Cover of the new book "Caribou Crossing "

Finding Isadora

 

Excerpt from Finding Isadora

Chapter 1

I stripped off my surgical gloves and mask, and exhaled a long sigh of relief. When I sucked that breath back in again, the air carried the tang of blood, anesthetic, and disinfectant. The scent was as familiar to me as the smell of cinnamon toast when I was a kid, and as reassuring. This was my world, and today I, Isadora Dean Wheeler, was, to use my mother’s term, a goddess. I’d worked a miracle.

I beamed at my assistant. “Good work, Martin. Will you clean Pussywillow up and get her settled in the recovery room?”

“Sure, Doc.” With a gentle hand, he stroked the little gray cat’s head. “You saved her life.”

“We did it together.” Adrenaline sang in my veins. When we’d started the surgery, I’d estimated the cat’s chances at no higher than ten percent; now, I was sure she’d recover.

Martin Swallow, only twenty-one but in many ways older in the ways of the world than I, had long ago learned to hide his emotions. But now, slowly, a white smile split his brown face.

Like a pair of idiots we stood grinning at each other across the stainless steel table. I was so happy to share this moment with him. The young Cree had been with Vancouver’s West End Pet-Vet Clinic for only six months, but he was a quick learner and genuinely loved animals.

He glanced at the clock. “Weren’t you supposed to leave by five?”

The fundraiser. I’d completely forgotten, and it was ten to six. “Damn!”

I stripped off my cap and blood-stained gown and tossed them in the laundry bin, then left the sterile surgery and hurried to the reception area where our patient’s family waited for news.

Today, the homey atmosphere and mellow guitar music weren’t working any soothing magic on the diminutive dark-haired girl who huddled in her mother’s arms, tear-streaked and sniffling.

I smiled reassuringly at the mom as I squatted in front of the child to talk to her. “It’s okay, Sue. Pussywillow came through beautifully.”

Little Sue Tran stared at me with huge brown eyes, hope chasing the tears away. “R-really?” The girl hiccupped back a sob.

“Really.” I nodded firmly. “That raccoon hurt her pretty badly and we’ll need to keep her here a couple of days, but then you can take her home. You’ll have to take really good care of her, just like your mommy takes care of you when you’re sick.”

Those soulful eyes peered at me, assessing my honesty. Then Sue brushed at the moisture clinging to her lashes and nodded. Her “Okay” was barely a whisper.

“Thank you, Dr. Wheeler.” The heartfelt words came from above me.

I glanced up at Linh Tran, a not-so-much-larger version of her daughter. “You’re welcome. That’s what we’re here for.”

Turning back to Sue, I said, “Want to see her? She’s sleeping and won’t wake up, but you can pet her.”

Kids might seem to believe you when you told them their pets would be all right, but they often had nightmares afterward. It helped if they could see the animal resting, feel the breath lifting in and out, before they went home. They’d have a positive image to replace the one of their animal bleeding, unconscious, or crying in pain.

“Yes, please, Dr. Wheeler,” Sue said, and this time her voice was louder.

I led mother and child into post-op. The small room was warm and dimly lit, full of meadow bird song. Martin had settled our patient in a basket lined with soft towels. He was stroking her, softly chanting a Cree healing song. Pussywillow lay curled in a furry ball, the blood now cleaned away and the only sign of her trauma the wide bandage wrapped around her mid-section.

“Touch her head, Sue. Very gently.” I demonstrated.

The girl politely but firmly elbowed me out of the way and I suppressed a chuckle, pleased her confidence was returning.

“She’s sleeping,” I murmured as the girl rested her hand tentatively on the cat’s furry head. “What do you think she’s dreaming about?”

Sue tilted her head to one side. “Our ‘quarium,” she whispered. “She likes to watch the fish in our ‘quarium.”

“I’ll bet she does.”

As we watched, the little cat stretched her front legs, starting to come out from the anesthetic.

“Pussywillow looks so good,” Linh murmured to me. Her English, unlike her daughter’s, had the slight lilt of an immigrant from Asia. “She was bleeding so much. I was afraid…”

I touched her arm. “You saved her, tying that towel around her and getting her here so quickly.”

“No, Doctor, you saved her.”

I felt a glow of satisfaction. The cat was healthy and strong, and she’d pull through. I’d keep an eye on her for the next couple of hours and then— Damn. Again I’d forgotten about Richard’s blasted fundraiser. Surreptitiously, I checked my watch. Six o’clock.

Richard was supposed to pick me up at home in fifteen minutes.

Thank heaven I’d had the foresight—the self-knowledge—to bring my evening clothes to work, just in case something came up. Funny how the just-in-cases happened more often than the carefully laid plans. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ever since I could remember, I’d wanted to be a vet, and I loved every minute of it.

I whispered to Martin, “I have to go, but you’re on tonight, right? You’ll keep a close eye on Pussywillow?”

“You bet, Doc. I’ll call you if there’s any problem.”

Martin knew me well. Even though Felipe, the vet who was working evening shift tonight, was excellent, I liked following through on my own cases. Once I’d had my hands on an animal, done my best to heal it, I hated to turn the creature over to someone else. It was more than professional pride, and not one whit scientific, but I felt as if my spirit and the animal’s were somehow bound together. Having applied my professional knowledge and skill, now it was a matter of one spirit speaking to another.

This was a secret I’d confessed to only one other person, my mother. Grace understood such things. Martin knew too, I was sure, though we’d never discussed it.

I dialed Richard’s cell. When he answered, I said quickly, “Hi, sweetheart, it’s me. Change of plans. Can you pick me up at the clinic?”

He chuckled. “I could’ve guessed.” Then, in a worried tone, “But Iz, what are you going to wear?”

“You don’t think jeans would make the right impression?”

“Uh—”

I rescued him. Teasing Richard was fun, but I didn’t have time to indulge. “I brought good clothes to work.”

“Okay. I just left my place. I’ll be there in ten.”

“I’ll be ready.”

Ten minutes to transform myself into an elegant gala-goer. I hurried into the bathroom, then stared at my reflection and laughed helplessly. Elegant wasn’t in the cards. Reasonably clean and decently clad were the best I could hope for.

A shower—the shower I’d hoped to have at home—would have felt wonderful, but I had to make do with a paper-towel sponge bath. After, I slathered my body with lime-scented lotion, hoping it would be strong enough to overcome the antiseptic scent that clung to me at the end of a work day.

Carefully I eased into the fitted black cocktail dress that, along with a pair of strappy high-heeled black sandals, made up my entire collection of formal evening wear. My short, streaky blond hair was tousled as always, but nothing short of a shower and blow-dry was going to help it. I applied a dash of eye make-up and wondered if I should borrow a lipstick from Betty, the receptionist. A great-grandma, she believed no woman should go out in public with naked lips. Not me. I hated the taste of lipstick, and the mess it left on drink glasses, not to mention cheeks.

The dangly puppy-dog earrings had to go. I unzipped an inside pocket of my purse, extracted a tiny suede pouch, and slid from it my engagement ring and the matching birthday earrings. The stones weren’t ostentatious, but they were diamonds. Richard’s generosity was one of his great attributes, but the truth—which I’d probably never confess to him—was that diamonds made me squirmy.

