Excerpt: Once and Always

Excerpt: Once and Always

Contemporary Romance

Chapter One

Day One

Shit. Maisa Burnsey’s heartbeat did a little stumble as the familiar police car halted behind her. She pushed up her chunky black glasses. Every damned time she passed through Coot Lake, Minnesota she got stopped. 

In her rearview mirror she watched the tall trooper climb from the squad car. He sauntered toward her Beetle, loose-hipped and long-legged, as if he had all the time in the world. And like the good guy in a black-and-white western, he wore a stupid cowboy hat.

Maisa snorted softly.

He stopped by her car door, his pelvis framed by her window exactly at eye level, as if he was showing off the bulge of his package.

Not that she was looking.

There was an American flag on the left breast of his padded navy uniform jacket, a metal badge on his right, and below that a name tag that read WEST. One gloved hand rested on a lean hip, behind a holstered gun. His upper face, obscured by mirrored sunglasses and the cowboy hat, was stern and intimidating. His lips, though, were wide and almost soft, the top just a little fuller than the bottom. The man had a mouth that was beautiful enough to make a woman ache just by looking.

Maisa straightened her spine and glared at him. Okay, she could do this.

He twirled his gloved finger to tell her to roll down the window.

She opened it, letting in the freezing January wind. “What?”

He nodded. “Hey, May.”

His voice was deep and gravelly, like he smoked, though she knew for a fact that he didn’t.

Maisa,” she snapped automatically. She wasn’t going to think about the last time he’d called her May. “This is the fourth time you’ve stopped me here.”

“Maybe you should quit speeding.” That beautiful mouth quirked. “Or quit running away.”

“I’m not running away,” she lied, poker-faced.

“Darlin’, you’ve been running away from me since last August.”

Maisa felt her teeth click together. “I’m talking about pulling me over for speeding.”

His wide mouth curved. “I’m not.”

She breathed deeply. Evenly. God damn it, meditation was supposed to make her less angry. “This is entrapment.”

“Now,” he drawled, his small town accent broadening, “I don’t have any fancy un-ee-versity learnin’, but I’m pretty sure entrapment is if I falsely lure you into breaking the law—”

“What do you call a speed trap, then?”

“—which, since I didn’t make you drive well above the speed limit—”

“And that’s ridiculous as well.” She scowled. “The limit’s seventy everywhere else but this stretch of highway.”

He shrugged. “Still fifty-five here.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be. There should be better things for you to do than lie in wait for some poor driver who hasn’t noticed that the speed has gone down so you can pounce.” She stopped to inhale.

He looked at her. “Like what?”

“What?”

“What should I be doing instead?”

She licked her lips. God damn it. Did he have to stand so close? “Doing your job.”

“This is my job.”

“Following me isn’t your job.” She could feel the heat mounting her neck with her anger. Oh, to hell with it. “Speeding isn’t why you stopped me and you know it. You’re harassing me.”

There was a pause as if she’d broken some obscure rule in their game. The wind whipped icy snow against her car, making the vehicle sway.

He didn’t even flinch, steady as a granite monument to male stubbornness.

“That right. You know, you don’t have to take this route every month when you drive up from Minneapolis.” His voice was terribly gentle, and she had a flash of him straight-armed over her, his mouth wet, his voice a gravel whisper as he’d murmured, Like that? And shoved inside of her, quick and hard and confident.

One night. One night last August she’d let him in. It’d been hot and muggy, and her uncle’s cabin hadn’t had any air-conditioning. She’d booked a room at the Coot Lake Inn and then gone to the only bar in town to have a cold beer. Sam had been there, looking way too sexy in faded jeans and a T-shirt so thin she could see the outline of his nipples when the condensation on his beer bottle had dripped on his chest. He’d bought her another beer and flirted and she’d thought, Why not? Why not just one night? So she’d brought him back to her tacky motel room and let him undress her and kiss her and make love to her, and in the morning she’d woken with her heart already beating too fast in panic. She’d dressed without showering, grabbed her bags, and left him there, still asleep on his belly, his wide shoulders bare and erotic in the stark morning light.

It’d been a mistake. One terrible, unforgettable mistake.

She exhaled through her nose, glancing away from him, feeling suddenly sad and vulnerable.

She hated that feeling. “This route is the easiest way to my uncle’s house.”

“Uh-huh.” He didn’t even bother to sound like he believed her, which was just insulting. “And me being the cop on duty most of the time along this stretch of highway has nothing to do with it.”

Yes.” She was going to chip a tooth if she ground down any harder.

“May—”

Maisa. Look, just give me the goddamned ticket and I’ll be on my way.”

She could see him shift his weight from one leg to the other out of the corner of her eye. “Your brake light’s out.”

She swung back. “What?”

He nodded his head at the back of her car. “Right rear.”

Maisa started to crane her neck to look before she realized how silly that was. “Oh. I’ll get it fixed.”

“’Preciate that,” he drawled. Did anyone else drawl in freaking Minnesota? “But I’ll have to cite you in the meantime.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Sam!”

That got a gloved finger sliding his mirrored glasses down just enough to see the flash of his electric blue eyes. “Well now. Glad to hear you remember my name.”

She didn’t give herself time to think, just slipped the knife between his ribs, quick and nasty. “Of course I remember, Sam. It’s not a big deal, you know. You were a good lay, but that’s all you were.”

For a moment everything seemed to still along the stretch of lonely highway. The land was nearly flat here, rolling farmland broken by small clumps of trees. The wind was relentless, blowing across the prairie in winter. In order to survive it those trees had to be tough, hardy, and tenacious.

Maybe tenacious most of all.

Sam sighed and took off his glasses and she thought obscurely that he’d never hide those eyes if he had any idea what the sight of them did to women. He was thirty-three, but he had lines around his eyes as if he’d been squinting into the sun—like Clint Eastwood looking for the bad guys on the open plains. Except Sam had already found the bad guy and was too stupid—or too bullheaded—to know it.

“You practiced that in front of your bathroom mirror, didn’t you,” he said, flat.

Of course she had. No way was she letting him in again. Sam West was just too dangerous to her peace of mind—and heart. “Just give me the ticket.”

He leaned one arm on the car roof just over her head, bending to look at her through the window. The position put his face close enough to hers that she could smell mint on his breath.

She tried not to breathe, refusing to look at him again. If she could just get away, if he’d just let her go, everything would be okay.

She could freehand a dozen dress designs in one night, she could set a dart so perfectly it’d make any woman’s ass look like gold, but she couldn’t deal with the emotions Sam West made her feel.

