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AS THE plane broke through the clouds blanketing Anchorage in a gray shroud, Shannon Hayes strained to catch a glimpse of Alaska's largest city through the plane's scratched window. A dark murky wall of mountains loomed close to the city, their peaks lost in the cloud cover. Below there was a scattering of homes and an interweaving of roads. In the distance a few tall buildings rose to identify the city center, their rectangular gray shapes disappearing into the sky's low ceiling.
Brief surprise registered at the smallness of the city; she had been expecting a bustling metropolis, perhaps a scaled-down version of Houston, Texas, her own hometown. The thought didn't last long--it was almost instantly overpowered by the excitement of seeing her destination at last.
Shannon's brown eyes were shining as she leaned back in her seat. A smile hovered at the corners of her mouth in anticipation of the joy she would find at journey's end. She touched the engagement ring on her left hand, rubbing the surface of the square-cut diamond as if it were a talisman. The gray gloom outside the aircraft's window could not dampen her eagerness.
There was the thud of the wheels on the airport runway, followed within seconds by the reversing thrust of the jet engines to slow the craft down. It had the opposite effect on her pulse, which picked up tempo to beat faster. She ran exploring fingers over the dark chestnut length of her hair, seeking any strand that might have strayed out of place and finding none. Not twenty minutes before she had brushed fullness into its windblown style and freshened her makeup. Shannon wanted to look her best when Rick met his"dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty"--his descriptive phrase for her.
It had been long and lonely months since she'd seen Rick. She could remember the tears she'd shed at the airport the day he left for Alaska, the promises they'd made to each other and the desperate quality that had marked their kisses. The letters and the phone calls from Rick had been few and far between, incapable of filling the emptiness that came with their separation.
Rick had promised that the minute he had a secure job and a place for them to live he'd send for her. Neither had anticipated it would take so long. The last letter Shannon had received from him had come more than a month ago, the end of July. She'd heard nothing more from him until the envelope arrived on the first of September. It had contained a one-way ticket to Anchorage and nothing more--no letter, no note--but the message was loud and clear: Rick wanted her with him. The niggling fear that he might have stopped loving her was banished, and Shannon was on her way to his arms.
It had taken her a week to make the arrangements to move and pack all her belongings--some to take with her and the rest to be shipped. Her parents would be flying in on the coming weekend for the wedding. They were convinced she and Rick were both crazy for leaving the warm Gulf Coast of Texas to make a home in the frigid climate of Alaska. But Shannon understood Rick's thirst for adventure and his desire to participate in the development of America's last frontier. To a certain extent she shared his feelings, but she was realistic enough to know it wouldn't be paradise.
Although her parents had done everything they could to discourage the move, they wisely didn't object. At twenty-three, Shannon hardly needed their consent to marry. She had been engaged to Rick for more than a year now, so marriage wasn't something she was rushing into blindly.
She was only seconds away from being reunited with her fiancé as the plane taxied to the terminal building. When the seat belt sign flashed off, Shannon gathered her overnight case from beneath the seat in front of her and collected the blue wool parka from the overhead bin, then joined the queue of disembarking passengers.
Despite the burden of her shoulder bag, the overnight case and the heavy coat, her steps were light and quick as she left the plane via the airliner tunnel. She scanned the small crowd waiting in the gate area, looking for Rick's tall lanky frame and that familiar shock of sandy blond hair. She was oblivious to the interested and admiring glances she received as she skipped over the faces of strangers in search of Rick.
When she didn't immediately see him, her steps slowed. She was accidentally jostled from behind by a fellow passenger and moved out of the mainstream to look around the gate area again for Rick. The brown radiance that had lighted her eyes now held a glitter of confusion. He was nowhere in sight.
Shannon lingered in the corridor outside the arrival gate until all the passengers were off the plane and had either been met or continued to the baggage-claim section of the terminal. But Rick never came.
She had sent a telegram advising him of her arrival time. What could have gone wrong? She moved to follow the other passengers to the baggage area and claim her luggage. The thought occurred to her that Rick might be waiting for her there, and her steps quickened.
