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There was wilderness everywhere she looked. For all intents and purposes, civilization had vanished since she'd left Anchorage.
Nothing's changed. Except for me.
After all this time, it seemed odd to return to a place she'd sworn she'd never set foot in again. A place that she had spent the first eighteen years of her life dreaming about leaving. And when she finally had, there'd been tears. Tears that had nothing to do with anticipated nostalgia.
They were the kind of tears generated by a broken heart.
In a way, it was a little like trying on an old sweater you knew you no longer wanted. Even so, the familiar feel of it against your skin evoked bittersweet memories you were heretofore certain you had either forgotten or at least successfully blocked out of your mind.
She didn't want to remember.
But wasn't that why she was coming back? Because she remembered?
Irena Yovich stared out the window, watching Hades, Alaska, growing from a speck to a 500-citizen town as one of the several "taxiplanes" owned by Kevin Quintano and his wife, June, drew closer.
The young woman piloting the small passenger plane was June Yearling, the best damn mechanic for two hundred miles the year that Irene had left Hades for Seattle and college. Everyone in Hades knew that if it had an engine, June could fix it. And now, according to what June was saying on this hundred-mile run from Anchorage to Hades, she was not only a successful businesswoman but she was a wife and a mother of two, to be expanded to three in the not-too-distant future.
June had been her best friend once. She'd been one of the very few who hadn't gone behind her back to betray her. Possibly the only one, Irenathought with a trace of cynicism born in the wake of her rude awakening ten years ago.
"But when I heard you needed a ride from the airport, I told Kevin there was no way anyone else but me was flying the plane to bring you to Hades. He likes to give me a hard time because he doesn't think a woman in my condition should be piloting a plane, but I got him to give in." June ended with a gleeful, triumphant laugh. Her voice swelled with affection as she added, "Kevin's really a good guy."
Undoubtedly the last of a dying, if not dead, breed, Irena thought.
Since, as far as she could see, her friend wasn't showing and, more to the point, when June had thrown her arms around her and hugged her, June's stomach hadn't made contact first, she couldn't help asking, "Just how far along are you?"
"Only three months," June tossed over her shoulder, then added, in a somewhat quieter voice, "and four weeks."
Irena felt just the slightest bit of a smile touch her lips. June always had a way of twisting things in her favor. "Unless my math's totally off, that's actually four months."
June sighed dramatically. "I know, I know, but I just had to see if it was you or someone else with the same name."
Irena laughed out loud for the first time since she had gotten her grandfather's phone call yesterday morning, telling her that Ryan Hayes was dead by his own hand. Thanks to June, some of the tension drained from her.
"And just how many Irena Yoviches could there be?" she asked her old friend.
She saw June's shoulders rise and fall beneath her fur-lined parka. "In Alaska, maybe not all that many, but in Russia, who knows? There's no telling, but one of them might have wanted to check out a place that was named after hell and is frozen over for six months out of the year, cut off from the rest of the world except for our little passenger service. And the doctors' planes, of course. Did I tell you that April's married to a doctor?" June said, referring to her older sister. "Jimmy's Kevin's younger brother," she added quickly. "He came to Hades to visit their sister Alison. She's a nurse here and married to Jean Luc. Max married their sister Lily. They met when she came up here to visit, too. Come for a visit and stay forever. We're thinking of making it a city motto," June teased.
God, the people in Hades certainly had been busy, getting married and having lives, Irena thought. It made her feel out of sync, even though she knew that when it came to a successful career, she undoubtedly had them all beat. But as of late, her career hadn't been nearly the comfort it had been at first.
"Well, it's me," she said to June. "Does that make it worth the white lie you told your husband when you bent the truth?"
"Oh, Kevin's pretty good at math," June assured her. "Among other things."
Irena's view of June was restricted to the back of the latter's blond head; but by the sound of it, there was a satisfied, mischievous smile on June's lips.
"Good for you," Irena said, genuinely happy for the way her friend's life had turned out.
"So, how about you?" June pressed. "Are you married or anything yet?"
Ah, the question her mother managed to work into the conversation every time she called, Irena thought.
"No, I'm not 'married or anything yet.' And before you ask, there's nobody special at the moment."
She'd thrown in the last three words as camouflage. Despite the fact that she'd actually been engaged for a while a few years agoa mistake from the moment she'd said "yes"there hadn't been anyone really special in her life. Not since Ryan. Even that had turned out to be a lie. Ryan had never been the person she'd thought he was.
No, she upbraided herself sternly. He'd turned out to be exactly the person she'd thought he was. She'd just believed he'd changed for her. God, how could she have been so naive? From the moment he'd hit puberty, Ryan Hayes had been the Hades resident "bad boy," so good-looking that it'd been impossible for any female with a pulse to look at him without feeling instant infatuation.
In a state where there were seven men for every woman, Ryan Hayes had far more than his share of adoring females available to him. Tall, dark, with incredible green eyes and a look that made hearts pound wildly, he had been as faithful as a honeybee in the middle of spring, flying from one willing flower to the next. But for a whilethree years to be exactshe'd believed Ryan when he had sworn that he was being faithful to her.
She'd believed him when he'd promised to go away with her to college. She remembered how proud of herself she'd been. Ryan was two years older than she was, and he'd had no intentions of furthering his education. She actually thought she'd talked him into it.
She'd believed him when he told her that he'd been accepted by the same university that she had. Believed him even though he remained evasive whenever she asked to see his acceptance letter.
What an idiot she'd been. But she'd wanted to believe in himin themso much that, in hindsight, she'd stubbornly overlooked so many of the telltale signs. She'd thought that others, envious of Ryan's looks and his money, were telling lies about him in an effort to break them up.
