Two-Chapter Excerpt from Erik's Revelation
~ Erik ~
Erik stared at his eldest brother, wondering if Sam’s worried expression was because he knew the truth about Erik’s heritage, or just brotherly concern. More father-like than brother, Sam had been watching over him, teaching him, ruling him…
Erik shook off that thought. That wasn’t fair. Sam had always been good to him. But now he couldn’t help but wonder what Sam knew. Couldn’t help but wonder if all the Belgardes knew the truth about his past.
Had that been the reason Sam had nearly vaulted out of his chair when he found out that Erik had done the genealogy reports on himself and his brothers? It was supposed to have been fun. Instead, for the first time in his life, Erik felt betrayed by his adopted father, Adam, the man who’d supposedly rescued him when he was a toddler lost in the woods. Felt betrayed by the family he’d thought of his own because they’d wanted him, not because he was a mistake one of them had made.
Sam set aside the paperwork he’d been working on when Erik came in, requesting they talk about a new business idea. Leaning back in the worn leather chair, Sam drilled Erik with another concerned stare. “Are you sure you want to take this on, Erik? Your plate is already full. How do you propose adding another role?”
Erik sighed. As much as he wanted to demand answers about his past, until he learned the entire truth, he didn’t want to reveal what he’d discovered. Especially if it was all a big mistake. Even though he was sure he’d followed the instructions for the genealogy tests perfectly. No way had he mixed his DNA with Sam’s.
So that Sam wouldn’t question his resolve, he checked his attitude, which had sucked royally for the last few weeks. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he said, answering Sam’s guarded expression with a nod and a forced smile. “You said so yourself that the guided tours were bringing in more money than rescues, so why not me? Everyone else has taken on extra work. Alex and Irene with flying tours. Vince and Valerie with boat tours. Daire’s been leading kayak tours. Even with a new baby, Nora’s been scheduling and keeping the websites up to date. I’ve always been good with horses. Who better to take vacationers on a horse-guided tour than a trained mountaineer? We have the barn and property. We just need to purchase some trail horses and, if we can swing it, I think we should hire a horse trainer, too. At least until I get comfortable. Alex said we have the money in our budget. He even loved the idea. And you know how worried Alex gets about money.”
Sam stretched, rolling his shoulders. “But I need you, too, Erik. I truly appreciate how Alex’s ideas have brought our company out of debt, but if he takes all my rescue workers, we’ll no longer be the Midnight Sons.”
Erik leaned against the wood-framed window. Autumn was here, season was over. They didn’t have near the amount of rescues after summer ended. “We’ll always be the Midnight Sons, Sam. I’ll never stop working search and rescue. But I want to do this. I’ll train on my off days, see how it goes. We have nearly seven months before we’ll be able to start booking tours.”
Sam chuckled. “You spend your little bit of free time rock climbing. Since when are you interested in horseback riding?”
“I’m twenty-eight, Sam. A man’s gotta grow up eventually, right? I can’t rock climb forever.”
Sam exhaled and spun his chair away from his desk. “Whatever you say, brother. For the record, I’ve never seen you as anything but grown up.”
Reflexively, Erik’s lips turned up. Sam had always championed him. “Thanks, Sam. I appreciate that.”
His big brother stood and clapped his hands. “So, what’s the plan? What did you and Alex decide behind my back?”
“Well… Nothing yet.” Erik chuckled nervously, staring out the window that offered a spectacular view of Denali. As first born, Sam had commandeered the best room in the house as his office. Now that he and Nora were parents, they’d bought a fixer-upper a few miles away, but Sam still came to their mother’s house daily to work. Apparently, Nora was appreciating her alone time with their new son, Adam, named after the family’s beloved father. The adopted father he wasn’t sure was the superhero he thought he was anymore.
Sam stepped up beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “What’s up, Erik? You haven’t seemed yourself for the last few weeks. It’s not like you to brood. That’s my job, I’m told.”
Erik huffed out a chuckle at the truth of those words, but the jovial feeling didn’t last. Nothing could keep him in good spirits these past few weeks.
“I’m just…thinking,” he told Sam, which was the truth. “Maybe I should talk to the Native community to find a horse trainer.”
Sam made a grunting noise, indicating he understood. “Ahh… And you’re not sure what you’ll discover… Alaska’s a big place, Erik. I wouldn’t worry too much about digging up skeletons.”
And there went his tumultuous thoughts again, wondering the true story about his past. Did Sam know what Erik would discover if he went searching? He wanted to confide in his brother; he really did. But he also wanted answers first. What if he had made a mistake, mixed his DNA with Sam’s? What if this was just some sort of pipe dream? Didn’t every adopted kid want to think more of their past than what there was?
After all, one fact he knew from his own memories was that his adopted father, Adam Belgarde, had found him in the wilderness. His father was a superhero. That’s what he’d always believed. He’d never suspected that his adopted father might be his real father. Had Adam Belgarde had an affair? Did he have a mother somewhere? More siblings who hadn’t had a chance to live the life he had?
Erik looked up at his brother. Nothing but truth filled his heart as he thought about what he wanted to say to his brother. “I never wanted to discover anything new about my past, Sam. I love my family. No man could want anything more than what I’ve had. I’m thankful every day that Dad found me and adopted me.”
“Me, too, Erik!” Sam patted him on the back. “All right then, go find us some horses and a trainer. We have plenty of time until season starts. Although, knowing my sociable wife, she’ll want to start talking about the possibilities and booking tours now.”
