Thanks: Wild and unruly gratitude to Miriam and Sprat for awesome beta that made this make sense, and also thanks to mergatrude for encouragement and the loan of the camelid.
"There's no point in brooding," Fraser told Diefenbaker firmly. "Ray's not coming back. You and I both know it wasn't working."
Dief growled low in his throat.
"I very much doubt it. The fact that he asked for his stereo—" Fraser broke off, unwilling to finish the sentence.
A twitch of long wolf ears.
"No, I don't think you are qualified to judge. I admit, I had hoped for a different outcome. We seemed—settled. Yes, of course I know he said that—repeatedly, in fact, but he's just that sort of person. If he insists on returning to Chicago, I can't force him to stay with me."
A head tilt, and a suggestive blink of lupine eyes.
"It would constitute illegal detention: I'd have to turn myself in. Besides, I can hardly detain him if he isn't here."
Dief whined in disgust and trotted out of the kitchenette of the RCMP Tuktoyaktuk Detachment Headquarters, presumably to hide in the file room, which was quiet and caught the last of the sun.
Fraser sighed inwardly, picked up his tea, and headed back to his office. Ray, his partner and—well, "lover", he supposed, was the only apt designation—may have left, but life, however dreary, continued. While his workload wasn't thrilling or fraught with danger, there were plenty of minor cases stacked in his In tray. He'd avoided dealing with them for long enough.
It was one of the many disadvantages of small town life that no newspaper was needed to spread the news as long as Maisie's Coffee Shop was open. Maisie herself displayed a deep and abiding interest in the love lives and other goings on of the citizenry of Tuk, and it had taken less than three hours, by Fraser's estimate, for the news of Ray's leaving to spread far and wide.
A month had since passed. A few people had conveyed their commiserations, sincere or otherwise (although Ray's energy and mechanical expertise had been greeted with enthusiasm, Ray himself had not been universally popular, due to his abrasive attitude and, perhaps, his defiance regarding his relationship with Fraser). Most were too gruff to mention Fraser's loss, though, but their eyes had spelled out sympathy or regret or, in a few cases, triumph.
Fraser sat heavily in his desk chair. He was a solitary man, returned to his natural state. "Thus has it ever been," he murmured, and pulled his phone messages closer, trying to focus on the likelihood of Janine Carlisle, a twenty-four year old candle maker and single mother of three, having abducted her neighbor's pet alpaca, Albuquerque. Fraser reached for his hat. A quick investigation would clear this up, and it was time he faced the prying eyes of his fellow townspeople again. A law enforcement officer couldn't indulge in the luxury of seclusion and (admit it!) moping for long: it simply wasn't practical.
He was reaching for his coat when a knock on the door distracted him from his purpose, and he pivoted to see a slim brunette enter the reception area. Doug, the other RCMP officer in the Detachment, had left early to collect a part for his fishing boat, so Fraser stepped forward to welcome the woman. The words died on his lips when he saw her face.
"You've dyed your hair," he said, nonsensically, questions flashing through his mind. What had happened? Was Ray hurt? She didn't seem agitated, there was no sense of urgency, yet this could hardly be a social call.
Her hand came up, seemingly automatically, to smooth the light brown bangs from her forehead. "Hello, Constable."
"Welcome to Canada," he said. "Is everything all right?" He realized he had no idea how to address her. She was no longer an Assistant State's Attorney. "Ms Vecchio," he tried.
She grimaced briefly, wiped her boots on the entrance mat, and unzipped her parka. "Call me Stella."
He nodded, having no intention of obeying. And yet, what choice did he have? "Won't you come in?" He led the way into his office and waved her into his visitor's chair, ignoring the overlaid memory of Ray sprawled there, edgy and frustrated, teasing him to play hooky. "Why are you here? Is something wrong?"
Her hands tightened on her purse, but she met his gaze head on, her eyes pale and distant. "I—No. Nothing's wrong. I'm here on the advice of—" She glanced away, biting her lip, then regained her composure. "May I call you Fraser?"
"Of course. But I'm afraid I don't understand."
Stella smiled, lopsidedly, one eyebrow raised in challenge. "Let me buy you a drink. I'll explain."
It was nearly the end of the day and, if his suspicions were correct, Albuquerque was in no danger. On top of that, he was burning with curiosity. Stella couldn't be an envoy on Ray's behalf. Surely not. So what on earth was going on?
He studied her openly. Most American women were embarrassingly eager for his company. By way of contrast, Stella was refreshingly cool. Fraser shifted uncomfortably when he realized that she reminded him of Victoria Metcalf—his Victoria, wherever she was now. The two women were almost diametrically opposed in appearance, but they shared a self-possession, an indomitable spirit that appealed to Fraser on a fundamental level.