She. Just. Couldn’t.

“Listen, May,” he said, too near, too damned intimate, “I won’t give you a ticket this time. Just be—”

The sound of a revving engine came from behind them on the highway.

Sam looked up.

“Fuck,” he murmured, and in one graceful movement vaulted onto the hood of her car. He slid spectacularly across the surface on one hip, just as a little red car tore past, so close it rocked the Beetle in its wake. The red car’s taillights flashed as it braked for the curve, tires squealing. But the car just kept going straight. It slapped into the packed snow at the outer curve, climbing the embankment, nose skyward, engine squealing before suddenly cutting.

In the silent aftermath Maisa stared, open-mouthed with shock.

Then she remembered Sam. He was no longer on the hood of her car. She couldn’t see him anywhere. Panic crowded her chest as she began battling the car door handle.

Oh, God, oh, God, please don’t let him be hurt.


Chapter Two

Sam lay flat on his back in freezing snow, watching snowflakes sail down to land in his eyelashes.

A scowling, feminine face inserted itself into his vision. Maisa Burnsey had a sharp little chin and nose, delicately curved lips, and big brown eyes behind those ugly black glasses. She kept her fine, black hair cut very short. The style made her look kind of innocent and girlish at first glance, which was about as far from the truth as could be. She wore a shiny black down jacket and black spike-heeled boots, her hair mostly hidden under a beret—black, natch—pulled jauntily down over one eyebrow. He’d dreamed of her face on lonely nights in his cabin.

Generally in his dreams she’d worn a much more welcoming expression.

“What are you doing?” May asked. Demanded, really. The woman would never win any awards for her sweet personality.

“Breathing.” He sat up gingerly.

“You shouldn’t do that,” she said, her hands spread and hovering as if she wanted to touch him but was afraid to.

Which was pretty much the problem with their entire relationship.

“Breathe?”

She scowled harder, stamping lines between her eyebrows. The look made him want to put his tongue in her mouth until she forgot to frown. “Get up.”

“I’m fine.” He keyed his shoulder radio, contacting the Coot Lake police dispatcher. “Hey, Becky.”

“Yeah?” Becky Soderholm was in her midfifties and had run Coot Lake’s police station since anyone could remember. Probably she’d started in diapers.

“Got a speeder, possible wreck up on 52 just past the 101 mile marker,” Sam said. “Damn fool nearly ran me down.”

“You’re not hurt, are you Sam?” Becky’s voice was full on exasperated. “‘Cause you know Dylan’s off today and Tick is still up at his aunt’s in Fergus. Not expected back until tomorrow.”

“Nope, just got the wind knocked out of me.” Sam stood and shook the snow off his jacket. His right shoulder and hip ached like hell, but he made an effort not to limp. Male pride and all. He took May’s arm, ignoring her squawk, and helped her up the bank back to the road. “But I may need an ambulance and a wrecker, depending.”

“Depending on what?” Becky snapped.

“If the driver’s still alive.” They’d reached the highway now. He could see the red compact. It had climbed the hardened mound of snow left by the plows on the opposite side of the highway. The compact’s little nose pointed forlornly at the darkening clouds.

Behind him, May muttered under her breath.

A corner of his mouth kicked up. She sounded pissed.

“Get in your car.” He said without turning. A semi rocketed by, making the snow whip around his legs. “You can turn on the heat, but don’t go anywhere.”

“Who’re you talking to?” Becky demanded.

“Maisa Burnsey,” Sam said as he jogged across the highway.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sam,” Becky hissed. “How many times are you going to pull that woman over before you give up?”

“Dunno.” Sam reached the compact. “Just a sec.”

He could hear Becky’s impatient grunt by his ear, but he was more concerned with the compact’s driver’s door opening.

“Don’t move, sir.”

But the driver wasn’t listening. A short, dumpy guy in a bright red windbreaker too thin for the weather tumbled out of the car. He slid on the snow before catching himself with an outstretched hand on the car. He was in his early sixties. His thinning gray hair was slicked straight back from a pasty, soft face that looked like it’d never seen sunlight. Square glasses sat crookedly over an overlarge nose. He had an abrasion on his left cheek and powder from the airbag on his face and chest. Otherwise he seemed fine. ’Course, looks could be deceiving in a crash victim.

“Whoa, there.” Sam placed a hand on the guy’s upper arm. “Becky, that’s an affirmative on the ambulance and we’ll need a wrecker, too.”

“No ambulance!” The man’s voice was high with a distinct accent. “I do not need an ambulance, you imbecile.”

Sam raised an eyebrow, but kept his voice even and calm. “You might have internal injuries.”

“No.” The guy suddenly clutched at his heart, which didn’t exactly make his case, and sat back down on the tilted driver’s seat. “Do I?”

“I don’t know. That’s why—”

Imbecile Man got up suddenly and staggered to the red compact’s back. His windbreaker nearly matched the color of the car.

“Sir,” Sam said. “I’d appreciate it if you could sit down until we can get you some help.”

The guy was crouched awkwardly, struggling with the trunk.

The radio on his shoulder crackled. “Sam, we’ve got at least an hour’s wait on that ambulance,” Becky said. “And a God-only-knows on the wrecker. Cars in ditches everywhere, looks like.”

Sam keyed the mike. “Okay. I’ll take him in myself. And the wrecker can wait until tomorrow, I guess.”

“No!” The guy turned so quickly he nearly toppled into the snow. He’d worked his way back around to the driver-side door. “You do not understand! I need…I need to get this car to drive.” He leaned in to pull something and the trunk popped open.

Sam looked at the compact. It was a Hyundai, maybe an Elantra, with rental license plates. Even if the little car were horizontal, the front bumper was ripped off, the left front corner was crumpled, and that wheel was leaning in as if the axle might be broke.

“Yeah, about that,” Sam said. “I don’t think you’re going anywhere anytime soon.”

The guy looked around wildly. A few strands of his sparse hair were standing on end, waving gently in the wind. He was making an odd sound—kind of a whining moan under his breath. Must need to go somewhere quick.

Sam narrowed his eyes. “Let me see your license.”

A clear sneer began on imbecile man’s lips before he suddenly switched tactics. He smiled, revealing stained teeth and said with a pronounced accent, “No problem! No problem, Officer! I shall just go on my way, yes?”

Sam didn’t bother replying to that. Just held out his hand and wriggled his fingers.

The guy sighed in defeat and fumbled a wallet out of his pocket. He gave Sam a laminated card.

