Slow Burn by Starlight - Jennifer Bernard - E-Book

Slow Burn by Starlight E-Book

Jennifer Bernard

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Beschreibung

Graduate degree in hand, Ruthie Malone has returned to her Alaska hometown to catch the eye of her lifelong crush and prove she’s not the same awkward girl everyone remembers. And she’s definitely made an impression—stirring a hornet’s nest of old secrets with her research into Lost Harbor’s forgotten past. Seems the only person in her corner is her new coworker, a Scottish chef who’s as surly as he is sexy—and a close friend. Which means hands off.


 


Alastair Dougal first visited Lost Harbor seeking answers to his sister’s tragic death, but the charming town keeps calling him back, again and again. Now he’s taken temporary work and become unlikely friends with a nerdy redhead who’s equal parts quirky and exasperating. But when a nasty part of his past comes calling, it’s Ruthie who has his back—and his attention, after she reveals a side that’s less shy historian, more sensual hottie.


 


Busy trying to uncover old secrets, Ruthie and Alastair don’t want to ruin their friendship…until one wild beach bonfire puts them on course for a Slow Burn by Starlight.

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Slow Burn by Starlight

Jennifer Bernard

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

About the Author

Also by Jennifer Bernard

One

It would be no exaggeration to say that Ruthie Malone had been dreaming of this moment her entire conscious life.

Obviously as a newborn she hadn’t been pining after Ralphie Reed. But by the time toddlerhood rolled around, she’d generally toddled in the direction of her angelic blond playmate. Family legend held that her first word had been “Waa-fee.” R’s were difficult for a six-month-old, but everyone knew who she was crying for. In fact, she’d even claimed the nickname “Ruthie” because it sounded so much like “Ralphie.” Now it was too late to ditch it, especially here in Lost Harbor, where everyone knew her as Ruthie and probably always would.

In New York, where she’d just finished graduate school, no one called her that. In New York, she’d ditched a lot of things. Her nickname, her shyness, her awkwardness, her social anxiety—well, mostly—and her boring wardrobe.

Not her crush on Ralphie, though. Not a chance.

“Ruthie, where do you want this?”

She startled at the arrival of Chrissie Yates, who was carrying a large bottle of wildcrafted yarrow ale into the lighthouse—the perfect setting for this birthday dinner.

“Right here.” Ruthie pointed to the intimate round bar table she’d carried in here earlier and carefully positioned next to the lighthouse’s angled windows. The lighthouse—long-decommissioned—was her realm. Chrissie had hired her as the director of the newly established Lost Harbor Museum of Homestead Life and Alaskan Oddities.

At first, she’d been worried about coming back to Lost Harbor. The last thing she wanted was to backslide into the shyness that had crippled her as a child. But now she saw it as an opportunity to present the new, vastly improved, grown-up Ruthie to her hometown. And most especially to Ralphie Reed.

Today was his birthday. Not only that, but he’d just gotten back to Lost Harbor after a long fishing trip. She’d jumped at the chance to lure him to the lighthouse for some of his favorite foods. A completely updated list, by the way. Research was her thing, after all. She’d never met a question she couldn’t answer with enough research.

If grad school had offered a class on Ralphie Reed 101, she would have aced it.

Chrissie set the bottle and a couple of glass tumblers on the table and gave a whistle as she surveyed the scene. Ruthie had set the table with a sunny bouquet of late-summer wildflowers, with several lottery tickets nestled in with the calendula. From her research, she’d learned that Ralphie was obsessed with winning the lottery.

“Ralphie won’t know what hit him,” Chrissie said.

“You think he’ll like it?” Ruthie twisted her hands together anxiously. “Has he changed a lot in the last eight years?”

“Ralphie never changes,” Chrissie assured her, flicking her blond ponytail over her shoulder. Her blue eyes sparkled as she took in the rest of Ruthie’s preparations. An Igloo cooler next to the table, stocked with backup beers—Bud Light in case the home-brewed ale didn’t hit right. An iPod played a channel of ’80s pop music, Ralphie’s favorite. A scented candle flickered in the evening light, even though the sun wouldn’t be down for a few more hours yet.

Chrissie sniffed. “What’s that smell?”

“It’s the candle. Can you believe I found a candle scented with saltwater taffy? It’s Ralphie’s favorite.”

“I’m sensing a theme,” Chrissie said dryly.

“Well, it’s the first chance I’ve had to see Ralphie since I got back.” Ruthie’s defensiveness kicked in automatically. “You know we played together a lot when we were kids.”

“Ralphie does love to play.” Chrissie said that under her breath, but Ruthie caught it anyway. She knew perfectly well what Ralphie’s reputation was. He was…well, pick your word. Player. Lady-killer. Manwhore. He flirted with everyone. Tourists, locals, single women, married women, even the occasional man. It was his nature. He loved to make women—and the occasional man—happy.

“I know you disapprove of…all this.” Ruthie waved at the table. She’d had to shove a few glass display cases to the side to make room for it. But she was the museum director, after all. Over the past few weeks, she’d filled the space with displays of native narwhal scrimshaw art, pioneer-era willow snowshoes, and the pouches the early trappers wore against their chests to prevent the precious sourdough inside from freezing. In one corner she’d set up a playback booth where people would listen to stories from old-timers told in their own voices. She couldn’t wait to start those interviews.