When he'd heard about the bowling alley, he'd had difficulty picturing—well, in truth, he'd been so distracted by Ray's incensed reaction, he'd barely had time to spare it a thought. But this woman before him, dressed in practical low-key clothing, with only small earrings as adornments—he could easily see her running such an establishment.
She wasn't wearing a ring. "Yes," he said.
Fraser went to the door of the file room and explained the situation to Dief as well as he was able. "We have an unexpected guest, and I'd appreciate your assistance."
Dief sniffed Stella's shoes, made a rude remark about American malls, and loped out into the gathering gloom to visit the northeast outskirts of town to discover whether Fraser's suspicions vis-à-vis the missing alpaca were correct.
Fraser and Stella sat across from each other at Fraser's preferred table in the quietest corner of Walt's Bar and Grill (which was one half of the local Post Office and General Store). There were shadows under Stella's eyes, but her movements were brisk as she stirred sugar into her coffee.
The silence had stretched too long, and Fraser was unsure how to break it. He'd never been able to talk to ASA Kowalski, and he didn't know her in this new guise. A caribou tale would hardly be appropriate, and he doubted she was interested in anecdotes regarding the First Nations people of the far north.
She spoke first. "He's not coming back."
Fraser stared at the table in front of him for a moment, aware that at least part of his distress was the fact that she was bearing witness to his failure—a failure to keep Ray and keep him happy. He waited until he could be sure his voice was steady. "I know. He called on Tuesday and asked me to ship down his stereo."
She shook her head in apparent disapproval. "Tact was never his strong suit."
"True enough." Fraser sipped his tea, and changed the subject, aware of his petty desire to even the score, but unable to help himself. "How is Ray Vecchio?"
She looked out to the street, where Tommy Gunn was trying to jump-start his disreputable old truck under one of the town's eight working streetlights. "I hear he's fine."
"Out of my mind," she muttered under her breath, as Tommy's truck finally roared to life in the gloom. Then she met Fraser's eye and shrugged. "We're separated."
And she'd already removed the ring. Fraser supposed there was little hope of reconciliation. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"You haven't heard the real news, then?" Her tone light, wry, giving away nothing.
"My ex-husbands have become—" she said slowly.
Ray and Ray? Fraser sat up straighter, and tilted his head encouragingly.
Fraser frowned, confused. "In a case? They're working together?"
The corner of Stella's mouth quirked up. "Actually, yes, by a bizarre twist of fate, Lieutenant Welsh has chosen to team them up. God knows what he's thinking. But they're also together in the other sense."
He tongued the old scar on his inner lip. "I don't follow."
"They're a couple," Stella enunciated clearly.
"Oh." The world slid sideways. Fraser felt his heart stutter. Ray had left, had left and was already— But it couldn't be true. Fraser tried to picture them—to picture Ray and Ray Vecchio embracing, to imagine— "That seems highly unlikely. After all, Ray Vecchio isn't gay."
"Yeah," she said. "That's what I thought."
Fraser stared at her. "They have almost nothing in common."
"I would have said quite the opposite." Stella sipped her coffee.
"Meaning?" Fraser couldn't think clearly. "Ray Kowalski is—" He bit off the words, suddenly missing Ray (his partner) with a ferocity that made his eyes sting.
Stella averted her gaze. "Meaning us. They have us in common." She turned her cup in its saucer. "I know you have no reason to like me, but—"
"I beg your pardon," Fraser interrupted. "I'm still trying to understand. Ray and Ray are—"
"Romantically involved." They exchanged glances, and Stella's lips twisted. "Perhaps not romantically."
"Intimately," clarified Fraser.
Luckily, Dief chose this moment to appear. Kelly Tarlton let him in, and Dief trotted over looking smug. "Thank you kindly," Fraser told him. "I'll go by the Jobson place tomorrow, then."
Dief snapped at the air, and then curled up under the table, leaning heavily on Fraser's feet. Fraser absent-mindedly fed him a breadstick under the table, and turned his attention back to Stella. "Did Ray ask you to come and tell me?" It seemed highly unlikely, but what other explanation was there for Stella's appearance in this remote corner of the world?
But she nearly choked on her coffee at the suggestion. "No! No, not at all. He doesn't know I'm here. Neither of them do." She lined up a few spilled grains of sugar on the wooden tabletop. "I just—I was talking to my divorce counselor, and—" She shook her head, and stared silently into space for a minute, then glanced up and flushed, as though surprised to find him watching her. "It's not as though it's material whether or not—I just—" She took a deep breath. "I know it seems like a long way to come, but I needed a change of scenery and, well, I think you and I got off on the wrong foot, Constable. Fraser. I was hoping for a chance to rectify that. After all, we both—" She rubbed her thumb over her index finger. "I think we're in the same boat."
