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Anya Petrova shoved her mittened hands in the pockets of her parka as she stood on Brock Parker's threshold and tried not to react. The man had answered the door dressed in a furry bear costume. It wasn't every day that she knocked on a stranger's door and found a grizzly bear, albeit a fake one, on the other side. Even in Alaska.
She pasted on a smile. "Hi, I'm Anya Petrova. I emailed you about my dog. You're Brock, right?"
He nodded, but made no move to take off the bear head.
Super. Anya had to stop herself from exhaling a frustrated sigh.
She'd expected someone normal, especially considering Brock Parker's reputation. He was new in town, an avalanche search and rescue expert and alleged dog genius, at least according to what Anya's friend Clementine had told her. Anya had been trying in vain to reach him for the past two days, but he appeared to be a mystery. He didn't even have a locally listed phone number, and he'd yet to make an appearance in town. And she'd been lookinghardbecause a dog genius is exactly what she needed at the moment.
Fortunately, Clementine had managed to procure Brock's email address. Anya had fired off a message and was thrilled when he agreed to meet with her. Clementine had predicted he would turn out to be the answer to Anya's prayers. What she'd failed to predict was that Brock Parker would be dressed head to toe in a grizzly bear costume when he answered his front door.
The odds are good, but the goods are odd.
Some considered it Alaska's best kept secret.
The rest of the free world seemed all too aware of the fact that men outnumbered women in the Land of the Midnight Sun. So much so that sometimes the statistics Anya Petrova saw on the subject made her shake her head in disbelief, if not snort with laughter. Fifteen to one? Did people in the Lower 48 really believe that?
Anya had lived in Aurora, Alaska, since the day she was born. She even had a dash of Inuit blood in her veins, and she knew as well as every other Alaskan woman that such statistics were exaggerated at best. At worst, they were baloney. In any event, the exact ratio didn't make a bit of difference. Because the men of Alaska weren't like other men. The majority of them, anyway. Like anything else, there were exceptions.
A very few.
The odds are good, but the goods are odd. Or, to put it nicely, Alaskan men could be eccentric. And it wasn't just the locals. Sometimes the transplants could be even worse. There seemed to be something about Alaska that attracted independent spirits, adventurers and oddballs. Case in pointthe man standing in front of her in a bear costume.
Not that she cared a whit about Aurora's bachelor population, strange or otherwise. She'd learned a long time ago that men were trouble. In her infancy, actually. Being abandoned by her father at three months of age didn't exactly set her up for success in the man department. Neither did being unceremoniously dumped on top of the highest mountain in Aurora for the entire town to witness. More than the town's population, actually, because television cameras had been involved.
As a result, dating wasn't anywhere on the list of things that mattered most to Anya. Her life was simple. She cared about three thingsGod, coffee and her dog.
She had a good handle on the coffee situation. As the manager of the Northern Lights Inn coffee bar, she was given free rein to develop all sorts of lattes, mochas and espresso drinks. Whatever struck her fancy, really. She enjoyed it. And she was good at it. Sometimesparticularly on days when all she did was serve up cup after cup of plain black coffeeshe wondered if there was something else she should be doing with her life. Something more meaningful. But that was normal, wasn't it? Did people really ever feel completely fulfilled by their jobs?
The God thing was new, so she really couldn't say how that was going. But it mattered to her. More than she ever knew it could, so it went on the list.
But the dog was another issue entirely. And that's where Brock Parker came into the picture, or so Anya hoped. Clementine had been so sure he could help her. She'd used the word genius to describe his proficiency at training.
He sure didn't look like a genius standing there in his doorway in that bear costume. Then again, what did Anya know about geniuses? Hadn't she read somewhere that Albert Einstein couldn't tie his own shoes? Maybe Einstein had a bear suit too.
She glanced down at Brock's feet poking out from the dark-brown fur. He wore hiking boots, and they were indeed tied.
Was that a good thing? Who knew?
She inhaled a deep breath of frigid winter air and tried again. "I have a very anxious dog, and I was told you might be able to help me. I'm kind of desperate."
