Annie McKendrick had begun her graduation day by joining four hundred and ninety-seven other seniors from Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, in boarding the yellow school buses provided to take them to Constitution Hall, which was located on the outskirts of the expansive grounds.
She could still picture the glowing faces of the students on her coach and the singing and chanting that had erupted from everyone—including herself—during the ten-minute journey. The excitement had continued, even once they’d arrived outside the imposing, pale-gray stone building with its numerous columns supporting a decorative mansard roof where cheering families and friends had met them.
Just being inside the ornate building’s time-honored halls, with its pristine white walls and arched, green carved-and-decorated ceilings and paintwork, had made Annie feel as if she were in a dream. At one point, she had wondered when the bubble would burst and she would wake up.
The two-hour ceremony had passed in a kaleidoscope of noise and color. She’d mounted the stage to receive her diploma, posed for official photographs and had thereafter searched for and found her parents to have more pictures taken with them and her friends.
The emotions she’d felt had been beyond what she’d expected, but the argument she’d had afterward with her boyfriend, Cory Anderson, had briefly dampened her mood and, for a time, had soured her enthusiasm for the upcoming evening festivities.
The quarrel had been about her parents, who were going on vacation the next day. Annie wouldn’t be seeing them for a considerable period of time, so she’d decided that she would spend the intervening hours between the ceremony that morning and the celebrations in the evening with them.
Cory hadn’t been amused when she’d told him she wouldn’t be traveling with him and their friends to the elegant high-rise Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Tyson’s Corner where the graduation celebration was to take place.
His familiar tactic of using emotional blackmail to get her to do what he wanted hadn’t succeeded, and when she’d refused to back down, he’d exploded. The disagreement that had ensued as a result had tested her patience and resolve, and, at that point, she’d almost ended their relationship.
Annie sighed and eyed the littered tabletop. Thirsty, she searched for her glass of iced water and, after a few moments, found it among the other half-consumed and empty ones crowded together on the surface. She took a sip of the cold liquid and sighed when chilled moisture doused her throat and eased its dryness.
She set the glass back on the table and glanced around to see if she could find Cory. He was nowhere to be seen, and his absence made her feel more irritated than hurt that he’d left her alone to entertain herself.
She’d been dating him for six months. He was a typical all-American boy and had been captain of the high school soccer team. He was good-looking and more than aware of it, but of more concern to Annie’s peace of mind was that he was a flirt and didn’t give a damn that she knew it.
A short time into their relationship, she had noticed that his charming and appealing manner—very evident when he was in front of his peers or people he thought he needed to impress—was nothing but a veneer to cover his true personality.
He could be arrogant and self-centered, and she’d learned the hard way that he was used to getting his own way. He threw spectacular tantrums when he didn’t get the attention he believed he deserved, which always left her feeling drained and numb, as though she’d spent time with an out-of-control, recalcitrant child who had no idea how to behave.
They were character traits that didn’t sit well with her. In fact, they showed a side of him she didn’t like at all. She’d begun to wonder what she saw in him.
Despite her growing unease, she hadn’t wanted to give up on their relationship, but in recent weeks, she had grown irritated and frustrated with the way things were going between them. When she’d found herself making excuses for his behavior to other people, she’d stopped indulging his outbursts.
Thinking about him was making Annie feel uncomfortable, so she let her thoughts drift and studied her surroundings.
The graduation celebration was in full swing. The dance floor was crowded with energetic men and women who seemed to be out to impress each other with their antics. Some of the gyrations were extraordinary, and she smiled to herself and wondered if their acrobatic and somewhat ludicrous moves would be remembered with embarrassment the next day.
The room was a classic formal ballroom with a décor in antique gold and cream and wall-to-wall carpet of the same colors. It was opulent and elegant without being vulgar. Crystal chandeliers hung from an oval-domed ceiling that was carved with Victorian tracery, and lit sconces lined the walls, which were papered in silk and accented with crown molding.
Panoramic windows were festooned with sheer cream drapes, and there were soft brocade seats set around gilt-edged tables and antique credenzas positioned at strategic points about the room with tall, carved cream vases in their centers, holding cascades of gold-and-ivory flowers.
It was a luxurious and beautiful venue, but Annie was restless. She glanced at her watch and saw it was almost midnight. The noise from the music, raucous conversation and outbursts of laughter were almost deafening, and while she’d spent most of the night dancing, she now had the beginnings of a headache and her feet hurt.