"Yes." Fraser watched the movement of her hands, her delicate fingers. It was a gracious acknowledgement on her part. She and Ray Vecchio had never formally recognized Fraser and Ray's relationship—well, they'd hardly been given the opportunity to. It had been unofficial, had grown organically from their adventure together. And now it was well and truly over. The glimmer of hope that had survived Ray's call earlier in the week dimmed, and Fraser felt cold. He glanced around the room at the cheery fire, the chalkboard menu above the bar. "Would you—" He cleared his throat. "Would you like to get something to eat?"
Stella smiled, her thin face softening. "Yeah," she said. "That would be nice."
Walt's father-in-law, Gordon, served them, openly curious about Stella's presence. "Another American, eh?" he said cheerfully. "What're you doing up north at this time of year?"
Stella smiled politely. "I'm on vacation. I just arrived this morning. It's a lovely town."
"Yes, indeed. Are you staying with the Constable?" Gordon winked at her. "Get him to bring you by on Sunday: Walt puts the roast on, and everybody comes to town."
"I'm at a bed and breakfast," Stella told him. "But I'll be here."
They had wine with dinner. Fraser had grown accustomed to the occasional glass while he and Ray were living together, and it seemed appropriate to toast the end of this era, the collapse of his dreams. The equivalent of fiddling while Rome burned, perhaps.
Stella seemed to have decided he was a worthy confidant, and was deep in a post mortem of her first marriage, and the aftermath. "That was a bad year for me. I questioned everything, doubted myself." The firelight glowed golden on her hair as she leaned forward, and said, matter-of-factly, "Marriage was the first thing I'd ever failed at. I thought maybe it was the job—the divorce rate amongst lawyers is shocking, you know—and Ray never made it easy. So with Ray number 2, we thought, hey, let's try something different. Low stress, recreational, sunny. Let's make this work." The emphatic jab at the table was achingly familiar. Then she sat back, her hands spread. "Now that that's fallen apart, well, I know it's me. I can't—I don't domesticate well."
"You and Ray were married for over ten years," Fraser objected.
She shrugged. "Yeah, well, you put two stubborn people in a room and see who's going to be the first to leave, trust me, it takes a while." She picked up her fork. "And I cared. I did love him. It was just—never what I expected."
"I know." She tilted her head. "You know, you remind me of him. Something about the way—" She gestured vaguely. "He must have rubbed off on you."
Fraser ignored the heat rising into his cheeks, certain the double entendre was unintentional. "I was just thinking the same about you," he said, by way of distraction. "Your gestures—"
She nodded. "Body language. It's more contagious than the common cold." She ate a mouthful of salad. "Anyway, I've struck out twice. No more Rays for me." She tucked her hair behind her ear, and looked somber. "I'm too old for their shit."
She was getting maudlin, Fraser decided, and he was in grave danger of following her down that path. "May I ask you a question? The first time I met you, you were barefoot in the middle of the day. Why?"
She glanced up, surprised. "I'm glad I never had to put you on the stand, Fraser. Your recall's far too accurate: you'd have no credibility whatsoever. Not in Chicago."
He smiled. "Well?"
"That day with Frank? The heel had broken off my shoe. I tried to fix it with my office stapler and some glue, but it wouldn't hold, and Frank said—" She broke off, and waved the unfinished sentence away impatiently. "I had a deposition that afternoon. I was on my way to buy new shoes when we met. When Ray—" And there was that pensive look again.
Fraser covered her hand with his own, surprised to find himself protective of her. "Ray always loved you. I think he always regretted that he couldn't be what you needed."
"Don't be kind to me." Her voice was brittle, but she didn't pull away.
"I'm not." But he was. He was saying what he himself most wanted to hear.
Stella shook her head. "No. It was the other way around. In the end, he didn't want me. He just couldn't admit it. And then—" Her face tightened. "They both loved you. They were both crazy for you."
"But Ray Vecchio and I were never—"
"It doesn't matter. He would have followed you anywhere. It's not about sex. It's about who you were for them." She met his eyes directly. "Who they are for each other, now."
Fraser tried to keep his expression neutral, but he knew he was failing. It just wasn't—it wasn't fair. Still, it was hardly Stella's fault. "Why are you here?"
She ignored the question, and pulled her hand away to top up both their wine glasses. "In Chicago, were you obliged to wear your dress uniform as often as you did?"
Fraser opened his mouth to deflect the inquiry, then let all the air escape him. What did it matter, now? "No."
She nodded, as though this confirmed her suspicions. "You've changed."
"The red serge is largely ceremonial. It's not appropriate for the weather conditions—"
She shot him a quick smile. "That's not what I meant. You've changed."
"People do," he replied, a touch defensively. "It's one of the few things you can count on. We also stay fundamentally the same."
"He wasn't—easy. To live with." Fraser listened with horror to his own words. Why was he saying these things? "I don't know why I'm telling you this," he said.
"It's the wine," said Stella, her eyes shining across the table. "Don't worry. I won't tell."
