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Amy James, in the Treasure Creek General Store shopping for milk and bread—a never-ending need with her two sons— looked at the speaker, Myron Scroggins, without a bit of surprise. Lately, no matter where she went someone proposed marriage. The situation had become beyond ridiculous.
"Oh, Myron, you're just after my money," she said, trying to make light of the silly offer. Everyone in the tiny town of Treasure Creek, Alaska, knew her tour business was struggling. During the last few months, business had improved, but it would be another year before she was back on solid footing.
"Now, Miss Amy, you know better."
She did. Myron was one of the good guys. The burly man was also forty years her senior, lived far outside town and was seriously set in his ways. His scraggly beard probably housed a family of mice. He rarely came to town, and then only to collect supplies and hightail it back to his ramshackle cabin.
Carl Branch, a sixtysomething farmer in brown duck coveralls and a feed-store ball cap, came around from behind a stack of horse feed and protested. "Hey, I asked her first!"
Myron's weathered face fell. He looked from Carl to Amy and back. "You did?"
Amy laughed. She couldn't help herself. In an Alaskan town with few women and plenty of men, she'd become a valuable commodity. Some wanted her tour business, and others simply wanted to take care of the young widow whose family had founded this town. This was the case with both Myron and Carl, two older men she'd known since she was born.
"Myron. Carl. Please. I'm honored by your kindness. Truly, I am, but the boys and I are getting along great. Don't worry about us."
Myron's loose jowls jiggled insistently. "A woman needs a man to look after her."
That notion didn't set too well with Amy's independent spirit, but she didn't take offense.
"Leave Amy alone." A scowling Harry Peterson, owner-operator of Treasure Creek's General Store, slapped a pound of butter on the counter in front of Carl. The pot-bellied proprietor had been particularly grumpy lately. "Just because all those fancy women came flooding in here to find a man, doesn't mean every woman in town is interested in marrying you slobs."
"Ah, Harry," Carl said. "You're just mad 'cause Joleen's been flirting with Neville Weeks and he's flirting back."
Harry made a harrumphing noise and rattled a paper bag, the furrows in his brow deepening by the second. Amy had a feeling the old farmer had hit too close to home. Joleen Jones was a fluffy, overblown blonde who tried too hard, but she was as good as gold. She'd been hot after Harry since her arrival from Tennessee, but after so many rebuffs, the Southern belle had apparently given up. Amy felt sorry for the woman, though she had to wonder what Joleen saw in Harry in the first place.
"You gotta marry somebody, Miss Amy," Myron said as he scratched his wooly, gray beard. "Might as well be me. This town would dry up and die without you, and we want to help you out, now that Ben is gone."
The too familiar pang of loss sliced through the open wound Amy called a heart. Her husband, Ben, had died nearly a year ago, and though the agonizing grief had diminished, she didn't want to marry anyone.
Ben's last letter flashed through her head, but she instantly blocked it. He'd loved her and wanted the best for her, and Amy was not about to settle for less than a God kind of marriage such as they'd had. No matter what his letter had asked her to do.
She felt a responsibility to this historic little town, founded during the Yukon Gold Rush by her great-great-grandfather, Mack Tanner. She would fight with her last breath to keep it afloat, but that did not require marriage.
"Tell you what, Myron. I won't marry you, but I'll bake a batch of those cinnamon rolls you like. You, too, Carl."
Both men perked up.
Myron spoke for both of them when he said, "That's a better deal than getting hitched any day."
Amy agreed. With a smile and a wave, she gathered her bag of groceries and exited the store, nearly bumping into Reed Truscott, the local chief of police.
"Oops, excuse me," she said, sidestepping the tall, lean lawman.
He stepped in front of her, blocking the way. "How you doing, Amy? "
He shifted in his boots, glanced across the quiet street and cleared his throat. The police chief obviously had something on his mind.
"Look, Amy, we need to talk. About this situation between us—"
She held up a hand, stop sign style. There was no "situation," and if he asked her to marry him again—check that—if he demanded she marry him, she would stomp his toe. Of all the men who'd offered proposals, this was the one that bothered her most.
"Don't even think it, Reed. And do not say it. Whatever it is."
Whirling, she stalked off down the sidewalk. As she went, she heard him grumble, "Frustrating woman."