But he wasn't there, either. Or parked outside in the loading zone. Surrounded by the three-piece luggage set, Shannon stood beneath the terminal overhang and stared through the drizzle at the grayness cast over everything by the clouds.
Trying not to worry over his failure to meet her, she found excuses to explain why he wasn't there. Maybe he was working and unable to take time off to meet her; but he could have left a message for her. That left only two alternatives: either there had been an error in the telegram she'd sent, listing the wrong time of arrival, or he hadn't received it. But Rick was expecting her. He had sent for her.
With a determined thrust to her chin, Shannon decided on a plan of action. There was obviously a mix-up somewhere, so there was no point in waiting at the airport any longer. She motioned to a waiting taxicab. The driver stepped out, running an appreciative glance over her while maintaining a respectful attitude. He wasn't much older than Shannon, dressed in a pale blue Windbreaker, its collar turned up against the drizzle.
"Sorry." He smiled at her. "I saw you standing there, but I thought you were waiting for someone."
"I was, but ... he was obviously detained and couldn't come to pick me up." She voiced the excuse she had been making over and over in her head.
"Something probably came up at the last minute," the young cabdriver suggested.
Hearing someone else say the same thing she had been thinking reassured her that it was probably the truth. While he began loading her luggage into the trunk, Shannon slid into the rear seat of the taxi and opened her shoulder purse to look for Rick's last letter with his Anchorage address.
The driver climbed behind the wheel and half turned to glance at her. "Where to, miss?"
"Northern Lights Boulevard," Shannon replied, certain of the street. Then she found the letter and gave him the address of Rick's apartment, their future home together.
As they drove away from the terminal building and the row of commercial hangars, the young man glanced into the rearview mirror at Shannon's reflection. "Is this your first trip to Alaska?"
"Yes." Her gaze strayed out the window, her concern for Rick's absence lessening to the point where she could take in her new surroundings. "It's much greener than I expected." She observed the house lawns and the grassy verges of the road. The blue wool parka was heavy on her lap. The cable-knit pullover sweater she was wearing over her lavender silk blouse provided more than enough warmth. "And warmer than I expected it to be in September."
"You had visions of an ice-encrusted city, didn't you?" the driver chuckled softly.
"Well--" her laugh was low and slightly self-condemning "--I don't think I'm going to need the long underwear in my suitcase for a while." Her smile deepened at the sight of flowers blooming in house gardens.
"The climate here isn't as inhospitable as some people on the outside think. As a matter of fact, Anchorage weather can be quite agreeable, although it is colder in the interior around Fairbanks," he admitted.
"Are you from here?" she wondered aloud, since he spoke so knowledgeably.
"I'm a native Alaskan. I was born here." There was pride in the admission, a pride that was quickly tempered with humor. "Three years ago I went down to the lower forty-eight to visit some relatives in California, but I came back--which shows you how stupid I am."
Shannon laughed, as she was supposed to do. His friendliness was natural, not due solely to her being an attractive woman. "I doubt that."
"It's late in the season for tourists. Are you visiting? Or are you planning to move here?"
"Yes, I'll be settling here." It was a decisive answer.
"Do you have people here? Friends?" the driver asked curiously.
"My fiancé," Shannon replied, and glimpsed the disappointment that flickered across the man's reflection in the rearview mirror.
"I see," he murmured as he turned off the thoroughfare onto a main cross street. "What does he do?"
"He's a pilot," she explained.
"Who isn't around here?" The young man laughed shortly. "Sometimes I think there are more planes than cars. Flying is the only way to reach some of the remote regions of Alaska. Does he work for one of the major airlines?"
"No." Once that had been Rick's ambition--until he'd heard stories about the Alaskan bush pilots. After that he considered flying commercial airliners to be a tamely routine operation. "He has a job with a private charter service."
"That's good. Year-round jobs aren't that easy to come by in Alaska, regardless of the propaganda you hear."
He slowed the taxi and stopped in front of a nondescript two-story building painted beige. "This is it." He gestured toward the apartment block to indicate they had reached her destination. When Shannon paid him the fare, he pocketed it and said, "I'll carry your luggage inside for you."
