Graeme was determined never to complain about Philadelphia winters again.
The Ancient Languages conference he attended every year had been booked in Minneapolis this time around. Whoever had decided to plan a conference in March in Minnesota deserved to freeze their asses off. Unfortunately, the rest of the attendees had to suffer along with them. Even with never leaving the confines of the conference hotel, Graeme found his fingers and toes going numb from the constant, oppressive cold outside.
He checked his schedule again. The next panel he wanted to attend was in the Nicollet Room, on the third floor. Dreading the interminable wait for the elevators, he turned instead to head for the stairs, only to collide with someone standing behind him.
"Pardon me, I am so sorry," he apologized, crouching down to pick up the woman's binder and notes. "Stupid of me, not watching where I was going."
She crouched down next to him, knees modestly tight under her wool skirt. "You never used to be this clumsy, Graeme."
The shrill, familiar voice shoved knives under his skin.
He stiffened and glanced up to see his victim was none other than his ex-wife Cassandra Lundy.
She had changed. Her black hair was now straight, showing signs that she had given up the permanents she had insisted on back when they'd been married. Her features had always been sharp, but now they seemed carved out of ice under her pale skin. And she was smiling. Granted it had been more than twelve years ago now, but he couldn't remember her ever smiling when they had been together.
He'd rather just walk away and relegate her to the dark corner where his regrets lived. However, the conference wouldn't be finished for another two days and he was likely to run into her again. He forced himself to be polite. "How are you doing, Cassandra?"
"He stays instead of running away. Manners to make up for the lack of coordination seems a fair trade."
"Right, then, I'll be on my way."
She caught his arm. "Not so fast. It's been too long, Graeme. We should catch up." Releasing him, she said pleasantly, "I'm doing well. How are you? Still holed up at that musty college in Philly?"
"I'd hardly call Schuylkill a musty college."
"Maybe, but considering what's across the river, you have to admit you set your sights fairly low."
"Nice to see you haven't changed your tune after all this time, Cassandra."
"You could have done so much more with your life, Graeme. That's all I'm saying."
"Yes, that's all you ever said. Which is why we ended up divorcing."
"I hate seeing potential squandered in those who could have gone far."
His response to her nagging hadn't changed, either. Graeme wanted nothing more than to throttle the woman. "Where are you at these days? Still striving for that coveted deanship?"
Her smile grew brittle. "I've been working on another project for the past few years."
"Another project meaning they turned you down one too many times." He felt smug. "I always told you to watch out whose fingers you step on as you're crawling up the ladder. Piss off the wrong people and you land yourself in a dead end."
"No dead ends for me. I merely realized that being on top isn't the position of power."
It was tempting to make an inappropriate comment to that little revelation, but Cassandra wasn't worth it. Not after all these years. "Well, I hope that works out for you. It seems to suit you. You look good, Cassandra. More comfortable with yourself."
"Why, thank you, Graeme." She tipped her head. "It's nice of you to notice."
"It was nice to see you again." The social lie came easily. "I'm sorry I can't stay; I have to get to a panel."
"No, of course. I understand." To his surprise, she stepped closer to put her arms around him in a quick hug. "It was good to see you again, too. It's been a long time coming."
He returned the embrace awkwardly before untangling himself.
"Take care of yourself, Graeme." There was the barest hint of genuine emotion in her voice.
"You too," he said and walked off.
Running into her was so unexpected, it felt like an assault. Their marriage had been as acrimonious as it had been blessedly brief. They had met during grad school not long after he'd given up the wild life of his youth. Graeme had thought they shared similar interests and were compatible, so he had allowed himself to fall into a not entirely comfortable relationship.
They were already engaged when he found out she knew more about him than he wanted.
