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Someone needed to invent a new word, Emily decided as she stared out the window, glaring really, at the three-foot-long icicles hanging from the eaves. Cold just didn't cut it. Cold was "don't forget your jacket because a chilly wind is picking up." Cold was that bite in the air that made you wish you were wearing jeans instead of a skirt. This place was so far beyond cold that not even freezing, frigid or icy could do it justice. Chilly, nippy, cool- what a joke.
She'd read one time that Alaskan Natives have numerous words for different types of snow, so maybe they could just borrow one of those. Whichever one referred to the eyelash-freezing, nostril-frosting, step-outside-at-your-own-risk-because-you-may-die-of-hypothermia type would be perfect. Although to be fair, Emily wasn't actually cold now. Nope. In fact, she was currently sweating like a flyweight boxer in the middle of the tenth round.
It was approximately ten degrees below zero outside, and in between appointments she was running around in bare feet and a thin skirt and tank top. Because, like every other piece of equipment in this run-down, antiquated, tin shack that was currently serving as her office, the thermostat was on the fritz.
To make matters worse, a skull-splitting headache had begun to form directly behind her eyes and the pressure was now so intense. She tipped her chin down and pressed the heels of both palms hard against her eye sockets for several seconds.
She removed her hands and spotted the pills that her assistant, Amanda, had dropped off at her desk earlier. She scooped them up, peered at the tiny yellow tablets nestled in her clammy palm and wavered for a few seconds. Normally she didn't like to take medication of any kind, but Amanda had insisted that these would knock her headache clear to Skagway, wherever that was. She had no clue. With a grimace, she tossed the pills into her mouth and gulped them down with what was left of the tepid water in the now-soggy paper cup Amanda had deposited along with the pills.
Just then Amanda's voice came on the intercom along with a healthy dose of static.
What Emily heard was "Misst ollinsss, your nexx ssex appointment issst ere."
She reached down and hit the call button only to be met with a loud, static-filled shriek. "Amanda?" She pounded on the speaker and fiddled with the buttons. She leaned over and shouted her name again. "Amanda!"
"Hey," Amanda said, poking her head into the office. "Did you get that?"
Emily nodded and smacked the now-buzzing intercom, which was already dented on the top from, she assumed, the last frustrated owner who had finally had enough and heaved it against the wall. The faded drywall opposite her desk had a conspicuous indentation that appeared to exactly match its dimensions.
Emily answered, "My afternoon trick has arrived?"
Amanda cocked her head, amusement splitting her lips into a wide grin. "What?" Amanda enjoyed Emily's hilarious impromptu interpretations of the static-prone intercom.
"My next sex appointment is here?"
"Exactly," Amanda confirmed with a smile. "Do you need any help getting ready?" This induced a full-blown bout of laughter.
She stepped into the room and shut the door behind her.
Emily attempted to grin as she yanked some tissues out of the box on her desktop. She wiped her brow and then mopped at her cleavage. She pulled her suit jacket on over her clammy shoulders. "Yes," she said, adjusting her lapels and straightening her shirt, "but it's becoming increasingly clear that I need help of the kind that only a skilled mental-health professional can provide. But for now, could you please see if you can get something even remotely resembling a copy out of that. .that machine in the corner? I can't get it to do anything but light up like a Christmas tree, and I didn't make enough copies of the report, although how I was to know that every local yokel from the neighborhood barbershop, Laundromat, karaoke bar and pool hall was going to come straggling in and ask for a copy of it is beyond me. I swear I've never seen anything like this town in my entire life "
She continued muttering as she turned toward the vintage-looking behemoth that was supposed to be acting as her computer and began banging on the keys. An error message, approximately the seventy-eighth one of the day, flashed across the screen. She exclaimed loudly.
Amanda threw a startled look her way. "You okay, Em?" She walked over and hit the escape key, then rapidly tapped several keyboard commands, causing the screen to dutifully display the document Emily had been seeking. Emily then watched, amazed, as Amanda turned toward the copy machine and effortlessly print out page after page of the requested proposal and then began to efficiently staple the crisp pages together. Emily had also tried to use that implement earlier and would have sworn it was out of staples.
Amanda, in direct opposition to Emily, was already in love with their "Alaskan adventure," as she'd fondly dubbed their pseudo-exile to these iceencrusted ends of the earth.
