Lily and the Lawman
Lily and the Lawman
“I like women with fire in their eyes and a go-to-hell attitude.”
Max allowed himself just one touch of her hair. “I like them with shining black hair and legs so long they make you want to fall to your knees and thank God you’re alive.”
Damn it, her heart had shifted again. Now it was in her throat, making it hard to breathe. Still, Lily raised her chin defiantly. Willing him to do something to prove her wrong.
“I don’t believe you.”
He shrugged as if it made no difference to him one way or another.
“Believe what you want. But, woman, you have stirred up something inside of me I’ve never felt before and I think that for both our sakes, we should walk away from this here and now, before we both do something that there’ll be no walking away from….”
Lily and the Lawman Marie Ferrarella
Welcome to the fold
earned a master’s degree in Shakespearean comedy and, perhaps as a result, her writing is distinguished by humor and natural dialogue. This RITA® Award-winning author’s goal is to entertain and to make people laugh and feel good. She has written over one hundred books for Silhouette, some under the name Marie Nicole. Her romances are beloved by fans worldwide and have been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, Japanese and Korean.
“I hate men. I hate tall men, I hate short men, I hate old men, I hate young men. I hate men!”
Alison Quintano held the phone away from her ear for a moment. Distance hardly muted her older sister Lily’s tirade. It was as if the petite woman who had dominated a large portion of Alison’s childhood was standing right here in Hades’s lone medical clinic rather than far away, in her own trendy Seattle apartment.
“You. Men. Hate. Got it,” Alison quipped, trying to get Lily’s voice down to a level that didn’t threaten to shatter her eardrum. Lily had called her about three minutes ago and had been carrying on like this from the moment she’d answered the phone. “Now calm down and tell me what brought this on.”
Even as she said it, Alison had a sneaking suspicion she knew what the problem was. Or rather, who.
Lily steamrolled right over the question, not hearing her sister. She was just too angry and trying very, very hard not to be hurt. But the pain was there, hot and biting.
How could she have been this blind?
“I especially hate sneaky plastic surgeon men.”
Ah, now they were getting to it, Alison thought. Lily’s fiancé, Allen, was a plastic surgeon. Alison felt guilty over the sense of relief she was experiencing. But it was there nonetheless. She had never liked Allen. None of them had.
“Does this mean the wedding’s off?” Alison could just see their older brother, Kevin, doing a little jig.
Of the three of them, Kevin, who had raised them ever since their father had died, had disliked Allen the most. The artificial surgeon was the way he referred to Allen whenever he mentioned the man to the rest of them.
But, Lily being Lily, none of them had said anything to her. It would have only made her dig in her heels. Now, it looked as if her heels had been naturally dislodged.
It was hard for Alison to keep from cheering.
Feeling like a caged animal, Lily paced the length of her kitchen, a headset sitting like an appendage on her straight black hair. Normally, being around the various state-of-the-art appliances in her kitchen soothed her. But nothing was soothing her now. Short of filleting her fiancé.
Ex-fiancé, she amended with a vengeance. How could he? How could he?
“Not only is the wedding off, but I very nearly came close to taking his head off, as well.” She huffed angrily, struggling to keep the skewering feeling of betrayal at bay. “Not that he needs his head since he seems to rely very heavily on the Braille system of doing things.”
With the telephone wedged against her shoulder and her ear, Alison tallied up a bill for the burly miner who had just walked out of examining room one. It took her a second to decipher her brother Jimmy’s illegible handwriting. Even for a doctor it was awful, she thought.
“Does this come with any subtitles, Lily, or am I going to have to figure out what you’re talking about on my own?”
Alison’s words bounced off Lily’s brain like so many cascading beads. Nothing was making sense right now. Lily looked around her, searching for a way to siphon off some of the anger she was feeling.
It was as if she were a kettle with the top about to blow.
She’d never been so angry in her life. Never. She’d given that narcissistic idiot some of the best entrées of her life.
Taking a breath, she tried to begin at the beginning. “Allen kept complaining about how predictable I was, how all I ever thought about was work, that I was never spontaneous.” Lily ground her teeth together, thinking what a fool she’d been. Had this kind of thing really been going on under her nose all the time? “So I was spontaneous. I got Arthur to take over for me at Lily’s, grabbed a bottle of our finest champagne from the wine cellar, packed a picnic lunch of nothing less than my finest fare and came over to his apartment to surprise him.”
Finding herself in the living room without the slightest idea how she got there, Lily sank down onto the sofa as if all at once all the air had been let out of her body.
“I surprised him, all right. In bed with one of his former patients. The breast enhancement one.” She spat the words out. There was no comfort in the fact that the woman had looked as though she’d been wearing a flotation device.
Lily blinked. Were those tears she felt on her lashes? No, damn it, she wasn’t going to waste tears on that jerk. “He was trying to get closer to his work, no doubt.”
Handing the miner his receipt, Alison nodded as the man paid her and took his leave. Poor Lily, she thought. But thank God the so-called gift to the medical profession wasn’t going to be part of the family, after all. “I get the picture, Lil.”
Lily tossed her head and then grabbed the headset as it threatened to slide off. “Well, picture him and his cutie wearing the lobster Newburg I threw at them.”
Alison knew her sister was very capable of pitching things when she got angry. She laughed, tickled as she envisioned the sight. “Good for you. I never liked Allen anyway.”
Frowning, Lily stood up and began to pace again. To think of all the time she’d wasted on that man… “Well, you don’t have to try to like him anymore. The wedding is off.” She blew out a long breath, feeling empty and trying not to. Where had all this sadness come from suddenly? “My life is off.”
Alison knew a dramatic tirade in the making when she heard one. She tried to head her off before Lily picked up another full head of steam. “Lily.”
Standing beside her audio system, Lily flipped a switch. The song playing on the radio had memories attached to it. Bitter ones now. Lily flipped the switch off again. “I should have never thought that I could give love a try.”
Alison tried again. “—Lily.”
“Men are scum, anyway,” Lily declared like a scientist at the end of a long, carefully controlled experiment. And then she realized who she was talking to. “Your husband and our brothers excepted, of course. But in general, Aly, all men are.”
“And on the whole, I’m better off without any of them in my life. If I need any spice, I can find it waiting for me on the rack—”
Her sister’s voice finally penetrating, Lily stopped in midstride. Alison’s voice echoed in her head. “What?”
Finally. Blowing out a breath, Alison made her pitch while indicating that the patient who had just entered should take a seat. “Why don’t you come up for a vacation?”
“Come up?” Taking a vacation was as rare for Lily as taking a bath was for a cat. She paused to let the idea sink in. It didn’t. It floundered. “Come up where?”
“Here.” There was no response. “Where I live. Where Jimmy lives,” Alison added for good measure. “We haven’t seen you since forever.” Or, more precisely, since her wedding to Luc. Lily had been unable to attend their brother’s marriage to April Yearling last year. Now that Lily’s wedding was off, there was no telling when they would see her again. She knew Lily had a tendency to lose herself in her work. “Maybe you need to get away.”
The idea of getting away was not completely without appeal for Lily. But people took vacations to exciting places, not places that brought to mind an abundance of ice. “To Alaska?”
“To family,” Alison told her quietly but firmly.
Lily caught her lower lip between her teeth, working it slowly as she thought. It was one of the unconscious habits she and her sister shared.
“I have Kevin.” Kevin was the only one of the family who still lived in Seattle. It seemed that Hades, Alaska, population of five hundred or so, was slowly wooing the Quintanos away from their native Seattle. Or at least the younger ones.
Alison saw no problem with that. “So bring him.”
It was always wonderful to see Kevin. With ten years between them, Kevin was like a second father to Alison and she loved him dearly. Leaving Kevin behind when she moved here was the hardest thing she had ever done. Loving Luc was the easiest.