He didn't worry. Her kindness had become apparent throughout the evening. She was no longer the enemy, no longer a rival. Instead they were both victims of circumstance and their loved ones' better fortune. That they shared the same loved ones only served to tighten the bond. Fraser fumbled for his train of thought. "He kept threatening violence. He—" He knew he was blushing. Was it the wine? Embarrassment? "He even hit me. Twice. Once before we—came to Canada, and then, after—Of course, I wasn't at risk. He wouldn't have—I can defend myself. But it just seemed—it wasn't conducive."
Stella nodded understandingly.
"To a loving relationship. It shouldn't be necessary to. Calm. Placate." Fraser's chin dropped to his chest. "It was just so unreasonable," he muttered, finally letting free the complaint he'd been holding onto all this time.
Stella burst out laughing—the first time she'd laughed all evening—and even that was laden with sympathy.
Fraser pushed his wineglass away, and poured himself some water, trying not to notice the smooth curve of her cheek. Oh no. That could only complicate things past bearing.
The end of the evening was a blur. They walked into the chill night air together, one or two snowflakes drifting lazily in the dark. Diefenbaker pranced around them like a puppy, and then bolted up the road toward the house.
Fraser thought perhaps he'd started to say goodnight, to point her toward her lodgings, but she wound her scarf tighter around her neck and took his arm, and somehow they ended up walking together along the slippery, glittery, white-edged pavement.
He felt comfortable with her. It made no sense, but she was familiar. She was part of his history, and the wine and late night notwithstanding, her presence made him feel more solid, as though his past hadn't disintegrated with Ray's defection. As though his time in Chicago had meant something after all.
He woke with a thumping headache and a crick in his neck. It took him a few seconds to put together the salient facts: he was hung over; he'd slept on the floor beside his couch; Diefenbaker was squashing his feet; and the painful sounds of retching were emanating from his bathroom. He sat up gingerly, and put his hand to his head. What on earth had possessed him to drink to excess?
The shower started up. Ray? Before he could think, he'd shoved Dief aside and was on his feet, knocking on the bathroom door, barging in to see if—
He was brought up short by a startled female exclamation and a glimpse of pale curves.
"Oh. I beg your pardon. Excuse me." He backed out hurriedly and shut the door. Not Ray. Not Ray at all.
The conversation of the previous night flooded back, and he went into the kitchen intending to put the kettle on to boil, but instead fed Dief, drank a large glass of water, and went outside to chop wood. It wasn't the most efficacious hangover cure, but it was necessary, nonetheless, and by the time he'd filled the wood basket, his liver had processed the residual toxins and his headache was gone.
He cleaned the axe and put it away, trying again to wrap his head around the idea of Ray and Ray together. In the light of day, it seemed no less likely than the fact that Stella Kowalski-Vecchio was currently naked in his shower.
Not that she was, any longer. She was standing bundled in his yard, staring at the distinctive angles of his domicile. "You live in a yurt," she observed, from the yard.
He turned. "The previous owner was a keen amateur historian of Mongol descent," he recited automatically, then blinked at her. "You're, ah, familiar with yurts?"
"My best friend is an interior decorator." Her words hung in the air, small white clouds of condensation. She didn't seem at all put out by his intrusion into the bathroom.
"I see," said Fraser. "I trust you slept well." He hoisted the wood basket into his arms and led the way inside. "I was just about to—"
"Make coffee?" she asked, with raised eyebrows, looking past him at the shiny coffeepot on the counter-top.
He smiled ruefully. "If you'd like some."
She took off her jacket and her scarf. "It's not an easy adjustment." Sympathy disguised as observation. Fraser supposed it was perfectly obvious the coffeepot was neither for her benefit nor for his own.
"Ray was only here for a matter of months. I've lived alone, except for Diefenbaker, for most of my life."
"Which doesn't explain why precisely half of the bathroom cabinet is empty and waiting." She came up beside him and filled the kettle at the sink.
"Ah. Well," he said, as he reached up for the tea canister and placed it on the counter. "It's not an easy adjustment."
Over an embarrassingly spartan breakfast of oatmeal, Fraser ventured to enquire how long Stella intended to remain in Tuktoyaktuk.
"I'm booked in at the B&B for a week—it didn't seem worth coming all this way for less." She shrugged. "You don't have to look after me, though, Fraser. I came up here under my own steam."
Fraser hesitated. "Actually, I was wondering whether you'd care to stay here. To, ah, spend the rest of your vacation here, that is. You'd be most welcome. I'm perfectly comfortable on the floor, and we—Diefenbaker and I—well, to be honest, we'd be glad of the company."
She put down her spoon. "So would I, but—"
Fraser interrupted her. "That's settled, then. Diefenbaker and I need to conduct an investigation this morning. It's official RCMP business, but it shouldn't take long, and if you'd care to join us, we can go for a drive afterwards. See some of the local landmarks, perhaps."