Leaving the cab, she walked to the central entrance and opened the door. Rick's apartment number was on the door opposite the one marked Manager. Although she didn't expect Rick to be home, she knocked on his door anyway on the off chance he could be. There was no immediate answer. Hoping the manager would let her into the apartment to wait for Rick, Shannon turned away just as the door opened a crack.
She swung swiftly around to face the door again, a smile of happy surprise lighting her expression--only to be wiped away by the sight of the whiskered man peering out the door. A rough-looking character in his late forties, he gave her a bleary-eyed stare, raking her up and down.
"Whatever you're selling, lady, I'm not buying," he declared gruffly, and shut the door.
The cabdriver entered with her luggage as Shannon recovered from her shock at seeing a total stranger in Rick's apartment. There was probably a logical explanation for his presence. Maybe Rick was sharing the apartment to keep down the cost.
She knocked again. This time the door was jerked open and the stoop-shouldered man blocked the way.
"Look, lady," he said with ill-patience, "I work nights. I don't like being woke up in the middle of the afternoon, so why don't you knock on somebody else's door."
"I'm looking for Rick Farris," she rushed, because she had the feeling he was going to slam the door on her again.
"Never heard of him." The door started to close.
"But this is his apartment," Shannon protested with a frown.
"Lady, I don't know what your game is." He eyed her with exasperation. "But this is my apartment. The name is Jack Morrow, and there is nobody living here but me."
"There must be some mistake." Her frown deepened as she began rummaging through her purse for Rick's letter.
"If there is a mistake, you are the one who made it," he retorted unkindly, then softened sufficiently to suggest, "Check with the manager. Maybe the guy you're looking for lives in one of the other apartments. Ask him and let me get some sleep."
The door had already closed by the time Shannon had found the letter in her shoulder bag. She double-checked the envelope, but she was certain the address of the apartment was the same. Confused, she turned and found herself facing the young cabdriver with her luggage at his feet. He was wearing a sympathetic expression.
"Check with the manager," he advised. "Your boyfriend could have changed apartments or found a cheaper place to live."
"I suppose." Shannon conceded the possibility, but surely Rick would have let her know?
"I'll wait for you ... just in case," the cabby volunteered.
"Thank you," she murmured, and crossed the entryway to the manager's door, keeping Rick's letter in hand. She knocked twice and heard shuffling steps approach in answer to her summons.
An older man of retirement age opened the door and peered at her over the top of half-lensed glasses. He spied her suitcases sitting in the hall and darted a sharp look at her.
"My name is Shannon Hayes--" she began.
"I'm sorry, miss," he interrupted, making his own guess as to why she was there. "We don't have any vacancies right now. I'll be glad to put your name on the waiting list, but there's already four ahead of you."
"No, you don't understand. I'm looking for Rick Farris. I'm his fiancé." Shannon attempted again to explain.
"So he ran out on you, too," the apartment manager harrumphed. "If you find him, tell him he owes me a week's rent. When he pays it I'll give him back the stuff he left."
"Rick isn't here?" An icy chill of uneasiness ran up her spine.
"I thought that was what I just said." The older gentleman cocked his head to one side.
"Didn't he leave a forwarding address?" The sensation of alarm was beginning to grow. None of this sounded like Rick. He plotted things through very thoroughly, then went ahead--just like piloting an aircraft. First he laid out a course, then he flew it. He'd sent her an airplane ticket but hadn't been at the airport to meet her when she arrived. Now she learned that he had moved out of the apartment.
"No, he didn't leave a forwarding address," the manager replied. "He didn't even give me notice he was leaving. I wouldn't have suspected he was going except two weeks ago, just a couple of days before the rent was due, I saw him coming out of his apartment with a suitcase. I reminded him the rent was coming due. 'Course he told me that he'd be back in time to take care of it, but I never saw hide nor hair of him after that."
The manager shook his head, indicating by the gesture that it was an old story. "I must admit he fooled me. He seemed a real likable fellow. I waited a week before I rented the apartment to someone else."