She'd planned to tell him more, but suddenly her eyes burned with the telltale sting of tears. To say she was desperate was an understatement. Things seemed bad enough when she'd first rescued Dolce. The poor thing hid under the bed all the time. Anya barely saw her. Little did she know Dolce's shyness was the least of her problems.
The tiny dog also howled at the top of her canine lungs. At first, Anya had been able to convince the people at the Northern Lights Innwho were not only her employer, but also her landlordto give the dog some time. Surely Dolce would settle down.
She hadn't. Not yet anyway. And the hotel management had run out of patience. They'd finally given her an ultimatumgive up either the dog or her rent-free cottage.
The choice was hers. She had a mere fourteen days to fix the problem or lose her dog or her home. She'd pinned her last hope on Brock's purported genius, and from the looks of things, that might have been a mistake.
She sniffed and willed herself not to shed a tear. Desperate or not, crying in front of a man dressed as a bear was simply out of the question.
She heard a sigh. Brock's furry chest rose and fell. Thenfinallyhe removed the bear head, exposing his face.
Anya wasn't altogether sure what she'd expected, but the cool blue eyes, straight perfect nose and high cheekbones that looked as though they'd been chiseled from granite were most definitely not it. The man resembled some kind of dreamy Nordic statue. Anya had to blink to make sure she wasn't seeing things.
"You say your dog is anxious? How anxious?" He spoke without cracking the slightest smile, which only made him look more like something Michelangelo had carved out of stone.
Anya swallowed. Her mouth had abruptly gone dry. The snowflakes floating against her cheeks felt colder all of a sudden, and she realized her face had grown quite warm. "Very. I rescued her from a bad situation, and unless she's attached to a leash, I can't get her to come out from under my bed. She even eats there and only in the dark."
It was pathetic. Every night when Anya drifted off to sleep, it was to the sound of poor Dolce crunching on kibble.
"But that's not the worst of it. She howls. Rather loudly." Anya's voice grew wobbly. "I'm about to be kicked out of my cottage."
"I see." Brock nodded, and a lock of his disheveled blond hair fell across his forehead.
She'd heard of bedhead, but never bearhead. It, too, appeared to have its charms.
A shiver ran up Anya's spinea shiver she attributed to the fact that she was still standing on his front porch and the temperature had dipped well below freezing.
"Come with me." Still clutching the bear head under his arm, he led her inside.
Anya had been in the house once, long before she'd ever heard of Brock. She'd babysat nine-year-old twins who had lived here when she was in high school. Other than Brock's array of unopened moving boxes, the living room looked pretty much the samewood floors, dark paneled walls and huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the rugged, snow-capped Chugach Mountain range. The view was breathtaking, even to Anya, who'd seen the splendors of Alaska virtually every day of her life.
Brock strode past the window with barely a glance, leading her through the dining room and kitchen and out the back door. The snow crunched beneath their feet as they headed toward a barnlike structure about a dozen yards from the house. The barn was newat least it hadn't been part of the landscape when the Davis twins were nine. If there was a walkway, it wasn't visible beneath the previous night's snowfall. Flurries were still coming down, swirling and drifting through the branches of the evergreen trees. By the time they reached the barn, the shoulders of Brock's bear costume were dusted with a fine layer of white.
"This is my training area." He pushed the door open with a grizzly paw and ushered her inside.
The smell of sawdust and puppies drifted to Anya's nostrils. A strange combination, but not at all unpleasant. In fact, she found it oddly comforting. "Wow. Nice."
Calling it a barn wasn't really fair. The word barn conjured up images of dirty, hay-strewn floors and farming equipment covered in layers of dust. This building had been swept and cleaned to the point of perfection. A series of short, wooden dividers separated the center of the room into four pens. What Anya assumed was leftover lumber had been stacked neatly against the wall. Brock may have been new in town, but clearly he'd been busy.
Above the excess planks of wood were a series of hooks. What looked like a ski patrol jacket hung from one of them. Anya's gaze lingered on the bright-red parka and moved over the intersecting lines of the bold white cross printed on it until Brock spoke again, stealing her attention.
