True North

Beverly Brandt

St. Martin's Paperbacks

True North
Chapter 1
GLANCING AT HER WATCH, CLAIRE BROWN DID THE SAME calculation she'd done a hundred times over the past week.
The flight from Seattle to Aspen was scheduled to leave at 7:30 A.M. She'd already called the airline once to make sure the departure time hadn't changed. Counting backward, she gave herself enough time to arrive at the airport an hour early to meet her fiancé and added an extra half hour for bad traffic. She was down to only twenty minutes to finish her makeup, dry her hair, get dressed, and finish the last of her packing.
Claire took a deep breath, picking up the pace of her morning routine. Her first hope of "maybe the cab will be late" turned almost immediately to "please, don't let the cab be late" as a new worry creased her brow. She had better call the cab company again.
With her blond hair mostly dry, she pushed a tortoiseshell headband behind her ears and zipped up the neatly packed bag of toiletries. Although she was accustomed to packing for two- or three-day business trips, not week-long vacations, she made sure that everything fit neatly into one large suitcase and an overnight bag. She refused to be one of those women who felt she had to bring every change of clothing she owned on vacation just in case she got a sudden invitation to meet the queen of England or something equally implausible. She knew plenty of women like that, women who went on two-day business trips with enough junk for a month. Usually, those were the ones who expected her to help them lug their crap through crowded airports or heave their incredibly heavy bags up into the overhead luggage bins.
Claire shook her head, then placed her makeup bag intothe carry-on next to her cell-phone charger, her emergency change of underwear, the book she might want to read during the three-hour flight to Colorado, and four months' worth of back issues of Money magazine she hoped to catch up on during her time off. Nobody could accuse her of not being able to fend for herself, she thought proudly. Tightening the belt of her robe, she picked up the telephone and dialed the number of the cab company.
"Star Taxi," came the curt reply after the fifth ring.
"Good morning. This is Claire Brown. I have a cab scheduled to take me to Sea-Tac at five-thirty this morning. I want to make sure he's going to be on time."
There was a long pause on the other end of the line and Claire thought they'd been disconnected. She was about to hang up and redial when she heard a long-suffering sigh.
"Listen, lady, you've called three times in the last twelve hours. The cab's gonna be on time. Please stop calling."
Claire studied her perfectly manicured nails. She hated to be a pest, but she'd always found it worked best to keep on top of people. Otherwise, they ignored you, or forgot about you, or ... well, they didn't do what you wanted them to do when you wanted them to do it. "I'm sorry, I just wanted to make sure he'll be here on time."
The dispatcher's terse swearing preceded the click of the phone. Claire listened to the dial tone for a second before hanging up her own receiver.
"How rude," she muttered, then turned her attention to the pile of neatly folded clothes sitting on a chair in her bedroom.
She began snipping R.E.I. tags off her new clothes in preparation for loading the last of her gear into her suitcase. Unlike her fiancé, Bryan, Claire was not an avid outdoorsman, so their nine-day sojourn into the wilds of Colorado had meant a brand-new Gore-Tex wardrobe for her. Claire looked over at the colorful brochure sticking out of her carry-on case and had to admit that staying at the luxurious, twenty-room Hunter's Lodge could hardly be considered roughing it.
She smiled, then tucked a snowy white T-shirt into a pair of stiff khakis and slipped a dark brown sweater over her shoulders. A nice pair of leather flats and, ta-da, she thought, eyeing herself critically in the full-length mirror, you are ready for anything, just like that catalog said. The outfit was perfect for an early September day, warm enough to keep out any chilly breezes, but she could always take off the sweater if she got too hot.
After hanging her robe on the back of the bathroom door, Claire hefted the carry-on over her shoulder and glanced at her watch again. Five minutes till the cab--
The knock on her front door interrupted her thoughts. She took a deep, calming breath. The cab was early.
A second knock had her scurrying down the stairs, her suitcase banging against her shins. Glancing through the peephole, she saw a short, elderly man wearing jeans and a light blue jacket with the Star Taxi logo embroidered over the right breast.
"Morning," the man said cheerfully as she opened the door.
"Good morning. Here are my bags." Claire handed him her overnight bag and suitcase, then turned to pick up her purse and the heavy computer bag she'd left in the foyer when she'd arrived home the night before.
Making sure all the lights in the townhouse were off, Claire gave the room one last once-over and saw the light on her answering machine blinking furiously. She cursed silently as the strap of her laptop bag dug into her shoulder. Someone must have called while she'd been in the shower. Or, they could have called last night, she supposed. She was at the office even later than usual, trying to get everything in order so she could leave for her vacation. She'd arrived home after midnight and didn't remember even glancing in the direction of the phone.
