Authors: Karen Swan
Karen Swan was previously a fashion editor and lives in East Sussex with her husband and three children.
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Also by Karen Swan
Christmas at Tiffany'
The Perfect Presen
Christmas at Claridge'
The Summer Without Yo
Christmas in the Sno
First published 2015 by Macmillan
This edition published 2015 by Pan Books an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited
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Copyright Â© Karen Swan, 2015
The right of Karen Swan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Bunny. Off-piste polar bear.
Never apart. Always in my heart.
Cassie stared back at the polar bear. Standing on its hind legs, forepaws raised like a boxer's fists at her head, black lips pulled back in a snarl, she couldn't tear her eyes away from that unseeing glare, which still carried so much menace. It stood eight feet tall â its intimidating majesty undiminished by the fact that it had been frozen in this warrior stance for over eighty years already â and there was no question the bear commanded the room. Everyone revolved around it like satellites, eyes sliding back to it with silent respect over the tops of cut-crystal glasses, the opulent crush of velvet and rustle of taffeta nothing compared to its plush, snowy fur, which saw several of the finer-boned, sapphire-ringed hands discreetly brush it lightly as they passed.
The light oozed from chandeliers like liquid amber, candles flickering against the burr-wood-panelled walls and throwing shadows across the barrelled ceiling, faded rugs still soft underfoot as feet that were more often dressed in crampons, muck boots or desert boots and waterproof socks tonight trod with a lighter step in polished leather.
Cassie looked over at Henry again. After the polar bear, he was the second most magnetic presence in the room, everyone glad-handing and back-slapping, head-nodding and brow-furrowing as they pressed for details of the trekking expedition to the Qurama mountains in Uzbekistan, which had won him his fellowship to this, New York's hallowed Explorers Club and brought them all out here on an icy March night.
Sleet slanted past the mullioned windows, the muffled roar of life outside on East 70th Street at odds with the room's steady murmurings, the trophies all around them â elephant tusks arranged either side of the fireplace, a stalking cheetah positioned mid-stride on a table â now old-world relics when they had themselves once heralded a new world, new frontiers. The irony wasn't lost on Cassie â they were memento mori, proof you had to keep moving. Life wouldn't wait for anyone. Nothing and no one got to stay new for long. The people gathered here in this room perhaps knew that better than the rest of the city combined. A door downstairs must have opened, for a breeze wrinkled the large flag that was hanging like a tapestry on the wall opposite. A striking blue, white and red diagonal design with a compass rose in the middle and the initials E and C either side, Cassie knew it well.
âDid you know that that flag was flown by the very first explorers to both poles, the deepest point in the ocean, the top of Everest
the moon?' Brett asked her, following her line of sight, as he returned with their drinks.
âWell, not that actual flag,' she clarified, taking her champagne from him with a smile. âBut yes, of course. What kind of fiancÃ©e would I be if I didn't know that? Henry wouldn't love me nearly as much if I didn't know the capital of Tajikistan or the currency of Peru or the date of the first moon landing or the dietary preferences of the Kombai tribe in New Guinea.
the history of that flag.'
Kelly chuckled. âHe'd love you even if you didn't recognize the Union Jack, just so long as you promised to wear that dress.' She nodded towards the red Valentino dress Cassie was wearing â full-length, pillarbox taffeta with no sleeves and a trail of neat bows running down the centre of the bodice. Cassie still couldn't believe how Henry had grabbed her hand and marched straight into the boutique on Madison when he saw it in the window. He never did things like that; they couldn't afford him to. An explorer's salary didn't get paid into one's bank account with monthly regularity, but ran on the âfeast or famine' business model, and while tonight's event was a huge honour, it wasn't going to pay the rent â not unless he could secure the $120,000 shortfall for his next project, an underwater filming expedition to unexplored areas of the Arctic. The United Nations Environment Programme looked poised to come on board if the resulting documentary could premiere at the UN Conference on Climate Change â they were waiting on a call back on that â and Henry was hopeful that their involvement, combined with the ground-breaking footage and data they'd compile, would qualify the project as a flag-worthy expedition for the Explorers Club and bring in the grant that would mean it could finally go ahead.
âOh, thanks. I never usually wear red.'