I’d seen the expression on Grace’s face when I’d first shown her the ring. One tiny grimace, that was all. Jimmy Lee didn’t believe in wordless communication, so I’d heard far too many words from my father on the subject of immoral materialism, conspicuous consumption, and what an archaic institution marriage was.

I often disagreed with my parents—as I did strongly about marriage—but when it came to diamonds we were of like mind. Still, I understood Richard’s viewpoint. We wanted a conventional life, the opposite from that chosen by his left-wing father and my hippie parents. How did you begin a conventional life if not with the tradition of a diamond engagement ring? Even so, I couldn’t wear the ring to work. Not when I spent the day peeling surgical gloves on and off, and scrubbing my hands with antiseptic soap.

When Richard and I set a wedding date, we’d need to have a serious talk about rings. I wanted a simple band with no stones, something I could put on and never take off. A symbol of our undying love—not, as my unmarried parents believed, a brand that labeled me as a man’s possession.

Of course it didn’t help that Grace and Jimmy Lee weren’t particularly keen on Richard. Mind you, given how different my priorities were from theirs, if my parents had approved of him I’d have had to question my choice of mate.

I smiled at my reflection. No, I had no doubts about Richard. He was exactly what I wanted, and I loved him dearly. My life plan was firmly in place.

Somehow, I managed to wriggle into pantyhose without snagging them. When I stepped into my evening shoes, my feet and calves promptly reminded me I’d been standing for most of the last ten hours. Some women—like the lawyers in Richard’s office—wore power suits, pantyhose, and heels to work every day. How lucky I was to have a career where I could dress for comfort.

Leaving the bathroom, I checked my watch. Twelve minutes had passed since I’d spoken to Richard. As I pulled on my coat, I called, “Martin?”

He materialized silently.

“How’s our patient?”

“Woke up while the little girl was here, then fell into a natural sleep.” He gave me a thumbs-up. “Lookin’ good.”

Even if the cat was in no danger, I still wished I could stay here. At the clinic I was in my element; at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver I’d be a plain brown sparrow amid a flock of peacocks. But Richard needed me. And relationships require compromise.

When I opened the clinic door I saw my fiancé’s pride ‘n joy Lexus, a law school grad present from his mom and stepfather, idling in the loading zone. He hopped out when he saw me, and we reached the passenger door at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, stretching up for a quick kiss.

He’d had his thick dark hair cut even shorter, and smelled of a fresh application of Calvin Klein cologne. “I had a busy day, too. Barely made it home to change.”

Two years younger than my twenty-seven, he was a corporate lawyer, called to the Bar last year and now a junior associate at a high-powered firm. I still had to suppress the tiniest shudder when I thought the words corporate lawyer, and I knew his work was one of the things my parents held against him. Richard had chosen that area of law because it fascinated him. Go figure. We had nothing in common when it came to our careers except the very most important things: we both loved what we did, and we valued the financial security afforded by a steady job.

As he drove the few blocks to the Hotel Vancouver, I told him about Pussywillow.

“Good for you, Iz. That must have been gratifying.”

“It was.”

“I had a good day, too. Got a new client. He’s unhappy with his company’s lawyer, had dinner last night with a client of mine, the client recommended me. The guy e-mailed me at work this morning, then we talked on the phone. Not bad for a Saturday, eh?”

“That’s terrific.” He’d told me that the associates were competitive, struggling to impress the partners and to set their own feet on the partnership track. Bringing in new clients was an important step. “So we both had a rewarding day. Wish we could relax and celebrate alone.”

“Sorry, but this is important because—”

“I know,” I broke in. “I’ll just be glad when it’s over and we can be alone.”

“Me, too,” he said in a heartfelt tone. He pulled into the valet parking area. “Tonight’s on the firm, and we’re running late.”

At the moment, I was less concerned with expense and timeliness as with my own anxiety. Fancy social functions were definitely not my forte. Richard was here representing his firm, so I wanted to make a good impression, but I had little confidence in my ability to do that among these high-flyers.

Inside, we strode across slippery marble, then onto dignified carpet. From a dimly lit lounge came the sound of piano music and a woman’s smoky contralto singing that she really didn’t know love at all.

I smiled, recognizing Both Sides Now. How many times had Grace played the Joni Mitchell version of that song? Too bad Richard and I couldn’t snuggle up in the cozy lounge, sip wine, listen to music, and gloat smugly because we really did know love.

He tugged my hand and speeded up. “Come on, Iz.”

We stepped onto marble again, my thin soles skidding. I grabbed his arm. “These shoes aren’t made for running.”

“Sorry.” He slowed so abruptly that I lost my balance.

As I clung to his arm, he shoved his glasses up his nose, a sure sign of nervousness. “By the way”—his voice was tight—”I should warn you about a couple of people who might be here.”

“Like who?” I asked anxiously.

“Um, well, one’s the senior partner of my firm.”

“Richard! Why didn’t you tell me before?” My nerves coiled tighter. I knew I’d have to meet his big boss one day, but he could’ve given me more warning. I might even have worn lipstick.

He blinked a couple of times, avoiding my glare. “Sorry. Guess I didn’t want to make you nervous.”

“Aagh!” I was tempted to take off one of my uncomfortable shoes and whack him with it. “So, who’s the other person? The CEO of your biggest client?”

He shrugged. “Well, yeah, he may be here, but—” He broke off. “Let’s just see who shows up. There’s a good chance you won’t even have to meet … anyone.”

Great. Now he was embarrassed to introduce me. But his world of big companies was foreign to me. I had no idea what to say to these people. Not for the first time, I thought Richard should be with a woman who could enhance his career.

But he’d chosen me. Meekly, I followed him into the elevator, feeling as strung out as a baby bird facing its first flight.

A few seconds later, we stepped out at the conference level. I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. Remembering that Richard, too, was feeling anxious, I threaded my fingers through his. “Everything will be okay, sweetheart.”

He squeezed my hand. “Sure glad you’re here, Iz.”

I could have been at the clinic, keeping company with Martin and Felipe and miscellaneous animals, wearing my comfortable clothes, eating veggie lasagna. But now, for the first time, I was glad to be at the Hotel Van. The man I loved needed me.

The babble of voices guided us. We turned a corner and paused to survey the scene. More than a hundred people stood in clusters, and straggly line-ups pointed the way to two bars.

“The banquet will be in that ballroom,” Richard said, pointing through an open door. I saw chandeliers, a host of round, white-clothed tables, and a few uniformed busboys fine-tuning the table settings. Next door was a room marked Silent Auction, with a slow stream of people moving in and out of its door.

Everyone was formally dressed, and Richard blended right in with his designer tux—even though he’d bought it second-hand. When you’re saving for a down payment on your first house, you don’t buy brand new Armani.

Embarrassed to be wearing my old trench coat, I hurriedly undid the buttons. Richard said, “We’ll check that,” and hooked his hand in the collar. Gratefully, I shrugged out of it. My cocktail dress might have come from a consignment store, but it too bore a designer label.

He shook his head ruefully. “Seems like I’ve seen that dress somewhere before. Iz, it looks great but I wish you’d let me buy you something else so you don’t have to wear it all the time. It’s not like you’re a guy and can get away with only one tux.”

