She couldn't read Jenna's expression, which seemed trapped somewhere between misery and envy. Before her highly persuasive friend could launch into a counteroffensive argument for why Alex needed to stay, a loud roar of masculine enthusiasm went up from the area of the bar.
"What's all that about?" Alex asked, unable to tell what was going on with her back to the ruckus.
"Did Big Dave's team win or something?"
"I don't know, but he and his crew just bellied up to the bar in a hurry." Jenna glanced back at her then and exhaled a soft curse. "You are my best friend, Alex, and you know I'm damned picky when it comes to my friends. You can't sit there over a half-eaten slice of pie in the middle of hockey night at Pete's tavern and casually drop a bomb on me about you're thinking of moving away. Since when? And why haven't you talked to me about any of this? I thought as friends we shared everything." Not everything, Alex admitted silently. There were some things she wasn't brave enough to share with anyone. Things about herself and things she'd seen that would label her either mentally unstable or positively deranged. Jenna didn't even know that Alex's mom and little brother were murdered, let alone how.
Attacked by creatures out of the worst nightmare.
Alex and her father had concocted a more believable lie as they'd made the trip to Alaska to begin their lives without the other, missing half of their family. To anyone who asked, Alex's mother and kid brother were killed by a drunk driver down in Florida. They had died instantly, painlessly. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Alex had felt guilty for perpetuating the lie, especially to Jenna, but she'd consoled herself that she was only protecting her friend. No one would want to know the horror that Alex and her father witnessed and narrowly escaped. No one would want to think that evil so terrible--so bloodthirsty and violent--could actually exist in the world.
She told herself that she was still protecting Jenna, shielding her friend in much the same way that Alex's father tried to shield her.
"I'm just thinking about it right now, that's all," she murmured, then drank the last sip of her warm beer.
No sooner had she set it down than a platinum-haired waitress came over carrying two fresh ones. The bright pink streak in her bleached-blond hair matched the garish shade of her lipstick, Alex noted, as the young woman bent down to place the chilled bottles on the table.
Alex shook her head. "Oh, wait a second, Annabeth. We already paid our bill and we didn't order these."
"I know," she said, then jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward the bar area. "Someone out front just bought a round for the house."
Jenna groaned. "If it's from Big Dave, I'll pass."
"Not him," Annabeth said, grinning broadly, her whole face lit up. "Never saw this guy before--tall, spiky black hair, incredible eyes, absolutely smoking hot."
Now it was Alex's turn to groan. She knew it had to be Kade, even before she pivoted in her seat and shot a searching look into the small crowd of men gathered at the bar. He towered over the others, his silky, dark head at the center of the throng.
"Unbelievable," she muttered as the waitress left the table.
"Do you know him?" Jenna asked.
"He's the guy I saw at the back of the church last night. His name is Kade. I saw him again today out at the Toms settlement when I was making my supply run."
Jenna frowned. "What the hell was he doing out there?"
"I'm not entirely sure. I found him in Pop Toms's cabin, looking like he'd just rolled out of bed in the middle of the afternoon. And he was well armed, too--I'm talking high-powered rifle, knife, handgun, and rounds intended for some very large game. I gather he's looking to help out with our supposed wolf problem."
"No wonder Big Dave seems so fond of him," Jenna remarked dryly. "Well, I couldn't possibly drink another beer, free or otherwise. I'm beat. I need to stop by Zach's to drop off some files he asked me for, then I really should head home."
Alex nodded, trying not to think about the fact that Kade was in the same room with her, or the unnerving way her pulse seemed to skitter at the idea.
Jenna stood up and pulled her long down coat from a hook on the wall. "How about you? You want me to give you a ride to the house?"
"No." Late as it was, and as crowded as Pete's seemed to be getting now that Kade was there, it still beat the thought of what awaited her at home. "Go on, don't worry about me. I'm going to finish this pie and maybe have a cup of coffee to wash it down. Besides, I'd rather walk the two blocks home. The fresh air will do me good."