A short, yet insistent, burst from the horn of the taxi made the decision for her. She'd have to ignore it. It was probably her friend Meg, calling to wish her bon voyage. Or maybe it was her mother. Had something happened toFather? Claire hesitated on the threshold. Maybe she should--
The driver tapped his horn again and a light went on in the townhouse next to hers. Claire turned away from the insistent blinking of the message machine. Rather than dawdle and risk the cab driver waking up the entire neighborhood, she shut the door, locking away the sight of the red blink with a click of the dead bolt
"Brown residence. Sumner Brown speaking."
Claire unconsciously straightened up in the back seat of the cab and cleared her throat. "Hello, Father. It's Claire," she began, then cursed herself for an idiot. Of course it was Claire. Who else would be calling Sumner Brown "Father"? She shook her head, rested her cell phone on her shoulder, and took a deep breath, blaming her nerves on the extra cup of coffee she'd hastily swallowed this morning. "There was a message on my machine this morning but I didn't have time to listen to it before I had to leave. Did Mother call?"
"I don't know why she would have. Everything's fine here."
Claire tried to contain her disappointment at the cool tone in her father's voice. Obviously, he couldn't conceive of either her mother or himself calling their only child just to chat. She supposed she should be grateful that nothing was wrong and attempted to cover her disappointment with her usual Miss Chipper Good Daughter routine.
"Things are great here, too. I landed the Prime Seafood account last week, which puts me in the Million-Dollar Club again this year. My boss said I might be up for another promotion before the year's out." She'd been working on reeling in the Prime Seafood account for over two years and was proud of her coup. The claims-adjusting contract was worth more than two hundred thousand dollars to her office alone, and the promotion would make her the youngest senior account coordinator in the company.
"Hmm. Well, I'll tell your mother you called," SumnerBrown said before hanging up, leaving Claire staring at the blank display of her cell phone.
The urge to scream was almost overwhelming. It was just like the first time she'd ridden a bike without training wheels. Frankly, it was just like it was with every accomplishment in her life. She'd proudly exclaim, "Look, Daddy. Look what I can do!" only to have her father barely acknowledge her existence. Frustrated, she stuffed the phone into her purse and stared out at the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the dingy gray highway. Red brake lights flashed on and off, on and off, as they crept like multicolored snails on the rain-slick pavement.
How was it that her father could make her feel like an inadequate little girl in the space of a two-minute conversation? And why did she let him? When was she ever going to learn that the parental well was not the place she should dip into for approval? There were other, better places for that--namely, work, where she was consistently rewarded for her efforts. Work never let her down, and for that she was grateful. At least there was something in her life she could count on.
Claire put a hand on the laptop bag sitting next to her on the seat, then looked at her watch and felt her frustration grow. Her thirty-minute cushion had been eaten into by the eight-car pileup they'd passed on the freeway. To make matters worse, she was beginning to suspect the cab company had sent her the only driver in the state who strictly obeyed the speed limit. They were on the last leg of their journey, having just taken the exit to the airport where the speed limit plunged to twenty miles an hour. Other cars sped past them, doing at least forty now that traffic had finally thinned out a bit.
"Could you speed it up a little?" Claire asked the back of the cab driver's head.
He met her eyes in the rear-view mirror and answered earnestly, "I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm already exceeding the limit by three miles per hour."
Claire forced herself to take a calming breath. The urgeto leap over the seat and shove her foot down on the accelerator was almost overwhelming. "You must learn to accept that which you cannot change," she closed her eyes and chanted silently to herself. That's what Nathan, her Guerrilla Yoga instructor would say. Of course, then he'd kick the crap out of something. She'd bet there wasn't much Nathan couldn't change when he set his mind to it, but supposed that was the difference between the Zen of a former Navy SEAL and that of an insurance claims adjuster like herself.
"Here we are." The cab finally crawled to a stop alongside the airport curb.
The airport was already bustling with travelers, even though it was Saturday and just past 7 A.M. The two lanes of traffic reserved for dropping off passengers and luggage moved in a chaotic rhythm as the cars jockeyed for position at the terminal. Claire chastised herself for not allowing enough travel time as she handed some bills to the driver and struggled to balance her luggage.
She pulled her bags into the terminal and got in line behind the single other passenger waiting to check in at the first class counter, wishing she'd been able to cram a week's worth of clothing, hiking boots, backpack, and other associated outdoor gear into something that would fit into an overhead bin. Instead, she'd allowed herself a larger bag, thinking that she'd have plenty of time to get it checked before the flight.
