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"Sick leave?" Rob Klassen yelled, unable to believe what he was hearing from the editor of World Week, the international current affairs magazine he'd worked for as a photojournalist for twelve years. "I'm not sick!"
Gary Wallanger pulled off his glasses and tossed them onto his desktop cluttered with Rob's proof sheets documenting a skirmish in a small town near the Ras Ajdir border between Tunisia and Libya. "What do you suggest I call it? Shot-in-the-ass leave? You damned near got yourself killed. Again."
Gary didn't like his people getting too close to the action they were reporting on and his glare was fierce.
Rob put all his weight on his good leg, but even so, the throbbing in his left thigh was hard to ignore. "I was running away as fast as I could."
"I saw the hospital report. You were running toward the shooter. Bad luck for you. They can tell those things from the entry and exit wounds." In the uncomfortable silence that followed Rob heard the roar of traffic, honking cabs and sirens on the Manhattan streets far below. He hadn't counted on Gary finding out the details he'd have rather kept to himself.
"You want to be a war hero," his editor snapped, "join the forces. We report news. We don't make it." Another beat ticked by.
"There were bullets flying everywhere. I got disoriented."
"Bull. You were playing hero again, weren't you?"
Rob could still picture the toddler cowering behind an oil drum. Yeah, his boss would have been happier if he'd left her scared and crying in the line of gunfire. But he was the one who had to wake up every morning and look himself in the mirror. Truth was he hadn't thought at all. He'd merely dashed over to the girl and hauled her to safety. Getting shot hadn't been in his plan.
Would he have acted any differently if he'd known what the outcome would be? He sure as hell hoped not.
He knew better than to tell Gary any of that. "You don't win Pulitzers with a telephoto lens. I needed to get close enough to capture the real story."
"close enough to take a bullet in the leg."
"That was unfortunate," Rob admitted. "I can still handle a camera though. I can still walk." He made a big show of stalking across the carpeted office, scooting around the obstacle course of stacked back issues, piled newspapers and a leaning tower of reference books. If he concentrated he could manage to stride without a limp or a wince though he could feel sweat begin to break out from the effort.
"No." The single word stopped him in his tracks.
He turned. "I'm the best you've got. You have to send me back out on assignment."
"I will. As soon as you can run a mile in six."
"A mile in six minutes? Why so fast?"
Gary's voice was as dry as the North African desert. "So the next time you have to run for your life you can make it."
Rob paused for breath and grabbed a chair back for support. He and Gary had been friends for a long time and he knew the guy was making the right decision even if it did piss him off. "It was pure bad luck. If I'd dodged right instead of left.."
"You know most people would be pretty happy to be alive if they were you. And they'd be thrilled to get a paid vacation." Gary picked up his glasses and settled himself behind his desk.
"They patched me up at the closest military hospital. It was nothing but a flesh wound."
"The bullet nicked your femur. I do know how to read a hospital report."
"Go home. Rest up. The world will continue to be full of trouble when you get back." Rob knew Gary was still aggravated by the fact that he didn't compliment him on his photos, which they both knew to be superb. Instead of getting the praise he deserved, he was being sent home like a kid who'd screwed up.
He'd been on the road so much in the past few years that home was usually wherever he stashed his backpack.
If he'd ever had a home, it was in Fremont, Washington, a suburb of Seattle that prided itself on celebrating counterculture, considering itself the center of the universe and officially endorsing the right to be peculiar. Fremont seemed a fitting destination for him right now that he was feeling both self-centered and peculiar. Besides, it was the only place he could think of to go even though everything that had made the place home was now gone.
"All right. But I heal fast. I'll be running six-minute miles in a couple weeks. Tops."
"You'll be under a doctor's care and I'll be needing the physician's report before I can reinstate you for any assignments in the field."
"Oh, come on, Gary. Give me a freakin' break."
