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Black Arrow Falls
Silver Karvonen swung her hunting rifle round to her back and hefted a bag of feed into the bed of her red pickup, three husky-wolf crossbreeds milling around at her feet. The bag landed with a dull thud, releasing a cloud of fine gray glacial dust.
Everything was dry. Hot. The leaves had turned brittle gold and the bush was redolent with the scents of late autumn, the air adrift with the white fluff of fireweed gone to seed, blowing on the hot afternoon breeze like summer snow.
Silver swiped the perspiration from her brow with the back of her wrist as she returned to the shade of the airstrip hangar for another load.
Although the night had brought fresh skiffs of snow to the high granite peaks, the mid-September afternoon had spiked to sweltering temperatures. Even so, it would be a mere matter of days before snow blew into the dusty streets of Black Arrow Falls itself, blanketing the small northern town for six months of long, dark and isolated winter.
Silver didn't mind. She liked winter best.
That's when her work at the hunting lodge was over. Time was her own, and she could run with her dogs.
But right now she was tired, and in need of a shower. She'd been tracking a large grizzly sow for the better part of the day, arising when the grass was still stiff with night frost and the trail easy to follow.
She'd set off at first light with her three favorite hounds, moving quickly, wanting to sight the grizzly one last time before nightfall.
Silver had encountered her quarry in a wide valley colored rust with fall berry scrub. She'd observed her bear quietly from up high on a ridge, downwind of theanimal.
The omnivore was massivemaybe five hundred pounds, close to her peak hibernation weight, sunlight glinting on a majestic golden-brown coat that rippled over powerful haunches as she foraged along the valley bottom.
Within a week the bear would be digging a den oriented leeward of prevailing winter winds. She'd enter it a few days later when she scented the first winter storms in the air. Hopefully her troubles would then be over.
This grizzly had mauled a British hunter last week.
Silver had been contracted by the understaffed conservation office to huntand shoother.
But after tracking and watching the sow for the last three days, Silver did not think she was a predatory man killer. The British hunting party had alleged one story, but the tracks had told Silver another.
From the evidence around the attack site, Silver deduced that the men had encountered the sow shortly after she'd been injured in a fight with an aggressive and mature male grizz who'd just killed her male cub-of-the-year.
The sow had fought off the much larger male but lost her cub and a claw on her left front paw in the process.
From that point Silver had dubbed her Broken Claw, and as always, she began to emotionally connect with the creature she was tracking.
Injured and severely stressed, Broken Claw had been guarding her cub's dead body when the hunters had startled her along a narrow trail high on the rocky outcrop. She had charged the group in an attempt to warn the hunters back. The men fled, triggering chase.
The grizz swiped at the last hunter who'd been spared death only because the power of her blow had sent him tumbling like a rag doll down the sharp scree of a narrow ravine; he'd later been airlifted out. This much Silver knew from the conservation officer's report. The scuffs and tracks, the remains of the cub, told her the rest.
Retreating quietly from the rock ridge with her dogs, Silver had made up her mind this afternoon to let the bear be.
There was no way she was going to kill that bereaved mother to satisfy a misguided lust for vengeance. Things had played out as nature had intended. Wild justice, she called it.
Silver understood what it meant to lose a child to an aggressive male. She knew just how far a mother would go to eliminate a threat.
It didn't make her a killer.
In a few days the healing snows would come, and Broken Claw would be asleep in her den.
She lifted another sack of horse feed from the airstrip hangar, lugged it to her truck, perspiration dampening her T-shirt as she launched it into the back. One more to go, and then she'd be done with the delivery Air North had flown in for her that morning.
But she stilled at the distant drone of a plane. Silver squinted up into the hazy sky and saw the small twin-engine prop used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police emerge shimmering between gaps in the massive snow-capped peaks.
The new cop, she thought, shading her eyes, watching as the plane banked around Armchair Glacier, coming in for the steep descent necessitated by the valley formation and prevailing crosswinds.
In a community this small, everyone already knew the new Mountie's nameSergeant Gabriel Caruso. Big shot detective from British Columbia.