Glancing at the long line of coach passengers waiting to check in, she congratulated herself for having splurged on first class tickets for Bryan and herself and hoped his morning was turning out better than hers. They had agreed to meet at the gate since he was coming from his house south of the airport and she from her townhouse in Kirkland, a suburb east of Seattle. They hadn't talked at all during the past week and Claire assumed the plan hadn't changed since she didn't see him waiting for her here at the check-in counter. She'd been so busy at work trying to make sure everything would continue to run smoothly the week she'dbe gone, she hadn't had time to give him a call. He must have been equally busy, since he hadn't called her, either. But the last time they'd talked, he'd sounded excited about the trip, a gift she'd given him two months ago on his thirty-fourth birthday.
Shifting her laptop bag to her other shoulder, Claire wished she shared more interests with Bryan. He loved all kinds of physical activities, especially those that involved rain, dirt, and not taking showers for days on end. Claire preferred her exercise to be of the one-hour, air-conditioned, top-of-the-line-equipment variety. Their differing interests were what had prompted her to send away for a brochure after she'd run across an article about Hunter's Lodge in Colorado. She and Bryan had spent so much time apart these last few months, she hoped this vacation would help them to reconnect emotionally. And what better place to get connected than a romantic lodge in the Colorado wilderness? Hooked by beautiful pictures of nice, clean people wandering around the forest with glasses of wine or plates of sumptuous-looking food in their hands, Claire had spared no expense on her birthday present to Bryan. They were booked into the most expensive suite at the lodge, which featured a whirlpool bath and an authentic river-rock fireplace right there in the room.
"Next, please," the ticket agent called, having finished with the passenger ahead of Claire.
Struggling with her bags, Claire hefted the heaviest one onto the ticket agent's scale before reaching into her purse for her driver's license and frequent flyer card.
"Good morning. I have an electronic ticket on flight 604 to Aspen."
The agent took her identification and began typing rapidly on her computer. Claire started to relax. She was going to make it. She'd just have to rush through security and maybe do a little sprint down the concourse, but she'd be meeting Bryan in less than five minutes and everything would be fine. Claire interrupted her mental pep talk as she noticed a puzzled frown come over the ticket agent's brow.The woman's nails clackety-clicked over the computer keys at an even faster pace.
"Is something wrong?"
"Mmm ..." The ticket agent's eyes remained glued to the screen and Claire's blood pressure inched upward. "I'm sorry, Miss Brown, but it appears as if your reservation on flight 604 was canceled a week ago."
"But, but ..." Claire sputtered, then started over. "I didn't cancel my reservation. Could you please check again?"
The agent eyed her up and down, as if considering whether she was worth the trouble.
"Please," Claire pleaded. "My fiancé and I are going on our first vacation together. He's probably waiting for me at the gate right now, wondering what's happened. Could you check again?"
The clackety-clicking began again, then stopped with an air of finality. "I'm sorry, Miss Brown, but your reservation was canceled by Associated Travel Services last Monday. Is that the travel agent who booked the ticket?"
"Yes," Claire answered, confused. She hadn't asked ATS to cancel her reservation.
"Perhaps you should call them. Can I help the next--"
"No, wait, please," Claire interrupted desperately. "Can I buy another ticket? I can work this all out with the travel agent on Monday."
"Certainly, Miss Brown, but all the first class seats are sold. If you'd like to get in the economy line, I'm sure they can help you. Now, can I help--"
Claire had ten minutes before the plane left without her. She did not consider herself an aggressive person by nature, and, later, she would be slightly embarrassed by the forcefulness brought on by desperation.
"No," she said frantically, raising her arms out at her sides like a traffic cop. The woman in line behind her stopped in her tracks.
Glancing at the agent's name tag, Claire stood her ground. "Please, Amy. You don't understand. I don't knowwhy or how my reservation got canceled, but my flight is leaving in ten minutes and I need to be on it. I'd be happy to go wait my turn in economy if there was a snowball's chance in hell that I could get through that line in time, but we both know that's not going to happen. So, I'm begging you, take my credit card and get me a seat on that flight." Claire took a deep breath, slipped the plastic card across the counter, and pleaded, "Please? Any seat will do."
Her usually soft gray eyes met Amy's light blue gaze over the computer terminal.
It was a Mexican standoff over a set of American Tourister luggage.
As the computer keys started clicking again, Claire released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"All right, Miss Brown. The flight is leaving out of gate C16. Here's your ID and your boarding pass. I can't guarantee your luggage will make it."
