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The radiant blue heavens drew Claudia Masters's eyes as she boarded the jet for Nome, Alaska. Her heart rate accelerated with excitement. In less than two hours she would be with Sethmanly, self-assured, masterful Seth. She made herself comfortable and secured the seat belt, anticipating the rumble of the engines that would thrust the plane into the air.
She had felt some uncertainty when she boarded the plane that morning in Seattle. But she'd hastily placed a phone call during her layover in Anchorage and been assured by Seth's assistant that yes, he had received her message, and yes, he would meet her at the airport. Confident now, Claudia relaxed and idly flipped through a magazine.
A warmth, a feeling of contentment, filled her.
Cooper's doubts and last-ditch effort to change her mind were behind her now, and she was free to make her life with Seth.
Cooper had been furious with her decision to leave medical school. But he was only her uncle. He hadn't understood her love for her Alaskan oilman, just as he couldn't understand her faith in the Lord.
A smile briefly curved her soft mouth upward. Cooper had shown more emotion in that brief twenty-minute visit to his office than she'd seen in all her twenty-five years.
"Quitting med school is the dumbest idea I've ever heard," he'd growled, his keen brown eyes challenging the serene blue of hers.
"Sometimes loving someone calls for unusual behavior," she had countered, knowing anything impractical was foreign to her uncle.
For a moment all Cooper could do was stare at her. She could sense the anger drain from him as he lowered himself into the desk chair.
"Contrary to what you may believe, I have your best interests at heart. I see you throwing away years of study for some ignorant lumberjack. Can you blame me for doubting your sanity?"
"Seth's an oilman, not a lumberjack. There aren't any native trees in Nome." It was easier to correct Cooper than to answer the questions that had plagued her, filling her with doubts. The choice hadn't been easy; indecision had tormented her for months. Now that she'd decided to marry Seth and share his life in the Alaskan wilderness, a sense of joy and release had come over her.
"It's taken me two miserable months to realize that my future isn't in any hospital," she continued. "I'd be a rotten doctor if I couldn't be a woman first. I love Seth. Someday I'll finish medical school, but if a decision has to be made, I'll choose Seth Les-singer every time."
But Cooper had never been easily won over. The tense atmosphere became suddenly quiet as he digested the thought. He expelled his breath, but it was several seconds before he spoke. "I'm not thinking of myself, Claudia. I want you to be absolutely sure you know what you're doing."
"I am," she replied with complete confidence.
Now, flying high above the lonely, barren Alaska tundra, Claudia continued to be confident she was doing the right thing. God had confirmed the decision. Seth had known from the beginning, but it had taken her much longer to realize the truth.
Gazing out the plane window, she viewed miles upon miles of the frozen, snow-covered ground. It was just as Seth had described: a treeless plain of crystalline purity. There would be a summer, he'd promised, days that ran into each other when the sun never set. Flowers would blossom, and for a short time the tundra would explode into a grassy pasture. Seth had explained many things about life in the North. At first she'd resented his letters, full of enticements to lure her to Nome. If he really loved her, she felt, he should be willing to relocate in Seattle until she'd completed her studies. It wasn't so much to ask. But as she came to know and love Seth, it became evident that Nome was more than the location of his business. It was a way of life, Seth's life. Crowded cities, traffic jams and shopping malls would suffocate him.
She should have known that the minute she pushed the cleaning cart into the motel room. Her being a housekeeper at the Wilderness Motel had been something of a miracle in itself.
Leaning back, Claudia slowly lowered her lashes as the memories washed over her.
Ashley Robbins, her lifetime friend and roommate, had been illfar too sick to spend the day cleaning rooms. By the time Ashley admitted as much, it was too late to call the motel and tell them she wouldn't be coming to work, so Claudia had volunteered to go in her place.
Claudia had known from the moment she slid the pass key into the lock that there was something different, something special, about this room.
Her hands rested on her slender hips as she looked around. A single man slept here. She smiled as she realized how accurate she was becoming at describing the occupants of each room, and after just one day. She was having fun speculating. Whoever was staying in here had slept uneasily. The sheet and blankets were pulled free of the mattress and rumpled haphazardly at the foot of the king-size bed.
As she put on the clean sheets, she couldn't help wondering what Cooper would think if he could see her now. He would be aghast to know she was doing what he would call "menial work."
As she lifted the corner of the mattress to tuck in the blanket, she noticed an open Bible on the night-stand, followed by the sudden feeling that she wasn't alone. As she turned around, a smile lit up her sky-blue eyes. But her welcome died: no one was there.
After finishing the bed, she plugged in the vacuum. With the flip of the switch the motor roared to life. A minute later she had that same sensation of being watched, and she turned off the machine. But when she turned, she once again discovered she was alone.
Pausing, she studied the room. There was something about this place: not the room itself, but the occupant. She could sense it, feel it: a sadness that seemed to reach out and touch her, wrapping itself around her. She wondered why she was receiving these strange sensations. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.
