Shades of Midnight (Chapter Six)

Alex packed up her snowmachine and hit the trail with Luna on board in front of her about an hour before daybreak. She was still rattled from the town meeting the night before, and more than a bit curious about the stranger who'd apparently vanished into the bush as oddly as he'd appeared in the back of Harmony's little log church.

Who was he? What did he want in tiny, remote Harmony? Where had he come from when the recent snowstorm had left most of the interior cut off from all of the nearest major ports?

And why had he been the only person in the entire assembly last night who'd listened to her account of the footprint left in the snow out at the Toms place and not made her feel like she had lost her mind?

Not that any of that mattered today. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious was long gone from Harmony, and Alex had a sled packed with as many supplies as she could carry–bare necessities for a few of the folks she'd had to neglect when her plane run to the bush was cut short the other day. Now she had a scant three hours of daylight and just enough gasoline stowed on board and in the Polaris's oversize fuel tank to make the hundred-mile round trip.

She had no good reason to detour toward the Toms settlement about an hour into her drive. None, except the gnawing need for answers. The hope–futile as she feared it to be–that she might find some kind of explanation for the slayings that didn't involve bloodied footprints in the snow and memories dredged up from the pit of her own private hell.

As Alex steered the snowmachine onto the drifted-over trail that led to Pop Toms's place, Luna jumped off to romp in the fresh, glittering powder.

"Stay with me," Alex warned the eager wolf dog as she slowed her sled on the approach to the small cluster of dark wood structures.

Watching Luna's eagerness to race ahead brought on an unwelcome flashback to that awful moment three mornings ago and to the grisly discovery of young Teddy's body.

And, just like that day, Luna tore off now, ignoring Alex's calls for her to wait.

"Luna!" Alex shouted into the stillness of the early afternoon. She cut the gas on the snowmachine and leapt off, then huffed and waded as best she could through the deep drifts that had hardly slowed Luna down at all. "Luna!"

Up ahead several yards, the wolf dog ran up the steps of Pop's porch and disappeared inside. What the hell? The door was open, even though Zach had made certain everything was closed up tight before the bodies of Pop and his family had been taken away. Had the wind blown the door open?

Or had it been something more dangerous than an Arctic gale that swept through here in the time since the killings?

"Luna," Alex said as she drew closer to the log building, hating the small shake in her voice. Her heart rate started to jackhammer in her chest. She swallowed past her anxiety and tried again. "Luna. Come on out of there, girl."

She heard movement inside, then a creak and a loud pop as a floorboard protested the cold and the weight of whoever–or whatever–was inside with her dog.

More movement, footsteps approaching the open space of the door. Fear crawled up the back of Alex's neck. She reached around to the handgun holstered under her parka at the small of her back. She drew the weapon and held it in a two-fisted grip in front of her, just as Luna came trotting nonchalantly out to greet Alex at the bottom of the stairs.

And behind her, farther inside Pop's house, was a man–the dark-haired stranger from the back of the church last night. Despite the cold, he was dressed in nothing but a pair of loose blue jeans, which he was casually fastening as if he'd just rolled out of bed.

He held Alex's incredulous gaze with a calmness she could hardly fathom, looking for all the world like staring down the barrel of a loaded .45 was something he did every day.

"You," Alex murmured, her breath clouding in front of her. "Who are you? What the hell are you doing out here?"

He stood unmoving, unfazed, inside the main room of the house. Instead of answering her questions, he tipped his strong, squared chin to indicate her pistol. "You mind pointing that somewhere else?"

"Yeah, maybe I do," she said, her pulse still pounding and not entirely from fear now. The guy was intimidating, nearly six-and-a-half-feet tall, with broad, muscled shoulders and powerful biceps that looked capable of dead-lifting a bull moose. Beneath an unusual pattern of hennalike tattoos that danced artfully over his chest, torso, and arms in some kind of intricate tribal design, his skin had the smooth, golden color of a Native. His hair seemed to indicate the same lineage, jet black and straight, the close-chopped spikes looking as silky as a raven's wing.

Only his eyes gave him away as something other than pure Alaskan. Pale silver, piercing against the thick, inky lashes that fringed them, they held Alex in a grip that felt almost physical.

"I need to ask you to step outside where I can see you," she said, not comfortable with this situation-or this unnerving man–in the least. Even though she was certain she was no match for him, with or without bullets to back her up, she made her best attempt at affecting Jenna's no-bullshit police officer tone.

"Right now. Out of the house."

He cocked his head to the side and glanced past her to the soft overcast haze of the thin afternoon daylight outside. "I'd rather not."

He'd rather not? Was he serious?

Alex flexed her fingers to get a better grip on the pistol, and he slowly lifted his hands in a show of nonforce.

"It's about ten below out there. A man could freeze off something vital," he said, having the nerve to quirk his lips into an amused half smile. "My clothes are inside. As you can see, I wasn't dressed for company. Or for a shoot-out on the tundra."

His wry, easy humor deflated most of her trepidation. Without waiting for her to reply–without any regard at all for the loaded firearm still aimed dead-center on him–he pivoted around and walked deeper inside Pop's house.