Claire's face lit up as she smiled. "Thank you, Amy." She turned to the woman in line behind her, who looked just as harried as Claire imagined she herself did. "Thank you, too. I hope you have a good trip."
"You'd better run," the ticket agent interrupted Claire's rush of gratitude. "I'll call the gate and tell them you're on your way, but they have a schedule to keep."
Claire arrived at the gate, sweating, her shoulder aching from the weight of her computer bag and overnight case. She was sure she'd have matching purple bruises on both thighs from where each bag had taken a turn smacking against her as she ran. Bryan wasn't waiting for her and she assumed he had already boarded since the agent at the gate was about to close the door.
"Wait, wait!" Claire yelled, holding out her boarding pass.
"You almost missed it." The agent ripped the ticket, handing Claire her section before waving her on. "Enjoy the flight."
"Thank you," Claire answered automatically before sprinting down the jetway.
As she stepped onto the Boeing 737, she spotted the familiar face of her fiancé and felt an instant sense of relief. They had both made it. Everything would be fine. Obviously, his ticket hadn't been canceled along with hers because Bryan was comfortably ensconced up in first class, sipping what appeared to be a screwdriver and chatting with an attractive woman seated next to the window.
"Bryan, you'll never guess what happened ..." Claire began, noting the look of surprise on her fiancé's face as he looked up at the sound of her voice. He must have thought she was going to miss the flight. She was a little disappointed that he hadn't waited for her, but she vowed to forgive him since everything had turned out all right.
"What are you doing here?" Bryan asked.
Feeling happy with the world now that she'd made the flight, Claire bent down to hug him, awkwardly balancing her luggage behind her back to avoid smacking the seated passengers. "I almost missed the flight, but don't worry. Everything's going to be fine now."
"Ma'am, you need to be seated right away. The captain's ready to push back from the gate." A tall dark-haired flight attendant began shooing her back to coach.
"I'll have to fill you in later. I'm just glad it's all worked out." Releasing Bryan from her embrace, Claire smiled and allowed herself to be shooed.
"I'm happy just to have made the flight," she repeated to herself as she gazed around the plane. Every seat was taken, as usual. She glanced down at the stub in her hand. Twenty-nine E. A center seat. Oh, well, at least she'd made the flight.
Row 29 was the last row on the plane, conveniently located just in front of the lavatories. The flight attendant working the coach section opened the door of the bathroom to make sure it was empty, then locked the door for takeoff. Claire wrinkled her nose in distaste as the uniquely unpleasant scent of airline toilet wafted out.
Claire glanced at the window seat of the row where a tired-looking woman sat. A little boy who Claire guessed to be about three years old sat in the aisle seat. He looked up at Claire, his thumb in his mouth. She wondered if maybe the little guy was in the wrong seat. After all, wouldn't the child sit next to his mother?
"Is this your son, ma'am?" Claire asked, her overnight bag digging a permanent groove into her shoulder.
The woman in the window seat looked up with a friendly smile. A strand of lank brown hair fell into her eyes and she pushed it back behind her ear. Claire noticed the woman's hands looked younger than the lines on her face would suggest. "Yes, that's my little Billy," she answered, obviously proud of her progeny.
"Shouldn't he sit next to you?" Claire asked, hoping she would be able to get out of being squashed like a human sardine in the middle seat.
"Oh, no," the woman answered. "Little Billy's not potty-trained yet so he needs to sit as close to the bathroom as he can. He has accidents, you know."
"Then, don't you want to sit next to him?" Even in the window seat she'd get an extra inch or two and some semblance of privacy.
Her hopes were dashed as the woman responded, "No, but thank you anyway. You see, I'm terrified of flying and my doctor gave me some sleeping pills to take before the flight. He suggested I make sure to get a window seat so I wouldn't be disturbed by the commotion of people walking up and down the aisles."
Claire sighed, her happiness at making the flight somewhat diminished.
"Ma'am, could you please take your seat?" a blond flight attendant encouraged impatiently.
"Are there any aisle or window seats available?" She tried one last-ditch effort to find a comfortable spot to rest for the next three hours.
"No, this flight is completely full. Perhaps if you'd been an hour early as airline guidelines suggest we could haveaccommodated you, but, as it is, we just don't have any options. Now, I need you to take your seat immediately. The captain is ready to push back from the gate."
Claire didn't care for the woman's lecture, much less her unsympathetic tone, but reminded herself she was glad she'd made the flight. "I don't suppose there's any room in the overhead bins for this?" Claire asked, pointing to her overnight bag.
"No, I'm sorry. You'll have to store it under the seat in front of you. I'm sure this little guy won't mind if you use his space, too." The flight attendant smiled at little Billy, who continued to stare fixedly at Claire.
