This is just wrong, on so many levels, Jim thought.
For one thing, he was freezing his butt off. Even if the front of him was plenty warm.
For another, his boss might legitimately qualify his current activity as a colossal waste of Jim’s time, not to mention the taxpayer’s dollar. Crime had yet to be committed anywhere near or about his person.
If you didn’t count the one he was about to commit if Kate kept rubbing up against him like that.
Her head was a very nice fit beneath his chin, even if her hair did tickle. She shifted again, and when he spoke, his voice was a little hoarse. “Are you sure you didn’t get me out here under false pretenses, Shugak?”
He heard the smile in her voice when she replied, felt the warmth of her breath on his throat. “Well, since it seems crime is the only thing that makes my company tolerable to you, I figured I’d find some.”
He disregarded what she said for what she meant. “I’m not afraid of you.”
She tilted her head to meet his eyes. “I make you want to run away like a little girl.”
“You do not.” It sounded weak, even to him.
She leaned back against him, warm and firm from chest to knee, and dropped her voice to a whisper roughened by the scar that bisected her throat. “Say it again. And make me believe it.”
He could have told her to step away. He could have pushed her away. He did not do either of those things, and the sound of the truck coming down the trail was the only thing that saved him.
And, sadly, Jim wasn’t one bit happy when Kate’s focus shifted, too.
It was an elderly blue Ford pickup minus tailgate and rear bumper, its passenger-side window replaced with an interwoven layer of duct tape, the body rusting out from the tires up. The engine, however, maintained a steady, confident rumble that indicated more beneath the peeling hood than met the eye.
The homeowner had dutifully cleared the requisite thirty feet of defensible space around her house in case of forest fires, which in this era of dramatic climatic change were inclined to hit interior Alaska early and often each spring. This and the winter’s meager snowfall made it easy for the pickup to crunch through the thin layer of snow on the driveway and pull around to the back of the house, where half a dozen fifty-five-gallon drums rested in an upside-down pyramid on a solidly constructed two-by-four stand, connected to each other so that the fuel from the top drums ran down into the lower drums, with the bottom drum connected to the furnace in the house by an insulated length of copper tubing.
Kate and Jim had positioned themselves in a convenient stand of alders at the edge of the clearing, so they had a clear view of Willard Shugak as he got out of his truck, disconnected the copper tubing, connected a hose to the spigot, and began to siphon off the fuel in the drums on the stand to the black barrel tank in the back of his pickup.
Kate swore beneath her breath. Jim kept his arms around her so she’d shut up and stay put. When he judged that enough fuel had been transferred from the drums to the truck’s tank to merit, at the $3.41 per gallon for diesel fuel he had last seen on an Ahtna pump, the definition of theft as provided for in the Alaska statutes, specifically 11.46.100, he said, “Shall we?” and turned her loose.
Willard looked up when they emerged from the alders. When he saw Kate, he went white and then red and then white again. “Oh shit,” he said, his voice an insubstantial adolescent squeal that sounded odd coming out of the mouth of a forty-year-old man.
“At least,” Kate said, boiling forward.
Willard Shugak was all of six feet tall, but he dodged around Jim, keeping the trooper between him and Kate. His voice went high enough to wake up bats. “No, Kate, wait, I—”
“You moron,” Kate said, forgetting for the moment that Willard was almost exactly that, “what if Auntie Balasha came home to a cold house, her pipes all froze up?”
She reached for him and Willard backpedaled, stumbling and almost losing his balance, both hands up, palms out, in a placating gesture totally lost on its intended recipient. Jim watched, delaying official law enforcement action, mostly because he was enjoying the show.
“I wasn’t going to take it all, honest I wasn’t.”
“You’re not even out of oil,” Kate said, cutting back around Jim and catching the cuff of Willard’s jacket. “I went out to your place this morning and checked. You were going to sell it, weren’t you, Willard?”
Willard yanked his arm free and darted back around Jim. “I would have paid Auntie back, honest I would!”