Well, it was frustrating to her, too. After Reed's first, arrogant, pushy proposal on the night of Ben's death, of all the inappropriate times, Amy had avoided any hint of personal conversation. She liked Reed Truscott, but she didn't pretend to understand his tight-lipped, overly macho attitude.
After picking up her two boys from the church preschool, Amy headed home, listening to their sweet chatter. As she pulled into the drive of her aging two-story clapboard and killed the SUV motor, an odd feeling came over her. She frowned at the blue house and then gazed around the yard, shrouded now in the hazy, dying light. Everything seemed all right. The red front door she'd painted herself beckoned cheerfully from its white, arched frame. Evergreens frosted with snow hugged the concrete steps swept clean this morning. And yet, her skin crawled in the oddest manner. Something didn't feel right, and after having a gun held to her head a few weeks ago, she'd learned to listen to that little voice inside. God was trying to tell her something.
Slowly, she exited the SUV and glanced around before getting Dexter and Sammy out of their car seats. She'd pull into the detached garage later. First, she had to check things out.
Four-year-old Dexter hopped down from the vehicle and bounded for the back door.
"Dexter, wait. Let Mama go first."
The dark-haired boy stopped and looked back at her, clearly puzzled by his mother's tone. Hoisting three-year-old Sammy and his ever-present stuffed dog onto one hip, she grabbed the groceries and her purse, balancing everything as she crossed the yard to enter through the back way, directly into the kitchen.
Stepping upon the single-stepped porch, her heart bumped. The back door stood ajar.
Had she failed to close it well this morning? The house was old and out of square. Some of the doors, including the back one, needed to be replaced and didn't fit properly—one more project that had ceased with Ben's death.
Easing Sammy to the ground, she scanned the yard and house again but saw nothing. Last night's snow revealed no footprints. Everything appeared normal except the open door.
Calling herself overcautious, she pushed the door wider and waited. After hearing or seeing nothing, she led the way into the kitchen.
"Oh, no!" The gasp tore from her throat.
Her house looked like a war had broken out and she'd been defeated.
Cabinet contents littered the floor. Jumbled drawers hung open like slack-jawed dogs. And the open refrigerator hummed incessantly, milk and juice spilling out in dripping puddles. Amy's hands fisted at her sides. Whoever did this had been searching for something. And she knew exactly what.
"Mom?" Dexter tugged on her jeans. Dark gray eyes, so like his father's, were as round as Frisbees. Above the tiny cleft in his chin, his bottom lip quivered. "Someone broke our stuff."
"It's okay, baby." Though of course, it was not okay. "Sammy, get away from that shattered glass."
The barely three-year-old, too small to comprehend the disaster, had dragged his stuffed pal, Puppy, straight into the broken, jumbled, sticky mess. She took his hand and tugged him back to her side. "Stay here by Mommy."
Grappling in her jeans pocket for the cell phone, Amy punched in a number. Her fingers shook.
On the second brrr, a strong, male voice barked, "Police department. What is your emergency?"
Regardless of his inopportune marriage proposal, she trusted Reed Truscott with her life. "What's wrong?"
She drew a shaky breath, struggling to keep the fear out of her voice. "Someone broke into my house."
Reed hissed. She could practically see his lips drawn back and the tight expression on his face. "Are you okay?"
"We just walked in. This very minute." In spite of her determination to stay calm in front of the boys, Amy's voice began to shake along with her knees. "Everything's a wreck."
In the background, over the phone, she heard a drawer open and keys rattle. Chief Truscott was already moving. "Where are you?"
"In the kitchen." The flip phone quivered against her ear. "Whoever did this—"
Reed's sharp tone interrupted. "Have you been in any of the other rooms? "
Goose bumps rose on her arms. Her house was a two-story.
She glanced down the hall leading from the kitchen to the side office. The normally comfortable space seemed ominously long and dark. Her gaze went to the small alcove off the dining room that housed the staircase to the second floor. Was that a squeak overhead?
Lord Jesus, protect us. Protect my boys.
Cradling the phone between her chin and shoulder, she grasped Dexter and Sammy by the shoulders.
"Take the boys and get out." Reed's usually calm tone tensed. "Do it now, Amy. Get out of the house."
He didn't have to tell her twice. Someone could still be inside.
"Amy? Do you hear me?"