"Thanks anyway, I guess," Claire mumbled.
She leaned over Billy to drop her computer bag on her seat, then pushed her overnight bag under the seat in front of the boy.
The logistics of trying to squeeze oneself and one's belongings into a space no bigger than a breadbox while also attempting to not maul, crush or otherwise abuse one's fellow travelers was difficult in the best of circumstances. In the end, Claire managed to get by with only stepping on little Billy's mother's toes once and smacking the toddler's thumb out of his mouth with her purse twice. She apologized profusely after finally managing to contort herself into the seat and considered the feat as no less than a miracle, given the circumstances.
At last, the plane pushed back from the gate. Claire hoped she'd delayed the flight long enough for her luggage to make its way aboard but, what the heck, wouldn't it be every man's fantasy if his fiancée was stranded without any clothes for a week? She grinned to herself at the thought.
The captain announced that they were number one for takeoff, and a male flight attendant came through on his final check of the cabin. Claire fastened her seat belt and closed her eyes, intending to practice one of her yoga techniques to get her elevated blood pressure under control.
"Excuse me, ma'am. Your son's seat belt must be fastened for takeoff."
Claire vaguely heard the flight attendant as she started a relaxation exercise from her Guerrilla Yoga class at the gym. "Breathe in ... Go to the happy place ... Breathe out ..."
"Ma'am," the man's voice insisted.
Claire opened her left eye to see the attendant staring at her with disgust. A loud snore had her glancing right. The plane wasn't even off the ground and little Billy's mother was already sound asleep. The flight attendant obviously thought the boy was her son.
"But he's not my ..." The flight attendant continued staring at her as if wondering what rock Claire had just crawled out from under. Claire sighed. For some reason her week-long adventure was starting off all wrong, and there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it.
"Here, little Billy, the plane can't go bye-bye until you're all buckled up," she cooed in her best kid-pleasing voice, leaning over the silent child to reach for the buckle end of the seat belt.
Little Billy let out a bloodcurdling scream, a direct hit into her left eardrum.
His mother's snoring didn't even change its tempo.
Claire dropped the buckle. People around her stared as little Billy kept up his hollering. She decided to meet the problem head-on.
"Look, little fella, this isn't going to hurt. It's just like the seat belt you wear in your car."
Little Billy cried harder, a feat Claire hadn't thought possible. The flight attendant continued eyeing her with disdain. She tried jostling the boy's mother, but the snoring continued.
"If you stop crying and wear the seat belt, I'll give you a dollar," Claire offered in desperation.
Wiping his runny nose on his sleeve, the boy miraculously stopped crying and held out his hand to accept her bribe. Realizing that she'd been hoodwinked, Claire shook her head. "Uh-uh. Seat belt first."
As the buckle snapped shut, Claire rummaged throughher purse for the payoff. It was going to be a long flight, she thought, as the plane took off down the runway.
"Com-poo-ter, com-poo-ter, com-poo-ter." Little Billy jumped up and down in his seat, excitedly chanting and pointing at the laptop she had balanced on her knees. Claire tried to ignore him and concentrate on the screen in front of her. The Fasten Seat Belt sign was still lit, and people all around her were giving her the stink-eye for letting Billy run amok. The problem was, she didn't know how to stop him. She was the only child of parents who were only children. She didn't have cousins, had never been pressed into baby-sitting service, and had no idea how to get the tyke to behave in the calm, courteous, children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard manner that her parents had always expected of, and received from, her.
Bribery had worked for the first hour of the flight, but she had run out of small bills by now, having already handed over almost twenty bucks to make Billy stay in his chair, stop running up and down the aisle, stop kicking her suitcase, stop yanking on the seat in front of him, stop pressing the button for the flight attendant, and stop flushing things down the toilets.
To make matters worse, about an hour ago, little Billy's slumbering mother had shifted in her seat, reducing Claire's already-cramped seating space by another six inches. Then the guy in front of her leaned his seat all the way back--as if the extra two inches could possibly make him any more comfortable--causing Claire to have to slump in her seat and pull her laptop onto her stomach in order to continue working. To top it all off, the turbulence had been awful and the captain hadn't turned off the seat belt sign once. So, not only was she crammed into a space that was shrinking by the minute, she also hadn't been able to go up and speak to Bryan.
