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A selection from In The Shelter Of His Arms

Chapter 1

With one last wheezing gasp, Old Bess died. Her demise, untimely as it was, came as no surprise to her traveling companion. The old gal was well past her prime, in deteriorating condition and had been belching black exhaust for the past dozen miles. Roz Bennett eased the ancient rusted four-door onto the side of the highway and eulogized it with a string of curses.

Climbing out to survey her surroundings, she cursed anew. Cedar trees and other evergreens towered shoulder to shoulder on each side of the two-lane. She saw no houses, no businesses, not even a road sign. She was in the middle of nowhere, on a road that seemed to be traveled by no one, and she didn’t have a dime to her name.

A bitter wind smacked her face and she tucked her numb hands into the pockets of her thin jean jacket.

My luck never changes, she thought.

The sun was melting into a golden puddle in the western sky, pulling the already freezing temperature down along with it. She glanced at her wrist before remembering that she’d hocked her watch and her only pair of earrings two towns back to buy gasoline. At least half an earring’s worth of fuel remained in the car’s tank, for all the good it would do her now.

Grabbing her duffle bag out of the car’s back seat, she debated her options.

A few miles earlier, she’d passed a roadside bar. If they had a pool table, she could hustle herself a meal and maybe make enough cash for a cheap motel room someplace. But forward was the only direction Roz believed in traveling. Decision made, she began walking.

Less than a mile later, she was wondering just how long it took to freeze to death when she heard the Jeep. Actually, she thought it might have been the loud thump of bass that first snagged her attention rather than the shiny red sport utility vehicle’s finely tuned engine. Walking backward, she stuck out her thumb, but needn’t have bothered. The driver was already slowing, easing the SUV onto the shoulder just behind her.

It was a man.

Roz hunched her shoulders and pretended to be unconcerned that she was a lone female walking down the side of a deserted highway at dusk.

The man rolled down the window as he flipped off the tunes. “Hello.”

“Hey.”

Now that she had a good look at him, she guessed him to be in his mid-thirties. His hair was straight and the color of strong coffee. He wore it short and tidy. His eyes were dark and she got the feeling his steady gaze didn’t miss much. Still, the lines that fanned out toward his temples looked like the kind put there by laughter and time spent outdoors rather than squinty-eyed meanness. Overall, he looked reputable enough. She felt her muscles uncoil slightly.

“That your car back there?” He hitched a thumb over his shoulder and motioned.

Roz nodded, deciding to keep her answers brief and noncommittal. “Engine trouble.”

He made what might have been a sympathetic noise in the back of his throat before asking, “Where you heading?”

West, she almost said. It would have been the truth, but since most people expected a destination rather than a direction, she figured it would make him suspicious. And the last thing Roz wanted to do was make the one person who stood between her and frostbite uncomfortable. So she said, “Wisconsin.” It was the next state she would come to on her journey West, so it wasn’t exactly a lie.

“Afraid I’m not going that far.”

“Oh.” Her feet felt frozen to the ground. “Where are you going?”

“Chance Harbor. It’s northwest of here, on Superior’s shore, about halfway between the Porcupine Mountains and Hancock. I can drop you in one of the little towns we come to before we hit North U.S. 45,” he offered. “There’s bound to be a repair shop.”

“Chance Harbor,” she repeated. “I don’t recall seeing it on the map.”

He grunted out a laugh. “It’s so small it doesn’t make many maps, but ask any fisherman and he’ll know the place. Some call it Last Chance Harbor, because it’s one of the few safe places where they can ride out a storm before heading up around the Keweenaw Peninsula.”

A safe place, she thought. Was there really such a thing? In twenty-six years, she had yet to find one. Still, she liked the name. And, since her entire life had been one big messy work of fate, not helped in the least by her impulsive nature, she made up her mind.

“I’ll go there.”

“To Chance Harbor?” Dark eyebrows shot up in surprise and she wasn’t blind to the speculation she saw brewing in his gaze. “What about your car?”

“It’s not going anywhere,” she said flatly. “I’m surprised it made it the past few hundred miles.”

“Chance Harbor is a little out of the way if you’ll be heading to Wisconsin.”

“That’s okay, I’ll consider it the scenic route. I need to get a temporary job anyway. Think I might find work there? I’m running a little low on spending money.”

Low, as in none, she thought grimly.

“It’s off season for tourists, but there might be something, nothing that will pay more than minimum wage, mind you.”

Roz was already tossing her duffle bag into the vehicle’s back seat when she said, “That’s good enough for me.”

When they were back on the road, he turned up the music again, but not nearly as loud. Still, it hammered through the Jeep and seemed to echo through the empty cavern of her stomach. When exactly had she last eaten? And could the five lint-covered M&Ms she’d found in her jacket pocket that morning be considered a meal? She decided to concentrate on the music instead.

Roz never would have taken the man for an AC/DC fan. Top Forty, maybe. And, based on the down jacket and faded denim he wore and the fact that they were out in the sticks, Country and Western. Put him in a cowboy hat and spurs and lash him to the back of the bucking bronco, and he’d look right at home. But he seemed too clean cut, too George Strait-ish to enjoy the raunchy lyrics and gyrating rhythms of hard rock. Yet, she could see his thumbs tapping discreetly on the steering wheel in time to the bass and she got the feeling if she weren’t in the truck he’d be belting out the words to the very appropriate “Highway to Hell.”

He glanced her way. “I’m Mason, by the way. Mason Striker.”

“Roz.”

He waited a beat, apparently for a last name. When she didn’t oblige, he thankfully didn’t press. “Nice to meet you, Roz. Let me know if you get too warm.”