“One step at a time, right?” Erik couldn’t help laughing about Nora’s enthusiasm. She had plenty of troubles of her own, and yet, she’d taken on the family’s problems and business as if she’d been with them forever. “Tell Nora to allow me time to put this together before she starts booking my summer.”
And time to handle whatever I might discover about my past, he thought, but still held his words from Sam. It wouldn’t be right to cast the family’s past into shadow if he’d made a mistake, prompting the results of the genealogy report.
No way could Adam Belgarde be his real father. The memory of the other people in his past was grainy, but it was there, embedded into his brain for as long as he could remember.
The yelling. The crying. The crashing of objects.
Many a night after the Belgardes had adopted him, he woke up screaming. Without fail, Adam or Claire had been at his bedside in seconds. He’d wake to their loving words, and the images of the people in his nightmare would instantly fade as his mother or father caressed his head, whispering that he was safe and sound.
But the bad dreams refused to stop. Especially the ones where he was running through the woods, shivering and crying, wanting food and warmth, but not wanting to see the two people fighting.
Had he conjured up an imaginary past? Had the fuzzy images been Adam and Claire fighting—or his real mother? Obviously, he had Native American blood running through his veins, so he wasn’t a product of both Adam and Claire, so who then?
“Erik?” Sam’s voice broke him from his thoughts.
“I was just rambling, but you didn’t hear a word I said. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Erik shook his head to dissolve the images in his head. “Yeah. Just thinking how to go about finding a trainer and the right horses.”
“Why don’t you ask Gina for help? She grew up on that ranch in Wasilla. She might be able to point you in the right direction.”
“Good idea, Sam. I’ll call her.”
Not that he wanted to talk to Gina right now. She was the reason he was even in this mess. She was the one who’d suggested he order an ancestry report. Then again, that’s what he got for hanging out at Grizz’s afterhours. Gina was a great listener, so he’d said more than he meant to after having a few too many.
Without waiting for Sam to press him for more explanation of his sullen mood, Erik pulled out his phone and left the office. Yep, Gina was the perfect person to help him. Like him, she had Native American relatives, but she’d been raised by her non-Native grandmother who’d known Adam Belgarde since he was a teenager. Maybe he could kill two birds with one stone.
Erik leaned against the rough wood railing, watching the horse trainer lead a golden-yellow palomino around the muddy ring. He tried to ignore Gina’s glare, but she was waiting for an answer, he knew. Every few minutes or so she’d just stare up at him.
He knocked one of his boots against the fencepost, kicking off mud and anything else he might have stepped on after they’d left his truck. “I don’t want to talk about it, Gina.”
“Come on, Erik. You’re the least sullen Belgarde I know. I expect moody dispositions from Sam and Alex, even Vince and Daire, but not you. Your not wanting to talk about the results of the test means you discovered something…something you don’t want to talk about. But you have to spill to someone, so spill to me. I have wide shoulders.”
He leaned back, glanced from shoulder to shoulder. “I’ve noticed.” The lighthearted remark earned him a playful smack on the arm.
Gina planted a hand on her hip. “Hey… It’s fall. Nothing but sweatshirts and jackets from here until May, so why not put on a few pounds? It’s not like anyone’s going to see me naked.”
“I was kidding, Gina. You look great as always. Now stop trying to pick my brain and help me choose some horses.”
Instead of pointing out anything about the palomino in the ring, Gina continued to stare at him. He ignored his friend, keeping his focus on the woman leading the horse. It was hard to see much of the trainer beneath the thick corduroy coat, chunky scarf, and wide-brimmed felt hat. She looked Native American, though, with her light reddish-brown skin, petite build, and long thick braid, which nearly reached her waist.
“I’m not trying to pry,” Gina continued. “But I know you, Erik. Normally, you’d be sharing whatever you found with the world. I haven’t seen or heard from you since the reception.”
“I said…” He groaned with as much force as he could muster. Gina knew him too well, knew his grumpy attitude was unusual. “I don’t want to talk about it. I brought you here to help me. Are you going to help me, or bug me?” He smiled to lighten his gruffness. Outside the family, Gina was his only friend.
“Okay. I’ll change the subject then.” She shoulder-nudged him. “She’s cute, huh?”
Gina also tried to hook him up with every woman who passed through town, but he wasn’t biting. The last thing he needed right now was another woman trying to get him to spill his guts.
He chuckled. “The palomino? She’s beautiful.”
“The trainer, you goob. You’d like her. She’s quiet. Not pushy like me. She’s been working for Grandma Ana for nearly six months, and I don’t know squat about her. And you know I’ve tried.”
“That, I know. You’re here to help me find horses and a trainer, not a date,” he reminded her. But, of course, he’d noticed the woman. How could he not? As petite as she was, she walked with confidence, posture straight, head held high. She hadn’t smiled and, still, he could see her high cheekbones. She didn’t look Aleut or like any of the other tribes in Alaska. Her skin was a shade darker, like a fine amber ale.
“You want me to introduce you?” Gina pressed.
“As a horse trainer, yes. If she knows her stuff.”
“Grandma Ana says she’s one of the best she’s ever seen, a regular horse whisperer.”
“Then, yes, I would like you to introduce us.” He raised a hand when her dark eyebrows lifted. “To help me purchase some horses and as a possible trainer. Nothing else, okay?”
“You haven’t dated anyone in more than a year, Erik—”
He cut off her complaint with a sigh. “I don’t have time for a woman in my life, Gina. You know that. Besides, no more locals, right? Isn’t that what you and I decided?”
“No locals,” she agreed, her tone as solemn as he felt.
The two of them had dated their share of locals who didn’t work out. She’d even dated Sam a few times, about ten years ago, but Sam had been in a bad way. The entire family had.