Claire closed her eyes and gladly turned her thoughts to her fiancé. Bryan had seemed surprised to see her. He was probably concerned that she was so late since Claire pridedherself on always being on time. In the entire year and a half they'd known each other, she hadn't been late even once. It was a lesson she'd learned at an early age from her father. After being told to meet him at five o'clock one evening after an elementary-school event, Claire had dawdled, enjoying a conversation with one of her teachers. She'd been out at the curb at four minutes past five, only to see the familiar family car driving away without her. Fortunately, she'd been able to get a ride home with a friend, but her father had made his point. Five o'clock meant five o'clock. Period.
So, it made sense that Bryan was surprised to see her racing down the aisle with mere seconds to spare. Claire stretched her legs and leaned back in her seat. It had certainly been a less-than-optimal beginning to their first vacation together, but she vowed that it would get better from here. It was going to be such fun, she thought, a smile playing on her lips. A part of her almost hoped the weather wouldn't cooperate. It would be nice to snuggle up together in front of the river-rock fireplace in their room. They'd sip wine and talk about something other than work for once while the logs crackled away. Outside, it would be cold and rainy, but in their room, she and Bryan would be cozy and--
Just then, the seat belt sign went off and Claire heaved a sigh of relief. Standing up, she set her laptop down on her seat and prepared to bolt to safety. Now was her chance to run up to the first class cabin to talk to Bryan and leave someone else to tend to the human whirlwind in the next seat.
At that thought, she made the mistake of glancing over at the little tyke. His big brown eyes looked at her forlornly, as if she were abandoning him. He blinked up at her, tears starting to form in his eyes.
She looked over at little Billy's mother, who had taken advantage of Claire's departure to claim even more of Claire's seat for her own. There was not going to be any last-minute reprieve from that corner.
She thought fast. What could she do to occupy the kid's time until she got back? She ran through the list of things in her purse that a toddler might find amusing, but didn't think he'd be entertained for long with a tube of Clinique Air Kiss lip gloss, her emergency supply of tampons, or her business card collection. What did she have that might work as a diversionary tactic? Her gaze fell on her laptop. Billy had been fascinated by it ever since she'd taken it out of the case. She was sure there must be games on it somewhere. That might keep the little fella entertained. Besides, what could he do to it in the few minutes she'd be gone?
"Do you want to play on the com-poo-ter?" she asked, imitating the mommy-speak she'd overheard other women using on children and feeling like an idiot.
Billy cheered up instantly, clapping his chubby, toddler hands in a gesture that Claire guessed meant "yes."
She leaned over, picked up the computer, and put it on Billy's tray table. It took her a few moments to find the Solitaire game, but was happy to see the bright colors holding Billy's rapt attention when she started the program. She showed him how to use the track ball to move the mouse, but didn't bother explaining the finer points of the game. Even she, with her limited knowledge of children, knew that was probably a bit much for a three-year-old's comprehension. When she left, he was happily clicking away and chortling as the cards moved around on the screen. Congratulating herself on her brilliant idea, Claire picked her way up to the front of the plane, squeezing past the beverage cart that was now on its way to the rear of the aircraft.
She ignored the accusing stares of the first class passengers and staff as she pushed open the curtain separating the aviation elite from the common folk back in steerage. She had to admit, the bathroom-to-passenger ratio alone was enough to make her long for first class, not to mention the free drinks and extra legroom.
Claire noticed Bryan's head was leaning awfully close to his next-chair neighbor and pushed aside the thought thatwith all the extra room up here, he didn't need to be getting quite so cozy with his fellow passenger.
"Bryan, I'm so glad you didn't have the same trouble I did. Somehow, my reservation got canceled."
Bryan's head abruptly swiveled around and Claire noticed the flush of color on his cheeks. Obviously, he was taking advantage of the free booze up here. Glancing at the tomatoey-looking beverage Bryan's neighbor was holding, Claire briefly wondered if the flight attendant would be nice enough to get her a Bloody Mary too, but from the frowning looks she was getting from the blue-suited attendant, she decided not to press her luck.
"Claire, I left you a--" Bryan's words were interrupted when the plane suddenly bucked upward.
She hadn't expected the violent turbulence and pitched forward as the seat belt sign blinked on once again. Claire tried to steady herself with a hand on the headrest of Bryan's seat, but the plane hit a pocket of air and plummeted a few feet, sending her sprawling across the breakfast-laden tray tables of Bryan and his seat mate. Sterling silverware and dishes clattered. The salt-and-pepper-haired woman in the window seat screeched and scrambled eggs went flying. Low murmurs started among the other passengers; a hushed, disapproving cloud of sentiment that clearly implied this sort of thing should be expected when members of coach class were allowed on the wrong side of the curtain.
