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Kristin McKaslin took one look at the snow-caked airplane window and groaned. She was doomed. That window had been only a little bit icy less than twenty minutes ago, when she'd looked up from her work. Now she couldn't see through it, not that there was anything to see at this altitude and with the plane swinging in the turbulence.
At least it gave her something to think about other than heading home to Montana. Thanksgiving was tomorrow, and that was both good and bad. She loved her sisters. She loved her parents. She loved going home to visit.
What she wasn't looking forward to was facing her mother's disappointments. She lived too far away. She didn't come home to visit enough. She wasn't married. And she wasn't married. Mom was doubly unhappy about that one.
Just because she wasn't married, it didn't mean she was a failure, right?
Right. So, why did it feel that way? And why was it such a big deal? A marriage certificate came with no guarantees, and as far as she could tell, it didn't protect a person against heartbreak, disappointment and loneliness.
It wasn't as if Mom and Dad were ecstatic in their nearly forty years of marriage. But it wasn't as if she could say that to Mom. She hated pretending, as if nothing had changed in their family, when everything had.
That was the real reason she didn't want to walk through the front door of her childhood home. It was too painful to think about.
"Kristin McKaslin, is that you?"
She studied the well-dressed man who sank into the empty seat across the aisle. He was good-looking with disheveled black hair and eyes a sharp aquamarine blue. He had a straight blade of a nose, high cheekbones and dimples cut into his cheeks. He was dressed in a casual outfit that shouted, "Money!"
Nope, she didn't know him, but wait, there was something familiar about him. But what?
She didn't know him from work, the gym or churcheither in Seattle or in Montana. Still, there was something distinctive about that devastating smile, those dimples and that strong jaw.
Of course! She saw a flash of a boyish face with longer black hair standing before the podium at a high-school assembly. The image of a leaner, younger star running back whipping off his helmet after the final touchdown for the state championship. The caustic face of her mom's best friend's son, who wanted to be anywhere but stuck waiting in the car while their mothers talked on the sidewalk in town.
"Ryan Sanders?" She couldn't believe it. She blinked, and the remembered youthful image of his face blended with the older, wiser one staring back at her across the aisle. "It is you."
"The one and only. I look different, I know, everybody says so. I went and got respectable."
"You were always respectable."
"Nope, I wasn't. You're just being nice." His cute lopsided grin had matured into a slow curve of a smile. "You look better, but the same. Still have your nose in a book."
"Guilty. I confess."
Those blue eyes, which could have been cold, sparkled. "That's how I recognized you."
"I'm surprised you could see me over the seats. I'm still short."
"The word is 'petite.' I was bored and people-watching and I could see your profile from way back there. I got the last seat on the plane I think."
"Waited until the last minute?"
"I didn't think I'd be flying out of Seattle. Hey, you cut your hair. It was always long. Hiding your face. It still does, even short." He reached across the aisle to touch the curled end of her chin-length hair.
She felt a jolt, like the snap of static shock, as the lock of hair rebounded against her jaw. What was that? And should she act as if she hadn't felt it? "Your hair's shorter, too."
"It goes with my more reputable image." He shrugged one dependable shoulder.
Yeah, he looked reputable, all right, decked out in a loose-knit black sweater that hugged the lean curves of his muscled shoulders and chest. Black trousers, crisply pleated, completed the image.
He could be a corporate heavyweight, with a stuffy MBA and an impressive portfolio. Except for the black boots, scuffed and rugged, showing there was still a part of the Montana boy in the polished, educated man.
He raked his hand through his short, unruly black locks and leaned into the corner of the seat. A big powerful man, sprawled out like a kid, his large feet crossed at the ankles in the aisle.
"So, what's a pretty girl like you doing with a laptop and a book at" he glanced at the gold flash of his Rolex "9:07 at night?"
"Yeah? I remembered you were studious in high school. What did the valedictorian of Valley High grow up to be?"
"An advertising executive."
"Well done. You live in Seattle?"
"I do. Not a hard guess, since the flight originated there. You, too?"
"Nope, just up checking out a job offer." Less comfortable talking about that, he hauled his feet in from the aisle and sat up straight. Too late to change the subject. It wasn't pretty Kristin McKaslin's fault his life was messed up.
Okay, it wasn't a mess yet, but it wasn't the fit he wanted, either. He'd become a successful doctor. It just didn't feel right to him. And after the breakup with Francine
"Wow, a job offer." Kristin was even prettier when she smiled. "Who in their right mind would hire you?"
"Right. I'm suspicious of their offer right up front." They'd been good people, that's what. Professional, smart, with a good, positive focus. Not at all like the profitoriented outfit he was stuck with in Scottsdale. "What kind of dudes are they, if they want me to join up with 'em?"
"Smart ones. Are you gonna go for it?"
A loaded question, but his problems weren't Kristin's, so he'd leave out the personal stuff. "Not sure about what I'm gonna do. I'm looking for a change. I have a great practice, but Phoenix is a little hot for me in the summers. Still, I suppose that's why air-conditioning was invented."