Chrissie threw up a hand. “I didn’t say that. Obviously, you and Ralphie have a history. Anyway, I like Ralphie. Who doesn’t? I just…I mean…I hope you don’t…”

“I’m not picking out my wedding bouquet,” Ruthie said dryly. “I get it.” She tugged her lower lip between her teeth. “It’s just…I want him to see the grown-up me, you know? I was always so shy when I lived here before.”

“You don’t need to explain a thing to me, I promise.” Chrissie gave her a sympathetic squeeze on her shoulder. “He’ll be blown away, I have no doubt. I just want you to have fun. I’m sure Ralphie’s good for that.”

Ruthie lifted her eyebrows, since that sounded a little like a slam.

“You deserve some fun,” Chrissie continued. “You’ve been working your ass off getting this museum open. I’m so grateful you took this job. If you wanted to wine and dine a raccoon in here, I’d support you.”

Still sounded like a slam. But Ruthie didn’t care. Obviously, Chrissie didn’t know what it was like to go on a date with the man who’d been her fantasy since childhood. In New York, as she’d developed her own style, figured out how to deal with her curly red hair, and worked hard on her social anxiety, she’d dreamed about the moment that Ralphie Reed saw the new Ruthie Malone.

Goodbye, boring old Ruthie with the crooked glasses, the temporary back brace from when she’d tripped in front of her dad’s truck, and the acne that had tormented her from middle school onward.

Hello, semi-glam Ruthie with the waves of less-carroty hair and a smile she’d been told could be “bewitching.” Also, Ruthie with the master’s degree and the experience of living in lower Manhattan. Would that count for anything with Ralphie Reed? She had no idea, since she didn’t know what the adult Ralphie was like, other than his reputation.

Chrissie hurried away, back to the ten million details that went with managing the property she’d inherited from her grandfather. Ruthie adjusted the lottery tickets in the vase to make sure they could be seen at first glance.

She tended to be obsessive about details like that, which was one reason why she was such a good researcher, and also one reason why she drove people crazy.

Like Alastair Dougal, for instance, who tapped on the door just then. He held a tray filled with some of his famous appetizers. She knew for a fact that Ralphie liked them because she’d double-checked with his mother. And then triple-checked with Toni Del Rey, who’d been friends with Ralphie for years.

Alastair’s hazel-green eyes held their usual hint of something between amusement or irritation, but she was used to it by now. He was the chef in charge of food at the new Lighthouse Brewery, while her job was to transform the lighthouse itself into a museum. One would think that with two such different areas of expertise, they’d stay out of each other’s way.

Nope. They’d gone from clashing over every little thing to accepting each other’s boundaries, and now she considered him a close friend. They actually joked about being each other’s “work spouse.” Since her pay at the museum was so low, she worked a few shifts a week as his sous-chef.

Alastair could be a grouch sometimes, mostly when he was in chef mode. Also, he had a tragic past, which she’d learned about in bits and pieces. But once she’d gotten past his reserve, she’d discovered him to be wry, funny, and best of all, accepting of her neuroses.

“Are you planning to propose to this bloke?” he asked with that Scottish burr that all the women gushed over.

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” When he raised his eyebrows, she explained, “We were six. There was a green twisty. I’m sure he doesn’t remember.”

Alastair stepped inside, letting the heavy door thud closed behind him. The lighthouse was perched on a granite bluff and constructed to withstand countless Alaskan winter storms. Nonetheless, she fretted about her artifacts.

“Why do you always drop the door like that? My partial orca skeleton gets jostled every time.” She came toward him and took the tray of appetizers.

Alastair glanced up at the skeleton suspended overhead. “Looks fine to me. Very romantic. Not surprised you want to have a date in here.”

She caught his dry tone and made a little face at him. “Ralphie likes skeletons as much as I do. We found the remains of a baby otter once on the beach.”

“When you were little kids,” he pointed out.

“Yes, but he was really excited and we tried to recreate its skeletal structure as much as we could, before his dog decided to bury it.”

“Sounds to me like the dog had more sense than both of you.”

“Whatever. You wouldn’t understand. It’s a Ruthie-and-Ralphie thing.” She took the tray over to the table and carefully unloaded the plates of potstickers, sushi rolls, and bacon-wrapped shrimp.

“A Ruthie-and-Ralphie thing, is it? I can’t decide if that sounds more like a brand of hipster messenger bags or goat milk soap.” Hands in his pockets, he ambled past the table to the angled glass windows, which offered a stunning view of Misty Bay and the mountains of Lost Souls Wilderness. “Now this is the kind of view I’d prefer on a date.”

“I guess it’s good that you and I aren’t on a date, then,” she said cheerfully. “Ralphie sees this kind of thing all the time. He’s a fisherman and he knows the Gulf of Alaska like his own backyard.”

“I do know the bloke.” Again, that hint of irritation. “You don’t have to keep filling me in on the glories of Ralphie Reed.”