Sam took it, his brows rising when he saw the State of Nevada emblem. “Long way from home, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“Ilya Kasyanov, that right?” Sam waited until Kasyanov nodded. There was something off about the guy—even taking into account that he’d just been in a wreck. “If you won’t accept an ambulance, sir, then I can take you into town. Maybe set you up at the Coot Lake Inn.”

“Coot Lake?” Kasyanov perked up. “This is Coot Lake?”

Sam raised his eyebrows. Most out-of-towners weren’t too thrilled by—or had ever heard of—Coot Lake. It was a small, northwestern Minnesota town and the Crow County seat. Fergus Falls lay a bit to the north and west; Alexandria, a bit to the south; but neither were in Crow County. In winter, Coot Lake had about four thousand residents, give or take. In summer, the population doubled with the onslaught of summer folk heading to their lake cabins. 

But in any case, Coot Lake wasn’t exactly on the way to anywhere. “Just outside. How about you get into my squad car and I’ll run you into town. That is, if you still don’t want to go to the hospital?”

“No.” The guy immediately shook his head. “No hospital.”

He scrambled to the back of the Hyundai’s open trunk. There was a black suitcase inside, one of those compact things people took on airplanes.

Sam stepped forward. “Here.”

He started to reach inside, but the guy squeaked and grabbed the handle. “Is okay.”

“I can see that,” Sam said, easy. “Let me help you.” He took the guy’s elbow, despite the man’s instinctive jerk away.

“He needs an ambulance,” came a cranky female voice behind them.

Sam turned to look at May. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose had pinkened in the cold, and he wished he could touch her. Just one more time.

She’d been leaning over his shoulder but jerked back and scowled at his movement. “Or something. What?”

“Thought I told you to go to your car,” he said mildly.

“It won’t start.”

“Shit.” Sam glanced at the little black Beetle. “Okay. Let me take a look at it.”

Her eyebrows winged up her forehead. “Gosh, do you think your testosterone will make it go?”

“Behave, May.” Sam guided Kasyanov across the highway and to his squad car.

May trotted behind. “No, really, I bet that’s why it wouldn’t start for me. Too much estrogen.”

The wind was picking up, driving darts of snow into Sam’s face. He opened the back door to the squad car and settled Kasyanov in it—sitting bolt upright, clutching his suitcase—and then turned to May, standing between him and her Beetle.

She waved her arms over her head. “Probably you’ll just have to squint at my car, all manly and stuff, and vrooom!

He looked at her patiently. “Do you mind?”

She dropped her arms. “What?”

He took a step, bringing their bodies so close together her pink little nose nearly brushed his chest.

She tilted up her chin.

He leaned down until he could smell that sweet scent she wore. Until he could watch her pupils expand and the flush spread up her cheeks. Until he could almost taste the salt on her lips. “Do you want me to try your car. Or not.”

He watched the soft skin of her throat move as she swallowed. “Okay.”

She held out her keys.

“Coward.” Sam took them and stepped around her, careful not to brush against her body.

“Hey!”

He ignored her, walked to the Beetle, and pulled open the door, leaning down to push back the driver’s side seat all the way before sitting and inserting the key into the ignition.

Three minutes later he shook his head. “It’s not even turning over. Probably your starter. You’re going to need that looked at.”

May huffed from outside the car. She hadn’t sat down beside him, as if she’d thought it was best to keep her distance. “Like I couldn’t figure that out for myself.”

At least she was smart enough not to mention his hormones—or hers—again.

He got out and locked the Beetle before handing the keys to her. “I’ll give you a lift and send a wrecker back out, but Becky says they’re backed up. It may be tomorrow or later before they can get your car in to the garage in town.”

May frowned down at her keys. “I don’t have too much choice, do I?”

“Not really.” He turned to walk to his squad car and then realized she wasn’t following. “Well?”

She opened her mouth as if to argue.

He raised his brows.

She snapped her mouth close and pivoted to make her way to her Beetle. Sam strolled behind her, watching as she opened her passenger car door to retrieve her purse before stomping to the trunk of the Beetle. He was right behind her when she opened it. He grabbed her suitcase and the smaller, black case with a handle sitting beside it before she could. The smaller case was surprisingly heavy.

She huffed. “I can carry that.”

“Yup.” He weighed the smaller case. “What’s in this?”

“None of your business,” she snapped.

He gave her a look, then turned and led the way back to his squad car, toting her bags. Everyone seemed to have one of these black roll-aboard suitcases but him. Must mean he didn’t do much airplane travel—at least not anymore. Not since giving up his former career in the army. 

He pushed that thought aside as he put May’s suitcases in the trunk, and then helped May into the front seat.

Sam opened the backseat door and looked at Kasyanov. If the car skidded at all, that suitcase was going to break the man’s nose. “Better let me stow your case in the trunk. Safer.”

He expected an argument, but Kasyanov bit his lip and released his death grip on the suitcase.

Sam stuck it in the trunk next to May’s and slammed the lid shut before getting in the squad car. He checked over his shoulder and then pulled onto 52 carefully. Even with the wind the snow was beginning to pile up, and he didn’t want to spin out as well.

“Your uncle’s?” he asked May without looking at her. She made the trip up from the cities every couple of weeks or so to stay for the weekend with her uncle, George Johnson. They’d first met on this very stretch of highway when he’d pulled her over for speeding. That’d been almost two years ago.

A lot had happened since then.

“You know that’s where I always stay,” she said.

He shrugged one shoulder. “You were at the Coot Lake Inn in August.”

She blushed at the memory, and Sam felt himself getting hot in an entirely different area. “He doesn’t have any air conditioning. I was going to melt if I didn’t get a motel room.”

Sam decided it wasn’t in his best interest to pursue that line. “Staying long?”

“Through the weekend.”

He signaled and turned onto County D. “Then you might like dinner tonight.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Nope.”

He felt a muscle in his jaw tense. Why did she have to make it so hard? “You sure? Marie’s put Rocky Mountain oysters on the menu at the Laughing Loon Café, special. Thought that’d be right up your alley.” He glanced at her. “Being a ball buster and all.”

She inhaled. “Well, you thought wrong.”

And the damnedest thing was that the little hint of hurt in her voice made him want to gather her close and tell her he didn’t mean it, not really.

Six months she’d been running away from him, throwing insults and withering scorn like grenades in her wake, and for some reason he couldn’t give up the chase. He’d begun to think he was getting off on her cutting words—which was disturbing as hell.

And cutting words were all he’d received these last months.

