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Dr. Cole Stevens looked out the window of his pontoon Cessna, trying to get a better look at Marshall's Fishing Lodge and Resort. The large upscale property, nestled in a cove on the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska, was set against the emerald rain forest of the gentle hills of Prince of Wales Island.
Because he was a nature lover at heart, Cole did his best never to take the splendor of the world he lived in for granted. As a bush doctor he felt blessed to have a job he loved. He didn't always know where his day would take him. Sometimes he would be at the hospital. Other times he'd be helping with search-and-rescue out in the middle of nowhere.
On this late August day he was here to find out what type of illness had struck a group of fishermen from Kansas who were staying at Marshall's. As Cole expertly set his Cessna down on the choppy water and steered it toward the dock, he thought about Frank Marshall and his family's shabby treatment of employees and the people who lived on the island.
A local, Cole was well aware that the Marshall family had a hard time keeping employees, even though the pay was excellent. It took a tough person to handle the brutal hours and the family's habit of treating staff like indentured servants. But if you needed the money, he guessed it was worth it.
This got him thinking about the conversation he'd had earlier in the day with his best friend Jake Powell, the chief ranger of the Tongass National Forest. Jake had been visiting Ketchikan where Cole lived, and had taken him out to lunch, something that rarely happened these days. Normally if Cole wanted to see his buddy, he had to fly from Prince of Wales Island to the small town of Craig, Alaska, to visit him and his family.
"I've got about fifteen minutes for lunch," he told Jake.
"Since when?" Jake took a swallow of beer and scowled at Cole. "Come on. We've had this lunch planned for weeks."
"Nature of my job." Cole hurriedly ate his sandwich. "I've got to fly up to Marshall's and take care of some sick people."
"Why don't you tell Frank Marshall to take a long hike on a short dock?" Jake said. "The Mar-shalls have ruined the sport of fishing with that new technology, and you know it!"
"Not really. I'm a terrible fisherman." Cole took a sip of his soda. "And all the technology in the world wouldn't make me a better one."
Jake set his beer down and grinned at his friend. "Yes, you are a terrible fisherman. Remind me again why we're friends."
"Beats me. Yet you're here paying for lunch."
Jake straightened. "Now why is that? You're the rich doctor. You should be paying."
Cole shook his head. "Nope. You lost your bet. That last rescue we didI said it would take three days to get out, and you said two, but I was right. Three horrible days."
"I need another beer." Jake swallowed the remains of the first, then called out to the waitress. "I hated that rescue. That guy" he shook his head in disgust "total jerk."
Cole agreed. "Almost worse than Frank Marshall. What was his name? Brek?"
"Brekker. Brekker Harris from Colorado." Jake imitated the man's voice.
Cole burst out laughing. "The guy still thought he was some mountain man even though we had to carry him out of the bush on foot."
"I don't know how you handle dealing with Old Man Marshall as much as you do."
"This trip has nothing to do with him. It's about the lodge guests who are sick at his place." Cole studied his friend. "Tell mehas Freddy been up to his old tricks lately?"
"Hey, are you asking me for info after you've only given me a few minutes of your precious time?" Jake's face broke into a grin again. "I'm not talking. It's part of my job."
Cole finished his sandwich with one last bite. "Come on."
Jake shook his head. "My lips are sealed."
"Come on" Cole threw his hands in the air and leaned back, cocking his head at Jake. "Did Freddy bring girls up from the lower forty-eight? He's done it before."
"You're killing me, Cole. Okay. But this stays between you and me."
Cole ran a hand through his short sandy hair. "Oh yeah, because I'm gonna gossip like a school girl. You know me better than that, Jake." He leaned forward. "I'm waiting."
Jake sighed. "Well, I just happened to do a random check on some of the Marshall boats while Freddy was out fishing. Every boat had fish catches over the limit. I issued a lot of citations that day."
"That's nothing new. Go on. What else?"
"Rumor has it that Freddy, who's been attending college in Washington, D.C., brought four women there to work this summer at the resort."
