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"Hey, hottie, wait up, I've been looking for you."
Sven Sorenson, heading down the only real street in Good Riddance, Alaska, stopped.
He'd recognize that voice anywhere. Grinning, he turned. "How's my favorite girl?"
Alberta Reynolds, her bright red hair sticking out sporadically from a yellow-and-purple scarf rather like a hedgehog, returned his grin, minus a few teeth here and there. Her bottom lip bulged with the dip of smokeless tobacco she kept tucked there.
Alberta was something of a living legend in these parts. She claimed descent from European Gypsy stock, psychic powers and unparalleled matchmaking abilities. Sven had always been a skeptic when it came to that psychic stuff and he figured people either clicked or they didn't, but Alberta had a reputation for putting together lasting hookups. Well, except for when it came to herself. Already married five times, rumor had it Alberta was on the lookout for Husband Number Six.
She'd shown up yesterday, her beat-up Datsun pickupthe hood held on with baling wirepulling a one-room travel trailer that appeared damn near as old as Alberta herself, and that was pretty old. A couple of years ago she'd adopted a three-legged cat she'd named Lord Byron.
Sven and Alberta had crossed paths numerous times in the past ten years in the small towns scattered across Alaska's vast wilderness. Sven in his capacity as a professional builder, Alberta in her capacity as a Gypsy queen. She was a hoot for sure and had a good heart.
"I heard you were here," she said.
He gave her a quick hug. "Are you following me again?" he said with a smile as he released her.
It was a running joke between them. Sven was almost as much of a rolling stone as Alberta. He'd followed work all over the state for years, preferring the smaller towns to Anchorage's sprawl.
"You know it. Heard you've been here nearly ten months. That's some kind of record for you."
He shrugged. "I was lucky enough to win the contract to build the new day spa, then it burned. I had remodel work in the winter and then rebuilding the spa, and Skye and Dalton's place. Now I'm kneedeep in a new build and a remodel project. I like it here, so it's all good."
For the first time he'd had an odd reluctance to leave a place. Well, actually, this place. He'd done a couple of jobs over the years in Good Riddance. Packing up and changing locations had never been a problem before. And it wasn't that it was a exactly a problem now, he'd just been glad to stay put for a while.
He pushed aside the thought and picked back up on the banter. "You've got to quit chasing me this way, Alberta. People are going to talk."
"Always." She winked at him. "I know a good catch when I see one."
Which was questionable considering her five matrimonial forays. Sven supposed the flip side of that was five times she'd snagged what had seemed a good catch at the time.
Sven nodded in the direction of her travel trailer. "I was going to stop by yesterday, but your truck was gone. I waved at Lord Byron though." The big orange-and-yellow tomcat had been sitting in the window, basking in the sun.
She nodded. "I had a house call to make."
Alberta's matchmaking service involved house calls, where she'd actually show up at the cabins of some of the more remote bachelors in these parts.
"Who are you hooking up this time?"
"Dwight?" Not much surprised Sven, but that caught his attention.
Dwight was eighty if he was a day. For years he and Jeb Taylor had been near-permanent fixtures in the Good Riddance airstrip office where they argued and played a slow-moving game of chess. Jeb had died last summer and now Dwight mostly sat there lost.
"You're never too old for love and he's lonely." She slanted him an arch glance from beneath her painted-on eyebrows. "I'd say you're ready for love, too. I think you're lonely, Sven."
She was smiling, but there was a glint in her eyes, a knowing, as if she really could see somewhere deep inside him. It was a little freaky. Damn. Goose bumps popped up on him that had nothing to do with the weather. Actually it was a lot freaky.
In all their years of crossing paths, Alberta had never tried her hocus-pocus on Sven. And now she was as wrong as the day was long in July.
"Do I look lonely?"
A beat-to-hell-and-back Suburban drove by. Petey, the prospector who doubled as the resident taxi service, honked and waved. Alberta and Sven waved back.
Alberta focused on Sven, eyeing him consideringly. Despite his prickle of discomfort at her eye-balling him, he crossed his arms over his chest and laughed. Alberta was a trip.
"You look ready"
"Ready for " This was getting better and better. He was amused and curious as to what she was going to come up with next.
"You're ready for a meaningful relationship, a commitment."
Okay, so maybe he had thought now and again that it would be nice to have someone to come home to at night and maybe have a couple of kids, but he'd never admit it to Alberta.
Grinning, he shook his head. "Alberta, you are way off the mark."
Her wide smile called him a liar. "No way, hottie. I'm never wrong about these things. You're ready to find a woman to come home to and snuggle up with every night. Weren't you just thinking at your father's birthday celebration that you want what your brother has?"