Too warm? She nearly laughed. She’d lost all feeling in her toes and was at the point that taking a blowtorch to them would have been welcome. But she said, “I’ll do that.”

She settled back in her seat, stretching out her legs. The hot air that blasted out of the vents began to thaw her extremities. Her car had stopped giving out anything but lukewarm air more than a week ago, so heat was a forgotten luxury. And lately, sleep was as well. She leaned her head back against the padded rest, intending only to relax. She was unaware she’d closed her eyes and drifted off until someone began to shake her arm.

The woman came awake quickly, much the way a rattlesnake would if someone disturbed its nest, Mason thought. Fight or flight. He could all but see the adrenaline shoot through her bloodstream, making either a possibility.

“What?” she asked defensively, hands balling into pathetically small fists. Still, he didn’t doubt she would use them if provoked. He decided to pretend not to notice her edgy reaction.

In his previous line of work, he’d seen that type of reaction before. The reasons behind it were never good. In fact, they usually made the six o’clock news, which was partly why Mason had moved back to Chance Harbor. He no longer wanted to try to solve other people’s problems, which at the moment seemed a bit hypocritical since he’d given the woman a ride. But he couldn’t very well have left her on the side of the highway in subzero temperatures. A ride would be the end of it, he assured himself. And yet, as he switched off the ignition and climbed out, he heard himself say, “Come on inside. We’ll see if we can find you a place to stay.”

Roz got out of the vehicle slowly, hesitant to leave its warmth, even though it seemed to be fading already. The sun had all but set, making it hard to see anything but the building in front of them.

“Where are we?”

“The Lighthouse Tavern.”

“I can read,” she said, trying not to seem defensive, even though she hadn’t quite managed to sound through the letters on the flashing neon sign.

“Why are we stopping here?”

“End of the trail,” he said. “You can make arrangements for your car, and telephone around for a place to stay.”

Roz couldn’t afford a cardboard box at this point, but he didn’t give her a chance to say so. He walked through the front entrance to a chorus of cowbells, giving her little choice but to follow.

The interior of the Lighthouse Tavern hadn’t changed much in the years since Mason’s grandfather, Daniel Striker, had built it. Mason always felt as if he was coming home when he walked inside. Since it had passed from his father’s hands to his own a year earlier, he’d done some updating, just as his father had done before him. The tables and chairs were new, and so were the jukebox, big-screen television and pool table. But the wide bar that swept across the back of the room was the original mahogany, as was the brass kicker rail that ran just below it.

Of course, he’d never intended to be a bar owner. He’d wanted something far more adventurous than that. And he’d gotten it.

In spades.

He rubbed his shoulder and felt the ache from the old wound. A bullet could do a lot of damage to a body, and even more to the psyche, a shrink had told him. As if it took a master’s degree in psychology to figure that out. He shrugged off the intrusive memory. He’d come back to forget, not to dwell on all that had gone wrong.

The crowd in the Lighthouse Tavern was light, but it was early yet. Unlike his father and grandfather, Mason didn’t worry much about the bottom line. He ran the tavern more for something to do than to make a living. He had enough money in the bank so that if he were frugal, he’d never have to work again. He rubbed his shoulder. His flush bank account had not come cheaply.

He watched the young woman looked around the tavern. He’d lay odds her twitchy gaze had already located the exits. But all she said was, “Cool place.”

“I like it. Have a seat.”

She eased onto one of the high stools and was not quick enough to hide her surprise when he flipped up a hinged section of mahogany just to her right and walked behind the bar.

“You work here?”

“Something like that. I own the place.”

“You’re a bar owner? You don’t look like a bar owner.”

“What do bar owners look like?” he asked, vaguely amused.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Bad teeth, greasy hair, big guts, tattoos.”

“No to the first three.”

“You have a tattoo?”

He merely smiled. “Can I get you anything?”

Mason thought he heard her stomach rumble, as if in anticipation, but she shook her head. “Nah, I’m fine.”

“You sure? It’s on the house,” he prodded.

He swore she almost sagged with relief.

“Well, a cola then.”

When he turned back from getting a clean glass, he caught her helping herself to a fistful of beernuts from a bowl near her elbow. He set the beverage in front of her, nudged the beer nuts closer and handed her a portable phone.

“Casey’s Garage is probably your best bet.”

Before he could look up the telephone number, she was resting a hand on the back of his and shaking her head. “Look, the best mechanic in the world isn’t going to save that car. And even if it could be saved, I can’t afford to have it towed here. Do you know anybody who would just take it for scrap?”

He glanced briefly at the hand she had yet to remove. The fine-boned hand whose fingers felt like icicles and yet left his skin feeling oddly singed. He chalked it up to a year’s worth of abstinence.

“Sure.” He pivoted away, breaking contact, and hollered down the bar. “Hey, Mickey. They still taking scrap at that yard near Bruce Crossing?”

“Last I heard.”

“You interested in towing this lady’s car there?”

“Sure.”

“I can’t pay him,” she whispered.

Looking at her, Mason added, “She’ll give you whatever the car gets, unless it’s more than a hundred bucks.”

Mickey shrugged. “Okay, where’s the car.”

“About five miles east of Forty-Five on the shoulder of M-28.”

Mickey nodded once and rubbed his chin. “Probably the only one there, but just in case, what color is it?”

“Rust,” Mason replied, deadpan.

Roz laughed, hesitantly as first and then louder. And he would have bet the bar that it was the first genuine laugh she’d enjoyed in a very long time.

Again, he found himself wondering what her story was. What made her so guarded, so edgy? And, again, he promised himself he was not going to get involved.

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