As the plane steadied itself, Claire lay motionless, wishing she could open the window and be sucked out into the atmosphere. All sound around her had ceased. She shifted, trying to extricate herself from her embarrassing position. A fork clattered to the floor and Claire flinched when the thump of it hitting the carpet broke the eerie silence that had settled over the first class cabin.
"Ma'am, you need to get back to your seat and fasten your seat belt," the flight attendant said from behind her.
Claire slid back off the laps of her fiancé and the woman in seat 3D. "I'm so sorry," she mumbled, avoiding the unnaturallybright blue eyes of the salt-and-pepper-haired woman whose breakfast Claire was now wearing.
Gooey yellow eggs dropped in clumps to the carpet and cold tomato juice laced with vodka soaked into her formerly white T-shirt. Bryan's stare was fixed on her with open-mouthed horror. Claire knew he must be embarrassed for them both at this unfortunate turn of events. She opened her mouth to apologize once more when the plane dipped again. This time, the flight attendant was more forceful, pushing Claire through the cabin with a hand on her shoulder.
As she got closer to the back of the plane, she could hear little Billy sobbing and a feeling of dread crept into the pit of her stomach. What could be wrong now?
"It broked." The boy sobbed and pointed at her laptop as Claire approached.
Claire tried to contain her panic. It couldn't be broken! How could she get any work done during the next nine days if it was broken? She couldn't live without her computer for an entire week. Who would take care of her accounts?
Clutching the laptop to her chest, she slid back into her ever-shrinking seat. She opened the top, hoping Billy was wrong and that nothing was really the matter. Maybe he had just turned the power off by accident. Yes, that was probably it. She hit the power button and her finger came away sticky. She pressed her thumb and forefinger together and pulled them apart. Definitely sticky.
Curious, she stuck the tip of one finger in her mouth.
Orange juice. Now, where had that come from?
She looked over at Billy, who had a telltale orange stain around his mouth. She touched another few keys on her keyboard. They were all sticky. She rested her forehead in her hands, trying not to join Billy in his sob fest.
"Did you spill juice on the com-poo-ter?" she asked finally.
Twin rivers of tears rolled down the little boy's face as he nodded, his big brown eyes pleading for forgiveness.
At that exact moment, Claire realized that anyone else would have known it wasn't a good idea to give a computer to a three-year-old. Why did she always have to learn this sort of thing the hard way?
And how could this day possibly get any worse?
Billy had cried himself to sleep when the plane arrived at the gate in Aspen half an hour later, and Claire had joined him in a light slumber. The bustle of activity in the cabin woke her. Blinking the sleep out of her eyes, she remained seated while people began gathering their belongings from the overhead bins. Finally, the plane emptied and Claire hauled her own bags out from under the seats in front of her.
"I hope you have a good vacation."
"Um-hmm. You, too." Claire glumly acknowledged Billy's mother's surprisingly chipper well wishes as she stepped over the still-sleeping boy and into the aisle. He looked cherubic and innocent, but Claire knew better.
She vowed to talk to the travel agent first thing on Monday. She was going to get a first class ticket home even if she had to sell her best-performing stocks to get it.
When at long last she disembarked from what she would forever after refer to as the Flight From Hell, Claire was stunned to see that Bryan wasn't waiting for her. She stopped in the boarding area, looking out over the empty chairs in disbelief. Where was he? Why hadn't he waited for her? If the situation had been reversed, she would have waited for him.
Slumping down in one of the seats, Claire looked down at her soiled clothes and gave in to her disappointment. Of course, she was capable of fending for herself; capable of dealing with the crises the past few hours had thrown at her without needing her fiancé's assistance. But it would have been nice to have a shoulder to lean on. She closed her eyes dejectedly. Her laptop bag slid off her shoulder, the strap landing in the crook of her arm. Slowly, she pulled it back onto her shoulder and took a deep breath as athought swept unbidden into her mind. If Bryan had been the one who was late, she wouldn't have even boarded the plane back in Seattle. She would have stayed at the gate until he showed up. And she certainly wouldn't have run off after the flight was over. She would have waited right here for him; waited to see what had gone wrong with his morning.
Was he punishing her for being late, like her father would have? Claire opened her eyes and stared unseeingly out over the tarmac. Shaking her head, she pushed away the thought. Surely Bryan wouldn't react to her tardiness like that. He must have become impatient waiting for her and gone to baggage claim to retrieve his luggage, she reasoned, trying to revive her flagging spirits. Or maybe he'd gone to make sure the lodge's van didn't leave without her. Yes, that must be it.
