Cathy Thompson's long nails beat an impatient tempo against the formica counter top as she waited.
"Yes, I'll hold," she said and breathed heavily into the telephone receiver. Her deep gray eyes clashed with Linda Ericson's, who sat at the desk, a large newspaper spread over the top.
"Any luck?" Linda whispered.
A voice at the other end of the line interrupted Cathy's response and she straightened, her fingers tightening around the phone. "This is Cathy Thompson again." The inflection of her voice conveyed the irritation. "Would it be possible to speak to Grady Jones?"
"Grady's in the air," a gruff male voice informed her. "Be with you in a minute, Harry." He spoke to someone who was obviously waiting in the office.
"When do you expect him back?" Cathy asked in her most businesslike voice.
A lengthy pause followed, and Cathy could hear the rustle of paper in the background. "Thursday afternoon. Will you hold the line a minute?"
Cathy's sigh was full of exasperation. Cradling the telephone receiver against her shoulder with the side of her head, she pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil. As she looked up she happened to catch a glimpse of the school play yard. The sights and sounds of the last recess of the day drifted in through the open window. Her gray eyes softened as she unconsciously sought Angela Jones. A frown creased her narrow forehead as she discovered the pigtailed first grader leaning against the play shed watching the other girls jump rope. Angela always seemed to be on the outside looking in.
"Do you want to leave a message?" The harried male voice came back on the phone.
"I've already left four," Cathy snapped.
"Listen, all I do is take the message. If Grady doesn't return your call it's not my fault." He hesitated. "Are you the gal from the school again?"
"Yes, I'm the gal from the school again." She echoed his words doing her best to disguise herfrustration.
"All I can tell you is that Grady is flying on assignment. I'll tell him you phoned."
The man wasn't to blame if Grady Jones didn't wish to speak to her, and Cathy's reply was less agitated. "Please do that." Gently she replaced the receiver in its cradle.
"Well?" Linda looked up expectantly.
"No luck. It's the same as before. They'll take a message, but he won't be back until Thursday afternoon."
"What are you going to do?" Linda asked, concern knitting her brow.
Cathy shrugged. "Maybe it's time I personally introduced myself to the elusive Grady Jones. He'll have a hard time not talking to me if I show up at the airfield." Cathy had done her research well. The school information card had been sketchy. The father's occupation listed him as a pilot, employed by Alaska Cargo Company. No business phone number had been given, and when Cathy looked it up in the yellow pages she found a large commercial ad. The fine print at the bottom of the advertisement stated that Grady Jones was the company owner. The information card had stated that Angela had no mother. Cathy had found the comment an interesting one. How could any child not have a mother? It could be that Angela's parents were divorced. What Cathy couldn't understand was how someone as unconcerned and uncaring as Grady Jones could have been awarded custody of the child. Cathy had tried on several occasions to contact him at home, but the only adult she had ever reached was a housekeeper, who promised to give him a message. Cathy had stopped counting the times she'd left messages for him.
"After all the trouble you've gone through, I'd say that's about the only way you're going to get his attention."
"Believe me, I won't have any problem getting his attention. His ears will burn for a week."
" Linda warned, her large brown eyes worried. "Alienated, Angela's father won't help her."
"I know, but I can't help dislike the man."
The bell rang indicating the end of recess. Emitting a soft groan Cathy turned around. "Back to the salt mine." It had been another break wasted trying to contact a parent. Next time she'd pour herself a cup of coffee before making a phone call.
"Don't go yet," Linda called. "I want to read you this personal."
"Linda," Cathy said with a sigh but she knew better than to argue. Her friend would insist she listen anyway. "All right, but be quick about it."
Rustling the paper, Linda sat upright and read. "Sincere gentleman seeking sincere lady for sincere relationship-"
"Only sincere women need apply," Cathy interrupted. "Dull, Linda, dull. If you insist on playing matchmaker, the least you can do is find someone with a little personality."
"Okay, here's another." She glanced up. "Man with large house, large cat, six kids. Cat not enough."
"Six kids." Cathy choked.
"That says a lot," Linda defended. "At least he's honest and forthright. He must like animals."