Lily laughed shortly. She wasn’t the only workaholic in the family. Kevin’s devotion to work had begun out of necessity, to provide for her and the others. But once they were all out on their own, Kevin, who had made the decision years ago to turn his back on beginning a family of his own to provide for the one he already had, just kept on working, running his own taxi service.
“Yeah, like I could get our older brother to go anywhere. Men just don’t—”
Alison didn’t have time to listen to an encore. Mrs. Newhaven had just walked in, all eight months’ pregnant of her.
“Lily, I have to get back to work.” She heard her sister sigh. She hated to leave her hanging like this. “I can be much more sympathetic in person, really. Take a couple of weeks off and come up here. You were going to take two weeks off for your honeymoon, right?”
Lily closed her eyes, battling sorrow, regret and searching for a fresh wave of anger to hold on to. As long as she was angry she couldn’t cry. “You’re not exactly who I was planning to spend those two weeks with.”
Alison was ready for her. “I’m nicer than a two-timing weasel, right?”
Lily sighed, then laughed sadly. “Right.”
“Then it’s settled.” For once, she was going to order her sister around, not vice versa. Lily’s problem, Alison knew, was that she was a commando in high heels. Allen had been the first man she hadn’t been able to boss around, but that was probably because he’d had his own agenda and hadn’t paid attention to anything she’d said. “Make arrangements. Jimmy or I will come to the airport to pick you up and bring you to Hades.”
“Hades.” Lily repeated the improbable name of the small town that had lured two-thirds of her family. “The place sounds more like heaven after what I’ve been through.”
Alison smiled, confident that Dr. Allen Ripley was undoubtedly worse for the encounter with her sister during her surprise visit. Lily’s wrath was legendary when unleashed. Not that he hadn’t deserve it.
“My point exactly. C’mon, Lily. We miss your smiling face.”
Even as she heard her sister say it, a smile began to form on Lily’s lips. She’d been incredibly busy, making Lily’s one of the trendiest places in Seattle. But even at the height of her success, there was an emptiness she tried to ignore. She had to admit she did miss her siblings. “Not to mention my cooking.”
Alison laughed. There was no denying that. No one on earth could cook like Lily.
“Not to mention your cooking,” she agreed. The door to the clinic opened again and two more patients walked in. Even though it was almost evening, it looked as if she and Jimmy were going to be here well past closing. Again. “Now, I really have to go. Promise me you’ll come.” Alison paused, waiting. “Promise.”
Lily took a deep breath, then released it. Maybe she did need to get away for a while. Really get away. Not just from the memory of the man she’d thought she was going to spend her future with, but from everything. She’d been working almost nonstop ever since she’d opened Lily’s more than five years ago. The restaurant was doing great.
The same, unfortunately, couldn’t be said for her. Maybe it was time to change that. “Okay, I’ll come.”
Alison breathed a sigh of relief. “Wonderful. I’ll call you tonight, we’ll make arrangements and get you booked on a flight up here as soon as possible.”
Her sister, as she remembered, never walked when she could run. A smile curved Lily’s mouth fondly. “Don’t waste time, do you?”
“Nope.” There was genuine affection in Alison’s voice. “I learned from the best.” She rose as she saw Mrs. Newhaven’s hand go limp. She’d just been fanning herself. The woman’s eyes started to roll up toward her head. “Gotta go. ’Bye.”
The line went dead.
Lily felt at her waist where the telephone receiver was attached. She pressed the off button. Even as she did so, a fresh wave of sadness came sweeping in, threatening to undo her.
It wasn’t that she loved Allen with her dying breath, she knew she didn’t. She’d thought they went well together and, on paper, he was all the things she’d thought she wanted in a man. Handsome, successful, intelligent. Somewhere along the line, though, she must have missed the part about being a lying cheat. So she’d cut him loose, her pride smarting somewhat.
It was just that…just that she felt alone. Again. And every so often, being alone had sharp edges to it that hurt.
Enough of this self-pity, Lily upbraided herself, annoyed. She had her restaurant, her reputation and her career. And a family who loved her. Not everyone was nearly so lucky.
Squaring her shoulders, Lily marched over to the piano and the framed photograph of Allen. He’d given it to her on her last birthday with an inscription. The Best For The Best.
Should have been a clue, Lily. Should have been a clue…
Taking the photograph in hand, Lily escorted it to the kitchen where she threw it, frame and all, into the trash. Glass shattered as it hit the side of the metal container on its way to the bottom. It was a satisfying sound.
Lily felt marginally better as she went to pack.
Max Yearling passed his hand over the rim of the tanned hat in his hand as he looked around the vast airport, trying to spot a woman he only vaguely remembered meeting once several years ago.
He wasn’t sure just how he’d gotten roped into this. As a rule, he didn’t like to fly and only did so as a last resort. If God had really meant men to fly, He would have made them with feathers instead of hair.
But April didn’t ask for much and she had asked for this, so he’d said yes.
It wasn’t as though he could hide behind the fact that he was busy. He wasn’t. Being sheriff of Hades and its surrounding territory had its busy times, but today wasn’t one of them. Most times, the job involved a great number of small tasks and duties that most people would find monotonous.
But he didn’t. Not usually. There was comfort in the familiar and he never looked down his nose at any part of his job. Not even looking under the Widow Anderson’s bed to assure her that no one had sneaked into her home, waiting to have their way with her once she was asleep.
All of eighty-one, the widow had a healthy imagination, he thought, smiling to himself. A little like his own grandmother’s, except that Ursula Hatcher, Hades’s postmistress for as long as anyone could remember, would probably have been delighted to have a man stashed under her bed, waiting for the lights to go out. At seventy-two, having buried three husbands and on the lookout for a fourth, his grandmother was the youngest woman he knew.
Not that there were all that many women to know in Hades, he mused, scanning faces as a fresh wave of passengers made its way into the baggage claim area. Men outnumbered women seven to one in the town he was born in. He knew that if he were to ever have that family he occasionally thought about, he was going to have to go to one of the real cities in Alaska to find a wife.
Didn’t seem likely, though. In his heart, he sincerely doubted that any woman from a city larger than a bread box would want to transplant herself to a place like Hades, where people and time seemed to move in slow motion for the most part, barring earthquakes, fires and cave-ins at the local mine, the industry that employed two-thirds of the male population.
Oh, sure, Sydney, Marta, and Alison had all come from outside the state and wound up marrying local men, but they were exceptions. And most of the home-grown women were on their way out the second they reached their eighteenth birthday. Even his own sister hadn’t been able to wait to get away. The only reason April had returned at all was that their grandmother had gotten ill and neither he nor June had been able to give her the full-time attention that April felt she needed. It had been April’s intention to stay for no more than two weeks, the time necessary to talk their grandmother into having heart surgery. Instead, she’d fallen in love and married the visiting heart surgeon, Alison’s brother, Jimmy.
Funny how things arranged themselves, Max thought, shifting from foot to foot as he waited beside Sydney Kerrigan, the wife of Hades’s first resident doctor. Sydney had been one of the women who had come from somewhere else to be here. And, like him, Sydney was happy to remain here for the rest of her life. She’d even learned to fly her husband’s plane to help bring in supplies. For a while there, Dr. Kerrigan’s plane had been the only one making trips in and out. But now there were two planes and three pilots in the immediate vicinity.
Yup, he thought, his lips curving in amusement, Hades was growing up. If not by leaps and bounds, then by hops and skips, but it was happening. Fast enough to suit him.
What wasn’t happening fast enough to suit him was Lily Quintano’s appearance.
“You see her?” he asked Sydney impatiently, glancing down at the photograph Alison had given him of her sister.
He wished Alison or Jimmy were here in his place. Both Alison, who was the only nurse in town, and Jimmy, referred to by the locals as “the doctor who had come on vacation only to remain,” were tied up in an unexpected surgery. Neither had been able to get away to pick up their sister, thus Jimmy’s call to April, who in turn had called him.
His sister was busy working against some deadline or other, snapping pictures of melting snow for some magazine and pretending it was work.
