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Rachel Hart left the warmth of her office building to trudge through the snow toward the processing center at the Port Aurora Fishery. The lights on in the building beckoned her in the predawn morning. The sun was just rising to the east in Port Aurora, Alaska, and then it would set by three in the afternoon.
She was used to the winters, having lived most of her twenty-eight years in the town, but today she wished the sun would shine for more than six hours. She looked up at the dark clouds rolling in and quickened her pace. An omen?
She lifted her cell phone and listened again to the message from Aunt Betty. "Rachel, I've got to talk to you. Today. Alone. Something's wrong. I don't know what to do. I'm taking my break at nine this morning." Luckily, today was payday, so Rachel could use her position as bookkeeper as an excuse to visit the processing center.
The urgency in her aunt's voice shivered down Rachel's spine. What's wrong? Aunt Betty is always so cheerful and calm. She must have called earlier while Rachel was away from her office.
Entering the building, Rachel walked down the hallway that led to the mail room for the employees who worked in the processing center. It was part of the large break room next to the office where Sean O'Hara managed this part of the company.
When she popped into the break room, Aunt Betty sat at the table with one of the newer employees. "I've got your paychecks." Rachel covered the distance to the two women and handed Betty and Ingrid their checks. "The next one will come with a bonus right before we close down for Christmas." She wanted to pull her aunt out in the hallway and find out what was wrong, but when she looked at the older woman with touches of gray hair around her face, her brown eyes widened and she shook her head slightly.
"I'm just thankful for the extra hours." Aunt Betty opened the envelope, looked at the amount and forced a grin, the corners of her mouth twitching.
In past years the fishery had closed down during the winter months, and the crabs were sent to another plant. Rachel had been thrilled about that part of the fishery's expansion in the last year. So had everyone else, especially Aunt Betty.
"But I'm also excited to have a few weeks off for the holidays." Her hand shaking, Aunt Betty stuck her paycheck in her pocket.
Rachel wanted to ask the other employee to leave but swallowed those words and instead said, "Me, too. Jake Nichols got in late last night for the holidays." She should be excited, but a lot had happened between them since they were teenagers. Jake had been her best friend while growing up, but when he left town eight years ago, they lost touch.
"I know Lawrence is glad to see Jake here, especially after what happened in Anchorage in August." Aunt Betty finished off her coffee.
"What happened?" Ingrid asked, having only recently been hired.
Rachel moved to the mailboxes and began stuffing the envelopes into them, hoping Ingrid left soon. "There was a serial bomber. Jake, a K-9 officer in Anchorage, was working one of the crime sites, searching for survivors or missing people, when the building collapsed on him. He nearly died." And he had made it clear he didn't want her to come see him while he was recovering. That hurtstill did.
Ingrid hugged her arms. "Oh my. Search and rescue is dangerous, but I'm finding out it's even more so here in Alaska with so much wilderness."
"Where are you from?" Rachel asked as she finished her task.
"That's where Brad Howard's new partner is from."
Rachel paused at the exit. "Peter Rodin. Have you heard of him?"
"He was on the news from time to time," Ingrid said.
Aunt Betty's eyebrows rose. "About what?"
"His foundation gives money to various projects for the city." Ingrid rose and headed toward Rachel. "My break is over."
Relieved the woman was leaving, she moved to the side to let Ingrid pass, while her aunt's expression morphed into the apprehensive look she'd worn when Rachel first came into the break room.
When Aunt Betty remained in her seat, Ingrid said from the hallway, "Aren't you going back to work?"
Her aunt blinked several times. "Yes, I just want Rachel to pass a message on to my sister about this weekend."
Ingrid started toward the end of the hallway but much slower than her usual brisk pace.
As soon as Ingrid turned the corner and disappeared, Rachel moved toward her aunt. "What's going on? I got your message."
Waving to Rachel to come closer, Betty pushed to her feet. "I'm glad Jake is home. He's a police officer. He might know what's going on and help. I need some
" Her aunt's voice faded into the silence.
Rachel heard footsteps and glanced toward the door. Sean O'Hara came into the break room.
"Hello, ladies." Sean's eyes brightened as they took in Rachel. "Ah, payday. That's always a good day around here."
"Yes, it is. I need to get back to work." As a pallor crossed her features, Aunt Betty took her paper cup, crushed it and tossed it into the trash can by the door as she left.