"That would make Peterkins happy, but unfortunately I'm the one that has to be satisfied. Six kids are out."
The shuffle of feet could be heard above the laughter as the children filed into the school building. The afternoon could no longer be delayed.
Two hours later, Cathy unlocked the door to her rental house on Lacey Street. She had rented a home so that Peterkins, her black cocker spaniel, would have a yard to roam. Steve had given her Peterkins, and he was probably the only good thing she had left of their relationship. In the beginning she had resented the fact Peterkins had been a gift from Steve. Every time she looked at her floppy-eared friend she was reminded of a soured relationship. But Peterkins wasn't to be blamed, and there was far more than a dog to remind her of Steve. It was funny how many of her thoughts he continued to dominate. Yet it was totally, completely over. Steve was a married man. A knot twisted the sensitive muscles of her stomach. He'd been married for five months and six days. Not that she was counting. Bravely she had attended the wedding, had been a member of the wedding party. The maid of honor. Her sister wouldn't hear of anything else.
Exhaling a quivering breath, Cathy turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door. Immediately Peterkins was there, excitedly jumping up and down. When she crouched down to pet him, he fervently lapped her hand with his moist tongue.
"Let me relax a minute, and we'll go for our walk," Cathy told him. Peterkins knew her moods better than anyone, Cathy mused while she changed clothes and sorted through the mail. Peeling an orange, she sat at the small circular table in her kitchen and leaned against the back of the chair.
Memories of Steve again ruled her thoughts. They'd quarreled. It wasn't any major disagreement; she couldn't even recall what it was that had sparked the argument. But something was different this time. Cathy had decided she was tired of always being the one to give in, apologize, change. They had talked about getting married on several occasions. If their relationship was to be a lasting one, Cathy had decided, then Steve must learn to do his share of giving. It would be a good lesson for him to admit he was wrong for once.
She pulled each of the orange segments apart and set them on the napkin, fingering each one. Her appetite was gone, and she scooted the afternoon snack away.
The whole idea of teaching Steve a lesson had been immature and foolish. Cathy realized that now. She gave a short laugh. What a wonderful thing hindsight was.
When Steve began dating her sister, MaryAnne, Cathy had been amused. He wasn't fooling her, she knew exactly what he was doing. She had taken great pride in meeting him at the door when he came to pick up MaryAnne for a date. With a gay smile she had proven she wasn't in the least bit jealous. He could date whom he liked. Twice she had arranged dates at the same time MaryAnne and Steve would be going out so that they would all meet at the apartment she shared with her sister.
The only one who had shown any concern over such foolishness had been their mother.
"Mom." Cathy had strived to brush off Paula Thompson's concern. "MaryAnne and I cut the apron strings when we moved out and got an apartment of our own. From now on you're only supposed to give advice when we ask. Remember?" Her words were a teasing reminder of what their mother had told them when they decided to move in together. Although her mother never mentioned a word again about MaryAnne and Steve, the question was in her eyes.
Six weeks had passed, and still Steve continued to play his game in an attempt to make her jealous. If she hadn't been so stubborn she would have seen what was happening. Twice MaryAnne had come to her.
"You don't mind do you?" The gray eyes so like her own had pleaded. "I'd stop seeing him in a minute if our relationship was hurting you in any way."
Cathy had laughed lightly. "It's over," she said with a flippant air. "It was over a long time ago. There's no need to concern yourself."
Then one night MaryAnne had burst into the apartment and proudly displayed the beautiful diamond engagement ring. Cathy had been shocked. This was carrying things to an extreme. Steve had gone too far. She wasn't going to allow him to use her little sister like this another minute.
The argument when she'd confronted Steve had been loud and bitter. They'd hurled accusations at one another faster and sharper than a machine gun.
All through the preparations for the wedding Cathy had expected Steve to put a halt to things. It was unbelievable that a minor disagreement three months before had been allowed to go this far.
Throughout the time they had prepared for the wedding, MaryAnne had been radiantly happy. A hundred times Cathy had to bite her tongue to keep from saying. "Listen, sis, I'm not completely sure Steve loves you. He loves me, I know he does." Maybe she should have said it. The message was in her eyes, her mother read it the morning of the wedding. Steve saw it as she marched up the aisle preceding her sister. It was there when the minister pronounced Steve and MaryAnne man and wife.