Someday, he thought, he was going to learn how to say no.
Flying out of Hades into Anchorage Airport to be the unofficial welcoming committee for a woman reputed to be a man-hating workaholic wasn’t exactly his idea of a good way to spend an afternoon.
“Someone from the family has to be there,” April had insisted when he’d challenged her as to why Sydney wasn’t sufficient to welcome Lily Quintano and bring her back to town.
“But she doesn’t know me from Adam,” he’d protested fruitlessly. As far as he could remember, he’d only caught a glimpse of her at Alison and Luc’s wedding. If not for the photograph in his hand, he wouldn’t have been able to identify her at all.
“She will as soon as she looks into those beautiful green eyes of yours, little brother,” April had assured him.
He really should have said no, he thought now, but there hadn’t been anything else more pressing to do. His investigation of Jeffords’s broken traplines was going nowhere at the moment and he’d thought, recklessly, that maybe a plane ride in the single-engine Cessna would clear his head. Besides, April, only eleven months his senior, knew how to nag better than any woman he’d ever met. When it came to April, he’d learned a long time ago that it was easier just to say yes.
Sydney shook her head in response to his question. And then suddenly she caught hold of his arm, pointing. “Over there, the woman in the red leather coat next to the baggage carousel. Is that—”
Max looked to where Sydney was pointing, then glanced down at the photograph. It was hard to decide. The woman in the photograph was smiling. The woman in the red leather coat was definitely not. Even at this distance, she reeked of impatience. She was frowning as she scanned the area.
Frown or not, Max had to admit that he’d never seen a finer-looking woman.
“Only one way to find out,” he told Sydney, pocketing the photograph. “Wait here.”
Still holding his hat in his hand, Max made his way through the crowded terminal to the baggage claim area. The closer he got, the finer the dark-haired woman looked. In the absolute sense. Given his preference, he preferred women who smiled.
He noted that, unlike a lot of passengers, the woman was dressed almost formally, wearing a light gray suit beneath her open coat. She had on what appeared to be three-or four-inch heels, which gave her the appearance of height.
She was a slight woman, he realized, with fine features and the greatest set of legs he’d ever seen.
“All the better to grind men into dust,” he’d once heard from Jimmy. Her brother ought to know, Max thought.
There were a lot of men in Hades who could be led around by the nose by someone like Lily Quintano. He was going to have to watch this one—which wouldn’t be all that much of a hardship, he decided as he placed himself in front of her.
Lily spun around, all but colliding with the tall, broad-shouldered man in the sheepskin jacket. As the jacket moved, she caught sight of the badge pinned to his shirt. “Yes?”
The woman knew how to cut people down into tiny pieces, he thought, judging by the way she looked at him. “You might not remember me—”
Lily prided herself on having one hell of a memory. She remembered every single recipe she’d ever read. “Sheriff Max Yearling, April’s brother. Yes, I remember you,” she said in a crisp tone. “You were at Alison’s wedding. So was I.”
It suddenly occurred to her why the sheriff might be here in her sister’s place. Lily looked beyond his shoulder. Alison was nowhere to be seen. Neither was their brother. An uneasiness struck.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded, firing the words at him point-blank. “Has something happened to Alison and Jimmy?”
He could almost see the thoughts ricocheting in her head from one spot to another. She talked like she danced. Quickly. He recalled seeing her dancing at the wedding. At the time, she’d been on the arm of a very self-absorbed-looking male. Her fiancé, he’d been told. The only opinion he’d formed at the time was that she could have done better, but then, it hadn’t been any of his business.
“There was an emergency at the clinic and they couldn’t get away, so they asked me to come and bring you back.”
She wondered if he made it sound as though he were fetching a package on purpose, then decided that she was probably giving the man too much credit.
She took the measure of him now. Handsome. Probably used that to his advantage. She wondered how many women he was stringing along, then remembered that Hades didn’t have that many to string.
“They were afraid I’d get back on the plane?” she finally asked.
She was scrutinizing him. Was she planning on dissecting him? he wondered, half amused. “Something like that.”
The next moment, Sydney came up to join them. Sydney had never been one to stand on ceremony and her years as the doctor’s wife out here had only served to make her more gregarious. She embraced Lily warmly.
Stunned, her arms pinned to her sides, Lily pulled her head back and looked at Sydney. The other woman made it sound as if she was returning after a long journey rather than visiting for a short while to pull the unraveling ends of her life together.
All things considered, Lily supposed that the hug was appreciated. Awkwardly, she raised her arms and hugged Sydney back, her eyes on Max.
“So, has transportation improved any since the last time I was out here?”
“We’ve replaced some parts in the plane,” Sydney told her amicably. “And since this is summer, there is a road you can use with an all-terrain vehicle. But in the winter, the road becomes impassable and there’s still no way in or out of Hades except by dogsled or plane.”
Lily nodded. She was just making conversation. She knew exactly what to expect, thanks to Alison.
“Sounds perfect,” she answered. “Right now, I could do with a little seclusion and a lot of peace and quiet.”
But even as she said the words, she wasn’t all that sure she meant them. A big-city girl all of her life, Lily was already feeling homesick for the sound of traffic—of blaring horns, impatient drivers and raised voices.
And they hadn’t even left the terminal yet.
Maybe, she thought as Max went to get her luggage, she’d made a mistake in coming here.
Max smiled to himself. He’d been observing Alison’s older, successful sister since they’d gotten airborne ten minutes ago. Judging by her frozen stare and the way she clutched her left armrest, Max figured that Lily Quintano reacted to flying much the way he did.
“I don’t like it, either.”
Startled, Lily turned her head away from the vast expanse of nothingness right beneath her and almost bumped into the sheriff. He was sitting much too close, but she supposed that wasn’t entirely his fault. The plane was crammed, to say the least.
Right now, he seemed to be using up all her available air.
“Like what?” She wanted to know.
Max nodded around him. “Riding in a small, single-engine plane. I keep waiting for a giant hand to reach right out of the sky and bat the plane to the ground, like in those cartoons they used to have for kids.” He glanced toward Sydney, who was sitting in front in the pilot’s seat. “No offense, Sydney.”
Sydney laughed lightly, knowing exactly how he felt. That had been her reaction once, too. “None taken. I wasn’t thrilled with my first ride to Hades, either. I was sure this plane was going to go down like a stone.”
Eventually, though, she’d changed her mind and managed to talk Shayne into giving her flying lessons. Lucky thing, too, otherwise she would have never been able to fly him to the hospital when he’d come down with appendicitis. She’d gotten him there just as it ruptured. Saving his life was a handy thing to hold over your husband’s head when discussions got a little heated.
“You feel better about it when you’re at the controls.” Sydney glanced over her shoulder. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few more pilots in Hades. Or a few more planes, for that matter. God knew, there were enough demands on her time these days. What Hades needed was a professional pilot who did nothing else, not like the rest of them. “Maybe you should take lessons, Max. I’d be happy to—”
He was already shaking his head. Air was not what he considered to be his natural environment.
“Thanks just the same,” Max told her. “I like having my feet firmly planted on the ground. I only fly when it’s absolutely unavoidable.”
Lily looked at him. That didn’t make sense to her. “So why did you volunteer to come meet my plane?”
“I didn’t come to meet your plane, I came to meet you.” He had no idea why it tickled him to correct her. Maybe because he could see that it irritated her, and he had a feeling that Ms. Lily Quintano was far too uptight for her own good. “And it wasn’t so much a case of volunteering as being volunteered.”
Well, that was putting her in her place, Lily thought. Nothing like being regarded as a burden. Maybe she would have been better off staying home. She could have made a dartboard of Allen’s photograph and cleared her head that way. It would have been a lot less complicated than what she’d had to go through to make arrangements to spend two weeks away from the restaurant.
