Ballet dancer Posy Sutton is only back in her hometown of Aurora, Alaska, until her injury heals. It's a decision that'd be easier to stick to if she didn't keep bumping into her charming ex-boyfriend, Liam Blake. After six years, she should be over himbut instead all she can see is the mistake she made when she left him. She's not sure she can handle choosing between Liam and ballet a second time if Liam is even willing to risk his heart again. When her time in Alaska is up, will she and Liam be part of the sweetest dance of all?
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Be still. Do not move a muscle. And whatever you do, don't scream.
Posy Sutton bit her lip to prevent the forbidden scream from slipping out. She wanted very much to yell for help at the top of her lungs. Who wouldn't, standing there with an awkward plaster cast on her foot and looking at what was a mere ten feet in front of her?
From the looks of its wooly brown backside, a brown bear. Or possibly a grizzly, which, as bears went, was the very worst sort to bump into. Not that a brown bear would be a picnic.
Don't do it. Don't scream.
Posy might have been back in her hometown of Aurora, Alaska, for only a matter of hours, but she was no cheechakoAlaska's common nickname for newcomers. She'd grown up here. Six years in San Francisco couldn't erase the lessons she'd had drilled into her as a child. She knew how to behave around bears in the wildernessavoid eye contact, do not scream or yell. If the bear doesn't see you, walk away very slowly. If the bear does see you, play dead.
The problem was that she wasn't exactly in the wilderness at the moment. In fact, she wasn't outdoors at all. She was standing in the fellowship hall of Aurora Community Church. All alone. There wasn't another soul in sight.
Unless the bear whose tail end was currently sticking out of the overturned trash can in the corner was to be counted. Bears had souls, didn't they?
Posy rolled her eyes. Now wasn't exactly the time to contemplate the eternal salvation of Smokey, Paddington and the like.
The bear grunted, its rumbling voice echoing from within the metal trash can. It sounded so so sinister. And hungry. Very hungry. Like every growling stomach in the universe all rolled into one. Posy's heart thumped so hard, she thought it might beat right out of her chest. She'd never been so terrified in her life. Not even the first time she'd danced the role of Clara in The Nutcracker as a ten-year-old. Nor opening night of her debut as a soloist with the West Coast Arts Ballet Company, plucked from the corps de ballet and thrust directly into the spotlight.
She was standing in an enclosed space with a grizzly. And she was on crutches. Could it get any worse?
One sound, one telltale movement and the bear would realize she was there. And she'd be taken down like a weak zebra on the National Geographic Channel.
She tightened her grip on her crutches and took a deep, calming breath, much like the one she always took in the final seconds before the red velvet curtains parted on performance nights. Only this breath wasn't all that calming. Her chest grew tighter. She thought she might be hyperventilating. She prayed for a paper bag. Or better yet, a can of bear repellent.
Posy hadn't seen a can of bear spray in years. San Francisco wasn't without its dangers, but bears didn't exactly make the short list. Or the long list. Or any variation of the list whatsoever. Bear repellent was obviously no longer a staple in her handbag. But hair spray certainly was. Ballerina buns didn't stay put on their own.
Without taking her eyes off the bear's broad, furry hindquarters, she anchored her right crutch firmly under her arm and reached into her purse for the can of Aqua Net that she never went anywhere without. Okay, so it wasn't exactly Mace for wild animals, but maybe it would do in a pinch. As carefully and quietly as she could manage, she pried off the lid. But her hands were shaking so badly that it fell to the ground before she could catch it.
To Posy's ears, it sounded louder than a gunshot when it hit the tile floor and bounced what had to be at least a dozen times. The world came to an abrupt standstill. Save for the lid to the Aqua Net clattering around like a pin-ball, nothing moved. Not Posy. Not the dust in the air. Not even the bear. All rummaging had ceased. Not a muscle moved in that furry back end, until the bear slowly began walking backward, extricating itself from the trash can.
Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no.
Posy took an instinctive step backward with her left foot. The injured one. Pain shot through her plaster cast, and she stumbled. One crutch clattered to the ground. She seized on to the other with both desperate hands and teetered sideways. The crutch wobbled. And the tile floor suddenly seemed to be rising up to meet her. Just as she realized she was going down, the bear shot the rest of the way out of the trash can in a fuzzy brown blur.