“You don’t have to be jealous.” She came up next to him and pinched him on the cheek the way her grandmother had always done to her. “You’re still my one and only work husband.”

He glared down at her, and a mighty frown it was, too, with all of that black hair and evening stubble. His Highland warrior roots were showing. “I’d better be, at that. I don’t approve of cheating on a spouse, even a work spouse.”

“Then we’d have to have a work divorce and that could get ugly. Good thing we have that never-nuptial agreement.” She gave him a cheeky smile and went back to fussing over the table.

“Ruthie, if you don’t mind me asking, how many dates have you been on?”

“That’s a funny question. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I know Ralphie, and he seems like a casual bloke. The kind who’d be just as happy with a beer and chips as a plate of potstickers.”

“These aren’t your ordinary potstickers. These are Alastair Dougal creations. You really ought to give yourself more credit. I believe I saw someone propose over a plateful the other night.”

“Ahh, so that’s your plan. Soften Ralphie up with some potstickers and pounce.”

“Would you stop with that? There will be no proposals tonight. I simply haven’t spent any time with Ralphie since I left for college, and this seems like a good opportunity.”

“So you got him flowers. And what are those?” He leaned forward to peer at the lottery tickets. She moved in front of him to block his view.

He cocked his head to listen to the music floating from the iPod. “Ralphie loves The Bangles?”

“They’re so underrated.”

Firmly, he planted his hands on her shoulders and fixed her with his green-eyed gaze. Honestly, if she weren’t so obsessed with Ralphie, she’d find Alastair very attractive.

Even more honestly, she did find him attractive. But that was the unwritten rule of being a work wife—don’t acknowledge the attraction.

“Ruthie, I feel obligated as your friend and your work husband to point out that you’re going a little overboard. You don’t want to scare him off, do you?”

“You think he’s afraid of The Bangles? His mother told me he still has a poster of them in his bedroom.”

“His mother told you that, or you found out yourself when you snuck in?”

A guilty flush crept up her cheeks. “Sneak is a very loaded word. His mother let me go into his room to leave him my invitation.”

“I knew it.” The grin that split his face looked almost piratical in the middle of all that dark scruff. “Intervention time.”

He tried to step around her, but she followed his movement and blocked his path. “What are you doing?”

“Intervening.”

“How? Why? You have no right—” He managed to dodge around her and she chased after him, grabbing the back of his sweater. “If you do anything to mess up my plans, I swear I’ll— I’ll—”

“You’ll what? Reorganize my grains again? Alphabetize my spices?”

Both of those good deeds from the early days of their acquaintance were still huge sore points with Alastair.

“If you’d just give my methods a chance, I guarantee you’d find them more efficient. They’re based on careful research.”

“Efficient, like the way you set up the drinks station? That kind of efficient?”

Another sore point. She’d arranged all the liquids at the self-service drinks table according to their nutritional benefit. Her logic had been sound, in her opinion. If a drink was harder to reach, people would be less likely to go for it. Why not put the pitcher of ice water in the front and the soda cans as far back as possible? Was it her fault that people kept knocking over the water? Finally, Alastair and Toni had gotten sick of mopping the floor and banned her from instituting any more brilliant ideas without a vote.

“You really don’t need to keep bringing up the same old complaints,” she grumbled.

Finally freeing his sweater from her grip, he snatched up her iPod.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

“Changing the channel.”

She danced behind him, trying to grab for it, but his big body kept getting in the way. Alastair was a solid, compact hunk of muscle, it seemed, and he had no trouble fending her off. She’d never been at all athletic, which was one thing she worried about when it came to Ralphie. He was a fisherman, after all, and extremely fit. Probably even more so than Alastair, who’d spent an entire month hiking in Lost Souls Wilderness.

The sound of The Bangles singing about manic Mondays ended abruptly and Al Green came on, singing “Let’s Get it On.”

“How is this better?” she demanded. “Now he’s going to think I want to have sex with him.”

“I’m assuming you do, nae? It’s all you’ve talked about since he returned to port.”

“I wasn’t talking about having sex with him,” Ruthie hissed. “Our connection is so much deeper than that. Clearly it’s beyond your…ken.”

He glanced down at her, amusement in his deep-set eyes. “I do love it when you throw a bit of Scottish into your ridiculous statements. The only thing Ralphie Reed has a deeper connection with is his own mirror.”

She swatted him on the arm and tried to grab the iPod again. He held it out of her reach—not exactly hard when he was almost a foot taller than her—and used his thumb to search for something else.

“Is this a bit better?” he finally asked as a new sound flowed from the iPod. She stilled and cocked her head. The music he’d found was weirdly great, kind of vaguely Irish with an electronic beat and an otherworldly sound to it. It fit this beautiful spot—the lighthouse perched on a bluff with a top-of-the-world kind of vibe—to perfection.

“That’s not bad.” She half closed her eyes and let the ethereal sounds transport her. “Good intervention.”

“You’re welcome.” His husky voice, with its quirky burr, added to the hypnotic flow of the sounds filling the lighthouse. A ray of the setting sun struck the westernmost-facing window and infused the entire space with a rich golden haze.

