Denn Nulo knows everyone in town: he’s the Chief of Police in Staamat. He’s lived there all his life, except for his college years, spent in Anchorage. Originally planning on practicing criminal law and living in Anchorage permanently, Denn is forced to change his plans when he receives word that his widowed mother has passed away, leaving his young sister, Luna, alone. Denn comes back to Staamat to care for Luna.
When Kendall meets Denn, she begins to believe there are truly good men in the world. Denn is everything she wants: strong, loving, dedicated to family, protective. . .and patient. There is instant attraction between them, but Kendall is leery of men, and Denn craves a serious relationship that includes marriage and children. Their courtship is a conflicting mix of hesitancy and passion, with Luna, desperately needing a mother figure in her life, cheering them on.
As Kendall learns how to trust again and her romance with Denn grows more intense, a local woman who’s had her eye on Denn for years releases a torrent of damaging jealousy. . .and the nightmare from Kendall’s past discovers where she’s hidden herself.
Kendall unlocked the front door of the Last Outfitters Post and stepped outside. In the sunlight the ‘Grand Opening’ banner she’d affixed over the entrance flapped in the brisk morning breeze, accompanied by the occasional caw of a raven. On each side of the portico, hanging baskets of petunias, fuchsia and lobelia grew a bit more each day, adding a nice splash of color. The urge to clap in delight proved too much to resist, and she didn’t care if anyone saw her. Even so, she checked out the parking lot, just to make sure she hadn’t been observed, then shook her head at her silliness.
Her first two weeks open for business had surprised her with its success. A steady, daily flow of customers reinforced her certainty she’d done the right thing by moving to Staamat and starting a new life. It amazed her, how many local people planned hiking and fishing adventures and came to her for their supplies.
They weren’t all local. Tourists now came to Staamat, some staying in New Mina, Aniak or Bethel, and others vying for a reservation at The Four Hills Inn. They zipped around on rented bicycles or on foot, cameras clicking away, willing to pay for a quick airlift to some of the villages sporadically scattered from here to Bethel. Several enterprising locals who owned vehicles hired themselves out as impromptu cabbies, and even a few boat owners ferried visitors up and down the Kuskokwim. One of Frank Purna’s cousins ran a seasonal air and water taxi service.
A retired musher, who lived fifteen miles north of Puffin Circle, brought his dogs into town and offered dogsled rides, substituting special wheels for the standard sled skis. Tourists loved it. The bustle of activity and commerce added life to the usually quiet Staamat streets.
Summer had come to Southwestern Alaska, and Kendall found herself utterly charmed by the longer days and the sun’s welcoming warmth. Much of her nervousness about hordes of tourists streaming into Alaska had diminished, too. Perhaps the cheechako was slowly becoming a sourdough, after all.
With the exception of a few high school students nosing around without buying anything, she’d had decent sales every day. Now, on Saturday, she anticipated another six hours of hearing her cash register ring.
Moving to the main counter, she straightened a display of teriyaki jerky and refolded a stack of sweatshirts emblazoned with a grinning mosquito and the words, Alaska State Bird. The goofy looking, bloodsucking insect—wearing bunny boots, no less—reminded her to spray her arms with Deet when she ventured outside. Otherwise, she’d end up with plenty of bites.
The string of bells over the doorway jingled, and Kendall smiled with pleasure as Luna ran in. “Kennie, Denn says you’re putting me to work.” She threw her thin arms around Kendall’s waist and gave her a breath-stealing squeeze.
“Umph.” Kendall made suffocating noises while Luna giggled and squeezed harder. When she could inhale again, she dropped a kiss on Luna’s head. “How are you feeling today? Denn said you had a rough evening.”
“I’m okay. I had a reaction to some salad dressing Jo gave us. She puts fireweed honey in it, and I kind of forgot I wasn’t supposed to eat lots of it.” Luna pulled away and prowled the nearest rack, flipping through tee shirts and hoodies. She sent Kendall a mournful look. “It was so good, I took twice as much as I should have. But I felt a lot better after I puked.” Her grin back in place, she dashed to the counter and swiped a piece of jerky. “See, I’m good to go.” She bit in with enthusiasm.
“Drink some water after you eat that, you nimrod.” Denn stepped into the store, a stern expression on his face. He winked at Kendall. “Make sure you dock her pay for snacking on the job.” He closed the door and removed his cap, shaking his hair loose.
Kendall’s pulse stuttered at the sight of that fall of black silk. He caught her stare and a languid smile broke over his face. She blushed, and the smile widened.