Before that, though, there’d been that night. One night only. That night she’d whispered words that hadn’t left bruises on his skin. Her body had been open and warm and soft beneath his, and she had seemed—this sounded silly, even in his own mind—but she had seemed like home.

He’d been chasing that warm home ever since.

“The turn’s here,” she said, gesturing to the sign for Pelican Road, as bossy as ever.

“Yup.” He didn’t bother pointing out that he knew where Old George lived. He signaled and turned on Pelican, then slowed, driving carefully. Off the highway and with brush along the road as a windbreak, the snow was beginning to pile up.

Pelican Road ran around the sound side of Lake Moosehead, the bigger of the two lakes bracketing the town. Coot Lake was the smaller lake, but had better fishing, though the entire north half of the lake was in the Red Earth Ojibwa Indian Reservation and was marked off with white buoys. In summer, you could catch a mess of sunnies in a morning’s fishing on either lake, a walleye if you were lucky.

Beside him, May shifted, and he smelled it—whatever flower scent she used. Maybe just her shampoo, because it wasn’t strong, just there. Lingering in the heated car. Making him think of August humidity and the damp skin between her breasts.

The squad car was heavy with silence, broken only by Kasyanov, breathing through his mouth.

“There it is,” May murmured quietly, as if she felt it, too.

Sam pulled into the drive of a low, red-stained cabin. On the other side of Lake Moosehead new multi-million-dollar “cabins” had been going up for the last twenty years. This side of the lake, though, was weedy with no beach—artificial or otherwise—which meant the cabins were mostly from the forties and fifties. No a/c in summer, and sketchily retrofitted plumbing and heat.

Sam killed the engine and watched the cabin. The lights were out.

“He even home?”

“Yes, of course.” She was already struggling with her seatbelt. “There’s no need to get out. Just pop the trunk and I’ll grab my stuff.”

“I can carry them in for you.”

“No.”

“May—”

“It’s okay.”

Her glare was so fierce that he raised his hands. “Fine.”

“Just leave it.” For a moment some emotion crossed her face, something more vulnerable than her generally warlike expression.

He ignored the mouth-breathing from the backseat. “You know I’m not going to do that.”

Any softness in May’s expression was gone so quickly he almost thought he’d imagined it. She shook her head once, and then she was out the car door.

He watched in the rearview mirror as she tramped around to the back of the squad car and retrieved her suitcase and the little black case. She carried them to the cabin and set the cases down before knocking on the front door.

There was a moment’s pause, then the door opened and she disappeared inside without a glance backward.

Not that he’d been expecting one.

“Sir?” Kasyanov cleared his throat nervously. “Sir, perhaps we go now?”

“Yeah.” Sam put the squad car into reverse. He glanced at Kasyanov as he looked over his shoulder to back from the drive. “Next stop, Coot Lake Inn.”


Chapter Three

Maisa shut her eyes, leaning for a second against the inside of the cabin door, just taking a breath. One frigging mistake half a year ago, and for some reason she just couldn’t get past it. Every time she saw Sam it seemed to reopen the wound—made it ooze blood and impossible longing. She swallowed. Just get over it, damn it!

Maisa straightened, readying herself for the inevitable grilling from Uncle George.

Except when she opened her eyes the old man was half turned away from her, didn’t seem to’ve even noticed her bizarre entrance at all.

Something was wrong.

It wasn’t anything that someone else might’ve noticed, but Maisa had been studying her dyadya since she was a very little girl. She knew when he had a certain squint that he wasn’t pleased, that when the right corner of his mouth kicked up he was amused, and when he was tense or nervous his shoulders raised a little and stiffened.

As they were now.

Then, too, there was the cigarette dangling from his lips.

She inhaled as her spine snapped upright.

“I thought you’d quit.” She plucked the cigarette out of his mouth as she stomped past him.

“It was only the one, little mama,” he said behind her.

“Only one?” She looked pointedly at the cheap glass ashtray beside his big LazyBoy. The ashtray sat on an old metal folding TV table and overflowed with butts and ash. She stubbed out the cigarette she’d taken from him.

The old man shrugged. “Maybe more than one.”

He was a tall man, her great-uncle, but in the last couple of years as he’d entered his seventies, his shoulders had begun to stoop and he had a little sloping belly now. His iron-gray hair was as full as ever, though. Dyadya combed it straight back into a pompadour and used pomade to keep it in place. His ears were overlarge for his head, and his eyes drooped down at the corners. Deep wrinkles had imprinted themselves on his weathered face so that he looked like he was perpetually in mourning.

Those sad eyes watched her now without any welcome.

She scanned the main room but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The recliner sat directly in front of the TV, the pink velour worn thin by Dyadya’s butt and head. The little kitchen table behind it was piled with old mail and a bowl full of red apples. There was no place to actually sit and eat at the table, which wasn’t a problem since Dyadya did most of his dining in the recliner. On the TV table, beside the ashtray, a newer laptop sat with a glowing screen. Over by the simple redbrick fireplace there was a cheap particleboard bookshelf crammed to overflowing with paperbacks. Most were in Russian, but a few American thrillers sat there as well. And on the wall, high up near the ceiling, was the single framed picture: a black-and-white photo of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The kind that could be bought for a few rubles in any tourist shop in Moscow.

She looked back at Dyadya. “You forgot I was coming.”

“I was not expecting you today.” He shrugged, not quite an admission.

“I told you two weeks ago that I was coming up this weekend. It’s not my fault you don’t keep a calendar.” She dropped her cases by the green plaid love seat sitting at an angle to the recliner. She shrugged off her jacket and pulled off her beret, letting them fall to the love seat.

“Phtt.” Dyadya waved his hand like he was batting a fly. “And who keeps a calendar, I ask you.”

“Me, for one.”

A faint smile curled Dyadya’s wide mouth. “Ah, but you are a woman of business, Masha, mine. I am but an old man. What use is the keeping of time for a man in his last years?”

Maisa’s eyes narrowed. Generally Dyadya was pretty pragmatic—not one to bemoan his age. Was there truly a problem with his health? Had his memory begun to go?

She swallowed and crossed to the kitchen. “Well, since you weren’t expecting me, do you have anything for supper? My Beetle stalled out on 52, and apparently it’ll be tomorrow before it can be towed and looked at. I’ll have to take your pickup into town if you need groceries.”

Dyadya was trailing her. “But how did you get to my cabin, then?”

She tensed a little, but didn’t turn around. “Sam West gave me a lift in his squad car.”

