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Ben Robinson threw back the peeling wooden shutters, inviting in the crisp morning air. There'd been a dusting of snow in the valley overnight, for which he was glad. New powder on the ski slope, and one more day of skiing left before he returned homeit was perfect. Absolutely perfect.
In fact, everything about this holiday had been perfect. First time off in half a decade, first time in that half decade he'd almost relaxed. Tuscany in winter had been his dream, the one he hadn't expected to achieve given the way he lived his life. This was the best, though. He'd slept late every morning, then every night dined on his favorite indulgencespastas and sauces and dessertsall of them sure to add an inch to his waistline. In between his indulgences, he'd explored the fairytale villages unchanged over the past two centuries, with all their little shelters for shepherds on the high pastures and the breathtaking succession of age-old churches, hermitages, castles and fortresses.
And he'd met Shanna. She'd shared some of that with himthe late-night dinners, the explorations. All very free and easy, but all very nice.
Ben's thoughts immediately turned to well, whatever it was that had developed between them. Friendship? Brief acquaintance? Ships that passed in the night? Whatever it was, it was done. She'd had her plans for the day, he'd had his, and tomorrow he'd be gone. So there it was, come, gone, pleasant memories in its wake.
No, he hadn't had a holiday fling in the traditional sense. No kissesnot even a farewell kiss other than a peck on the cheek. No sleeping in late with her in bed next to him. Certainly no intimacies shared across the table during a late-night dinner. Then last night it had turned into a simple parting of the ways after a pleasant evening without any promises for his last day. Not even a mention of him leaving. But that was the way he'd framed it, wasn't it? Keep his distance. Enjoy the companionship, but not too much.
Play it safe.
Admittedly, for a moment or two, he'd wondered what might have happened between them if he'd let it. But he didn't even let that get past the wondering stage. No reason to because he would go home to Argentina alone. Continue his medical practice alone. Live his life alone.
And Shanna A wistful sigh escaped him. He hoped she would come to the cafe this morning, the way she had every morning for the past two weeks. One last look would make his day seem a little better. But he wasn't counting on anything. He never did.
"Is that seat taken?" a familiar voice asked, twenty minutes later.
"Could be," he said, without looking up at her, for fear she'd read eagerness in his eyes. "If the right person asks politely."
"Who would she be?"
"Someone who would change her plans for the day. Ski with me now, shop tomorrow when I'm gone." Said in a matter-of-fact manner, taking great care not to sound hopeful or anxious.
Shanna Brooks. She was bundled up to the eyes with scarves, hat pulled down that almost covered her eyes and wisps of copper hair escaping their confinement, the way he'd come to count on. Breathtaking however she appeared. As she slid into the chair across from Ben, he couldn't help himself. He had to look across at her beautiful green eyes so full of life.
"That could be me," she said as the wraps came off her, layer by layer.
Had he really gotten up and walked to the table at the back of the cafe that first day she'd approached him? Pure insanity. But in his defense he'd stayed the next day and every day after that, feasting his eyes at the ritual of her revealing, the slow peeling away of scarves and hats and mittens. After all, he wasn't dead, just alone by choice, or design, or whatever the hell it was that had constructed his life to turn out the way it had. "But the question is, is it you?"
Frowning as she tossed her knit cap on the ledge of the picture window next to their table, she appeared to be thinking about her answer. "Did you ever consider that you could go shopping with me?" she finally asked. "Instead of me skiing with you?"
"No," he said, sounding too abrupt even to his ears. So he pulled back a little. "I'm on a mission. Twelve straight days of skiing without breaking a leg."
"What if your luck runs out and this is the day you come off the slopes with a tibia fracture?"
"Open?" Meaning bone protruding.
"Too much risk of infection," she said, tossing her mittens aside then starting to unzip her ski jacket. "I like to keep my fractures a little more straightforward. But I am thinking a tibial shaft fracture of some sort might be good." Something breaking between the knee and ankle. "Maybe a tibial plateau fracture?" Just below the knee.
"Could be you accidentally hit one of those little mogul hills, popped up, crashed back down."