"Okay, if you're sure." At her nod, Jenna gave her a quick hug. "No more talk of moving away, all right? Not without consulting me first. Got it?"
Alex smiled, but it felt like a weak effort. "Got it." She watched her friend wade through the tavern, the cop in Jenna unable to resist stealing an assessing sidelong glance at the stranger in town. Above the noise of the place, Alex heard the hollow jangle of the old cowbell on the door as Jenna slammed it shut behind her.
Alex cut into the pie with the edge of her fork, but stopped short of bringing it to her mouth. What the hell was she doing? She wasn't the least bit hungry, and the last thing she needed was a cup of Pete's crude oil-quality coffee to keep her awake all night once she finally did work up the nerve to go home. God, she was being ridiculous. What she really needed was to go home, feed Luna before the dog tore up the house in retaliation for being abandoned all night, then try to get some solid sleep for a change. She could think about everything else in the morning, when her head was clearer. Things would make more sense then. At least, she hoped so, because she wasn't sure what could possibly happen to throw her off balance any more than she was now.
As soon as she stood up and shrugged into her parka, Alex felt the two beers she'd consumed make a quick rush to her bladder. Great. Using the restroom at Pete's meant walking right past the bar--and Kade. She considered ignoring the urgent press of her plumbing, but the two blocks to her house from the tavern, in the frigid cold, would be torture. Maybe even disastrous.
So what if Kade might see that she was there? She sure as hell didn't need to talk to him. She didn't even need to so much as look at him.
Yeah, brilliant plan. Too bad it fell apart the moment she took two paces away from her table. She felt Kade's quicksilver eyes slicing through the crowd to zero in on her like twin laser beams. His gaze went through her every nerve ending in much the same way--hot, electric. Alex tried to ignore the effect he had on her, which was made a bit easier when she separated Big Dave's grating voice from the others and heard him bragging about his recent hunting exploits while Kade smiled and nodded along like he was hanging out with his best friends.
Twenty-four hours in town and he was one of the good ol' boys already. How freaking nice for him.
Disgusted, Alex continued on past the jukebox to the restroom. Breathing a small sigh of relief to find it unoccupied, she went right in and did her business, rolling her eyes as the good times and laughter continued on the other side of the locked door. It wasn't until she was at the sink washing her hands that she happened to look up into the mirror and saw a tired, haggard reflection of herself staring back at her.
"Oh, my God," she whispered, wishing she'd at least taken the time to dab on some mascara when she left the house tonight. And maybe paused long enough to drag a brush through her windblown, wrecked mop of hair.
She made a futile attempt at smoothing some of the blond flyaways, but there wasn't a lot she could do. No wonder Kade stared as he had. She looked like a walking Medusa who hadn't had a decent night's sleep in about a week straight--which was just about accurate, come to think of it. Had she looked this bad when she saw him earlier today? She hoped not. She hoped he hadn't thought-"For crying out loud. Why should you give a rat's ass what he thinks, huh?" she told the hopeless face in the mirror. "That man out there is the last person you need to impress." Alex nodded at her own advice, at the same time wondering if everything that had happened lately had pushed her past some invisible line where it was suddenly acceptable to have conversations with her own reflection. Bad enough she talked to Luna as if the wolf dog could understand every word; this was taking things just a bit too far.
Taking a deep breath, Alex hooked her unruly hair behind her ears, then opened the bathroom door and stepped outside.
"Everything all right in there?"
Kade. Oh, God.
He leaned on the edge of the jukebox, which she noticed had finally coughed up the song she'd chosen nearly an hour ago. He was grinning at her, humor playing at the corners of his broad mouth and in the pale light of his eyes. Had he possibly heard her berating herself over the irony of Sheryl Crow singing about her favorite mistake?
"I see you're making friends in Harmony already."