The memory of those words seemed to echo assaulting her from all sides. Urgently, Cathy stood and pushed her chair to the table. She needed to get out, away from the memories, the hurt.
"Bring me the leash, Peterkins," she said to her dog, who promptly stepped into the bedroom and pulled the rhinestone-studded strap off the chair. Cathy paused, fingering the red leather. The leash had been another gift from Steve. Would he continue to haunt her the rest of her life? Would it always be like this?
For two months after the wedding Cathy had walked around in a haze of pain and disillusionment. This couldn't be happening to her. This wasn't real. It became almost impossible to hide her emotions from her family. She had to get away, to the ends of the earth. Alaska. The opportunity to work as a basic skills instructor had come as a surprise. Her application had been submitted months before. She had never intended to accept the job even if it was offered to her. She had done it to tease Steve, telling him if he didn't proclaim his undying love she'd abandon him for parts unknown. Willingly, Steve had obliged. When she hadn't heard from the school district, Cathy was relieved. It had been a fluke, a joke. Now it was her salvation, a lifeline to sanity.
No one had understood her reasons for going-except her mother, and perhaps Steve. With a sense of urgency she had gone about building a new life for herself. Forming friendships, reaching out. It was only in the area of men that she withdrew, held back. Eventually that reserve would abate. A soft smile curved up the edges of her lips. Linda and those crazy personal ads she was always reading to her. If her friend had anything to do with it, Cathy would be married by Christmas.
She dressed carefully Thursday morning, the meeting with Grady Jones weighing her decision as she chose a dark blue gabardine business suit. The line of the suit accentuated the slender curves of her lithe form. Cathy was nearly five eleven in her heels and secretly hoped to meet the man at eye level. She did with most men. Not once had she regretted the fact she was tall. In most cases height was an advantage. Steve was tall. Her hands knotted at her side as her resolve tightened. It was ridiculous the way her mind would bring him to the forefront of her consciousness. It had to stop, and it had to stop immediately. She needed to start dating again, meet other men. She'd do it. The troubled thoughts that had continually plagued her were all the convincing she needed. She'd answer one of those crazy ads Linda was always telling her about.
"Be a good dog, Peterkins." She ruffled his ears playfully. "You do like cats, don't you? What about six kids?" The large brown eyes looked up at her quizzically, and Cathy laughed. "Never mind."
Dawn was breaking as she parked her Honda in the school parking lot. Gracefully she slid across the upholstered seat and climbed out the passenger side. As soon as she was paid she was going to get that other door fixed. She paused to watch the sun's golden orb break out across the pink horizon. There was a magical quality to an Alaskan sky that stirred something within her. The sky was bluer than blue, the air fresher, cleaner. Even the landscape that appeared dingy and barren held a fascination for Cathy. She hadn't expected to like Alaska but found herself mesmerized with its openness, enthralled with its beauty.
"Whew-yee." Linda whistled as she walked into the teachers' lounge. "You look fit to kill."
"I may have to," Cathy replied flippantly as she poured herself a mug of coffee. "But that man's going to listen to me if I have to hogtie him."
"Hogtie him?" Linda repeated with a laugh. "Is that a little Kansas humor?"
Pulling out a chair, Cathy sat beside her friend. "It could be, but by the time I finish with Grady Jones he won't be laughing."
"With that look in your eye, I almost pity the poor man."
Her long, tapered fingers cupped the coffee mug as she glanced at the paper Linda had placed beside her purse. "Without meaning to change the subject, but are there any new ads today?"
"New ads. You actually want to look at the personals? As I live and breathe
The rest of what she was going to say faded away as she took the paper and opened it on top of the table so they could both read through the columns. Several of the listings were almost identical with lengthy descriptions of their likes and wants. It was a small ad at the bottom of the page that captured Cathy's attention. It read "Red Baron seeks lady to soar to heights unknown." It gave a post office box number for the response.
"This one looks interesting." Cathy pointed it out to Linda.