"You don't have to look after me," Stella repeated, slowly.
He took his bowl to the sink and rinsed it, aware of an unexpected desire to reach out to her, to comfort her. "It's no trouble."
As Diefenbaker had confirmed the night before, Albuquerque was safe and sound in Roy Jobson's henhouse. "I won't be long," Fraser told Stella, as they pulled into his driveway. "It'd be best if you waited in the truck."
He let Dief out, checked the alpaca tracks which plainly led toward the backyard, and knocked on the front door. "Good-day, Mr. Jobson," he said to the purple-faced old man who answered.
"Constable," said Jobson, tersely. "What d'you want?"
As Fraser explained the situation, he turned to gesture toward Carmen Singer's house, and saw that Stella had climbed out of the truck, and seemed to be talking to Dief. Fraser distracted Jobson with an inane comment about the frost, as Stella and Dief vanished around the side of the house.
"You know better'n that, Constable," said Jobson, shrewdly. "That young lady's gone to raid my henhouse, has she?"
"I believe she's assisting my wolf," said Fraser, apologetically. "I hope you don't mind."
But Jobson seemed more interested in gossiping than asking about a search warrant, and Fraser was reminded again of the different priorities between the citizens of Chicago and the Tuk locals. "She a friend of yours?"
"In a manner of speaking." Any minute now, Jobson would be inviting the three of them in for cups of brewed tea, and they'd never get away. It wasn't fair to thrust Stella into such a potentially awkward conversation. "I'll go and see how they're getting on."
Fraser stood in the doorway and watched as Stella advanced calmly on Albuquerque, murmuring nonsense, a handful of hay in one outstretched hand, and a knotted rope in the other. Despite her soothing tones, determination was written in the set of her shoulders, the jut of her jaw, as though she was prompted to action by a dare.
The alpaca was backed into a corner and humming nervously, while Jobson's lead sled dog barked warnings at Dief.
Stella's gaze flicked down to Dief, and she mouthed, "Distract him?"
Dief's panted at her a moment, head tilted. Then his tail came up, and he barked sharply at Oakley, all his wolf traits to the fore. The dog, well familiar with the social hierarchy, whined, and trotted over to sniff Dief's rear, and Fraser relaxed, realizing that his companions had everything under control.
They returned a reluctant Albuquerque to her owner, Carmen Singer, and Fraser helped to repair the loose chicken wire on the fence where she'd escaped. He then requested that Carmen apologize to Janine Carlisle for the unwarranted accusation of alpaca theft. Carmen scowled and looked sideways at Stella, but made no comment, and finally shrugged and spat out her chewing tobacco before she went over to the Carlisles' to shake Janine's hand.
"Albuquerque and Oakley, Mr. Jobson's sled dog, are the best of friends," Fraser explained to Stella, as they drove away. "Unfortunately, Carmen is prone to—misunderstandings—with her immediate neighbors. She argued with Janine Carlisle over the correct execution of a knitting pattern in 1997, and they've been at odds since. And Carmen and Mr. Jobson disagreed over their respective cabbage crops a few months ago, so Albuquerque and Oakley have been kept apart. It was only a matter of time before Albuquerque escaped from her kennel and went to find him."
"What was the problem with the cabbages?"
"The two of them favor very different methods of slug control. Mr. Jobson believes that dousing the surrounding area with kerosene is the best technique, whereas Carmen prefers commercial pellets. I've encouraged them to work out their differences, but unfortunately, my opinions on the matter hold little sway, since I'm neither a tribal elder nor a gardener."
Stella laughed, and watched the scenery unfolding around them.
Fraser kept talking, telling her the history of the Tuk township ("I don't know if you're aware that Tuktoyaktuk means 'resembling a caribou'...") as he drove to the far shore of the Mackenzie River Delta, where they sat side by side in the cab of Fraser's truck and stared out in silence at icy gray sea.
After a long while, Stella sighed softly to herself, and Fraser's attention was drawn from the endless loop of waves and tide and empty cold winters. He glanced at her, then quickly away. In her practical clothing, with her brown hair, she bore little resemblance to her former Assistant State's Attorney self, and yet she was peculiarly familiar to Fraser now. Familiar and comfortable.
Since her arrival, she had reminded him of Victoria and of Ray, and she did indeed share traits with both of them, but the alloy of certainty and courage at her core had its own flavor.
Furthermore, Victoria and Ray had both resented Fraser—resented their feelings for him, even as they'd succumbed. Stella had no such tension in her; her presence neither reproached him for doing his duty, nor abraded him for his reserved manner and attachment to this wild landscape. In short, now that she'd taken the time to speak with him, listen to him, she actually seemed to like him for who he was.
