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She squinted at him tiredly. Engaged. He looked and sounded so sure that she was going to be

thrilled, and dutifully she waited a moment to see if that would happen. A week ago it might have

happened.

Shouldn't she be feeling something right then, other than how sore her feet were? "Oh, Victor."

'For a brief moment his eyes narrowed, then he stepped closer to put his arms around her.

"What's the matter, darling-can it be that much of a shock? We've been dating for a long time,

and we're so compatible. We have similar careers, we understand each other, and you've got to

know how much you mean to me. Don't you think it's time to make some formal plans?"

She bowed her head and fiddled with a button on his white coat, troubled. There it was, the

possibility to get everything she had been yearning for yesterday. A husband, a home of her own

and a family someday. Commitment, security, a life mate. She heard herself saying, "But Vic-do

you love me?"

His arms tightened. "Of course I love you-that's what I've been telling you. When I saw you

hugging that man the other night, all I could think about was that you were mine, and he

shouldn't be touching you. I want to make it official-to let everyone know that you're mine, and

I'm yours. I mean, I certainly don't want to see anyone else. An edge crept into his voice.

"Do you?"

She sagged and leaned her forehead against his chest. Now what do I say? she asked herself. I

can't tell him about the pickle jars, or the real reason I cancelled Saturday. I can't tell him that I

can't get engaged because I promised Chance I wouldn't. Besides, I'm not sure I want the kind of

life Victor does, and maybe that's why I'm not feeling anything like what I think I should be

feeling.

He had put a hand at the back of her neck and was massaging her muscles. "Mary?"

"I-this is such a surprise. I wasn't expecting this. It's such a wonderful offer, but-I need to think

about this, Vic." She looked up at him hopefully. "Give me some time'?"

In the space of his hesitation, they heard his name called over the intercom. "Dammit," he said

absently.

"You've got to go." She smoothed the coat over his chest. "Listen-give me the weekend to think

about it, and we'll talk soon. I promise. That's not so much to ask-we've been careful every other

step of the way."

His name sounded again, and Victor conceded with a sigh. "All right, darling." He bent and

kissed her suddenly, hard. "I do love you."

She stroked his hair gently. "I love you, too."

Then he was gone to answer the summons, and left alone, Mary slapped a hand over her eyes.

She was getting a first-class headache.

She did love him. She'd meant what she said. You don't choose to share so much of your life with

someone without growing to care for them deeply.

But did she love him enough?

Cassie's bookstore, The Crystal Dragon, was located in an old restored house on Main Street near

downtown. It was in an older, colorful neighbourhood filled with small shops and residences,

within sight of the lake. The lawns were dotted with oak and maple trees, and normally would be

strewn with bright toys and bikes, but on Thursday the weather had turned chilly and a fine

drizzle had started to fall. Mary had dressed accordingly, in faded jeans and a heather blue

sweater and before she entered the cluttered, spicy smelling store, she patted the French braid

that fell down her back to make sure it was still neat.

Cassie was wearing a green knit dress and a lot of sparkling jewelry. She greeted Mary with a

bright smile, turned the Open sign to Closed and. led her through the two spacious front rooms,

which were the bookstore, back to a neat, well-appointed kitchen.

On the surface they didn't have much in common. Mary's life had been dedicated to Tim, school

and medicine, whereas Cassie had left college to marry a career soldier and had travelled all over

the world.

Upon the death of her husband seven years ago, she'd returned home to set up her own business.

But however disparate their backgrounds, the warm rapport the two women had shared Monday

was quickly re-established, and soon they were chatting over chicken crepes, salad and

cheesecake like old friends.

Chance's memory was ever present. Mary saw him in the turn of Cassie's head, a gesture with her

hand, the gentle affectionate way she had of calling her "sugar".

"Want another piece of cheesecake?" Cassie asked.

"Oh, no thanks. I couldn't eat another bite. Everything was delicious."

"My father-Chance's stepfather-is a chef. He and my mother run the Falcon Club. Do you know

it?" Mary nodded. "He taught me everything I know about cooking. Didn't manage to teach

Chance how to do much more than boil water, though." Cassie grinned. "As a teenager, my

brother was into other things besides cooking."

Mary stirred cream into her coffee and stared into the rich brown liquid, thinking to herself, here

we go. "I'll bet." She took a deep breath and plunged. "I've heard he's got something of a

reputation."

Cassie shifted in her chair and stroked one of her several cats, a calico that had come to settle in

her lap. "Yeah, I've heard the gossip, too. It's mostly based on conjecture and some things that

happened twenty years ago. He used to be quite a rebel before he joined the army. This is a small

town, and people's opinions don't change quickly. But even at his worst, Chance never really did

anything that bad."

Mary peered at her sideways. "He was in the army? Did he join right out of high school?"

Cassie smiled a little. "He didn't finish high school. He joined at seventeen, lied about his age-

that used to be easier to do-and got an equivalency while he was in. It was a brief stint-Chance

never did like taking orders. But something about the experience seemed to have focused him,

because he went to journalism school afterward and there was never any question what kind of

reporting he wanted to do."

She smiled wryly. "Name any place in the world that's been a war zone over the last ten years,

and I'll guarantee you Chance's been there."

Chance was a war correspondent. Mary fiddled with her Spoon. She might have known. It fitted

with her first impression of him as a dangerous, formidable man, and certainly explained why he

travelled all over the world. Not a career academic at all.

"So-" she attempted to sound casual "-how old is he? He seems awfully young to have accomplished all that." A plump white Persian leapt up on Mary's knees, and she stroked its soft

back gently.