"And?" Cole began to drum his fingers on the table.
Jake leaned in closer. "All the women thought Freddy was in love with them. Apparently they each thought he'd brought her home to meet Daddy and propose. It's been a really nasty summer."
"Instead, he brought them home to work like slaves for his father," Cole said flatly.
"You got it."
"Typical Freddy." Cole finished his soda. "Okay, pal, gotta go."
It had been good to see Jake. While Cole was still remembering their conversation, the door of his plane was opened before he had completely shut the engine down. It brought Cole back to the present in a hurry.
"Good to see you, Doc."
"You, too, Randy. I didn't know you were working here now."
"Had to. The cannery let me go. Now Shirley is pregnant with our third and ain't feelin' well. Fred Marshall made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
"What's the catch?" Cole knew there had to be one. Randy looked exhausted.
"I get a day off every other week."
"How many hours a day are you working?"
"Eighteen. But this talk is between you and me, right? Doctor patient confidentiality and all."
Aghast at Randy's working conditions, Cole reached into the rear of the plane to grab his bag and a few supplies in case he needed to administer meds. When he turned back, he was calm enough to talk to Randy and stay out of his business. "Yes, Randy. What you say to me is confidential. You're a good man and father. Just. .take care of yourself."
With that Cole climbed out of the plane, knowing Randy would keep an eye on things. He always found it difficult to come to such a stunning place where the rich and famous played, and see firsthand how much the staff, hired for the wealthy guests' care and comfort, suffered. Now he needed to find Frank.
Cole walked into the main lodge. A large wooden structure, it had lacquered beams that reached at least thirty feet high. The lobby was centered by a rock fireplace rising to the roof. It took your breath away.
Today it was ablaze, creating a cozy atmosphere. For the visitors' convenience, leather couches, with throws of various animal furs, were placed here and there, while the walls were covered with stuffed trophy fish, animal heads and incredible photographs of Alaska.
In the back of each alcove, where either a concierge or bellhop was stationed, was a mounted bear or mountain goat. A true fisherman's and hunter's paradise. Cole's mind, however, was on the sick people. He went to the front desk, behind which stood a tall brunette. She smiled at him.
"Welcome to Marshall's," she said. "I'm Ken-dra. How may I assist you?"
"I'm Dr. Cole Stevens. Frank Marshall called me earlier to fly out and check on some guests who are ill."
She nodded. "We've been waiting for you. Mr. Marshall has been very worried. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to him."
It was over an hour later when Frank Marshall finally caught up with Cole.
"How did it go with the patients?"
Cole eyed the man who'd fed a lie to him before paying him to fly out here. Frank was a tall, handsome, charismatic man in his mid-sixties. Yet Cole knew he could turn into a viper if things didn't go the way he wanted. His son, Freddy, was just as bad. "Luckily for you things are all right."
"That's great," Frank said. "So nothing to worry about."
"Don't ever lie to me again. I don't appreciate walking into a room full of vacationers from another country who could all have had a serious flu virus. You told me they were from Kansas! Fortunately what they had was strep throat and a bad case of sea sickness."
"I don't like your tone."
"And I don't like not knowing what type of situation I'm walking into. I've started them on antibiotics. Keep them away from the other guests for a day or so, and everything should be fine. If something changes, take them to the clinic in Craig to be assessed."
"All right, Cole. Listen. I have a bungalow on the water. It's unoccupied. Why don't you spend the night here on me? It's eight o'clock and dark outside. Dinner's over, but Bubba's still in the kitchen. I'll have him bring you something to eat at the bar. Everything will be on the house."
"I'll be sending a bill for the services rendered," Cole reminded him.
"And I'll pay it."
"All right. I am rather tired and hungry."
"So you'll keep this outbreak of strep between you and me?" Frank seemed worried.
"I have to. No laws were broken. The guests have the right to get sick. I want you to know I checked their visas, Frank. They have to be out of the country by Sunday. Make sure they are." Cole looked at him coldly. "If you need me, I'll be in the bar."