Fraser straightened in his seat. It was a rare gift, but he mustn't get used to it. "Why did you dye your hair?" he asked, breaking the silence abruptly.
She started, then pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through her locks, ruffling them into disarray. "This is my natural color," she said. "I suppose I got tired of trying to be someone else."
That evening, after dinner, Fraser finished washing the dishes, hung the tea towel on its rack, and turned to see Stella leaning on the sideboard watching him. Something about her posture, about the look in her eye, made his pulse quicken inexplicably. His eyebrow itched, but he ignored it. "Tea?"
She shook her head, breaking the spell, but when she spoke her voice was soft. "Fraser, I—"
"It's all right." He didn't know which of them he was reassuring.
Dief barked, brief and cryptic, and went outside.
"I haven't been entirely frank about why I'm here." She crossed her arms. "I—my counselor—I thought it was the divorce, failing again. That I don't know how to accept defeat. And Ray the second, leaving. Leaving me. I'd really hoped we could make it—but it kept coming back to patterns with the first Ray, Ray Kowalski. Everything started there. I didn't want him back, but I still, I still wanted him. Somehow. And you—he was here with you, and I, well, I didn't like you when we first met. I'm sure you know that. But you were in the middle of it all, a big tangle, and you kept coming up, I kept. Blaming—and Wendy said I needed—"
Fraser put his arms around her, and held her gently, and her words stopped pouring out. Her slim body pressed against his, leaning on him, and he held his breath, unsure whether this was platonic comfort or something more.
Her elbows pushed out and he started to loosen his hold, an apology already on his lips, but she slid her arms around him, and held him, angling her face up to press her mouth against his own. "Closure," she said, unevenly.
He looked down at her, into eyes that had loved and lost. She had dignity and beauty, and pain, and he suddenly saw her as complete. She wasn't a missing piece of his puzzle, nor a memento of what he'd lost, but a person in her own right, kind, hurt, desirable.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"There's no need to be."
The tip of her tongue slid across her lower lip, and she dropped her gaze to his mouth. "Make love to me."
Fraser froze in place, shocked to find that he wasn't shocked. That he was, in fact, aroused by the prospect. "Stella—"
She closed her eyes. "Do me like you did him. Call it closure." But then she pushed away and walked to the bedroom door, pausing on the single stair there. "I'm sorry. I know I'm not your type." She rested her hand on the doorknob. "I can take care of—"
In two strides, he had his arms around her again, his mouth seeking hers clumsily.
Her lips were unbearably soft—like down or wool—and for a brief moment Fraser longed for stubble and resistance, for the battle of tongues and teeth, but then she opened to him, pressed her tongue against his own, and he was lost, floating in the sweetness of her kiss, driven to distraction by her unexpected strength. Yes, she was strong—and sure, too, her hands eagerly seeking out his skin. One pushed down the neck of his shirt, while the other tugged insistently at its hem until it came free and her fingers could map out his back.
To start with, he simply held her and kissed her, and let his body come back to life. How he'd missed this, this intimacy, this contact. How he missed Ray. He pushed that thought aside and licked into Stella's mouth, sucked gently on her tongue, hearing her quick intake of breath. Then everything snapped abruptly into focus: this woman, this body she was offering him.
She smelled of soap and woodsmoke. He tightened one arm about her waist and rocked into her, his erection hard against her hip. The fingers of his other hand threaded into her silky hair, cupping her head. There was something familiar—this was a memory. He jolted, suddenly disorientated. But no: this wasn't Victoria. Stella's mouth, the taste of her, the clutch of her hands—all of these were new, to be learned and understood. And the comfort of uncomplicated coupling—that, too, was new. This was Stella.
She moaned deep in her throat, and reached lower, into the back of his jeans, her fingers digging roughly into his buttocks. He gasped and pushed forward and sideways, shoving her against the doorjamb with far less care than was polite. "Sorry."
"'Sokay," she murmured, and kissed his jaw, his cheek. "I can take it." Her mouth was small and hot and wet. Fraser wanted to feel it on his chest, imagined it on his cock. He was standing half-on and half-off the stair now. She straddled his bent leg and ground down against him, panting for air. She pulled him closer.
He slid his hand from the back of her head to her smooth cheek, his thumb brushing the delicate skin around her eyes, and then he buried his face in her neck, and slipped two fingers between her wet lips.
She sucked them in. Dear God.
His tongue trailed over her clavicle and skimmed her shirt, finding her nipple through the fabric, so that she groaned and arched against him.
He drew his slick fingers from her mouth and, careful not to dry them on her clothing, he fumbled with the button of her jeans, then the zipper. "Are you sure?" he asked.
She clenched fingers in his hair by way of answer, and pulled his face to hers for a long deep kiss more eloquent than words. Blindly, he shoved her jeans and underwear to her thighs, and eased his fingers into her slick heat.
