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Shannyn Smith heard the door open but didn't dare tear her eyes from the column she was adjusting. "Good morning," she said to the figure she knew was in front of the reception counter. There was a glimpse of muted green in her peripheral vision as she input the last series of numbers. "I'll be right with you."
She turned in her office chair, put a stack of patient files on the desk and clicked the mouse, minimizing the table and bringing up today's appointment schedule. Of all days for their receptionist to call in sick, forcing her to fill in. She had monthly reports due. "And you are?"
When no one answered, she lifted her eyes. And the world started to spin dangerously. Dark hair. Green eyes. The khaki color of army combats.
"Sgt. Kirkpatrick to see Ms. Malloy," he answered brusquely. But she knew he recognized her too when his Adam's apple bobbed up, then down as he swallowed hard. "Jonas," she whispered. That was all. She couldn't bring herself to say more, not with him standing in front of her as if he'd materialized from a dream.
Six long years. Six years since he'd said goodbye to her. Six years since he'd been transferred to Edmonton, leaving her behind here, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and never looking back.
His words were cold and impersonal. Shannyn knew she couldn't expect anything different, nor did she want to. It had been so long since they'd seen each other. He'd moved on. Perhaps even married. Just because the shock of seeing him made her heart give a little flutter, didn't mean it did the same for him. And simply seeing him now suddenly complicated everything.
A counter separated them, which was a goodthing, Shannyn realized. On the heels of her shock came an irrational spurt of pure joy in knowing he was alive. Despite how things had ended, she'd wondered at times where he was, or if he'd been killed or wounded. The elation of seeing him in the flesh shot through her veins. Yes, it was good that the reception counter was there. If not, she'd have been tempted to jump up and give him an impetuous hug of relief. That would be vastly inappropriate. They were old lovers, a flash from the past. And that was all they would remain. She'd worked too hard to build her life after he'd moved on, so she remained firmly in her seat. He certainly hadn't cared enough to keep in touch, had he? Not a single letter or phone call. Right now it shouldn't matter in the least that he was standing in front of her.
Except it did.
"You look well," she managed, trying a professional smile that fell a little flat as it encountered his stern expression.
He looked amazing, in fact. His hair was military short, but still thick and sable colored. His eyes were large, a beautiful shade of moss green with thick black lashes. When they'd met, it had been his eyes that had been the clincher. It had been his eyes that had stayed with her all this time, making it impossible for her to forget completely.
His tall, firm body was dressed in everyday combats, nothing special, even though he was neat as a pin. She noticed the three stripes on his sleeve. When he'd gone back to Edmonton, Alberta, he'd been a private with his eyes set on being an elite soldier. The best of the best. Obviously his career had progressed. Time had passed.
"Is Ms. Malloy running behind?"
Her weak smile faded and she recoiled. That was all? She hadn't expected old-home week or anything, and didn't want it, either, but pleasantries would have been appropriate under the circumstances. Some acknowledgment that he remembered her.
Clearing her throat, she looked up at the screen. "About ten minutes, that's all. You can have a seat in the waiting room."
He turned from the counter without a word, walked toward the blue padded chairs, and Shannyn stared, her stomach tumbling.
He was limping.
A million thoughts flooded her brain all at once. The overriding one was that he'd been injured, and momentarily all her resentment at his nonexistent reception evaporated. Somehow, somewhere he'd taken "fire and blood", and his blood had been spilled. In that split second she imagined it leaking out of his body and soaking into the dry desert earth. Where had he been? In the Middle East, like so many of the Canadian troops? It seemed all they heard of nowadays were the small skirmishes that had devastating results.
On automatic pilot she let Geneva Molloy know that her next appointment had arrived. And what was he doing back here? The last she'd heard, he'd been stationed in Edmonton with his battalion of the Princess Pats. So why was he back at Base Gagetown, after all this time?
She stared at the back of his head, her earlier work forgotten. She could hardly go up and ask him about it, could she? He'd already been cold and dismissive. Hardly inspiring a heart-to-heart between them.
She discovered it was a conversation she didn't want to have. After years of wondering what it would be like to see him again, to tell him the truth it was surprising to discover it was not what she wanted. Uppermost in her mind was simply the preservation of the life she'd built for herself.
She'd done what she had for good reasons. To forget that, to be tempted to engage with him, would mean everything would change. The shock of seeing him face-to-face made that abundantly clear. Everything she'd done in the past six yearsher silence, her going to night school, running this officeit had been for the best of reasons. She owed nothing to the cold stranger who had suddenly appeared today. Injured or not. He was the one who'd left her behind. He was the one who had decided his career was more important than what they had together.
"Shannyn. You okay?" Carrie Morehouse, one of the therapists, put a hand on Shannyn's shoulder.
"You're in another world."
"I'm so sorry." Shannyn straightened and exhaled. "What do you need, Carrie?"
"Mrs. Gilmore's file. Are you sure you're okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
At that moment Geneva Malloy's voice came through the far door. "Sgt. Kirkpatrick? I'm ready for you now."
Jonas stood, and without a backward glance at Shannyn's desk, went through the door with his physiotherapist.
"Hey 'Kirkpatrick'." Carrie paused, then pierced Shannyn with a questioning look. "Isn't Kirkpatrick the name of"
Shannyn confirmed it with a twitch of her eyebrow.
Carrie grabbed a nearby chair and pulled it close, plopping down. "Then it is a ghost."
"He's very real, I'm afraid." Shannyn took Mrs. Gilmore's file and handed it over, torn between wanting to talk about it and wanting to pretend he wasn't back at all.