Her concern growing, Rachel watched her leave as though a grizzly bear was hot on her tail. This wasn't like her aunt. What did she want with Jake? What had her scared? She'd get in touch with her later. Maybe she would swing by her house on the way home today. Aunt Betty only lived a mile away from Aunt Linda's, the older of her two aunts, and the one she lived with.
"I saw Jake down the hall. I told him I'd give him the grand tour. I know you two were good friends growing up. You're welcome to come along."
"Jake is here?" He and Sean had been friends in high school, too, so it wasn't that odd.
"Yeah, he couldn't believe all the changes around here. He wants to see the new vessels, processing center and shipping warehouse."
Rachel couldn't shake the worried expression on Aunt Betty's face. This might be her chance to see if she could talk to her on the floor, rather than wait until later. "Make it the short tour. I need to get back to work. Everyone will want their checks."
"I just came inside. It started snowing."
"Right on time, for a change."
Sean chuckled. "Predicting the weather isn't an exact science. But I'll be glad to get home before the hard stuff hits, which shouldn't be until tonight."
Jake Nichols turned as they approached him at the entrance into the large processing room. She took in his tall, muscular build, blue eyes and short black hairthe same and yet something had changed in the last couple of years since she'd visited Anchorage. It had to be the accident that nearly took his life in August.
Jake's look warmed when he saw her. Maybe in the next month they would be able to renew their friendship, and he would come back to Port Aurora more frequently.
"Rachel was in the break room. She thought she would join us like old times." Sean opened the wide double doors into the cavernous space where the fish and shellfish were processed for shipping to the rest of the United States.
Sean began pointing out some of the additional machines and the areas that were expanded this year. Rachel stepped away and glimpsed Aunt Betty decked out in her protective clothing with white hat and long gloves at the end of a conveyor belt. While Sean strolled with Jake to various stations, Rachel hurried toward her aunt. Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel spied Ingrid approaching Aunt Betty. Her aunt locked eyes with Rachel and shook her head. She came to a halt. Suddenly, she felt like she was in the middle of a spy movie, which was ridiculous. Aunt Betty could be melodramatic at times, but usually she was levelheaded.
Ingrid paused next to her aunt and said something. Aunt Betty nodded. Rachel would have to wait to appease her curiosity. She released a long breath and pivoted, searching for Jake and Sean.
She caught up with them near the freezers. "I need to get back to headquarters. It was great seeing you again, Jake. You and your grandfather are supposed to come to dinner tonight. A welcome-home party."
"I'll come with you." Jake slanted his glance briefly toward Aunt Betty.
Did he see that nonverbal exchange between her aunt and her? Jake had always been perceptive, which probably made him a good police officer. Rachel gave Jake a smile, waiting until he shook hands with Sean and joined her before heading out of the processing room. In the hallway leading to the exit, she asked,
"What do you think of the new additions to the fishery?"
"Impressive what has been done in a short time. Gramps told me things were automated and upgraded where they could be. What's in the building next to this one? That's new."
"The shipping warehouse. Everything going by boat to Anchorage is loaded easily when the vessel docks right outside. They even dredged the harbor to allow for bigger ships."
"How much is flown out?"
"Maybe a thirdmore in the warmer months. Ready?" She peered at Jake as he reached to open the main door. His strong profile had been shaped by the recent events in his lifethe lines sharper, adding a hard edge to his features.
His hand on the knob, he peered sideways at her. For a few seconds his gaze trapped hers, and she didn't want to look away.
"Is something wrong with your aunt?"
"I don't know. She called upset, but we haven't had a chance to talk alone yet. I'll stop by after work to see what's going on."
"When she went into the processing room, I said hi to her and she didn't even acknowledge it. She just kept going. I know I've been gone, but that's not like her. She's the first to want to know everything about a person."
"I agree she isn't acting normal." Rachel headed into the lightly falling snow and made her way toward the office building.
She'd make sure Aunt Betty came to dinner. She'd been invited. The storm shouldn't hit full force until after midnight, and if she had to, Aunt Betty could stay at her sister's.
"Why were you at the processing center? I was surprised to see you there."
Jake smiled. "To see you. I saw you entering the building and came to say hi. I hear you were promoted to bookkeeper."
"Yes, which reminds me, I have to finish my rounds and give out the payroll checks. I'll see you tonight."
Midway through the afternoon, Rachel called Sean's office to see if she could talk with Aunt Betty. His secretary told her that her aunt had clocked out early and gone home. Rachel tried Aunt Betty's home number. No answer. She might not be home yet.