Once more the glasses came off and he was regarded by tired hazel eyes. "I am giving you a break. I could assign you to a desk right here in New York. That's your other option."
He shook his head. No way he was being trapped in a small space. He didn't like feeling trapped. Not ever. "See you in a couple of weeks."
Once he was out of Gary's office and in the hallway Rob gave up the manly act and tried to put as little weight on his injured leg as possible.
"Rob, you should be on crutches," a female voice called out.
He turned, recognizing the voice and mustering a happy-to-see-you smile. "Romona, hi."
A print business reporter making the transition to television, Romona had the looks of a South American runway model and the brains of Hillary Clinton. They got together whenever they were both in New York. Neither had any interest in commitment but enjoyed each other's company and bodies. "I heard you were hurt. How are you doing?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Okay."
Even though they'd never do anything as obvious as hug in public, the glance she sent him from tilted green eyes steamed around the edges. She dropped her voice. "Why don't you come over later and I'll kiss you all better?"
"I'm filthy. Haven't shaved in days, had a haircut in weeks, my"
"I like you scruffy. You look like a sunburned pirate."
He knew he'd hit rock bottom when he realized he had no desire to spend the night with a passionate woman. His leg was burning, he had a vicious case of jet lag and he'd been pulled out of the field. He felt too worn-out tired even to get laid. All he wanted to do was hide out for a while and heal.
He shook his head attempting to appear more disappointed than he was. "Sorry. I have a plane to catch."
She knew as well as he did that plane tickets could be changed and it was a measure of his exhaustion that this was the best excuse he could come up with.
She didn't call him on it though, merely patted his arm and said, "Maybe next time."
That was the great thing about Romona. She was a lot like him. He'd enjoyed any number of women over the years, loved sex, but had no interest in settling down. Career came first. Maybe it was shallow, and maybe there was a part of him that longed for a woman to comfort him, to listen to his stories, share his pain. The only woman who'd ever been like that, though, had been his grandmother. Ruefully, he suspected she'd been the love of his life.
And now she was gone.
He had so many frequent flyer miles that upgrading was no problem when he got to LaGuardia. He even scored an aisle seat so he could stretch his bad leg out a little.
Once airborne, he recalled that the family attorney had tried to talk to him about the Fremont house. What with getting shot and all, he hadn't got around to calling back. He'd call him as soon as he got into Seattle.
It was something to do with Bellamy House, the old family place where he'd spent so much time with his grandmother.
He couldn't imagine the place without her. As a stab of pain hit, he took out the paperback he'd brought and forced himself to read.
Hailey Fleming was a woman with an agenda. Two in fact. The electronic one that she relied on so heavily that she'd recently started keeping a backup paper day planner because the thought of somehow losing her electronic schedule made her feel too close to losing her mind for comfort.
She was nothing if not organized.
And both agendas told her that she was exactly on time for the best appointment of the day. An after-work glass of wine with a colleague who'd become a close friend, Julia Atkinson.
As she made her way into the bistro off North Phin-ney Avenue, a former record store turned trendy bar, she scanned the tables and was not surprised to find she was the first to arrive. She was always early.
And Julia was always late.
She settled at a table and ordered a glass of white wine then spent ten minutes going through tomorrow's appointments and writing some notes on improvements she wanted to make on her website.
"Am I late?" a breezy, breathless voice said as Julia swished into her chair, a loose black garment that resembled a combination sweater, poncho and cloak settling in around her.
"Of course you are. You're always late."
Julia's red hair was newly cut into a curly bob and her full lips curved in a smile. "I was at the opening of a new furniture gallery which has brought in several fantastic new lines from Milan. I got chatting, and there were these delicious cookies. I left after three. It was the only way I could stop myself. I don't feel guilty. I bet you did a day's work while you waited."
"Half a day's anyway."
A waiter arrived and Julia ordered a vodka tonic. Which meant she was on another of her diets. Which meant..