Her breath caught and she felt as if the moment had cast a spell on her. The sun. The music. The lemony scent of the cleanser she used for the lighthouse interior. The more male scent of Alastair Dougal, who always smelled like a fir forest.

Local legend said the lighthouse had once been a secret spot for lovers. At this moment, she believed it.

“Am I interrupting something?”

She ripped herself away from Alastair, stumbling over her own feet. She would have fallen if not for Alastair’s quick action.

“Ralphie!”

“Hey, Ruthie. ’Sup?”

God, he was beyond beautiful. The blond ringlets that had made him such an angelic child were cropped short now, framing a face that belonged on movie screens. Technically, his eyes were blue. But blue was such a bland word that didn’t nearly describe them properly. Those eyes could make you feel like you were paragliding on a cloudless midsummer day without any fear of falling.

She gave a long sigh, oblivious to where she was and what she was doing.

Vaguely, she became aware of Alastair setting her on her feet and then releasing her. She must have grabbed on to his sweater at some point because she still clung to it.

“Hey, man,” he greeted Ralphie.

“Scottish dude. What’s shaking?”

“Not much. I was just leaving.”

“You should stay,” Ralphie said easily. He wore a soft blue t-shirt that made his eyes even more dazzling than she remembered. “So long as you don’t mind a lot of old stories about blanket forts.”

Ruthie let out a ridiculous sound that was part glee, part surprise. He remembered the blanket forts. That was significant, right? Out of all the women Ralphie had dated, she’d bet that none of them had built blanket forts with him.

“That’s all right. I still have some cleanup to do back in the kitchen. You kids have fun.” Alastair cocked an eyebrow down at Ruthie and gently tugged his sweater free. “You okay?” he mouthed.

She nodded, then shook her head. Weirdly, she didn’t want him to go. All this buildup to her first adult encounter with Ralphie and now she was terrified. What if she couldn’t manage to get any more words out? All she’d said so far was “Ralphie.”

Damn it! This was why she’d struck out on her own and gone to New York, so she could work herself out of this paralyzing shyness. If her friendship with Alastair was any indication, it had worked. If she wasn’t shy with Alastair, why would she be with Ralphie? You can do this, Ruthie.

She read the same message in Alastair’s eyes and drew strength from it. If Alastair thought she could do it, she could. He was a smart man and a great work husband.

Squaring her shoulders and straightening her spine, she faced her childhood dreamboat. Just be normal. As if he’s someone here for a tour. “Welcome to the Lost Harbor Museum of Homestead Life and Alaskan Oddities. It’s thoroughly delightful to see you again.”

Good Lord, was that a British accent she’d suddenly acquired for no reason? Sigh.

Two

Where the devil did that accent come from? Alastair stifled a laugh, which he did a lot around her. Call it the Ruthie Effect, since he never really knew what was going to come out of her mouth. That was one of the reasons he’d struck up a friendship with her. He’d known a lot of women in his time, but no one quite like Ruthie Malone.

He had to give Ralphie credit. The guy didn’t blink an eye. Maybe he was used to being called “thoroughly delightful” in proper Queen’s English. Wouldn’t surprise Alastair a bit.

“Sweet,” Ralphie said, ambling inside and closing the door behind him. He didn’t even let it slam, so another point for the fisherman. “Looking good, Ruthie. I almost didn’t recognize you at first. The hair gave it away, though.”

Looking self-conscious, Ruthie touched her glorious flame-like mane. According to her, she’d looked like Orphan Annie as a kid, but she’d done some kind of treatment in New York that made the curls relax and brought out the shine. “My hair doesn’t look exactly the same, does it, Ralphie?”

“No way. It used to look like carrots, but now it looks like…beets.”

The expression on Ruthie’s face made Alastair stifle another laugh. Poor girl, this probably wasn’t going quite the way she’d imagined.

Ralphie continued. “But no one else around here has hair even close to yours. It looks great, Ruthie. You look great. It’s good to have you back in Lost Harbor.”

Ruthie lit up like an electric light that had just gotten plugged in. “That’s so nice of you, Ralphie.”

He came forward and they exchanged a hug. To Alastair’s eyes, it looked like a friendly embrace, but who knew how it seemed to Ruthie. Maybe she’d build some kind of fantasy around it that involved Ralphie dropping to his knees and proposing on the spot.

Should he stick around and try to protect her from her own self-delusions? For some reason, she’d talked herself into the hope that Ralphie Reed, who was essentially “community peen”—he’d just recently learned that American phrase—might be her soul-mate-in-waiting.

Odd that Ruthie Malone, who could be so brilliant in some areas, was so oblivious to Ralphie’s flaws.

On the other hand, maybe she knew him better than Alastair did. Maybe that childhood connection really did mean something. He wouldn’t know; his childhood had ended early and he’d left it behind long ago.

“Enjoy your dinner, you two.” He strode toward the door as they ended their embrace. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Ruthie’s face was flushed and her glasses askew. In lace-up boots and a hunter-green dress that hugged her generous figure, she looked sexy as hell. Ralphie would be a fool to dismiss her.

