“Dawn,” Liam said, his voice low and rumbling like a diesel engine starting. “We start closing in half an hour. Turn the kitchen off.”
“Oh, okay. Yeah. What time is it?” She glanced through the kitchen pass-thru at the windows out the front of the bar, surprised to still see sunlight. She knew the days were longer in Alaska, but she’d never experienced it. She’d just gotten here today. Her brain said it was still daytime, but her watch said it was night and that she needed a shower and a break. She’d still been driving this morning before she arrived in Mystery.
“Why are we closing so early?” She shouldn’t be complaining. She’d been cooking for hours and probably smelled like the grease in the fryer. So much had happened today. Her whole life had changed when that lawyer told her she’d inherited a bar in this tiny town in Alaska.
“We don’t have a bouncer. If we keep serving into the night, these jerks get drunk and rowdy. I don’t have enough arms to manage all that.”
“Let me clean up and then I’ll be out to help you.”
He smiled at her then. A real wide, white-tooth smile. He was handsome in a rugged I’ll-knock-your-teeth-out-if-you-mess-with-me sort of way. The guy was built like a tank. If he really hadn’t wanted her here, there wouldn’t have been anything she could do about it except call the police and hope he didn’t pound them into the ground too.
“You clean the kitchen. I got this side,” he said, his tone gravelly and grinding like a coffee mill full of rocks.
She turned on her heel and dove into the mess. The dishes were easy since it was mostly utensils. The food went out in baskets. Those she tossed into the enormous dishwasher. She turned off all the gas and then went for the big trash can at the end of the line.
Heaving a few times, she finally managed to get the thing out of the can. She was going to need a smaller trashcan to make that more manageable if she was the one that kept cooking. Dawn tied the bag shut and dragged it across the rubber mats to the back door.
She pushed it open and kicked down the doorstop at the bottom to keep herself from getting locked out and having to walk all the way around to the front.
She covered her eyes and squinted at the amazing view. It was nearing sunset and it was beautiful. The rolling hills and trees for as far as the eye could see. The mountain view was the opposite direction, but the colors in the sky were beginning to change.
This town was so much smaller than she was used to. The hustle and noise of Sacramento wasn’t anything like this sleepy little town. She’d looked it up before she started her journey. Mystery had just under a thousand people. A good hunk of them were miners that worked fifty miles north of the town.
There were a few small places to rent a room or a cabin, but Mystery wasn’t really a tourist stop. At least it wasn’t yet. With views like this, she was shocked there weren’t more people renting their homes out or building bed and breakfasts. Her friends back home would kill for a quiet retreat to a place like this.
She walked out further into the parking lot and turned to face the mountain range. She couldn’t imagine seeing this every day.
She had that choice.
Lars had given her that choice. In fact, he was forcing a year of Mystery on her. His will had said she couldn’t sell the bar until she’d run it for a year. Lived here for a year. The nerve of that old man. He didn’t know her. She’d thought he was dead. Her mother had always told her that her grandfather passed away years ago.
When she’d gotten the call, it’d been a blessing. Her divorce was almost final. All she was waiting on was the email that he’d signed the papers. Then she was free.
She was going to lose the house to her cheating-almost-ex-husband. And the last place she wanted to be was back at her mother with whatever random boyfriend Hillary Mae Mikkelson had living there this week.
Her mother had never made a sacrifice once in her life for her daughter and feeling pity because Dawn had made yet another mistake in life and married a jerk, wasn’t going to change anything.
Her thumb went to the ring still on her finger and rotated it. The solitaire diamond dug into her skin as she turned the ring. Around and around. Around and around. She hadn’t been able to take it off.
Not yet, anyway.
She turned back to the dumpster on the far side of the back lot near the trees and hefted the bag up again. Why couldn’t the damn thing be right beside the back door?
“Dawn Mikkelson,” a harsh male voice spoke her name with enough malice to make her gasp. “You need to leave Mystery.”
