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As soon as she saw him, she wanted to feel him inside her. Almost could. It took her breath away. She reminded herself where she was, fourteen hundred miles from home, in a dim cave of a cocktail lounge-frontier saloon, a place decorated with big screen TVs and dead animals. Restraint was called for here.
A waitress walked by, balancing a loaded tray. "Want a table, hon? Help yourself. Anywhere's good."
He turned then, with a disinterested glance at the door, and froze mid-sip of frothy beer. Finished the sip, put down the mug. She couldn't tell if he was only surprised, or also angry. There was no reason to be angry, not after all this time.
She chose the most direct path between the tables that separated them. No leaping up to greet her, she noticed, no sweeping her into his arms. He didn't budge, other than to take a supercasual swig of beer as he watched her weave to his side. She'd come so far, a stone's throw from the arctic circle, and he couldn't even smile?
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Not only surprised, then. Angry, still.
She climbed onto the bar stool beside his and tried for light-hearted sparkle. "I'm exploring."
"In a skirt and heels?"
"Wrinkle-free fabric." She scrunched a handful of the soft wool-silk blend to demonstrate its Far North worthiness. It was her favorite travel suit, charcoal-gray to show she meant business, with a ruby-red camisole and a small, but real ruby pendant adding not all business. She lifted a foot, resting it on one of his. "Close-toed shoes."
He moved his foot out from under hers.
So far, the visit wasn't going very well. What had she expected? Something more. A hug. A bit of delight to go with the surprise.
He looked enticing, if excessively casual, in denims and a navy blue shirt, his hair forming those little curls over his collar the way it did when he put off getting it cut. He sounded enticing, too, his voice as deep as she remembered. All around him, though, was a wall of bristling, possibly antagonistic, energy.
She smiled at the bartender, who smiled back, blue eyes crinkling at the corners. She was tempted to point him out as an example of how to give a friendly greeting. "Could I have a glass of red wine? Something fruity. Beaujolais? A small glass, or I'll get sleepy."
"Dangerous thing for an explorer," Ian said.
Carrying on a light-hearted conversation all by herself wasn't easy. Sarah swiveled from side to side, aware that he noticed the way her skirt tightened as she moved. "Let me say, in the interests of full disclosure and absolute clarity that although in a sense I am exploring, I'm not an actual explorer. I'm here because I'm taking a holiday."
"Lots of people."
"You're so sure? What if I've changed?"
"Enough to choose this place for a bedtime drink?"
Her gaze followed his to the moose head over the bar, then to a mangy bear near the washroom, stretched upright, its mouth open in a silent, toothy roar.
"Which brings me back to my question," he said.
"Why I'm here?" For the first time since yesterday morning, when she'd begun to make her plans, Sarah saw that it was a very good question. Popped by to see you was the only answer she had. Popped fourteen hundred miles from home to see him. To see this cold-eyed man. "Do I need a reason to travel?"
She knew what he was thinking. To travel to this particular city, to this particular bar stool, yes, she needed a very good, very sensible reason. Behind his controlled expression, she was sure a fight was brewing. A continuation of the last one, after a ten year pause.
It was hard not to be disappointed. This trip had seemed like the best idea in the world. She'd been so pleased with it she'd hugged it to herself all day long. She must have been imagining an alternate universe, where Ian would love the idea, too, because in this one they never spoke to each other. No birthday calls, no Christmas cards. No hint that either of them would be glad to see the other.
Except, she had been glad.
"Of course you don't need a reason." He managed to sound both mild and cold. "It goes without saying you can travel wherever you want. I'm curious about your choice of destination, that's all."
"I've always wanted to see the North. Ever since I first heard about Santa."
It amused her, but there wasn't even a hint of a sparkle in his eyes, nearly black, and shuttered at the moment. And beautiful. Whether they were closing her out or drawing her in as far as she could go, she had always found them beautiful.
"You're annoyed," she said.
"All this time, and you're still annoyed."
"More like skeptical."
"All this time and you're still skeptical."
He leaned on one elbow, rotating his beer bottle and watching her. She couldn't believe the distance he was putting between them. How could distrust last so long? She had as much reason to doubt him, but she wasn't giving him the cold shoulder.
The pieces of her plan had fallen together so easily didn't that mean it was a good one? The stars were aligned, and all that?
The thing was, she'd met someone. Someone kind, handsome, smart, funny. More or less perfect. Of course, any man she liked seemed perfect at first.
Dithering about starting a new relationship was unusual for her, but she felt unsure of herself. Coming here seemed like a chance to get some perspective. Soon she'd be busy with the manuscript of Elizabeth Robb's upcoming book, but right now there was nothing on her desk that Oliver, her partner at Fraser Press, couldn't take care of for her.
Once she'd accepted the idea of getting on a plane, she'd decided to follow a few days in Yellowknife with a trip to Winnipeg. Visiting her parents always settled her down. Then she'd go to Three Creeks, an hour and a half from the city, to encourage and inspire her most breadwinning author. Liz had been disturbingly silent about future projects. That could mean no book the year after next. No one wanted thatnot Liz, not her readers and not Fraser Press.
The only imperfect part of the plan was that if Sarah had thought of it a day or two earlier, she could have saved Liz some hefty courier fees and picked up the current manuscript and illustrations in person.