Posy screamed. She no longer cared about the rules. If she was about to become bear chow, someone somewhere was going to hear about it. Her scream echoed off the walls of the fellowship hall as she tumbled to the ground.
Then, before her body made contact with the hard tile, she was lifted into the air from behind by a powerful force.
Her terror grew tenfold. And her first thought was that she was being tag teamed. By bears.
Well, she wasn't going down without a fight. She had only one weapon left at her disposal, and she didn't hesitate to use it. She pressed down on the Aqua Net nozzle as hard as she could and aimed the can over her shoulder, screaming all the while.
"Ouch! What the "
The talking beartalking bear?released its hold on her and she toppled to the floor, landing squarely on her backside, which was good. She didn't mind a bruised behind as long as she didn't reinjure her foot. Assuming she wasn't about to be eaten, she needed that foot to heal in time for the spring production of Firebird.
"What was that for?"
Posy glanced up at the figure towering over her. A man. Not another bear. A man.
A man pressing the heels of his hands into his puffy red eyes and groaning as though he'd been doused with pepper spray or something.
Posy glanced at the can of Aqua Net still clutched in her hand. Great. Just great. Someone had actually come to her aid, and she'd maced him.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spray you. I meant to spray him." She pointed toward the bear, which had extricated itself from the trash can and was now spinning happy circles chasing its tail.
Posy stared at it. That didn't seem like normal bear behavior. And now that she got a good look at the creature, it looked less like a bear and more like a.
"My dog?" the man barked. "You wanted to spray my dog with hair spray?"
"Yes." She scrambled rather inelegantly to her feet, gathering up her crutches along the way. "I mean, no."
"Which is it? Yes or no? Me or the dog?" He sounded angry. Angrier than a mama bear defending her cub.
Not that Posy could blame him. She'd had an eyeful of Aqua Net on more than one occasion, particularly in her early years with the dance company when she'd shared a cramped dressing room with every one of the other thirteen members of the corps. It wasn't pleasant.
She forced herself to tear her gaze away from the dog. Not such an easy task. It was an enormous, hulking beast. Very bearlike in appearance, other than the lolling tongue and great swinging tail. She kept doing double takes to make sure it was, in fact, a dog. It let out a woof, and she finally felt safe enough to take her eyes off it.
"Again, I'm sorry. Very sorry." Her cheeks flared with heat. "I thought your dog was a bear."
He removed his hands from his face and looked down at her with incredulous eyes. Red, puffy, incredulous eyes.
Posy lost her balance for a moment, then righted herself. She found it difficult to breathe all of a sudden.
She stared at the man, sure she was hallucinating. A namethe namefrom her past echoed in her ears, along with the pounding of her suddenly out-of-control pulse.
No. It couldn't be. It looked like himsame charmingly rumpled dark hair, same broad shoulders, same chiseled jaw. Except now those shoulders seemed even broader, the jaw more finely sculpted and covered with a dark shadow of masculine stubble. Six years was a long time. Long enough to change a boy into a man, apparently.
"Posy?" he said, the shock she felt down to her core mirrored in his expression.
And for the briefest of moments she was eighteen again, living in a snow-globe world of young love, cozy Alaskan winters and wild-heartbeat romance. Laughter. Long walks among snow-laden evergreens. The thrill of her frosty first kiss while swirling snowflakes gathered in her hair.
She swallowed. "Liam."
His name felt somehow both familiar and foreign on her tongue. Like a favorite thick, cozy cardigan sweater that looked the same as it always had, but no longer seemed to fit once you slipped it on.
"Posy," he said again, a coldness creeping into his voice.
She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but then Liam's gaze dropped lower. To her foot. And the ugly anchor attached to ither plaster cast.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Without even realizing what she was doing, she closed her eyes. Only five days had passed since her injury, but that was long enough for Posy to grow more than weary of the looks of pity that the chunk of plaster elicited from people who knew she was a ballerina. It was like walking around with your biggest inadequacy on display for all the world to see.
If Liam looked at her with even the smallest amount of pity in his gaze, the brave front she'd been putting on for the past five days just might crumble to pieces. Dancing had taught her a lot of thingsdetermination, discipline, how to tolerate pain. But it hadn't prepared her for this: coming face-to-face with her past.
