Life, Love, and a Polar Bear Tattoo
When the first man you ever loved reappears while your husband's away, how do you decide what you want from life and love?
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When Candice's in-laws were killed eight months ago buying a huge faux polar bear rug for her Christmas present, she lost more than just two of her favorite people: she lost her husband Ian as well. After only two years of marriage, their guilt and pain have left them living together but apart, unable to really talk for fear of what they'll say to each other.
Ian leaves for a month-long contract overseas, and Candice plans to use the time apart to decide whether her marriage can be saved. When her ex walks back into her life as the new client at work, ten years more attractive yet saddened by his own recent loss, she's left wondering what she really wants from life and love.
Monday, August 1st
I studied Ian, the husband I'd vowed to love, the man I could barely talk to any more. He held my gaze, his jaw set and his eyes distant as if he'd retreated somewhere inside, somewhere I couldn't follow, somewhere safe from me. The urge to knock his luggage aside and throw myself into his arms flooded me, but I resisted. We weren't like that any more.
"Well, I should get in there," he said. "The security check will take ages."
I nodded. "You're sure you have everything?"
"I hope so." He paused as if considering what he had to bring, then said, "I'll miss you, Candice."
"I... I'll miss you too," I said, tears rising at the realization that we were both embarrassed to admit to even this much emotion. How had we lost each other so completely?
"Enjoy having time to yourself."
As I intended to use at least part of Ian's four-week absence to decide whether our marriage was salvageable, I didn't expect much enjoyment. "I'll try," I said, then added, to lighten the mood, "but Ninja probably won't let me."
"You tell him who's boss," he said, giving me a wry smile.
"He already knows he is," I said, attempting to return his smile. And failing. "Ian..." I stared at him, unable to find the words to say how sorry I was for how wrong our lives together had become, for the gap between us that I couldn't see how to bridge.
He pulled me as close as he could over the suitcases, his hand smoothing over the back of my head and down the length of my hair. Ignoring the people bustling around us, knowing his luggage wouldn't be stolen from between us, I closed my eyes and breathed in Ian's scent of fabric softener and lumber. Only the wife of a carpenter would find the smell of wood sexy. Ian's arms around me had always been safety, security, but since the car accident there'd been no safety to be found.
Ian gave me one last squeeze, then pulled back to look into my eyes. "I love you, you know."
We hadn't said that for a while. "I love you too." And I did. I knew I did. I just didn't feel it any more.
He dropped his head and said, without looking at me, "I wish..." then shrugged.
He could have been wishing for anything, but I knew what he meant. I'd been thinking about it all morning, and apparently he had as well. "Me too," I said, forcing the words out past the sudden lump in my throat. He hadn't mentioned his parents for months. "But they were thrilled you took on the project and they'd be so happy for you today. You're doing a great thing."
He stood still for a moment then bent and gathered the pull straps of his suitcases into one hand. "Email me tonight and I'll write back as soon as I get settled. Drive carefully, okay?"
Before Christmas Eve, that had been just a casual comment, a throw-away. After his parents' deaths, it meant a lot more. "I will. I promise."
He put his hand on my cheek and leaned in to kiss me. His mouth on mine was as warm and sweet as ever, but the sense that he was only kissing me because he knew he should made me uncomfortably relieved when he pulled away.
After a few steps toward the airport entrance he turned back and said, "Check the glove box."
"Sometimes things crawl in there and hide."
I blinked, confused. "In the car?"
"Might want to be where it's air conditioned," he said. "To avoid the heat. Some things don't like the heat."
"Ah," I said, and we smiled at each other, almost shyly, then he dragged his suitcases behind him into the airport. He didn't look back.
Once he was out of sight, I popped open the car's glove box, picked up the plastic bag that tumbled out, and peered inside to see a small white face peering back at me.
I blinked back tears as I pulled the bear from the bag. Ian liked to tease me about my polar bear obsession, but he knew how attached I was to them. This one was adorable, soft and plushy with its arms open as if waiting for a hug. I couldn't quite bring myself to hug it in public, but I settled it into the passenger seat, fastening its seatbelt tightly, to keep me company as I drove to work.
I did up my own seatbelt as well, making sure it didn't catch on my lacy cardigan, the first thing I'd ever crocheted. Ian had been so impressed I'd been able to handle the intricate stitches and he liked me in blue, so I'd worn it today to say goodbye. Maybe I'd wear it again on his return.
Before I joined the steady flow of Toronto airport traffic, I shot a quick look in the opposite direction as well, making sure none of the other drivers were doing something unexpected. Ian always did this extra little check while driving, and it had become a habit for me too, ingrained by his constant reminders.
My cell phone rang after I'd been on the move a minute or two, and I scrambled to find it in my purse while still keeping my eyes on the road. Could something have happened to Ian? He'd verified at least ten times that he had all the documentation he needed, but--
I glanced at the phone's screen and relief swept me. "Hi, Lou."
"If Ian's not gone yet, I can call back."
"No, I'm just leaving the airport."
"Okay. We have a new client you need to meet."
"I met him on Friday," I said, surprised Lou didn't remember.
"Not that one. The new new client."
"Another one? I thought we were booked solid."
"I know we are, you know we are, but Richard doesn't seem to be able to remember."
"Ah." There was nothing more to be said. Richard owned Sapphire Interior Design and was constantly on the hunt for new clients. He worked only for the most affluent and influential clients, Lou took care of the firm's restaurant design work, and I handled whatever Lou assigned to me.