"Yes, I'm fine, Amanda." Emily tentatively pressed a couple buttons on the keyboard and watched as the screen went black again- and then promptly remained that way. She thumped loudly on the side of the computer and this time added a colorful string of frustrated protestations.
"Moose what?" Amanda asked with a bark of laughter.
"Nuggets," she repeated in a tired voice. "Moose nuggets."
"Wow. Nice," Amanda said.
"Thank you. At least I've managed to pick up some of the local vernacular. It's charming, isn't it? How long has he been waiting?" She gestured toward the door, where she knew yet another irate citizen was waiting to verbally abuse her.
"Only a few minutes, and he knows he's early."
"Good." Emily looked down at the papers in front of her and could not for the life of her remember what she'd just been looking for. "What am I doing? It's so hot in here. And this headache " She began absently patting at her desk hoping to somehow solve the mystery.
"Emily?" Amanda said.
Emily looked up. "What? Oh. This Mr. Bearing is another business owner, right?" she asked.
"Um, yes, but actually, it's Mr. James."
Emily's face twisted with confusion.
"James," Amanda repeated. "Your appointment is with Mr. James."
"What do you mean James?" Emily looked down at her planner and back up again. "I have Bearing written down here. He runs a guide and outfitter service?"
Amanda nodded. "Yes," she said. "That's right, but his last name is James. His first name is Bering-Bering James."
"Oh, my-" Emily said with a groan as she reached over and whacked the intercom, which had started buzzing again. "You're kidding me. Where do these people get these names for their children anyway? Already today we've had a Grizzly, a Rock, a Scooter and a Bean. And now Bearing? What in the world kind of a name is Bearing? Where does one come up with a name like Bearing, I wonder? Like, ooh, watch out, there's an iceberg bearing down on us." Emily gestured wildly and continued with her rant. "His mother is probably one of those iceberg-crusher boat captains, or whatever they call those barges that break through the ice. Ha! Yeah, and she probably wears an eye patch and curses like a sailor."
Amanda arched her brows in surprise at Emily's emotional, and very uncharacteristic, outburst. "Actually, Em, it's B-e-r-i-n-g, Bering, like the sea."
"Bering, like the seeaaa, he-he-he." Emily repeated the words with a weird, mental-patient kind of cackle. She scowled at the now-fizzling intercom and then turned around and tugged the cord out of the wall.
"Um, Em, are you sure you're okay? And you should know that Mr. James is a very influential figure here in Rankins."
"Pfft " Emily spit out the noise and took a swipe at her desk. "I'm not scared."
Amanda chuckled. "I know you're not scared, but you don't seem to be completely on your game here, either."
Emily shrugged and made a face.
"Seriously, why don't you let me reschedule this one? You, uh, you don't look very good."
"Who cares? These people don't exactly stand on ceremony, in case you haven't noticed."
"No, I mean you don't look well. You look ill, actually. Like you could pass for Mor-ticia's little blonde sister. Your skin is as white as that snow falling out there." She pointed out the window.
"Hmm. Well, pale is the new tan. Did you know that? I just read that the other day. People are embracing their natural skin tone these days."
"I'm serious, Amanda. That's a quote. And personally, I think it's great. This skin-cancer thing has nearly reached epidemic proportions. I'm in style without even trying." She pointed at her face and smiled happily.
Amanda looked dubious but said, "Okay, sure, you've convinced me-pale is in vogue. But what I'm saying is that maybe you and your fabulous vampirelike complexion should go home and get some rest."
"Home? Home," she repeated. "Oh, I'd love to go home, Amanda. And I'm not talking about that igloo that we are currently camped out in. Nope, I'm talking about my brand-new town house back in San Diego that I've slept a total of, what, six nights in? But then again, there's nothing really there for me, either, is there?"
"Emily, I "
Emily inhaled a deep breath and then let it out slowly. "I don't expect you to answer that. And no, I don't want to re-skoodlef she slurred. "I mean re-sched-ule," she enunciated carefully. "Just send him in so I can get it over with."
"O-kay, I'm going to tell him to come on in, and then I'm running down to the café to get some coffee. Do you want some?"