“You’re not buying me clothes,” I said calmly. “At least not until we’re married. Even then, I’ll still shop consignment stores and mark-down sales.”

I made decent money, but I was paying off my student loans and Vancouver wasn’t a cheap place to live. But even if I were wealthy, designer clothing wasn’t something I could imagine ever wanting. It was so frivolous in a world rife with serious problems. In some ways, I really was my parents’ daughter.

When Richard had checked my coat he looked me up and down. “Simple but elegant.”

“Elegant?” I brushed a kiss across his cheek. “You’re sweet, but don’t go overboard with the flattery.”

He shrugged. “Short hair, long neck, diamonds. Classy.”

Classy? Me? “Thanks, Richard,” I murmured. “You look great, too.” Although he never made time to exercise, he had a naturally lean build. He looked good in anything, though I liked him far better in jeans than the conventional suits and ties he wore for work. His strong, classic features would only improve as age gave his face more character. Dark brows and lashes accented his hazel eyes, and his fashionable glasses lent a professional look that aged him a few years and was no doubt an asset in his work.

I marveled—not for the first time—at how fate had brought the two of us together. I’d always assumed I’d marry a vet, and Richard’s obvious choice would have been another rising young lawyer. And yet, despite our differences, we had some important things in common.

“Let’s get a drink,” he said.

As we headed toward the shorter of the bar line-ups, I said, “I was thinking about how we met.”

“A little different from this, wasn’t it?”

“We do owe our parents,” I admitted. Richard and I had been seated side by side at a blood donor clinic, and he’d asked how I got started donating. Giving blood was taken for granted in both our families. When I’d mentioned Grace and Jimmy Lee, Richard had commented about me calling my parents by their first names as he did with his father, Gabe DeLuca. The first stories we shared were about our flaky parents. We’d each been delighted to find someone who truly understood, and who shared the drive to make our own lives into something very different from those of our parents.

Richard said he took after his mom. His parents had split up more than a decade ago. His mother Diane had married a comfortably wealthy businessman named Frank Bracken. Richard had liked Frank well enough—or perhaps been annoyed enough with Gabe—that he took Frank’s surname. I found Diane and Frank pleasant, if overly materialistic. I’d never met Gabe DeLuca.

In fact, in the year I’d known Richard, he hadn’t seen his father once. They spoke occasionally on the phone, but that was it. Although they were both lawyers, they were polar opposites. While Richard practiced corporate law on the thirty-fourth floor of a thirty-five floor tinted-glass tower near Vancouver’s harbor, his father had a storefront legal office in the infamous Downtown Eastside. Gabe represented low-income clients, minorities, people with disabilities—people who didn’t easily fit in the money-oriented justice system. He had some admirable qualities, but, from what Richard said, he’d been a rotten father.

My parents were both radical activists like Gabe DeLuca, but they’d always been loving parents. I was so lucky, compared to my fiancé. I hoped he and his dad would reconcile one day. I hated to see Richard carrying around all that bitterness and resentment.

We’d reached the front of the bar line-up. Richard was lost in a world of his own, so I nudged him. “What do you want to drink?”

“Oh, sorry.” He reflected a moment as I ordered a glass of white wine, then said, “Scotch on the rocks.”

“A power drink?” I teased. Normally he drank wine, or occasionally beer.

“Caught me. Got to fit in with the movers and shakers.” We collected our drinks and moved out of the main traffic flow. “God, I hate events like this.”

“That makes two of us.” I tucked my arm through his.

He squeezed my hand. “Thanks for coming, Iz. I feel more confident, knowing you’re here.”

I winked. “You’re definitely going to owe me.”

He laughed, then his eyes narrowed as he focused on someone behind me. “There’s Matt Lexington, the CFO of NewReality Corporation. I should say hello. Want to come and be introduced?”

Want? What I wanted was to go back to the clinic and check on Pussywillow. Second best was surviving the evening without making any major blunders. “Do you need me to?”

He shook his head. “It’s dinner where I’m counting on you. I don’t want to sit at one of those big tables without a date.”

“Then I think I’ll make a quick call to the clinic.”

Glancing around, he said, “Dinner’s at seven. How about I meet you in the silent auction room just before that?”

“Perfect.” I could browse in there without having to chat with strangers. “Want me to bid on anything?”

“No. Let’s save the money for our down payment.”

When we got married, we intended to buy a house. I would live in a real house, mortgage and all, not a rental unit. It would be the first permanent home in my life, and my heart went mushy just thinking about it. “Absolutely,” I agreed. “Okay, sweetheart, you go schmooze.” I gave his arm a parting squeeze.

In search of a quiet spot, I worked my way through the crowd and into the hallway by the elevators, then pulled my cell phone from my purse and dialed the clinic.

Martin said Pussywillow had woken enough to drink some water. While we were talking, an elderly couple emerged from an elevator, arguing loudly over who’d be the designated driver.

“Ouch,” Martin said. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”

“I’m at the Hotel Van with Richard. It’s a fundraiser.”

“La-di-da. Though it doesn’t sound like a friendly one.”

I glanced after the unhappy couple. Their clothes and jewelry were likely worth enough to feed an African village for a year. “Be nice,” I said, as much to myself as to Martin. “It’s for the Multicultural Center, a cause I know you support.”

“They saved my life.” His voice was soft and deadly serious.

A substance-abusing dropout from a small reserve in Manitoba, Martin had drifted west and ended up, as so many troubled kids did, in the Downtown Eastside. He’d paid for his drug habit by turning tricks, but had the good luck not to contract HIV.

His life changed course the night he stumbled into the Multicultural Center and talked to a counselor. Now, at the age of twenty-one, he was drug free and had not only earned his high school equivalency but taken a veterinary assistant program at college. He’d been accepted into university for the fall, and planned to become a vet himself.

You saved your own life,” I told him. “But I agree, the Center’s an invaluable resource.”

“Hope they raise lots of money.”

“Me too. The attendees certainly look wealthy enough.”

“Any, uh, multicultural folks?” he asked dryly.

“A handful.”

“In tuxedos?”

“Uh-huh. And designer gowns. One gorgeous silk sari, accented by ten pounds of gold jewelry.”

“Doesn’t sound like any Center clients got invites.”

Located near Main and Hastings, the Multicultural Center served not only poor and disabled people, but also addicts and sex trade workers. I wondered how many of tonight’s attendees had even visited the Center, much less volunteered their time there. “Wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s sensibilities.” Then, feeling bad for sniping, I added, “The important thing is, these people are opening their wallets.”

In fact, who was to say they weren’t making a bigger contribution than my parents, whose preferred strategies included picketing, blocking roads, and chaining themselves to logging trucks? Grace and Jimmy Lee also volunteered in soup kitchens and at needle exchanges, but weren’t their efforts inconsequential compared to the thousands of dollars people would donate tonight?

And then there was me, sitting squarely on the fence. Looking down my left-wing little nose at tonight’s snobby crowd, yet avoiding getting my own hands dirty the way my parents did.

“Doc? You still there?”

Doc. Every now and then I wondered if being a vet was a cop-out or a wise solution to my mixed feelings. I was doing something worthwhile, but didn’t have to deal with addicts and schizophrenics. If the world was made up of people like me, Martin would never have received the help he deserved. But it wasn’t. There were people like my parents, too.