But now, already, the whole alignment thing seemed in doubt.
She looked at Ian, who was busily ignoring her. They'd only been together for ten minutes. If the visit were a book, this would be the rough draft stage. With some effort, it could still end well.
Ian looked to the side one more time. Yup, still there, still her and still looking at him like a kid with a windup toy.
Well, he wasn't going to play.
He knew he was behaving badly. If he could be civil while interviewing poachers who hunted elephants for their ivory, or coffee growers who slashed and burned Amazonian rain forest, couldn't he be civil to Sarah?
A hard knot in his stomach indicated that no, maybe he couldn't.
Saying she had slashed and burned her way through his life might be overdoing it. But she had bashed her way through a year or two of it.
Not that all the memories were bad ones. That made it worse. She'd thrown so much away.
He still couldn't believe she was sitting there as if no time had passed, as if they'd gone out to the pub for the evening. Beer and darts? Sure, why not?
Amazing. Sarah, of all people.
She looked good.
She looked lovely.
They'd been kids, more or less, when she'd taken off. Now, she was definitely a woman. Her necklace pointed like an arrow to her cleavage, catching the light and blinking, this way, this way.
Statistics weren't his thing, but the probability of the two of them ending up side by side in a Yellowknife bar had to be almost zero.
"Did you call my parents?" he asked. "Someone told you I was here? You're not sick or anything?"
"I'm bursting with health." She smiled, cat that got the cream now that he'd shown concern. Coaxing, looking for a way in. "Does it matter why I came, Ian? We don't have to examine the details, do we? Can't we just go with the flow?"
"I don't think so." Going with the flow had never led to good things.
He leaned against the bar so he could see past her, to one of the televisions on the wall. He'd come down from his room to watch football on the big screen. Bombers versus Argonauts, and after last season, the Bombers had something to prove.
With any luck she'd get bored, and flow someplace else.
Ian seemed to be warming up. At least he'd stopped glaring. Sarah sipped her wine and tried to be unobtrusive while he stared at the TV. After what felt like at least an hour, he made a disgusted sound and turned his back to the screen.
"Am I in the way or are they having trouble catching the ball?"
"We could change seats."
He gave her a less unfriendly look than he had so far. "No, thanks. It's pretty clear how the game's going." He moved his mug back and forth on the bar, like someone reconsidering a chess move. "Did you get in this evening?"
"A couple of hours ago." Right away, she'd discovered the first weakness in her travel plan. Yellowknife was bigger than she'd expected, long and narrow, sticking close to the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, and it was full of desk clerks committed to customer privacy. She'd gone from hotel to hotel, hoping to stumble across him in a lobby or coffee shop or lounge.
And she had. Lucky stars, after all.
"You had quite a chunk of the globe to choose from, if you wanted to see the North," he said. "Bit of a coincidence that you walked into this bar."
"Must have been fate." He didn't like fate. Maybe some tiny part of her was still annoyed, too. Still skeptical.
"You could have gone to Alaska."
"That's true. Nearly straight up from Vancouver, a direct flight. One takeoff, one landing. Much more sensible. You know how I hate takeoffs and landings."
"Or Baffin Island, the Yukon, the Beaufort Sea"
"I'm not keen on seas, especially cold ones."
"Labrador, the Queen Elizabeth Islands"
"That big triangle at the top of the continent."
"I've learned something already! My explorations are bearing fruit." She thought she saw a break in his expression, a tiny, tiny ray of amusement, but it quickly disappeared. She looked at him encouragingly, willing him to realize how much fun it was that they should run into each other in a sportsman's bar in the Northwest Territories.
He frowned. So much for her powers of silent persuasion.
"But you chose this spot."
"The Diamond Capital."
His face cleared. "Is that it? You're looking for diamonds?"
"Myself? In the ground, you mean? I'll concede I'm not dressed for prospecting."
Another flicker, suppressed again.
"Anyway, I have enough diamonds."
"Three, I hear," Ian said. "If you count the first."
"Of course I count the first."
"You're not wearing one now."
"The stone was a hazard," she said lightly. She wished he hadn't noticed. "They made me put it in my checked baggage."
"Was your wedding band a hazard, too?"
This wasn't a discussion Sarah wanted to have. After ignoring her for the better part of an hour, did he have to study her so closely now? What did he think he'd see? Pain? Shame? She wouldn't show him either.
"I'm between wedding bands at the moment."
"Between the second and the third?"
He looked at his beer bottle, long enough, she thought, to read the label five times in both official languages. "That's too bad. You're all right?"
"Of course." At least he didn't seem shocked or titillated by the news, the way some people did. "Puzzled, though. Because here I am, so glad to see you and there you are, so skeptical."
"You surprised me."
"Which I should never, never do."
At last he smiled, and unexpectedly, it was his old smilethe one she'd wanted to seewarm, kind, much better than the bartender's.
"One second I'm watching a football game and the next you're standing in the doorway.You, of all people "
"Here, of all places. A ghost. A bad dream. Indigestion."
His chuckle, brief as it was, instantly made her happy.
"None of the above. More of a fold in time."
"Like being catapulted back ten years "
He'd stopped leaning away from her. Stopped playing with his beer bottle. "Exactly. You came through the door and for a weird millisecond it was like we were back in that dark little apartment on Corydon."