He grunted, shot a casual look over at the knot of men who were still pounding down beers before turning all of his attention back on her. "Big Dave and some of the others are going to track the wolf pack that's been spotted around here lately. They asked me to join them."
Alex scoffed. "Congratulations. I'm sure you'll all have a great time." As she brushed past him, he said, "I also heard tonight about a death in the bush late last winter that seemed suspicious. A Native man, living by himself in a cabin ten miles northwest of Harmony. Big Dave seems to think wolves were responsible for that one, too."
Alex pivoted back, shaking her head. "You're talking about Henry Tulak? He was a drinker and a little bit crazy. He most likely did something stupid and died of exposure." Kade lifted one thick shoulder. "Big Dave and the others said nothing could be proven because Tulak's body wasn't discovered until the spring thaw. Nothing left of him by then but a few bones."
"And if you lived in the interior for any amount of time--as you claim--you'd know that nothing lasts for long in the bush. If the elements don't absorb you, the scavengers will. It doesn't mean that wolves killed that man."
"Maybe not," Kade said. "Except the rumor is that the last time anyone saw Tulak alive, he was talking about seeing a wolf pack prowling around his place. Said he felt like they were sizing him up, waiting for the chance to strike."
Alex's frustration spiked to hear this kind of bullshit perpetuated, and especially by Kade, whom she would have guessed to be smarter than Big Dave Grant and his band of boneheads. "Big Dave would say anything to get folks riled up. That's his nature. If I were you, I wouldn't put too much stock in what he says."
"I'm here to gather information, Alex. Right now, Big Dave seems to be the most forthcoming. All I'm getting from everyone else in this town is evasions and half-truths, neither of which interests me." Okay, now she was offended. Her internal barometer blazed right through frustration and into fury.
"Why are you really here? Talk about evasions and half-truths! Look at you. You show up here, nobody knows you, nobody even knows where you came from--"
"I told you, north of Fairbanks. By way of Boston, if we're going to start being honest with each other now."
So, he wasn't actually from Alaska, just flew in from Outside. She couldn't have been less surprised. As casually as she could, she put her hand down on top of his forearm and leaned in closer, as though she were a cop questioning an uncooperative witness. "How did you get to Harmony when everyone else has been grounded by bad weather the past several days? For that matter, how did you get out to the Toms settlement after you left Harmony last night?"
"I walked. On snowshoes, of course."
"You walked more than forty miles in the middle of the night." Alex laughed, but without humor. She listened for the prickling of her instincts as she kept her hand resting on his arm, waiting for her senses to tell her whether he was trustworthy. Nothing registered. He was as clear as glass, unreadable. Still, that didn't change the crock he was trying to feed her. "Such bullshit. You stand there and accuse me of lying to you, when you've told me nothing about yourself other than your name is Kade and you're a bounty hunter looking to cash in on an innocent pack of wolves."
He gave only the barest shake of his head. "I never said I came here to hunt wolves, for a bounty or otherwise. You made an assumption. And you are wrong."
"Okay, I give up then. What are you doing here, and why did you come loaded up with a hell of a lot of serious firepower? What exactly do you want, Kade, the non-wolf hunter from north of Fairbanks by way of Boston?"
"I told you that when we talked earlier today. I want answers. I need to have the truth--the entire truth--about what happened to your friends. I think you can help me with that, Alex. I think you might be the only person who can."
He glanced down to where her hand was still settled on his arm. Alex abruptly drew it away, his deep voice vibrating inside her, his words making her feel that she possibly could trust him, whether her instincts could confirm it or not.
She did not want to warm to him, dammit. She didn't want to put her trust in anything he said when her heart was racing at hyperspeed and everything in her screamed for her to run. Run, before she made the mistake of letting this man into her private hell when she didn't know anything about him.
"What are you trying to pull?" she asked softly, wishing she had the strength just to walk away and leave him standing there instead of giving in to the curiosity that made her want to know more. "What kind of game are you playing here?"
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com