"Did he even recognize you?" The file went forgotten in Carrie's hand.
Maybe it would have been easier if he hadn't recognized her, although after all they'd shared there was little chance of it. It might have been easier to take, though, than the cold reception she'd been given.
"Oh, he knows who I am. He just doesn't seem to care. Which is just as it should be." She tried hard to be glad Jonas had been so cold. If he wasn't interested in her now, it made her life a whole lot easier.
Carrie looked at her watch. "I wish we could talk. I've got to run or I'll be behind. We'll chat later, okay?" Carrie reached over and gave Shannyn's hand a reassuring squeeze.
There was nothing for them to talk about, not really. Jonas would move along soon enough, and she'd still be left behind. After his impersonal greeting this morning, it was very clear he didn't hold any lingering feelings for her at all. That was for the best. Dreams were well and good, but reality was a whole other ball game. She'd learned that the hard way a long time ago. Everything would be much easier this way in the end.
Shannyn sighed. Anything with Jonas would be temporary, no matter how much she'd never been able to completely let go, no matter how tempted she was to go there again. But temporary wasn't good enough. Not anymore.
Shannyn attempted to go back to her monthly reports but her heart wasn't in her work. She kept picturing Jonas's limp and wondered what he was going through with his therapy. Wondered what had brought him to this point in his life.
Questions she had no right to ask.
After an hour had passed, Jonas reappeared at her desk. She looked up at him over the counter. Goodness, he was tall. It was one of the things she'd always really liked about him. Jonas was easily six-one, and seemed to stand even taller after his physio session.
"I need to book my next appointment."
"How frequently are you supposed to have sessions?" Shannyn tried to keep her voice professional and light.
"Once a week, for now."
She opened up the schedule. This was ridiculous. They were talking over appointments as if they were complete strangers.Yet she'd tried already to bridge the gap, make it personal, and he'd been cool and dismissive. She straightened her shoulders. "Next Thursday, two-thirty in the afternoon is all I've got."
She wrote it on a card for him and started to hand it over the gray counter. But when his fingers closed on it, she knew she couldn't let him go without asking one question.
"Jonas your leg. It's all right?"
"My leg's fine."
"How long are you on base, then?" Her heart stopped as she finished her second question, unable to help herself.
For a moment, just the space of a breath, his eyes spoke to her, delving in, acknowledging that he wasn't as cold as he seemed. But then he shuttered them. Shannyn knew she hadn't imagined the look. There was still a connection. Perhaps only the memory of what had been, but it was there, and she wished it wasn't. Her life would be much easier if she felt nothing at all.
"This is my station. I have no plans to be going elsewhere in the foreseeable future."
Here, for good? She swallowed. A short visit would have been better. Certainly less risky. But she also knew that "for good" was a relative term. No one in the military was ever in one place for long.
"All right, then," she replied dumbly.
He turned crisply and went to the door, his limp slightly less pronounced than it had been before his appointment.
He left without looking back.
He was really good at that. And she'd do well to remember it.
Shannyn left work on Friday and stopped for pizza. Every payday she stopped for a takeout meal, a biweekly extravagance. Last payday it had been chicken strips and fries. Tonight was Hawaiian pizza, with extra cheese.
She was leaning against the takeout counter when a door slammed just outside and she saw Jonas getting out of a battered four-by-four truck.
What were the chances?
Obviously pretty good. She took a deep breath and turned her attention to the teen behind the counter who was getting her change. As the glass door opened, she tucked the money in her wallet and slid to the side to wait for her order.
"Pickup for Kirkpatrick," he said to the girl in the red-and-white visor.
He dug out his wallet and turned with the box in his hands, stopping short when he saw her waiting to the side. "Shannyn."
"Small world, huh?" She attempted a faint but cool smile.
"Bachelor's supper," he replied civilly, lifting the box a little to illustrate.
"Friday-night treat," she replied. Perhaps the initial shock of seeing each other was over, or the casual atmosphere of the pizza place helped, but he seemed slightly more approachable now than he had at his appointment. Which still didn't say very much.
"Ham and pineapple?"
"Still my favorite," she replied, feeling ridiculously flattered that he'd remembered that tidbit of information.
They stood there like statues, exchanging the most basic of pleasantries, an air of discomfort between them.
"Miss? Your order is ready."
She took the box, shifting her hands from the hot bottom to the sides. "Fresh from the oven."
And still they stood awkwardly, until Jonas chuckled.
She hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath until she let it out at the sound of his soft laughter.
"This is a hell of a thing, isn't it."
"It is." She started for the door and he followed her. It was easier for him to relax, she reasoned, her forehead wrinkling as she frowned. He wasn't the one carrying a secret around. "There was a time when we weren't uncomfortable with each other at all. I don't know why we are now. That's all in the past. I didn't even know you'd still be here after all this time."
His words contradicted his cold manner of their first meeting and she wondered at it. "I stayed," she answered, hitting the door with her hip to push it open.
Jonas held the door and then followed her out, putting his white pizza box down on the hood of his truck. "I just go where they tell me."
Shannyn paused, the heat from the pizza warming her fingers. That had always been the problem. He was at the mercy of wherever his superiors sent him next. He'd done his training here, at Base Gagetown, finished when he was twenty-two. Still so young, full of energy and determination to be the best shot in the Army. Then he'd gone to Edmonton, and who knew where he'd been since then. Who knew how long he'd be stationed here? Despite his injury, it was obvious he was staying in the military, not looking to be discharged. That meant more moving around.
"And where would that be?"