“Did he.” His voice sharpened.

A battered soup pot was simmering on the stove. She lifted the lid to distract him.

“You are lucky.” Dyadya was at her elbow as she inhaled the fragrant steam. “Borscht. I started it this morning and I think it will be just right for you and me in an hour or so.”

“Good.” This time Maisa didn’t have to fake the smile—she’d loved borscht since childhood, when Dyadya would make it on cold winter days.

She glanced at the frosted kitchen window. This certainly counted.

“You need to get some insulation on the windows in here.” She followed Dyadya back into the living room. He rolled as he walked, a man who had been muscular in his youth and still had the long ropy arms of a wrestler. He settled into his recliner and she took the love seat.

Dyadya pulled out his cell phone from his breast pocket and looked at it before putting it away again. “And how was Samuel West?”

“Fine.” Maisa shrugged, brushing a bit of lint off her black jeans.

“That is all you can say?” Dyadya tutted. “He is a good man, that West. You could do worse, my Masha.”

Good.” The word tasted bitter on her tongue—like a mouthful of regret. “He’s a cop.”

“And so?”

And so you know the problem with that.” She arched her brows at him pointedly. “Do you want me to end up like Mom?”

“Your mother, she was always a romantic.” Dyadya said. “And your father—you should pardon my words—is a durak.”

“He’s an idiot and an asshole,” Maisa corrected.

She hadn’t seen Jonathan Burnsey since the day in the second grade when he’d walked out on his family. And because he’d never married Irina Nozadze—even though Mama had put his surname on her birth certificate—there was no divorce and no settlement. Mama should’ve taken the bastard to court for child support, but Irina Nozadze was a timid, emotionally fragile woman. She’d simply been too frightened to challenge an up-and-coming assistant city attorney for Minneapolis. As a result they’d never had any sort of support—financial or otherwise—from Jonathan. Maisa had taken care of her mother in middle school and high school and had put herself through college, working nights and on the weekends.

Jonathan had been a good guy, too—a man who prosecuted criminals for a living. It was precisely because he’d been on the side of good and the law that he’d left her mother. The Nozadze family was most definitely not law-abiding. His association with her mother might have been detrimental to his all-important career.

“Samuel West is not the same as your papa,” Dyadya said gently.

“He’s a cop and a good man. You said it yourself.” Maisa pursed her lips. “He’s close enough.”

Dyadya picked up the TV remote, fingering it as his brows knit. “You have grown hard, my Masha. I do not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”

“Maybe it’s neither.” Dyadya’s troubled tone made her chest hurt, but on this she could not waver. Sam came too close to the steel walls guarding her heart. He was much too dangerous to the woman she’d made of herself. “Maybe it just is.”

“Perhaps this is so.” Dyadya said. “And your mother? How is my niece?”

The change of subject was a relief. She ran her fingers through her pixie cut, ruffling her fine hair, which had been flattened by the beret. “She’s dating some guy she met down at the grocery.”

“You don’t like him.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know him, really. He seems all right—better than the car salesman she was dating last summer—but it doesn’t matter, does it? He’ll leave her in another couple of months, or she’ll see someone else she likes better.”

Dyadya grunted noncommittally. “And your father?”

Maisa raised her eyebrows. “You know we don’t see him. Why do you ask?”

“As a man grows older, sometimes he regrets decisions he made in his youth.” Dyadya smoothed his thumb over the edge of the remote where the paint had been worn away from use. The thumbnail was missing on that hand—the right—as was most of his forefinger. “I wondered if your father had discovered that yet.”

“No.” Maisa’s voice was very firm. “And he never will.”

“Perhaps.” Dyadya tapped the remote against his knee. “Perhaps not.”

“You’re brooding. What’s happened?”

“Nothing, Masha mine,” the old man said. “Nothing at all.” He tossed the remote into a basket that held old catalogs beside his chair. “But tell me. How is your business? Are you making good money?”

She raised an eyebrow at the unsubtle change of subject. “I’m getting there, Dyadya. I’m planning on a professionally designed website by summer and then I’ll be able to set up mail order.”

He frowned as if he were about to continue his line of questioning and she hastily added,  “I brought up Butch to do some work this weekend.” She patted the small hard-sided case she’d placed beside her on the love seat. Inside was her favorite portable sewing machine, affectionately nicknamed “Butch” since the moment her mother had paid $2.50 for it at a yard sale.

“I do not understand why you needed four years of college for this.” Dyadya pushed his lips out. In Russia seamstresses had been ill-paid laborers and Maisa’d had trouble convincing him there was a difference between a seamstress and a dress designer who hand-made her creations. Probably it didn’t help that she was still working hard to break into the business of made-to-order dresses. “But it is good you like your work.”

“You’d prefer I went into the family business?” She gave him an ironic look as she rose.

“No. Do not jest over such a thing.” He shook his head slowly like a lugubrious basset hound. “It is very well you never followed my path, as you yourself know.”

“I suppose,” she conceded, just to get him off the subject. “Here, let me show you what I brought.”

Dyadya leaned forward in his recliner as she set the black roll-aboard at his feet. There’d been a sale at Macy’s just last week, and when she’d seen the thick wool cardigans she’d thought of Dyadya. He was always complaining that he couldn’t find warm enough sweaters for winter.

Maisa unzipped the lid of the suitcase and opened it with a flourish.

But when she looked down, instead of seeing a hand-knit Irish fisherman’s sweater, she found a tangle of strange clothes.

“What—?” She wrinkled her nose as she lifted out an enormous pair of white men’s briefs. They were high-waisted and had a hole near the waistband. “This isn’t mine.”

“And I think this, too, is not yours,” Dyadya said quietly. He picked up a ziplock bag from the suitcase.

Maisa squinted at it. There were small pink sparkly things in the bag. “Costume crystals?”

Dyadya brought the bag close to his face and peered at the pink stones. They were in the shapes of little hearts. “Costume. This means fake, yes?”

“Yeah.”

Maisa watched, bewildered, as her uncle got up abruptly and went into the kitchen. She heard drawers being pulled open and the sound of rummaging and then Dyadya returned with a jeweler’s loupe in one hand and the ziplock bag in the other.

He sat down again and opened the bag, taking out one of the pink gems.

Maisa sat forward. “What—?”

“Hush,” he murmured and screwed the loupe into his right eye. Behind Dyadya’s recliner was a floor lamp with a swivel head. Dyadya pulled the light close, turned it on, and held the gem between thumb and forefinger, squinting.

He put down the first gem and chose another, peering at it.