âAlways wear red. It's your colour,' said Kelly with characteristic emphasis. Her colour was black. She rarely wore any shade but â graphite and navy being occasional exceptions â and tonight she was an exemplar of urban chic in a jet Alexander Wang column dress and cuffed heels. Her long dark hair was always styled ultra-straight, and her only concession to colour was the slash of scarlet on her lips. No woman in the world â be she from Osaka, Ottawa, Oman or Ohio â could doubt that New York was Kelly's home town: she wore the city in the way she spoke, moved, laughed even.
Not that she had laughed much tonight. In fact, both she and Brett â her husband of two years â were wearing sombre expressions that only disappeared when they sensed someone's gaze, and Cassie was aware of a small knot gathering in the pit of her stomach. As a box-fresh divorcee herself, she recognized the tension that pulled at the corners of their mouths, the slightly too-wide eyes as they overcompensated every time they made eye contact, the lavish focus on others instead of themselves.
Cassie just hadn't had time to talk to Kelly about it, though. In the three days that Cassie and Henry had been in the city, they had been to two lunches, five parties and this was their third dinner out. Cassie was dropping, even with the enlivening effect of wearing a $4,000 dress and having her blonde hair styled, backcombed and groomed into a slick ponytail thanks to her best friend Bas's extraordinary â and professional â skills with a comb and hairdryer. Cassie's jet lag had been brutal and had shown no mercy in the face of the back-to-back social arrangements that Brett and Kelly had organized, and Henry's itinerary which was just as gruelling, as he met up with acquaintances and contacts, forever on the lookout for potential sponsors. They were flying back to London tomorrow and Cassie â instead of following through on her plan to watch back-to-back films â already knew she was going to spend the entire flight sleeping.
âYou look tired,' Kelly said, watching as Cassie tried her best to suppress a yawn.
âMe? No, I'm fine,' Cassie refuted. She knew from her four-month stint living here two years earlier that tiredness was practically a capital offence.
âWell, I sure am beat. I don't reckon I can stand in these shoes for another thirty minutes.'
Cassie â and Brett â looked at her in amazement. Tiredness? Sore feet? Brett couldn't have looked more surprised if his wife had turned to him and asked him to please address her as Bob.
âWell . . .' Brett looked flummoxed.
âListen, if you guys are tired, please do go. Don't stay on my account. I'm perfectly happy waiting here for Henry, honestly. He won't be much longer, and I've got to finish my conversation with the chap I sat next to at dinner, anyway. Apparently he's just back from touring all eight of the earth's poles.'
âThere are eight?' Brett looked even more surprised.
Cassie shrugged. âWho knew, right?' She put a hand on Kelly's arm. âAre you OK?'
âOf course. It's just been a long week.' She did look pale, the strain of her smile telling in her eyes.
âAh, the man of the hour,' Brett said brightly.
âHey!' Henry slid an arm round Cassie's narrow waist, bending down to kiss her on the cheek before straightening up with a suspicious expression as he took in their overeager smiles. âWhat's wrong? Oh God, are you all bored rigid? Did Old Mayhew corner you on his expedition to Chimborazo? I know precious few people actually care about whether or not that's the furthest point from the centre of the earth . . .'
âAbsolutely not!' Kelly rebutted firmly. âI've met more interesting people here tonight than I could meet in a decade in my industry. They only want to talk about the new Aman resort. Your crowd's so much cooler, Henry boy,' she winked.
But Henry wasn't fooled. âSo then you're all looking as shifty as a skulk of foxes in a hen house because . . . ?'
Brett laughed. âTell us how it's going with the flag pitch. Any luck?'
Henry's smile grew and Cassie felt herself loosen. The sight of him undid her â his muddy-blond hair curled gently over his ears and collar, stray cowlicks kicking out roguishly by his temples, his unfairly long lashes highlighting air-force-blue eyes that had the power to read her mind, and his skin was permanently tanned from a life lived outdoors . . . Combine those raw materials with a smile that always seemed reserved for her alone and a midnight-blue velvet smoking jacket, and it was a wonder she was able to breathe unassisted.
Her hand found his, burrowing into it like a hibernating dormouse, and she felt his grip tighten as he squeezed her in a non-verbal communication of adoration, affection and promise.
âWell, we've tabled a meeting in London for June. There's another submission already in that's worthy of the flag, but they've let it be known between friends, seeing as I am their newest fellow . . .' His voice had lowered to almost a whisper and the discreet look he gave them all from beneath his lashes made it clear that it was a shoo-in.