“Technically…” Gina continued in a chipper singsong voice; she didn’t stay down for long. “Kimi isn’t a local. She’s not from Alaska, and even the ranch is more than an hour from Falcon Run. I doubt she runs with the same crowd as us. Probably’s never even set foot inside Grizz’s. I haven’t seen her anyway.”
He pulled his gaze from the trainer’s graceful jog, which matched the tempo of the palomino. Or, more than likely, the horse was matching her strides. Not that he was interested, but he asked out of curiosity, “Where’s she from?”
Gina lifted her eyes as if looking at the low cloud cover. “Won’t say. Drifter. But you know how Grandma Ana is. She has no issue taking in strays…as long as they earn their keep.”
That, he also knew. That’s how Gina’s grandmother supposedly met his father, long before Erik had even been born.
The trainer, Kimi, stroked the horse’s white mane, then patted its golden coat. She looped the lead rope around the horn, then headed to the exit. She pulled the gate tightly behind her, then stopped to talk with a family who’d been eyeing the palomino.
Gina tapped his arm. “Come on. I’ll introduce you to Kimi before someone else buys that beautiful golden girl.”
Erik followed, finding himself nervous, heart racing. Even his hands felt clammy, which should have been impossible since it was barely forty degrees.
Chill, dude. You’re not meeting a woman to date; you’re meeting a horse trainer. He just hadn’t expected the horse trainer to be beautiful…and shapely…and--Stop it! You don’t have time for a woman in your life.
The ranch was busier than the previous times he’d been there. Every ranch hand was active doing something. Mostly shutting down sections for the winter, it seemed. While business on the ranch was year-round, the tourist end of things shut down mid-September when even daytime temperatures hovered near freezing.
He also noticed the ranch smelled better than the last time he’d visited. Previously, ammonia dominated all other scents. But today, he actually inhaled deeply, appreciating the sweet aroma of fresh hay and oats. The scent took him back to when his family had horses—how much work they had to do to keep those horses clean and fed.
Saturday mornings when he was a kid didn’t entail sleeping in or watching cartoons. No, on summer weekends, the entire family worked the yard. At the time, it felt like drudgery, but now he appreciated the hard work, knowing it had instilled a strong sense of family ownership and a good work ethic.
A blast of cool air whipped his face, leaving the potent perfume of native sweet grass with its vanilla-scented yellow flowers to tickle his nose. The powerful aroma took him back in an instant, reminding him how freeing it felt to ride his favorite horse, King, bareback, after a day of toiling the fields. He smiled inwardly when he remembered that he’d pretend to be a warrior coming back from—A shrill scream broke the air, launching him to the present.
Several high-pitched wails followed.
Erik whipped his head back and forth, searching for the threat.
A child stood between the open barn doors and the now-loose palomino.
Erik charged in the direction of the child who just stood staring, arms lifted, as if the horse were coming in for a hug.
More screams filled the air as Erik raced across the muddy path, his boots slipping. He hadn’t thought that he’d needed crampons to go horse hunting.
He was fast, but not faster than a horse. Still, he was closer than the horse was to the boy. His mind struggled only for a second over the emergency at hand.
Try to stop the horse or grab the boy?
You might not be able to stop the horse.
Grab the boy!
He nearly dove headfirst to reach the boy, but then found himself flat on his back, cold mud plastering his hair to his scalp, after a hard body clipped him.
The horse barreled past him, thankfully missing Erik’s defenseless legs as he tried to sit up.
A symphony of Oh my Gods! And What happened? rang out from bystanders.
The woman who’d run straight into him delivered the boy into another woman’s arms, then turned and stared down at Erik. “Sorry ’bout running you over.” She extended a hand to him. “But you were in my way. Here. Let me help you.”
Erik accepted the woman’s gloved hand grudgingly. “I was in your way?” Mud squeaked and squished as she pulled him up. He freed himself and stood tall, as tall as his five-ten and three-quarters would allow. He stared down at the horse trainer. She was even shorter than he’d thought, her head barely reaching his chest. “I was trying to save that little boy. You shouldn’t have left the gate open.”
Beneath black brows, her deep-brown eyes narrowed. “I didn’t leave the gate open. The kid must have opened it. And you were too slow,” she hissed, then whipped around, heading toward the barn.
Erik attempted to free his boots from the mud, to catch her before she took off. “I’m not…slow. The mud—”
She whipped around, her mouth opening to say something, but then she stared down at his boots, still stuck in the mud, and offered him a slow blink. “You’re slower than me.” Then she strolled off, leaving him feeling like a fool.
~ Kimi ~
Kimi grabbed Zahava’s reins and directed the palomino to her stall. She smacked a wood beam, then the gate. “Go on, then!”
The palomino huffed out a steamed breath, but made her way inside.
“I know you didn’t want to hurt that little boy, but you know better than to run off like that.”
“Don’t backtalk me, young lady.” She lowered her head to the horse’s ear. “I’m trying to stay below the radar, Zah, remember? I don’t need you causing me problems like that. I’ve told you no running while we’re on the ranch property, okay? Wait till we go out, then I’ll let you run.”
She stroked the horse’s mane, then jerked upright when she heard muted footfalls. She whipped around, then narrowed her eyes when she realized the would-be hero had followed her into the barn. Not that there wasn’t always someone around, but she wasn’t used to someone being able to sneak up on her.
“What do you want?” Kimi growled without looking at the man. She released Zah’s throatlatch, then slid the crownpiece over her ears and down her head with her left hand, grasping her nose with her right hand careful not to hit the horse’s teeth as she removed the bit. Next she made sure the stirrup was secured on the horn before removing the saddle.