She dropped the trash bag, fear gliding up through her body like a rising tide rushing to drown her. Dawn whirled and slammed into a large body.
Dammit. Where did he come from?
Arms closed around her and she squirmed, slipping down out of his grasp for a moment.
“Bitch!” he said, his voice a snarl. Thick fingers curled around one of her arms and tightened until she whimpered from the pain.
“Let me go,” she said, trying desperately to keep the fear out of her voice. She grabbed at his fingers and pulled, but it was like trying to get a stone statue to bend. She sucked in a breath to scream, but he grabbed her by the neck, choking out any noise she could’ve made and carried her the last few steps to the dumpster.
He slammed her back into the unforgiving metal with a thunk. The back of her head hit and everything around her went a little fuzzy. The hand around her throat tightened and she fought hard for her next breath.
The tide was over her head now.
Pain lanced through her arm and her neck and now her lungs burned. It was like drowning without the water. “P-p-please,” she coughed up.
“If you know what’s good for you, sell the bar and leave Mystery,” he said, his voice getting even thicker. He slammed her against the dumpster again and she couldn’t hold in the choked yelp.
Something was running down the back of her neck. Warm and oozing. Why had she come outside in the first place? Where was she? It was so dark and spotty. The world was spinning around her.
A snarl and flash of black and orange hit the man holding her and suddenly she could breathe again. Another growl rumbled near her. She rubbed her neck and focused on breathing. Air was possible now. The burning was slowly fading. The black spots in her vision were also fading away.
The man who attacked her was screaming, but the screaming was getting further away.
There’s was a wolf and a…
Dawn blinked again. It couldn’t be real. She couldn’t possibly be looking into the golden eyes of a tiger. A living breathing orange and black cat bigger than anything she’d ever seen at a zoo with fangs that looked like they belonged in the prehistoric era. And beside him was a black wolf. Also, gold eyes. Also, bigger than any wolf had a right to be.
She should be screaming right now.
That would be the right thing to do.
Warn people she was about to be eaten by wild animals.
She opened her mouth to scream and nothing came out but a tiny gasp of air.
The tiger walked closer. She stayed still on her hands and knees in the parking lot. Maybe if she didn’t move. Maybe if she didn’t run.
The tiger rubbed the side of its face against hers. The fur was exquisitely soft. He was purring too. A tongue snaked across her cheek and then he rubbed her with his cheek again.
“Please don’t eat me,” she whispered, her voice raspy and broken.
The wolf huffed out a soft bark.
The tiger swung his big head to look at the canine and bared his teeth. Huge teeth. His fangs were easily a foot long. Tigers didn’t have fangs like that. Of course, tigers weren’t as big as this guy was either.
The tiger turned, putting its focus back on her.
She whimpered a little.
The tiger responded by licking her cheek again. Like a house cat. His tongue was rough and soothing and except for the fact that his mouth was right there next to her face. Those jaws were about to make her pee her pants.
The wolf huffed again and trotted for the trees behind her, disappearing into the underbrush.
The tiger chuffed, like he was pissed, but he gave her one more lick and then loped after the wolf like they were best buds just out for a stroll.
All the air left her lungs and she collapsed to the ground. Tears poured down her cheeks in fiery salt-water streaks. Sobs shook her body while her brain tried to process the last couple of minutes.
“Miss?” A different male voice called from beside her. There wasn’t any malice in this voice, only concern.
“Ma’am?” A second male.
Great. Now human rescuers were coming to her aid…after an oversized tiger and wolf already did that job. Bentley, the lawyer, had been right about the wildlife being dangerous…just not right about the type of animals. Moose my ass.
“Touch her and I’ll pull your arm off your body,” the second of the men said.
“Just refrain from licking her and we should be good,” the first man said, amusement lightening his tone.
Licking me? Had they seen the animals? Why weren’t they more concerned? Had she imagined it? Maybe it’d all been in her head.