The parents who’d always encouraged me to follow my passion. And that’s absolutely what I’d done. Since I was a toddler I’d adopted stray animals the way Grace and Jimmy Lee adopted stray people. I shouldn’t feel guilty. “I’m stalling,” I told Martin. “I’d rather talk to you than hang out with the rich and famous.”

He gave a soft, pleased chuckle. I’d only been telling the truth but I realized that, to him, it was a compliment.

“I’ll stay overnight at the clinic,” he said, “and keep an eye on Pussywillow.”

To thank him for staying would insult him. I knew he valued our animal patients just as highly as I did. Instead, I said, “You’re going to be a wonderful vet.”

“Sure hope so. If only I can handle the academic stuff.”

“You’re doing all the right things, getting the text books ahead of time and studying up.”

“This stuff’s hard,” he said softly. “Especially sciences.”

“Yeah, I can relate.”

Martin was bright, but not a natural academic. Maybe I could help him, except I wasn’t all that academically inclined myself. I might not have made it through my own university science courses without the help of my best friend, Janice Wong, a brilliant scientist and wonderful teacher. Hmm. An idea began to form. “Martin—” I began, then broke off. No, I needed to talk to Jan first. Changing direction, I said, “I’ll put my cell on vibrate. Phone if there’s any problem.”

After we hung up, I headed reluctantly back into the crowd. Making my way through nose-wrinkling clouds of cologne and perfume, I overheard snippets of conversation. Generally, the topic was business. People would go home tonight with new contacts, new deals, power lunches scheduled in their smartphones. After all, business was the reason Richard had come. His firm wanted to be seen as a good corporate citizen.

Not that Richard would ever really be part of this crowd. At least I hoped he wouldn’t. Sometimes he did seem a little driven in terms of upward mobility.

I could see how seductive it must be, that climb through the legal ranks, but we’d talked about our goals and agreed our two priorities were financial security and a happy family life. Solid middle-class goals. Goals my parents and his father rejected completely.

As I moved toward the door of the silent auction room, my attention caught on a man who stood talking to a couple of women. I froze in place like a cat that’s spotted a bird. A very tempting bird. A woman stumbled into me and we both murmured apologies, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the man. How could one tux-clad guy, among all the other penguins, stand out this way?

Because he wasn’t a penguin; he was a panther.

His stance was casual, one hand holding a glass of red wine, the other in a pants pocket, but there was an energy about him. A vitality and magnetism. Despite his formal clothes he didn’t look quite civilized. I thought of what happened when people tried to domesticate a wild animal. Even if the creature behaved properly, somehow its wild origins always showed through.

The man looked away from his companions and caught me staring. His expression sharpened, turned to something knowing and purely male, and he held my gaze. I felt a flush rise up my neck to my cheeks before I forced myself to look away.

Flustered, I straightened my spine and again headed for the silent auction room, ducking inside the door with relief. My heart raced and I stood still, waiting for it to slow, studying the room. Tables lined the walls, displaying auction donations. People formed a straggly line, snails crawling from one exhibit to the next. I squeezed my way in between a couple of overweight women, breathing shallowly in a futile attempt to avoid inhaling their cloying perfume. But when I tried to focus on one of the displays, my eyes still retained the man’s image.

I examined that image objectively, trying to figure out why I’d been so mesmerized. He was tallish, with broad shoulders, rangy rather than stocky. The pocketed hand had pulled his tuxedo jacket back, so I’d seen he had a slim waist and narrow hips.

Dark skin. He might be Italian or Greek, or maybe he’d just spent a lot of time in the sun this spring—skiing perhaps, or on holiday. Black hair combed back from his face showcased craggy features. He must be in his thirties, and had the kind of appeal some men acquire as they age and character lines appear.

A Greek tycoon? Suave and sophisticated, yet with an untamed edge that made him enticing. Untamed? Why did I think that? Why was my impression of a panther rather than, say, a sleek black labrador? Had it been that knowing, almost predatory gleam in his eye when he stared back at me?

An impatient throat-clearing broke into my musings. Obediently I shuffled along to the next display. I’d certainly managed to memorize the man, just from one quick—okay, lingering—look. The only thing I didn’t know was the color of his eyes. Dark, for sure. Brown? Maybe black or indigo?

I forced myself to focus on the table in front of me. This particular auction item was a huge wicker basket filled with gourmet treats like beluga caviar and black truffles. The bid was at five thousand dollars. Someone would have to pay me that much to make me eat fish eggs and fungus. How odd that tonight you could spend exorbitant sums on delicacies, and end up feeding soup to hungry souls in the Downtown Eastside.

I shuffled along to the next item, a set of ivory-colored pillow cases with hand-made lace. Impractical, but utterly romantic. The delicate border begged to be touched but I didn’t extend a finger; my skin, rough from multiple scrubbings every day, might snag the lace.

The next display featured bottles of Okanagan Valley ice wine and gourmet chocolate truffles—now this kind of truffle I’d definitely eat—which went nicely with the romantic pillow cases. And the next was for a weekend at the Empress Hotel in Victoria—a perfect setting for the pillow cases, the wine, the chocolate. And the right man.

Suddenly, the back of my neck prickled. Someone was watching me. Richard? The prickles didn’t think so, and when I turned I did it cautiously.

The panther-man. Alone now, he stood in the doorway to the silent auction room, one shoulder against the doorframe, his head cocked to the side. Staring at me. Again I felt my cheeks color. Such an idiotic, childish reaction.

He raised an eyebrow and smiled. Slowly, almost lazily. God, it was a sexy smile.

I spun away. Why was my heart pounding? So, big deal, a stranger had smiled at me.

An exotic stranger had smiled a bedroom-eyes smile at me. All right, this was a first in my life, but I knew exactly what to do. Ignore him. He obviously had me confused with a woman who belonged in a setting like this and engaged in idle flirtations, rather than an inexperienced, conventional, engaged veterinarian.

Which display had I been looking at? Oh right, the fixings for a romantic weekend with the right man. My right man was Richard. I knew that unquestioningly, but as I stared at the Empress Hotel display, I wondered why we’d never gone for a romantic weekend. We were both practical, and my budget was tight, yet there should be room for romance in our lives.

I checked the bids for the hotel weekend. Whew! A two-night stay certainly couldn’t cost that much. But of course it didn’t. That was the point to a charity auction. It gave rich people a game to play, a contest, plus a tangible reward for their generous donation. I wished I had the money to contribute myself. But my first priority was paying off my student loan. After that came the down payment on our house.

I was probably the only person in this room whose dearest desire was financial security in her old age. No doubt they’d all achieved that long ago and were on to far more lofty dreams.

What was the handsome stranger bidding on? Would he win the weekend getaway, and who would he take? Did he have a wife, gorgeous and sophisticated, or was he a play-the-field kind of guy? The latter, I hoped. It would be disgusting if a married man was flirting with me.

Not that he was flirting. All he’d done was smile. I’d probably fantasized the bedroom-eyes smolder.