"Do you mean Rick hasn't been here for two weeks?" Shannon asked, realization dawning. "Then he couldn't have received the telegram I sent him, telling him when I would arrive."
"Telegram? A telegram did come for him a few days ago." The old man straightened slightly and tipped his head down to peer at Shannon again over the rim of his half glasses. "I didn't know where to send it on to, so I kept it here. Thought he might stop by for his things."
"What did Rick leave here?" she questioned. "May I see?"
The manager hesitated. "You can see, but I can't let you take anything," he agreed at last, and stepped out of the doorway to let her enter his apartment. "I packed it all in a couple of boxes. There isn't much of any value in it." He motioned toward the two boxes sitting in the corner of the living room. "If he doesn't come for them pretty soon, I'm going to have to store them in the upstairs attic to get them out of my way."
Shannon crouched down to unfold the flaps of one box. Mostly it contained odds and ends and a few clothes--the everyday sort of worn shirts and jeans. In the second box she found a gold-framed photograph of herself, the one she had signed to him, "With all my love." Her fingers tightened on it.
"Rick wouldn't have left this behind," she murmured to herself. There was nothing wrong with the manager's hearing. A look of pity was on his face when she looked up. "That day you saw him with the suitcase, did Rick say where he was going?"
"Nope." He shook his head. "And I didn't ask. At the time I didn't think it was any of my business."
"This isn't like Rick." Again, Shannon said it mostly to herself.
"People change," he shrugged.
"No." She wouldn't accept that argument as she laid the photograph back in the box and stood upright. "There is a reason for this. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to find out ... somehow."
"Good luck to you," was the skeptical encouragement from the manager.
"Thank you." Shannon opened the flap of her shoulder purse and reached inside for her leather wallet. "How much does Rick owe you? I'll pay for it and take his things with me."
The manager drew back. "I don't want to be taking your money, miss."
"It's all right," she assured him. "Rick and I are going to be married."
He hesitated, then grudgingly named an amount as if it went against his character to take money from a woman for a man's debt. While he wrote out a receipt at a small desk for the money she'd paid him, Shannon picked up one of the boxes and carried it into the building's foyer, where the young cabdriver waited near her luggage.
"Did you find out anything?" the driver asked quietly.
She shook her head, chestnut hair brushing her shoulders. "There is another box inside. Would you mind carrying it out?"
"Be happy to," he assured her, and entered the manager's apartment as the old man walked out to give Shannon her receipt.
"If you should hear from Rick, or if he stops by, would you tell him that I'm staying at...." She stopped and glanced beyond the man to the cabdriver, returning with the box in his arms. She had anticipated that Rick would make arrangements for a hotel. She addressed her question to the driver. "What is the name of a good hotel in Anchorage, a well-known place that's centrally located?"
"The Westward?" He named one, then quickly named two more to give her a choice. "Or there's Captain Cook's and the Sheffield House."
"I'll be staying at the Westward." Shannon chose the first.
"I'll tell him," the manager promised, but his attitude showed that he doubted he would have the opportunity to pass the message along.
When she left the building to carry the box to the taxi, the cloud cover seemed to be hanging lower, darkening everything. A fine mist was falling, replacing the earlier drizzle. The damp chill in the air seemed to penetrate to her bones. So many unexplained things had happened, her anxiety increased from the weight of them. One question kept repeating itself: where was Rick?
The cabdriver took the box from her and stowed it in the trunk, then helped her into the rear seat. "You wait here while I get the rest of your luggage," he instructed.
Sitting alone in the silence of the cab, Shannon tried very hard not to think the worst. Just because Rick wasn't at the apartment didn't necessarily mean that he had been injured or become ill. There were probably several explanations--even if she couldn't think of a single one. She didn't know where he was, but that didn't mean he was missing. Yet nothing made sense. She was confused and worried.
"Do you want me to take you to the Westward?" The driver slipped behind the wheel and closed the door.
He turned in his seat and noticed how tightly her hands were clasped together in her lap.
"There probably isn't anything to be upset about. When you finally see him, you'll more than likely laugh about this wild-goose chase around Anchorage."