“Sure you would, you little weasel. Howie put you up to this because you were behind on the rent?” Kate feinted a move, Willard dodged back out of the way, and the Darth Vader action figure peeping out of his shirt pocket fell out and vanished into the churned-up snow.
Willard let out a cry of dismay. “Anakin!” He lumbered forward, his hands pawing wildly at the snow. Kate took advantage of his distraction and grabbed a handful of Willard’s dirty blond hair to haul him upright.
“Ow! Kate! That hurts! Jim! Help!”
Jim had less than a second to revel in the sight of a man the size of Willard terrified by a woman the size of Kate before Mutt burst out of the undergrowth, mistook the attempted homicide for a game and romped around the three of them, barking madly while trying to catch the first available hem in her teeth.
At this point Jim, tired of feeling like base in a game of kick-the-can, grabbed Kate and Willard by the scruffs of their necks and held them apart as far as his arms would stretch. If he’d been an inch shorter, he wouldn’t have been able to pull it off with near as much aplomb. “All right, you two, knock it off.”
Kate kicked out with her right foot in reply, which would have connected in a meaningful way with Jim’s left knee had he not moved it smartly out of range just in time. It threw him off balance, though, and Kate wriggled free and was on Willard before Jim could recover. She had Willard flat on the ground, her hands at Willard’s throat and a knee in Willard’s balls. Mutt divined that this was not a game after all and added her two cents’ worth with snaps and snarls that came entirely too close to Willard’s left ear for anyone’s comfort. Willard was bawling, eyes squeezed shut, mouth wide open, face wet with a river of tears, shoulders shaking with big sloppy sobs. “I confess, I confess! Jesus, Jim, couldja please just arrest me? Please?”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Kate let him go in disgust and rose to her feet, brushing snow from her pants. “Get up, you big baby. I didn’t hurt you.”
His eyes rolled toward Mutt, whose head was sunk beneath her shoulder blades, her impressive canines bared in a manner that could only be described as distinctly unfriendly. It was a sight made even scarier by the bloodstains and the ptarmigan feathers adhering to her muzzle, remnants of the lunch she had just finished in the next spruce copse over.
Kate made an impatient sound. “Mutt,” she said.
“Graar,” Mutt said to Willard, conveying a wealth of meaning in one syllable, and trotted more or less obediently to Kate’s side, where she received a compensatory scratch behind her ears in lieu of bloodshed, always Mutt’s preference.
Jim stretched out a hand to haul Willard to his feet for what they both sincerely hoped was the last time. Willard gulped down a sob, smeared tears and snot across his face with his shirtsleeve, and said in a plaintive voice, “Couldja guys help me find Anakin before we go to jail? Please?”
The state trooper building in Niniltna was so new, it squeaked. In a rare decision of foresight and wisdom, the state had built it on a five-acre lot next to the Niniltna Native Association building, whose authority rolled downhill to embrace the post and whose chairman, Billy Mike, was known to Park rats as a law-and-order kind of guy. The post was a solid structure, an unthreateningly bland beige square divided into fourths, a front office, Jim’s office, an interview room, and the jail, two cells big enough for a bunk and a toilet each.
Willard, Anakin tucked safely back in his shirt pocket, scooted inside and turned to watch closely as Jim locked the cell door behind him. He wrapped his meaty hands around the bars and gave them a shake. The door trembled but held. He appeared reassured, and looked at Jim, his dark brown eyes still wide. They were set far apart, giving him a fey, elfin look. It was a look seen all too often in Bush Alaska. “Kate’s crazy, Jim,” he said.
“Tell me about it,” Jim said.
“Yeah, I heard you got a thing going with her.” Willard’s expression approached something like awe. “Man. You must have some kinda death wish.”
“Ain’t got no thing,” Jim said, and he might have closed the door to the cells a little more firmly than absolutely necessary.
Kate was pacing his office, fuming. Mutt had wedged herself into a corner, her tail tucked safely behind her and her front paws as far back as she could get them.
Kate rounded on Jim as he came in. “You’re going to throw the book at him this time, Chopin.”
