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In her wildest dreams, Zoey Hathaway never thought she'd wind up an heiress. And dreaming was something of a specialty for Zoey. She'd been dreaming for the better part of her life.
She glanced overhead at the snow-covered arched sign that read Up on the Rooftop Reindeer Farm, wondering how in the world she'd lived in Aurora, Alaska, her entire life and never known such a place was nestled right in the cleft of the mountains. She'd never even heard of the place. And now, according to the lawyer who'd called her the day before, it was her reindeer farm.
"Smile!" Anya Parker, Zoey's friend and former boss, snapped a photo with her cell phone. "I still can't believe it. You're a reindeer heiress."
"I know. I'm having trouble processing it myself." Zoey peered at the snow-covered horizon, searching for a glimpse of antlers.
From what the lawyer had told her, this was a small operation. A hobby ranchthat was what he'd called it. Which made sense, considering she'd never even known Gus lived on a reindeer farm. Her flight instructor had been like a surrogate grandfather to her, but he'd been a man of few words. Too few, apparently.
She wondered where the reindeer were hiding. And how many of them were lurking around. Four? Six? A dozen? A dozen seemed like a lot. She was hoping for six, at mosta manageable handful. What could she possibly do with twelve or more reindeer?
"Gus really never told you about this place?" Anya asked.
"No." Zoey shook her head. "Over two hundred fifty hours of flight time and more ice-cream sundaes than I can count, and he never said a word. I always knew he lived alone, but he never mentioned the reindeer."
"No family," Anya whispered, her words dancing in the air in a fog of vapor. "How sad."
A lump formed in Zoey's throat.
Get a grip.
She swallowed it down. She'd never been one to feel sorry for herself, to bemoan the tragic circumstances life had thrown her way. And she wasn't about to start now. But picturing Gus living here alonedying alonewas sobering, to say the least. She'd lost her parents when she was sixteen years old. And she hadn't seen her only other living relativesan aunt and uncle who lived in the Lower 48since the funeral. Zoey was every bit alone as Gus had been.
Will this happen to me someday?
Anya's arm slipped around her shoulders. "Poor choice of words. I'm sorry."
Zoey pasted on a smile. "It's okay."
"You're not alone. You know that, right?" Anya's eyebrows lifted. "I don't know a soul in Aurora who doesn't think of you as a little sister. You're the town sweetheart."
Zoey pulled a face. "I don't know about that."
Town sweetheart? That was awfully flattering. Too flattering, perhaps. Granted, Aurora had a way of taking care of its own. And Zoey had always felt cared for, even after she'd found herself adrift. But being known as the perennial kid sister had its downside, particularly in the romance department.
Town sweetheart? Town mascot was more like it.
Not that it mattered. When it came to men, Zoey had a way of making sure things never got too out of control. Sure, she'd dated. Some. But never the same guy more than a handful of times. Relationships led to attachment. And in her experience, attachment eventually led to loss and pain. She'd been down that road before.
No, thank you.
"And now that you're an heiress, who knows?" Anya gave her a playful hip bump. "Half a dozen marriage proposals will probably come your way by lunchtime."
Before Zoey could utter a word of protestand she had plenty of them at the readya rumbling noise came at her out of nowhere. Beneath her feet, the snowy ground quaked. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought an avalanche was tumbling down the mountainside. But Anya's face showed no signs of alarm. And as a member of Aurora's Ski Patrol, Anya was something of an expert on avalanches, so Zoey exhaled a relieved, albeit curious, sigh.
"What is that?" Anya frowned as a cloud of snow on wheels came barreling toward them.
Zoey hopped backward out of its path, yet still managed to be on the receiving end of an onslaught of fine white powder. A chill ran through her as tiny pinpricks of cold sprayed her cheeks.
"Hey," she squealed.
The rumbling noise came to an abrupt stop.
Zoey blinked cold eyelashes against the sudden stillness. The white dust settled, revealing a rider clothed head to toe in black sitting astride a motorcycle. A large, powerful-looking motorcycle. Also black.
He parked directly beneath the reindeer farm's arched sign. At least she assumed it was a he. The rider's gender was impossible to discern, given all the protective gearglossy helmet with an impenetrable jet-black face shield, sleek slim-fit parka and black leather gloves that covered not only his hands and wrists, but half his arms. Not a fraction of skin was visible.
Still, the thought of riding around on that thing sent a shiver up Zoey's spine.
Man or woman, clearly the rider was insane. Insane and possibly suffering from frostbite.