Good lord, those fascinatingly odd tattoos wrapped all the way around to his back, too. They seemed to move with him, accentuating the lean, hard muscle that bunched and flexed with his every step. to move with him, accentuating the lean, hard muscle that bunched and flexed with his every step.

"No need for you to stand out there in the cold, either," he said, his deep voice doing something crazy to her pulse as he disappeared from her sight. "Stow the gun and come inside if you want to talk."

"Shit," Alex breathed on a huff.

She let her arms relax, not quite sure what just happened. The guy was unbelievable. Was he that arrogant or just plain crazy?

She had half a mind to squeeze off a warning shot, just to let him know she was serious, but at that same moment, Luna gave a short whine and loped back up the steps and into the house behind him. Disloyal mutt.

With a low-muttered curse, Alex lowered the pistol and cautiously walked up to the porch and the open door of what had been almost a second home to her for the past several years. As she entered Pop's place now, it couldn't have felt more foreign to her. Wrong in every way.

Without Pop Toms's booming voice to greet her as she walked in, the house felt colder, darker, emptier than ever. Thankfully, there was no blood spilled within, as he and Teddy had either run or been chased outside before their killer managed to catch them. Everything looked just as it would be if they'd been there, only it chilled Alex like some kind of alternate reality that had collided with the one she knew. Out of place in the cramped living room was a black leather duffel bag that sat unzipped on the skirted orange-and-brown plaid sofa. Alex stole a quick look at the contents, noting a couple changes of clothes inside and a rather nasty hunting knife that had been removed from its sheath and set atop a pair of black military-style fatigues.

But the gleaming, serrated blade that looked as though it would make short work of a grizzly's hide was merely an appetizer for the rest of the weaponry laid out in Pop's living room. A high-powered rifle with a blunted barrel was propped in the corner nearest the door. Beside it on the scarred lamp table that Pop Toms had made with his own hands as a wedding gift for his wife some three decades ago was a book-size case of custom rounds. The tips of the big, shiny bullets were pointed and capped, the kind of ammunition that ripped through the toughest flesh and bone in an instant, showing no mercy and taking no prisoners. Another gun, a semiautomatic 9mm that easily trumped her .45 revolver, rested in a black chest holster next to the case of hollow points.

Having lived in the bush most of her life, Alex didn't cower at the sight of weapons or hunting gear, but this personal arsenal–and the awareness that the man who owned it had suddenly, silently, returned to the room with her–took her aback.

She glanced up to find him shrugging into a thick gray chamois shirt and rolling the sleeves off' his forearms. The fascinating array of tattoos disappeared as he worked a couple of the buttons closed in front. In the tight confines of the room, Alex caught the scent of Arctic air and crisp pine, as well as something wilder that seemed to cling to him and made her senses come to full attention. God, had she been so long without male companionship that her survival instinct was broken? She didn't think so, and then again, she wasn't the only female in the room to be affected by this stranger who'd appeared out of nowhere last night. Luna had parked her traitorous butt at his feet and gazed up adoringly at him while he reached down and scratched her behind the ears. Normally the wolf dog was cautious around strangers, wary of new people, but not with him.

If she needed someone to vouch for a person's character, she could do a lot worse than listen to Luna's instincts. For that matter, Alex had her own internal gauge for judging whether she could trust someone, a sort of instinctual lie-detector that she'd been aware of since she was a child. Unfortunately, in order for it to work, she needed to be close enough to touch the person–even a simple brush of her fingers against someone was usually connection enough for her to tell if she was being lied to. Tempting as it was to put her hands on some of this guy's bare skin, it would also mean setting down her gun. Frankly, she didn't think it would be smart to get that friendly just yet.

"Who are you?" Alex demanded, wondering if he would answer this time. "What were you doing at the town meeting in Harmony, and what business do you have being out here? This is a crime scene you're compromising, in case you hadn't noticed."

"I noticed. And the three feet of fresh snow burying the place had compromised it long before I got here," he said without apologizing, still rubbing his big hand over Luna's head and under her chin while the dog practically drooled with contentment.

Alex could have sworn something unspoken passed between man and canine in the moment before Luna rose and came strolling back to Alex to lick her hand.

"Name's Kade," he said, pinning her with that shrewd, steady, silver gaze. He reached out and offered his hand, but Alex hadn't quite decided if she could trust him that far yet. He hesitated for a moment, then let his arm fall back down to his side. "I gather from what I heard last night that you were close to the victims. I'm sorry for your loss, Alex."

It unnerved her, the way he said her name with such easy familiarity. She didn't like the way his voice, and his uninvited, unexpected compassion seemed to reach inside her chest and wrap itself around her senses. She didn't know him, and she definitely didn't need his sympathy.

"You're not from around here," she said abruptly, needing to maintain some sense of distance as the walls seemed to crowd in on her the longer she was in his presence. "But you're not from Outside, either. Are you?"

He gave a vague shake of his head. "I was born in Alaska, grew up north of Fairbanks."

"Oh? Who's your family?" she asked, trying to sound conversational rather than interrogatory. He blinked, just once, a slow shuttering of his remarkable eyes. "You wouldn't know my family."