"Exactly. He'll be here at eleven, so if you can make it back by then it'd be great."
I glanced at the car's clock. Almost ten. "Should be fine. Close to it, anyhow."
"Come right to my office when you get here, okay?"
"Will do." I hung up, and gave such a huge sigh that I made myself a little light-headed. I'd been hoping for a quiet day with no surprises, a day where I could sit at my desk and do easy tasks and not have to be cheerful and enthusiastic for some new client.
The drive to the office, unfortunately, bore no surprises: no matter what time I took the highway it was always insanely busy and today was no exception. My shoulders grew tight and painful as I drove, and by the time I reached the office's parking lot I'd developed a headache. A perfect addition to the day.
When I pushed through the heavy mahogany double doors, the office was empty. Coffee break time. I walked past the assistant designers' desks, my steps echoing on the polished white marble, then caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrored wall surrounding Richard's office.
I'd left my hair down because Ian liked it loose, it was far too out of control for work. Or for any time, really. Its weight pulled it straight to just past my chin, where it exploded into waves that reached the middle of my back. Despite its lack of cooperation, I'd always thought long hair was prettier than short, so I kept it in all its uneven dull brown 'glory'.
My mascara was still in place, but then I hadn't cried when Ian left. I would have, a year ago. I hadn't let myself cry for a long time, too afraid I might not be able to stop. The lip gloss I'd put on in the morning was gone, though, so I gave myself another quick slick, grabbing a painkiller from my purse at the same time. I took the pill dry, pulled a big gold-colored clip from my desk drawer and twisted my hair up, then tucked my purse under my desk and knocked on Lou's door.
I did, and stopped in the doorway like I'd run into a glass wall. I felt as stunned as if I had. It couldn't be. It couldn't be him.
But it was.
Lou waved me to the other visitor chair and I sat down, struggling to keep my face calm. Taking his own seat behind his mahogany desk, Lou said, "Kegan, this is my assistant Candice Warburton. Candice, this is Kegan Underwood, our newest client."
Kegan turned sharply toward me when Lou said 'Warburton', but he just smiled and said, "Nice to see you again," holding his hand out to me. Our eyes met as we shook hands, and a sparkly shock rippled through me. I took back my hand as quickly as I could.
Lou's eyes flicked from Kegan to me and back again. "You know each other, I take it?"
I swallowed hard. "It's been a few years, but yes."
Ten, to be exact. Ten years since he'd ripped my heart out and left me in pieces. And, damn, those years had been good to him. He looked older, of course, but it suited him. His face, stronger and more mature than I remembered, was the face of a man now, and that suited him. His dark hair, in a sleek business-like cut instead of the tousled style he'd worn in university, had just a touch of silver at the temples, and the hint of maturity and strength suited him. His eyes, though, those glorious blue eyes were the same. They'd always suited him.
My hair was a lot longer, and I'd put on a few pounds since I'd seen him last. I hadn't worn makeup at all back then. Did he think I looked good? I forced the thought out of my mind. His opinion meant nothing to me.
Kegan smiled. "Small world, isn't it?" Those blue eyes, just as magnetic as I remembered, seemed to be searching my soul. Kegan. Here. At the worst possible time. I said nothing, turning away from him.
Lou, rifling through a folder stuffed with papers, said, "Yup. Small. Look, with your deadline, we need to get a lot done today. You can stay for a while, Kegan?"
He nodded, and I said, "What is the deadline?"
My voice sounded strange and tight, even to myself, and Lou looked at me. "Are you okay, Candice?"
"I'm fine," I said, dragging myself together. If Kegan realized how he was affecting me, he'd gain a victory I didn't want him to have. "It's just been a rough weekend." I could have strangled myself.
Lou smiled at me. "I'm sure it has." Turning to Kegan, he said, despite my begging him mentally not to, "Candice's husband has just left for a one-month stay in Bangladesh, volunteering with a charity. They'll be building at least one house and a one-room school, right, Candice?"
I fixed my eyes on Lou's face so I wouldn't have to see Kegan's. "Yes. That's the plan, anyhow."
"That's wonderful," Kegan said. "Very noble."
He sounded sincere, but I still wouldn't be discussing Ian with Kegan. "Yes, I'm very proud of him. Back to work, though. The deadline?"
"September fifteenth," Kegan said.
Shocked, I turned to him without meaning to. "Six weeks?" Lou and I usually spent at least four months getting a new restaurant planned and ready to open. I worked with the clients at the beginning to help them define their vision, and Lou created the designs to make it happen.
"That's right," Lou said, throwing a 'no scaring the client' look in my direction. "Kegan knows it's a rush job, but I've assured him we can handle it." He turned his attention back to his papers, and I forced myself to look at Kegan. If I was going to make it through this, I had to get used to the sight of him.
Our eyes met, and I was twenty-one again, head over heels in love for the first time, hearing him tell me why I wasn't good enough for him, then somehow gathering the strength to walk away and leave him. Was he thinking the same thing? Probably not.
Kegan shot me a wink, the same sexy little wink that had always made me blush and giggle. My cheeks burned once again, but this time it was from a sudden fury. Nice try, but it's not going to work. I was not going to be won over.
Lou looked up and began speaking about the schedule, and I focused on him like a starving woman on a nice juicy steak. "Candice, I've already told Kegan I won't be fully available this week. You're his contact until at least Thursday. Anything he wants, you'll make sure he gets."