Zoey cleared her throat as she took in the rider's broad shoulders and powerful build. Male. Most definitely. "Can I help you?"
The masked man swiveled his head in her direction.
Masked man? Really, Zoey get a grip. He's not a superhero. Although all the black reminded her vaguely of Batman.
The Dark Knight lifted the helmet from his head. A fleece neck gaiterblack, of coursewas pulled up over his mouth and nose, revealing nothing but a pair of frosty gray-blue eyes set below a head full of wildly disheveled dark hair.
He didn't look at all familiar. First the reindeer, and now a dangerous-looking biker. What else had Gus been hiding up here?
"I said, can I help you?" Zoey repeated, squaring her shoulders in an attempt to look authoritative. This was her reindeer farm, after all, even though she'd yet to lay eyes on a single antler.
Mystery Man gave Zoey a cursory once-over before pulling down the gaiter and exposing the rest of his facehigh, sculpted cheekbones, an ultrastraight nose and a square jaw so firmly set that he looked as though he made a regular practice of grinding coal into diamonds with his teeth.
His gaze flitted to Anya briefly and settled once again on Zoey. "That depends."
"Depends?" She unzipped her parka a smidgen. Her neck was growing warm for some strange reason. "Depends on what?"
"You're not the new owner of this place, are you?" He lifted a single, threatening eyebrow.
She lifted her chin. "As a matter of fact, I am."
"Well, it's about time," he seethed.
Zoey's mouth dropped open. Who was this guy? "Excuse me?"
"Perhaps introductions are in order." Anya stepped between them.
Zoey sent up a silent prayer of thanks for Anya's presence. Facing the irritable Man in Black wasn't exactly something she would have liked to do alone. Not that she was afraid of him. She'd certainly faced more frightening things than a biker in the wilds of Alaska. He was just a bit intense. And she still had no clue what he was doing on her reindeer farm, acting as if he owned the place.
Anya thrust a mittened hand at him. "I'm Anya Parker, and this is Zoey Hathaway. And you are?"
He pulled off one of his gloves and shook Anya's hand.
His gazed shifted back to Zoey. She reached for his hand and shook it. It was surprisingly warm given his chosen method of transportation.
"Hi, Alec," she said, offering him a polite smile. Perhaps they'd simply gotten off on the wrong foot.
He smiled right back at her. Even his smile possessed an edge. "You owe me a thousand dollars."
She blinked. Once. Twice. Three times.
Alec's smile faded as he crossed his arms and leaned back on the seat of his bike, apparently waiting for her to say something. Or whip out her checkbook.
Zoey's throat grew thick. "Perhaps there's been a misunderstanding."
"Nope. No misunderstanding." He shook his head. "This is your reindeer farm, is it not?"
"Well.. " She glanced at Anya, who could do nothing but shrug, then back at Alec. Zoey still had no clue who he actually was, other than a purported creditor. " yes. But I've only owned it for a day. Less than twenty-four hours, actually."
She couldn't possibly owe him a thousand dollars. For starters, she didn't have that kind of money.
Technically, she did, she supposed. But that money was part of the down payment for the airplane she was buying in five days. The airplane that was to be the start of her new career as a professional pilot. She'd worked eight years as a barista, scrimping and saving for that down payment. It took a lot of lattes to buy a plane, even a small one.
Her plane money was off-limits. She'd already given notice at the coffee bar. Next Monday was to be her first official day as a charter pilot, and she couldn't very well fly without an airplane.
Alec's gaze narrowed. He was looking less and less like a superhero with each passing second. "Twenty-four hours?"
"Thereabouts." She glanced at Anya again, eliciting a hearty nod of agreement.
"Maybe you could provide Zoey with some background information," Anya said.
"Yes. Background information would be delightful," Zoey muttered under her breath.
At least she'd thought it was under her breath. The storm clouds gathering in Alec's eyes told her differently. "As I said before, my name is Alec Wynn. I work here. For you, apparently."
So she'd inherited both a reindeer farm and a surly man on a Harley. Perfect. "How odd."
"Odd?" He angled his head, and a lock of unruly hair fell across his forehead.
Why am I looking at his hair? Surely that violated some sort of employer/employee boundary line. But how would she know? She'd never been anyone's boss before. "Yes. I mean, what exactly do you do for Gus? I mean, me."
This was beyond surreal. If her nose wasn't so cold, she'd wonder if she were dreaming.
"I care for the reindeer," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "And generally keep things running around here."
"Aurora's a small town. I've never laid eyes on you before. Where have you been hiding yourself?"