"Coffee? Gads, no, I'm burning up. How about an iced tea? No, no, make that a slushy-you know those kinds you can get from those machines in the mini-marts? I like blue raspberry." She grinned goofily up at Amanda and then frowned down at the floor as she wiggled her sticky feet into her expensive beige pumps. She shuffled through the messy stack of papers on her desk, looking for the report that she'd had Amanda copy only moments before. The papers swam before her eyes and she blinked hard to clear her vision.
She pinched her fingers over the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes for what she thought was just a few seconds. But when she opened them there was a very large man standing very quietly in front of her desk. He was tall and so broad-shouldered that Emily took a second to wonder how he'd managed to fit through the doorway. His dark brown hair curled on his forehead and around his ears. He had a sprinkling of stubble on his strong square jaw, and Emily stared up into his brown eyes just long enough for an awkward moment to coalesce. He cleared his throat, which finally prompted her to rise clumsily to her feet and extend a sweaty hand. She tried inconspicuously to blot her palm on her skirt before offering it again.
She swallowed, or tried to anyway, because
What in the world was wrong with her tongue? It felt absolutely enormous in her mouth, which had suddenly gone dry.
"I, uh, hello, Mr. James? I'm Emily Hollings. It's a pleasure to meet you. Uh, have a seat."
He nodded and smiled a stiff greeting that didn't even come close to dampening the intensity shooting from his eyes. His handshake was firm but quick. He lowered himself into the chair directly across from her, leaned back, folded his arms over his chest and then didn't utter a single word.
Oh, great, another hostile, Emily thought dejectedly. She didn't know if she had the strength for yet another confrontation. Ever since she'd arrived in Rankins, she'd been met with fierce resistance and resentment from the local community. In spite of the huge opportunity for economic growth that Cam-Field was offering this little town, a vocal and powerful coalition of the local population appeared to be staunchly opposed to the development of the oil and gas deposits hidden beneath the waters offshore. She'd fought some tough battles during her years with Cam-Field, but she had a feeling this one was shaping up to be one of the most contentious. And normally she would relish the challenge, but right now she just wanted to get through this meeting.
She stiffened her spine and said, "Okay, then, Mr. Buh, er, James, let's just jump right in here, shall we? I'm assuming that you are going to want a copy of the economic projections as well as a summation of the estimated environmental impact of the potential oil extraction and pipeline infrastructure-"
"You're assuming wrong, then, Ms. Hollings," he interrupted smoothly. "We both know that that report is completely disingenuous."
"Excuse me?" Emily replied, trying to sound surprised, even though she knew very well where the conversation was now headed- due south. Come to think of it, that was where she should be-south, way down south, all the way to Mexico. Warm sun, white sand, cold, fruity drinks-now, that was where ice really belonged, in a blender with fruits and juices .
"You heard me," he said. "That report is dishonest, deceitful and embellished. It means nothing to me and to the rest of the community, for that matter."
Emily furrowed her brow as if thinking hard about what he'd said. In reality she was stalling, trying to gather her thoughts and her argument-Cam-Field's argument-together for the development of this little Alaskan village. But for some strange reason, she was finding it rather difficult. Emily excelled at her job as vice president of North American operations, and this was her element, normally anyway. And she should have had this presentation memorized by now. But. And why was it that she couldn't seem to keep a thought in her head?
She attempted another swallow, but there was now a large lump in her throat, a perfect match to her oversize tongue. Amanda was right; she didn't feel good. She probably should go home and and get these clothes off. Yes, definitely! She would feel so much better if she could just cool off. She was literally burning up .
Mr. James shifted in his seat, reminding her that in order to do that she first needed to deal with this combative man perched in front of her.
"Um .what?" she asked.
Bering leaned forward and placed his forearms on his knees. The movement seemed to bring him about ten feet closer but Emily resisted the urge to scoot back in her chair. What was that old saying about never letting them see you sweat? Well, that might not be literally possible for her at this moment, but she certainly wasn't going to act intimidated. She steeled herself and tried to concentrate on the subject at hand.
"That report is gibberish-it's bogus, crap, bunk. It's not worth the paper it's printed on. I take that back-Tess down at the Cozy Caribou is making targets for the dartboards out of them, so I guess they're worth, what?" He answered his own question with a careless shrug. "About two cents a sheet."
"Is that why everyone and their uncle, or some other shoestring relation, has come into my office over the last week requesting a copy?" Emily countered smoothly, relieved that she'd managed such a snappy retort.