turned on the water, adjusting the temperature before stepping under the pulsating spray.

As the hot water cascaded over her head and shoulders, streaming down her bare flesh, steam rose inside the stall, moisturizing her skin. After the arduous day she'd had, the shower felt wonderful, and she lingered in the hot, steaming fall of water, delighting in the sensation of the hot, buffeting pulses. After shampooing her hair, she massaged her scalp with perfumed conditioner. Reluctantly, she drew a towel around herself, twisting a fold into the front, and stepped out of the stall, onto the rubber floor mat.

By the time she'd donned the pajamas Rachel had loaned her, everyone else had retired for the night.

Everyone else, that is, but Matt.

“I have something for you,” he announced.

She gave him a wide, bright smile. “What's that, Matt?”

He held up a bag. “Courtesy of the DEA,” he declared, handing her the valise she'd left behind in the hotel.

“Where's the rest of my luggage?”

Matt frowned. “The rest?” 

“You mean―?”

He chuckled. “It's all here,” he assured her. “In the guestroom. Suitcases, garment bag, all of it.”

She looked relieved.

“Your car's in the Lakeside police department's impound lot. You can pick it up when we get back, fees paid, of course.”

She stepped up to him, close, and draped her arms around his neck. “I have something for you, too,” she whispered, her voice husky. She kissed him, hard on his lips, and he returned the favor. After a moment, she withdrew. “There's more where that came from,” she promised him, “lots more, but not tonight. I'm too upset over Jes' death.”

“I'll take a rain check from a beautiful woman any day. For now, though, you're right: you need to sleep.”

“What about you?”

“I will.”

He wouldn't, though, Ashley suspected. Instead, he'd stay up all night, sitting alone in the darkness, thinking dark thoughts and watching the street in front of the house. Well, maybe he could survive without sleep, but she needed her rest.

Retiring to the guest room, she slumbered long and well, dreaming of a handsome DEA agent. He'd come out of nowhere, driving a blue Mustang, rather than a white charger; carrying a .357 Magnum, instead of a lance; and wearing a suit and tie, not armor. However, he was a white knight in service to a lady, nevertheless.

Early in the morning, Rachel supplied her guests with a hamper full of food.

Matt looked at Ashley. “We need to be going.”

“Are you sure you won't stay longer?” Rachel asked.

“We've already put you at risk,” Matt reminded her, “at least potentially. It's better we go.”

“Rachel and I don't mind risk,” Don said, “if it's for a good reason. Ashley is.”

Ashley blushed. “Thanks, Don.”

“I think you'll be all right,” Matt told the couple. “If we were going to be targeted, it's likely we'd have been hit by now.” He paused. “They may not have located us yet, but it's likely they will. What they plan to do will probably come later, when we're in a less-populated place, such as the desert.” 

Ashley gulped. She and Matt had talked a bit last night about his plans. They included traversing the Colorado Desert in San Diego County, which featured plenty of open countryand plenty of possible ambush sites. 

Matt gave Don a card. “If you need help, call this number, and tell whoever answers that DEA agent Matthew Moore told you to send someone, pronto.”

Don nodded.

“Help will come,” Matt assured him, “and it will come quickly.”

“Thanks.”

“Thank you,” Matt said.

“I can never repay your kindness,” Ashley said.

At Tenth and Main, State Highway 67 became State Highway 78, better known as Julian Road, and began to wind sharply, one hairpin turn following another. There were no shoulders along the narrow, two-lane road, and, reluctantly, Matt drove more slowly.

He and Ashley spoke little. She watched the scenery. There was water in these higher elevations, and the slopes on either side of the meandering road were thick with trees, mostly pines and oaks. They continued along the curving road past Julian and its famous apple orchards, into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the vast Colorado Desert.

The scenery varied, but not much, the view offering glimpses of creosote bushes, mixed scrub, yuccas, holla cacti, and hardy grasses among the junipers, manzanitas, and Coulter and pinyon pines.

There was also an array of wildlife, Ashley knew. The area's fauna included mule deer, bobcats, kangaroo rats, and cactus mice. The sandy wilderness was also home to black-tailed jackrabbits, Gambler's Quail, and red-diamond rattlesnakes. In parts of the desert, there were tortoises, Prairie Falcons, bighorn sheep, and leaf-nosed bats. She didn't expect to see any of these animals, and, except for a few jackrabbits, she did not. Mostly, she saw sand, sand, and more sand, acres and acres of gray-brown sand.

A gunshot sounded loud in the stillness, and Matt's windshield cracked.

Ashley screamed.

Matt sped faster, watching the road rush toward them. “Get down!” he ordered.

