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"What do you mean she's not coming?" Reuben tried to catch his breath after the long dash from the security checkpoint to the gate for his flight. While waiting for Craig to explain this turn of events, he slipped off his suit jacket. He wouldn't ordinarily wear a suit for a long day of travel, but after an early morning meeting ran late, he'd had no time to change.
"She just called. Someone leaked the Henderson Motors buyout news, so now they're having to work double time to both get the deal done and find the source of the leak. Heads are going to roll, and she's on the warpath. You know Leticia. Damn it." Craig looked both impressed by his spouse's reputation and ready to kick something. "And now I've taken a week off to spend time with my wife — no offense, Rube — and she's going to be in meetings while I'm four time zones away with no cell coverage. Fuck this. Last three vacations we've planned have all either been canceled or turned into working trips."
"I know." Reuben wasn't sure what else to say. This whole trip had been Craig's idea. Ever since another partner at Reuben's law firm had returned from seeing his adult kid in Alaska, Craig had been full steam ahead on the idea of going on an Arctic wilderness adventure and had settled on Reuben's impending birthday as an excuse to drag him along. The argument that Reuben and Leticia worked too hard at their law firm was an old one, and Craig had made a passionate case for the trip. He'd also lobbied for Reuben bringing someone along, but that plan had fallen through when Dan broke up with Reuben around Passover. Still smarting from that dismissal, Reuben had no desire to bring someone just for the sake of not being a third wheel. And zero time to date. That too.
"I seriously don't know what to do anymore. We never see each other, and when I do see her, she's shackled to her cell or laptop." Craig rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. "My marriage is crumbling, and hell if I know how to save it."
Reuben was the absolute last person to hand out relationship advice, but he tried for a sympathetic tone. "Do you want to just forget the whole thing?"
"You'd love that, wouldn't you?" Craig's eye roll was worthy of Reuben's teen daughter, not a forty-something corporate event planner. Unlike Reuben, he was dressed more casually in a pullover and khakis and his rumpled hair suggested he'd spent more time that morning worrying about his wife than his appearance. "More time to work for you. But, no, much as I want to run after my wife, we can't completely cancel. This is the family company that Vale's kid's boyfriend works for. They're counting on our business, and it would be beyond rude if all three of us back out. And it's your birthday in two days. Come on, Rube, you seriously want to turn what ... forty-eight this year in an office with a stack of papers in front of you?"
"Eh. It's just another day." Reuben shrugged. And really, it was. He wasn't a big sentimental guy. Amelia, his daughter, had made noises about skipping her end of the year eighth grade field trip to spend the day with him, but he'd insisted she go with her class. It was simply another number on the calendar for him, but Craig loved making productions about holidays. And unlike Reuben, Craig was obsessed with how close to fifty they both were now, something Reuben really tried not to stop and think about. "And I'm not saying to cancel for me. You're going to be miserable. If you stay, at least you can try to see Leticia when she's free, maybe go out to dinner, catch a show with your time off. Staycation or whatever. Try to talk to her, maybe."
"You're not wrong." Craig slumped against a nearby concrete column. "I really do want to save this thing before it's too late. But I know you. If I say I'm not going, you're going to back out as well. And then you'll be at your desk on your birthday."
"Priority boarding for flight 435 to Seattle-Tacoma should begin shortly," a female flight attendant announced over the loudspeaker. Fuck. Not much time to argue with Craig, who was clearly spoiling for a fight.
"Let me worry about my birthday. If I say I'll go ahead and go, would that help?"
"You'd really do that? Go to Alaska without either of us?"
"Is it really that big of a deal?" Reuben didn't like Craig's implication that he'd be helpless on his own. "Sure, it's a long flight, but I did Brisbane and Tokyo last year, Jakarta the year before. Did Europe with Natalie back when we were together, more than once. It's not like I'm a stranger to travel. And there's a guide, right?"
"Yeah, but this is roughing it. Bush planes and national parks."
"Which you were all for even a few hours ago," Reuben reminded him.
"Yeah, I was. And I'm still pissed to have to miss it. Damn Henderson news. So you'll do it?" Craig didn't bother to disguise his skeptical once-over, eyes traveling over Reuben's suit and his leather carry-on.
True, Reuben wasn't exactly dressed for Alaska, but he drew himself up to his full height and gave his friend his best hard stare, the one that usually sent first-year associates scurrying for their desks. "Sure."