His advance toward her set her heart to pounding. Dressed in his uniform, his rolled-up sleeves a concession to the warm day, Denn cut an imposing figure. Yet his size had ceased to intimidate, not after a month of getting to know him. He reached her side and curled his arm around her shoulders, pressed a kiss to her forehead, as comforting as the one she’d given his sister.
“Hi. I’ve brought you slave labor. Please wear her out so I can strong-arm her into bed right after supper.” His low words teased the stray hair at Kendall’s temple. The heat from his lower lip, as it caught one of her curls and brushed it aside, would have buckled her knees if she hadn’t been holding the edge of the counter.
He chuckled softly in her ear, an acknowledgment of what his nearness did to her. When she reared back, the gleam she spotted in his amber eyes couldn’t be mistaken for anything but desire.
I’m not ready for this. Her brain admitted the truth even as her body relaxed, leaned into his, and made itself at home. The moment lengthened into seconds as she enjoyed his warm strength, refusing to further question her need for caution. He would never hurt her; she knew this.
Luna skipped closer, wearing a camouflage baseball cap boasting a set of stuffed moose antlers. “I don’t think this cap’s gonna fool any moose.” She viewed herself in a nearby mirror, striking a pose. “You should send me to Anchorage, Denn. I could be a model.”
“For what? Bullwinkle?” Denn yanked the cap over his sister’s eyes. “Get real. You’ll go in the mines with a pick and a shovel, and give me all the gold you find,” he growled, twirling an imaginary mustache.
“Ha, as if.” Luna danced around him, caught random locks of his hair and yanked them, fast and sly.
He lunged after her and stuffed her under his arm.
“Let go! I have to work for a living, you know.” She wriggled like a slippery eel, her brows scrunched in a mock frown. “Let go, or I scream police brutality.”
“You watch too much CSI. Go make yourself useful.” He released her with a swat to her jeans-clad bottom, and she ran toward the back storeroom where Kendall had left the door unlocked. Luna would spend the afternoon unpacking and pricing several boxes of Alaskana souvenirs.
He turned to Kendall. “What a screwball. You might have to handcuff her to the storeroom to get any work out of her.” His comment and their antics had made her grin even as the residual tenderness for Luna, reflected in his eyes, simply melted her.
“She’s your entire world, isn’t she?” Kendall heard the catch in her voice.
Denn nodded. “Yes, she is. Luna is the only family I’ve got left. Her health problems scared the crap out of me when we first discovered she had diabetes. Try explaining to a five-year-old why she can’t eat grape jelly or a Hershey bar. She tried my mother’s patience not only daily, but hourly. I still shudder to remember what it was like to give her insulin shots.” He leaned against the counter, his mind obviously dwelling in the past.
“When I left for UAA, it was hard on Mom even though she knew it was best for me to go. Luna had only been on insulin for maybe six months. I honestly don’t know how Mom got through it.”
He scraped a hand through his hair in the gesture of frustration she’d come to recognize. “I’d fly home between semesters, and they’d both be wrecks. A couple of times I thought, what the hell, I’ll just quit school and come back to help Mom. But whenever I brought it up, she’d get mad and forbid me to drop out.”
“She sounds like an amazing woman.”
“Yeah. Mom was one in a million. Her faith in me kept me in school. But then she died, and I had to quit, anyhow.”
“Denn . . .” She didn’t know what to say. Five years wasn’t nearly long enough to get over such a tragedy. He still dealt with the pain of his mother’s passing. She could sure relate, even if the words wouldn’t come so easily.
Kendall moved closer and laid a hand on his arm. Quietly, she said, “Your mother would be proud of the life you’ve made. The way you are with Luna, loving and devoted . . . if your mother were here, she’d tell you what a wonderful job you’re doing, parenting your sister. Not everyone could handle her health issues, either.” Her hand slid up his arm, curved over his shoulder and reached his cheek, to cup it gently. “You should be proud, too. Coming back here was the right thing to do, and you never hesitated. Did you?” She searched his eyes as she spoke.
“No. I never hesitated. I packed it all up and moved here, and I’ve never once regretted it. Well, maybe a little,” he admitted. “It was hard to say goodbye to a college degree, only eight months away from the damned diploma.”
“Well, nothing says you can’t take some online courses, or whatever’s available out this far, and finish, get your diploma. Right?”
He smiled at her, one heart-stopping, breath-stealing smile. Taking her hand from his cheek, he brought her palm to his mouth and pressed his lips there. Against her skin he murmured, “Nothing at all.”