Jim sat behind his desk, shoulders very square and correct. He turned on his computer and clicked on the icon that brought up the right form. “I’m going to charge him with theft in the third degree—”
He waited out the expected eruption and continued unhurriedly. “Theft in the third degree if the value of property is between fifty and five hundred dollars. Even at third degree I’m pushing the envelope here. I know Mac Devlin’s charging three seventy-five a gallon for fuel oil, but I doubt if Willard was able to pump fifty gallons before you mugged him.”
Kate called Willard’s legitimacy into serious question and then started in on his friends.
Again, Jim waited her out. He was prepared to be patient, for two reasons. One, there was no Alaska statute for Crimes Against Auntie, which was what Kate really wanted Willard charged with. Two, it had never done anyone a bit of good to try to match Kate Shugak in either volume or vituperation. The wisest course—he winced when she kicked one of the visitors’ chairs across the room—was to wait her out.
The arm of the chair thudded into the wall. Kate glared at the resulting chip in the brand-new Sheetrock as if it were to blame. Into the gift of silence Jim said, “You know she won’t press charges.”
“She can decide that for herself when she gets back,” Kate said with a snap.
Mutt decided that a mediating influence was called for and, albeit with some trepidation, positioned herself between the two combatants. She followed the conversation with her head, her tail wagging vigorously, as if this display of goodwill would put out the fire blazing up between her personal human and Mutt’s favorite man.
“You know she won’t, Kate,” Jim said. “She’ll shake her head and look like her heart is broken, and I’ll feel like six different kinds of slime for delivering the bad news. Then she’ll make me a cup of tea, and she won’t forget I like honey in it, and then she’ll sit down across from me and reminisce about how she babysat Willard’s dad when he was little, and got a great set of pink-and-purple towels at Willard’s paternal grandmother’s potlatch, pink and purple, her favorite colors, and she’s still using them, they’re such good-quality towels, and what a lousy boat Willard crewed on last summer and how Alvin Kvasnikof never does pay off his crews at anything like what they’re worth, and then she’ll remember that bad girl Priscilla Ollestad, who broke Willard’s heart when she married Cliff Moonin, and then—”
He could hear the rising exasperation in his voice and broke off. “She won’t press charges.”
Kate fetched the chair she had kicked across the room and sat down in it. She folded her arms and scowled. “And it’s only a class A misdemeanor.”
“That’s all it is,” he said. “And if all of that doesn’t work, she’ll say it was all her fault anyway because she couldn’t get her daughter to stop drinking while she was carrying Willard.”
Gloom settled in heavily over the room. Mutt’s tail slowed. Comfort was needed. Jim was the love of her life, in spite of that human male thing he had going on, but Kate had time served. She laid her chin on Kate’s knee and blinked up at her with a sympathetic expression, or as much sympathy as predatory yellow eyes could exude.
The phone rang, and it was a toss-up as to which of the three was more relieved. “Yeah?” Jim said into the receiver. His face hardened. “Thanks.”
He put the phone down. “Jury’s come back, but it’s so late, Singh is delaying hearing the verdict until the morning.” He hesitated, but she’d been helpful to the investigation, with an eidetic memory of Deem’s past offenses. Plus she was related to the victim somehow. She usually was. “I’ll fly to Ahtna tomorrow morning. Wanna come?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Hey?” Willard’s mournful howl was muffled by the intervening walls but perfectly understandable. “Um, I hate to bother you guys, but Anakin and me, we’re kinda hungry?” A pause. “Maybe we could have a coupla those cookies I saw next to the coffeepot on the way in? And maybe we could have some coffee with them? Maybe with cream? And a couple three sugars? Anakin really likes his coffee sweet.”
Jim closed his eyes and shook his head. “Willard Shugak could smell the filling on an Oreo cookie at a hundred yards.” He got up, and Kate followed him to the outer office.
“Maggie, I’m outta here, and I won’t be in tomorrow until late. Get Laurel to bring Willard some dinner, would you, please? He’ll be staying with us for a few days.”
Kate growled, mostly for show, and because she knew Willard was listening.
“Protective custody,” Jim said.
Maggie gave Kate a wary look. “Got it, boss.”