By the fifth gem Maisa had lost all patience. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or do I just have to sit here and guess?”

“Patience, my Masha,” Dyadya said calmly as he selected another stone.

“Dyadya!”

He looked up at that, sighed, and took off the loupe. “They are most certainly not costume, these.”

She looked between his worried face and the little bag of pink jewels. “Not costume. Then you’re saying they’re—”

“—diamonds,” Dyadya said succinctly. “Perfectly matched pink diamonds of a clarity and color as I have never seen before. These diamonds came from the same mine, I think. And what is more, they have been carved into the shape of a heart, each one.” He shook his head, absently picking up a stone to fondle it. “Such a method is extremely wasteful of the stone, thus making it extremely expensive.”

“But if they’re diamonds…” Maisa blinked, still not completely believing. “Then they must be worth—”

“—millions of dollars,” Dyadya said. “I am guessing, but maybe three million.”

“Three. Million. Dollars?” Maisa squeaked.

Da.” Dyadya nodded thoughtfully. “Someone, I think, is missing this suitcase very badly right now.”


Chapter Four

Karl Karlson looked up at the Coot Lake Inn sign. It was the kind that had press-on black letters, some of which had fallen, so the sign read:

OOT LA E I
ee cable & a/ !

Probably the lack of “c” wasn’t bothering any potential customers, seeing as it was about seven below at the moment. He slammed the door to his extended-cab pickup and hefted his black suitcase, thumping the back of the truck as he passed. A chorus of cheerful barking answered the thump.

Karl smiled as he opened the door to the tiny Coot Lake Inn lobby.

Norm Blomgren, the Coot Lake Inn proprietor, did not.

No,” Norm shouted when he looked up and saw Karl. Norm was a hefty guy, and his shout was kind of forceful, so he staggered back a bit behind the laminate check-in counter, his belly jiggling and his face drawn into an expression that, if Karl didn’t know better, he’d mistake for dismay.

Luckily Karl did know better. “Hey, Norm. Long time no see.”

He took off his fogged glasses and wiped them on the front of his shirt.

“Not long enough,” Norm muttered, because he was a joker, that Norm.

“Say,” Karl said, casual-like, as he dropped his suitcase by his feet and leaned on the counter. “You don’t happen—”

“No.”

“—to have a room for—”

No!

“—maybe a night or two?”

Norm narrowed his eyes, which, what with his heavy, red cheeks, wasn’t such a good look for him. He kind of resembled a horrified hog catching his first sight of the slaughterhouse. Karl didn’t tell Norm that, of course, because Karl was a kind person and a good friend besides.

He did crinkle his brow a little to let Norm know that he was kinda taken aback by the proceedings thus far. “Hey, how’s the tile in those bathrooms I fixed up for you? They sure looked good when I finished, didn’t they?”

“That was last summer,” Norm said, jutting his chin out. Now he looked like a hostile horrified hog. “And I paid you for that work. And let you stay here on the house while you did it. And you mooched off my kitchen!”

Well, that just hurt. Karl let Norm know this because communication was important in any relationship, even between bros. He’d read that in a Cosmo in the checkout line at Mack’s Speedy, right under the article about “5 Moves Your Man Will Never Expect,” which had been quite illuminating. “Hey, that hurts, Norm. I shared my chili—”

“God-awful farting—”

“—every night while—”

“Stole those tomatoes—”

“—I was working on those baths—”

“—right out of my garden—”

“—and it was tasty, too.” Karl finished triumphantly, because he was on pretty firm ground here. No one made chili as good as his. “Hey, I could cook for you again while I’m here. You still got that half a pig you bought from Al? ’Cause I make an awesome pulled pork. Secret recipe handed down from my great-grandfather.”

Norm looked suspicious. “Your great-grandfather made pulled pork on the reservation?”

Karl drew himself up. “Pulled pork is a proud Ojibwa tradition. We taught it to you white folk, you know.”

“That’s what you said about hacky sack when we played it in junior high.”

“My great-great-grandfather’s hacky sack ball,” Karl began patiently, because sometimes Norm didn’t understand the finer points of Ojibwa history.

The office door blowing open interrupted him.

Sam West strolled in, stomping snow from his Sorels. He had an older guy with him, sort of short and tubby with a nervous, unhealthy face behind crooked glasses. Sam held a black suitcase in one hand. He had the other on the guy’s elbow. It was just resting there, but Karl knew Sam’s grip was strong due to a misunderstanding some years back involving a sweet yellow Corvette, a case of Budweiser, and three live ducks. Doubtful if Tubby Guy could break away.

Not that he was trying. No, he was staring around Norm’s little check-in office like he expected killer ninjas to jump out from behind Norm’s one fake potted plant.

“Norm,” Sam said, putting down the suitcase. He took off his hat, hitting it against his jeans to knock the snow off it, and jerked his chin at Karl. “Hey, Karl.”

“Hey, Sam.” Karl carefully did not look down at his own black suitcase. Nope. He’d learned that kind of tell could send an eagle-eyed lawman like Sam into an investigative frenzy, which might be very awkward given the contents of said suitcase. Instead, Karl settled in more comfortably at the counter. This looked like it might be interesting, and it wasn’t like his conversation with Norm had been headed in a positive direction. “Who’s this?”

Sam smiled slow and amicable, but Karl knew that smile and knew Sam wasn’t completely relaxed in the stranger’s presence. “This is Ilya Kasyanov, who just went into a snow bank up on Highway 52.”

“Oh, man.” Karl shook his head in sympathy. “I’ve done that before.”

“And not even in winter,” Sam drawled.

Karl ignored that. “Ilya? Hey, are you Russian? ’Cause—”

But at that point Sam tripped over his own feet or something and drove his elbow into Karl’s side, knocking over the two suitcases in the process.

“Oof,” said Karl, wondering if he still had intact ribs. “What—?”

Sam gave him a glare so scary that Karl immediately got the point: Ixnay on the Ussianray.

“Sorry,” Sam said, not looking sorry at all. He righted the suitcases, and then turned to Norm. “Do you have a room for Ilya here tonight?”

Norm brightened. Fact was, even though the Coot Lake Inn was the only motel in town, it didn’t do a whole lot of business, despite Karl’s awesome improvements to the bathrooms in numbers 21, 23, 25, and 9.

“Yup,” Norm said, busily setting out the paper registration form and a pen. “Got a nice one out front. Has a bathroom just renovated, too.”

“Purple and black tile,” Karl put in to help. “Custom work.”