"Probably," Shannon agreed, and managed a brief smile at the gentle reassurance.
Facing the front again, he started the motor, then paused before shifting it into gear. "It's possible that he might be trying to reach you. He didn't get your telegram, so he doesn't know you're here," he reminded her. "Is there someone you can call in Texas to see if he has been trying to contact you?"
"Yes." She'd call her parents the instant she reached the hotel. Then she realized she hadn't told the cabdriver where she was from. "How did you know I'm from Texas?"
A wide grin split his face. "It's kinda hard to mistake that soft drawl," he explained. "It isn't the heavy twang of some Texans I've met, but it's there just the same."
The corners of her mouth relaxed into a natural smile. "I should have guessed." It was difficult to remember that most people thought she had an accent.
Her smile faded as the cab pulled onto the street. His comment served to remind her that she was in unfamiliar territory. The city was strange to her. She knew no one except Rick, and she didn't know where he was.
The traffic became heavier near the center of the city, demanding more of the driver's attention. He pointed out some of the landmarks. Shannon looked, but she was too preoccupied with her own concerns to have much interest in the sights around her.
At the hotel entrance there was a porter to take her luggage into the lobby. After she'd paid the driver, he gave her a card with his phone number written on it. "My name is Andy," he told her. "If you need some help locating your boyfriend, give me a call."
"Thank you." She was touched by his offer. "As you said, it's probably all a silly misunderstanding."
Crossing the expansive lobby, she filled out the necessary registration forms and was shown to a room on the fifth floor. She went directly to the telephone and placed a call to her parents. It was her mother who answered.
"It's me--Shannon," she identified herself.
"I've been wondering about you. Are you in Alaska? Did you make it safely? I'll bet you're frozen solid." There was hardly a break between sentences as her mother rushed the words. "You should have taken warmer clothes with you. Do you want me to ship some of your things up to you by air, rather than wait until your father and I come this weekend?"
"No. The weather is fine, mom," Shannon assured her, then felt that statement needed some qualification. "It's no different from Houston in the winter--gray, drizzling and cool."
"Are you sure?" her mother questioned skeptically. "Velma Jo and Fred were there two years ago and said they practically froze to death."
"I promise you I'm not freezing." She took a breath to ask if Rick had called, and her mother took advantage of the scant second of silence.
"How was the plane trip? What is there--four hours' time difference? I never can figure those things out. I'll bet you're suffering from jet lag, aren't you, Shannon? Traveling is so tiring on its own without someone messing with the clock."
"Yes, I...." She supposed she was tired. She'd been too worried about Rick to notice.
Her mother's voice became muffled. "I'm talking to Shannon. She's calling from Alaska," she was saying to someone else in the room.
"Who is that, mom?" Shannon was struck by the laughable thought that it might be Rick. How ironic if he had flown to Texas to accompany her personally on the long flight!
"It's your father. He wants to say hello." The telephone was obviously passed to her father, because Shannon heard his voice speaking to her a second later. "Hi, honey, how are you?"
"I'm fine, dad."
"How is my future son-in-law? I suppose he's there with you."
Which meant he wasn't there. With a sinking heart she realized that it also meant Rick hadn't called her parents' home. There was no message for her.
"Actually ... he isn't here," she admitted, trying not to let her concern creep into her voice.
"Oh?" It was a pregnant sound. "Didn't he meet you at the airport?"
"No. It seems he didn't receive my telegram," Shannon explained, at least partially. She considered confiding in her father, then realized he was too far away to help. Besides, she might be needlessly alarming her parents. "Rick is ... out of town right now."
"How soon will he be back?" He had barely asked the question when his voice became muffled; obviously, he was explaining the situation to her mother.
"I'm not sure," she answered. "I haven't talked to Rick yet." Which was the truth.
"His employer knows when he'll come back, doesn't he?" he asked.
A ray of hope glistened. "I'm going to call and find out." Why hadn't she thought of contacting Rick's employer before? He would know Rick's whereabouts, his new address, everything. "I just wanted to let you and mom know I had arrived safely."
Posted March 25, 2011
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