Grey storm clouds were rolling in ahead of her from the northwest, and she frowned up at the darkening sky. She had been watching the clouds move in for the past hour as they had spread slowly across the horizon. The afternoon sun was sinking behind the clouds, leaving a darker cast over the landscape. Hunching in further, she continued speeding across the snow, watching for the next post on the edge of the Liard Highway. She had just crossed over the border from British Columbia into the Northwest Territory. If Caryn's letter was correct, she only had another forty minutes to go until she reached the centre of town. In the coming storm though, it would be unlikely that she could find her way out to the Cooper home alone. She would have to see about finding a guide or a place to stay overnight. Perhaps one of the Mounties stationed at the outpost would be available to take her to the Coopers'.
She was on vacation, and she had no intention of making her official rank known to those stationed at the Fort Liard outpost. She was planning on enjoying a civilian status for the next four weeks, living out in the far reaches of the county and perhaps reading a novel or two. She could go for long walks out in the woods and spend some time relaxing. She and Caryn would be preparing for the baby and taking care of the two older children. Meg felt that she needed to spend some time with the children. She had long since resigned herself to the knowledge that she would probably never have a family of her own. She was a career officer, and the men that she worked with were either her superiors or her subordinates. The other men in her life were civilians who did not understand her commitment to her duties. It left her feeling hollow, but the hollowness had become a dull ache in her chest that she was accustomed to.
There had been a relationship here or there, but nothing that endured or fulfilled. Most of the men that she had worked with thought her cold; she had resigned herself to that, also. It was, in some ways, the easiest attitude to deal with. She went home at night and sat alone, wrote a bit here or there, did laundry, made dinner, and went jogging. There was a lake out on the side of town; sometimes on the clear winter evenings she played hockey, if there was a game on the ice. Occasionally, the Ottawa headquarters called her out to travel as a foreign services officer, usually as a diplomatic aide and a female representative of the RCMP, there to present a pleasing image to whomever they were dealing with. Knowing that rankled, but it let her spend time outside of her normal duties, and so she held in her complaints and did as they asked.
The sky was growing rapidly darker and the visibility was decreasing quickly. She pushed in the throttle and let more gas into the engine, shooting away faster and racing against the approaching storm. It felt empowering to be riding like this, with the engine rumbling underneath her, the wind whipping past, alone as far as she could see in all directions. She was leaving all of that frustration behind to fly across this untouched landscape. She could be free out here!
A blast of fine snow blew against her coat, bringing her back to the present, and she let more gas into the engine again and bent down further against the gusts that were buffeting her. A tiny light winked far ahead between the hills and the trees for a second before another gust of snow blew past and blocked it from view. She turned slightly and headed for it.
By the time that she reached the buildings, she could not see much more than their outlines in the wind-blown snow whipping around her. The storm had worsened considerably, leaving visibility lower than she liked for travelling alone in unfamiliar territory. She whispered a short prayer that it would let up long enough for her to get through, even while she knew that the wish was futile. She slowed and pulled the snowmobile up to what looked like a general store. A small lantern hung glowing in the window.
She stood up, stretching out her tired muscles and fighting the ache that came with moving after sitting crouched on the snowmobile for so long. Leaving the engine idling, she stepped up onto the porch and walked to the door. She had lifted a hand to knock when the door swung open suddenly and a man gestured for her to come inside.
The bells tinkled as he closed the door behind her, waving for her to come in further. The snow that had blown in settled around her feet.
"Come in, come in, warm yourself," he said, moving across the room between the chairs that were scattered around the coal stove on the right. She unsnapped the strap of the helmet and lifted it off, tucking it under her arm as she shook her damp hair loose. She ran her fingers through her dark brown hair and tucked a few strands behind her ear. She quickly took in the layout of the room; she had correctly assumed that it was a store. Stacks of various cans and packages, neatly priced, lay around the room on shelves. The register sat off on the side, opposite the stove and a few chairs.
"I'm Harold Onsten. Mrs. Cooper said you were coming. Meg, right?" he asked. She nodded. "The storm came in early, but don't worry, we'll find a place for you," he smiled reassuringly. Meg nodded again in response and her heart sank. It was too bad to make it out there, then; she would have to find a place here to stay overnight. She heard a baby crying a room away.