“Okay, yeah,” Ilya said, and there was a faint but pretty distinct Russian accent there, if Karl knew his non–Coot Lake, non-Ojibwa reservation accents. And he did. “I’ll take the room.” He pronounced room as “rhoooom,” like he was gargling a bunch of extra consonants and vowels  at the back of his throat. “But only for one night, yes? I leave in morning, quick.”

Sam lifted an eyebrow, which was kind of a neat trick that Karl had once spent an entire afternoon trying to do in a mirror, sadly without success. “Blizzard’s only going to get worse. Might think about staying a couple of days.”

Kasyanov looked alarmed, his sad-dog eyes widening. “But…but my car must be fixed. I pay well.”

“Sure, you can pay well and your car might be fixed,” Sam said easily, “but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to drive on two feet of snow.”

“Heard it was going to be three,” Karl put in.

Norm scoffed. “Two and a half max. It never gets to three no matter how much the weather guy on four jumps around.” He turned to the Russian. “We got cable, though, and Marie at the Laughing Loon Café will deliver if you order over twenty bucks of food. You’ll be fine for three or four days.”

Kasyanov had been swinging his head back and forth like a cat following a feather toy. Now he made a dying whale sound. “Days?

Sam looked at him, squinting a little. “Yeah. You got some place to go?”

See, the way Karl figured it, everyone has a place to go, so he was slightly surprised when the guy rolled over and started backpedaling. “No…ah, no. I am fine here in Loon Lake.” He smiled, showing yellowed teeth. The smile was totally unconvincing and kind of gross to boot.

“Coot Lake,” Norm corrected, but not meanly, because after all the guy, yellow teeth or not, was a paying customer. “Here.” He pushed the registration form at Kasyanov.

Ilya sighed and picked up the pen.

Sam turned to Karl. “What’re you doing here?”

“Well, Norm’s helping me out with a place to stay—”

“Am not,” Norm muttered, but then got distracted by Kasyanov filling out his form.

“Something wrong with your trailer?” Sam asked.

“You could say that.” Karl had a real nice mobile home up on the Red Earth Ojibwa Reservation. Only forty years old with almost real wood paneling in the den/living room/dining room/office. “Water pipes froze.”

Norm looked up just then, and with a heavy sigh reached for a room key and shoved it across the counter with a grunt.

Karl nodded, taking it.

Sam winced. “Ouch.”

“Yeah,” Karl said. “But what with the meeting of the Crow County Mighty Mushers this weekend, it’s just as well. I can be in town with—”

“Wait. Wait.” Sam held up his hand in a stop sign. Sometimes Sam had trouble coming out of his cop man mode. “Your crazy musher friends are arriving in town?”

“Sure.” Karl had been trying to get Sam into the dogsledding club for years. “You could come by and check it out. We’re going to sled around Moosehead Lake, have a few brewskis, and then maybe do a loop up by County M before coming back into town.”

“How many?”

“Miles?” Karl blew out a breath, estimating. “Oh, at least fifty. But the way the snow’s coming down—”

“No, not miles. Mushers.

“Uh.” Karl shrugged. “Well, normally we’d have at least twenty, twenty-five people, but with this weather? Maybe fifteen or so all told. Depends on whether Doug Engelstad has recovered from those two broken legs, I guess. And his cousin, Stu Engelstad, was threatening to move to Alaska ’cause he says it’s too warm here—”

The Russian choked a bit for no reason that Karl could see.

“Which I can totally get, but really, there aren’t many girls in Alaska, so I wouldn’t myself. Not”—Karl interrupted himself thoughtfully—“that Stu seems that interested in girls. Or guys. Or, really, humans—”

“Karl.” Sam had a real even voice, usually, but sometimes when he was a might cranky it came out sharplike. “Does Doc Meijers know about your meet?”

Karl’s forehead crinkled, confused. “No. Why would he?”

“So maybe you could get a permit from the police chief to invite fifteen drunken mushers and all their dogs to town and then chase them around Moosehead Lake?” Sam said, his tone kind of getting loud at the end.

“Oh, hey,” Karl said. “Do we need a permit for that?”

How much?” the Russian yelped at the same time.

Karl was sympathetic. Sometimes Norm had a tendency to gouge. He was the only motel in town.

Sam turned to the counter and Karl bent quickly to grab his suitcase. He picked it up and then hesitated. Both suitcases were black; both looked exactly alike. Was it…?

He glanced up to find Sam staring at him. “Something the matter, Karl?”

“Nope. Nothing at all,” Karl grinned a grin of outstanding blandness and tightened his grip on his suitcase. “Imma just show myself out.”

Sam narrowed his eyes, Karl was already hustling out the lobby door. He didn’t want to stick around to find out about dogsledding permits. And besides, Norm was busy enough without showing him to his room.

Karl knew the way anyway.


Chapter Five

How many dogs?” Doc Meijers barked.

Six hours later Doc and Sam sat in Ed’s bar, a checkers board on the table between them, Sam’s acorn-brown Resistol cowboy hat on the seat beside him. It was crowded tonight, despite the weather, and Sam had to lean forward across the battered wood table to be heard. “Well, figure fifteen mushers with eight to ten dogs each…”

He shrugged, sitting back in the booth. Doc could do the math well enough himself.

The Coot Lake police chief was in his early sixties and had a bit of a paunch and the sort of well-weathered, scowling face that frightened everyone but very small children who hadn’t the brain cells to know any better yet. Little kids loved Doc Meijers.

Doc muttered something, but the jukebox started up with Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and his words were lost in the wave of feminine hostility.

“Yup,” Sam replied because he was pretty sure he knew the gist of what Doc had said.

Carrie complained about restroom cologne—which, as it happened, Ed made sure to keep in stock—and Sam drank Sam Adams and watched Doc bitch to himself as he captured two of Sam’s men.

By the time the song had wound down, so had Doc.

To a degree, anyway. “Goddamn fool, that Karlson,” he shouted into the sudden lull in sound.

Fortunately, Ed’s was the kind of dive where no one looked up. Ed had taken the former VFW post—fake wood paneling and all—run a counter across the back, bought some secondhand tables and chairs, mounted a stuffed bobcat on the back wall, and called it a day. No one knew what the bobcat was for—wasn’t like there were any live ones locally. Sam had always figured the bobcat was Ed’s idea of decoration. Either that or he’d gotten it free.