"Sit there." He pointed to one of the square, wood-framed pens.
Anya glanced at him, wishing he would offer more of an explanation. She didn't see a chair anywhere. What was she supposed to do? Sit on the floor? But as she approached the box, a cute, furry head peeked over one of the short walls. Then another equally adorable face popped up beside it.
"Puppies!" Anya clapped her hands.
She swung her leg over the short wall and climbed inside with the dogs, sitting cross-legged in the center of the pen. One of the puppies immediately crawled into her lap, but the other one eyed her from a foot or two away.
They didn't look like any puppies Anya had ever seen, certainly not the customary sled dogs that populated Alaska. These were a lovely red color, with white markings on their feet and chests.
"What kind of dogs are these?" she asked. "They almost look like little foxes."
"Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers," Brock said, as if that mouthful of an answer made a lick of sense to Anya. He reached for a newspaper that was folded and placed neatly on one of the wooden dividers and handed it to her. "I'd like you to read this."
She glanced at the paper, this morning's edition of the Yukon Reporter. She scanned the front page for anything dog-related but came up empty. "Um, what exactly am I supposed to be reading?"
He shrugged what appeared to be a rather muscular shoulder, visible even through the bear suit. "It doesn't matter. Just read it."
"Okaaay." She gave him a wary glance, but the look on his face told her nothing. He still wore that same stony expression. Stony, but undeniably handsome.
She unfolded the paper. The headline had something to do with the ski resort. Anya skipped over that particular article. Intentionally. Although the ski mountain loomed over Aurora, Anya had managed to pretty much ignore it since the day she'd had her heart broken atop it. She instead found a story about a moose that had been spotted roaming the streets of downtown after dark.
The moose, a young adult bull according to eyewitnesses, is thought to be the cause of recent
Brock's deep voice interrupted her train of thought. "Out loud."
"Out loud?" Anya raised her brows and looked back down at the newspaper, then at the two puppies with their sweet little fox-like faces, and back at Brock. "You want me to read the newspaper to the dogs?"
"Yep." He nodded, crossed his big bear arms and waited.
Odd, she decided. Most definitely.
But she couldn't deny he was odd in a rather intriguing way.
She resumed reading, aloud this time, acutely aware of those glacial blue eyes watching her. Her cheeks grew warm, and she had to concentrate so her tongue wouldn't trip on the words. Those flawless good looks of his were unnerving. Not that she was attracted to him, because she wasn't. Of course she wasn't. He made her nervous, that's all.
Still, she almost wished he'd cover up his perfect bone structure with that silly bear head.
Brock watched Anya read to the pups until she'd finished the article about the rogue moose that was vandalizing downtown Aurora. Not that there was much of a downtown, he mused. Certainly not compared to Seattle, where he'd lived for the past year and a half. There wasn't a Starbucks or a Seattle's Best anywhere in sight.
" authorities are asking anyone who sees the moose to contact Wildlife Care and Control." Anya paused and blinked up at him with the most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen.
Brock ignored the zing they sent straight to his chest and nodded. She started on another article, something about a rehabilitated sea otter being released into nearby Kache-mak Bay.
Brock shook his head and marveled at the fact that he'd somehow landed in a place where moose and sea otters made the front page of the local paper. To top it off, he was sweltering in the grizzly suit. It was the dead of winter in Alaska, but the barn was heated and he was used to the cold. Brock had spent the better part of his adult life in the snowif not actively searching for avalanche victims, then training for the inevitable event of a slide.
He left Anya to her reading and went to change. The two pups had settled around her comfortably, even Sherlock, the more cautious of the pair. Brock was pleased. The aim of the whole newspaper exercise was to socialize the young dogs to new people, new voices. The bear suit was a similar tool for socialization training. The dogs would be living in Alaska. They needed to be prepared for the sight of bears when they were out on the mountain training for search and rescue.
Sherlock had warmed to Anya faster than he'd anticipated. It wasn't often that Brock had a woman around to assist with training. Then again, Anya's voice had a pleasant, lyrical quality about it. Who wouldn't warm to the sound of that?