"Your practice? Oh, wait. I remember something about you getting into medical school long ago. Knowing you, that couldn't be true."
"Hard to believe they actually took a no-account like me."
"For a jock, you weren't too dumb. Guess how hard I had to study to beat your GPA?"
"Hard? Good, cuz I worked my toes off and I couldn't get half as many one hundred percents as you did."
She sparkled, but not in the way of women who realized he was a single man and a doctor. No, she was quiet class, all the way from her polished brown loafers to the carefully folded neck of her sort-of-brown turtleneck. Warm, though, not stuffy.
Her voice was soft elegance. "What kind of doctor are you?"
"An orthopedic surgeon."
"Sure, you have the ego for it."
"Hey, I don't deserve that. Okay, maybe I do. But I like helping people. Fixing their blown-out knees and torn ankles. What about you? An advertising exec, huh? Does that mean you're a big shot in the advertising world?"
"Yeah, right. I make sure the agency runs without a hitch. It's a good job but not very glamorous."
"I can see you, diligent and kind and handling everything just right."
"Same old Ryan, charming and full of it. Some things never change."
"Don't they? Back in school you were too high and mighty for me."
"High and mighty?"
"One of the perfect McKaslin girls."
"Perfect, my foot! Good grief, I'm a mess. A walking disaster."
"Yeah, uh-huh. You sure look like it." He rolled his eyes to emphasize his point. Ryan didn't think there could be a nicer family of women on the planet.
Part of the McKaslin genes, he figured. With Kristin, there was no mistaking her girl-next-door freshness, even in her power suit.
What kind of executive did she make? One who said please and thank-you, was his guess, and it clashed with the ice-princess highend designer jacket, sweater and slacks she wore.
Maybe he'd lived in a big city for too long. Whoathat thought was something his mom would say. Not for the first time tonight he wished he'd paid for his mom to come down for Thanksgiving. Montana came with too many lessons learned. Lessons that haunted him to this day.
"It's weird seeing you like this. On the same plane heading home." It blew his mind, that's what, because he didn't believe in coincidences. All things happened for a reason.
"I haven't seen you since, what, high school?"
"When I left for college, I left for good. I keep trying to lure Mom to Phoenix, but she won't do it. She calls every Sunday afternoon, after church. To make sure I've gone to worship like a good son."
"Good. You need someone to keep you in line. I've lost track of nearly everyone. It's weird how in school we had all the time in the world, our future ahead of us, and now that we're in the middle of those futures, there's no time at all."
"Exactly. Now I put in long hours. I've got no time."
"What? You're a doctor. Why are you working long days? Don't you people golf on Tuesdays and Fridays?"
"Some do. I have school loans to make good on, and the balance is higher than most people's mortgages."
"Ouch. I'm glad I worked my way through school."
He crooked a doubtful eyebrow. "Worked? Didn't you get the only four-year scholarship in our graduating class?"
"Yeah, but that was for tuition. I had a part-time job in the university library on the weekends, and I worked during the summers."
"I was volunteering in clinics and did a year in the Peace Corps so I had a better shot at med school."
"I've heard medical school isn't all that competitive."
That made him laugh. "Yeah. I spent a year in the Dominican Republic assisting a physician. That year did more to make a man of me than anything. I hope it made me a much better doctor."
"I can't imagine you're a bad one. Arrogant, maybe."
"Hey!" He laughed with her. He liked her, he couldn't help it. But seeing her reminded him of a time in his life that was complicated. "It's good to see you. I'm glad you're doing well."
"You, too." Kristin closed the laptop and focused her full attention on Ryan Sanders. Dr. Ryan Sanders. That was going to take some getting used to. She could still see the spirited young boy inside the responsible man.
Not that she was interested. So she'd noticed that his left hand was suntanned and ringless. He'd made the effort of renewing their acquaintance. He'd been so complimentary and friendly. Why was she even thinking in this direction?
Doom. Disaster. She'd never wanted a relationship. She would never lean on a man. She was fine all by herself, even if that got lonely sometimes.
"Here comes the beverage cart. I'd better get back to my seat now or I'll be trapped here." He rose, all six feet plus of him, filling the aisle. "Maybe I'll see you around town?"
"Maybe. If I see you on the sidewalk, I won't run in the opposite direction."
"Deal. I'll try not to run into a store and hide from ya."
And he was gone, ambling down the aisle.
Ryan Sanders. He filled her thoughts as she opened the three-ring binder and flipped up the laptop's screen. Imagine that, running into him. Had she even heard much about Ryan over the years?
No, just comments from Mom now and then on how Mary's son had straightened out his life. Finally. And how Mary was lonely for him.
Wasn't loneliness an integral part of life? Troubled, Kristin tried to concentrate on the Myers budget and couldn't. The numbers on the screen fuzzed, and she rubbed her tired eyes.
Father, I don't want to go home. Guilt warred with the other emotions coiling up in her stomach. What do I do?