"Unless he's lied to me, he's thirty-seven." Cassie chuckled, and Mary did, too. "And I doubt he

could've lied to our mom. He's gotten all kinds of awards for his work. He seems to have a sixth

sense for spotting trouble-apparently he can see the world as if it's one big chessboard, and

anticipate everybody's moves. Don't ever let him talk you into a chess game for money, by the

way." She rolled her eyes.

Mary chuckled again, delighted at the wealth of information she was getting to feed her curiosity.

"He took a summer teaching position to visit the family," Cassie went on, "but we're hoping to

talk him into staying a while longer."

The teaching position wasn't permanent, then. He hadn't mentioned that. But from what he'd said

in the car when he drove me home, he sounds at least ready to think about settling down. "So,"

Mary said offhandedly, as the cat stretched under her hand and purred, does he date much?"

"You've been listening to those nasty rumours about married women," Cassie observed shrewdly.

"No," she said quickly, "no, oh, well-I've heard them. Yes. But hearing isn't the same as listening.

But it does make one wonder if one should be listening." She winced. "If you know what I

mean."

"It's all right. I know what you mean," Cassie assured her with a smile. "He's made some

husbands jealous, and quite frankly left a few wives disappointed. That's how the rumours got

going, but it's never been true. I'd know if it was-Chance and I don't have any secrets between us.

He's one of my best friends."

Mary's eyes and face brightened until they were glowing. I believe her, she thought. I wanted to

believe him, and wasn't sure I should, but she's so straightforward and there's no reason for her to

be anything but honest.. .. A weight, previously unnoticed, left her and she felt buoyant. She

confessed shyly, "I'm going out with him on Saturday."

"To the fair. I know, he told me. And he had fun with Tim last night," she said with a twinkle.

"Oh, did he? That's good. I know Tim had a great time. He couldn't talk about anything else this

morning." Thinking about Saturday and how she'd cancelled with Victor made her eyes cloud

over. She scooped a morsel of cheesecake from her plate onto her finger and let the cat lick it off.

Chance said Cassie was a good person to talk to, and she was such a good listener. "Cassie, we

don't know each other very well yet, but may I confide in you about something?"

"Of course." The other woman's voice was kind. It all spilled out in a tumbled rush. The two

years with Victor, the two days with Chance, the passion, the perplexity, the proposal. Even the

pickle jar came out. Wanting children and more fun in her life, and the choking feeling she had

whenever she went to work. When she started to confess how guilty she'd felt cancelling her date

with Victor to go out with Chance, and how she'd put him off when he proposed to her, Cassie

frowned.

"You've been dating Victor for two years," she said slowly, "and he asked you to marry him

yesterday?" She had begun -chewing a thumbnail. Was that disapproval she saw in Cassie's face?

"Yes," she said quietly. "But I didn't-I didn't accept. I just didn't tell him the whole truth yet."

Cassie-tapped her fingers on the table, a thoughtful scowl on her face. "Well, my, my, my," she

said after a moment. "There's something you ought to know, sugar. I don't think you're going to

like it."

Mary started to feel terrible without knowing why. Was it something about Chance? Maybe he

was deeply involved with somebody else, and Cassie. thought she should know all the facts

before she made a decision about Victor. Cassie reached out to take her hand, looking steadily

into her eyes. "I don't know how to put this delicately, so I'll just say it. Victor called me and we

went out Tuesday night. I asked him how serious the two of you were, and he said not serious."

She wasn't sure she was hearing right. Her mind and body seemed to be encased in mud. "Not

serious?" she echoed slowly.

"He even called this morning and asked if he could see me Saturday, for heaven's sake." Cassie's

green eyes snapped. "I never got around to telling him Chance is my brother, and he didn't have a

clue you and I would be talking. Why would he, after all the tensions on the Fourth?"

"But. .." Slowly the mud boiled away, leaving behind incredulity, hurt, outrage. Victor had

proposed to her. Victor was seeing Cassie, had every intention of continuing to see Cassie after

he'd told her-how had he put it? That he certainly didn't want to see anyone else. Her hand

spasmed tight on the cat, and startled, it meowed and sprang away. Two years of trust, a valued

friendship-if they hadn't had anything else but that, she'd have thought surely at least they'd had

that. Her breathing grew rapid, and her mouth trembled.

"I don't know what to say, Mary." Cassie was looking at her sadly. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, don't. It wasn't your fault." She rubbed her forehead. The anger was growing. "Cassie, may

I use your phone?"

"Of course you can." The older woman stood and handed her a cordless phone. "Are you going

to call him?"

"Yes, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind at all."

Mary watched her own shaking fingers dial. Victor had the early shift at the hospital. He would

be smiling, joking with the nurses and the other doctors soothing traumatized patients. She

asked for him and waited, and one small, bewildered part of her mind asked, could there be a

mistake? Some kind of horrible, twisted misunderstanding? Should I give him a chance to

explain?

Then his smooth, cultured voice sounded in her ear and she erupted. "You son of a bitch!" she

hissed. "What the hell-Mary?" Victor exclaimed.

She overrode him, spitting fury. "I know what you did, and I know what you were going to do!

You and I are through. Don't you ever call me again, and as far as I'm concerned if you have

anything to say to me at work, you better call me Dr. Newman!"

He spoke sharply. "God-Mary, what's got into you? I haven't done anything. What the hell are

you talking about?"

"Whatever else I may or may not have done I have never lied to you! Not ever! And I tr-trusted

~you to do the same for me!" She swiped at her burning eyes.

"And oh, by the way, Victor-my good friend Cassie Grant doesn't want to see you, either! She's

right here, if you want to ask her for yourself!"

Dead silence. Then, "Mary?"

"What?" she cried. "What can you say, Victor?"

"I can explain-"

"Oh, save it for your next fiancée!" she snapped, and slimmed down the phone. Dead silence in

Cassie's kitchen, as well.

BOOK: i b55e8bbed6ed0c22
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