The man stood at the end of the stall, just watching her.
Kimi reached for a stiff brush. “Can I help you?”
“Are you talking to me, or the palomino?” asked the man.
“You, obviously. I’m much gentler with Zahava.”
“Didn’t sound that way. The way you were conversing with her, I was waiting for the horse to start talking back.”
Kimi’s hand stilled on Zah’s nose. What had I said? What had the man heard? She thought back to her short conversation with Zah. She always talked to the horses. Other than Max, who couldn’t hold much of a conversation, and Wanda, who rarely wanted to talk to her, the horses she tended were her best friends—her only friends.
Instead of acting as if the man had overheard anything unusual, Kimi continued her strokes, brushing out the bridle marks. “I expect my horses to have better manners,” she flicked her gaze to the man, “unlike most humans I know.”
“You sure handled her well in the ring.”
Had the man missed her implication? “I’m a bit busy,” she grumbled since he was obviously dense. She swapped the stiff brush for a soft one. She brushed out any saddle marks and sweat spots, fluffing up Zah’s winter coat to help protect her from the cold.
When Kimi looked up ten minutes later, the man was still there. She hefted the saddle, pushed through the stall door, walked past the irritating man, and headed to the tack room.
He jogged up next to her. “Need some help?”
Scoffing, she shook her head. “Do I look like I need help? What do you want?”
“Actually, you’re supposed to help me.”
She stopped short, kicking up dust. “What do you mean?”
“Grandma Ana—sorry, I’ve known her since I was a child—I mean, Clara Mae didn’t tell you?”
Kimi dropped her head and started walking again. Yes, Clara Mae had told her earlier that a team was looking to buy some horses. She hadn’t expected a man who barely looked out of college to be part of that team. Hadn’t Clara Mae said it was an elite search-and-rescue team…the midnight-something. Wait, that’s right; it was a play on one of Alaska’s nicknames, Land of the Midnight Sun. Midnight Sons, that’s right.
Understanding dawned. That’s why the man had been so taken aback by her off-the-cuff comment that he was too slow. She’d hurt his pride. Poor baby. Well, it wasn’t the first time she’d wounded a warrior’s pride, and the man did look to have some Native American blood based on his swarthy skin tone, midnight-black hair, and high sculpted cheekbones. And yet, he didn’t seem wounded. He’d patiently waited for her to finish grooming Zahava instead of demanding an audience.
“You’re one of the Midnight Sons?” she asked, purposely throwing skepticism into her question. Wounding the man would be good for him, show him that she wasn’t a broodmare awaiting a stallion.
The man threw up his hands, a broad smile showing off a perfect set of straight white teeth. “Don’t look so surprised.”
“I am surprised. I expected someone…” She purposely allowed her eyes to roam his frame from boot to hat, seeking the right word…or not-so-right word. The word that would knock that wide bright smile off his face. In her experience, sons of horse ranchers were often pompous jerks. “Taller,” she said finally, dropping her head to hide any embarrassment of her outright attack.
He smacked a fisted hand to his chest. “Ouch! The hits just keep coming. First you knock me down, then you accuse me of being slow… And now, you attack my height?”
Kimi turned away, heading into the tack room. She hefted the saddle onto a rack, stored the rest of the tack. She turned back, noticing that while the man might not be tall, his sinewy frame filled enough of the doorway to block her exit. A quick flash of heat rushed up the back of her neck as déjà vu washed over her, recalling the last time a man had blocked her inside a room.
But this moment was different. She wasn’t alone. Scores of guests and ranch hands were within screaming distance. Also, the man who claimed to be a Midnight Son didn’t flash a sinister grin; he simply smiled and stepped back, not trying to intimidate her in the least. Or so it appeared. Then again, it was the middle of the day. Even the brashest of men wouldn’t attempt something with witnesses all around.
“Sorry if I offended you,” she offered as she escaped the tack room for the freedom of the open-air barn.
“No worries! I have four larger brothers. I’ve heard a lot worse, believe me.” He held out a hand. “I’m Erik. Tell me about the palomino and any other trail horses you would suggest. I need at least six to start plus a guide horse for me, and Clara Mae said what she didn’t have or wouldn’t part with, you might be able to help me buy via an online auction.”
Kimi stared at his ungloved hand. Most of the people she’d met in Alaska were already bundled up as if it were below freezing. Even though she wasn’t from the north, the cold didn’t bother her. Despite his trim frame, his hands were large and strong looking. Scarred knuckles hinted of hard work.
“Kimi.” She tugged off a glove and accepted his hand, waiting for the wash of disgust that shadowed most faces—especially men—when they felt her calloused hands. Even wearing gloves, working with horses made it darn near impossible to have soft feminine hands.
“Nice to meet you, Kimi.” His smile was genuine, not a hint of revulsion.
Noisy footsteps had them both turning toward the barn door.
“There you are!” said Gina. “I see you found Kimi.”
Kimi automatically dropped Erik’s hand and stepped back. She didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, especially not the granddaughter of the woman who’d been so good to her. “Yeah, he found me. Your grandmother mentioned you were coming today.”
Gina glanced at Erik, and he smiled, an unspoken understanding passing between them. What did that mean? Kimi hoped Gina wasn’t the jealous type.
She placed more distance between them, quickly walking back to Zahava’s stall. “I’ll hate to see Zah go. She’s one of my favorites, but she will make a good trail horse.”