She shook her head, reached down to push his hand away, even as her hips tilted forward to welcome him. "No," she said.
"I'm so—" he quickly started to apologize.
"No, like you did Ray." Her voice was husky. Her grip on his wrist compelled him. "I want that."
Fraser shuddered. "Sometimes I—"
"Anything." She wriggled her hips slightly, and her jeans fell to her knees. Even through his clothing, Fraser could feel the tension in her unfamiliar thighs, muscular and smooth. He pulled her away from the wall a fraction, and slid his hand down between her buttocks, over her hole.
"Yes," she moaned, pushing into his arms. "Oh, yeah."
Fraser drew her sideways, and they fell onto the unmade bed in a tangled heap. "I'm going to fuck you now," he said, deliberately coarse.
"Yeah," she said, and rolled away from him onto her front, showing him the creamy skin of her back. "Do it."
He reached across her to the nightstand, and fumbled in the drawer for a condom and lubricant.
Afterwards, he pulled out carefully, although not carefully enough to avoid an indignant, "Ow!" And then they collapsed side-by-side onto the bed, staring at each other in surprise.
"That wasn't—what I expected," said Stella.
Fraser frowned, suddenly awash with concern and embarrassment. "In what way?"
"You—weren't what I expected." She closed her eyes and turned her face to the ceiling, and the corners of her mouth tipped up. "That uniform you used to wear. It doesn't suit you at all."
And then, some minutes later, she added, ironically, "Was it good for you?"
He looked at her, her eyes still shut. She seemed curious, rather than concerned.
"Yes," he said.
The next morning they dressed in awkward silence, and set to devouring bacon and eggs. Diefenbaker nosed around for scraps, hoping for a walk.
"I'll pack Ray's stereo," said Stella.
"I can do it," said Fraser, knowing it was foolish to hold onto a piece of technology like a talisman, but baulking at the thought of relinquishing that last tie.
"It's okay. I know how." She drained her water glass.
"He sent instructions." Fraser pulled the folded fax from his back pocket.
Stella took it from him, glanced at its worn folds and snorted. "Go, walk your dog," she said, not unkindly, "and let him go."
It turned into a weekend of debauchery. Stella's desire was matched by her curiosity. "What else?" she'd ask. "What do men do together? How does it feel?" And Fraser couldn't help but show her—show her with his mouth and hands and cock, mapping his way through his repertoire, every possible permutation except one. Telling the story of his relationship with Ray. Telling it without words. Exorcising the memories and letting his muscles learn a new context for pleasure.
It was purely therapeutic, he told himself. For both of them. He didn't let himself think beyond Friday, beyond another departure, and his inevitable return to solitude. This was a reprieve. This was, in some strange way, a glimpse of the life he'd once expected to live: a community Mountie with a woman to love. He was playing the part of a kinder, wiser (he hoped) modern-day version of his own father.
He grew familiar with Stella's husky-voiced cries. The clutch of her hands as she came pushed aside painful memories. He found himself laughing with her, ignoring Dief's approval as he'd ignored Dief's initial reservations.
Finally, Stella—boneless and glowing, draped on the couch in only Fraser's shirt—grinned at him. "What else is there? I want it all."
Fraser let his eyes travel provocatively down her body. This was the game they were playing, after all. "There are certain anatomical limitations."
"You're a wilderness man, Benton Fraser," she said, leaning back and letting her legs sprawl apart. "I expect you can improvise."
So he came to his knees beside her, obedient and willing, and licked up her thigh into the richly scented curls, and then deeper in, into her wetness, into her sex. He was half-pretending there was a cock in his mouth, that she was a man, and yet he was fully aware of her femininity, of the delicate grace of her. He gripped her knee, and slid his other hand up under her shirt to cup her breast, teasing her nipple until she gasped.
On Sunday night, they—and many of the other Tuk residents—went to Walt's for the roast dinner. As always, it turned into something of a party. Stella went to the B&B to change and check out, and when she arrived at Walt's she was wearing a long peach-colored dress. Fraser pushed aside his self-consciousness—this was hardly a date, after all—and led her into the circle of locals, where they joined in the general discussion regarding the weather forecast, and how it would affect fishing. Stella entered the milieu with equanimity, even shaking hands with Maisie's husband, Thor, who was renowned for his personal odor of rotten meat, and Fraser found himself smiling at her, surprised by her evident enjoyment of the occasion, relieved at the ease with which she seemed to acclimatize.
When the conversation drifted to the merits of spending summer in a city versus the benefits (and otherwise) of staying in the north, she spoke up, but she listened, too, and there was nothing derogatory in her observations.
Fraser, known to have spent time in Chicago, was asked for his view, but he smiled and shook his head. "I'm home now," he said, simply. "I wasn't meant for city life."
Maisie brought Fraser a large bowl of sherry trifle, late in the evening, while Stella was laughing with the Gregory boys at the bar. "How're you doing there, Constable?"