"I've only worked here a week. I spent my first day on the job giving my employer CPR. Unsuccessfully." Alec's gaze dropped to his hands. He paused a beat before continuing. "And now I've been feeding a herd of reindeeron my dimewhile I wait around to see what's to become of this place. So, forgive me if I haven't had time to make the social rounds."
So Alec had been the one to find Gus. This was new information. And it softened Zoey toward him a bit, even though she still thought him awfully demanding. And difficult. Couldn't he have mentioned this right off the bat? "I'm sorry."
He looked back up. Some of the tension had left his eyes, leaving a hint of pain in its place. "I'm sorry, too. For your loss. Are you his daughter?"
"Oh, no. I'm not family. Gus was my flight instructor." She swallowed. "And my friend."
His brow furrowed. "I see." Clearly, he didn't.
Which was fine. Zoey didn't really understand it herself.
"So, this thousand dollars," Anya said, directing them back to the matter at hand. "Is it your salary?"
Surely not. A thousand dollars a week? To feed a couple of reindeer? Although performing CPR was probably above and beyond the call of duty.
"No. Gus paid me a month up front because I moved here from Washington to take the job."
For the first time, Zoey noticed the Washington State license plate on the motorcycle. She wondered if he'd actually ridden the thing all the way up through snow-covered Canada. It didn't seem feasible.
Alec continued. "I'm out a fair bit now for reindeer food, hay and other incidentals. I can provide receipts."
A fair bit. Lord, please don't let it be even more than a thousand dollars. "How much do they eat? A thousand dollars is a lot of money."
He shrugged. "You've got a lot of reindeer."
Zoey grew very still. The snowflakes swirling around them seemed to move in slow motion. "I do?"
At long last, Alec Wynn smileda slight lift of one corner of his lips. It was the subtlest of gestures, but just lethal enough to uncurl a ribbon of dread in Zoey's belly. "Yes, ma'am. You certainly do."
* * *
Alec watched the color drain from Zoey's face. The pink in her wind-kissed complexion faded right before his eyes.
"How many, exactly?" she asked.
There was really no way to sugarcoat it. And anyway, Alec believed in telling things like they were. "Thirty."
"Thirty?" she echoed. She exchanged a glance with her friendAnya, if Alec remembered correctlywho'd been watching their exchange with what appeared to be keen interest. "Thirty!"
"Give or take," he added.
Zoey's gaze narrowed. She had lovely eyes. If Alec had been the romantic sortand he most definitely was not they probably would have reminded him of the moss-covered Sitka spruce trees that shaded the Olympic Forest back in Washington. "You mean, you don't know?"
"Of course I know." He lifted an irritated brow. "It's thirty. Usually. Palmer, one of the boys, keeps escaping. When he decides to grace us with his presence, it's thirty-one."
Anya snickered, failing in her obvious attempt not to laugh. "Zoey, you've inherited a rogue reindeer."
Zoey's mouth fell open. "This really isn't funny. What am I supposed to do with thirty-sometimes-thirty-one reindeer?"
Alec felt as if he should comfort her or something, which was ludicrous. What was he supposed to say? Sorry about your charmed life, sweetheart.
She looked as though she might faint dead away. He really hoped she didn't. His last attempts to revive someone hadn't worked out so well. Then again, that shouldn't have come as a shock. Sometimes it seemed as if everything he touched turned to ruin. Why should Alaska be any different?
All he'd wanted was a fresh start. He'd been looking for a new beginning all his life. Was that really too much to ask?
He'd driven his bike more than two thousand miles in four days to get here, only to find himself holding the lifeless body of Gus Henderson within a day of his arrival.
He balled his hands into fists and pounded them against his thighs in an effort to shake off the memory. As bad as things in his life had beenand they'd been plenty badhe'd never held a dying man in his arms before. It wasn't an event he cared to repeat. Ever.
"Zoey, take a deep breath. Everything is going to be fine." Anya wrapped an arm around Zoey's shoulders. "Why don't I call the lawyer and see if we can get to the bottom of this?"
Zoey gave a robotic nod. "That sounds good. Thank you."
"His number is on the paper work in the car. I'll go give him a call. Alec, it was nice meeting you. Welcome to Alaska." Anya waved at him and headed toward the SUV parked on the edge of the street.
Relief, mixed with a healthy dose of annoyance, had washed over Alec when he'd first spotted the unfamiliar vehicle. The new owner had shown up. Finally. For nearly a week, he'd been muddling his way through things until someone who knew what they were doing decided to join him.