“I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
The woman was blunt and she could be chillier than an Alaskan January night, Max thought. He was beginning to see why the wedding had been called off. Took a hell of a man to commit himself to the likes of Lily Quintano.
He made no apologies for her assumption. “Just part of being a sheriff,” he told her carelessly.
Her eyes narrowed. Now he was lumping her in with chores? Why had Alison and Jimmy sent this character? “I thought being a sheriff was catching bad guys and keeping the peace.”
He’d wondered when she’d get around to being sarcastic. “The peace more or less keeps itself out here and our bad guy supply has pretty much dwindled out.”
Max didn’t bother telling her about how Sam Jeffords’s traps kept being broken into and destroyed. Coming from where she did, he figured Lily would probably laugh at that being thought of as a crime. He knew it didn’t occur to people who lived in a city that some people’s livelihoods were still being made from setting traps and bringing in furs.
Personally, he knew he couldn’t do that himself—trap an animal so that someone could wear its pelt around their shoulders—but he wasn’t about to impose his own values on anyone else. Took all kinds to make the world go around. Faux fur notwithstanding, there was still a large market for animal skins. And, he supposed, on the plus side, it did keep the beaver population from multiplying and overwhelming the township.
“Then what is it that you do do?” The bright noonday sun was highlighting everything within the small cabin. The nose of the weapon he had tied to his thigh peered out of its holster, gleaming. It caught Lily’s attention. “Besides polish your gun?”
He wondered if she sharpened her tongue daily on a miller’s wheel or if it just maintained its edge naturally.
“A little of this, a little of that.” He looked at her pointedly. “Hunt for lost tourists.”
She never flinched. “Get many of those?”
“Even one is too many,” he told her honestly.
It was easy to get lost out here if you weren’t careful. Even people native to the area got lost on occasion. It wasn’t unusual to have to organize the town into a search party. He supposed that was what he liked best about living in a place like Hades, knowing that he could rely on his neighbor if he had to.
“Your brother got lost when he first came out here. He went to the Inuit village to inoculate the children against the flu that was going around that year. It was the beginning of June, but a freak snowstorm hit when he was on his way back. My sister was guiding him. If Jimmy and April hadn’t found their way to the cabin, they would have died from exposure.” He didn’t mention that, ironically, it was the cabin where he and his sisters had lived before their mother had retreated from reality. “This can be a very unforgiving land, Lily.”
There was something almost unsettlingly intimate about having him address her by her first name. Maybe the altitude was making her giddy, she thought, dismissing the odd feeling.
“If it’s so unforgiving, why do you and my sister stay?”
She wasn’t even going to mention Jimmy. When she first heard that her playboy brother had decided to take up residence in a place that was less than a fly speck on the map, she was rendered utterly speechless for one of the few times in her life. She knew that Jimmy had a good heart, and that he also liked to have a good time. From what Alison had told her, there was no nightlife in Hades other than the Salty Dog Saloon and a couple of movie theaters.
“Why does anyone stay?”
Max smiled to himself. If he had to explain, then she missed the point. But since she was waiting for some kind of answer, and he had a feeling she was the type who wouldn’t just let something go, he said, “Like a beautiful woman, it has its allure.”
She had another take on why he, at least, remained here. From the way he spoke and conducted himself, she had a feeling that he wasn’t exactly a go-getter. She wouldn’t have given him two minutes in her world.
“Or maybe it’s easier being a sheriff here than in, say—” she looked at him pointedly “—Seattle.”
If she was trying to put him on the defensive, he thought, she was going to be disappointed. “Maybe. But I wouldn’t know everyone in Seattle the way I do here.” He made himself comfortable in his seat, knowing they’d be landing soon. “I like knowing who I’m protecting.”
The plane suddenly dipped and without thinking, Lily grabbed onto Max, jerking him toward her.
“Sorry about that.” Sydney tossed the words over her shoulder. “We hit an air pocket.”
Lily’s heart was pounding so hard that she felt as though someone was doing a drumroll in her chest. “Felt more like the pocket hit us.” With effort, Lily pulled herself together. Realizing that she was still clutching Max’s forearm, she flushed and released him. It was then she saw that her nails had dug into his wrist, leaving a long, red mark. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Nice to know.” He glanced at the scratch. A small red line of blood was forming along its length, making it look angry. Digging into his pocket, he took out his handkerchief and dabbed at the line. Max raised his eyes to hers. Amusement tugged at the corners of his mouth as he deadpanned, “I guess I can always tell people you drew first blood.”
Lily shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She hated acting weak. It detracted from the image she had of herself, the one she liked to project.
“I’m not usually this jumpy.” Lily slid forward, her hand on the back of Sydney’s seat. “How much farther is it?”
The comparison to her own children’s “are we there yet?” was unavoidable, but Sydney kept that to herself. She had a feeling that Alison’s sister wouldn’t take kindly to being compared to a ten-year-old girl and a fourteen-year-old boy, not to mention her two-year-old toddler. But she said what every good parent who hadn’t yet lost their temper said in similar circumstances.
Couldn’t be soon enough for her, Lily thought. “Maybe I should have just rented a car at the airport and driven to Hades myself.” The thought, she realized by the look on the sheriff’s face, had been uttered out loud instead of safely left in the regions of her mind where she thought she’d left it. “That way I wouldn’t have inconvenienced anyone,” she tacked on, hoping that would get her out of the awkward situation.
“More of an inconvenience coming out to look for you,” Max informed her crisply.
She didn’t like being thought of as a helpless female. She hadn’t felt like a helpless female since fourth grade, back when she would have sold her soul to be part of Jenny Wellington’s club. Only the most popular girls in the class belonged to it and she had pointedly been excluded. She’d realized there and then that wanting something that badly only allowed other people to have power over you. She’d made up her mind that she wasn’t ever going to want anything that badly again. That with the exception of her family, nothing and no one was ever going to mean that much to her again.
Her mistake with Allen was in thinking that maybe she’d made up her mind too hastily all those years ago, that maybe she did need someone to round out her existence. Someone to start a family with.
All the more fool she, Lily thought now.
She had her family. She had Kevin and Alison and Jimmy. If she needed anything beyond that, she had the people who worked for her at the restaurant. They were a family of sorts in themselves, with her as the mother. She couldn’t help wondering how they were getting along right now without her.
As if on cue, the cell phone tucked away in her suit jacket pocket rang.
The tinny noise had Max quizzically raising his brow as he looked at Lily. The woman seemed to come to life right before his eyes, the altitude and the small plane that was carrying them completely forgotten.
“My phone,” she said needlessly. Digging it out, she flipped it open. “Lily.”
“Lily, thank God.”
She immediately recognized her assistant manager’s high, whiny voice, the one he used just before he began to crumble in front of her. She’d left for the airport from the restaurant, rather than from her home. Arthur had been in charge all of four hours. What could have gone wrong so quickly?
“The fool from Bradberry’s didn’t deliver enough lamb chops for tonight and we have that huge private banquet at eight.”
The man was a gem when he didn’t get in his own way. Unfortunately, that happened all too frequently. “So, call Bradberry’s and have them deliver more.”
There was a slight indignant huff on the other end. “I’m not an idiot, Lily. I already did that.” And then the whine replaced the indignation. “They don’t have enough.”
“Then find my phone book in the drawer and call Fenelli’s.” She gave him a second name, knowing the man needed backup at all times. “Or try Wagner’s Market if they don’t have any.”
Lily tried to keep her temper. It was hard to believe that Arthur Knight had a degree in restaurant management. The man was good at following orders, but still lacked a great deal when it came to thinking on his own. Of course, she allowed, he’d never been given the opportunity before because, other than the two days she’d taken off for Alison’s wedding, she hadn’t been away from the restaurant for more than a few hours. There’d been no occasion for Arthur to have to do anything on his own.
“Wait,” Arthur begged, afraid she would hang up before he found the address book.