"Thank you," she answered, returning his smile. "But I was hoping to make it out to their home before nightfall."
He shook his head. "It's not likely the snow'll let up, ma'am."
"What about the motel? Can you give me directions to get there? It can't be very far away."
"Unfortunately, there's a group of Americans staying there right now—layover between Fort Nelson and Nahanni Butte because of the storm; there might be a room left, but I'm not sure. I could call Al for you, but I think they've got all the rooms."
"I see," Meg nodded and licked her lips.
"Aye then," he said, "Come with me. I'm sure my wife'll have a place."
"Oh, I don't want to impose on you!" she said. The baby was still crying.
"Not a'tall," he replied, moving off towards the back of the storeroom. He opened a door into the kitchen at the back of the store and called into the room, "Mae, the friend the Coopers are expecting is here!"
"Come in!" a female voice answered.
Meg followed him into the back, and stopped in the doorway to their kitchen. The woman standing at the stove turned to look at her and smiled. The baby she held on her hip was crying and rubbing his face in her shoulder. She adjusted him slightly and turned from the stove.
"Please t'meet you," Mae Onsten said, looking tired but determined to help. Meg really did not want to bring more stress to the situation by asking her to take care of a guest.
"And you," she smiled. "Look, I really don't want to impose—"
"It's not a problem," Mrs. Onsten answered, shifting the baby again. "I'm sure we can find a place for you."
"They're still not back yet?" Mr. Onsten looked worried, and his wife turned to look at him. She frowned, then turned to Meg for a moment.
"Joel and Jacob—our boys—they were out at their friends' house, supposed to be home an hour ago," she said in explanation. She swallowed and turned back to stirring the pot on the stove. Meg was not sure how to respond. They were worried, and rightly so, since the storm was building quickly. Why had their father not gone out after them? The storm was beginning to howl outside.
Mr. Onsten peered out the window. "I think I see them—I'm not sure—"
A door suddenly slammed in the back of the house, across from the spot where Meg stood. Mrs. Onsten jumped at the noise and then quickly set the sniffling baby in the high-chair and went over to open the inner door to the kitchen. Two young boys in snowsuits stumbled through the doorway in a flurry of powdered snow, wet gloves and all, dropped their snowmobile helmets, and ran into their mother's arms, talking and shouting, breathless.
"Hey Ma, we rode all the way—"
"—on the back—"
"—he found us—"
"I was scared, Ma," the younger one said. After a moment, the older nodded, and sniffed.
"Me, too...but when I saw him, I told Jake we'd be all right."
Mrs. Onsten disengaged herself from her sons and looked up at their reddened faces. "Next time, when your father tells you to come home, you come home."
"Yes, Ma," the younger said. The older nodded vigorously.
"You're safe now, get your things off. Dinner's almost ready." She was smiling with undisguised relief.
"Yes, Ma," they chorused, and shuffled back into the little hall between the inner and outer doors, around a man who had come to stand in the doorway. He bent down and picked up the two small helmets on the floor, still holding his own under his other arm. Snow covered his coat and boots. So this was the man that had found them. He was wearing an RCMP-issue coat; good, she could ask him for assistance. Meg looked up at him, to commend him—and froze.
Four years and a thousand thoughts, possible greetings, and nothing at all, went through her mind in a single moment. When they had last parted, she never thought she would see him again; perhaps that was why she had allowed a final moment of weakness. He was the only person that she had never been able to hide herself from, and that knowledge had undone her more times than she wanted to admit. She mentally kicked herself for not checking with the local outpost before coming. Mrs. Onsten had risen and was pumping his gloved hand, thanking him profusely for going after her two boys.
"Oh, thank you, thank you! I don't know how to thank you! You brought them back in this awful weather! Would you care to stay for dinner?"
"Oh, no, I don't think I—" he started, but Mr. Onsten came up and slapped him in the back, cutting off his words.
"You must stay, it's the least we can do to thank you!" The storeowner insisted, grinning.
He looks good, Meg thought, taking in his tall frame and familiar features with an appreciative eye. I look wilted. She noted that his black hair had a wave to it when it was not in the neatly trimmed military cut that she remembered, and she wanted to growl. At herself, mostly, for the way that her mind slipped so easily back into her old habit. And in small part at him, just for having the gall to be here, of all places. And at Fate, for its ironic hand. Nine million, nine hundred and seventy thousand, six hundred and ten square kilometres of snow and wilderness, and he had to be here.
