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While Glen congratulated her on her quantity of freshly jarred jam, she didn’t notice him wince when she admitted to making them and the half-dozen cooling pies especially for Whit. “It’s his favorite, right? I made you blueberry jam last week. And a couple of pies.”

Astonished and ever so grateful, Glen thanked her sincerely, ignored the comment about Whit, and steered the conversation in another direction. “Tell me about the wolf pup.”

“Oh, the little bastard can wait. Let me show you our other guest.” She whipped out the box where she kept kitty close to the warmth of the stove. After Glen peered inside, he broke into chuckles. As he gently caressed the tiny body, he added, “Better hide this little one from Chubbs. He might not like having a feline intruder taking up his space.”

“See, I’ve been worried about that damn squirrel. Since even before the fire, I haven’t seen him around. Do you think he might still be pissed at us for keeping him caged and in a splint?” Voicing her worst concern, she added, “Could he have been caught in the fire?”

“Fire. Right. You had one close by. Tell me about it.”

As she quickly told him about the incident, she cooked their dinner. Describing all the animals she’d seen running from the flames brought her mind back to their earlier subject about Chubbs.

“Naw. Those guys can run like the dickens. He’s probably just busy storing food for the coming winter. Squirrels sleep more in the colder weather too. He’ll be back and when he is, you might want to keep this little baby away from him until it can look after itself.” He turned her belly up and then curled it in his hand. “Introduce them slowly so Chubbs understands that she’s not a threat. What’s her name?”

“Her? It’s a female?”

“Didn’t you check?”

“No. Didn’t think to and really didn’t care. Don’t intend to keep her long. Just until she’s old enough to be weaned from the bottle.” As she spoke she passed a warm one over to Glen so he could feed the baby.

Holding the puss carefully, he inserted the nipple into its hungry mouth and chuckled when it latched on. “She’s a fighter this one. Do you know what her mama looked like? She’s so tiny it’s hard to tell what her coat’s going to look like or even what type of cat she is.”

“Doc Harper might know. I never thought to ask. Norrie has three kitties but asked me to take her because she’s the runt of the litter and needed more care. I’ve been feeding her every few hours.”

“Well you look exhausted. I can take over tonight if you like.” He finished feeding the kitty and carefully put her back in her box.

As Demi dished up smells that made his stomach churn in delight, moose steak, mounds of mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob, she cleared her throat before admitting the truth. “I’d appreciate that. Last night, Norrie came over with a-a bottle of whiskey.” As if it suddenly dawned on her how he might take that announcement, she quickly inserted, “If my hangover is anything to go by, the devil moved into my head and crushed it to tiny pieces. I’ve been in pain all day.”

“Been dere, done dat,” he joked. “Truly, I sympathize.”

For Glen, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out that Norrie had wanted to support Demi over the terrible news about Whit. In Alaska, it was their way to commiserate… with a drink and shared tears. From the look of Demi’s face, he instinctively knew she’d done both.

Once they’d finished eating, Demi stirred her coffee, pushed away the empty pie plate, and looked him straight in the eyes. Her gaze held his with such intensity, he couldn’t look away. Quickly starting a new conversation before she could, he pointed to the window. “Have you noticed the snow?”

She followed his finger and nodded. “How could I ignore it? Blasted stuff gave no notice about its arrival. One minute it looked sunny and clear and the next, the sky had darkened, and the white stuff began falling everywhere.”

“It’s pretty when it’s like this, nice and soft, big flakes floating in the air. Enjoy it while it lasts, because there’ll be days on end when it blows so hard, that the flakes feel like they’re slashing holes in your skin. The cold can be brutal, and you need to understand that a person wouldn’t survive outside in the thirty or even forty below temperatures for long. By the way, did you find John’s old parka in his belongings?”

With her eyes wide, she quickly spoke up. “Yeah. But it looked pretty ratty. You can’t wear such a thing. Norrie gave me one of hers. It’s old but still in perfect shape… said she grew out of it in a year. She also found one for you in her father’s closet. Said she never threw away his winter wardrobe. Gave me a bunch of long underwear and flannel shirts, jeans, and stuff he didn’t get much wear out of before he passed. She said that near the end of his life, he spent a lot of time in sweats.”

“Yeah. I remember. Old Bob had congenital heart failure and died in his sleep. By his last days, he’d shrunk to my size for sure.”

“I put the boxes she gave me in your room and hung up the jackets on your clothes rack.”

“Thanks.” Wanting to avoid what he knew would be coming, he stood to carry his dishes to the sink. With his back to her, he didn’t bother to control the affect that her next words had.

“Tell me about the fire… about Whit. Please tell me they’re still searching for him. It’s a vast landscape, right? He could be out there, Glen. It’s true, isn’t it?”

Carefully concealing his eyes, he came to her. “Yeah. There’s a small sliver of hope, Demi. But if nothing happens soon, we’ll have to accept that he might not be coming back.”

When her head lowered from the weight of his truth, she shuddered. “If you meant what you said about feeding my kitty and refreshing the water for that bastard in my room, I’ll turn in. Do you mind if I sleep in your bed? Just for tonight? Then I’ll move back to the couch.”

Knowing that the caged wolf pup had taken up all the space in her room, he quickly agreed. “No problem. I’ve been mostly sleeping on the ground, in the truck, or on a very uncomfortable cot for the last few weeks. That couch sounds like heaven to me.”

After she disappeared, he slunk down in the chair by the still laden table. It wasn’t like the Demi he knew to leave a mess like this. Between the hangover’s headache, and the bad news he’d shared, he accepted that she had more than she could bear at the moment.

Maybe… just maybe, his being home gave her the break she needed to let someone else deal with the overwhelming responsibilities for a change.

As he cleared away the dishes and food scraps, he warned himself yet again.Dude, she’s one smart lady. And if she gets the smallest inkling you’re bullshitting her, she’ll be all over you like a powerful DA demanding the truth from a weak-kneed criminal.

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