Lily could hear the sound of a drawer being opened and then the shuffling of papers. The sound got more desperate. He had better pick up whatever he threw down, she thought, envisioning the chaos.
“It’s not here.”
Lily closed her eyes, summoning an image, trying to block out the fact that she was being observed. The two-bit sheriff was watching her as if she were a Saturday feature in the tiny theater she guessed he frequented.
“Left-hand side, in the back. Under the green folder,” she recited.
More shuffling. “Got it!” he cried in triumph with no less verve than if he were Jason and had just secured the Golden Fleece.
“Good. Now look up the phone number and call one of them. And, Arthur,” she said just as she was about to break the connection, “calm down. You can do this.”
“Right,” he said breathlessly. “I can do this. I can do this.”
Arthur was still reciting the mantra as she bid him a crisp, “Goodbye,” and terminated the connection. Placing the phone back in her pocket, she finally looked at Max. He’d been observing her the entire time she’d been on the phone.
The woman sounded as if she were a five-star general in training. “What is it you do again?”
“I run a restaurant. My own restaurant,” she felt compelled to add since it was obvious that no one had said anything to him about her.
She had no idea why it mattered that he know she wasn’t just some flunky for a corporation, even though she had worked for a major insurance company for several years to save up enough money for a down payment on her restaurant.
If she was looking to impress him, she was disappointed.
Max nodded, taking the information in. “Sounds more like you’re a general planning some kind of major strategy.”
She didn’t know if he was just making an offhanded remark or criticizing her. She didn’t react well to criticism. In-law or not, she definitely hadn’t made up her mind to like Sheriff Max Yearling. “Arthur needs a firm hand.”
She sounded as if she were talking about a horse or a pet. It was as plain as the nose on his face that the lady liked being in control. He pitied the man who had the misfortune of falling for her face, not realizing what the total package involved.
“Arthur, your fiancé?”
Eyes widening, Lily laughed. It was the first time, she realized, since she had found Allen in bed with that former patient of his. Arthur was a dear in his own way, but definitely not someone she would even remotely think of in a romantic light. It wasn’t even his tall, gawky frame or the fact that he had an Adam’s apple that seemed to be in perpetual motion. It was that, quite truthfully, he was skittish of his own shadow and if ever she were to think about romance again, she wanted a man, not a mouse. Not even a tall mouse.
“Hardly. What makes you think that?”
Max lifted a shoulder carelessly, letting it drop again. “The way you were ordering him around, it sounded as if you had a relationship.”
Lily stiffened her shoulders. She didn’t like what he was implying. “We do. Arthur is my assistant manager.”
He studied her for a moment, thinking that she was probably one of those people who hadn’t a clue how to kick back. “I thought you came here to relax.”
Though his voice was low, and to an outside ear, easygoing, Lily felt as if she was being interrogated. “I did.”
He nodded at the pocket where she’d put her phone. “Don’t you think you should turn your phone off, then?”
She looked at him as if he’d just suggested that she practice skydiving without a parachute. She’d had a cell phone on her person ever since they’d been invented. In the early days that had meant carrying around something that had resembled a talking brick.
“Why would I want to do that?”
He heard the defensive tone in her voice and knew his estimation about her inability to relax was right on the money. “So that the people who work with you can’t bother you with questions.”
“They don’t work with me, they work for me,” she corrected. “And what do you suggest I do, shut off my phone, forget about everything and after two weeks, come back to no restaurant? No thank you. I want Arthur to bother me with work questions if it means I have a thriving restaurant when I get back.”
Max was trying to get a fix on what she was actually saying. “Then this Arthur you have running things for you while you’re gone is incompetent?”
Lily became indignant. Arthur might have his failings, but no one was going to say that about him but her.
“No, of course he’s not incompetent.”
A smile spread along his lips slowly, like the early morning sun creeping out over the horizon. “Oh.”
She didn’t like the sound of that at all. “What do you mean, ‘oh’?”
Again Max shrugged, pausing to look out the window before he answered. They were getting close to home. Longest run from the airport to Hades he could remember, he thought.
“Just that maybe you’re afraid that this Arthur guy can get along without you.” He watched her eyes. They began to darken as he spoke. “Maybe you don’t want to find out that you’re not as indispensable as you’d like to think you are.”
She’d had just about enough of this man. She hadn’t come all this way to be ignored by her siblings and packed off with some know-it-all guy with a badge.
“Is this what you do as sheriff? Hand out homey advice?”
He saw her eyes grow darker still, like a storm coming in from the ocean. “I like to think of it as pointing people in the right direction.”
“Well, your sense of direction is off, Lawman. Because my instincts are fine and I’ll handle my restaurant the way I see fit, thank you very much.” She could feel her anger building. “Where do you get off, telling me how to run my business?”
The louder her voice grew, the quieter his became. The way he saw it, for every storm, there had to be a calm. That was his role in the scheme of things. He rarely, if ever, lost his temper.
“Wasn’t telling you how to run the restaurant, I was telling you how to relax. Something—” he cast about for a polite wording of the problem “—I don’t think you quite know how to do.”
When was this damn plane going to land? She wanted to get out of these close quarters, where she was confined with this man, before she forgot that she was a lady. A very tired, exasperated lady. “Not all of us are lucky enough to have found a way to make a living doing nothing.”
“We’re here,” Sydney announced a little too brightly, hoping to prevent a major flare-up.
“Great,” Lily growled.
The sooner she was away from the know-it-all sheriff, the better. What were Alison and Jimmy thinking, sending him to accompany her? She would have sooner ridden in a cage with a boxful of tarantulas. They might have been hairier, but they would have certainly been better company. And a hell of a lot less judgmental.
The landing that came several minutes later was almost flawless, but Lily could still feel her stomach churn as the wheels touched down. The second they came to a stop, she began unbuckling her seat belt. It wouldn’t give.
It figured, she thought grudgingly as she heard Sydney disembark. Frustrated, she tugged on the belt, trying to disengage the two halves.
Lily looked up to see that the know-it-all with the liquid-green eyes had not only gotten off the plane, but had rounded the rear and come to her side. To add insult to injury, he was looking down at the belt that refused to come undone.
“I can manage,” she snapped.
For a second, Max debated standing back and letting her continue to struggle. But then his training got the best of him. Being a sheriff meant taking the good with the bad. This part was obviously the bad.
“Why don’t you stop being superwoman and let someone help you once in a while?” Not waiting for an answer, Max moved her hands aside and took over.
She was about to swat his hands away, but her desire to get free overrode her desire to put him in his place. “Ever hear about giving someone an inch and they take a mile?”
He raised his eyes to hers and, for a moment, managed to stop the very air around them. “I don’t want a mile, Lily. I don’t even want the inch.” The belt snapped apart. “There, you’re free.”
Why the air had managed to lodge itself in her lungs when he’d raised his eyes to hers just then, she had no idea.
Maybe she was a little unstable from the flight, she thought, her head slightly foggy.
“Yes,” Lily heard herself saying, “I am.”
As she reached for the side of the cabin, to brace herself before she took that first long step down, she felt his wide hands on her waist, his tanned, strong fingers registering one by one. The next moment, he was swinging her out of the plane and her feet were touching the ground.
It was hard working her tongue around the cotton in her mouth. “Thanks.”
He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat by way of acknowledgment. “Don’t mention it.” Glancing at Sydney, he said, “She’s all yours,” with what sounded like unadulterated humor and relief.
And with that, he turned and walked away.
Lily wished that she’d come in winter instead. That way, there would have been snow on the ground and she could have made a snowball. Throwing one at his head would have made her feel a whole lot better.
Lily turned back to look at Sydney. “Is he always this charming?”
Sydney smiled, taking out the single suitcase that Lily had brought with her. Funny, she would have pegged the woman for someone who packed a minimum of two suitcases just to go away for the weekend. Just showed you could never tell.
She glanced at Max’s retreating back. “Pretty much.”
Lily took the suitcase from her. “I was being facetious.”