I glanced over my shoulder. His back was to me now, but I knew him. Despite the ponytail. Before, seeing him from the front, I hadn’t realized how long his hair was—down to his shoulders—and that he wore it gathered back in a silver clasp.

Ponytails weren’t the norm for successful businessmen, and his was the only one I’d seen here tonight. But of course, if he was a Greek billionaire, he could afford to be unconventional.

Too bad I was a sucker for long hair on men.

He turned quickly, staring straight at me, and somehow I knew he’d felt my gaze just as I, a few minutes earlier, had sensed his. There was no logical explanation but it seemed we had a connection, an invisible lightning that arced across the room and burned when it touched. He tilted his head and stared at me, his lips curved in a knowing smile.

[continued at top of right column]

 

 

 

 

[con't from bottom left column]

I should turn away, but I couldn’t. He was hypnotizing me, drawing me toward him with the intensity of his gaze. It took a physical effort to hold still.

Before I knew it, I’d flashed him a quick smile. Then I whirled, dismayed and appalled, pulse fluttering wildly at my throat. This was crazy. What was I doing? I had never, but never, flirted with a stranger. I’d never let myself be picked up in a bar, never even gone on a blind date. But now, I, Isadora Dean Wheeler, who was engaged to be married and believed firmly in fidelity, had… What?

Smiled? Good lord, it was just a smile. I was over-reacting. My heart raced like it did when I inadvertently got a dose of caffeine.

I grinned. That’s it, the panther-man was caffeine in a tux, and he’d flashed me a jolt of it across the crowded room.

The smile died as I thought of another old song my mother loved, saying it described how she and Jimmy Lee had felt when they first met: “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. That’s what it had felt like for me tonight, for a few seconds. I’d seen a stranger across a crowded room, and wanted to fly to his side.

Absurd. And this was excellent practice for when I was married. I wasn’t so naive as to believe I’d never be attracted to anyone but Richard. What I did believe was that attraction could be resisted. My parents, who shunned marriage, had what they called an open relationship and didn’t believe in monogamy, but I did. Fervently. That meant resisting temptation, and this man was pure, sinful temptation.

Jostled along by the crowd, I moved past a few more displays. Whoever had organized the silent auction had done a fabulous job of soliciting donations. There were train trips, dinners out, original art, home entertainment systems, jewelry, even two flights to Paris. Reputedly the most romantic city in the world.

Maybe the stranger was French. Did he have an accent? Accents were so sexy.

After all, if I was going to resist temptation, I might as well resist a man who had not only wealth, good looks, sex appeal, and charm, but a delicious accent to top it off. Cautiously I snuck another glance over my shoulder.

He wasn’t there.

I turned all the way around and studied the room. There was Richard, his back to me, shoulders stiff and head nodding as he spoke to someone I couldn’t see. But the stranger had disappeared. I’d never know whether he had an accent, nor discover the color of his eyes. It seemed my power of resistance wasn’t going to be put to the test after all.

I checked out a few more displays, then heard Richard’s voice from behind me. “Isadora, there you are.” His voice was formal and constricted, and he never called me Isadora. “I’d like you to meet my father.”

His father? I froze. Damn, was that the other person he’d started to tell me about earlier? I was going to kill my fiancé for not warning me his semi-estranged dad might be attending. I should have combed my hair, put on lipstick, used more hand lotion.

Oh well, Mr. DeLuca would have to take me the way I came. Lifting my chin high, I swung around.

“Oh!” It was him. The panther-man.

Chapter 2

I could see his eyes clearly now. The rich brown of … oh yes, dark chocolate truffles. Sinful and tantalizing. A couple of shades darker than Richard’s hazel ones, but with the same dark lashes and brows.

My god, my stranger across a crowded room was Richard’s father. But how could he be? He didn’t look older than his mid thirties, yet he must be … what? My brain couldn’t make the calculation.

He shook his head ruefully, apologetically, then smiled. It was forced, nothing like the sexy one he’d flashed me earlier.

Richard shoved his glasses up his nose, even though they were already perfectly positioned. “Gabe, this is Isadora. Iz, this is, uh, my father. I, uh, may not have mentioned that he’s on the Board of the Multicultural Center.”

On the Board? I shot a disbelieving look at Richard. If his father was on the Board, surely there’d been a good chance he would attend this fundraiser.

My fiancé’s guilty expression confirmed the fact, and that he’d chickened out about warning me.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Isadora,” his father was saying. He did have an accent, just the trace of one. Italian? No, not exactly. Whatever it was, it went perfectly with his Mediterranean coloring. The lingering way he spoke my name—my full name—turned my legs to jelly. His accent turned the usual buzzing Iz sound to a softer, lilting Ees, and for the first time I heard the word “adore” in my name. Adore? Oh god, what was I thinking?

I had come close to flirting with Richard’s father. Words, much less poise, had utterly deserted me.

My embarrassment and confusion must have been obvious to both men. Richard frowned and his father looked concerned.

“Find anything you’d like to bid on, Iz?” Richard asked, clearly searching for an innocuous topic.

I darted a quick glance around the room, a kaleidoscope vision of ice wine, romantic weekends, chocolate truffles. Chocolate eyes… Richard’s father. Suddenly, I couldn’t stand there a moment longer.

“I have to go to the…” I turned and rushed away.

Thank heavens for ladies’ rooms. I scurried through the door like a mouse fleeing a cat.

Bracing myself against the marble counter inside my mouse-hole, staring at my flushed face in the mirror and waiting for my heart to stop racing, I told myself I had no reason to be embarrassed. I’d misread the signals. Mr. DeLuca hadn’t been flirting, he’d just given me a friendly smile. And I’d returned it.

Friendly. Then why had my toes curled?

I splashed cold water on my burning cheeks. Then I stared sternly into my own eyes. All right, I’d found the man attractive. That wasn’t a sin. Nor was it a sin if, by chance, he’d been attracted to me too. Past tense. Now that we’d been introduced, we’d begin an … appropriate relationship. How childish of me to run away. Should I make some explanation?

Probably not. The men would be polite and not ask. They’d put it down to nerves over meeting Richard’s father. I took a deep breath, forced my shoulders back and my head up, and strode briskly out the door.

Straight into Gabriel DeLuca. If he hadn’t taken a quick step backward, I’d have ended up in his arms. “Oh!” I squeaked—mouse emerging from mouse-hole to be confronted by cat—then promptly cursed myself. Was oh the only word I could say to this man? “Sorry, you surprised me.” I glanced around. “Where’s Richard?”

“People are heading in for dinner and I told him to go ahead. I said I’d find you and bring you along.” He was frowning, studying my face much too carefully.

“Well, here I am. Let’s go.” Being alone with this man wasn’t high on my wish list.

“I want to talk to you first. About earlier. I had no idea you were Richard’s fiancée.”

Was he admitting that he’d been flirting? Or only referring to the smile I’d tossed his way? Damn the man, couldn’t he pretend nothing had happened? Well, I could. Shaking my head vigorously, I said, “It was just a smile. It didn’t mean a thing.”

I expected him to nod in relieved agreement, but to my astonishment he gave me a sexy grin. “So you’re not interested in following up on that smile?”

My eyes opened wide, wider, until they were in danger of popping out of my head. “No! Of course not! Richard and I are engaged. I love him, I’m committed to him.” Richard had certainly been right in saying this man was a terrible father. I glared at him. “I’m shocked you’d suggest it.”