“I’m going to help you off the ground, ma’am,” the second voice spoke again.
She peered up into the kindest deepest bluest eyes she’d ever seen. She couldn’t remember a man ever looking at her with such concern. His hair was bright reddish orange, kinda like the tiger. It made her smile just a little.
He smiled back in a response—a grin that would make even the frostiest of women melt in their tracks. He was beautiful. All dimples and blue eyes and shaggy red hair with just enough scruff of a beard to make a person want to touch it. He was in a t-shirt that showed off his muscled arms and chest. Jeans and work boots completed his look.
“I’m Tor,” he said, sliding his arms beneath hers and lifting. She thought he was just going to help her stand, but the man scooped her up completely and hugged her close to his chest. “That’s Ryder.” He tipped his chin toward the other man who met her gaze for a moment.
“Who was the male attacking you? Do you know him?”
A shiver ran through her body and she took a couple of small slow breaths to calm herself. “He wants the bar. He wants me to sell it.”
Tor’s eyes widened. “You’re the new owner?”
“Maybe Liam will finally hire us since the new owner is here,” the other man, the one he’d called Ryder spoke.
Ryder grabbed the big trash bad from the middle of the lot and carried it to the bin like it weighed nothing.
“Next time let one of us take out the trash. Liam should’ve known better than to let you go out the back by yourself,” Tor said, his voice slightly scolding. But in a way that wasn’t abusive. It didn’t remind her of her husband. This guy genuinely cared. He wasn’t scolding her because he liked it. He was worried about her well-being. And rightly so.
That guy was probably one of the ones Liam had sent away earlier in the evening. She had been stupid to go out by herself.
“I don’t think he knew,” she said, admitting finally. “I was just trying to pull my weight.”
“You’re very small. It shouldn’t take much effort,” Tor said, shaking his head, a sparkle of amusement in his eyes.
She opened her mouth to reply and then snapped it shut with a chuckle.
“Dawn!” A familiar foghorn voice called from the back door a second before Liam burst outside. “Fucking hell, woman. What are you doing outside?”
Tor’s grip on her tightened and she could’ve sworn the man growled—straight up, rumble in the chest vibrations.
“We’ve got her. A bit bruised, but all in one piece,” Ryder said, attempting to calm the giant bartender.
Liam wasn’t so large up next to these two guys. They were both several inches taller and just as formidable as the cranky bartender, if not more so. They really grew them big in Alaska.
The bartender walked straight up to Tor and reached for Dawn’s chin.
Tor turned his shoulder to the guy, blocking him from touching her.
“Kid, you better let me check on her right this second. She was my responsibility and now she’s hurt.”
“She’s not your responsibility any longer, Liam.”
The bartender crossed his arms and stared. “Oh, really.”
“Guys, I’m right here.” She swung her legs a little. “Put me down. I can walk just fine. I’ve got air back in my lungs. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of my—”
All three of the men were silent and glared straight at her, their gazes were like lasers cutting her words to shreds.
“Okay fine, the asshole who assaulted me was a little bigger of an asshole than I’m used to dealing with.” She put a palm on Tor’s chest and held back the urge to slide her hand across more of his body. Good grief, what was her problem? She could at least try not to drool all over her rescuer. No way this man didn’t already have a girlfriend—or three.
“Please, let me down.”
Tor met Ryder’s gaze for a split second and then complied, letting her body drag across his. Of maybe she was just imagining that he did that. Either way, it felt like he let her slide down every single hard muscle of his body. It reminded her of a cat. The way they arched into your hand or your body when they wanted to be stroked.
Liam reached for her again, jolting her out of her rated R fantasy. He touched her chin with his fingertips. “Fuck,” he said, his tone an angry growl. “You’re going to have a nasty bruise there.” His fingers slid to her upper arm. “There too. Any other injuries.”
“I think I’m—” The black spots returned with a vengeance and the ground rushed toward her face in a blur.