As Jim turned the Blazer around to head back to Kate’s homestead, she said, “What’s your prediction? On the verdict?”
The road was mostly bare, frozen gravel. “I heart global warming,” Jim said, and eased up the Blazer to a steady forty miles an hour. “I stopped guessing jury verdicts after my first case, Kate.”
“What happened on your first case?”
“First case that came to trial, I should have said.” A bull moose sauntered out from the undergrowth and paused in the middle of the road, looking around with a distracted air, as if he were trying to remember where he had mislaid his rack. Jim tapped the brakes and flicked the headlights on bright and back again. The moose blinked at them bemusedly and then galumphed back into the undergrowth, embarrassed by his naked head.
Jim stepped cautiously on the gas, goosing her back up to speed. The Blazer rattled over the gravel base, and he had to raise his voice to be heard. “Perp and his best buddy pick up the victim on the road, try to get him to perform oral sex on them. When he won’t, they shoot him nine times with a twenty-two. And then cut his throat just to be sure. Tossed the body in the city dump and hot-wired the dozer to run it over him a few times to mash him into the garbage.
“Vic was missing for four days before anyone noticed it, but amazingly enough, we had a witness who saw him get into the perp’s truck, and at lineup could ID the driver and the passenger.” He shrugged. “Eyewitnesses, you know . . .”
“Yeah. I know.” In five and a half years as an investigator for the Anchorage district attorney’s office, Kate knew that you could have five witnesses to a crime and come up with five different descriptions of the perp.
“But we found blood and hair matching the vic in the truck’s cab.”
“Excellent. And the gun?”
“No such luck, and of course the perp and his best bud denied everything. And then we caught a break, a bear rooting around in the dump uncovered what was left of the body when some guy was pitching out his old dishwasher. Plus, the best bud’s girlfriend was mightily pissed off that we were suspecting her bright angel of anything as heinous as murder. It was all the perp’s fault, she said, why were we even looking at his best bud, as the best bud got out of the car after the perp picked up the vic.”
Kate silence was eloquent.
“Yeah, I know,” Jim said, “nobody ever said jails are filled with smart people, and why should anybody they hang out with be any smarter? I—persuaded—the best bud to turn state’s evidence.”
“Excellent,” Kate said again.
“But.” Jim sighed. “He wasn’t real convincing, and he had a rap sheet it took a whole ream of paper to print out. Jury didn’t believe a word he said. Hell, I didn’t believe a word he said, and I knew it was all true. Well. Mostly true.”
“And the perp?”
“The perp says he was out of town at the time. Real sincere on the stand, as I recall, young and clean-cut and all his family in the courtroom, including his Miss Alaska fiancée.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“I would if I could. She spent the whole trial trying to hold hands with him over the divider.”
“The third time the judge told her to stop holding hands with the defendant, he raised his voice, and she burst into tears. You should have seen the jury, you’d have thought he’d just shot their pet cat.”
“Not guilty.” He sighed again. “The case was mostly circumstantial anyway. As I recall it, Brendan—”
“Brendan McCord was prosecuting?”
“Yeah. One of his first cases. He was good, even fresh out of law school. Brendan said a member of the jury came up to him after the verdict and scolded him for harassing that nice young man and putting his fiancée through such a terrible ordeal.”
Kate had also seen the inside of her share of courtrooms, and she had very few illusions left about the wheels of justice. “What happened to the perp?”
Jim brightened a little. “Six months later, he accompanied his fiancée to the Miss America pageant in Dallas and shot a cabdriver during a robbery. He is currently enjoying the hospitality of the state of Texas at Huntsville. One of four hundred and ten on death row, last time I checked.”
Kate wondered what had happened to the fiancée, and the perp’s family. She always wondered what happened to the rest of the victims. It was one of the reasons she’d left the DA’s office.
“So,” Jim said, “I don’t predict verdicts. The game is rigged, all right, but in this case the house doesn’t win often enough. It’s discouraging enough without letting your hopes ride on it, too.”