She turned and Erik was directly behind her again. How does he do that? If Gina hadn’t acknowledged him, she might have thought he was a ghost the way he moved without sound.
“See her go?” Erik asked in low voice. “Didn’t Clara Mae tell you?”
Kimi flicked her eyes back to Gina, still worried that the woman would get jealous of Erik’s proximity, and then where would she go? There wasn’t much farther to run than Alaska. “Didn’t Clara Mae tell me what?”
“I need a trainer, too. Clara Mae said if you’re okay with it, she can spare you over the winter. I’ll up what you were making here by ten percent, plus throw in room and board.”
Not for the first time, Kimi felt betrayed by someone she’d trusted. A flush of anger rose up her spine and neck again. “I’m not for sale!”
~ Erik ~
Erik watched in utter confusion as Kimi darted out of the barn. “Not for sale?” He lifted his hands to Gina. “What did I say? Where did that attack come from?”
Gina shrugged her answer.
“You’re no help. I thought Clara Mae approved Kimi working for us. She even suggested I offer ten percent more.” He shook his head. “See why I don’t date? I know my brothers found the loves of their lives, but a lot of would-be frog-kissers repeatedly slapped them first. I can’t even hire a woman for more than she’s making without darn near getting smacked upside the head, so why the hell would I want to date?”
Gina stomped past him. “You’re such a baby.”
He quickly caught up with her. “Am not!”
She stopped and stared at him, arms crossed. “Today you are. You usually don’t behave like an ill-informed guy, Erik. Unlike most men, you’ve befriended enough women to understand the complexities of some women’s pasts. But instead of thinking there might be a reason for her reaction, you took her virtual slap as if it were about you when she doesn’t even know you. Did you ever stop to think that maybe something’s happened in her past that made her sensitive to people deciding her fate behind her back?” He started to say something, but she waved him off. “No, you wouldn’t think that because you’re in a bad mood, so you wanted to make it about you. Too often guys are like, I’m ready…why isn’t she ready…” she mocked God-knows-who.
“Umm…You lost me. Are we talking about Kimi or you right now?”
She rolled her eyes and stormed off. “Men! I don’t even know why I offered to help you.”
“What did I say?” Erik stopped trying to understand women and just stood there, his attention going to a gorgeous chestnut quarter horse with a shiny red mane. The horse nudged his head forward, so Erik stroked the length of it, admiring the near-perfect white diamond shape on his forehead and how velvety smooth his coat felt. “Why can’t women behave like horses? If you want me to pet you, you shove your head forward. If you’re in a mood, you pin back your ears. Damn that would be nice.” He actually chuckled as he stroked the horse. “Imagine if women could do that with their ponytails. Ponytail up, happy. Down, sad. Whipping side to side, brother beware.”
The horse nickered softly, something King always did when Erik walked into the barn.
“That’s true… Not all women have ponytails. Hmm… There’s something to be said about not having to choose your woman, huh?”
Erik finger-brushed the tuft of mane between the horse’s ears. He had to admit one thing: Kimi did a great job with the horses. He inhaled deeply again, noticing even the stables smelled clean—as clean as stables could smell—and all the horses seemed content, calm even. “Unlike the women in my proximity,” he told the horse.
A wisp of wind swept through the barn doors, causing a crinkling sound above him. Erik glanced upward and spotted clusters of lavender strung up above the stables.
“Lavender…” Calming, he remembered. “Wish the flowers had worked their magic on the women as well as you guys.” He made his way to the exit, no hurry to get back into the truck with Gina for ninety minutes.
Gina stepped around the open doors, arms crossed again. “Always the funny man. Talking to the horses now, are you? Come on. Let’s go.”
He forced himself not to laugh. “What, so you can berate me again? How am I supposed to know if a woman’s been wronged before? I wasn’t asking her out. I was offering her a job—”
“You know what, Erik… Here’s a lesson on women: assume they’ve been wronged.”
“And guys haven’t?”
She blew out a breath. “See… That’s not what I said. Yes, I know you’ve been wronged, Erik. I know many guys have been wronged. But you’re a man now. You can stand up for yourself. Many women can’t. Regardless of their age or size, most women are still defenseless if a man wants to hurt them.”
Erik thought about Sam’s wife, Nora, and Vince’s wife, Valarie. Both tough women, both horribly wronged. “You’re right, Gina. I do get that. So, whatever happened to Kimi…do you think it will affect her performance?”
Gina shook her head. “You say you get that, and then in the next breath, you ask whether something from a woman’s past will affect her job. Not that her past is any business of a prospective employer, but…” She gestured to the stables and horse ring. “Does it look like her past is affecting her work? Grandma Ana’s ranch has never looked better. I’m surprised she’s even willing to share Kimi for a few months. But the season is over, and she knows Kimi needs the money.”
Instead of saying something wrong again, Erik just listened as Gina detailed all the areas Kimi had helped Clara Mae over the last six months. Kimi obviously knew her trade well. So why was she so offended when he offered her a job and a ten-percent raise? Because he was a man? Or was it the room and board suggestion? Had she thought he meant that she would live with him?
Gina finished Kimi’s résumé, then raised a brow, making it clear he could speak.
“So…” He carefully thought about his words. “Should I track her down, make it clear I want to hire her for her expertise, or should you clear the road for me first?”
It worked. Gina laughed. “Grandma Ana made us lunch. I’m sure she asked Kimi to join us.”
“Works for me. I love your grandmother’s cooking. By the way…” He stopped and Gina followed his lead. “I’ve never asked, as I’ve always called your grandmother Grandma Ana, but where does the Ana come from if her name is Clara Mae?”