This would be the first time an RCMP officer with the rank of sergeant had been posted to this tiny self-governing First Nations communityone of the only two Yukon communities with absolutely no road accessand already everyone was wondering why the Mounties were sending a veteran homicide cop to Black Arrow Falls where nothing much happened beyond a marauding moose, an overturned snow machine, or a domestic spat spurred by bootleg liquor.
Harry Peters, chief of the tiny Black Arrow Nation for which the town was named, had explained to his people that the RCMP were enlarging what was traditionally a three-man detachment because of the new copper mine opening about 150 miles south of here. The new mine would bring a new road next summer. And more people to town.
More trouble, too, thought Silver.
The wheels of the plane touched dirt with a sharp snick, and the craft bounced along the gravel runway, trailing a cone of silt, coming to a stop across from her as the props slowed.
Silver leaned back against the warm hood of her truck, hooking the ankle of one boot over the other, swatting at a cloud of tiny black insects as she watched the cop alight from the plane. His formidable size and stature struck her instantly, and her pulse quickened.
He hesitated briefly at the top stair, taking in his surroundings, dark hair gleaming in the sun. Then he shouldered his gear, coming quickly down the rest of the steps and striding confidently toward the hangar where she was standing. She noticed that he favored his right leg slightly and was trying to hide that fact.
It spoke of pride, or vanity maybe. Or perhaps an unwillingness to admit weakness or failure.
Newcomers were always a diversion, and Silver studied this one unabashedly, reading his posture just as she read creatures in the wild. And as he neared, she could see right off that there was something different about this cheechako.
He telegraphed the classic command presence of a cop, walking with a tall, broad-shouldered gait, his spine ramrod straight, jaw held proud. But there was an additional edginess about him that the neat yellow stripes down the sides of his pressed RCMP pants, and the polished gleam of his weapons belt and boots, couldn't quite hide.
Trapped inside that crisp Mountie uniform was a renegade, someone gone a little wild. Someone who might have a problem with authority.
The man was trouble.
If Silver were picking a dog for her team, she'd be leery of one with body language like his. He didn't look like a team player. He looked unpredictable.
His rank and bio suddenly made sensethe RCMP had sent damaged goods. And what better place to dump a problem cop than the backwaters of Black Arrow Falls, just south of the Arctic circle?
A whisper of irritation and wariness laced through her instinctive interest in the man.
Silver had bad experience with the federal force. The Mounties had let her down when she'd needed them most.
And they had the power to put her away.
She turned away from him as he approached, ordering her dogs to sit with a soft whisper as she bent to lift the last feedbag into her truck. Her hounds regarded him warily as he neared.
"Need a hand?" His voice rippled like dark wild honey over her hot skin. Silver froze, startled by the shock waves he'd sent through her system.
Her answer was to tighten her grip on the sack of feed and heft the bag up, dumping it into the truck herself with a heavy thud. She slapped the tailgate closed with a dull clunk before locking it into place, trying to tamp down the energy crackling through her body before facing him again.
She turned, dusting her palms against her jeans and swinging her long, heavy black ponytail back over her shoulder. "Hey," she said, extending her hand, unable to read his eyes behind the mirrored shades. "You must be Sergeant Caruso. Welcome to Black Arrow Falls."
He lifted his shades slowly, his gaze locking onto hers, and Silver's heart did a tight little tumble. She hadn't anticipated eyes like that. They were a warm liquid brown, fringed by soft black lashes, but the lines that fanned out from themthe way they etched into his ruggedly handsome features and olive skinspoke of something she recognized all too well.
This man had been roughed up, hurt. But he was pretending otherwise.
Strong fingers closed around hers as he clasped her hand firmly, the charge as his skin connected with hers instant. Silver's pulse raced.
Sergeant Gabriel Caruso oozed dangernot for Black Arrow Falls but for her personally.
Silver had not experienced this kind of visceral response to a man since a brutal assault and rape five years ago had emptied her of all feeling. She'd remained hollow since then, beginning to think she was incapable of ever feeling physical lust again. And by the sharp flicker in his eyes, she saw he'd felt something, too.
A quiet fear snaked through her belly.
A Mountie was the last person on this earth she needed to be attracted to. Especially a homicide cop.
Not with her dark secret.