And she’d be a fool not to dismiss him. She could do so much better, in his opinion. But it was none of his business, so he kept on going through the door.

“Groovy sounds, Ruthie,” was the last thing he heard as he left. “Is that like, ancient Irish or something?”

Lifting his eyes toward the magnificent sunset sky, Alastair muttered under his breath, “Or something.” He trotted down the concrete steps to the grass, then took a short detour to one of the wooden benches Chrissie had installed along the bluff. Her vision—which he’d signed onto when he agreed to be her chef for the time being—was to mix frontier history with a deep appreciation of the stunning natural beauty of this area.

It had definitely stunned him from the very moment he’d first seen the craggy mountains and deep glaciers of Lost Souls Wilderness. Two years later, it still drew him, more powerfully than ever. He’d tried leaving a few times, but he kept returning. Something kept drawing him back here.

Which was strange, because his original reason for coming here didn’t exist anymore. He’d wanted answers about his sister Carole’s fatal plane crash. Carole, twelve years older than him, had become his guardian when their parents had died. She’d been his only family, so when a rich New Yorker had swept her off her feet at the pub where she worked, her little brother had been part of the deal.

After trying and failing to get pregnant, she and Anthony Berenson decided to adopt. Their search for a baby took them to Alaska—to the Aurora Lodge, where a newborn was awaiting them. But they’d never come home. Their twin-engine plane had disappeared in Lost Souls Wilderness. It was presumed to have crashed, with no survivors.

At seventeen, Alastair was alone in the world.

Tony’s brother Tate had taken the reins of the Berenson estate. None of the Berensons had ever accepted him; they saw him and Carole as a threat to their eventual inheritances. Within a month, Tate told him he was on his own.

With nowhere else to go and no money to get there, Alastair had stayed in New York and scrambled to find work. He’d done a bit of everything until he got hired at a four-star restaurant uptown. Busboy, then sous-chef, then chef. Job, apartment, girls…bit by bit, things had fallen into place.

He’d always assumed that someone would eventually find out exactly what happened to Carole and Anthony’s plane, but the years passed and he’d heard nothing. It haunted him. Carole had always been there for him, and it killed him to think that no one was solving her case. Was it an accident? Weather problem? Sabotage? The Berenson family was a snake pit, so in his darkest moments he’d wondered if one of them had something to do with it.

Finally, fifteen years after Carole disappeared, he’d decided to find out for himself. He’d taken some vacation time from the restaurant and flown to Lost Harbor and then on to the Aurora Lodge in Lost Souls Wilderness, the last place where Carole and Tony had been seen.

Finding the truth had taken more than his efforts alone. Maya Badger, the Lost Harbor police chief, had played a big part, as had Ethan James, a local investigator. They’d discovered that the real story was even wilder than any of his theories.

The Berensons’ plane had been shot down by a vengeful Russian crime boss. That man had been trying to reclaim his baby daughter, who happened to be the child that Carole and Tony were hoping to adopt.

It still sickened Alastair to think about. Loving, tenderhearted Carole, who’d always wanted a family, shot down from the sky while trying to adopt a baby—it was horrifying.

So why did he keep coming back to the place where Carole had died?

The locals had a saying—“Strange things happen around Lost Souls Wilderness.” It was as good an explanation as any.

He settled himself on the bench and stretched out his legs. Right over there, across the darkening waters of Misty Bay, lay the dense forests of Lost Souls Wilderness. Her plane had gone down deep inside the wilderness, in a spot he couldn’t see from here. But for some reason it comforted him to be close to where she’d died.

Carole’s death had turned him into a bit of a lost soul himself. She was the only person in the world who had loved him and supported him. After the crash, he’d been forced to grow up almost instantly. He’d learned to rely on himself and his own gut.

His gut had brought him here. He’d accomplished his mission. He’d gotten the answers he needed. But now his gut kept bringing him back. Was there another piece of the puzzle missing? Was there more to the mystery? Something Berenson-related? The question still haunted him.

Either way, New York was hot and sticky in the summer. It had a serious lack of glaciers and mountain ranges. So why not hang out in Lost Harbor for a while? He could relax here in a way that he couldn’t in New York.

Usually.

“You’ve been served.”

He jolted to attention as a voice spoke from behind him. In the next moment, Ethan James dropped onto the bench beside him and handed him a certified letter.

“What the hell?” he growled at the lanky private investigator. “What is this?”

“Someone’s been trying to reach you and they got fed up. Finally hired me.”

“I thought we were friends. Jay-sus.”

“I figured if it’s bad news, better to have a friend around, no?” Ethan grinned at him. He’d first met Ethan in Lost Souls Wilderness, when they’d been pursuing two different pathways to the same unsolved mystery.

“What if? Of course it’s got to be bad news. Nothing good comes in an envelope that looks like this.” He waved the certified letter in the air. “I’m tempted to toss it off the bluff.”

“Please don’t make me climb any rocks to complete my mission. Jessica made some smoked salmon and I’d like to be around to enjoy it.” Ethan, lucky dog, was engaged to the owner of the Sweet Harbor Bakery. It always seemed odd that a cynical detective like Ethan could get on so well with a sunny person like Jessica. Maybe it was true that opposites attract.