Apparently no longer frustrated with his male naiveté, Gina took his arm and led him out of the stables toward the main house.
“When I was a child,” she cooed as if starting a fairy tale, “my father called her Ana-nak-saq, meaning grandmother in his tongue, but my mother always said Grandma. After a few years, it just became Grandma Ana.”
“Oh…” He blew out a breath. “I should have known that.”
“It’s not like you go around speaking Inuit, Erik.”
“No, but maybe I should learn, since I might be Inuit.”
“Ahh…a clue to your mysterious lineage. So are you gonna tell me about your genealogy test now? I’m guessing that comment means you’ve confirmed you have Native American genes. Not that we needed a test to confirm it.”
“Not yet. One step at a time, Gina. Right now, you need to help me secure some horses and a trainer. Then I’ll go hunting down my past. Speaking of my past… I’m soaked. I need to run to the truck and grab a change of clothes.”
As a search-and-rescue worker, he never knew when he was going to get into the thick of things, or even find himself stranded for a few days working, so he always carried an overnight bag with a few necessities and a couple changes of clothes. Good thing, as he didn’t think Grandma Ana would allow him to sit on her furniture with mud-saturated jeans.
Clara Mae’s house wasn’t large, but the wood-frame house sat on a blocked-in basement that doubled the square footage. When he was a child and his father would bring him, Gina and he would play hide ’n’ seek downstairs, where there were plenty of closets and boxes to hide. While Gina was a few years older than him, they were the closest children in age when he was five. While his father and Clara Mae talked about horses, he and Gina bonded like brother and sister. Perhaps their shared Native American heritage had brought them closer.
What Erik always remembered most about the house was the color blue. Thankfully, the interior wood floors and cabinets were all light pine because several shades of dark blue dominated everything else. From the plush upholstered sofa, lace-trimmed curtains, accent walls, and even an old leather chair, Clara Mae loved blue. The kitchen backsplashes, antique dishes, and wallpaper border were all some shade of cobalt blue. And he knew from his previous visits that the blue continued into the bathrooms and bedrooms via ceramic tile, towels, accessories, and even blankets and comforters. Apparently, Clara Mae had decorated the house in eighties country chic and had never renovated.
No matter…he didn’t have to live there, and it always smelled yummy. He inhaled deeply in the small downstairs mudroom, filling his nose with the aroma of pot roast. He wasn’t sure if it was the cooking meat, the spices, the vegetables, or the combination of the meal and the fresh baked bread, but he knew she cooked the beef until it was fall-apart tender. His mouth watered up just thinking about sopping up the gravy with her fresh baked yeast rolls. At his house, each of his brothers—who still lived at home, that is—would take turns cooking. None of them were experts by any means. He realized he wouldn’t even mind having a house decorated all in blue if it meant home-cooking was on the menu nightly.
Gina and he took turns kicking off their boots, then made their way out of the mudroom in socked feet.
A woman’s voice filtered down from the second story. “I just wish you had told me they wanted me to move—” Kimi stopped talking. “H-h-here? N-n-now?” she spluttered. He hadn’t heard what the other person must have said in response to the first half of Kimi’s declaration, but the last two words came out as frantic whispered questions.
Erik stopped on the wood plank step, but Gina grabbed his arm and continued up the narrow set of stairs that led to the main part of the house.
Unlike his family’s formal dining room, Clara Mae’s kitchen, dining area, and living room all shared the same space, with only short walls or cabinets separating the area. The entire great room overlooked a deck that spanned the back of the house, which afforded views of the many acres she owned, a lake, and beyond that, the Talkeetna Mountains, so once they opened the door from the basement stairs, they were in the same room as Clara Mae and, based on her narrowed eyes, a very irritated Kimi.
Kimi blinked once, then shifted her eyes to Clara Mae. “Can we talk in your bedroom for a moment?”
“Kimi…” Clara Mae said in her soft but firm grandmotherly tone, even though Erik knew she could shout orders like a general if the situation called for it. “You remember my granddaughter, Gina. And this is Erik Belgarde. His family and mine have been friends for decades. It’s time for lunch, kids. We’ll talk shop afterward.” The old woman winked at Erik and then turned back toward the kitchen. “Gina, come over here and help me with the stew pot, please. Erik and Kimi, why don’t you two set the table.” It wasn’t a question. When Clara Mae spoke, everyone around her did as she suggested.
Kimi scooped up the silverware resting on the half counter, and Erik picked up the familiar blue and white dishes without a word. He followed behind Kimi as she set down the silver, placing a dish in between the knife and fork for each setting.
When Kimi set down the final piece of silverware, she turned to him. “What would you like to drink, Erik?”
Had he imagined that she actually hissed his name, which was darned near impossible with the hard ka sound at the end, but yep, she’d made it clear in her pronunciation of his name that she had no intention of being civil with him, let alone working with him.
Gina’s words came back to him: Assume she has a past…
Despite her unfriendly demeanor, he plastered on his friendliest smile. “If Clara Mae made her famous sweet tea, I’ll take that.” As hard as he tried, his smile wilted under her glare. “Or water’s fine. Or nothing. I’m not really thirsty.” He didn’t need Gina to slap his arm this time; he felt like slapping himself. He’d done nothing to this woman, so why was he cowering under her beautiful, brown-eyed scowl?
Realizing he’d slumped, too, he pulled himself upright. This was his friend’s house. And he’d done nothing wrong. Maybe he looked like someone she hated, but that was her hang-up, not his.
Determined to get his mood back to normal, he ignored Kimi and focused his attention on the other two women in the house. “Anything else I can help with, Clara Mae?”