“I know.” Sydney’s grin grew wider. “I wasn’t.”
She led the way to her sports utility vehicle, which stood waiting for them at the end of the small runway. The airstrip was little more than a large clearing, but then, there really wasn’t much need for anything more. Not until there were more airplanes in Hades than just theirs and the one that belonged to Jeb Kellogg, the former grocer’s son.
Sydney opened the door on the driver’s side and reached in for the trunk release. “Well, let’s get you delivered.”
Lily dropped her suitcase in, then came around to the passenger side. “You didn’t lock your car?”
Sydney shook her head. “The only thing we lock our doors against in Hades is the wind, not each other.” Getting in, she put her key into the ignition.
Lily watched the only other vehicle in the area pull away. The word Sheriff was painted on the side of the Jeep in big, bold black letters.
Black suited her mood, as well, and she wasn’t altogether clear as to why. Residue from Allen, she surmised. That, and having to deal with an irritating specimen of manhood just now. “Why did he bother coming at all, I mean, if he was just going to leave like that?”
Sydney noted the way Lily was watching Max drive away. She doubted the woman even realized how interested she looked. Well, Alison’s sister wouldn’t be the first woman, young or old, to get hooked on the town’s sexy sheriff.
Glancing in her rearview mirror for any stray animals darting into the road, Sydney put the vehicle in gear and pulled out. “Because April asked him to.”
So he had indicated. She didn’t like thinking of herself as an assignment, liked his thinking of her as such even less. “Does he always do everything April asks him to?”
“Whenever he can.” A fond smile tugged at Sydney’s lips. Since she’d come to live here five years ago, she had learned quite a bit about the people of the town. Mostly all good. “They’re very close.”
She debated for a moment, then decided that it wouldn’t hurt for Lily to have a few facts at her disposal. It wasn’t as if this was a secret, and it might help her see Max in a better light.
“From what I gather, their mother sort of drifted away into a land all her own after their father just took off one day. April was eleven, Max was ten. June was about seven, I think. Anyway, April tried very hard to be both mother and father to the others, even after her grandmother took them all in. Max feels he owes them both a lot—his grandmother and April.” She spared Lily a glance as she drove into the heart of the town. “He’s sensitive that way.”
Lily watched the car up ahead disappear around the bend and frowned. “He certainly doesn’t strike me as being the sensitive type.”
“That’s just Max’s way. He doesn’t warm up much until he gets to know you. Give him time.”
There wasn’t another soul around anywhere, Lily noted. This place was even more desolate than she’d remembered. No wonder she’d read that they paid people to live here. They certainly couldn’t pay her enough to spend her life in Alaska.
“I don’t intend to be here that long.”
Sydney merely smiled to herself. She’d heard those words before more than once. Had even thought them herself when she’d first arrived. She’d come then to marry the man who had written her such wonderful, glowing letters about the region where he lived. He’d won her heart with his beautiful prose. But when she’d deplaned in Anchorage, after pulling up stakes and packing up her entire life, she’d discovered that her almost-husband had had a change of heart. He’d run off with the woman he’d been trying to get over when he’d written all those letters to her.
It was his brother, Shayne, who’d come to the airport to give her the bad news. Feeling sorry for her, Shayne, who’d been struggling with his own loss at the time because his brother was the only other resident doctor in the area, had offered her temporary lodgings until she could book a flight back to where she’d come from.
It was a lucky thing, she thought, looking back now, that Hades hadn’t had a hotel. Otherwise, she might have very well left without finding her heart. But she’d stayed with Shayne and wound up marrying him. Being jilted by his brother was the best thing that had ever happened to her, she mused.
Life had a funny way of making things work whether or not you were aware of it.
Sydney glanced at the woman beside her. Who knew what the future held for Lily? Both of her siblings had come here, intending to be in Hades for only a short while. Alison had come to earn credits toward her nurse practitioner degree by working in the town’s only clinic. Jimmy had just come to visit Alison. Both had wound up falling in love with natives of Hades and putting down roots here.
“Fate’s kind of funny,” she told Lily, guiding her vehicle carefully along a winding road. “It doesn’t really pay much attention to what you intend so much as what it intends.”
It was all Lily could do to keep from closing her eyes and sighing. Another homily. Did everyone around here sound as if they had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting?
She sincerely hoped that living in this small, isolated Cracker Jack box-size village hadn’t done a number on Alison’s brain or on Jimmy’s.
“I’ve got a life waiting for me back in Seattle. A life and a restaurant,” she added. “I’m just here because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either Alison or Jimmy and I thought it might be time for a visit.”
Lily covertly slanted a look toward Sydney to see if the woman seemed to know anything to the contrary. She didn’t think Alison would have told anyone that she was coming here to get over breaking up with Allen, to somehow make peace with the fact that she had wasted three years of her life on a man who didn’t have the depth of a hand mirror.
Sydney merely nodded politely, allowing the other woman to have her lie and her dignity. She knew exactly why Lily Quintano had suddenly put her extremely busy life on hold and come out here to “the wilderness,” as she knew Lily referred to Hades. It wasn’t an overwhelming need to see her siblings so much as to mend a bruised ego and heart, in that order.
It wasn’t that unusual a reason. Her best friend, Marta, had come for the same one. To get over a man, or, more specifically, to get over what had amounted to a very bad relationship.
This was the place for it, all right. Sydney turned to the right to avoid the rabbit that bounded into the road.
“Sorry. Rabbit,” she explained when Lily made a grab for the dashboard.
They had men of all sizes and shapes to spare in and around Hades, Sydney thought. Even the plainest woman could hope for more than a little ego-soothing attention, and Lily Quintano was far from plain. Her ego should be up and running in no time.
“Family’s important,” Sydney went on to agree. “I didn’t have any when I first came out here. My father had just died and I was totally alone.” She didn’t bother telling Lily what had brought her to this place. That would come later, if the other woman was interested. Right now, she had a feeling it would only bore her. “But I got very lucky. I found a wonderful man and he came equipped with two children.” Whom she couldn’t have loved more if they were her own. They had a daughter of their own now and all three children had equal claims to her heart. “The townspeople became my extended family.”
Definitely Norman Rockwell, Lily thought. She didn’t belong here. She didn’t need solitude, she decided. She needed someplace busy, someplace with noise to fill her head and make her forget everything else until she got over being angry that she had been such an idiot.
“This is a great place to visit—or to stay in,” Sydney was saying as she pulled up to the clinic.
Lily remained where she was, looking around at the area. She’d only been here once before and the compactness of the town still amazed her. There was hardly more than a handful of streets, with buildings haphazardly scattered among them. She tried to picture what daily life would be like here for her brother and sister. Besides boring.
Alison, Lily knew, had always been self-contained, driven by a sincere desire to help others. Until she’d heard about Shayne’s open plea for medical personnel, she’d been considering travelling to a Third World country to work with underprivileged children to earn her practical credits. Lily supposed that living here would almost be considered a luxury in comparison to that.
But Jimmy… Jimmy had been a different story. Her younger brother had always been footloose and fancy free. Jimmy loved the nightlife. He was almost as good at partying as he was at being a cardiac surgeon. How did he, more than Alison, stand living here in this one-horse town?
Sydney had already gotten out of the vehicle and retrieved Lily’s suitcase. She now stood with it in her hand, waiting. Lily didn’t seem to be moving.
“Are you coming?” Was anything wrong? she wondered. “This is where Alison and Jimmy work. They should be all finished with the emergency that kept them from coming to meet your plane in Anchorage. Mrs. Newhaven went into early labor and was hemorrhaging,” she explained with the matter-of-factness of a doctor’s wife who had heard almost everything at least twice. “They had to do an emergency C-section.”
Hardly hearing her, Lily got out of the sports utility vehicle. She shaded her eyes against the almost-blinding sun and looked at the wooden, one-story building with its new roof and brand-new paint job.