Her words zapped a shiver of acknowledgment down his spine and wiped the grin off his face. How the hell could she know ? A month ago he'd gone back to Wasilla for his pop's sixtieth birthday. Sven's brother, Eric, Eric's wife and their five-month-old daughter had been there, as well. Watching them interact had given him the funniest feeling inside, and yes, he had thought exactly thathe wanted what they had.
An image of darkly sexy Juliette Miller, one of
Good Riddance's bush pilots, had popped into his mind. He'd quickly dismissed Juliette and the notion.
He zeroed in on the one detail Alberta had gotten wrong. "I'm not a snuggler."
Her expression was nothing short of smug. "You will be."
Another shiver chased from his neck down his back. "I'm not one of your matchmaking candidates."
"Oh, but you are. The problem is sometimes you men don't know your own mind." Damn if that wasn't the same thing his mother and his sister-in-law said sometimes. Women.
"My mind and I communicate just fine." Sven laughed. "There's no business to be had on my end." He so did not need a matchmaker. He did just fine with chicks on his own.
"For you, my services are free." A sly smile lit her eyes and curled her lips. "And here comes the one for you."
Sven turned. The small hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. Across the street Juliette, her short dark hair hugging her head, a pair of aviator glasses hiding her eyes, was striding down the sidewalk. As usual, purposeful intent marked her every step. She was standoffish as hell. They'd managed to give each other a wide berth, which was kind of strange considering they were singles of the opposite sex. However, when a woman steadfastly ignored you, ignoring her in return became something of a game. It'd require a brave man or a fool to take on Juliette. He was neither.
He turned back around and faced Alberta. "I've got some sad news for you, Alberta. You've got this one wrong. I like my women uncomplicated and easy."
Eyes gleaming, Alberta shot him a pitying look. "And look at where it's gotten you." She patted his arm. "You'll see."
Right. More like Alberta would see, because not just no, but hell no. Juliette Miller required way too much work.
"It's broken." Dr. Skye Shanahan pointed to the X-ray film up on the backlit screen that afforded a clear view of Bull's left arm.
"Well, dammit, if that's not inconvenient," Bull grumbled from where he sat on the exam table.
"Inconvenient's a whole lot better than dead," said Good Riddance's founder, town mayor, but most important, Bull's wife, Merrilee Danville Weather-spoon Swenson. She was glad he wasn't deadand now she just might kill him for taking such a stupid risk. Climbing up on top of the roof to string Christmas lights in May..
"Now I've got to turn the set building over to someone else," Bull said.
Merrilee simply shook her head. Honest to goodness, forget the pain of a broken bone, the man was upset because ever since they'd started the annual spring dinner theater six years ago, Bull had handled the set design. That was one of the things that had set her head over heels in love with him when she first met him twenty-five years ago: he was one interesting mix of a man. Tough as nails, he uncompromisingly adhered to a fitness schedule, bore a plethora of physical and emotional scars compliments of a stint at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, wore his long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, and had the talent and soul of an artist even though he ran a hardware store. At this moment, disappointment etched his face.
Granted, the dinner theater production was a big deal. It was one of those things that involved everyone. If people didn't want to be part of the production, they could just sit in the audience. They'd all chosen to live in an area where entertainment was scarce, but forming a dinner theater had built on their strong sense of community and brought a creative outlet to lots of folks who didn't have one otherwise.
"Sven," Merrilee said. The tall blond builder wasn't exactly a Good Riddance residentyetbut he was the logical choice to take over for Bull. Plus, there was the Juliette issue.
"Well, he knows how to build," Bull admitted, "but it takes some artistry, as well."
"I'm sure he won't be as good as you, but he does have something of an artistic bent, as well," Merrilee said, understating Sven's capabilities so as not to trample all over her husband's already-bruised ego.
"You don't say."
From the khaki-green walls of the exam room, a giant yellow smiley face painted on the opposite wall beamed at them, in stark contrast to Bull's hangdog expression.
Merrilee rubbed her hand over his flannel-clad armthe unbroken one. "Just for this season, sweetie."
"All right then. I guess you better go look into it before everyone's freaking out that I won't be handling it. You don't need to stay while Dr. Skye puts on the cast. You know, Sven might not be able to handle all that comes with the job, if you know what I mean. Juliette has definite ideas about what she does and doesn't want."
It had taken some prodding and more than a little wheedling for Merrilee to rope Juliette into working on the set design with Bull this year. Juliette was pleasant enough, but she totally kept to herself. However, once Merrilee had dropped by the cabin outside of town Juliette rented and had seen all the wind chimes Juliette created, she knew the theater production was the perfect way to involve Juliette in the community. Juliette, still reserved for the most part, had taken to it like a fish to water.