The old woman waved him off. “Have a seat, my boy. Dinner’ll be on the table in a sec. Gina, grab those rolls out of the oven. Kimi, carry those butter dishes to the table. I’ve got some iced tea in the pitcher, Erik. Made some this morning.”
Instead of sitting, Erik met Kimi halfway for the butter dishes. “You’ve been working harder than us today. I’ll help with the rest. He left her standing next to the table and returned to the kitchen, taking the pitcher from Clara Mae. “Thank you, Ma’am. You know how I love fresh iced tea.”
Clara Mae smiled and pointed to the cabinet next to the fridge. “Glasses are in that cupboard, Erik. I’ll sit and let the rest of you youngsters wait on me.” She took Kimi’s arm and walked her to the table. “Kimi, you and Erik sit here so you can look out the picture window. Soon, the trees will be bare, so you gotta enjoy autumn while it lasts. Gina will sit by her old Grandma.”
Gina set the rolls in the center of the table and kissed Clara Mae on the cheek. “You’re far from old, Grandma Ana. I just hope I look as good as you when I get older.”
“You keep protecting that beautiful skin from the harsh wind and sun, my darling, and you will.”
Erik carried four glasses to the table, then sat behind the only available place setting, not surprised in the least when Kimi scooted her chair sideways a few inches.
Wow… Gina’s right. Something happened in Kimi’s past. No way could his words have offended her that much. And he’d never been accused of having a domineering presence. If anything, women had always been comfortable around him. Even Valarie, who’d been physically abused by her father, had always felt relaxed and at ease around him. They’d spend hours rock climbing, where often, she had to trust him with her life.
How could he get this woman to relax enough to accept his offer?
And why in the hell is it so important to me that she does?
~ Kimi ~
Kimi did everything possible to ignore the man beside her. Even so, she was aware of his every move. Unlike earlier when he’d landed flat on his back—after she’d plowed into him—he moved gracefully in everything he did. He didn’t gobble down his food like an ogre; instead, he ate and drank with manners.
When he held out the platter of rolls, her eyes shifted to the sinewy muscles in his arms. Even his forearms were lean and sculpted, indicating he did rough work with his hands and arms…or possibly not hard work but sport.
“So, my boy…” Clara Mae reached a hand across the table to Erik, patting his arm. “Tell me about this new venture of the Midnight Sons.” The older woman looked at Kimi now instead of Erik. “Erik has followed in his parents’ and brothers’ footsteps in search and rescue, Kimi, but now they’re moving into new areas. Tell us some stories, Erik.”
Erik lifted a napkin to his mouth and laughed. “Nothing like being put on the spot. Umm… Well, I have hundreds of search-and-rescue stories, so I don’t know where I’d start, and I certainly don’t want to bore your guest, so I’ll tell you my plans for the horses if that suits you.”
“Do tell, my boy,” Clara Mae said, leaning back in her chair after only taking a few bites. The woman ate like a bird.
Kimi couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of the older women’s slender body, which her granddaughter had inherited. No matter how hard she worked or how little she ate, she had curves atop of curves. Some things were just hereditary, she knew, but it didn’t mean she had to like it. If she weren’t so curvaceous, maybe she wouldn’t have attracted the wrong attention.
“Well,” Erik continued. “As you may or may not have known, we were struggling a bit to keep up with the property, aircrafts, boats, and salaries, but my brother Alex came up with the idea of running tours. He and his wife are running helicopter tours. Vince and Valarie are running boat tours. So, I thought, since I was always great with horses, and I know the Alaska trails better than most, I should start trail riding tours. When I was a child, we owned several horses—”
Clara Mae patted his hand. “I know, dear… I sold them to your father. King was your favorite, right?”
“He was. Although I loved Peepers and Princess, too.”
Kimi flicked her gaze to Erik. He didn’t act like a spoiled rancher’s son. He seemed authentic. Still…
“I really liked the demeanor of the palomino in the ring—” He caught Kimi’s eye. “Zahava, you called her, right?”
Kimi nodded, then returned to eating.
“And the chestnut…”
Well, he had a good eye for a sweet horse anyway. She swallowed her food and covered her mouth, since he was obviously waiting for her to say something. “Keegan,” she answered him. “He’d make a wonderful trail horse. Gentle and sure-footed.”
As if she’d opened a pasture gate, Erik turned his entire body toward her, not just his eyes. “Will you help me choose several more, and one for me, of course?”
Kimi wanted to say something unpleasant like, Oh, you’re asking for my help instead of assuming now? But she held her fiery tongue. “I suppose I could spare some time. I would suggest you opt for at least one mule. If Clara Mae’s okay with letting her go, Mary would make a great choice.”
He tilted his head. “A mule? Why?”
“When there’s at least one mule in the herd, the horses are more relaxed. Mules don’t back down from predators. Here in Alaska, where horses are more susceptible to bears, wolves, and mountain lions, you risk a rider getting injured if a horse just smells a predator and spooks. But a mule will help to keep them calm.”
Erik looked to Clara Mae.
“She’s right. I always keep a few donkeys and mules on the ranch for that very reason. Coyotes, wolves, and even dogs are natural enemies of mules and donkeys.”
Annoyed that he was already questioning her, Kimi turned back to her plate.
A hand touched her arm and she jumped, immediately drawing both arms to her chest.
Erik pulled back, his eyes immediately revealing shock. “Sorry, Kimi. I wasn’t questioning you. I just never heard that about mules. A mule is a great idea. Plus, they can handle heavier riders, right?”