This was it, she thought sadly. Jimmy had given up a promising career in Seattle’s Community General to stitch and mend here.
Maybe it was judgmental, but she couldn’t help shaking her head. She wasn’t driven by the thought of accumulating a fortune—none of them were—but they’d all done without as children and each of them knew that money was always a good thing to have, to fall back on when other things blew up in your face.
How could Jimmy hope to ever achieve his full earning potential in a place that was barely the size of a postage stamp? That didn’t even have a hospital, just a clinic? Could he really be happy here, or was he staying because he loved April and she wanted to stay in Hades?
Sydney laid a hand on her shoulder. “Something wrong?”
Coming to life, Lily shook her head. She didn’t believe in sharing feelings with strangers and, despite her smile and her friendly manner, Sydney Kerrigan was a stranger. “No, just thinking.”
And I can guess just what you’re thinking. “It’s bigger than it looks.”
Lily blinked, struggling to pull herself together. “It would have to be.”
Across the street, Max stood by the window in his office. He’d walked in only a couple of minutes ago. The red light on his answering machine had been blinking but for once he’d chosen to ignore it, at least for a few minutes.
He silently watched Sydney take Lily into the clinic. He was surprised the latter wasn’t struggling to ward off a nosebleed. She was certainly holding her head high enough to warrant one.
He supposed that she reminded him a little of the way April had been before she’d left Hades. Maybe even a little of the way she’d been when she’d returned. At first. He’d certainly agree that it took a while for the town’s virtues to sink in.
He bet that Lily Quintano was counting the minutes until she got back to Seattle.
As for him, Max couldn’t see himself living anywhere else.
It amazed him how two sisters could be so different. From all that he could tell, Alison was easygoing and dedicated. Lily was wound as tight as his grandfather’s old pocket watch had been just before the spring had popped out of it.
He couldn’t help wondering what would make Lily’s spring pop out of its setting.
With a shrug, he went back to his desk to play his message and to get back to the work that Alison’s sister found so inconsequential.
“I don’t really want a party,” Lily protested later that afternoon.
Alison had taken the latter part of the day off at Shayne’s insistence and taken her sister to the house she and Jean Luc shared. Jimmy had opted to pop over with them, promising Shayne to be back within the hour.
It looked now as if it might be a little longer than that, but Alison knew Jimmy didn’t want to leave her with her hands full. Even if she did have Luc there with her to lean on. Lily, even in good spirits, could be overwhelming and in her present state she could roll right over everything and everyone in her path.
“I came to get away from everything, remember?” Lily reminded Alison. “Not to be hurled into the middle of it.” The very last thing she wanted was to have to pretend to be having a good time amid all these backwoods people. It was different at Lily’s. She came out of the kitchen periodically to do a little kibitzing, a little glad-handing and a fair amount of smiling, then retreated back to what she knew. Spice racks, soufflé bowls and ovens.
“No hurling, I promise.” Alison raised her hand in a solemn oath.
“It’ll do you good to get out amid people, Lil,” Jimmy told her. “These are our friends.” He pretended to give her a penetrating look, knowing that no one could ever really know what was going on in his sister’s mind. Despite her commando ways, she played things very close to the chest. “What’s the matter, Lil? You always liked being the center of attention before.”
Had he been paying that little attention to her, too? “No, I always liked being in the center of doing things,” she pointed out to her brother. “I don’t like attention for attention’s sake and if I go with you to this Salt Water Taffy place—”
“Salty Dog,” Luc corrected, grinning. He took no offense at the slip, even though he and his cousin, Ike, were co-owners of the saloon, as they were with various others pieces of property in and around Hades. He could see that beneath the bravado his sister-in-law was one unsettled lady.
“Whatever.” Lily flashed what passed as an apologetic look at Luc. She hadn’t meant to insult him, it was just that she thought it was a silly name. The Salty Dog Saloon. Who went to places like that these days? “If I go there with you tonight, I’m going to feel as if I’m on display.”
“You will be,” Jimmy told her, draping his arm around Lily’s thin shoulders. She looked drawn and tired, he thought, not like her old self. Alison had gotten her out here just in time. He wished he was back in Seattle for ten minutes, just long enough to do a number on the no-good bastard who’d made her suffer like this—even though he was relieved that Allen wasn’t going to be part of the family after all. “We don’t have that many new faces. And it’s all in harmless fun.” He gave her a quick one-armed hug. “C’mon, Lil, you’ve got to snap out of this. Allen wasn’t worth it.”
Lily shrugged off his arm, stepping back. She didn’t like attention being brought to her mistake. “No, he wasn’t, but I’m not in anything to snap out of, I just have a little jet lag, that’s all.”
They all knew denial when they heard it, but no one pointed out the obvious.
Still, Alison felt compelled to say, “It wasn’t that long a trip, Lily. Jimmy and I have taken it enough times to know.”
Boxed in, knowing that all three meant well, Lily shrugged helplessly. “All right, I’ll think about it.”
“Good.” Alison took her hand, pulling her to the guest room. “While you’re thinking, get dressed.”
Digging in her heels, literally and otherwise, Lily looked down at her suit. “This isn’t good enough for your friends?”
Alison exchanged looks with Luc. Lily was missing the point. “Nope, it’s too good.” She saw her sister raise a confused brow. “We like our comfort here in Hades. The byword is casual.”
She worked seven days a week at a clip, and dressed the part of a restaurant owner. Casual didn’t exist in her closet.
“Maybe I should have worn a torn pair of jeans,” she said sarcastically.
Luc nodded. “Maybe.”
She flushed, hoping she hadn’t insulted him. She genuinely liked her sister’s husband and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But she didn’t want to mingle with a bunch of sex-starved miners and lumberjacks, either. That wasn’t why she’d come.
She tried to present her case to Luc. “Look, all I want is a quiet evening with my brother and sister and their spouses.”
Knowing that Luc had the heart of a lovable puppy when confronted with a damsel in distress, Alison decided to take over. She tugged on her sister’s hand. “This’ll be fun, Lily. Trust me.”
But Lily wasn’t going to be outmaneuvered. “If it’s all the same to you—”
“Say, Lily,” Jean Luc began genially, moving to her other side. “Since we are throwing this party tonight at the Salty, maybe you could help me out?”
Suspicion padded over on light cat paws. Lily raised one eyebrow. “How?”
“Well, I was thinking of making spareribs for tonight’s menu—” He looked as if he was struggling with the thought. “But, you know, that hasn’t been moving very well lately. Used to be a real crowd pleaser, but not anymore.” He looked to her for help. “I think everyone’s gotten bored with it.”
In Lily’s experience, nothing should remain on a menu indefinitely. And she had a pretty good idea that nothing on Ike and Jean Luc’s menu had changed for the last quarter of a century. Maybe longer.
“You’re probably right. You’ve got to spice things up, never let yourself get predictable. Menus have to change and, even if they remain the same for a while, you change the ingredients. Customers like that. The same, but different.” Her whole demeanor changed. This was her realm and she stepped into it gladly. “What kind of sauce have you been using?”
Luc looked at her innocently. “I’m not sure. Something Ike whipped up.”
She nodded. Klondyke LeBlanc was the driving force behind the partnership. Luc had told her that it was Ike’s vision that had gotten them rolling to begin with, but she had a feeling that the vision was severely limited when it came to things such as food.
“Something with ketchup, water and tomato paste, no doubt,” she said under her breath. “What time is this party?”
There was a sparkle in Lily’s eyes. Luc suppressed his smile. “Eight.”
Lily looked at her watch. “Eight?” That only gave them five hours to get ready. “What are you standing around here for? We need to get started.” Ignoring Alison and Jimmy, she was already hustling Luc toward the front door. “How many people are you expecting?”
He gave her an honest answer. “Hard to say. Probably most of the town’ll show up at one point or other.” All the people of Hades had to hear was the word “party” and they turned out in force.
