“Do not call me babe. And if you ever take a fishing rod away from me without my permission, you’ll be shitting five-pound test line for three days.”
Jimmy gulped and managed a smile. Nicole knew full well that clients hit on her when they got a look at her tits and eyes and whatnot, and gave up when she proved she had nothing in her veins but river water. At least as far as her customers were concerned, she’d sooner lay a grizzly than someone who paid her bills.
Jimmy sketched a mock salute. “You got it, boss lady. Ready to try again?”
“Sure.” One. Two. Three. Four. Five. “Nice and easy. Use your wrist, not your arm.” Six. Seven. Eight. “Release the bale. And—you’ve caught another tree.”
Meekly, Jimmy handed back his rod. “Could you get that out of the branch for me, please?”
“My pleasure,” she groaned. Oh God, please save me from tourists. Especially big city tourists.
“Maybe we should try a different spot.”
“Maybe I should try a different client.”
“That’s cold, babe. I guess we really are in Alaska.”
“You don’t know what cold is. And don’t call me babe.”
E xhausted—more from Jimmy’s refusal to learn anything other than any real physical exertion—Nicole dropped him off at the Juneau branch of the Outer Banks Co. office and drove to her trailer, faking a cheerful wave as she sped off in her pick-up. At least this one hadn’t tried to grab her boobs when she bent over to tie on a sinker. And when did that guy get out of the hospital? Her boss had told her but she’d forgotten.
As always, her spirits lifted at the sight of the neat brown and cream mobile home at the far edge of the Juneau town limits. It was small, but she didn’t need much space, and the large shed held all her hunting and fishing equipment.
Best of all, the trailer backed up to 500 acres of wilderness. She’d had deer, possums, raccoons, snakes, rabbits, bears, and moose in her yard. Sparrows, woodpeckers, blue jays, hummingbirds, chickadees, plovers, and terns visited the dozen birdfeeders she kept full. And occasionally, Great Gray Owls swooped down and helped themselves to a plover or chickadee. Ah, well. Nature red in tooth and claw and all that.
Once a gut-shot deer had staggered into the yard and she’d put the poor thing out of its agony with a quick shot to the head with one of her rifles. The doe had never had a chance; it had been trailing viscera through her yard. She’d then called the Game Warden; when he showed up, he’d offered her the venison. She had declined, having a freezer full of wild game. She hoped the idiot who hadn’t bothered to track his kill would contract malaria in the near future.
Nicole carefully put her equipment away, locked the shed, then went through her front door. The place was immaculate, as usual, and sparsely furnished, as she liked it. Perfect order, perfect solitude. Her CDs and books were alphabetized; all the cans and boxes in the pantry were lined up. If only her mother had—
But her mother’s death was too recent and raw, and she shoved the thought away, hard. Her mother had left her enough money to buy the trailer new, for cash, and not much else. Oh, and her mother had also left her a favor. A last wish, as it were.
Her answering machine was blinking. She knew it wasn’t the office; they didn’t guide at night. She knew it wasn’t her dead mother. She had no friends, only acquaintances, and hadn’t been laid since her mother had gotten sick. Therefore…
She stabbed the Play button and heard a cultured, cool voice say, “Miss Krenski, my name is Edmund Dante and I am calling from the Sitka Palace regarding a letter you sent King Alexander. His Majesty the king requires an audience with you at once, as well as an examination by the royal physician. Please call me at 907-263-9331 at your earliest convenience. Thank you.” Click.
Nicole chewed her lip and thought about it. And thought about it some more.
And then she erased the message.
N icole erased the new message the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
N icole dropped her client, a perfectly pleasant family practitioner named Sandra Dee, of all things, at the Outer Banks Co. and pocketed the generous tip.
Sandra Dee, also from New York City, had caught on at once and spent the afternoon kicking ass and filling the live well. The small redhead nearly staggered under the weight of the fish on her stringer. Nicole unhitched the boat trailer, mentally promising her boss she’d come back first thing in the morning and hose it down.
Nicole couldn’t help but laugh as her giddy client bounded up the steps to the office with one final wave over her shoulder. These were the best days for her: showing someone a skill they had not known they possessed. Showing a stranger the utter and mystifying beauty of the Alaskan wilderness and recognizing the look on their face, the awe of someone at a stirring church service.