Not with the cold case files buried in the Black Arrow Falls detachment drawers.
She valued freedom too much.
"I'm Silver," she said, words suddenly dry like dust in her mouth, an irrational urge to flee surging through her. But she held her ground, outwardly calm. Flight triggered chase. It showed weakness.
Silver hated appearing weak.
And she wanted to do nothing that would pique the new cop's curiosity, nothing at all that might send him digging back into the old murder files.
His eyes swept over her, taking in her rifle, the brutal hunting knife sheathed at her hips, her dusty scuffed boots, the faded and torn jeans.
He was reading her, thought Silver. Sizing her up just as she had done to him, taking in his new surroundings, yet he gave nothing away in his features. This was a man from whom a person didn't keep secrets. The instinct to pull away intensified as fear rustled deeper into her belly, the raw kind of fear that came from being a so-called criminal faced with the penetrating eyes of law enforcement.
The kind of fear that came with the surprising reawakening of her body.
Gabe felt her hand in his, noting the bracelet of leather knotted with small colorful beads around her slender wrist. She wore no ring.
He was conscious of rings. Engagement rings.
He couldn't help seeking the small circle of promise on other women's fingers. A promise a killer had denied him. His chest tightened as he recalled the reasons that had brought him here.
She answered his handshake with a startlingly firm grip despite her willowy stature. Her palms were rough, not like the hands of any women he knew.
Even Gia'shis hardworking, no-nonsense, cop fiancée's handshad been softer. Yet there was something alluring challenging evenin Silver's assertive grip.
She met his gaze just as directly, her indigo eyes showing an unveiled interest that sent a tingle down his spine.
The startling color of her almond-shaped eyes stood out dramatically against skin the color of burnt sienna. Her cheekbones were equally exotic, angled high, and her sleek black hair was harnessed into a waist-length braid that shimmered in the sunlight as she moved, reminding Gabe of the multi-faceted rainbows hidden in a raven's feathers.
Gabe had never seen a woman quite like Silver.
And a woman had never looked at him with quite the same intensity. Her eyes cut into him like blue lasers, as if she could see straight through to his soul. It was as intimate as it was provocative, and he felt his energy instinctively darken and hum.
"He's on his way," she said, sliding her hand free from his grasp, backing away, her voice husky, low. Smooth. The kind of voice that made a guy think about whiskey and sex, things Gabe hadn't thought about in a long time.
"Pardon?" he said, distracted.
Silver swung open the cab door of her truck and whistled for her dogs to jump in the back. "I said your constable is on his way. He'd have waited until he saw your plane come in. No rush up here. There he is now" She jutted her chin to indicate a column of gray dust churning along the distant dull-green tree line beyond the runway.
Gabe squinted, making out the distinctive white truck with bold RCMP stripes and logo as the police four-by-four neared.
"That would be Donovan." She climbed into her truck as she spoke, folding those impossibly long denim-clad legs under the steering wheel of her cab.
Gabe replaced his shades, uneasy with his own physical reaction to this unusual woman, not wanting her to read it. She seemed to be reading everything.
"Mostly he uses the ATVs." She slammed the door, leaning her elbow out the open window as she started the ignition. "Can't go far with that vehicle in a town with roads that don't lead anywhere." She threw him a final glance, or was it a challenge?
"How long is your posting? Two years?" she asked, a shrewd look in her eyes.
He was glad for his shades. "You've only just welcomed me, and you're ready to see me leave?" She wouldn't be the first to want to see the back of him.
Amusement whispered over her lips. "Everyone goes back to where they came from, Sergeant. Sooner than later. Cops included. Most come north of 60 looking for something, you know? Gold, silver, escape, freedom. Some don't even know what it is they're searching for." She shifted her truck into gear. "Sometimes they find it. Sometimes they don't. But eventually they all do go back."
She smiled, an incredible slash of bright white teeth against her brown skin, a wild glimmer of light in her eyes. "Apart from a few special ones."
Then she hit the gas, leaving him standing in a cloud of silt, her wolf dogs yipping with excitement in the back.
Gabe couldn't help thinking the woman was like this placestrikingly gorgeous and seemingly open, yet hostile to those unequipped to deal with the terrain.