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"A good car is like a good life," Cooper Hamilton said to his friends over a beer on Friday night in Kenkamken Bay, Alaska's, Bar & Grill. "Make it affordable, make it practical, make it easy to trade in. And you're all set."
"A good car starts up and goes no matter how bad the storm," Gideon Walker added, tightening the knot on his don't-leave-home-without-it blue tie. "Nothing keeps a good car stuck in your driveway."
Ty Porter scratched his full, dark beardthe one that gave half the men in town beard envyand channeled his inner cynic. "Unless it runs out of gas."
Coach, the bar's owner and bartender, rolled his eyes. And Coop couldn't blame him.
In their high school years, Coop, Gideon and Ty had strutted around town looking down their noses at K-Bay because they were destined to leave for better things in the Lower 48. Now they'd become a sad cliché. A fixture at the K-Bay Bar & Grill. Always taking up the three seats at the elbow of the bar near the kitchen.
As demoralizing as the 0-0 score of the hockey game.
There were other fixtures in the old bar, of course: the large brass bell that hung over the beer taps, the hand-painted sign above the mirror proclaiming it a Nag-Free Zone, and the other regulars at their regular seats. Mike and his fishing buddies around the pool table. Sam and other cannery workers in the booths near the front windows. Derrick and the crosscountry truck drivers at the round wooden table in front of the big-screen television.
Coop supposed there was nothing wrong with being a regular and keeping to your group of friends. It was just that Coop hadn't expected to be one of themthe bearded, parka-wearing, windshield-scraping residents of a remote town in southwest Alaska.
The hockey game on the big screen ended. There were calls for a change of channel. Coach worked the remote with arthritis-gnarled fingers. Other sports played silently on smaller TVs around the bar.
Out of habit, Coop flexed his digits. His father had lost all the fingers on one hand in a fishing accident that had nearly killed him, right before Coop had planned to leave for college. Made Coop appreciate his limbs and everyone else's, arthritic or not.
A lifestyle report from an Anchorage station popped on-screen. The reporter was interviewing a woman wearing a turquoise business suit that looked as though it belonged in Washington, DC, not Alaska.
"The possibilities for matchmaking in Alaska are limitless due to the ratio of men to women here." Not one of the suited-lady's highlighted curls moved in the wind. "When I meet a female client, I intuitively know what kind of man she'll be happy with. You could almost say that love is guaranteed." She flashed a calculated smile at the camera. "If you hire me."
Jeers rose from the crowd.
Coop groaned. As a car salesman and used-car-lot manager, he knew a slick sales pitch when he heard one. "If that woman sold cars, she'd be doctoring repair records and rolling back odometers."
Coach found a basketball game and the patrons settled down.
"'There are no women in Alaska.'" Ty framed his statement in air quotes. "That's a myth."
"A myth everywhere but here," Gideon said. Since he worked as a loan officer at Kenkamken Bay Savings & Loan, he should know the area's statistics. "K-Bay is seventy-five percent male."
"And some of the females " Coop didn't voice the rest of his opinion. The women in town were nice, but they weren't the kind you'd see in beauty pageants or in a Lower 48 big city. Heels? Glossy hair? Artfully applied makeup? Not in K-Bay. "Why would they put a story about matchmaking on the news?"
Coach slapped the lifestyle section of the Anchorage Beat on the nicked oak bar. "Because Kelsey Nash wrote an article about that woman."
Coop's gaze cut to Ty. His friend looked away from the paper and touched the scar on his cheek, the one half-hidden by that thick beard.
Kelsey was from K-Bay and had been the first to report on Ty's careerending injuries seven years ago. That wouldn't have been so bad if she hadn't slanted the piece to make Ty look like an irresponsible, immature fool. Never mind the puck to Ty's face, detached retina, medically induced coma and the end of the man's pro-hockey dreamsof all their dreams. Ty wasn't a fool. He was just Ty.
"It's a fluff piece. It's not as if matchmaking would be hard in a city like Anchorage." Coop tried to discredit Kelsey's story. "Let that woman try matchmaking in K-Bay."