"I think I've met someone." She sounded so excited that Hailey leaned forward. "Tell me everything."
Julia unbuttoned the cloak thing and draped it over the back of her chair, revealing a black-and-red dress enlivened by one of the hundreds of chunky, glitzy vintage necklaces she owned.
"He's an engineer who lives downtown. He was married, but his wife left him and broke his heart."
"Wow. That was fast. I just saw you last week. Where did you meet him?"
Julia's drink came and she took a quick sip. "I haven't actually met him yet."
She shrugged, and the slight movement made all the rhinestones in her jewelry glitter under the bar's chandeliers. "I met him on LoveMatch.com."
"Oh. Online dating."
"I'd never tried it before, but lots of women meet great guys online. So I figured, why not? It's not like you meet men if you're a home stager." She thought for a second. "At least not straight men."
"How do you already know so much about him?"
"We've been talking on the phone. He's away on business in the Philippines, but I'll be meeting him next Tuesday." Her eyes were bright with excitement. "Do you want to see a picture?"
Julia hauled her computer tablet out of her bag and within a few moments passed over the electronic device complete with a grinning blond guy. Not Hailey's type at all. Too pretty for her tastes, but Julia liked her men pretty. "Wow."
"My big fear is that he's too good-looking for me. Oh, and he has the cutest accent. He was born in Manchester, but he's lived all over the world. An army brat like you."
Hailey regarded the electronic image once more. He was wearing shorts and a loose cotton shirt. Despite the square jaw, he seemed somehow lacking in character. She'd never say so to her friend. Besides, even she knew that her own taste was notoriously picky.
"He's not too good-looking for you. You are beautiful."
"Do you think I can lose ten pounds by Tuesday?"
"Stop it," Hailey said, trying not to laugh. "He's seen your photo, right? He obviously liked what he saw."
Julia nibbled her lower lip. "I used one from after I took that fitness boot camp last year. When I was thinner."
For a smart, self-confident woman, Julia had body-image issues and Hailey knew there was no point arguing. Instead she went with a reassuring "It will be fine."
"I guess. I just have such terrible luck with men." Julia took a last, longing glance at the picture and then put the tablet away. "How are you?"
Hailey let the excitement she'd been feeling all day bubble out. "I have news, too."
Julia's eyes bugged out. "You met a guy?"
"No. I don't have time for men. I'm building a business. Once I feel more successful, then maybe in a couple of years "
"I know. You and your agendas."
"Lists keep me on track." She sometimes thought she'd had so much chaos in her life that relying on lists gave her a sense of control and stability that she'd never had growing up. Moving twelve times in thirteen years when she was a kid had given her a need for order. Her poor mother had quit even trying to decorate their homes. What was the point? So home had always been temporary and she'd grown to hate the sight of a moving box.
She didn't need psychoanalysis to understand why she'd chosen a career in real estate. She loved helping clients buy permanent homes. The kinds of places where you could plant a sapling and know you'd be around to enjoy the shade of the tree.
"Don't you miss having a man in your life?" Julia lowered her voice. "Don't you miss sex?"
"I have lots of men in my life. Realtors, clients, friends."
One of Julia's eyebrows went up. "And sex?"
"I have sex." Even to her ears she sounded defensive. "Okay, not a lot of sex. It's been a while, but sex for me means commitment. I can't do casual." She shrugged. "Ever since my engagement ended " She'd believed Drake, who was a lawyer, was perfect for her. They'd worked together on a few closings. They were both hard-working and ambitious. It wasn't until they were talking wedding dates that they'd realized how little their agendas meshed. He wanted to move to New York to a bigger firm. She was building a business in Seattle. He wanted children right away. She felt they should wait a couple of years until the marriage had strong roots. A year ago he'd gone to New York without her. Since then she'd thrown herself into work and hadn't missed Drake as much as she would have imagined.
"He was a moron to pick New York over you."
"Thank you. I agree!"