Alastair sighed and examined the return address on the letter. Carlin, Trout and Shapiro, Attorneys at Law. The address was Park Avenue in Manhattan. Fancy. And come to think of it, the name rang a distant bell. He’d heard it before, but a long time ago, as if in another lifetime.

“Did they give any clue what this is all about?” he asked Ethan.

“Nope. But if it helps, the paralegal who hired me has high hopes for the Yankees this year. Read into it what you will.”

Alastair chuckled, then sobered. “You know what I like about Lost Harbor?”

“No Yankees to hate on?”

“That, and the fact that here you can imagine the rest of the world no longer exists. Then you come along and ruin the whole illusion.”

Ethan clapped a hand on his shoulder. “That’s my job. Keeping it real. If you really want to hide from the world, get your ass back to Lost Souls Wilderness. But if you do stick around, Jess wants you to come to dinner soon. She wants to start having dinner parties. You know, like they do on Park Avenue.”

Alastair snorted. “You don’t fool me. I know exactly what Jess is up to.”

Shrugging, Ethan got to his feet, favoring his left leg as always. “If you want to pass up a chance to meet some eligible, single Lost Harbor ladies, that’s up to you. But she told me to mention that she’s making Coquilles Saint Jacques. She said you’d know what that is.”

Alastair’s mouth watered. Even as a professional chef, he’d learned a thing or two about cooking seafood from the locals here. “With locally sourced scallops?”

“I don’t speak chef, but if you mean were they caught by local fishermen, I’m sure they were.”

“Harvested,” Alastair corrected him, just to fuck with him.

“What?”

“You don’t ‘catch’ scallops. You scrape them off the ocean floor. It’s called ‘harvesting,’ and there, now you speak chef.”

“And to think I sometimes wonder why you’re still single,” Ethan muttered.

Alastair laughed. “It’s definitely not for lack of trying on Jessica’s part. When did I become her matchmaking project?”

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not just Jessica. I think they’re all in on it. Even Toni.”

That name brought a little twinge of…something. He’d been interested in the sassy Olde Salt Saloon bartender, but her heart so clearly belonged to her teenage crush Bash Rivers that he’d let that go right quick. Now they worked together at the brewery, so all in all, he was glad he hadn’t really fallen for her.

Speaking of childhood crushes…

“What’s the story with Ruthie and Ralphie?” he asked Ethan.

“Ruthie Malone and Ralphie Reed? I didn’t know there was one. Are they…dating? Seems like an odd match.”

“I’m not sure you would call it that.” He caught the spark of interest in Ethan’s eyes and regretted that he’d ever mentioned it. He shouldn’t be discussing Ruthie’s business with anyone except Ruthie. Not that there was any point in talking to her, either. Her mind was made up when it came to Ralphie.

“Want me to check into him?”

Alastair shook off the idea. “God, no. What’s to check into? He’s an open book. With a lot of pages filled with many, many women.”

Ethan laughed and shouldered the vintage Army messenger bag he’d brought the certified letter in. “True that. All right, I’ll see you at the dinner party. By the way, I believe Ruthie’s on the guest list too.”

“Good to know.”

Probably a good reason to skip it, Alastair thought as he watched Ethan lope toward the roped-off gravel area where everyone parked their cars. He spent enough time with Ruthie at work. Seeing her at a party might be…awkward. It would almost feel like cheating on his work wife with the nonwork version of Ruthie.

Except that knowing her, most likely there was no difference between the work and nonwork Ruthie. She was such a nerd—in the best possible meaning of the term. Nothing got her motor running like a historical discovery or a cool Lost Harbor artifact—except maybe a new organizational system.

Or Ralphie Reed.

A muscle ticked in his jaw as he thought about the “date” going on inside the lighthouse. Was there any chance a guy like Ralphie would appreciate a quirky-verging-on-eccentric woman like Ruthie Malone? Every time he’d seen the fisherman around town—at the Olde Salt, at Gretel’s Cafe, at the movie theater—he’d had a girl with him. A pretty girl. Not that Ruthie wasn’t pretty, but that word didn’t adequately describe her. Ruthie was entirely in her own category. She was just…Ruthie.

Would Ralphie be able to see that? Would he appreciate her nerdy nature and odd obsessions? Would he notice that she had a tattoo of the Dewey decimal number for her favorite books, the Gormenghast series? And one of an owl feather? She probably had more ink in places he hadn’t seen. She’d told him that she’d chosen them in New York with very careful deliberation, focusing on totems and runes that helped to ground her.

He shook off his worry. Ruthie was a grown woman and everyone was entitled to their mistakes. He’d certainly made plenty of his own, especially during the phase in which he’d worked through his lonely grief with the help of an endless parade of women.

Maybe he and Ralphie had more in common than he liked to think.

He remembered the envelope in his hand and debated whether to chuck it over the edge the way he’d threatened. Maybe he should have stayed in Lost Souls Wilderness in the tiny cabin that wasn’t on any map. No law firm could find him there.

