"What's it going to take to get you to cooperate? Money? Threats? Either works for me."
Dakota Hendrix looked up from her laptop to find a very tall, sternlooking man standing over her. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me. What's it going to take?"
She'd been warned there would be plenty of crazies hanging around, but she hadn't actually believed it. Apparently she'd been wrong.
"You have a lot of attitude for someone wearing a plaid flannel shirt," she said, standing so she was at least something close to eyelevel with the guy. If he hadn't been so obviously annoyed, she would have thought he was pretty decentlooking, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes.
He glanced down at himself, then back at her. "What does my shirt have to do with anything?"
"It's hard to be intimidated by a man wearing plaid. I'm just saying. And flannel is a friendly fabric. A little downhome for most people. Now if you were in all black, with a leather jacket, I'd be a lot more nervous."
His expression tightened, as did a muscle in his jaw. His gaze sharpened, and she had a feeling that if he were just a little less civilized, he would throw something.
"Having a bad day?" she asked cheerfully.
"Something like that." He spoke between clenched teeth.
"Want to talk about it?"
"I believe that's how I started this conversation."
"No. You started by threatening me." She smiled. "At the risk of sending your annoyance level from an eight to a ten, sometimes being nice is more effective. At least it is with me." She held out her hand. "Hi. I'm Dakota Hendrix."
The man looked as if he would rather rip off her head than be polite, but after a couple of deep breaths, he shook hands with her and muttered, "Finn Andersson."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Andersson."
"Finn," she repeated, being more perky than usual, simply because she thought it would bug him. "How can I help you?"
"I want to get my brothers off the show."
"Hence the threats."
He frowned. "Hence? Who says that?"
"It's a perfectly good word."
"Not where I come from."
She glanced down at the worn work boots he wore, then back to his shirt. "I'm almost afraid to ask where that is."
"South Salmon, Alaska."
"You're a long way from home."
"Worse, I'm in California."
"Hey, you're in my hometown. I'll thank you to be polite."
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Fine. Whatever. You win. Can you help me with my brothers or not?"
"It depends. What's the problem?"
She motioned to the seat across from her small desk. Finn hesitated for a second, then folded his long body into a seated position. She took her chair and waited.
"They're here," he said at last, as if that explained everything.
"Here instead of back in South Salmon?"
"Here instead of finishing their last semester of college. They're twins. They go to UA. University of Alaska," he added.
"But if they're on the show, then they're over eighteen," she said gently, feeling his pain, but knowing there was very little she could do about it.
"Meaning I don't have any legal authority?" he asked, sounding both resigned and bitter. "Tell me about it." He leaned toward her, his gaze intense. "I need your help. Like I said, they're one semester from graduating, and they walked away from that to come here."
Dakota had grown up in the town of Fool's Gold and had chosen to return after she'd finished her schooling, so she didn't understand why anyone wouldn't want to live in town. But she would guess Finn was a lot more worried about his brothers' future than their location.
He stood. "Why am I even talking to you? You're one of those Hollywood types. You're probably happy they've given up everything to be on your stupid show."
She rose as well, then shook her head. "First of all, it's not my stupid show. I'm with the town, not the production company. Second, if you'll give me a moment to think instead of instantly getting angry, maybe I can come up with something that will help. If you're like this with your brothers, I'm not surprised they want to get a couple thousand miles away from you."
Given the little she knew about Finn from their thirtysecond relationship, she half expected him to snarl at her, then disappear. Instead he surprised her by grinning.
The curve of his lips, the flash of teeth, wasn't anything unique, but it hit her in the stomach all the same. She felt as if all the air had rushed out of her lungs and she couldn't breathe. Seconds later, she managed to recover and told herself it was a momentary blip on her otherwise emotionally smooth radar. Nothing more than an anomaly. Like a sunspot.
"That's what they said," he admitted, returning to his seat with a sigh. "That they'd hoped being at college would be far enough away, but it wasn't." The grin faded. "Damn, this is hard."
She sat down and rested her hands on the table between them. "What do your parents say about all this?"
"I'm their parents."
"Oh." She swallowed, not sure what tragedy had brought that about. She would guess Finn was all of thirty, maybe thirtytwo. "How long ago
"You've been raising your brothers since they were what? Twelve?"
"They were thirteen, but yes."
"Congratulations. You've done a good job."
The smile faded as he scowled at her. "How would you know that?"
"They made it into college, were successful enough to get to their final semester and now they're emotionally tough enough to stand up to you."
The scowl turned into a sneer. "Let me guess. You're one of those people who calls rain 'liquid sunshine.' If I'd done my job with my brothers, they would still be in college, instead of here, trying to get on some idiotic reality show."
There was that, Dakota thought. From Finn's perspective, nothing about this was good.
He shook his head. "I can't figure out where I went wrong. All I wanted was to get them through college. Three more months. They only needed to stay in school three more months. But could they do that? No. They even sent me an email, telling me where they werelike I'd be happy for them."
She reached for the files on her desk. "What are their names?"
"Sasha and Stephen." His expression cleared. "Is there something you can do to help?"
"I don't know. As I said, I'm here representing the town. The producers came to us with the reality show idea. Believe me, Fool's Gold wasn't looking for this kind of publicity. We wanted to say no, but were concerned they would go ahead and do it anyway. This way, we're involved and hope to have some kind of control over the outcome."
She glanced at him and smiled. "Or at least the illusion of control."
"Trust me. It's not all it's cracked up to be."
"I'm getting that. All the potential contestants were vetted thoroughly, background checks on everyone. We insisted on that."
"Trying to avoid the truly insane?"
"Yes, and criminals. Reality television puts a lot of pressure on people."