Now going felt almost like a point of pride. If Craig really thought he wasn't up to the task or would chicken out, something ridiculous, he'd forgotten who Reuben was. One of the most sought-after corporate lawyers in the tristate region, a fixer with a reputation he'd honed for twenty-five years now. Partner in a large firm with an impeccable reputation for getting the job done. He didn't shy away from challenges. Sure, he'd rather do almost anything other than fly to Anchorage today, but he was perfectly capable of going, making Vale happy — which might give him an ally in the current management drama at the firm — and proving Craig wrong at the same time. Win-win.
"Okay. Okay. Thank you." Craig smiled for the first time since Reuben had shown up, but it was a tentative grin with none of his usual confidence.
Reuben clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll handle this. You handle your relationship. I've got faith you guys can get through this." He tried to put conviction behind his words. Granted, his own relationships seldom survived his career, but he did believe Craig and Leticia were good for each other. If anyone could make the never-ending work and life-balance thing work, it would be them.
"Yeah. And who knows, maybe this will be good for you. A nice escape on your own. Tell me you're not bringing work."
"Just for the flight," Reuben lied. He figured with a string of boring nights ahead of him, he could get through a backlog of document reading as long as he had power. But Craig would scoff at that plan.
"Socialize. Chat up the guide. Hike. Enjoy yourself."
"Now boarding for our first class and priority members for flight 435 service to Seattle-Tacoma."
"That would be me," Reuben said, mainly to avoid more life advice from Craig. "Take care of Leticia."
"Okay, will do. I'll message the guide, tell him it'll only be you."
"You do that." Reuben forced himself to smile and not grimace at the sudden realization that he and this tourist guide were about to be stuck with each other, like it or not. Probably some grizzled old mountain man pilot, older than Reuben, like those guys on the reality show Dan had made him watch an episode or two of. Maybe he'd be the strong but silent — please God silent — type and leave Reuben to his reading in peace. Yes. That would be perfect. If the guide kept to himself and didn't expect much out of him, maybe this whole thing wouldn't be so terrible.
* * *
"So, the bear is like right there, staring us down, near the doors to the plane, and we need to take off soon to get the folks back in time for their flights home. And what you think we did next?" Toby deliberately widened his eyes and leaned forward, enjoying how the two other patrons at the hotel bar did the same thing.
He hadn't yet figured out whether the two young out-of-towners were brother and sister, friends, or a couple, but he did love a captive audience, and they were an excellent distraction while he waited for this week's client to show. Client, singular, because apparently one of the other two was some high-powered super attorney who'd bailed on the Alaska vacation at the last possible minute. And knowing how lawyers loved to nickel and dime people, he had no doubt the missing two would suggest that a refund was in order. A personalized private bush plane tour wasn't cheap, and Toby had been counting on his percentage of the take from three tourists, not one. One who was late at that.
"Drink?" The bartender asked a well-dressed man walking up to the bar area right as Toby was about to continue his story. Given that the dude certainly looked like he could afford Toby's services even as his pricey duds hardly looked ready for the backcountry, Toby got off his stool and moved away from the eager duo.
"Not yet. I'm meeting someone." The guy had an East Coast accent with a tone that said he was used to being listened to. He looked around, distracted, eyes scanning right past Toby. Typical. Thousand-dollar suit and not the sense of a reindeer.
"Mr. Graham?" Toby stuck out a hand. He was wearing an official Barrett Tours polo — new this season because his boss was never going to stop dreaming up expansion plans — and clean jeans but he still felt decidedly unkempt next to this guy's smooth elegance. He supposed some people would call the guy a silver fox — older, distinguished face, well-trimmed facial scruff and full head of silver-tinged hair — but silver bear might be more accurate, given his height, broad shoulders, and overall bulk. Older didn't usually do it for Toby, but he had to admit the guy was hot in that aging-movie-star, rich-dude sort of way. "I'm Tobias Kooly, your guide. Glad you made it."
"Call me Reuben, please." He shook Toby's hand — nice firm grip, large hand, the sort of confidence Toby associated with a guy who got things done. "This is supposed to be a vacation. I can be Mr. Graham back in the office. And since it's just us, we might as well be informal."
"You've got it. My friends mainly call me Toby. And speaking of friends, I'm sorry yours couldn't make it. Man, passing on a vacation to stay in the office. Can't imagine doing that. But lawyers, right?"
Reuben did a slow blink, the sort of thing that immediately told Toby he'd screwed up. "I'm a lawyer too. And yes, these things happen. Way too often, actually. Millions — possibly billions — are on the line in the deal Leticia stayed behind for."
"Oh, sorry." Fuck it. He didn't usually suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, but he'd clearly gone for the wrong tone here. Not the start he wanted. "Didn't mean to be flip. And I thought my boss said you were an events planner."
"No, that's Leticia's husband." Reuben's sigh made Toby feel like he hadn't done a good enough job listening to Annie's rundown of the clients. "And good that you mentioned boss as I suppose you have some paperwork for me? Waivers and such? We might as well get that over with."