Pulling herself together, Claire stood and gathered her bags. After all, she reminded herself, Bryan wasn't the type who could wait for long periods of time. He liked to be doing something at all times. Sometimes, she wondered how he managed to sit still at work, how he coped with the countless meetings that were an integral part of his job as an account executive at the insurance brokerage firm where he worked.
Balancing her laptop case on the black railing of the escalator, Claire scanned the baggage claim area for any sign of her suitcase or her errant fiance. A handful of children, obviously happy to be free after hours of confinement, were running around, dodging passengers and luggage. A dog barked as one of the children ran by its carrier. The little girl shrieked, momentarily startled, then started giggling as she realized what had scared her. Despite her weariness, Claire smiled. She wouldn't mind a little exercise herself.
Stepping off the escalator, Claire set her carry-on bags down on the floor in front of the conveyor belt and continued to look for Bryan as she watched for her suitcase to come out. Since Bryan wasn't at the baggage carousel,Claire could only surmise that her supposition was correct. He must have gone on ahead to tell the van's driver to wait for her. The crowd thinned as each piece of luggage was grabbed off the belt. When the belt finally stopped, Claire's spirits dropped. Her bag was not coming.
Claire hurried to the airline's baggage agent to file a report on her missing luggage before pulling the lodge's brochure out of the pocket of her overnight bag.
"Once you have arrived in Aspen, proceed with your luggage to the parking lot where you'll be met by a van from Hunter's Lodge," it read.
Claire heaved her bags over her shoulders, looking around for signs pointing to where she was supposed to go. Not surprised that the parking lot was as far as possible from where she was standing, Claire started the trek out of the airport. The automatic doors at the end of the baggage-claim area whooshed open and Claire was hit by a refreshing breeze. Her spirits lifted a little at seeing the overcast sky.
"Cozy fireplace, here we come," she muttered, then looked up as a dark green van sped by.
Her eyes narrowed.
The van that had just roared past had "Hunter's Lodge" painted on in bright yellow lettering. Claire shook her head in disbelief as she watched the van's license plate get smaller and smaller in the distance. HUNTR2. After the day she'd had, Claire had the sneaking suspicion that HUNTR1 would not be waiting for her in the parking lot.
Resisting the urge to sink down on the sidewalk and have a good long cry, Claire dragged herself and her bags across the street, hoping that a car and her fiancé would be waiting for her there.
The first sight of the deserted parking lot dashed those hopes. Claire dropped her bags and sat down on the warm pavement. How could Bryan have left without her? She stared dumbly at the concrete between her feet. Was he punishing her for being late, as she'd suspected? Perhaps he was angry at her for not calling all week? She knewthings hadn't been going that well between them for the past few months. They hadn't been spending much time together. She'd been busy with work and he'd been busy with ... she didn't really know what Bryan had been up to lately. That was why she'd decided to spend a large chunk of her savings on this trip. But just because their relationship was a bit strained lately was no reason for him to leave her stranded at the airport. Claire sat up straighter, righteous anger providing a measure of steel to her backbone. After all, the state of their relationship wasn't solely her responsibility.
Claire took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Perhaps there was some other explanation for all this. Perhaps ... uh, maybe ... Well, she didn't know what possible reason Bryan might have had for leaving, but she wasn't going to get anywhere by sitting around feeling sorry for herself. She grabbed the cell phone out of her purse, dialed the number for the lodge, and tapped her foot while she waited for her call to be answered.
"Hunter's Lodge. How may I help you?" a cheerful woman's voice responded.
"Hello. This is Claire Brown. My fiancé and I are booked in the Rose Suite for the next eight nights."
"Yes, ma'am. Let me check the reservation. What name is it under?"
"Edwards. Bryan Edwards."
There was some rustling of paper. "Yes, I have that reservation."
"Thank God." Claire closed her eyes with gratitude.
"What can I help you with, Ms. Brown?"
"I had a problem with my luggage and was a little late getting out of the airport. It appears that your van left without me."
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line, then a deep sigh. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I watched them drive away five minutes ago. Unless you have more than one van?" Claire asked hopefully.
"No, I'm afraid not, Ms. Brown. I'm so sorry. Mybrother was driving the van and must have forgotten you. I'll have someone leave right away to get you. It will take about an hour, I'm afraid, but maybe you could get yourself something to eat in the airport?"
"Couldn't I just get a cab?"
"You could, but you'd only be saving yourself a few minutes by the time you find a driver who's willing to come out this way."
"All right, I'll meet your driver here in an hour." She paused. "Tell him he can't miss me, I'll be the one with the Kick Me sign on my back."
"Excuse me?"
"Never mind," Claire muttered, flipping the phone closed.
Copyright © 2002 by Beverly Brandt.