She swung by Chicken Lickin’ for a three-piece meal, hold the biscuits, extra gravy. Mmm…gravy. She’d drink it by the glass if she could. The thought made her grin.
Her smile faded as she saw the long black car parked in her driveway and the two men loitering on her front lawn. She didn’t slow and didn’t look in that direction again. She stared straight ahead—nope, nothing wrong here, and I certainly don’t live there, which is why I’m not looking at you two—and kept going past her trailer.
She found the back trail leading into the woods, got out of her truck and locked the hubs, then got back in, engaged the four-wheel drive, and bounced and jounced until she was only half a mile from the south side of her property.
Muttering under her breath, Nicole popped open her glove compartment and pulled out the .38. A poor weapon at long range, but she had every expectation of getting nice and close. Besides, the rest of her guns were in the shed. She cursed herself for not installing a gun rack in the truck. Well, maybe next week.
Nicole locked the truck (some of her rods were custom made) and stole through the forest on foot, noisy as a salamander. She came up on her trailer from behind, knelt, and carefully slid aside the panel to the left of the back door. She belly crawled beneath her trailer until she was beside her porch.
One of the men was sitting on her porch; the other one—the armed one, no mistaking the bulge on his hip, even from the road—was standing beside him. In fact, he was standing about nine inches in front of her face.
She supposed most single women might wonder why armed strangers were waiting for her in her yard, but she’d never been one to sweat the why of things.
She noiselessly slid the panel back, reached, clutched his ankles, and yanked. The man hit the ground face first and in a flash she vaulted from cover, sat on him, and pressed the barrel of her gun to the back of his head.
“That’s a .38,” she informed him. “Normally a pea shooter, but at this range, it’ll ruin your week.”
“Ow,” the man said calmly into the grass.
She relieved him of his sidearm, a spotless nine millimeter, and tossed it behind her, beneath her trailer. “When you get it back, you might want to break it down and hit it with some gun oil. It’s pretty dirty under there. Also, I don’t like surprises.”
“I never would have guessed,” the stranger mumbled into the turf.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” the man on the porch said in a deep voice, sounding exasperated and charmed at once. She turned her head, not moving the gun.
“Me,” the King of Alaska replied agreeably. He was dressed in jeans and a blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He had his chin cupped in his hand (he needed a shave) and took her in at a glance: the brunette hair, the blue eyes, the dirty shirt and jeans, the gun.
“Yep,” he said, sounding almost…cheerful? “You’re one of mine, all right. Nice to meet you, Nicole.”
“G o away,” Nicole said warmly.
“Aw, don’t be like that, kiddo. And would you mind putting away the pea shooter? You’re hurting Jeff’s feelings.”
“Not to mention my kidneys,” the man mumbled into the ground.
She carefully got off the man but kept the gun at her side.
“That’s better,” the king said as Jeff climbed slowly to his feet. “So, I’m Al, your dad. And we know who you are. That’s Jeff, head of my detail.”
She smirked. “And you’re not dead yet?” She was being nasty because she was so completely distracted by the bodyguard’s size. When he stood, he went up and up and up. Well over six feet and probably 220, none of it fat. He was built like a linebacker. He hadn’t looked so big from the road. Or so gorgeous.
No. She did not think that. Sure, he had lush, curly black hair—true black, not dark brown—and pale blue eyes. Sniper’s eyes. He had a built-in tan (was he part Akiak? or maybe Ekok?) and the muscular definition of a champion lifter. His head and hands were blocky, like they had been carved by a skilled craftsman who was in a hurry. He filled out his black tailored suit—a man his size couldn’t buy off the rack—superbly.
Gorgeous? Please. She was just distracted because she hadn’t been laid in 29 months and 18 days.
“Sire,” he was saying, “I apologize. I will tender my resignation at—”
“The hell. I didn’t hear a thing either. Serves us right for showing up on her turf without calling. Oh, wait. Edmund’s been leaving her messages all week.” The king beamed at her. “Should have had the palace guards drag you to my place instead.”
“Dead palace guards,” she informed him. “Mutilated subjects. Body parts all over the Sitka Palace.”
“I see you inherited none of your mother’s charm. Just my mouth. Oh, and my fabulous good looks,” he added modestly.
“Like you knew a thing about my mother.” It made her angry, it enraged her, to hear this pampered cheating bastard talk about her dear dead mom. “She was a fling, a one-night stand that lasted for a week or two.”