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Clint Sisnuket leaned against the window frame in the airstrip office in Good Riddance, Alaska, and watched the snow sifting out of the dark sky.
"Dalton will radio for clearance when he's coming in for landing," said Merrilee Danville Weatherspoon, Good Riddance founder and airfield operator.
Clint turned to her with a slow smile. He liked Merrilee. He'd been pleased when his clan had granted her honorary membership, but there were times she simply didn't understand the native way. But at least Merrilee respected the native way, unlike Clint's French-Canadian mother. "I'm not looking for Dalton." The local bush pilot was flying Clint's latest client in from Anchorage. They'd arrive when they arrived. "I'm enjoying the sky."
"Nothing wrong with that," she said. Clint had discovered that people who shared Merrilee's southern origins, liked to talk. A lot. It wasn't unpleasant, simply different. And Merrilee might have spent the past twenty-five years in Alaska, but she still retained her southern roots. Roots were important. They shaped a person, grounded them. "I guess you and Kobuk will see a lot of the sky in the next week."
The malamute raised his head briefly at hearing his name and then dropped his head back on his paws, soaking up the heat of the wood-burning stove across the room. For once Jeb Taylor and Dwight Simmons weren't parked in the rocking chairs that flanked the chess board next to the pot-bellied stove. The two old-timers were pretty much permanent fixtures who argued with each other more than they actually made chess moves.
Clint grinned. "T. S. Bellingham wants to video tape the northern lights, so Kobuk and I will help him." His client was interested in capturing lots of Alaska on videotape, but nothing more so than the beauty of the northern lights, which should be spectacular once the impending storm moved through.
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, fascinated many, Clint among them. His people believed the lights were spirits of ancestors dancing in the sky. He didn't particularly buy that bill of goods but there was a beauty and mystical quality about them impossible to ignore. Even after thirty years, he never tired of them. He knew he never would because the lights were never, ever the same.
"But we won't be seeing the lights tomorrow. Not with this storm blowing in."
Merrilee looked surprised but not skeptical. "I'd better get a weather update," she said, reaching for the radio mic.
It crackled to life before she could pick it up, a disembodied voice announcing through the static an impending storm. They were good for a couple of hours but it was coming. "You sure can call them," Merrilee said to Clint.
Bull Swenson tromped down the stairs. Bull's given name was rumored to be Edward, but Bull suited him much better. Thick and muscular, he had a mane of white hair and a full beard to match. Even in his sixties he could keep up with men half his age. Bull nodded in his direction. "Clint."
The older man looked at Merrilee in obvious affection. "He sure can call what?"
Bull and Merrilee had been an item ever since they'd met. It was well-known throughout town that Bull occasionally asked her to marry him and she routinely turned him down. Apparently a bad first marriage could do that to a person.
Merrilee poured a mug of coffee and handed it to Bull. "There's a storm coming in."
"I could've told you that. My knee and shoulder are killing me."
"You want a couple of ibuprofen?" Merrilee was already reaching for the bottle on the shelf above her desk before she finished speaking. Clint wondered what it would be like to have someone in his life who anticipated his needs, his responses, that way. If his grandmother had anything to say about it, Ellie Lightfoot was that someone. Clint, however, didn't feel a connection with Ellie, although that made no sense. A schoolteacher from a neighboring village, Ellie was native, beautiful, accomplished and even-temperedall the hallmarks of a good mate. He'd tried, but he simply couldn't seem to work up any real enthusiasm around seeing her.
"Sure." Bull winced and rubbed at his shoulder. "Damn Viet Cong."
Bull flew a black-and-white POW flag from his front porch. His knee and shoulder aches were, as he put it, "courtesy of his stay in the Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War.
"Here, take these." Merrilee handed Bull a couple of orange pills. "Looks as if there'll be at least half a day's delay in that video Clint's going to help shoot."
Bull shook his head. "It's the craziest thing I ever heard. This Bellingham fella is making a video about Alaska but it's not a documentary. It's just scenery with music?"
"I thought it was sort of crazy myself," Merrilee said, "but I ordered one of his beach videos and it's nice." A faint yearning flickered in her eyes. "Much as I love Alaska, I do miss the Redneck Riviera."
"Redneck Riviera?" Clint asked.
She laughed. "Gulf Shores in Alabamasome of the prettiest white-sand beaches with clear blue water you'll ever see. My family used to go there every summer when I was a girl." Her voice carried more than a hint of nostalgia. "That ambient video's about the next best thing to being there."
"Maybe we should go this summer," Bull said, gruff and abrupt as ever.
She shot a surprised look at Bull. "We couldn't possibly leave in the summer. That's the busiest time of year for both our businesses. This isn't just an airstrip office, remember, it's a bed and breakfast, too."
Bull shrugged. "Neither one of us is getting any younger. If you miss the beach that much, we should go."
"That's sweet, but I'm fine with just my video." Bull swallowed a mouthful of the steaming coffee. "Maybe those videos of Bellingham's aren't so crazy after all."
Clint nodded. "I haven't seen one but they're a good way to share places and things with people who can't get there. He wants to shoot footage of everything he can while he's here. Northern lights, wildlife, glaciers, footage of snow fallinga little bit of everything. Tomorrow we're going to fly up and stay at the fishing cabin for a few nights. He wants to shoot the lights and we should be able to get some wolf and bird footage there as well." He and Bellingham had exchanged a number of detailed emails. Bellingham had been very clear and straightforward about his taping objectives. In turn, Clint had made it very clear that it was cold and the cabin was rough, but it was well-situated to view and film the lights. Plus, a wolf pack was known to live in the area. They'd spend the rest of the time at the bed and breakfast which should also afford a good view of the lights from a different perspective while serving as a home base.