What little snow had fallen that winter had melted off in a four-day chinook that was the lump of coal in the Park’s stocking the week of Christmas. At five thirty in the afternoon, it had already been dark for an hour and a half and with nothing to reflect what light there was, anything beyond the reach of the Blazer’s headlights looked like a black hole. The good news was that the road was drivable at all. It wasn’t maintained in winter and normally became a snow machine track from October to May, but not this year.
Kate peered up at the sky. “Lights’ll be out tonight, I bet.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t bother looking at the stars; he was watching for the next moose. “Ever thought about getting a telescope?”
“Yeah.” He was silent for a moment. “In high school my junior class drove to Tucson and visited the planetarium at the University of Arizona. They had it pointed right at the Orion nebula. It was amazing, like this huge pink and purple star had exploded right across the sky.”
She checked the exterior temperature readout. Thirteen below. The red digital three changed to a four as she watched. “Couldn’t stay out very long to look, it’d be too cold.”
“That’s why God invented Carhartts.”
She laughed, a low husk of sound that transported him instantly back to the moments in the clearing that afternoon, waiting without enthusiasm for Willard to show.
Fortunately, Mutt was sitting between them. And if Mutt failed, there was always the shotgun bolted to the dash. Although Jim wasn’t entirely sure shotguns worked on witches.
They passed a Suburban going in the opposite direction. It was easily identified, bright orange with the left front fender missing and the right front fender caved into the wheel well, hanging on through sheer force of will.
“Howie Katelnikof, headed to Bernie’s,” Jim said.
“Probably thinking he’s going to find Willard there,” Kate said, not without satisfaction. “And probably got a customer waiting for Auntie Balasha’s fuel oil.”
Jim thought she was probably right about that. “Howie should choose his roommates more carefully.”
They thought about Howie’s other roommate, which naturally led them to think about the murder trial under way in Ahtna, now before the jury. “All of the evidence was circumstantial.” She remembered the story about Jim’s first trial. “Again.”
He turned to look at her but Mutt was in the way, and it was too dark to see her expression anyway. “Louis Deem’s a wrong guy, Kate.”
“You haven’t been around the Park long enough to know how wrong,” Kate said. “Louis Deem was broken before he was born.”
“Why didn’t you do something?” Because as had every practicing police officer who had ever served the cause of justice in the Park, he knew doing something was what Kate did best.
Kate remembered the time she had tried to. “You assume it was up to me.”
Jim thought this over. It didn’t take him long. “Ekaterina?”
“Emaa was his godmother.”
Jim snorted. Half his time on the job was spent disentangling the lies one Park rat told to alibi another because they were second cousins twice removed.
“Yeah, I know,” she said, not very apologetically, “but it mostly works for us.”
“Not this time.”
She shifted in her seat and craned her head to peer through the window, still looking for the northern lights. “No. Not this time.”
“So your grandmother ran interference whenever Louis got in trouble?”
Kate had heard all the stories from her aunties about Emaa and Louis Deem’s first two wives. Ekaterina Shugak had made a point of, at minimum, weekly post-marriage visits to both Jessie and Ruthie. If Kate knew her grandmother, those visits had included the offer (when Louis was out of the room, of course) of a spare room in Emaa’s tumbledown, riverside house in Niniltna the moment either one of them wanted to pack it in.
One day in the Park during an August vacation from her job in Anchorage, Kate had driven out with her grandmother to see Ruthie. Ruthie, not yet out of her teens, moved like she was twenty years older than Ekaterina.
Jim took Kate’s silence as assent. “When did that start? When he got caught running for that bootlegger, what was his name?”
“Sandy Halvorsen, and I think it started when Louis was in grade school and he used to beat up the other kids and steal their lunches. The teachers learned that the best they could do was give him detention, and even then I remember one time he talked Robby Kanaback into bringing him a candy bar into the detention room and then he beat him up for the hell of it. He was a miserable little shit then and he’s a miserable little shit now.”
“I hear his parents sucked.”
“They were drunks and dopers, and Louis was an accident Daisy couldn’t get rid of, although the story is she tried hard enough. Wesley drowned in the Cordova small-boat harbor the year Louis was fifteen. Louis pretty much raised himself.”