"I do." Toby grabbed his folder off the bar. The guy sounded like Toby was offering a colonoscopy, not a week of fun, which meant Toby was going to have to work harder than usual to make a good impression. "But you're probably starving. Let's grab a table. It's dinnertime here, but you're a bunch of hours ahead. We usually tell people to come a day or so early to get acclimated to the time change."
"We didn't have that kind of time." Reuben followed Toby to a nearby table, but cast a glance over his shoulder at the other tourists. "You don't need to finish up with your ... friends?"
Damn it. Not that Toby had been doing anything wrong, having a soda to kill time and getting a little bit of flirt on, but Reuben made him feel like he'd been goofing off on the clock.
"Nah. Let's get you some food." He did spare a smile and a little wave for the other tourists though, just to prove he wasn't a total ass, raising his voice to say, "Sorry. Business calls." The duo waved back and returned to their drinks.
Reuben had the sort of distant but respectful manner with the server that Toby had come to expect from rich people, fussing over the wine list but not dipping into rude territory. Toby stuck with his soda and ordered the burger he always got when meeting clients at the hotel. He could expense his food, but he tried not to take advantage of that. He'd leave the steak and garlic mashed potatoes to Reuben, who also ordered a red wine with a name Toby wasn't even going to try to pronounce.
"Thanks for suggesting food." Reuben cut his meat into small, precise bites. "The options on the plane were decidedly lacking."
"Your friends did tell you that most of the meals on the trip are fairly rustic, right?" Toby didn't want him getting his expectations up that all meals would be this nice. "It's all small local lodges and simple but hearty meals. Some of the lodges have wine or beer, but the selection is usually limited."
"I'll be fine." Reuben waved Toby's concern away. "I grew up in Brooklyn on very basic fare. I'm not a picky eater."
"Good." Toby pulled out the paperwork Annie had sent, glancing down at the itinerary before handing it to Reuben. "I'm planning to stick mainly to what we worked out for the three of you, but you can tell me if you don't want to do something, and we can change it up."
"Excellent. I'm sure Craig and your boss came up with a good plan, but I don't mind more downtime. I brought plenty to keep me busy."
"I can't guarantee Wi-Fi at most of the stops." This wouldn't be Toby's first corporate client who couldn't disconnect from work, and explaining the limited cell and internet service was never fun.
"I expected that. I preloaded plenty of reading on my laptop, which has a long battery life."
"That should be okay. Most places have electricity." Personally, Toby couldn't see the value of bringing a stack of work on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. And why look at a laptop instead of the scenery? But he nodded anyway. He knew better than to argue with a client. If Reuben wanted to work the trip away, so be it. "We leave first thing in the morning — it's an early start, which is why we usually meet up the night before. But you did have a long trip in. Do you want me to try to push the flight plan back?"
"Don't be ridiculous." Reuben's stare had a hard edge to it, a man who would not stand for coddling, which Toby could respect. The look also made his insides heat, an unexpected spark of arousal — commanding didn't usually turn his crank, but as he was in the midst of something of a dry spell, he supposed even hot, older, presumably straight silver bears could get his motor humming.
"Sorry." He looked away, not wanting to reveal his line of thinking — this was not a guy who would take kindly to being Toby's eye candy for the week.
"I'm used to long days. As long as there's coffee, I'll be perfectly fine."
"There will be time to grab coffee before we head to the seaplane," Toby assured him.
Dinner almost finished, Reuben took a long sip of his wine. "Now, about that paperwork? I really should think about checking my email."
The man had to be exhausted and in dire need of sleep, but Toby had a feeling this guy would never admit such mundane needs. So Toby focused on getting him to sign the necessary waivers. Exactly like every other lawyer Toby had ever met, Reuben took his sweet time reading the waivers, frown lines deepening with each page until finally he let out a mighty harrumph.
"Not your doing, but your boss needs better boilerplate." Reuben shook his head.
"I can't take you up in the plane unless you sign." Toby had been down this road before with clients who wanted to cross out sections or write in others. Someone please save him from the rich and picky.
"Fine. Guess I'm putting my life in your hands." Reuben signed, and Toby's insides did a weird shimmy, like maybe he didn't want that responsibility, didn't want the possibility of letting this man down.
"Thank you." Toby took cell pictures of the signed documents for Annie and returned them to his folder so she'd have a hard copy for her records.
"So ..." Reuben sat back in his chair, not in the apparent hurry to get up to his room that Toby would have figured. "How does the story end? What did you do to the bear?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arctic Wild"
Copyright © 2019 Annabeth Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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