"That all sounds good," Merrilee said.
The outing would be respectful of nature and the land, which appealed to Clint.
On the neat and tidy desk, the radio crackled. Dalton Saunders's voice, complete with static, requested permission to land.
The plane's lights appeared as Merrilee granted clearance for the strip. Within a few minutes the small plane was on the ground and Saunders was opening the passenger door for Bellingham. Clint frowned. Not that it much mattered, but he'd figured Bellingham for an average guy. From here, though, it was clear he was far shorter than Saunders and, even in a hooded parka, pretty damn small. This was unexpected, but no problem. Clint didn't mind hauling equipment and Kobuk was a working dog.
Bellingham and Saunders each grabbed a bag and crossed to the airfield door in the glow of the lights reflecting off the white snow.
The second they crossed the threshold Clint felt ita shift inside him, an inexplicable feeling that passed through his body. It took him a second to realize what he felt was a connection, as if her energy had become his. And it was definitely a herthe face framed by the parka's fur-lined hood was decidedly, unmistakably female. She had sparkling spruce-green eyes, pale skin with a smattering of freckles across a straight nose, and a smile that revealed faintly crooked teeth.
Thrown off-kilter by the woman and his reaction to her, Clint did something he seldom did. He spoke without thinking. "Where's Bellingham?"
Saunders was definitely smirking. "Right here."
The woman pulled off her gloves and pushed back her hood. Silky blonde hair fell in a near-white curtain to her shoulders. "I'm T. S. Bellingham." She held out her hand. "You must be Mr. Sisnuket."
Even though he'd never seen her before in his life, a surge of recognition coursed through him. The sense of recognition was so strong, it quite frankly scared the hell out of him. However, he couldn't ignore her outstretched hand. His engulfed hers, and while her skin was warm and soft, her handshake was firm and decisive. Another shock wave coursed through him.
Her eyes widened, her lips parted, and she all but snatched her hand from him. She'd felt it too.
Merrilee launched into her welcoming spiel and Clint shoved his hand into his pocket, definitely thrown off his usual even keel. Dammit, this was what he should've felt with Ellie Lightfoot, one of his kind, not this green-eyed blonde. The last thing he wanted to do was spend nearly a week in this woman's company. Five days couldn't end soon enough.
Tessa Bellingham forced herself to focus on the woman speaking to her rather than the man she'd just met.
"Welcome to Good Riddance, Alaska, where you can leave behind what troubles you," said the woman who'd introduced herself as Merrilee Danville Weatherspoon. "Let me hang your coat over here for you." Tessa shrugged out of the down-filled parka and handed it over. Merrilee looked Tessa up and down, her blue eyes sharp but kind. Tessa found the other woman's lace-trimmed pink and gray flannel shirt charming. "And aren't you just a surprise? We all thought you were a man."
Smiling, Tessa nodded. "Sometimes it's easier that way. I've used T.S. on all of my correspondence for years." Single woman, no familyshe'd learned early on it was better not to advertise to the world at large she was a female. A little gender confusion wasn't a bad thing. "And when you make arrangements via the internet, whether you're a male or female doesn't usually come up."
"Well, there is that. By the way, I love your beach video."
"I'm glad. That's always nice to hear." A beautiful dark brown dog, with a white face, chest and front legs, and a light brown "mask," crossed the room to sniff at her. The dog didn't look particularly menacing, but neither did he appear overly friendly. No tail wagging accompanied his overture.
"Offer him your hand," Clint Sisnuket said, the first words he'd spoken directly to her. His voice was deep, with a cadence that bespoke his native status. The errant thought occurred to her that she could just close her eyes and listen to him speak and wouldn't that just throw the whole room yet another curve ball.
He didn't like herthe man, not the dog. Well, the dog might decide he didn't like her either but for sure the man didn't. Actually, dislike was too strong. She was getting an incredible sense of wariness from him. In fact, it was practically rolling off him in waves. Couldn't the rest of the room sense it, too?
"He won't think I'm offering him a snack, will he?" she said with a smile as she held out her hand.
"No, he prefers legs to hands at snack time."
Tessa smiled. At least he had a sense of humoreven if it was a little lame. The dog sniffed her and then startled her when he bumped her hand with his head. "Kobuk likes you," Clint Sisnuket said.
She ran her fingers lightly over the thick fur and scratched him behind his ears. "Hello, Kobuk, you handsome boy." He wagged his upright, curling tail. "You like that, do you? I'm glad you like me."
"But then again, Kobuk likes pretty much everyone." Clint Sisnuket managed to make it sound faintly insulting, as if the dog's standards were so low she shouldn't find it remarkable he liked her. It was as if he was trying to deliberately put a distance between them.
She ground her teeth and persisted. "Malamute or husky? I'm not familiar enough with the two breeds to discern the difference."
Wait, had Mr. Stoic/Hostile Native Guide just slipped up and allowed a glimmer of grudging admiration to slip through?"Malamute. He's bigger than a husky."
Merrilee and Dalton Saunders, the bush pilot, finished up their business. She liked Dalton with his sense of humor and easy-going smile, and Tessa had heard all about his fiancee, Dr. Skye Shanahan, on the flight from Anchorage to Good Riddance.
He'd been so obviously in love it had left Tessa wondering what it would be like to have a man feel that way about hernot that she needed anyone. She'd been on her own for so long, pretty much all her life.