"No, really, Harry, I must be going," Fraser answered. "The storm will keep me here if I don't lea—" he stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly catching a ghost of a scent that gave his mind pause. He looked up and his gaze caught across the room and fixed on a pair of deep brown eyes. There was a long moment of tense silence, and then he nodded slightly, respectfully.
"Constable." At her word, one dark eyebrow rose for a second, and then he straightened.
"Actually, sir, it's 'Staff Sergeant', now," he said mildly, taking in her appearance. Her eyes looked weary. "Are you well?" He remembered Dave's words from a few nights earlier, and wondered how the past several years had treated her.
"Fine, thank you, and you?" She responded curtly. She inwardly cursed herself for sounding so abrupt. He seemed to have sensed the distance in her voice, and his took on something of the same tone.
Hearing his voice again, she had not realized how much she missed it.
"Well, it seems you two have already met," Mr. Onsten said into the awkward pause. He looked at Meg. "You're a Mountie?"
"Yes," she answered. "We served together several years ago." She looked across at Fraser, who was watching her intently. She found his sharp blue eyes unnerving, and she looked back at the smiling storeowner. The baby started crying again, and Mrs. Onsten went over and tied a bib around its neck, then returned to the stove to stir the pot.
"You boys hurry and get your things off," she called back. "Dinner's almost ready."
"Well, you'll be needing a place to stay," Onsten said, over the wailing of the baby, who was now swinging his chubby fists in the air. Sounds of the two boys scuffling in the hall could be heard from behind the Mountie.
"You can stay with me," Fraser said quickly, his face a mask. Meg lifted her chin slightly and nodded, taking whatever challenge lay in those words. Was he married? Was there a family at home? Would she be out of place anywhere she went here? She wished, yet again, that she could have made it to Caryn's place that night. This was supposed to be a vacation, and here she was, already tense again.
"Thank you, Sergeant," she answered, meeting his eyes. He did not look away. He did not smile, either.
"We have room—" Mrs. Onsten turned from the stove.
"It won't be any trouble a'tall," Fraser answered, looking at Meg. "My home, may, in fact, be better...space-wise...for a guest." Mrs. Onsten looked somewhat relieved.
"Thank you kindly for your hospitality," Meg said to Mrs. Onsten. "I'm glad your family is safe."
"Thanks to you," she answered, smiling at Fraser.
"I'm glad that I could be of help to you," Fraser said, and then turned to Meg. "We'd best be going now, sir."
The storm's howling had grown louder, and Meg nodded. After a moment's pause, Fraser nodded to the Onstens, turned on his heel, and left.
Meg stood for a second, frowned at the closing door, and then remembered propriety and smiled politely at the two people standing in the kitchen and the two little boys who just then scooted in through the door, closing it behind them. Their eyes were large, staring at her. "Thank you kindly," she said. Mr. Onsten nodded.
"Just let yourself out through the front. He'll be coming 'round," he said, smiling at her.
She nodded and walked out through the front of the darkened store, pulling on and fastening her helmet. Fixing her collar against the winds outside, she opened the door, and quickly pulled it closed behind herself. Great gusts of snow blew across the porch, and drifts were piling up against the snowmobile a few metres away. She heard the sound of Fraser's engine over the howling of the storm and quickly moved out to her vehicle.
She stood on the lee side for a moment, gave it enough gas to move it out of the small embankment that had grown against it, and then swung her leg over and sat down. Fraser came around the side of the building and slowed for a moment, waiting for her to follow him into the swirling snowstorm. She pulled out and fell into place a few metres behind him, and they moved off through the winds.
She was dreading their arrival, angry at herself for not checking with the outpost and registering her arrival with them. At least she would have been prepared for such a situation. She hated this blind driving into a snowstorm, going into yet another possibly tense home. She had come out here to relax. She growled inside the helmet, and forced the bad attitude back. She would behave with professional dignity, and retire early. Yes. Perhaps take out one of the novels she had brought and read until she fell asleep.
Settling herself with that decision, she hunched down further and followed his dark form into the swirling snow.