Mr. DeLuca smiled again, but now it wasn’t in the least flirtatious. It was eye-crinkling and seemed genuine. “Sorry, Isadora. Just checking. I needed to know if you were the kind of person who would—”

He’d actually thought… “Cheat on Richard?” I hissed in a low whisper, aware of people drifting past, heading in to dinner.

“Yeah.”

Guilt warred with indignance. I wasn’t about to admit to Richard’s father that I’d actually felt attracted to him, even though I’d had no intention of doing anything about it. Continued denial was the safest course of action. “No, I wouldn’t cheat on Richard. I’m insulted you’d think it. Look, it was just a smile. I was feeling … out of place here, and it was nice to, uh, connect with someone. But it’s not like I’m, uh…”

“Attracted to me?”

Damn, but he cut to the chase. I summoned another glare. “Good heavens, you’re Richard’s father.”

I was afraid he’d notice I hadn’t actually answered his question, and call me on it. Instead, he nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I am Richard’s father.”

For the first time I studied his face for traces of Richard. Richard’s skin was lighter, his features less pronounced—tempered no doubt by Diane’s English genes—but I could see similarities in the shape of the nose, the firm jaw line. I got a sense of how Richard might, with luck, look as he grew older. Noting the resemblance between them didn’t, unfortunately, do the slightest thing to counteract the fact I still found Mr. DeLuca attractive. Damn, this was a nuisance. Why couldn’t Richard’s father have been fat, balding, and ugly?

Why couldn’t he at least look his age? I remembered Richard saying his parents had been in second year university when they had him. Richard was now twenty-five, so Gabriel had to be in his mid forties. He looked ten years younger.

He might look the opposite of fatherly, but it occurred to me that he had shown concern for his son, in worrying I might cheat on Richard. I hadn’t expected that. “It’s nice of you to be protective of Richard.”

His face tightened. “You’re surprised.”

“I…”

“Never mind. You don’t have to answer. I’m sure Richard’s told you what a bad father I am.”

No tactful response occurred to me, so I remained silent.

He smiled slightly, without humor. “Let’s start over. I’m pleased to meet you, Isadora. Please call me Gabriel. Or Gabe. I answer to both.”

Names are significant and, though Richard called him Gabe, I didn’t think the name suited him nearly as well as Gabriel. The angel Gabriel? More like the devil. Still, I said, “I like Gabriel,” then winced at the unintended double meaning.

The corners of his smile tilted wryly. “Not so much at the moment, I’d guess, but maybe I’ll grow on you.”

“I meant your name.” Damn, he knew that. Why was I acting so gauche?

“I like Isadora.” He paused. “Your name.” His eyes were twinkling, but with humor rather than flirtatiousness.

He held out his hand and I glanced down. Like the rest of him, it was dark and well-shaped. I had to force myself to lift mine to meet it. When we shook, his clasp was firm and warm and made my skin tingle. I snatched my hand back.

“Richard tells me you’re a vet.” His voice sounded a bit gruff and I wondered if he, too, had felt that disconcerting tingle.

“Yes. In the West End. I’m a small animal vet.” Another stupid comment. “Not that there’d be much market for a large animal vet in the West End,” I added, compounding my idiocy.

“Police horses?”

The thought brought a smile. “They do stop by regularly, but for social, not professional, visits. We feed them carrots.” The Vancouver Police Department had a Mounted Unit that, among other things, patrolled Stanley Park and the West End.

“I’ve seen them a few times. Beautiful animals.”

“They’re gorgeous. And such a mix. Standardbreds, Quarterhorses, a Clydesdale/Appaloosa cross, a Percheron/Morgan and—” I shook my head. “Sorry, too much information.”

“No, it’s interesting. They were bred for police work?”

“No, they all have different histories. Pal-o-Mine was a cattle horse, Sunset Bay did show jumping and dressage, Tomboy was a harness racer.”

“You know them all by name?”

“Of course. Don’t you know all your friends by name?”

He chuckled, then tilted his head and studied me. “You’re a real animal lover?”

“I can’t think of an animal I don’t like.” I reflected for a moment. “Nope, not a one. I’m not impressed when wasps sting, but it’s just their nature, and they’re insects anyhow, not animals.”

When I saw the grin on his face I realized that, for the first time in his company, I had actually relaxed. The notion made me tense up again, as did my sudden awareness that the room was now almost empty. “We should find Richard.”

“I suggested the two of you join my table. He can meet some of the Board members. They’ll make good contacts for him.”

“And after all, Richard’s here to work,” I said ruefully as, side by side, we walked toward the banquet room.

“More power to him. All I care about is the size of the donation his firm makes.”

The words didn’t ring true. I had a sneaking suspicion he actually cared about helping Richard. Maybe Gabriel wasn’t the unloving father Richard believed him to be.

Gabriel gestured toward the front of the room, indicating I should go first. As I threaded my way among the tables and a few still-milling guests, I said, over my shoulder, “The Multicultural Center is a wonderful organization.”

“You know the Center?”

“Of course. In fact an assistant at my clinic is one of their success stories.” I glanced back again and caught him staring at my shoulders, which were bare but for a narrow black strap on each side.

My flesh tingled, just as my hand had when he shook it. I cleared my throat. “I was wondering why none of the Center’s clients are here. The ones like Martin. Your donors could see concrete examples of the great work the Center does.”

“Good idea. We should have thought of it.”

I flushed, pleased I’d finally said something moderately intelligent. “Martin would be perfect. He’s had a rough life but has completely turned it around. He’ll start university in the fall, and plans to be a vet, so we’re—”

A hand gripped my arm and I jumped.

“There you are, Iz,” Richard said. He shot his father a dark look. “I thought Gabe had kidnapped you.”

“I … we were just…” I stammered.

“Isadora,” Gabriel rescued me, “take the seat beside Richard.”

Richard rose to hold my chair and I settled myself between him and a thin, aging woman in a long-sleeved, high-necked black dress who reminded me of a crow. Gabriel sat on her other side. It was a relief to have someone between him and me.

Gabriel made the introductions, referring to me as his son’s fiancée, Isadora. I noted that crow-woman was on the Board of the Center, one of the men was the Chair, and another woman was the Director. Everyone had brought a spouse or date except the drab woman in black. And Gabriel.

When he turned his attention to the Chair’s wife, I leaned toward Richard and murmured, “This is the head table.”

“So it seems.”

“Nice of your father to ask us to sit here.” I hoped that, somewhere in the huge room, the senior partner of Richard’s firm—seated at a less desirable table—was suitably impressed.

Richard tugged me closer, lips brushing my ear. “How did it go with you and Gabe?”

I tried not to flush. “Okay. He was polite.” Or at least he had been once he realized I didn’t plan to cheat on his son. “You should have warned me he was likely to be here.”

“Sorry. Guess I was in denial.”

“I wish the two of you had a better relationship.”

He shrugged. “I gave up on that when I was a kid.” The words were offhand, but his voice held an undertone of bitterness.

A burst of laughter drew my attention. It was the Chair’s wife, who was listening to Gabriel, looking utterly charmed. “He should’ve brought a date of his own,” I muttered, “rather than flirting with someone’s wife.”