"We could do better than her." Gideon was right there with him, adjusting the knot in his tie as if it was Monday morning, not Friday night. "I mean, come on. What does a woman like that know about what a man from Alaska likes? It's not worth the space in the paper or the airtime on TV."
"Listen to yourselves." Coach's voice rumbled like a logging truck speeding over rutted black ice. "Talking as if you had any idea about life or love."
"I just said life was like a good car." Coop sat up straighter. There was nothing that got his heart pumping like a good bar argument. "And women like a good car. Just look at me." He spread his arms. "I'm good-car material."
"Sure you are." Coach poured the sarcasm over Coop's belief. "You're cheap, boring and stuck in a rut. Just like my wife's snowbound sedan out on Old Paris Road. Won't get that out until spring. If ever."
And if that didn't deflate Coop's tires
Ty was still lost in thought when Gideon jumped to Coop's defense. "Men know what they want in a woman. To make a match, you'd just have to dig down deep to discover what the heck a woman really wants. That matchmaker using her 'intuition' is farcical. If two people would just be honest about what they wanted"
"Exactly." Coop leaped back into the fray. "If a woman would just say, 'I do want a long-term commitment from a man that'll likely lead to marriage and probably having babies,' it would cut through all the awkward, getting-to-know-you part." And transition Coop to the "sorry, that's not me, been nice to know you" part.
Coach chuckled, but it wasn't the sound of shared humor. "The three of you sit in my bar every Friday and Saturday night, and most Sundays, too. Sometimes you go to Anchorage to meet women, but you don't date anyone regular. What could you possibly know about matchmaking?"
"I bet we could make introductions with more success than that woman." Coop's voice rang with confidence. It wasn't as though he was actually going to have to prove his point.
"Look at all the single guys in this bar. There's a catch here for every gal."
They all scanned the bar's patrons.
Coop almost considered issuing a retraction. Scraggly beards. Scraggly hair. Scraggly flannel shirts. K-Bay wasn't exactly Baywatch.
But Gideon was back in the game. "I bet we could match more couples than her, too. And I wouldn't use my intuition."
"We'd have the Bar & Grill's bell ringing on the hour." Coop's statement might have been a little over the line. Whenever someone found The One, they rang the bell over the bar. The bell hadn't been heard in more than a year.
"I'll take that bet," Coach said, puncturing the wind from their sails. He leaned on the bar, capturing their attention the same way he had years ago as their high school hockey coachwith a steely-eyed stare that said he was done with small talk and ready for action. "There are three weeks until Valentine's Day. I'll bet you three can't get three couples to ring that bell by Valentine's eve."
"Three?" Coop scoffed, the first of their trio to find his voice. "We could do twice that."
Ty and Gideon stared at Coop as if he'd just told them he'd traded his truck for a minivan.
"Deal." Coach offered his hand.
Coop reflexively put his out, but Gideon arm-barred his hand aside. "We don't know the terms. What do we get if we win this bet?"
"A hundred bucks." Coach smirked, making his face as wrinkled as a shar-pei's.
Again, Coop put out his hand.
Again, Gideon batted it down. "That's not worth one match, let alone six."
"Six hundred, then." Coach's grin said he thought they'd fail.
Heck, Coop thought they'd fail. Six? What had he been thinking?
Clearly he hadn't been. Still, Coop kept his smilethe one that had helped him sell hundreds of carsglued to his face. No reason to let Coach sense blood in the water.
Coop glanced at Gideon. Gideon glanced at Coop. It was too late to back out now. They nodded and extended their hands to seal the deal, but this time it was Ty who stopped them from accepting the bet.
"Forget the money. If we win, we want jobs on one of your hockey teams." Ty had an expression on his face that Coop hadn't seen in seven yearslike a bull charging toward the china shop. He'd scowled like that during a high school championship and had defended four shots on goal in two minutes to ensure their team won.
Coop wasn't sure if the entire bar heard Ty's terms or not. For a moment everything seemed quiet. Or it could have been the ringing in Coop's ears that blocked out the clinking of glasses, beer-roughened voices and deep drifts of laughter.
Jobs in the Lower 48? It was all they'd ever wantedto get out of town and work together in professional hockey.