Unbuckling her seat belt, she knelt on the floor, hunched over, sideways, across the console between the bucket seats. The side of her face rested upon Matt's lap as she made herself as small a target as possible. She could feel the taut muscles of his right thigh working as he shoved his foot down as hard as he could on the gas pedal.

A second bullet pinged off the roof of the car. Ashley closed her eyes, grimacing in terror. Any moment, a bullet might crash through the car, wounding or killing her, Matt, or both of them. Or Matt might be incapacitated or murdered, leaving her at the mercy of her brutal captors. She shuddered at the thought of what they might do to her, if Matt were unable to protect her.

Matt held the accelerator to the floorboard. The Mustang tore along the road, and, from her hunched position, Ashley saw the speedometer's needle. It seemed to vibrate between a hundred-and-forty and a hundred-and-forty-five miles per hour.

Matt's speedometer registered a hundred-and-fifty, then a hundred-and-fifty-five, miles per hour. Hitting a patch of sand blown across the highway, the powerful automobile skidded. Ashley smelled a stench of burned rubber as Matt slowed.

After a terrifying moment, he brought the car under control, even as the vehicle continued to gain speed.

A third bullet whizzed past them, wide of its mark, and sand flicked up from the desert floor.

The speedometer needle hit its ultimate position, indicating a speed of a hundred-and-sixty-five miles per hour. Still, the vehicle picked up speed.

Ahead, State Highway 78 formed a junction with State Highway 86. Braking hard, slowing down, as for more than a tenth of a mile, his tires screeched, burning rubber, Matt spun left, onto the other road, heading north, with the Salton Sea to the east, on his right.

No more rifle shots were fired.

“You can sit up now,” Matt advised.

Ashley couldn't speak for a few moments. She was shaking all over, and she felt as though she might be sick. “That was close,” she finally managed to observe.

“Too close,” he agreed. “You all right?”

“I'm still in one piece, anyway, and I'm not bleeding, as far as I know.

“We're almost there.”

Ashley frowned. “Almost where?” she asked. “There's no 'there' here.”

He smiled. “It's there, all right,” he said, “but you'd never know it, which is one reason it's a safe house.”

It was the first smile she'd seen from him since they'd met in Lakeside yesterday afternoon. It was a welcome sight, and she smiled in return, even though she felt like sobbing. If they got through this madness alive, she vowed to herself, she'd give Matt something to smile about for a long, long time. “After what just happened, let's hope it is safe.”

A few miles farther north, Matt turned right, onto a single strip of baked asphalt partially overgrown with desert scrub. A mile later, he pulled onto a sand-strewn lot in which stood a two-story, ramshackle frame house which, from all appearances, looked as if it had been abandoned for years.

Ashley stared. “This is the safe house?”

Again, Matt smiled. “Don't let it fool you,” he declared. “It's safe enough.”

If it weren't, Ashley thought, he wouldn't have brought her here. She was too valuable, as a witness, for him to take unnecessary risks.

After parking his car in the garage, which also looked as if it had been neglected for years, he said, “Come on; you'll see: it's safer than it looks.”

It was, too.

Outside, the place looked like hell, but, inside, the walls were fortified with concrete and steel. The windows were equipped with locking metal shutters. The front and back doors were solid steel, with a layer of wood over their exteriors, to disguise their true nature, and they were equipped with deadbolts. In addition, Matt lowered a steel bar into the pairs of “U”-shaped brackets mounted to steel posts inside the wall on either side of each door. In the floor, a trap door led into a tunnel.

Ashley shivered. 

“Don't worry,” Matt told her. “It has nothing to do with smuggling.” He wrapped her in his arms. “It's been a long time since I held you, and, even under our present circumstances, I have admit, it feels good. Correction: it feels wonderful.”

She rested against him, laying her head against his chest and luxuriating in the feel of him―of his hard, muscular pecs, his firm, ripped abs, his sinewy arms. Her own arms circled his waist, and she breathed in his scent, a fragrance of sweat and cologne and a deeper, muskier smell, pheromones, she guessed. In his arms, she felt safe, but she also felt aroused.

Matt whispered into her ear, his voice husky, “What do you say we check out one of the bedrooms?”

She nodded. . . .


Reunion Rendezvous
When Ashley and Jessica find a trapdoor in a storage unit while gathering decorations for their tenth annual high school reunion, they just have to find out where it leads. Their curiosity costs Jessica her life, and Ashley has seen too much to be allowed to live. Only her high school sweetheart Matt, now a government agent, stands between Ashley and certain death. He promises to protect her, but can even he save her from an army of ruthless killers? Not recommended for readers under age 18.

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