Hayden Snow—World Explorer & TV show host.
Brenley Lynch—Florist who’s never left Pineville, Idaho.
On the night of their 20th High School reunion, the former underachiever and wallflower hook-up, sharing a night of fiery passion.
But when one night turns into another, can their intense connection turn into a lifetime adventure neither expected?
“Did you see who just walked in?”
“What’s he doing in Pineville?”
“Damn, if I was single, you can bet I’d let him explore me.”
I’d been hearing versions of these exclamations for the last half hour. Ever since Hayden Snow, a TV show celebrity and world explorer had walked through the doors of The Club, Pineville’s most popular restaurant and nightclub.
It was early yet, just past six p.m. and yet the dining area was full. I was sitting across from a date I hadn’t been able to get out of. This was our second dinner, and we’d already run out of topics to discuss. He was nice, and bonus points for not ogling the waitresses. But there was no spark. Nothing there to ignite any sweaty, late-night dreams.
Half listening to his take on local politics, I did my best to ignore the other man in the room whom I hadn’t seen since graduation who was practically holding court at the bar.
He and his fraternal twin brother, Zane, had become Pineville High School’s claim to fame, but Hayden was the current golden boy, er…. man, no hunky silver fox was more accurate. His chiseled features often graced the cover of entertainment and travel magazines.
Nearing forty and still single, his personal life was often splashed all over social media as well. If he even looked at a model or actress, the paparazzi went crazy and had them shacking up and expecting twins.
I knew his older sister, Noel, who had also never left Pineville like me and was married to one of the owners of the local United States Baseball League’s top teams, the Idaho Outlaws. She was an interior designer and a frequent customer of my floral business, All in Bloom. Our social paths crossed occasionally. And when they did, she’d shoot down the salacious headlines saying as far as she knew, Hayden had never been serious about a woman, and his career was his first and probably his only love.
He'd become known for his charmingly informative ability to present any topic and to adapt on a dime as he spun a risky situation into ratings gold. He used all of those attributes as he dodged women and some men with bro-crushes.
And I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Not because of his celebrity, although that had made it easier to keep up with him from a safe distance.
No to me, he’d always be the boy who got away. Seeing him in person days before I thought I would, because I’m sure he most certainly was in town for our twenty-year reunion, my long ago wish that things had been different between us flared bright. The “if only” game began playing in my head as I tried to keep up with my date’s conversation while superstitiously watching Hayden’s movements.
If only he hadn’t had a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder.
If only I hadn’t been shy and insecure.
If only he hadn’t left the day after graduation for boot camp.
Twenty years ago, they labeled him an underachiever, a troublemaker. He and his fraternal twin brother, Zane, had been raised by Noel after their dad took off. Their mom passed from cancer his freshman year and Noel, who was only a few years older than the twins, had done what was needed to keep them all together. All three had turned out successful, and married with a family. All except Hayden.
During our senior year, our teacher asked me to tutor Hayden in chemistry, otherwise he might not graduate. For a girl who didn’t really fit into any particular group, and overwhelmed by social anxiety and shyness, it had been the highlight of my life up to that point.
As far as I knew, Hayden had rarely been home over the last two decades, but between his show and a couple degrees of separation in our friend groups and, of course, his sister, I’d heard plenty of updates.
And today I was as far from the wallflower I’d labeled myself back then, and yet a part of me wanted to hide before he recognized me.
As if he even would.
When I first heard his name on the whispers among the group of women next to our table, I’d turned my face away. I didn’t want to be one of the many women in the room gawking at him, or worse, be caught by him doing so. But try convincing my heart or my body not to look.
So once I took my first glimpse of Hayden, live and in person after so many years, so many life experiences… it was as if I was still that soft-spoken, mousy-haired, too-curvy to fit into the latest fashions and too-brainy to attract a boy, Brenley Lynch—back to a version of myself that I had long ago ditched when I went to college.
Now, at almost thirty-eight, I was ready to put myself out there. Find someone who wanted the same things in life—family, companionship, with a sprinkle of travel thrown in because I was nothing if not pragmatic. But I knew the guy I was sitting with wasn’t that guy. And I needed to come up with the words to let him know before our dinner was finished.