Coach's gaze morphed from dismissive to appraising. He owned large stakes in a couple of farm teams in the contiguous US. He'd been a successful hockey coach at the highest level, retiring early due to a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis now under control with a change in lifestyle and diet. "You want to sell popcorn and pretzels at some of my games?"
Ty didn't flinch at the jab, although it hit him where it hurt because his thickly bearded chin jutted out. He'd gone from being a potential hockey superstar at eighteen, predicted to go high in the draft, to a jack-ofall-trades employee at K-Bay's run-down skating rink. "Coop can sell bottled sand in the desert. I'm sure you have marketing positions. Gideon can make money grow on trees"
"Legally," Gideon murmured.
"And I know the game inside out." Ty's chin thrust halfway to Russia. "I could coach."
The stakes of the bet had increased astronomically. It was what the three of them had dreamed of as boys: escaping Alaska. Only, back then, Coop was going to be Ty's sports agent and Gideon his financial adviser. When Ty's dreams had fallen apart, so had Coop's and Gideon's.
Coop tried not to look as though he'd swallowed a fish bone. "Is it a bet, Coach?"
"You've forgotten one thing." The older man leaned against the back bar and crossed his beefy forearms. "What do I get when you lose?"
"We'll swim the Polar Bear Challenge naked," Ty offered.
Coach shook his gray, grizzled head. "You did that when you were teens."
"We'll bartend for you on weekends." At Coach's frown Gideon added, "For a month."
"I like tending bar," Coach said. "Gets me out of the house. Now if you wanted to take my wife shopping in Anchorage every weekend for a month."
Coop stared at Kelsey's article, at the suited matchmaker, at Kelsey's postage-stamp picture. "We'll take out an ad in the Anchorage Beat. Full page. Stating we know nothing about life or love, just like you said."
Ty made a noise like a polar bear right before it dived under dark and stormy seas.
Coach's faded blue eyes narrowed. "I want pictures, too. And an article about why Alaska is the best place in the world to live."
Everything they stood against. Everything they complained about. Everything that made living in K-Bay as boring and rut filled as Coach had accused Coop of being.
It was one thing to be disappointed in his lot in life, another to be called on it. Coop didn't hesitate. "Deal."
They all shook on it and Coach left them to check on other customers. They each stared at their shaggy, bearded reflections in the glass behind the bar.
"Seriously, Coop?" Ty took aim with his hellfire expression. "An ad? This is worse than the time you convinced us to hitchhike to Anchorage our senior year. It's not as if anyone knows who you are. But me"
"Coach wasn't going for a naked swim in the Bering Sea." Ty's anger didn't faze Coop. They'd known each other too long for him to take it personally. "And he wouldn't have gone for something simple like a case of rare whiskey."
"It is what it is," Gideon said, always the peacemaker. "But we can't tell anyone what it is."
Coop nodded. They'd be laughed out of K-Bay. "Where do we start?"
"Maybe we can get people to fill out an online survey." Gideon perked up. He loved anything techish. "I could design a program to pair them up."
The inner front door opened and a woman stepped in. She was wrapped from neck to snow boots in a reddish-brown parka that made her look like a stuffed sausage. Conversation in the room died away as every pair of male eyes turned toward her. She peeled off her knit cap, revealing shoulder-length, glossy blond hair and artfully applied makeup.
She was pretty, beautiful even. The kind of woman that men stopped and took notice of.
Coop sat up straighter. Noticing. "Here's our first customer."
She unfastened her jacket with small, delicate hands, revealing a small, delicate head covered in blond fuzz. A baby. Strapped to her chest.
The room heaved a sigh of regret. Conversations resumed, albeit not at their usual volume.
Slumping, Coop returned his attention to his beer. "And there goes our first customer."
Boots rang across the oak floor.
Gideon tapped Coop on the shoulder. "She's coming over here."
Coop turned back around.
It was the weirdest thing. Coop was used to Alaska's winters, used to the cold. But as the woman and the baby approached, the room took on a chill.
She stopped in front of him and arched a golden brow. "Cooper Hamilton?"
Coop nodded, rather numbly, because there was something familiar about the woman's face, about her smooth voice, about the swing of her pretty blond hair across her shoulders.
She gestured to the baby. "I believe I have something of yours."