Richard gave a surprised chuckle. “Believe it or not, he’s not flirting. It’s just his natural charisma. It works on men, too.”

Belatedly I realized that the Chair was also hanging on Gabriel’s words. He looped an arm around his wife’s shoulders as the three of them huddled close together.

The realization sank in that Gabriel truly hadn’t been flirting when he smiled at me earlier, he’d just been his usual charismatic self. Thank god I’d denied that my reaction was anything other than a smile.

“As for bringing a date,” Richard said, “he’s never been one to mix business with his personal life.”

“You’ve always said he spent so much time on his causes, he was rarely home.”

“Work’s his idea of fun.”

Richard might believe that, but I doubted that a man who exuded sexuality the way his father did was an all-work, no-play guy.

Determinedly not looking Gabriel’s way, I wondered if he would bother to attend our wedding. Personally, I’d be as happy if he didn’t show, and I imagined Richard’s mom and stepdad would feel the same way. But Richard would be hurt, as he’d been so often before.

“Time to be sociable,” he murmured, and a few minutes later he’d drawn us into a conversation with the Director of the Center and her husband. They turned out to be interesting, down-to-earth people and I relaxed, at least as much as I could in this formal setting, with Gabriel DeLuca sitting only a chair away.

Waiters, in uniforms that were a cheaper version of the male guests’ tuxes, brought fancy salads and a selection of rolls. I ate heartily, hoping the main course would be fish, but guessing meat was more likely. Sure enough, when my dinner plate arrived, it held chicken in a wild mushroom sauce, with rice pilaf and a selection of attractively presented vegetables. Richard whispered, “Sorry. Told you we could have phoned ahead and requested vegetarian for you.”

I hadn’t wanted to make a fuss and, truthfully, I think he’d been grateful. “No problem, the rice and veggies look good. I’ll have room for dessert.”

He gave my arm a warm squeeze. “Did you tell Jimmy Lee where you were going tonight?”

His voice was back at normal conversational volume and, without thinking, I responded the same way. “And stir him up? He doesn’t have much perspective about this kind of event.”

“What do you mean?”

I jumped, realizing the woman seated between me and Gabriel had asked the question. Her name was Althea Fitzsimmons, I remembered, though to me she was crow-woman. Her voice held an edge of belligerence. “What’s wrong with this kind of event?”

“Not a thing, Ms. Fitzsimmons.” Damn, I’d offended a Board member. “Everyone’s here to support a very worthwhile cause.”

“Iz’s father is a leftover hippie,” Richard said. “He believes in hugging trees rather than donating dollars to save them.”

“He’s a political activist,” I clarified. “He believes in direct, hands-on action. But it takes all kinds of different efforts, doesn’t it, to bring causes to the public’s attention and get them properly funded?”

“Hell, Isadora, don’t tell me your father’s Jimmy Lee Wheeler?” The words came from Gabriel.

Startled, I stared at him. But of course it wasn’t surprising an activist lawyer might have crossed paths with my father. “Sure is. You know him?”

“Oh, yeah, and he’s a hell-raiser. Haven’t met your mom—Grace Dean, right?” He paused, then when I nodded, went on. “The two of them have done a hell of a lot of good work.”

“Thanks.” His comments warmed my heart. Although I often wished my parents would grow up and act their age, I admired their intentions and respected what they’d accomplished.

“They’re never afraid to take a stand,” he said.

I smiled in acknowledgment. “They were Americans, attending university in the days when school was more about sit-ins and demonstrations than books and lectures. They brought that attitude along with them when they came to Canada.” It had been Vietnam War days and Jimmy Lee had been a draft dodger, a fact Gabriel would likely guess and approve of. “They’re rabble rousers, that’s for sure.”

He leaned forward, past Ms. Fitzsimmons. “Did you hear about the time I hauled your dad’s butt out of jail for chaining himself bare-ass naked to a logging truck over on Saltspring?”

“That was you? You defended Jimmy Lee?” I leaned forward too, elbows on the table, and grinned at him. “I heard about it, but Grace and I were out of town at the time.”

We had visited her parents in Boston, parents who’d never approved of her life choices or forgiven Jimmy Lee for existing, much less dragging her off to Canada. It had been strained, as all visits with the Deans were, but in the name of family we all worked at being civil.

“Wasn’t much to defend, since he was determined to plead guilty.” He shook his head ruefully. “But I did get him community service rather than more jail time.”

I gave a hoot of delight. “Planting trees. I remember. You weren’t his favorite person. When I talked to him on the phone he was grumbling about his sadistic lawyer. He said he was too damned old to plant trees, he’d rather be resting his butt in a comfy jail cell.”

“Well, if any butt would be familiar with jail cells, it would be Jimmy Lee’s.”

“Let me tell you, Grace was plenty relieved you got him out of jail. She always worries that—”

“Uh, Iz? Gabe?” Richard broke in.

I’d been so wrapped up in the conversation with Gabriel, I’d forgotten about everyone else at the table. Now, Richard’s embarrassed expression brought me to my senses. I jerked upright in my seat and yanked my elbows off the table. Gabriel straightened too, and crow-woman made a huffy sound.

Gabriel caught my eye and raised his eyebrows in a what can you do? expression, and I barely managed to hold back a giggle. I could actually like the man. Besides, he’d get along fantastically with Grace and Jimmy Lee. Suddenly, the prospect of being related to him didn’t seem too terrible. When I knew him better, knew him as a real person rather than a sexy across-the-room stranger, I’d stop feeling attracted to him.

The gray-haired Chair of the Board—whose name was Chambers, if I remembered correctly—said to me, “So you’re a tree-hugger, are you? That’s commendable. We’d have a lot more clear-cutting and extinct species without people like you.”

“I…” I ran a hand through my hair. Now these people thought I was an activist like my parents, and at least some of them admired me for it. I couldn’t rest on false laurels, so said, “I’ll tell my parents you said so. I haven’t been involved myself. I’m, uh”—I cleared my throat and said, a touch apologetically—”a veterinarian.”

Gabriel stared at me with a puzzled expression. “Thought you liked being a vet,” he muttered.

“I do.” Yet I knew that, on the scale of social worth, it didn’t measure up beside the work my parents and Gabriel did.

Fortunately, Mr. Chambers and the Center’s Director started talking about extinct species, and I could concentrate on eating my meal. Or, rather, my rice and veggies. I noticed Gabriel doing the same. Richard ate meat, but perhaps his dad was a vegetarian like me and my parents.

I’d just taken a spoonful of dessert—a rich concoction of fruit, meringue, and whipped cream—when crow-woman said, “You’re a veterinarian?”

“Yes, I am.”

“My Persian cat has a few sore spots. What might it be?”

If the gray-haired woman was a cat owner, perhaps she was less edgy than she looked. “I couldn’t say without examining … her?” When a nod confirmed the cat’s gender, I said, “Has she been to your vet?”

“Haven’t been impressed with the vet I’ve been using. Anyhow, I’ve been cleaning the spots thoroughly, using antiseptic, applying lotion. I thought they’d clear up.”