Much against her will, she wondered again where Cory had disappeared to. He’d been acting out of character all evening, and while she suspected he might still be sulking from their earlier argument, her intuition told her it was a little more serious than him acting like a spoiled child.
After all, they hadn’t parted on the best of terms, and even now, Annie was still annoyed with him. On this day of all days, his fit of angst had made her resent his behavior, and she’d had a sinking feeling that things between them weren’t going as well as they should.
Annie wondered what would happen between them when she left for her basic training. She’d joined the Medical Corp of the United States Army, and in a few weeks’ time, she would travel from her home nine hundred and forty-four miles to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where she would begin her sixteen-week gender-integrated basic combat training.
If she passed that, she would move on to Fort Sam Houston to commence her medical and advanced courses to become a specialist in her trade. That could last anywhere from sixteen to sixty-eight weeks, depending on any additional skills she wanted to learn.
Annie hadn’t chosen her career lightly or taken the step to sign up without a good degree of soul-searching. She’d understood that what lay ahead of her might well be filled with pitfalls and setbacks.
She would soon be leaving her family, Cory and her hometown, where she had lived all her life. While her parents supported her career choice wholeheartedly, Cory had neither given her his support nor shown any interest.
He hadn’t told her he would miss her, and she had a feeling that once she was gone, he would move on to someone new. If she were honest with herself, she’d admit it dented her pride rather than her heart to think that once she was out of his sight, she would also be gone from his mind.
Why the hell am I thinking about that time-waster?
Annie pushed thoughts of her boyfriend to the back of her mind. She was eighteen years old and the world was her oyster. She was free of school at last and her future stretched ahead of her, an infinite highway of hope and adventure. She was going to grab onto it with both hands and look back only when she needed to.
Then thoughts of him intruded into her mind and a trickle of warmth trailed down her spine when she thought of the incident which had occurred outside the hotel after her father had dropped her off to wait on the forecourt for Cory and their friends to arrive.
She’d noticed a gleaming black limousine with tinted windows pull up in front of her and her curiosity had been aroused, even though it had been no more impressive than the other automobiles dropping off their passengers. She wasn’t normally a nosey person, but she’d stared at the windows to see if she could see inside and recognize its occupants.
The rear, left-hand passenger door had opened and a man in formal evening dress had gotten out. The sound of female laughter had come from its interior, and she’d watched as he leaned forward and reached out a hand to whomever was inside.
Her interest had been piqued even more when he’d assisted a young woman of about her own age to alight. A second man, followed by another woman, had appeared from the opposite side and she’d wondered who they were.
The man who had exited first appeared older than the rest of his group and she’d continued to stare as they slammed the doors shut and the two couples moved toward the sidewalk.
Annie had realized her interest was bordering on rudeness, and she’d been about to focus her attention elsewhere when the stranger had turned and had caught her studying them. Like an animal trapped in the glare of a car’s headlights, she’d stiffened and a wave of embarrassment had surged through her.
Her face had flushed with heat, but instead of ignoring the man like she should have done, she’d chosen instead to return his look. She’d felt a jolt of recognition.
At Langley High School, they’d been at the opposite ends of the age spectrum, so Annie had never had an opportunity to speak to him. Shyness would have prevented her from approaching him, even if she’d been given the chance.
She’d been a shy, fifteen-year-old ninth-grade sophomore when he was an eighteen-year-old twelfth-grade senior. Any interaction that might have been instigated by her would have failed at the first hurdle because of the age difference, and in terms of a senior’s reputation, he almost certainly wouldn’t have allowed himself to be seen in her company.
Annie had passed him a few times in the corridors on her way to classes and lectures, and each time she had stolen a glance at him from beneath her eyelashes. On one occasion, she’d caught him staring at her, and the brief acknowledgement had sent tingles coursing down her adolescent spine, the feeling unfamiliar and startling to her young body.
She didn’t know the color of his eyes because she hadn’t gotten close enough to him to see them. She’d noticed his long but neat brown, almost-black hair and the dark stubble that had always outlined his firm jaw and chin. It had made him look older than his years, and she had never been able to rid herself of the thought of how sexy he’d looked.
He’d stood out from the crowd of other students, his regular mode of dress being faded pegged jeans, work boots and a white T-shirt beneath a black leather jacket, very distinct from the diverse fashion prevalent at the high school.