When Rachel was ready to leave two hours later, she made the call to her aunt's again, and the phone still rang and rang. Rachel's worry mounted. What if she was sick and couldn't answer it? She had looked pale earlier. And why had she wanted Jake's help?
Rachel hurried to her Jeep and navigated the snow-packed streets to the outskirts of Port Aurora. Aunt Betty's house was on the same road out of town but before Aunt Linda's house. Both her aunts and Lawrence Nichols, Jake's grandfather, loved living a little out from town.
When she reached Aunt Betty's drive, she drove down it and parked in front of the cabin, not far from the shed where her aunt's truck was. She was home.
Rachel made her way to the covered front porch, the wind beginning to pick up and blow the snow around as it fell. Rachel knocked. A minute later she did again.
When Betty didn't come to answer the door, Rachel stepped to the side and peeked into the living room window. She froze at the sight of the chaos inside.
Jake finished getting the supplies for Gramps and strolled toward the checkout at the Port Aurora General Store. It had been good to see Rachel again. Talking to her this morning made him realize he missed their conversations. While in Anchorage, he'd kept himself busy, and he'd let their friendship slip. He should have come back to town before this. Port Aurora had been his home for years until
He shook the image of Celeste from his thoughts and put the items on the counter. Marge, the owner's wife, began ringing up his purchases.
A bell rang, announcing yet another customer coming into the popular store near the harbor. Jake glanced toward the person entering. He stiffened. He'd known he would see Celeste Howardthe woman who broke off their engagement eight years agoduring his extended stay at Gramps's, but he'd hoped not the first day in town.
Their gazes clashed. He gritted his teeth and swiv-eled his attention to Marge to pay for his supplies.
Marge's eyes twinkled. "She always comes in right before Brad leaves work and gets a drink at the café. She usually picks him up." Marge, one of the best gos-sipers in Port Aurora, waited for his response.
He smiled and said, "Thanks. Merry Christmas," then grabbed his bag and started for the exit of the store, which was dripping with Christmas decorations.
Celeste intercepted his departure. "Hi, Jake. It's good to see you again. I heard about your injury. How are you?"
She had meant everything to him at one time, but when he looked at her now, a cold rock hardened in his gut. "I'm fine, as you can see." Then he continued his trek toward the door, welcoming the blast of icy wind as he stepped onto the porch.
The heartache and humiliation of their breakup, done in front of a large audience at their engagement party, still fueled his anger. After his mother had left him with Gramps and gone on her merry way, he'd been wary of forming any deep relationship. First losing his father in a fishing accident and then his mom because she didn't want to be a mother anymore, had left its mark. Rachel's friendship had helped him through those hard times because she had gone through something similar with her own mom. Then when he'd fallen in love with Celeste, it felt so right. But the whole time, she'd been making a play for Brad Howard, the son of the richest man in town, using Jake to make Brad jealous.
Jake climbed into his grandfather's SUV and headed home. He was glad to have gotten that inevitable meeting over with. The earth didn't shake and swallow him because he'd seen her today. He was a different man than the one who had naively fallen for Celeste eight years ago.
In the dark of a winter day, Jake turned down the long drive that led to a cluster of several homes, one being his iv±vti gist/ *st iyi
iti-f J- I grandfather's on a few acres. He shouldn't have stayed in town so long. Although dinner at Linda's wasn't for a few hours, he wanted to spend time with Gramps and help him as much as he could around his place. Gramps, at seventy-three, moved slower and wasn't as energetic as he once was.
When Jake entered his childhood home, Mitch, his black and brown German shepherd, greeted him at the door, his tail wagging. He hadn't been sure how his dog would do, flying in a small plane, but he had been great. He would miss working every day with Mitch when he returned to the Anchorage Police Department. Mitch had been retired early because he'd lost one of his legs in the accident at the bomb site they had been searching.
"Did you miss me?" Jake rubbed him behind his ears.
The noise brought Gramps into the entry hall. "Every sound sent Mitch to the window to see if you were coming home."
"I stayed a little longer than I planned. I'm surprised at how much Port Aurora has grown, changed."
"Yes, it's been a harbor of busyness for the past year. Lots of construction in the summer. The roads still okay?"
"Yes. Five or six hours from now they might not be."
"If the storm blows through quickly, they'll have the roads plowed by tomorrow afternoon."