A cold drop of rain landed on his head, then another. Even in late summer, the rain here in Alaska could chill you to the bone. But it also served as a wake-up call. Open the damn envelope before you freeze your ass off out here.

Carlin, Trout and Shapiro. Now he remembered where he’d heard the name. It was one of Anthony Berenson’s law firms. He used several for different purposes—business, philanthropy, personal. Which was this one?

He didn’t remember, but the name gave him a sinking feeling in his stomach. If this had anything to do with his sister, it couldn’t be good. The last few years of trying to find answers had been an ordeal littered with lawyers, law enforcement, and other obstacles.

Best get it over with.

He tugged at the tab at the top of the envelope and ripped it open. Peering inside, he saw a single sheet of letterhead paper. Was he being sued for something? The Berensons were very litigious, or at least prone to threats of lawsuits. So far they hadn’t actually sued him, but maybe his luck had run out and they’d come up with some obscure grievance to turn into a lawsuit.

He withdrew the sheet of paper and shielded it with the envelope while he scanned it. “Alastair Arthur Dougal, this is your official notification of…”

Stunned, he read to the end. “What the devil…”

Three

“Whoa, the Scottish dude’s freaking out,” Ralphie said as he stepped down the lighthouse stairs. Ruthie clattered behind him in her lace-up boots. As soon as it had started raining, Ralphie had remembered that he’d left the canopy off his skiff. All of Ruthie’s fantasies of cuddling by the lighthouse window watching a rainstorm sweep across the bay disappeared.

“He has a name,” Ruthie pointed out. She prized accuracy in all things, and “the Scottish dude” could mean anyone from Scotland. Although context was important too, and Alastair was the only Scot in Lost Harbor. “It’s a cool one, too. Alastair Dougal.”

But Ralphie was too preoccupied with his canopy to worry about such details. He flopped a hand at Ruthie and loped down the winding pathway that led back to the brewery and other Yatesville structures—cabins and yurts and workshops.

So much for the dinner she’d been dreaming about for so long.

But she didn’t have time to dissect everything that had happened, because Ralphie was definitely right about one thing. Alastair was freaking out.

She bounded down the last couple of steps and dashed over to the bench where he was cursing up at the sky.

“What happened? Did you get some bad news?”

He glanced at her wildly; she got the sense that he barely saw her. Which was strange in and of itself, because she usually felt the opposite with Alastair. Out of all the people she knew here in Lost Harbor, he felt like the only one who saw her and not some long-gone memory of her.

She saw that he held an envelope in one hand and a letter in the other. “Are you okay? Is someone ill? Talk to me, Alastair.”

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out, so he closed it again.

Someone must have died. That was the only explanation for his shocked muteness and the horrified look on his face.

Lowering her voice, she said, “I’m so sorry. Was it someone you were close to? A relative back in Scotland?”

“What?” He focused on her, his eyebrows coming together in a frown.

Finally, a word.

“Your news.” She gestured at the letter. “I’m just assuming…”

“No one’s dead. I mean, no one else is dead.” He clenched his jaw, the muscles knotting tight.

“Oh. Okay. That’s a relief…” Except he didn’t look at all relieved. The pace of the rain picked up, a steady drumbeat on their heads. “Do you want to go inside? You’re getting drenched out here.”

He nodded, but when she moved in the direction of the brewery, he refused to follow. “Sorry, I’m not in the mood for other people just yet.”

“Come on, then.” Veering toward the lighthouse instead, she beckoned him to follow. “I’ve got these amazing potstickers and a bottle of yarrow ale that’s barely been touched.”

“Where’s Ralphie?”

“He had to go. Boat emergency,” she added, to lessen the embarrassment at least a little. How long had he actually spent inside the lighthouse? Maybe half an hour?

She braced herself for the inevitable teasing from Alastair, but it didn’t come. Maybe he was too shaken up with his news, or maybe he sensed that she’d rather not get teased at this particular moment.

“Nice of him to leave some potstickers behind,” was all he said. “I could use a bite.”

The two of them trudged up the short flight of concrete steps. She let out a sigh as she surveyed the remains of her dream date. “Oh well, it’s a start,” she murmured to herself.

On occasion, she still talked to herself, the way she used to back when she had an imaginary friend. Did that count as talking to yourself? She wasn’t sure. Sometimes, like now, she did it in front of Alastair, which was probably a sign of how comfortable she felt with him. He already knew she was weird, so she had no need to hide that fact from him.

“Should I ask?” Alastair surveyed the scene of her dinner debacle. “Or should this go in the archives?”

Hands in his pockets, with that mystery envelope tucked under his arm, he leaned against the wall between two of the angled windows. The slowly setting sun picked up glints of copper in his dark hair.

“It wasn’t a complete disaster. It was…nice.”

Nice and brotherly. Nice and anticlimactic. None of the fireworks she’d dreamed about.

“We talked about some childhood memories,” she added.

“Yeah? Like what?”

“The time we went blueberry picking and ran into a black bear. We climbed a tree to escape it, mostly because Ralphie really loved climbing trees. But I sucked at climbing and I lost my grip and fell about five feet from the bear.”

“Shite.”