A prayer came to her lips as she silently petitioned God on behalf of whoever occupied this room. When she finished she released a soft sigh. Once, a long time ago, she remembered reading that no one could come to the Lord unless someone prayed for them first. She wasn't sure how scriptural that was, but the thought had stuck with her. Often she found herself offering silent prayers for virtual strangers.
After cleaning the bathroom and placing fresh towels on the rack, she began to wheel the cleaning cart into the hallway. Again she paused, brushing wisps of copper-colored hair from her forehead as she examined the room. She hadn't forgotten anything, had she? Everything looked right. But again that terrible sadness seemed to reach out to her.
Leaving the cart, she moved to the desk and took out a postcard and a pen from the drawer. In large, bold letters she printed one of her favorite verses from Psalms. It read: "May the Lord give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed." Psalm 20:4. She didn't question why that particular verse had come to mind. It didn't offer solace, even though she had felt unhappiness here. Perplexed and a little unsure, she tucked the card into the corner of the dresser mirror.
Back in the hall, she checked to be sure the door had locked automatically. Her back ached. Ashley hadn't been kidding when she said this was hard work. It was that and more. She was so glad that had been her final room for the day. A thin sheen of perspiration covered Claudia's brow, and she pushed her thick, naturally curly hair from her face. Her attention was still focused on the door when she began wheeling the cart toward the elevator. She hadn't gone more than a few feet when she struck something. A quick glance upward told her that she'd run into a man.
"I'm so sorry," she apologized immediately. "I wasn't watching where I was going." Her first impression was that this was the largest, most imposing man she'd ever seen. He loomed above her, easily a foot taller than her five-foot-five frame. His shoulders were wide, his waist and hips lean, and he was so muscular that the material of his shirt was pulled taut across his broad chest. He was handsome in a reckless-looking way, his hair magnificently dark. His well-trimmed beard was a shade lighter.
"No problem." The stranger smiled, his mouth sensuous and appealing, his eyes warm.
Claudia liked that. He might be big, but one look told her he was a gentle giant.
Not until she was in her car did she realize she hadn't watched to see if the giant had entered the room where she'd gotten such a strange feeling.
By the time Claudia got back to the apartment, Ashley looked better. She was propped against the arm of the sofa, her back cushioned by several pillows. A hand-knit afghan covered her, and a box of tissues sat on the coffee table, the crumpled ones littering the polished surface.
"How'd it go?" she asked, her voice scratchy and unnatural. "Were you able to figure out one end of the vacuum from the other?"
"Of course." Claudia laughed. "I had fun playing house, but next time warn meI broke my longest nail."
"That's the price you pay for being so stubborn," Ashley scolded as she grabbed a tissue, anticipating a sneeze. "I told you it was a crazy idea. Did old Burns say anything?"
"No, she was too grateful. Finding a replacement this late in the day would have been difficult."
Fall classes at the University of Washington had resumed that Monday, and Ashley had been working at the motel for only a couple of weeks, one of the two part-time jobs she had taken to earn enough to stay in school.
Claudia knew Ashley had been worried about losing the job, so she'd been happy to step in and help. Her own tuition and expenses were paid by a trust fund her father had established before his death. She had offered to lend Ashley money on numerous occasions, but her friend had stubbornly refused. Ashley believed that if God wanted her to have a degree in education, then He would provide the necessary money. Apparently He did want that for her, because the funds were always there when she needed them.
Ashley's unshakable faith had taught Claudia valuable lessons. She had been blessed with material wealth, while Ashley struggled from one month to the next. But of the two of them, Claudia considered Ashley the richer.
Claudia often marveled at her friend's faith. Everything had been taken care of in her own life. Decisions had been made for her. As for her career, she'd known from the time she was in grade school that she would be a doctor, a dream shared by her father. The last Christmas before his death he'd given her a stethoscope. Later she realized that he must have known he wouldn't be alive to see their dream fulfilled. Now there was only Cooper, her pompous, dignified uncle.
"How are you feeling?"
Ashley sneezed into a tissue, which did little to muffle the sound. "Better," she murmured, her eyes red and watery. "I should be fine by tomorrow. I don't want you to have to fill in for me again."
"We'll see," Claudia said, hands on her hips. Ashley was so stubborn, she musedshe seemed to be surrounded by strong-willed people.
Later that night she lay in bed, unable to sleep. She hadn't told Ashley about what had happened in the last room she'd cleaned. She didn't know how she could explain it to anyone. Now she wished she'd waited to see if the stranger outside had been the one occupying that room. The day had been unusual in more ways than one. With a yawn, she rolled over and forced herself to relax and go to sleep.
The clouds were gray and thick the next morning. Claudia was up and reading over some material from one of her classes when Ashley strolled into the living room, looking just as miserable as she had the day before.
"Don't you ever let up?" she complained with a long yawn. "I swear, all you do is study. Take a break. You've got all quarter to hit the books."
With deliberate slowness Claudia closed the textbook. "Do you always wake up so cheerful?"
"Yes," Ashley snapped. "Especially when I feel I could be dying. You're going to be a doctordo something!"