Ed’s was the only place open past eight on a Friday night in Coot Lake, so if you didn’t want to drive a ways—and who wanted to in a blizzard?—Ed’s was it. Right now there was a table of women of a certain age to the side of the room. Becky the dispatcher was one of the women. She’d recently got a new dye job that was an eye-popping purplish red, even in the bar’s dim lighting. When asked, everyone said it looked real good on her—especially when Becky gave them the squint-eye. The ladies were sharing a plate of Ed’s microwaved nachos and a pitcher of beer, and they looked scarier than anyone else in the room.

That was saying something, because a bunch of big guys in plaid and Sorels were at a back booth—probably some of Karl’s musher friends. Tick, one of the two other Coot Lake policemen besides Sam, had returned from his aunt’s in Fergus. Tick had the night shift, though he was taking his dinner break right now. He was leaning his skinny ass on a stool at the bar, talking away to a bored-looking Ed as he ate his greasy burger-and-fries dinner. Tick had recently grown a soul patch below his bottom lip and seemed pretty proud of it, despite Doc muttering that it looked like a spider had died on his chin.

The final member of the Coot Lake police force, Dylan Rorsky, was off duty and on what passed for a dance floor at Ed’s, along with Haley Anne, one of the waitresses at the Laughing Loon Café. Dylan was only twenty-three, with a face so fresh and unlined it made Sam feel ancient—especially with what Dylan was doing with Haley Anne on the dance floor. Haley Anne wasn’t even a year out of high school. She had pink streaks in her dark hair and a ring through her bottom lip that bobbled when she smiled. Sam was trying hard not to look too long in their direction, because last time he had he’d been kinda scarred.

“You’d think after that last fiasco,” Doc said, still harping on the mushers, “Karl would’ve thought ahead to getting a permit.”

“Not sure Karl does much thinking ahead.” Sam jumped one of Doc’s men and took it off the board.

“Say that again.” Doc grunted moodily and took a sip of his Schell’s—the only beer Ed kept on tap. He nudged one of his pieces forward. “And he’s not the only one. Did’ya know Tick confiscated a whole bunch of firecrackers from some teenagers last week and just yesterday was asking if he could set them off in the municipal parking lot?”

Sam winced. “He’s not so bad.”

“And Dylan.” Doc shook his head like the youngest member of the Coot Lake police force had only days to live. “That girl’s a menace. Only a matter of time before Dylan forgets the condom and we wind up with a shotgun wedding.”

Sam shrugged. “He could do worse than Haley Anne.”

The outer door opened, blowing in freezing wind and snow and May Burnsey.

Sam randomly moved a piece.

Doc grunted and took his only king. He didn’t bother looking over his shoulder at the door when he asked, “That Maisa Burnsey just came in?”

Nothing he could reply would gain him anything but embarrassment, so Sam took another sip of his beer. She’d made it very clear that she didn’t want to see him tonight. Only a jerk would assume she’d come in just for him.

May was stomping her boots, looking around the room. She caught sight of him and even across the room he could see her eyes narrow. Sam nodded at her. She started weaving through the tables, and it kind of looked like she might be headed in his direction, but as she passed the group of middle-aged ladies Becky caught her. May leaned down to say something.

“I heard you stopped Maisa this afternoon,” Doc rumbled.

“Becky gossips too much.”

Doc raised a pointed eyebrow.

“She was speeding.” Sam checked, but he was pretty sure he didn’t sound defensive.

“Son,” Doc said, using his heavy paternal voice, so Sam must’ve been off on his self-assessment. “That woman isn’t for you.”

Sam raised his Sam Adams to his lips rather than say something he might regret later.

May had shed her jacket. She wore a soft sweater that outlined and cupped her breasts. Every man in the room—excepting Doc, who still hadn’t turned—had his eyes on her.

“She’s city.” Doc looked at him significantly. “And she’s George Johnson’s niece—and you know darn well what George is.”

Sam winced, thinking of the crude tattoos Old George sported on both hands. Each knuckle—the ones he had left anyway—had a Cyrillic letter and a symbol of some kind. There were ornate crosses, strange Xs, skulls, and half circles that looked like moons—and those were only on the parts of his body they could see. God only knew what he hid beneath his clothes. Tats were pretty popular nowadays, but generally not the kind that George sported.

The kind that meant he either was or had been Russian mafiya.

“We have no proof,” Sam said low, because even though the jukebox had started into Styx—Ed’s musical tastes were kind of all over the board—he didn’t want to be overheard. “For all we know Old George was a victim of communist Russia and spent time in the gulag.”

“Then what’s he doing with a last name like Johnson?” Doc grunted and pushed one of his men into the last row on Sam’s side of the board. “King me. Bet on it—he’s in hiding from something or someone.”

Sam grimaced—both because he was losing the checkers game and because this wasn’t the first time they’d discussed Old George, his Russian accent, his mafiya tats, and his odd choice of retirement place. Hardly anyone moved to Coot Lake unless they had some kind of tie to the community. It wasn’t like Coot Lake was on the Most Scenic Small Towns list.

He glanced up and found May watching him. She hastily looked away, smiling at one of the women at the table. Someone had found a chair for her and she was sipping a half-full plastic cup of beer. What was she up to?

“You gonna move?” Doc growled.

“Sure.” Sam took another of Doc’s men, making the older man scowl. “Did Becky happen to mention the wreck up on 52?”

“Guy went into the ditch?” Doc asked without really asking. “Becky said it happened right in front of you.”

“Yup. Definitely speeding. Nearly took me out when he went by. But,” Sam said hastily as Doc opened his mouth, “that’s not why I brought it up.”

“Then why?”

“The driver had a Russian accent.”

Doc jumped four of Sam’s men, starting with the one that Sam had just moved and effectively ended the game.

“Well, shit,” Sam said, staring down at the ruins of his defenses.

Doc shook his head and began gathering pieces. “I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: Can’t get too attached to your pieces. Sometimes you gotta sacrifice a man. You play afraid and you’ll never win any game.”

Sam flinched at the thought of sacrificing a man. He took a sip of beer to cover.

Doc eyed him, but didn’t ask. He never did, which Sam appreciated. He glanced at the ladies’ table, but May was determinedly looking away from him.

Tick zipped up his parka, waved farewell to the room at large, and left, presumably to tend to the wrecks up on 52. The jukebox started playing something slow Sam didn’t recognize. One of the mushers broke from the pack, the others cat-calling and slapping him on the back. He started toward May.

Well, that just wasn’t happening.

“’Scuse me.” Sam drained his beer bottle and stood.

Doc muttered something behind him, but Sam ignored him.

He had his sights set on an ornery little brunette.