She’d stayed still as a log while the bear had sniffed her all over. She could still remember its hot, earthy breath. Finally, the bear had ambled off, no longer interested in the little lump of human.

“I was fine, but Ralphie missed the whole thing because he kept climbing to the top. He wanted to see his house.”

She caught Alastair’s grimace.

“Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the best childhood memory. But he also told me that I grew up better than he thought I would.”

Alastair squinted at her. “You sure that’s a compliment?”

She made a face at him as she poured some yarrow ale into a glass. “He was smiling when he said it, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, you never saw me when I was little.”

As she brought him the glass, she took a quick peek at the envelope under his arm. Certified letter. Return address in New York. Wild with curiosity now, she handed him the beer. “Come on, why don’t you get buzzed and tell me what’s going on.”

“I will. I just need a minute.” He guzzled down half the glass of ale, while she shuddered. Beer was not her thing. “Tell me more about little kid Ruthie. I bet you were adorable, all chubby cheeks and red curls.”

“Yes, like a miniature clown. Actually, I was pretty cute when I was little. Puberty was my downfall. That’s when I started wearing glasses, too. Did you know that for the first three years I kept deliberately losing them? Then I mistook one of my father’s statues for our golden retriever and bonked my head into it so hard, I needed stitches.”

She lifted her hair to show him the mark on her forehead.

Alastair looked bemused by that story. “I want to laugh, but I’m thinking that must have been painful.”

“Just another highlight of my wonder years.” She laughed, since again, what could you do? Anyway, she wasn’t that person anymore. Now she was a poised, confident woman with a master’s degree who could laugh off her childhood insecurities.

“After that, my parents laid down the law. I had to wear glasses. I pretty much wrote off the rest of my high school years.” She said it lightly, of course, because why not? It was over and done with now. So what if she’d shed many tears over her social pariah existence?

“Just because of some glasses?” Alastair frowned as he finished off his ale. “Lots of people wear them. Plenty of young ones too.”

“It wasn’t really the glasses,” she admitted. “It was my attitude about the glasses. Maybe they were more of an excuse than anything else. I was just really, really shy. I’ve told you that. Glasses made it easy to hide until high school was over. The only problem…” She hesitated, pulling her lower lip between her teeth.

“Problem?” he prompted.

“Ralphie. We started off like this.” She held the index fingers of her two hands together. “I went down and he went up.” Separating her hands, she opened her arms as wide as possible, one above her head, one lower down. “Everyone loved Ralphie. And everyone forgot about me. Potsticker?”

Dropping her hands, she went to the table and snatched up the plate of potstickers and two forks. It gave her a chance to hide the flush coming across her face. Even though all that was in the past, it still embarrassed her.

He was shaking his head when she got back. She handed him a fork. “I doubt anyone forgot. My guess is that you wanted to be invisible and they obliged you.”

“Maybe,” she admitted, jabbing a fork into a potsticker. “I did get a 4.0 average out of my lack of social life. And I got to watch Ralphie date his way through our class, the class above us, and the class below.”

He helped himself to a potsticker too. “So now you want to be another notch on his bedpost, is that it?”

“No,” she said defensively. “God. You make it sound so gross. I just want…” She shrugged, searching for the right words. “I just want him to see me. I want to prove to him that I’m not the same ridiculously awkward girl I was back then.” To emphasize her point, she waved the potsticker in the air—only to watch in horror as it flipped off the tines of the fork and landed with a squishy thwack on Alastair’s forehead. A spray of soy sauce flicked across his face.

Alastair clapped his hand to his forehead and peeled off the sticky dumpling. “You were saying? Something about awkward? I didn’t quite catch it because of the random potsticker attack.”

She dashed back to the table to grab a napkin. “I’m so sorry. Let me get that soy sauce out of your hair.”

“It’s Nama Shoyu,” he grumbled as she dabbed at his face and hair. “Expensive, too. Never planned on using it like aftershave.”

“It’s just a couple drops, don’t be so dramatic.” His hair was soft, she noticed, as a lock slid through her fingers. It had a thick wave to it. And he smelled nice, apart from the soy sauce. A cool, fresh whiff of the outdoors. “And yes, I still have my awkward moments, in case we still needed proof of that. Hang on, there’s a drop inside your ear. How the heck did it get in there?”

As she delicately blotted that bit of soy sauce, he gave a low rumble of laughter. Then another. His laugh was so infectious—like a chuckle deep in his chest—that she giggled too. Then he threw his head all the way back and roared.

She watched, smiling along with him. He wasn’t laughing at her, she knew, or even because getting soy sauce in your ear was funny. It was a release from whatever tension that envelope had caused him.

“Ruthie, you really know how to lighten things up.” He wiped his eyes when he was finally done laughing.

“Feeling better now?”

“Actually, yeah.”

“More relaxed?”

“A bit.”

“Less grouchy-bear?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Then what’s in that letter?”

Her rapid-fire interrogation technique worked. He opened his mouth, and this time he didn’t snap it shut before he spoke. “I just inherited a fortune.”

Four

“What?” Ruthie dropped the soy sauce napkin on the floor, but didn’t appear to notice.