Lily paused. She was vaguely aware of the fact that the population hovered around five hundred. Doing a quick calculation in her head, she began rattling off ingredients and quantities at him as she tugged him toward the front door again.
Alison knew what Lily could be like once she got going. There was no such thing as “half measure” with her sister. “Wait, Lily, we didn’t invite you here to work.”
“This isn’t work,” Luc told her innocently. “This is pitching in, right, Lily?”
Lost in the list she was making up in her head, Lily hadn’t even heard the question or her sister’s protest. “We’re wasting time, Luc. I’m going to need an extra set of hands to peel onions.”
“Why don’t you go on ahead to the car? I’ll be right there,” he promised, pausing by the door.
Alison crossed to him and rose on her toes. “And here I thought you didn’t have a devious bone in your body.” She brushed a kiss against his lips. “Nice going, Svengali.”
He grinned and winked. “I thought so.” Then, for good measure, he cupped the back of his wife’s head and kissed her in a way that aroused them both.
“Be careful she doesn’t work you to death. She can be rough when she gets going,” Jimmy warned him. “I’m talking about Lily this time,” he added, smirking at Alison.
“Don’t worry,” Luc answered. “I live with Alison. I know what I’m up against.”
With a huff, Alison turned on her heel to find something suitable for her sister to wear tonight. She knew she would have to bring it to the Salty because once Lily got going in the kitchen, only dynamite would dislodge her.
Lily paused. It had to be a hundred and ten degrees in here, she thought, pointing her face toward the small oscillating fan on the wall. Alison had arrived at the Salty a few minutes after she and Luc had forced her to change into a T-shirt and jeans—Alison’s since she hadn’t packed any. Luckily, they were the same size.
Her own curves were a little rounder than her sister’s, so the fit was tight, but sufficient. She knew she would have completely melted if she’d remained in this kitchen wearing the outfit she’d arrived in.
The tight fit chafed now, but she hadn’t been thinking about clothes when she allowed herself to be momentarily sidetracked and redressed. She was thinking about the temperature beneath the huge pot of sauce she was simmering.
The instant she’d walked into the small space that Ike and Luc laughingly called a kitchen, she had commandeered it with the aplomb of not an invading soldier, but a conquering one. The part-time cook that the Salty employed, Isaac, was relegated to finding and preparing vegetables and collecting the various ingredients that Lily just couldn’t work without.
The sauce, complete with submerged spareribs, had been simmering for well on to three hours now.
“Here’s black pepper,” Isaac offered after what had been a prolonged search.
She looked at the small man in mounting exasperation. She’d already learned that the only three ingredients he was aware of were salt, salt and more salt.
“I said cayenne pepper, not black. What is it about the word ‘cayenne’ you don’t understand?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know what cayenne pepper is,” Max suggested, amused. He’d been watching her for the last few minutes. The women was a whirlwind in action.
“Then he should learn or he has no business cooking,” she snapped.
Hot and sweaty, ready to sink her teeth into a meaty argument—or any argument at all—Lily brushed the falling hair out of her eyes and looked up.
Her eyes widened when she saw Max standing in the doorway, scrutinizing her.
Lily wiped the perspiration from her forehead, trying not to feel self-conscious. Damn the Lawman, he would come by just when she looked her worst. The man had to have radar.
“What are you doing here?”
His eyes swept over her in long, studied strokes that she could almost feel.
He took a little longer than usual. Max was accustomed to taking in everything and everyone he encountered. It was a habit learned not so much in his profession, but from living out in the wilderness. There one miscalculation could be deadly, one mistake could be the last. Alaska was a mistress that none could afford to take for granted or to underestimate, even while enjoying her.
A little, maybe, he mused, like the woman in front of him right now.
She looked better, more human, with her hair clipped back haphazardly like that. The crisp suit she’d worn on the plane was gone, as was the pricy red-leather, three-quarter-length coat. He liked the outfit she had on better. The light blue T-shirt with the daisy in the middle and the jeans, both damp with perspiration, molded themselves to her body, sticking even closer than the small size would have warranted.
The suit she’d worn earlier had only hinted at the curves she possessed. The clothes she had on now flaunted them. Max had a hunch she wasn’t even aware of it or how appealing she looked.
Made him rather glad he’d finally given in to Luc’s badgering and agreed to drop by the Salty instead of going with his first inclination, which was to pass. But passing would have meant insulting not only Alison and Jimmy, but Luc and April as well, which in turn would have only insulted more people. That’s how it was in Hades, everyone in town was somehow connected to everyone else. It was a little like taking the bottom orange out of the pile. No matter how isolated you might think that orange was, all the other oranges always came tumbling down at your feet in the blink of an eye.
So he’d allowed himself to have his arm twisted and then, on top of that, he’d let April browbeat him into going into the kitchen to fetch the missing guest of honor, although why one of the others couldn’t do it was beyond him.
Looking at her now, he wasn’t all that sorry he’d been sent.
“I drew the short straw,” he said in answer to the question she’d fired at him. He nodded toward the door that led into the saloon. “They sent me in to get you.”
“‘They’?” It couldn’t have been Jimmy or Alison. They knew better.
“Alison, Jimmy, Luc, April.” He shrugged, wondering how many names she wanted. “‘They.”’ He had to admit the aroma coming from Lily’s general vicinity was tempting. He couldn’t decide if it belonged to her or what she had cooking on the stove. “Everyone’s outside, waiting to meet you.”
He meant the people in the bar. She glanced back at the two giant iron pots she had simmering. Had she made enough?
“How many in an ‘everyone’?”
The question and the tone behind it surprised him. Was she being shy? He wouldn’t have pegged her as that, but then, he supposed bravado was the flip side of shyness. Maybe she had just been putting on a show earlier, though God knew it hadn’t been for his benefit.
He shrugged in answer to her question. “Right now maybe about a hundred and fifty people. That’s about all the Salty can really accommodate at one time.” And even so, they were fairly stuffed in as it was. Made maneuvering around tricky. Max grinned as he considered the thought of her being shy. Shy like a cobra, probably. “Don’t worry, they won’t bite.”
She paused to stir the closest iron pot in front of her, then dipped her ladle in for a taste. Lily blew on the tip of it, then took the tiniest bit on her tongue. Damn it, she was right. It did need cayenne pepper and that mousy little man Luc had left to help her had disappeared on her.
“They’d better,” she informed him, looking around to see where Isaac had gotten to, “after all the trouble I’ve just gone through.”
The din from the saloon was leeching into the kitchen, making it impossible to hear her. Max came closer, tilting his head slightly. “Come again?”
Was he a complete idiot? What did he think she was doing here, wearing an apron and stirring? “The sauce.” She indicated the two giant pots. “Luc said he was going to make spareribs for tonight and he wasn’t happy about the sauce.”
She frowned as she glanced back at the unopened jars of common barbecue sauce that took up two of the pantry shelves. No wonder there wasn’t any room for cayenne pepper. Luc was a terrific guy, one of the few who were, she could readily testify, but his taste buds were tragically plebeian.
She snorted distastefully. “He had a reason not to be happy.”
Max crossed to the counter and picked up one of the jars. He read the label before putting it down again. “What’s wrong with this? I use it myself.”
She looked at him as if he’s just admitted to polishing his boots with bear grease. Without realizing it, she lifted her chin and slanted her eyes as she looked at him.
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
The woman’s tone was nothing if not smug. He had a sudden urge to drain the smugness from her. Instead, he shoved his hands into his pockets and continued regarding her.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
Moving past him, she began to rummage through the pantry herself, hoping to unearth the elusive cayenne pepper—if there was such a thing to be had up here. She’d temporarily forgotten where she was.
She lifted a shoulder carelessly in response to his question and let it fall again. “You don’t exactly strike me as someone with discerning taste.”
Coming closer, Max gave her a long look that made her very aware of the fact that her T-shirt could have been a lot looser. She could almost feel his eyes traveling over her.
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