She went right on believing that they were destined for a fairy tale life and that everything was going to work out for the best. Until the night she walked in on him and Trisha Brooks without a stitch of clothing between them, obviously consumed with the intent to create their own fire.
As she ran out, she could almost literally feel her heart breaking within her chest. Stunned, she wasn't sure which of them she'd been angrier withTrisha who had always maintained that she was one of her closest friends or Ryan, to whom she'd given her heart and her soul as well as her body.
In the end, she forgave Trisha because she knew firsthand how persuasive Ryan could be, how just being around him could make a woman forsake her common sense. But she refused to forgive Ryan. She finally admitted that she had been deluding herself all that time about their future together. There was no future. Coming to grips with that had hurt like hell, because, even though she'd initially tried to resist, she'd wound up loving him with all her heart.
And she still loved him. An ache filtered all through her. Despite her ambitions, her goal to become a topflight criminal lawyer, her young world had revolved around Ryan. He was the center of everything for her.
Once she realized that he didn't love her the way she loved him, her sense of loss was almost overwhelming. In the days that followed her discovery, she went into a tailspin, simultaneously numb and in agony. A sense of indifference came over her, holding her prisoner. She was going to give it all upher ambitions, her dreams of being a lawyer, college, everything. Not to remain with Ryan, she knew there was no way that was going to happen, but because she'd lost her drive, her spark, her very focus.
It was her grandfather, Yuri, who sat down with her and slowly, patiently, talked her back to the land of the living. And it was Yuri who, filled with pride and together with her mother, came to see her graduate with top honors three years later. And again three years after that when she graduated from law school.
She'd fast-tracked her studies for both her undergraduate and her law degree. She deliberately excluded everything and anything that didn't have to do with her studies. For six years, she didn't have a personal life outside of those times when her grandfather and her mother came to visit her. It was the only way she could get over Ryan.
After law school, she'd gone to work at one of the most prestigious law firms in Seattle, Farley & Roberson. When her mother, Wanda, realized that she was never coming back to Hades, she had moved down to Seattle to be with her. Shortly after her move, Wanda, having lost her husband to a mining accident more than twenty years ago, met someone. A year later, she was Mrs. Jon Alexander and happy beyond belief.
Irena supposed that, in an indirect way, she had Ryan to thank for her mother's happiness. Wanda Yovich would have never moved to Seattle and wound up being Wanda Alexander if she hadn't told her mother she was never coming back to Hades. Because of Ryan.
Irena leaned her forehead against the window, looking at the desolate land.
Funny how "never" wound up having a finite life span. But she knew in her heart once she received her grandfather's phone call telling her that Ryan Hayes had been found dead by his younger brother, Brody, when he'd come home two nights ago, that she was going back to Hades. There was no way she could stay away.
Ten years ago, after her grandfather's pep talk, she'd come to terms with the fact that she and Ryan would never be married, that the very concept of their marriage would have been a disaster waiting to happen. But she had to admit she felt absolutely awful as she tried to imagine a world without him.
Even now, as she waited for June to finally land the small passenger plane, Irena could feel her eyes beginning to sting once more as the impact of the loss struck her again.
Get angry, idiot. In the end, he treated you like dirt. You know that. He's not worth your tears.
But it wasn't in her to be angrynot anymore. Time and distance had allowed her to view the past in a calmer frame of mind. She wasn't that heartbroken eighteen-year-old. She was twenty-eight and, having dealt with a larger cross-section of humanity in Seattle than she ever could have if she'd remained in Hades, she viewed things differently now. She could see why Ryan had been the way he had, at least in part.
When it came to the reasons for Ryan's wanton, misguided behavior, there was an incredible amount of blame to lay at more than just one doorstep. For starters, nothing was expected of him. Born to wealth, he had none of the pressures that the average person in Hades was faced with. Ryan didn't have to hustle, didn't have to try to help support his family, or even himself for that matter. Life didn't present him with any challenges, other than seeing just how many women he could bed.
In addition, he had no immediate role models to turn to. Certainly not his father. Eric Hayes had moved to Alaska, specifically to Hades, with his two young sons when he'd lost his wife in a freak boating accident. At the time, Hades was as far away from humanity as he could go without literally moving into a cave.
Some people said that the reason for his downward spiral was because he couldn't live with the guilt of knowing that he might have been able to save his wife from a watery grave but had been too involved in saving himself to notice that she had fallen overboard, as well. The only way Eric could find to get even temporary respite from the inner pain was to anesthetize himself with alcohol. As time passed, it took more and more to achieve numbness.
He passed that lesson on to his older son. Ryan had once boasted to her that he'd had his first drink, served to him by his father, when he was nine. At the time, not wanting to be judgmental, she'd told herself that it was just Ryan's way. That he could walk away from drinking any time he wanted to. The problem was that he didn't want to.
But she was so blindly in love with him, so certain that he loved her back until that fateful evening. In the months that followed, she'd often wondered if Ryan wanted her to discover him with Trisha. He knew her penchant for turning up early. Did he thrive on the wild rush of getting away with it, or had he wanted to show her that he wanted to move on? He had to have known that finding him like that would devastate her. And he had still done it.
He'd been a piece of work, all right, Irena thought now, trying desperately to shut away the memories. A piece of work and she was an absolute fool for having loved him as much as she had.
And for still having feelings for him.
"Wait until you see Hades." June suddenly spoke up, trying to fill the silence that seemed louder than the plane's small engine.
June anticipated Irena's reaction to the town she hadn't seen in the last ten years as she began the plane's slow descent.