"No, I don't think so. Too much risk of late-onset arthritis with a plateau fracture. How about a tibial plafond fracture?" Closer to the ankle. "It has the same degree of seriousness, same lengthy recovery, but less of a risk for long-term disability."
She smiled brightly, then nodded. "Good idea. And I'll make sure I'm there after the surgery with all my bundles and packages, because I'm going shopping this morning."
"More scarves, hats and mittens?"
"A girl can't have too many."
"But knowing how I'm going to injure myself on the slopes this morning, would you actually choose mittens over my wounds?" This was dangerous territory. Too close to being flirty. He knew that. But after nearly two weeks he was still no closer to learning why she'd quit her medical practice than he'd been that first day when he'd shunned her at breakfast, only to find her seated next to him on the lift up the mountain.
"Mittens over wounds because I'm still on leave."
He faked an exasperated expression. "You created my injury, the least you could do is patch me up."
"Wrong specialty," she said.
"What was your specialty?" he asked. "Before you quit?" She hadn't told him. In fact, they'd been five or six days into their relationship before she'd let it slip she was a doctor. Odd thing was, she'd known he was. That had probably been the most he'd revealed about himself, yet she'd kept their similar backgrounds to herself.
"It wasn't bones," she said.
Her eyes turned distant. He could see it, see her shutting out whatever it was that seemed to be skimming the surface of her unhappiness. Or aversion. "Never cared much for bones, either. Not after I broke my big toe once."
"Skiing?" she asked, turning to face him but obviously not focused on the conversation.
"Ever heard of turf toe?" Where a person propelled themselves forward by pushing off on the big toe, resulting in their weight shifting to their other foot. If the toe stayed flat on the ground and didn't lift to push off, the joint injury, associated with athletes who played on artificial turf, resulted.
That caught her interest for real. "You played soccer? Or football?"
"No. I was chasing an angora goat."
Her eyes widened. "Not sure I want to ask why."
He chuckled. "Nothing untoward. My parents raised goats and sheep for the wool. The one I was shearing got away."
"Hence turf toe. But that's a ligament strain, not a break."
"Or in my case both."
Laughing, Shanna said, "Poor Ben. He doesn't even get the glory of claiming some great athletic accident. You don't really tell many people you had a goat injury, do you? Very embarrassing, Ben. Very."
"So would someone pointing out how embarrassing my embarrassment was." He flagged over the server, who immediately brought cups of coffee to the table.
"I don't suppose I could coax you into a send-off mimosa this morning, could I?" she asked. "Since this is our last morning together."
"Coffee's good," he said. Revealing a goat injury was enough for one day. No need to reveal any more than that.
"Champagne and orange juice is better." She paused, thought for a moment. A knowing expression tracked across her face in delayed measures as the full awareness of what she'd just realized finally struck her. "But you don't drink at all, do you? Not a drop."
"How do you figure?"
"When we've had dinner I've had wine a few times, yet you've always ordered " She shrugged. "You're right. Coffee's good. And you should have told me, Ben. I wouldn't have " Shaking her head, she picked up her coffee mug and held on to it for dear life. "I know we're not involved, but you should have told me."
"There's nothing to tell." Such a huge lie. But why say anything and ruin a little light flirting, a few pleasant meals, a couple runs down the slope? There was nothing sloppy, nothing sentimental about the two of them and he'd appreciated that because it had been a step totally outside his normal self. Now, though, it was time to step back in, and inside Ben Robinson there was no need to tell anybody anything about himself. Those who knew knew. Those who didn't never would.
"Nothing except a drinking problem? In the past, I'm assuming. It would have been nice to know, because I wouldn't have had wine"
"Wouldn't have had wine?" he interrupted. "What people do or don't do around me doesn't bother me. I'm not influenced."