“And I bet Mary Waterbury’s parents think he did a hell of a job.”
There was no answer to that and Kate attempted none.
Little Mary Waterbury, brown as a nut and round as a ball. Homely, cheerful, kind to children and animals, born to be a mother, and so very young. Twenty-one years younger than Louis Deem, her first boyfriend.
And her last. Why didn’t you do something? Jim had asked. She had tried. She thought again of Mary Waterbury, that young hopeful life brought to a sudden and violent halt at the hands of a man who had pretty much perfected the art of ridding himself of unwanted wives.
Yes, she had tried, Kate thought now, but she hadn’t tried hard enough.
The rest of the journey was accomplished in silence. Twenty-five miles from Niniltna, they turned down the narrow rutted track that led to Kate’s homestead. Jim stopped the Blazer in the center of the flood of light pouring out of the tall windows that ran across the prow front of Kate’s house.
Her house. It still seemed so odd to come home to a whole house, all two floors and two bedrooms and two bathrooms and hand-carved pine dining set of it. To have so much room, to have hot running water instead of hand-pumped cold, to take a hot shower instead of a snowmelt bath in a galvanized round steel tub, to be able to keep half and half in the refrigerator instead of it freezing up in a cooler on the porch, and most miraculous of all, to be able to get up in the middle of the night to use a real live flush toilet ten steps from her bed instead of fumbling around in the dark for her boots and parka and traipsing outside to the outhouse—it still seemed too much, and she still felt unworthy of the gift the Park had so generously given her.
She had learned the hard way not to say so, however.
She opened the door of the truck, and Mutt leapt over her in a graceful gray arc. She landed easily and loped into the brush at the edge of the clearing and to all intents and purposes vanished. Kate looked at Jim. “Want to stay for dinner?”
He was tempted, as he’d missed dinner at Auntie Vi’s, where he was renting a room until he found a place of his own—which in Niniltna wasn’t going to be easy, inexpensive, or any time soon.
On the other hand, he knew there was a better-than-even chance that dinner wasn’t the only thing on offer in this invitation. At least the lights on inside the house meant that Johnny was home, so he would be chaperoned. He ought to be safe.
He followed her inside, where they shed their coats and boots at the door and padded forward on stocking feet. Johnny was stretched out on the couch, so engrossed in a book that he didn’t hear them come in. Jim walked over and pushed the book up so he could read the title. “Reflex,” he said. “Any good?”
Two years into adolescence, Johnny’s towhead had turned a rich mink brown, over a face growing into strong, blunt features, including a formidable chin. He blinked up at Jim with a dazed expression. When Johnny read, he read. It was on such occasions difficult to remember that Kate really wasn’t Johnny’s mother. “Huh? Oh. Hi, Jim.” He sat up. “Kate,” he said, surprised. “You’re home.”
“That I am.” She nodded at Jim. “Company for dinner.”
Johnny shrugged. “Cool.”
Jim tapped the book. “Any good?” he said again.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah, real good. Science fiction. Sequel to Jumper?”
“I read that,” Jim said. “Good book.”
He sat down and they plunged into an animated debate on the desirability of teleportation as a human skill. Johnny, of that generation of instant gratification which ipso facto believed going anywhere took longer than they thought it ought to, took the pro, and Jim, as a practicing law enforcement professional with a lively sense of self-preservation, took the con.
Kate put John Hiatt on the boom box and got out the stock she’d made from moose marrow bones, onions, and carrots two days before. She sliced more onions into olive oil and butter and let them cook down while she sliced French bread she’d baked that weekend, brushed it with olive oil, and browned it in the oven on both sides. When the onions were ready, she poured in the stock, brought it to a boil, and let it simmer while she brought out three large bowls. She put the soup in the bowls, floated the bread on the soup, and grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese on the bread. She slid it into the oven to bake and brown, and set out spoons and knives and paper towels for napkins and more French bread and butter. “Soup’s on.”
They came to the table, noses twitching. Johnny dug in with the finicky appetite of any normal fourteen-year-old vacuum cleaner. Jim tasted and considered. “Be better if you added a little cognac,” he said.