With Liam Blake. The last person in Alaska she wanted to see.
Truth be told, she much preferred the idea of a run-in with a grizzly.
Liam blinked. His eyes burned like a wildfire, and his vision was still a bit fuzzy, but even through the fog of hair spray he could see that familiar swan neck, those long, graceful limbs, those huge, haunted eyes.
With a cast on her foot.
She was injured. Of course. Why else would she have come back? She'd danced away from Alaska as quickly as she could. He should have known there was a reason she'd returned. A reason that had nothing whatsoever to do with the past. With him.
Get over yourself. It was six years ago. She's moved on. You've moved on.
He ground his teeth. He might have moved on, but that didn't mean he had to ask about her foot. Or how it was affecting her dancing. If he so much as uttered the word ballet, he might sound like a jealous lover. Posy may have been his first love, but dance had been hers.
Her first love. Her only love. She'd sacrificed everything for it.
He'd never stood a chance.
He forced his gaze away from the cast. He'd seen a cast on the very same foot before. That first cast had been what started it all. The beginning of the end. He'd felt sorry for her then, which was how he'd let things get so out of hand. In the end, he'd done the right thing, and she'd never forgiven him. In a single bittersweet moment, he'd saved her and lost her at the same time.
If she expected sympathy from him now, she was in for a big disappointment. He'd been down that road before and had no intention of traveling that way again. He jammed his hands on his hips and paid no attention to the cast or the crutches she seemed to be struggling to keep from sliding out from under her.
The injury must be recent.
He chastised himself for wondering about it, pretended not to notice the foot and refocused on her face. Her eyes were closed for some strange reason. He pretended not to notice that, as well. "You thought my dog was a bear?"
"I did." Her lashes fluttered open, and she met his gaze. Full-on eye contact.
Those eyes. Those luminous eyes, the exact color of a stormy winter sea. Misty gray. He'd never forgotten those eyes, no matter how hard he'd tried.
He cleared his throat. "Well, he's not. He's a dog."
As if on cue, Sundog abandoned chasing his tail and bounded over to the two of them. Posy's eyes grew wide, and she teetered backward on her crutches. By the look on her face, anyone would have thought the dog was about to rise up on its hind legs, grizzly-style, and tear her limb from limb.
Liam reached out to keep her from falling. Again. "Careful there."
"I'm fine." She wiggled out of his reach. "Thank you, but I'm fine."
She was fine. He was fine. They were all fine.
Except not really. This whole encounter was as awkward as it could be, and it somehow seemed to be getting worse by the minute.
"What kind of dog is he, anyway? He's as big as a."
"Bear?" Liam asked, grinning despite himself.
She offered him a hesitant smile in return. "I was going to say 'house,' but 'bear' works. Obviously."
"He's a Newfoundland." He watched Posy reach out a tentative hand and stroke Sundog's head.
Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he'd one day be standing in church while a very adult Posy Sutton petted his dog. It didn't seem real. He almost felt as if he was watching a movie about someone else's life.
And what if it had been someone else? What would Liam say to the man standing there with puffy eyes? The man who suddenly had the beginnings of a smile on his face?
Don't be an idiot. What's past is past.
That was precisely what he would say.
He cleared his throat. "It's the dead of winter. Bears are hibernating."
"What?" Posy's hand paused over Sundog's massive head.
"You thought you saw a bear." Liam shrugged. "Not possible. They're all tucked in for winter."
Her brow furrowed. "Oh, that's right. I guess I forgot."
After a prolonged beat of silence, Liam crossed his arms. "I'm sure there are a great number of things you've forgotten. You've been gone a long time."
She flinched a little. Her stormy eyes narrowed. "Six years. Not that long."
He lifted a brow. "Long enough to forget that bears hibernate." What self-respecting Alaskan didn't know that?
But that was precisely the point, wasn't it? Posy hadn't been an Alaskan for quite a while. In truth, Liam envied her. Not because she'd left, but because she'd forgotten. There were plenty of things he'd like to forget.
Her cheeks flushed pink. "The bears are sleeping. Duly noted." Her tone had gone colder than a glacier.
She was angry. Good. So was he. Why exactly, he wasn't quite sure. But he had a feeling it had less to do with his stinging eyes than it did Posy's sudden reappearance in their hometown.