"I'm going." If her knees would hold her up.
"I'll be there in five." The security of Reed's voice was lost as the line went dead.
Hurrying now, aware that her children could be in danger, Amy shuffled her sons out into the cold gray of a late November Alaska.
"Get in the car."
Ever alert to her surroundings, she opened the back door to the red SUV, hoisted Sammy and Dexter inside and quickly slammed the door. Car seats could wait.
More jittery than she wanted to be, she bolted around to the driver's side and hopped in. Her fingers trembled as she jabbed the key into the ignition, turned the switch and popped the locks. She leaned her head back against the seat and sighed but didn't close her eyes.
If someone was still in the house, she needed to know. If not for the boys, she would have searched the rooms herself and beaned the rats who'd invaded her safe and happy home.
But she had the boys to think about, and they came first—always.
As if he'd read her mind, Dexter leaned through the console. A tear trickled down his cheek. "I want Daddy." Sammy heard the tremor in his big brother's voice. His small head poked through the space, too. Tears streamed down his round, baby face. "I want Daddy, too. Where's Daddy?" Both began to cry.
The words were a spear through Amy's heart. She wanted Ben, too. Even after nearly a year, she still expected him to walk in the door any moment, eyes dancing, face rosy from the outdoor work he loved. But Ben, her love, her best friend, her partner in Alaska's Treasures tour company, would never be here again to protect and comfort his sons. Or her.
The now-familiar heaviness pressed down on her chest. Life was not fair sometimes. She was strongly tempted to cry with her sons, but after Ben's death on the Wild Rapids Tour, she'd cried the Yukon River full of tears. Being strong for her boys and her floundering town were the things that mattered now. She had a job to do, people depending on her, and she would not fail them. Ben would have expected no less.
"Don't cry, Dex." She stroked her eldest's dark hair, so different from her own. "Come on. Crawl up here beside Mama while we wait for Chief Reed."
Dexter sniffed. "Is he coming? I mean, right now?"
"Any minute, baby."
Both her sons were more their father than her, which was fine with Amy, although looking into their faces was like looking at miniature versions of Ben. Dexter even bore Ben's chin cleft. The reminder was both pain and pleasure. She'd loved Ben James with everything in her. And he'd loved her the same way.
They'd been building a good life here in Treasure Creek, Alaska, where they had both grown up. The Alaska's Treasures tour company had been their dream, a dream that had cost Ben his life. But she never blamed the business or the lifestyle. Danger, like beauty, was part of life and work in rugged Alaska.
Without the revenue from the tour company and the business it generated for the hotels, eateries and other enterprises, the little town of Treasure Creek could become another forgotten ghost town.
A siren ripped the cold, crisp air, and Amy found the sound as sweet as a Christmas carol. After another quick glance at the house, she turned to watch the rotating lights of Reed's four-wheel drive. His ever-present dog, Cy, sat in the passenger seat, mouth open in a smile.
Dexter stopped crying and moved to a side window. Sammy followed his big brother, dragging the stuffed puppy along at his side. Cy was a particular favorite of her two sons. The one-eyed malamute was usually more personable than his master.
Some of the tension left Amy's shoulders. Reed was here.
The tough, sinewy chief of police had been Ben's best friend. Regardless of that awkward, humiliating marriage proposal, Reed was a loyal friend and a great cop. Whoever had broken into her house had just made a fearsome enemy.
Reed Truscott slammed the vehicle into Park and bolted out the door before the truck stopped rocking. In more than a dozen years on the job, he'd never seen this much trouble in Treasure Creek.
"Mack Tanner and his treasure," he grumbled. People had been traipsing up on Chilkoot Trail for years, searching for the treasure Amy's great-great-grandfather had buried there during the Gold Rush of 1889. Why did the thing have to be found in his lifetime? And why did Amy have to be in the line of fire?
It was that crazy magazine interview Amy had done. That's what started all the trouble.
His boots crunched on last night's new snow as he stalked toward Amy's Jeep. Part of him expected Miss Iron Woman
to still be inside the house. When he told her to get out, he'd intended for her to leave, to get completely away from the crime scene and any hint of danger. But Amy did things her way, so he was relieved to spot her and her little ones safely inside the red vehicle.
How was he supposed to take care of Ben's family when Amy was so uncooperative?