"I'll have one of the girls bring you the key to your bungalow."
Cole left Frank and followed the beautifully lit path surrounded by ancient pines and ferns to the bar. He took a deep breath of the invigorating air, the clean smell of wet earth and pine. The night sky was glorious, brimming with stars.
He was grateful he didn't have to fly back home on such a magnificent night. He'd pulled an all-nighter at the hospital the night before and was beat.
The bar looked like a saloon from the gold-mining days at the turn of the twentieth century. He walked inside and could see people sitting at tables and the bar laughing and talking, while a handful of others danced to the music blaring from a jukebox.
Sashi Hansen was exhausted as she headed to the bar. Her job was to give a key to a VIP at the resort. Who wasn't an important guest here? Then she smiled. Everyone considered themselves important, she supposed.
She lifted a hand to her nose. It smelled of soap. She often worried she'd grown so used to the smell of fish on her skin that she couldn't smell it anymore. Sashi had been in Alaska only a week when she'd overheard how much money could be made working down in the cannery. It paid three times what other jobs paid, but you really had to work hard. Fourteen-hour days on your feet cleaning, filleting and packing fish ready to be sent to places all over the world. So she resigned from her original job as a hotel maid and went to work in the packing plant.
Today Sashi had packed fish all day and the smell had been dreadful. When wasn't it dreadful? She was convinced she was slowly turning into a fish, not realizing how vain she was. The boss had ordered her to wait tables for two more hours. She needed to concentrate on that and then she could hit her bunk bed.
As long as Sashi kept her vision in mind, the long days weren't that bad. She could scarcely believe she was so close to attaining her dream. After working incredibly hard this summer, she'd earned enough money for a down payment on her own dance studio back home in Alexandria, Virginia, and would now be eligible to apply for a business loan. Soon she would be able to open it.
The long hours were draining, but she'd spent worse days getting ready for performances at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. Not to mention there were only three more days left at this place and then she and her best friend, Kendra, would be flying home. She couldn't wait!
Sashi walked into the bar, ducked behind the counter and found an apron to tie around her waist. Reaching into her jeans, she grabbed a rubber band and pulled her strawberry-blond hair into a pony-tail. It reached halfway down her back.
With that accomplished, she inhaled deeply. Just think about tips.
First she needed to find a Dr. Stevens. Mac, the bartender, would know him. The middle-aged Tlin-git knew everyone who flew in and out of here for whatever reason. "Yo, Mac," she called. "I need some help over here." Over the past three months she'd picked up the easy local banter.
"How can I help you, New York?" he responded.
Sashi had grown accustomed to every employee calling her "New York." After living in the Big Apple for the past ten years, she'd picked up the accent, and here it had earned her the nickname.
"I need to find a Dr. Stevens," she said.
"Really? Did you get lined up for a date?" Mac's brown eyes twinkled.
She blushed. "No. Mr. Marshall told me to give him the key to his bungalow."
"Not anything else?"
Sashi hated all the attention men gave her, even in a teasing manner. "You're shameless." She put her hands on her hips and tried her best to make a hundred pounds look tough.
"I know. But you still love me." Then he gave her a hug. Sashi found if she held herself stiffly, most men let her go pretty fast. And he did.
"Just show me where the doctor is."
Mac brought his face close to hers. He reeked of alcohol, causing her to shudder. "He's the blond guy in the sweater and jeans staring at you." He pointed.
Sashi turned and met the most unusual pair of eyes she'd ever seengolden like honey, in a face that looked like it belonged in a magazine. Tanned, with an aquiline nose and chiseled features, even a cleft chin. Damn. For the first time since she'd been here, she felt her stomach tighten up over a good-looking man. Embarrassed because of the way she was reacting to him, she looked down at the floor.
"New York," Mac said. "Doc Stevens is right there!" He gave her a little shove.
Sashi was sure she was bright red by now. The curse of pale skin.
Stop it, Sashi. Go give the doctor his key!