Fraser smiled. "I'm fine, Maisie. Thank you kindly."
"She's got a fine head for business, your American friend. Pretty, too." Maisie sat down in Stella's vacated seat. "Is she another one from Chicago, then?"
Fraser nodded, and asked after Thor's knees, which were prone to rheumatism.
"Oh, he whines worse than the north wind, but he'll be all right. Is she staying long?"
"Just a few days." Fraser picked up his spoon, and cast about for some other news with which to distract Maisie.
She reached her hand across the table—not touching his, but in a gesture of comfort. "I was sorry to hear about your friend Kowalski leaving, Constable. It's not right, you being alone. A nice young man like yourself."
"Thank you, I—" Fraser was taken aback. Ray had had no time for Maisie and her grapevine. Had said her wagging tongue made him feel exposed, as though the town would take them to trial. It was perplexing to register the tide of relief he felt at no longer having to referee interactions between Ray and the local residents, at the same time as he still wished keenly for Ray's return, for his energy and humor. "Thank you."
A cheer sounded by the bar, and Fraser looked over to see Stella shaking hands with all four of the Gregory boys in turn, while Gordon poured a row of shots.
"Looks like the deal's been done," said Maisie, and went to find out more.
Fraser took a mouthful of trifle, ignoring Dief's hopeful gaze, and sat back to enjoy the evening.
Stella was glowing with excitement and schnapps when they left. Fraser had heard the rumor. "You sold the bowling alley," he said.
She glanced at him, then spun a pirouette, her arms outstretched like a schoolgirl. "Yeah."
"Are you—What will you do?"
"I don't know yet." Her face turned up to the sky. "I like not knowing." A few minutes later, she added, more soberly. "I did tell them to consult a solicitor."
"They can afford it. And they've been talking about moving to a warmer climate for nearly a decade."
She smiled and shrugged. "Yeah. And you never know how something will turn out until you try."
Fraser arrived home from work on Tuesday evening, just as it was getting dark, and found her sitting on the front doorstep. She was wearing her parka, and had her gloved hands wrapped around a steaming mug of cocoa. She was apparently deep in conversation with Diefenbaker, and didn't see him approach. Her soft clear voice carried across the yard.
"—gay, he's my ex's ex, and he lives in a yurt."
Dief flicked his ears forward.
"Hey, I don't see you bolting for the door, either, Mr. Wolf." She ruffled his fur, and then must have heard Fraser's footsteps crunch the snow. She looked up, startled.
"Hi," said Fraser.
She smiled up at him, her cheeks pink. "Hi."
The silence stretched around them.
On Thursday night, they lay in bed, Fraser's head pillowed on her arm. "I loved a murderess once," he told her.
She stroked his hair. "I know."
"I thought she was the only woman I could ever love." He looked away, afraid even as he said it.
Ten days later, after a companionable dinner of baked salmon, they'd settled down on the couch to read when the phone rang, jangling discordantly around the room. Stella didn't even raise her eyes from The Alpaca Business Plan: A practical guide for new camelid ranchers. Her fingers threaded absentmindedly through Dief's fur.
"Constable Benton Fraser."
"Yo, Fraser. I got my stereo. It's addressed in Stella's writing."
"Yeah, it's me. What's going on up there? Have you seen her?"
"I'm fine, thank you kindly. And how are you?"
Stella reached across and hit the speakerphone button, so that Ray's voice, when he spoke, was tinny and distant, spilling into the hush of the room.
"Cut the crap, Fraser. What exactly is going on with my wife?"
There was a klunk, and another familiar voice could be heard—fainter but still distinct. "Your wife, Kowalski? I married her last."
Fraser could almost hear Ray's glare.
"Yeah, well, I married her longest, Vecchio, so fuck the hell off. I want to know what she's doing up there in the great white north, packing my parcels. Is she working for the Canadian postal service now, or what?"
Fraser met Stella's humorous glance, and felt his taut shoulder muscles relax. At this distance, Ray's tactlessness was almost funny. Fraser leaned back into the couch, and Stella snuggled up beside him, her eyes fixed on the phone.
"What do you care, Stanley?" Ray Vecchio taunted Ray Kowalski. "I'm not enough for you, now. Is that it?"
Stella's lips twitched. "Better than television," she murmured, but then she crawled over so that she was lying across his lap, and pressed the speakerphone button again, disconnecting the call.
"One can't help feeling that they deserve each other," Fraser observed acidly.
She rolled over and pulled him down so he was pressing her deep into the couch cushions. "So do we," she said against his mouth.
Fraser's pique evaporated. Chicago was a lifetime away and, if he was perfectly honest with himself, he was glad that Ray was no longer his concern. Fraser had a new life now, one that shone with promise.
He kissed Stella back. "So we do."