I nodded sympathetically. “I know it seems like a good idea, but unfortunately antiseptic can irritate, depending on what’s actually wrong. You really do need to have a professional look at her. I know you don’t want her to suffer.”

“Of course not.” She scrutinized me for a long moment. “Do you have a card?”

“I do.” I dug in my bag. “By the way, I have a Persian, too. They’re lovely, aren’t they?” Would wonders never cease? I’d teased Richard about schmoozing, and now I might acquire a new patient myself.

Or not. Although Althea Fitzsimmons tucked the card in her bag, her gaze was disapproving. “You shouldn’t wear diamonds. They’re too colorless for you. Amethysts would match your eyes.”

Even more startled, I blurted out, “My eyes are gray.”

“They’re mauve. Smoky purple.”

It was true my eyes did have hints of mauve, but I was astonished that this abrupt stranger had noticed, and commented. I had no idea how to respond and in fact I didn’t have to because she turned her back on me and addressed a question about the Center’s tax return to the Director.

Shaking my head, I went back to my dessert. With any luck, this evening would soon be over.

As I took the last forkful, the Chair stood up. “Duty calls,” he told us, then walked over to the podium.

He tapped the mike. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Walt Chambers, Chair of the Multicultural Center’s Board.”

With any luck, he’d thank everyone for attending, announce the results of the silent auction, then we could all go home. I needed some quiet time with Richard after this disturbing evening.

“I’m delighted to see such a large turnout,” Mr. Chambers said. “The Center appreciates your generous support. I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath to hear the winners in the silent auction, but there are a few items to cover first. The waiters will pour refills of coffee and tea, and they’ll hand out pledge forms. Before you fill them out, I’d like you to listen to tonight’s speaker—”

So much for my hopes. I leaned toward Richard and muttered, “We’re going to be subjected to one of those boring after-dinner speeches.”

The words came out more loudly from I’d intended, and a few heads turned in my direction. Including Gabriel’s, his eyes dancing with laughter. He must think I was a total social screw-up.

The Chair went on. “And so without further ado, please welcome one of our Board members, Gabe DeLuca.”

Gabriel rose, straightened his tuxedo jacket, and strode to the podium.

I clapped my hands to my cheeks, murmuring, “Please let me die.” Pressing my fingers over my eyes and peeping between them, I saw him adjust the microphone then gaze around the room, waiting until everyone’s attention was focused on him.

“I have been recently reminded,” he said, “that after-dinner speeches can be boring.”

I closed my fingers again and hid behind them.

Richard poked me in the ribs and whispered, “You’re only making it worse.”

“Thank you for that, Isadora,” Gabriel said.

Startled, I dropped my hands.

He smiled at me, then let his gaze roam. Not aimlessly, but focusing on one person then another, demanding attention. “I’ll do my best not to bore you. In fact, I’ll do my best to shock you.” As he spoke, he peeled off his tuxedo jacket and let it drop to the floor.

I sucked in a breath. What was he doing?

Around me, the audience was a hum of questioning murmurs. He waited until they fell silent again.

“Did you know,” he said, “that of every thousand children born in British Columbia, three have fetal alcohol syndrome? Did you know that the huge majority of those innocent babies are First Nations? And that FAS children have so many developmental difficulties, they’re disproportionately represented in the prison population?”

This time the whispered comments were louder. He reached up to unknot his bow tie, dropped it on top of his jacket, undid the top buttons of his shirt, then waited until people quieted. “I’m sure you heard about the teen who committed suicide last year after his classmates bullied him because he was an Orthodox Jew. Did you know that last year, in the Lower Mainland, two Muslim mosques were vandalized? So was a Jewish synagogue—and in one of those cases a night maintenance man almost died.”

Now there were no whispers, but the hushed room was full of tension. He stripped off his black cummerbund and tossed it aside, holding us spellbound even when he wasn’t speaking.

“What about the neo-Nazi teenagers who burned a swastika on a lesbian couple’s front lawn? How do you think the couple’s daughter felt when she came home from school to see it?”

He was hypnotic. He punched out the words, making sure each was heard and felt. As he spoke, he undid the cuffs of his white tuxedo shirt and rolled the sleeves up his dark forearms.

The dead silence in the room was a testament to his impact.

“Did you know that last month in Stanley Park, a mile from where we sit tonight in all our finery, a gay man was beaten close to death?” Now he was just a man in black pants and a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Except, Gabriel DeLuca, with his compelling personality, would never be just a man.

Everyone else in the room looked pretentious, frivolous, and, from the way they fiddled with their clothing, they knew it. I was grateful for my simple dress though, if Gabriel had asked, I’d happily have donated my diamonds to any cause he advocated.

“Some of this makes the news and some doesn’t. If it’s in the papers, on the radio, do you even pay attention? Do you care?

“Did you know”—his voice lowered to a husky rasp that penetrated to every corner of the room—”that this week, in the Downtown Eastside, a teenage girl will die of a drug overdose? She’s likely a sex trade worker. Maybe she grew up in a single-parent family on welfare. Perhaps she had a father who abused her. She might have been born poor, or she might have been born rich. She might be First Nations, she might be Chinese. She might be Caucasian. She might be from a reserve, or from Eastern Europe. She might be one of your neighbor’s children.”

The whole room held its collective breath.

“She is one of our children. She is a child of our country, our country that prides itself on multiculturalism.” He paused a long moment, letting those words soak in. “Yes, multiculturalism means Diwali, Chinese New Year’s, and lovely First Nations art, but it also means racism. Poverty. Hatred. Death. Until the time we make it mean something different.”

God, but he was good. Better, even, than Jimmy Lee.

I glanced around. Saw men reaching up and loosening their bow ties, as if Gabriel’s words were choking them. Saw women blotting tears, trying to prevent their mascara from running. My own eyes were damp despite—or perhaps because—I already knew about the reality Gabriel was revealing. You couldn’t grow up as Grace and Jimmy Lee’s kid without knowing these things. This was my society and I wasn’t proud of it.

And maybe I wasn’t proud of myself for sitting back, being a vet, occupying my spare time with Richard, my friends, my animals, my knitting. I might admire the Multicultural Center, but had I ever gone and volunteered there?

How dare this man remind me that I—who hadn’t the excuse of ignorance—was no better than the stuffed tuxes around me? Even my parents didn’t lay this kind of guilt trip on me. Damn Gabriel DeLuca.

My head throbbed as if Gabriel’s words were blows from a blunt instrument. This whole night had been too much. My frayed nerves couldn’t take any more.

When his speech ended and the audience burst into hearty applause, I leaned into Richard. “I have a splitting headache. I’m going to catch a cab home.”

When I rose, Richard leaped to his feet too. “I’ll drive you.”

“You need to schmooze.” The idea of trying to make polite conversation, of having to face Gabriel again, made my head pound even worse. “I’m fine getting a cab.”

I started to walk away and Richard stayed with me. “They’ll do the silent auction, then people will leave,” he said, putting his arm around me. “The schmoozing’s done. Iz, I can’t let you go home alone when you’re not feeling well.”

No, he couldn’t; he was a considerate man. I loved that about him. “Sorry to drag you away,” I said weakly as we neared the door. My head hurt so badly I felt dizzy, and his supporting arm was exactly what I needed.