Johnny paused between one inhalation and the next, spoon suspended in midair.
Kate gave Jim a long, steady, fairly expressionless look.
“Not,” said Jim very carefully indeed, “that it isn’t absolutely perfect just as it is.” He slurped up some more, with sound effects. “Yessiree bob, the best French onion soup I’ve ever had in my life.”
Johnny sneezed something that sounded an awful lot like “suck up” into his paper towel.
Kate took firm control of the conversation and asked him how school had gone that day, and Johnny told them about the field trip his class had made to the dump to watch the eagles roosting there, not neglecting to include a vivid description of the projectile pooping incident. Jim retaliated with a description of the apprehension of that dastardly villain, Willard Shugak. Kate contributed a little Park gossip, including the Niniltna postmistress’s recent dalliance with the traveling dentist, ending unhappily with the appearance of a representative of the Alaska Division of Occupational Licensing, who informed everyone waiting in line in the makeshift clinic in the gym that not only was the traveling dentist not licensed to practice in the state of Alaska, but he appeared not to have attended medical school at all, anywhere. This came as something of a shock to the five patients he’d already treated that morning (one cleaning, three fillings, and a root canal) and who at last report were still investigating the teeth he’d worked on with cautious tongues. Bonnie Jeppsen, the postmistress, was heard to be mending her broken heart by beading everything that didn’t move out of the way first in bright primary colors, including a rock the size of a small suitcase.
It wasn’t until he was helping with the dishes that Jim realized how very domestic it all felt. A frisson of fear ran up his spine.
Kate smiled sweetly at her two men, or would have if she’d known how. “Would you like to spend the night, Jim?”
Johnny tossed down the dish towel and wagged a monitory finger. “I don’t want to hear any noises, is that clear?” He snatched up his book and shot down the hall, his bedroom door closing with unnecessary firmness behind him.
Kate laughed. It was the sexiest sound Jim had ever heard coming out of a woman’s mouth. It was also the most frightening sound he’d ever heard coming out of a woman’s mouth. “No, thanks,” he said through suddenly dry lips.
She sauntered around the kitchen island and backed him into a corner, there to run a delicate finger down his shirtfront. “Whatever can I do to change your mind?”
He knew this was a bad idea and he tried desperately to remember why, but his brains had relocated somewhere south of his belt buckle.
He thought, ruefully, that this was his own damn fault. He’d been chasing after her for years, even before Jack Morgan died. Now he had a tiger by the tail and he didn’t know what to do with her.
Wait a minute. Really, when he thought about it, it was all Kate’s fault. She was the one who had lulled him into a false sense of security, fooled him into thinking he could chase her forever with impunity because she had made it manifestly clear that there wasn’t a hope in hell he was ever going to catch her.
The pattern was set, he thought indignantly. He chased. She ran. Then, last year, something had changed. It was hard with that finger fiddling with the buttons of his shirt to focus on exactly what had, and how, but there was a fuzzy memory somewhere in the back of his mind of him trying to do the right thing, of telling her that he was calling off his pursuit, that she was a one-man woman and he was neither capable of being nor willing to be a one-woman man and that—oh hell. Now she was tracing the brass bear on his belt buckle.
Somehow him telling her it was over had been the beginning of her chasing him, and while he hated to admit it, she had been far more successful at it than he had. The last time she had managed to seduce him had been two weeks before at the New Year’s potlatch, when she’d lured him out of the school gym and taken him standing up in a corner he fervently hoped had been too dark to see into because there sure as hell had been a lot of foot traffic on the sidewalk not twenty feet away. He had held out for a nice long time before that regrettable if thoroughly enjoyable incident, which he assured himself was the only reason he’d been such an easy target.
There was no such excuse this evening. He had a perfectly serviceable vehicle parked right out front, too, providentially positioned for a quick getaway.
“What the hell did you put in that soup?” he heard himself say as she led him up the narrow wooden stairs to the giant sleigh bed in the loft.
“Not cognac,” she said.
Copyright © 2007 by Dana Stabenow. All rights reserved.