“I’m sorry. You seem preoccupied. I’ve been monopolizing the conversation again, haven’t I?”
And here I thought I was being clever in pretending to be interested. “Not at all. I definitely agree that everyone has their opinions and I’m happy to listen and learn.” At least that was half true. I definitely needed to do better next time when my attention wandered. He didn’t deserve a date who was preoccupied with another man.
“So, before the check comes, I wanted to talk about—”
“Oh, that reminds me. I’ve got a coupon.”
As far as I knew, The Club did not do coupons. “Really, that’s um, great. But what I wanted to say was I think it best if this dinner is our—”
“No. Don’t say it. I’ve been on enough dates since my divorce to read the signs. “You’re a nice guy, Chad.’ or, ‘You have a lot going for you. But I don’t see us as being anything more than friends.’”
Wow. He was spot on. I closed my mouth and folded my hands on the table. “That obvious, huh?”
“Well, not until tonight. The first date was great. I thought we hit it off really well. But I could tell as soon as we sat down tonight that I may have been a bit optimistic. It’s okay, really. You’re out of my league anyway.” He raised his hand to gain the waiter's attention.
Out of his league? I didn’t know I was in any league, let alone not in his. “Look, I’d like to pay my share of the bill. And I’m not out of your league or anyone’s—”
“Brenley Lynch? It is you, right? If I hadn’t noticed your unforgettable green eyes… you’re even more beautiful than I remember.” Hayden stood next to our table; his own piercing grey-blue eyes locked onto me.
I waited an extra beat, glanced at my date to see his reaction before I spoke. Awkward. “Yes. It’s me. Hello Hayden. It’s nice to see you.”
Had I really changed that much since high school? Other than a different hair style and better clothes, I always thought I looked the same. Pretty, yes, but beautiful? He was just being nice.
“Hayden Snow, this is Chad Johnson. Chad this is—”
“I know who he is. It’s a pleasure. My kids and I watch your show every Sunday. Even if it’s a rerun.” Chad took Hayden’s hand and enthusiastically shook it.
“I’m glad to hear it. So, you said your kids, does that mean….” Hayden looked between the two of us, his attention fully on me now, waiting, but for what exactly?
“Oh, yeah. Just my kids. They’re seven and nine. Brenley and I are just on a date. Would you like to join us?” Chad stood, but Hayden waved him back to his seat.
“That’s kind of you, but I’m meeting my sister and her husband, and it looks like they’ve arrived. It was nice meeting you, Chad. Give my best to your kids. Tell them I appreciate them being fans. And you too.”
Hayden turned back to me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. I knew that look. Twenty years may have passed, but I remembered them all.
“I hope to see you this weekend at the reunion.” Another long pause. His gaze now serious, with a touch of interest I’d never once noticed when we were teenagers.
I hadn’t realized how deafening my heartbeat was until this moment. It was no use attempting to play off my reaction to him. I knew I was probably beet red by this point. My palms had been sweating since he said my name. It had always been this way whenever he was close. My best chance at appearing cool, as if attention from a handsome man was commonplace, especially when I was on a date with someone else, was to smile and speak calmly as if my insides weren’t screaming.
“Wow, you went to school with Hayden Snow? How cool is that?” Chad took my offered credit card and settled the bill, coupon, and all. Which, in fact, wasn’t a coupon, but a handwritten discount from the owner as a thank you for Chad’s help for something he told me but I couldn’t remember because I was too busy ogling Hayden.
He attempted to explain the complicated scenario to me, how he’d met Reese and her husband Connor, who was a star player for the Idaho Outlaws. My brain zeroed in on how small of a world it really was since I was also friends with Reese.
We walked toward the front of the restaurant. And once again, it was as if my eyes had a mind of their own, defying my inner voice and its plea not to look Hayden’s way. But I did and found him staring at me. His gaze swept my body, lighting a trail of need that left me shaken.
“So, it's that way between you two, huh?” Chad’s disappointment was hard to miss, but we’d already agreed this would be our last date.
It had never been that way between Hayden and me. The “what if” game played out in my head the entire way home and suddenly attending our twenty-year reunion became a lot more appealing.