He never did figure out how she learned about his magic. He was certain he had never exhibited it around her, although at that point keeping it locked down was still difficult. It had been as natural to him as breathing, so it was quite possible he'd done something without realizing it. Cassandra had become obsessed, asking incessant questions and demanding demonstrations until he threatened to call off the engagement if she didn't stop. She did, but only until it was too late for him to escape. She was hungry for power, any kind of power, and all the prestige that went along with it. During the marriage, when she wasn't badgering him about the magic, trying to get him to teach her what he knew, she hounded him constantly to grab more prestigious positions, demand higher placement, and meet more influential people to get to a level of power in the university that would shine a light on her as well. She was perfectly happy to ride on his coattails, and she was sure that he wanted the power, too, if she could just coerce him into taking it. By the end, it took all his restraint not to murder her in her sleep. He suspected she felt much the same.
She really was the last person he wanted to run into.
The first person he wanted to run into was back in Philadelphia, administering midterms to three classes of freshmen before they all took off for break. But that didn't keep her from sending him a text message in the middle of his panel. It said simply, "What are you wearing?"
He grinned and tucked the phone away, looking forward to the session break even more.
As soon as it ended, he headed up to his room, dialed her number as soon as he got off the lift. "Just what do you suppose I would be wearing at three in the afternoon?"
Diana laughed, then said with a pretty pout in her voice, "Well, you're no fun."
"I've been sitting through dull lectures for the better part of a day. That kind of saps the fun out of a person."
"You enjoyed every minute of them. Otherwise you'd be here with me and not in, what, minus twenty degree Minneapolis?"
"Minus thirty-three this morning."
"I'm not certain it's worth risking frostbite, but yes, I am having a good time." Encountering Cassandra aside. "So what are you wearing?"
"The ultimate in sexy wear, the fuzzy bathrobe I picked up on clearance during the holidays."
"Mm, that is sexy."
"You are such a fraud, Graeme Shepherd. You talk like an uptight old stick in the mud, but we both know not too far under the tweed and the leather elbow patches is a dirty old man."
"Old. You did not just call me old."
"Well, you are older than me, so..."
"This call is supposed to cheer me up, Diana." He decided to lay it on thick. "Provide a balm to my lonely, aching heart."
She snorted. "You are in a mood today, aren't you?"
"I had an unexpected run-in with an old acquaintance," he admitted.
"Good Lord. Peter isn't there, is he?"
Graeme couldn't help but laugh. "Can you really see him at a gathering of stuffy dead language professors? In Minnesota? In March?"
"At this point, I wouldn't put anything past him."
He could hear regret tingeing the affection in her voice. Neither of them had heard from Oberon in the two months since their trip to Africa. He was used to Oberon's long silences, but knew it had to be different for Diana, however much she said she was fine with it. "Well, he hasn't stooped to such lowly depths yet. No, it was my ex-wife."
Her brevity said she was as startled by the encounter as he was. "Exactly. I'd rather have run into Oberon."
"It went that well?"
"I'm sorry, Graeme."
He shrugged even though the gesture was meaningless over the phone. "Don't be. I'm rather surprised we haven't run into each other sooner. But the last thing I want to do is talk about her. Distract me, Diana?"
"Would the fact that I'm wearing that little peach number from Barbados under the homely fuzzy robe help matters?"
His body's response was automatic. The peach number, a few shades darker than her pale skin tone, provided a subtle contrast that did wonderful things. Discarding his blazer and kicking off his shoes, he settled onto the bed. "You know, considering it's barely six o'clock there, I'm suspicious of you already being dressed in a robe and negligee."
She chuckled, a low, throaty sound that made such promises. "Maybe I was planning on spending a few hours in front of the fire thinking about how much I miss my lover."
"Oh?" He loved it when she called him that. Boyfriend was a perfectly utilitarian word and accurately described their relationship, but the intimacy of the term lover touched him on so many levels.
It surprised him still that after four years, he could miss her so much after just a few days away. He'd never felt that way with anyone before, with the possible and very begrudging exception of Peter Oberon. What surprised him more was that he was happy about it.
Sunday couldn't come soon enough. Until then...
"So you're going to sit there ... thinking about me?"
"Why, do you have a better idea?" There wasn't a trace of innocence in her voice.
Graeme reclined farther on the bed. "I may have an idea or two..."