"You might be surprised. I know a lot of people," she said, pressing all the harder for his evasiveness. "Try me."

His broad lips curved at the corners. "Is that an invitation, Alex?" She cleared her throat, caught off guard by the innuendo, but even more so by the sharp kick of her pulse as he let the question hang between them. He walked toward her then, an easy, long-legged stride that brought him to within arms' reach of her.

God, he was gorgeous. All the more so up close. His lean face was sharp angles and strong bones, his black brows and lashes setting off the wintry color and keen intelligence of his eyes, which tilted ever so slightly at the corners. Wolfish eyes. A hunter's eyes.

Alex felt snared in them as he came even closer. She felt the heat of his hand on hers, then a firm but gentle pressure as he carefully extracted the pistol from her fingers.

He offered it back to her in the open palm of his hand. "You won't need to use this, I promise." When she mutely accepted the gun and returned it to its holster behind her back, he strode over to the sofa and sheathed the wicked blade that had been resting at the top of his open duffel.

"You must have been shaken up pretty badly, being one of the first to see what had happened here."

"It wasn't a good day," she said, the understatement of the year. "The Tomses were decent people. They didn't deserve to die like this. No one does."

"No," he replied soberly. "Nobody deserves this kind of death. Except the beasts responsible for what happened to your friends."

Alex looked at him as he closed the lid on his lethal rounds and put the case back into his bag. "Is that what brought you here–you and all these weapons? Did someone from Harmony hire you to come in and slaughter an innocent pack of wolves? Or are you here to collect on your own instead?" He cocked his head in her direction. "No one hired me. I'm a problem solver. That's all you need to know."

"Bounty hunter," she muttered, with more venom than probably was wise. "What happened out here had nothing to do with wolves."

"So you said last night in that meeting." His voice was more level than she'd heard it thus far. And when he looked at her, it was with a probing intensity that made her take a step backward on the boot heels of her Sorels. "Nobody believed you."

"Do you?"

If possible, that hard silver gaze mined deeper. As though he could see right through her, all the way down to the memories she could not bear to relive. "Tell me what you know, Alex."

"You mean, tell you more about the footprint I found outside?" He gave the barest shake of his head. "I mean the rest of it. How is it that you can be so certain these killings weren't done by animals? Did you see the attack?"

"No, thank God," she answered quickly.

Too quickly maybe, because he took a step toward her, scowling now. Sizing her up.

"What about the video? Is there more of it somewhere? Something beyond the footage shot after the killings had occurred?"

"What?" Alex had no need to feign confusion now. "What video? I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Three days ago, a cell phone video clip was shot out here and posted to an illegal site on the Internet."

"Oh, my God." Appalled, Alex brought her hand up to her mouth. "And you saw it?" The tendon that jerked in his cheek was confirmation enough. "If you know something more about the slayings that took place here, I need you to tell me now, Alex. It's very important that I have all the information I can get."

If Alex had been tempted to blurt everything out last night in the town meeting, now, as she stood alone before this man–this stranger who rattled her inexplicably on every level of her being–the words clogged up tight in her throat. She didn't know him. She wasn't at all sure she could trust him, even if she did somehow ratchet up the nerve to drag her darkest suspicions into the light.

"Why are you really here?" she asked him softly. "What are you looking for?"

"I'm looking for answers, Alex. I'm looking for the same thing I believe you are–the truth. Maybe there's a way for us to help each other."

The sharp trill of Alex's cell phone broke the lengthening quiet. It rang again, giving her the excuse she needed to put a few paces between herself and the man whose presence seemed to be sucking all the air out of the room. Alex turned away from him and connected to the call.

It was Jenna, phoning to remind her that they were supposed to meet up for dinner at Pete's tonight. Alex murmured a hasty confirmation but stayed on the phone after Jenna said her good-byes and disconnected. "Yeah, no problem," Alex said into the dead air of the receiver. "I'm on my way right now. I'll be there in twenty minutes, tops. All right. Yep, bye."

She stuffed the phone into the pocket of her parka and pivoted back to face Luna's new favorite person, who was now seated on the sofa with Alex's dog lying at his feet. "I have to get going. Deliveries to make before sundown, and then I'm meeting a friend for dinner in town." She was anxious to get away now, but why did she feel compelled to make excuses to this man?

What should he care why she was leaving as though she couldn't run out of there fast enough?

Alex subtly snapped her fingers and called Luna's name. To the wolf dog's credit, she ambled over without looking too heartbroken to be summoned away from him.

"I'll let Officer Tucker know that you were here today," she added, figuring it couldn't hurt to remind him that she was friendly with the police.

"You do that, Alex." He didn't get up from his negligent slouch on Pop Toms's sofa. "Be careful out there. I'll see you around."

Alex caught his slow-spreading grin as she rounded up Luna and headed out the door of the cabin. Although she didn't dare look behind her, she could feel those quicksilver eyes at the back of her neck, watching her as she hopped on her snowmachine with Luna and gave the motor some juice. She'd driven out a few hundred yards before another thought hit her.

She hadn't seen another sled parked anywhere.

So just how the hell had he made the forty-plus-mile trip from Harmony all the way north through the open wilderness?