"Maybe you're not influenced, but I don't like being insensitive. If you'd told me "
"It would have changed things between us. You would have been a little more on guard. Or wondered what caused me to turn into an alcoholic, which I am, by the way. That wasn't the kind of relationship we were having." And now started the awkwardness between them, when all they should have been doing was having a carefree last day. It was another perfect example of why he didn't get involved. She'd peeled back one of his layers and discovered the first well-guarded aspect of a man called Ben Robinson. Yeah, he was an alcoholic. Yeah, he did still struggle with the temptation occasionally, even though he hadn't taken a drink in a decade. Yeah, it was a social barrier.
"Or it would have been a reference in passing. Not everybody is harsh in their judgments, Ben. Trust me, I understand how moments of weakness can escalate. But you're right. We didn't establish the kind of relationship where confessions were required. Anyway, I've enjoyed our connection for what it wasa few hours of fun with a man who speaks my language. It made my sabbatical easier." She reached across and squeezed his hand. "Although I am sorry you struggled with alcohol, Ben. Glad you made it through, but sorry for whatever took you on that journey." She fixed her gaze on the view of the mountain as she let go of his hand.
Then breakfast came, they ate, made light conversation about insignificant things, endured more silence between them than they had before. And it was over. Done. They descended into that so-called mutual parting of the ways of infamous fame and he went to ski while she went to shop. Afterward Ben Robinson, forever alone as he'd pledged himself to be, spent the thirty-six hours that came in a plane or between flights wondering why the hell he hadn't just lived in the moment for once. Or lived for the moment.
"Because reality returns after the moment," he muttered to himself, fastening his seat belt as he prepared for the last stretch of his journey home. Fourteen hours in the air left him with a lot of time to think, a lot of time to regret.
"Coffee, tea, soft drink? Glass of wine?" the flight attendant asked him as he tried stretching out his lanky legs in too tight a space. "Or a cocktail, sir? We have all the standardsgin, vodka, Scotch."
Glancing at the beverage cart, he saw the array of small booze bottles, all ready for pouring. Except he didn't drink anymore. That was what he'd told Shanna, and that was the way he'd lived his life for a long, long time now.
Even so, nights like this weakened his resolve. Made it tougher on him to fight when he wasn't sure what he was fighting morethe booze, or himself.
Then he thought about Shanna's green eyes, and the way she'd looked at him that first morning when all she'd really wanted was the view of the mountain he had. He'd seen vitality, a spark that had made him change his ways for the duration of his holiday. He'd opened the door just a crack to let somebody in. Only now the holiday was over and Shanna was but a memory. And like every other time he'd been tempted to break his resolve, he'd take a deep breath and remind himself about his responsibilities. Then stay on track. "Water, please," he told the attendant. "Water will be fine."
"Okay, Ben Robinson, just who are you?" Two days ago he'd left her sitting in the cafe, wondering what it was about her that clearly hadn't inspired his trust. And it wasn't just about his drinking. It was about everything. They'd spent some nice time together, but every minute of it had shown her how obviously distant he was. More than that, how distant he wanted to stay. Being alone to-getherthat was how she'd felt when she'd been with him. Alone. They'd shared a ski lift, shared meals, shared a few walks, shared time. What he hadn't shared had been himself.
"So who are you, really?" she asked her computer screen as she typed his name into a search engine. "And why are you in Argentina?" The even bigger question was, Where in Argentina? Because it was only after he'd gone that she'd realized she didn't know. Realized she didn't even have his phone number. Realized he had merely been a stranger passing through, stopping for a few moments without making a connection.
Except he had. She wasn't sure what kind it was, but here she was, looking for information about him, wondering what it was about Ben Robinson that pulled her in.
Maybe it was a simple thing, really. He was so found, and she was so lost. Found had a certain sense of stability to it. A security she'd thought she had but had then discovered it had all been an illusion. Ben didn't give in to illusions. Didn't even let them come near. Sure, it was a harsh way to live your life, but there was safety in that harshness, and that was what she neededthat safety. Because the rug had been pulled out from under her. All those things she'd defined her life bygone now. One tug and she was flailing.
But Ben had flailed, hadn't he? The scars on his neck accounted for some kind of flailing. So did the alcohol. He'd recovered, though, and that was what eluded her. How to recover. How to even start. Or where to start. Which was why she was keying in his name and connecting it to Argentina medical facilities.