An Excerpt From: UPON A MIDNIGHT BEAR
Copyright © AURORA RUSSELL, 2015
All Rights Reserved, Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.
The air that whooshed into Serena’s throat and lungs was so cold she couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing, and the snowflakes that whirled around her in the cutting wind were more like little ice chips. She had half a mind to turn around and go right back inside to sit at her desk, nice and warm, and type and file her way straight on through New Year’s Day. She could get really ahead with her work, and as a bonus, she wouldn’t have to think about Christmas at all.
Unfortunately, Mr. Dobbs’s words from earlier in the day boomed loud in her memory. “As a special thank you for a truly stellar year, we’re closing at two p.m. today and not reopening until January second. I don’t want to see a trace of any one of you until next year!” Partly because he was the Dobbs in Dobbs, Bower and Crockett, LLP, but mostly because he was a genuinely kind man who was known to be filled with generosity around Christmas, Serena didn’t have the heart to disappoint him. But, oh, wasn’t it just her luck that now that she wanted nothing more than to keep busy, life threw an extra vacation at her like a wet snowball?
She sighed and pulled her bright-red scarf so that it covered her face more thoroughly. When she adjusted her hood to shield her eyes better, she realized that, in her long coat, along with a hat, scarf, mittens and boots, the only part of her that was still exposed was her eyes. And yet several people still called muffled greetings to her as she walked through the small downtown. That was rural Minnesota for you. They could probably pick her out of a police line-up next to three other women wearing identical coats, hats, scarves and mittens. She smiled at the thought. What would her crime be, though? Stealing lutefisk from Sigrid Larson’s house so she wasn’t able to bring it to the next potluck? Nah…no one would ever arrest her for that. They’d cheer. Lutefisk smelled, and tasted, like moldy gym socks that had been lying at the bottom of a teenage boy’s locker for two weeks. She knew she wasn’t the only one who thought that, only everyone was too gosh-darned nice to say.
Almost before she knew it, she was nearing her little farmhouse at the edge of town. And in such a small place, saying “edge of town” wasn’t a figure of speech. There was a distinct line where the town ended and the country started. The roads stopped being paved, the houses grew much farther apart, and almost all of them had barns and livestock. Of course, the town had been even smaller when Nonny and Poppy had built the house as newlyweds in the 1940s. Sometimes Serena could almost hear Poppy’s voice lamenting how busy and crowded the neighborhood was getting when two other houses had been built on their little dirt road.
When Nonny had passed away last year, leaving the house to Serena, she hadn’t been quite sure what to do with it. Thinking about all the happy memories she had in the old farmhouse from many summers spent with her grandparents, and contrasting them with all of the ghosts lurking around every corner of the house she’d shared with Colin, she’d made a snap decision. Throwing caution to the wind, she’d given notice at her job, packed up a few suitcases and Chas the cat, put everything else up for sale or in storage, and moved to Greening, Minnesota.
Walking home, she had to pass by what her Poppy had called the Upstart Houses. A flutter of pleasure and excitement coursed through her when she saw that her neighbor had chosen that exact time to come out to get his mail from the mailbox next to the road. She slowed her steps a little bit, taking in the view. And Good Lord, he was worth getting a little chilly for.
Ivan Dorogev was tall and muscular, with dark eyes and a face that was as handsome as it was rugged. He wasn’t wearing a coat—presumably he hadn’t taken the time to put one on just to dash out of the house—and she could see his huge muscles moving under his dark sweater and jeans. She’d noticed before that he had a slight limp, but it didn’t prevent him from moving with a surprising grace for such a large man. His limp, and the indefinable air of sadness that always seemed to hover around him, made him just imperfect enough to draw her in even further. What had brought him to Greening? And why did he often seem so alone?