Although a stranger to her, Annie had sensed he was different from the rest of the jocks that haunted the soccer field, baseball diamond and ice-hockey rink. He must have had friends but she’d never seen him with them, and she had never noticed him at the sports practices or any of the proms she had attended.
Gossip flourished in any school and community, the type that always abounded among adults and teenagers concerning someone who was different. There had always been numerous detrimental stories about him making the rounds, although she’d had no idea they were about him until he’d been pointed out to her.
McLean residents—those who put class and wealth above anything else—had taken great delight in making derogatory comments about those less well off than themselves, and there were plenty about him and his family.
She’d overheard people talking—the conversation spoken in conspiratorial whispers, as though the information wasn’t to be bandied about at any cost—that he came from the wrong side of the tracks or, for want of a better description, lived in the poor and less prestigious part of McLean. They said he was a troublemaker and, of more importance, was uneducated.
The scuttlebutt vine had told her his father had fought in the first Gulf War and had returned suffering from combat stress. Unemployed and with no means of paying for medical bills, the man had left McLean, leaving the mother to be the breadwinner to two children.
Annie’s own friends had repeated the statements in contemptuous and secretive tones—copying those of their parents—elaborating about those without a six-figure monetary value or who had fathers who did not hold important jobs such as stockbroker, attorney or who didn’t have one at all.
As far as they were concerned, people who were not two or even three-car families and didn’t live in the plantation-like homes located on the wealthier side of McLean were far less privileged than they, of a much lower class and not to be associated with.
The cruel and unjust words had stirred a righteous anger in Annie’s warm and tender heart. As young as she was, she had concluded that the people she knew had shallow minds and would never understand the true meaning of being a caring human being to others, no matter their monetary status.
She’d never had the opportunity to find out for herself if the stories about him were true—not that she would have cared if they had been—because one day he was gone.
He had graduated with the rest of the seniors, and at his departure, she’d felt a sharp pang of regret that had lingered through the years that she hadn’t managed to get to know him.
He’d been standing not more than ten feet from her, and again, Annie had found herself unable to tear her gaze away from him.
He’d been taller than she’d remembered, and she’d guessed his height to be over six feet. She’d admired his well-muscled physique, which had been emphasized by a black jacket stretched taut across his broad shoulders and chest.
When the breeze had blown the two halves of the garment apart, she’d seen that he wore a deep crimson brocade waistcoat over a crisp white shirt without a necktie, and she’d been impressed that he’d continued to adhere to his own unconventional dress code.
There had been an air of command about him, a presence that showed he was no longer an eighteen-year-old boy. He’d matured in his looks and his powerful-looking body had belonged to someone who worked out and was at peak fitness. He had been even more attractive than she’d remembered and Annie had wondered what it would feel like to have his arms around her and his body pressed to hers.
His face had remained in shadow, and even though he’d faced her direction, she hadn’t been able to tell if his gaze had been on her, but she’d felt a familiar tingle she’d not experienced in some time race down her spine and sudden warmth had flooded her chilled body.
Convinced her emotions had been displayed on her face, she’d turned away. Moments later, she hadn’t been able to resist glancing over her shoulder once more and she’d seen him walking away, the girl he’d helped from the car holding his arm with both hands, as if she hadn’t wanted to let go.
The group had made their way along the forecourt toward the hotel, and Annie’s breath had caught in her throat. The man had walked in a graceful but masculine way, his movements like those of a wild beast. He was all-male, and when he’d half-turned to look at her once more, her heart rate had increased and she’d become short of breath.
A pang of jealousy had stabbed her. She’d found herself wanting to be close to him so she could touch him. She’d wished she could take the place of the young woman and gaze into his face and have him smile at her instead.
She’d been only semi-aware of what was going on around her because her mind had been focused on him, and she’d been surprised that the crush she’d had all those years ago clearly remained as strong as ever.
She’d never experienced such a feeling for a member of the opposite sex before—not even Cory—and she’d found herself musing about what it would be like to be kissed by him.
The man had faced forward just as Annie had heard her name called. The sound had jolted her back to the real world. She’d been bewildered as to what had just happened to her and ashamed of her thoughts concerning a man who was, and would always be, a stranger.
She hadn’t looked at him again and he’d moved out of her life. She’d dismissed him from her mind. She had to forget about him, because it was finished and she’d never see him again.
She’d had to move on with the most exciting night of her young life, so she’d forced her lips into a smile and half-turned to watch Cory and her friends alight from their white limousine and make their way toward her.