Kimi nodded and reached for another roll, but then stopped, reaching for her water glass instead. She’d already had two pieces of bread. She wouldn’t let this man cause her to stress eat.
Gina stood. She’d also barely touched her food. “I’ll clear the plates while you two talk out your terms.”
“Terms?” Kimi asked.
Gina smiled. “The Belgardes are good people, Kimi. Grandma Ana says you could use the money. Erik needs horses and a trainer. You’re a perfect match.” Kimi started to open her mouth at Gina’s choice of the word match, but the woman waved a hand as if they should carry on, even though they hadn’t really been discussing terms…just horses. “Grandma Ana, you want me to put the leftovers in Tupperware?”
Clara Mae gripped the chair arms and pushed herself up. “That’s okay, sweetheart. The boys will be up in a bit. They do a might good job on leftovers. I don’t worry about food going to waste anymore.”
Erik stood as well, lifting his plate, then reaching for Kimi’s. “Are you finished?”
“I can handle—”
He bent toward her, barely touching her shoulder. “Sorry if I assumed or came off too strongly, or whatever I did, but…I swear I won’t bite.” He smiled and lifted her plate and was gone before she could move her shoulder out from beneath his warm hand.
Kimi stood, staring after the three people who seemed to want to decide her destiny. She couldn’t allow that. She needed to be able to leave town at a moment’s notice. The more she entered their world, the harder it would be to move on without them being able to track her. If she slipped up, they could trace her roots.
Still… The more money she could put away, the better. The dry cabin she had rented when she first moved into the state was cheap, but everything added up. Speaking of the cabin… She looked at her watch. She needed to get home.
Before she could make up an excuse to leave, Erik returned from setting down the dishes and jutted his chin toward the porch. “Can we talk?”
She blew out a breath. A ten-percent raise would be great, but Clara Mae said that Erik needed her in Falcon Run, which was ninety minutes from her cabin. She couldn’t drive that daily, especially since she doubted Clara Mae would allow her to continue using the ranch’s truck. And no way could she take the chance of buying and registering a vehicle. Ownership of anything meant records, upkeep, insurance payments, too.
Nope, she had to keep on doing what she’d been doing: getting paid under the table, paying for everything with cash, and not standing out in anyway. Not that she could have stopped herself from rescuing that child earlier even if she’d thought before she leaped, but it had been a dangerous move. If she had known Erik was a rescue worker, she would have let him save the boy so she wouldn’t chance standing out.
Maybe moving ninety minutes away would be a good thing. Reluctantly, she stood and followed Erik out to the deck. She could at least hear him out. Not that she had much of a choice; Clara Mae and Gina both seemed hellbent on pawning her off. Maybe that was it. Maybe Clara Mae couldn’t afford her anymore.
Erik held open the door, then softly closed it behind her. He dipped his head as he sat on a bench, motioning for her to sit across from him. “Again, I apologize if I came on too strongly. I was under the impression that you were already interested in the position I’m offering.”
Kimi kneaded her left temple. “Since you offered ten percent more than I’m making, I assume Clara Mae already told you what I make.”
His wide lips turned up slightly. “She did.”
“I want twenty percent. Plus eight hundred for living.”
His mouth twisted a bit. “I started to tell you… We have rental properties behind our house. We don’t rent them to tourists after September, so they’re empty. They’re not dry cabins either. They include water and utilities.”
“I don’t think—”
“It’s part of the deal. I need someone full time. You know as well as I do that horses require more than a few hours a day. I still have a full-time job, so I’m counting on someone to be there.”
“Erik…” she started, and he smiled, which threw her a bit. Why was he smiling at her like that? She hadn’t agreed to anything. Well, if it was because he thought her body came with any deal, she knew how to knock that smile off his face. “I have two more members in my family I need room for, my sister and three-year-old son.”
He shrugged, not a hint of frustration on his face. “As long as you don’t mind sharing, the cabins have a bedroom upstairs and a pull-out sofa downstairs. Plenty of room for a small family.”
She chewed on her bottom lip. He hadn’t said no to the twenty percent, and she’d be able to save the six-fifty she paid monthly for the dry cabin she’d been renting. One more condition…
“I need a vehicle, too, preferably a truck, and I usually ask the ranch owner to provide it since most of my driving entails shopping for the horses.” Which was mostly true. If she needed to get out of town quickly, she would be forced to take it and leave it somewhere. She would never steal anything, but if it meant her life—and the lives of her family—she wasn’t above bending the rules.
“We have several vehicles, but I doubt you’ll have to drive to get anything. I’ve already stocked up on everything we could possibly need. When would you like to start?”
Kimi couldn’t help but drop her head and laugh. “Don’t you need references or something, proof that I’m worth what you’re offering me?” Not that she could offer references, but she found if she offered, most people who were desperate would wave off her offer. Besides, she could prove her worth in less than fifteen minutes with any horse if need be.
“Nope! I trust Clara Mae completely. If she says you’re worth the expense, I believe her. Besides, I can see all the positive changes you made here.”
“It won’t take eight months for me to train the horses. I can train any horse in thirty to ninety days.”
He leaned back against the deck, crossed his legs at the ankles. “I figured, but since we won’t start tours until season, I’ll need someone to keep them moving. So, you have a job with us at least until May… Longer if I can talk you into leading trail rides with me.”
“That’s not going to happen, but I’ll agree to train your horses.”
She couldn’t stay eight months. Eventually, he would track her down. But if she could make more money than she already was…and save on rent, she’d be foolish not to take it. She’d have the horses trained and enough money saved up in less than ninety days, then she’d disappear, the way she’d been doing for the last three years.
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