"How did the TV people hear about Fool's Gold if the town wasn't courting them?" he asked.
"It was just plain bad luck. A year ago a grad student writing her thesis on human geography discovered we had a chronic man shortage in town. The hows and whys became a chapter in her project. In an effort to bring attention to her work, she shopped her thesis around various media outlets, where the part about Fool's Gold was picked up."
He frowned. "I think I remember hearing about that. Didn't you get busloads of guys coming in from all over?"
"Unfortunately. Most of the reports made us sound like a town of desperate spinsters, which isn't true at all. A few weeks later, Hollywood came calling in the form of the reality show."
She flipped through the stack of applications of those who had made it to final selection. When she saw Sasha Andersson's picture, she winced. "Identical twins?" she asked.
She pulled out Sasha's application and passed it to Finn. "He's adorable." The head shot showed a happy, smiling, younger version of Finn. "If he has a personality more exciting than that of a shoe, he's going to get on the show. What's not to like? Plus, if there are two of them
" She set down the folder. "Let me put it another way. If you were the producer, would you want them on the show?"
Finn dropped the paper. The womanDakotahad a point. His brothers were charming, funny and young enough to believe they were immortal. Irresistible to someone looking to pull in ratings.
"I'm not going to let them ruin their lives," he said flatly.
"The show is ten weeks of filming. College will still be there." Her voice was gentle and hinted at compassion. Her dark gaze was steady. She was pretty enoughhad he been looking for that kind of thing. All he cared about right now was getting his brothers back to college.
"You think they'll want to go back after all this?" he demanded.
"I don't know. Have you asked them?"
"No." To date he'd only lectured and issued orders both of which his brothers had ignored.
"Did they say why they wanted to be on this show?"
"Not specifically," he admitted. But he had a theory or two about their thinking. They wanted to be out of Alaska and away from him. Plus, Sasha had been dreaming of fame for a long time.
"Have they done this sort of thing before? Run off against your wishes, given up on school?"
"No. That's what I don't get. They're so close to being finished. Why couldn't they suck it up for one more semester?" It was the responsible thing to do.
Until now, Sasha and Stephen hadn't given him much grief. There'd been the usual driving too fast, a few parties with friends and plenty of girls. He'd sweated bullets waiting to hear one of his brothers had gotten a girl pregnant. But so far that hadn't happened. Maybe his thousands of lectures about using birth control had gotten through. So them wanting to leave college for a reality show had stunned him. He'd always figured they would at least finish school.
"They sound like great kids," Dakota said. "Maybe you should trust them."
"Maybe I should tie them up and throw them in the back of a plane headed for Alaska."
"You wouldn't like jail."
"They'd have to catch me first." He stood again. "Thanks for your time."
"I'm sorry I can't help."
She rose and circled the table so she was standing in front of him. "To repeat a cliche, if you love something, set it free."
He stared into her dark eyes. They were an interesting contrast to her wavy blond hair. "If it comes back, it was meant to?" He managed a smile. "No, thanks. I fall into the 'if it doesn't, hunt it down and shoot it' category."
"Should I warn your brothers?"
"They already know."
"Sometimes you have to let people mess up."
"This is too important," he told her. "It's their future."
"The key word being theirs, not yours. Whatever happens here isn't unrecoverable."
"You don't know that."
She looked as if she wanted to argue more. She wasn't a yeller, and he appreciated that. Her points were well thought out. But there was no way she could change his mind on this. Come hell or high water, he was getting his brothers out of Fool's Gold and back to college, where they belonged.
"Thanks for your time," he told her.
"You're welcome. I hope the three of you can come to terms." One corner of her mouth twitched. "Please remember we have a very efficient police force in town. Chief Barns doesn't take kindly to people breaking the law."
"I appreciate the warning."
Finn walked out of the small trailer. Filming or shooting or whatever they called it was due to start in two days. Which gave him less than fortyeight hours to come up with a plan to either convince his brothers to return to Alaska on their own or physically force them to do what he wanted.
"I owe you," Marsha Tilson said over lunch.
Dakota picked up a French fry. "Yes, you do. I'm a highly trained professional."
"Something Geoff doesn't appreciate?" Marsha, the town's sixtysomething mayor, asked, her blue eyes sparkling with amusement.
"He does not. I have a Ph.D.," Dakota muttered. "I should make him call me doctor."
"From what I know of Geoff, I'm not sure that would help."
Dakota bit into her fry. She hated to admit it, but Mayor Marsha had a point. Geoff was the producer of the reality show that had invaded the townTrue Love or Fool's Gold. After randomly sorting twenty people into couples, the pairs would be sent on romantic dates, which would be filmed, edited and then shown on television with a oneweek delay. America would vote off the couple least likely to make it.
At the end, the last couple standing would receive $250,000 to share and a free wedding, if they were really in love.
From what Dakota could tell, Geoff didn't care about anything except getting good ratings. The fact that the town didn't want the show around hadn't bothered him at all. In the end, the mayor had agreed to cooperate on the condition that there be someone on his staff who was looking out for the interests of the good citizens of
All that made sense to Dakota, though she still didn't know why she'd gotten the job. She wasn't a public relations specialist or even a city employee. She was a psychologist who specialized in childhood development. Unfortunately, her boss had offered her services, even agreeing to pay her salary while she worked with the production company. Dakota still wasn't speaking to him.
She would have turned down the assignment, except Mayor Marsha had pleaded. Dakota had grown up here. When the Mayor needed a favor, the good citizens agreed. Until the production company had shown up, Dakota would have sworn she would happily do anything for her town. And, as she'd told Finn a couple of hours before, it was only for ten weeks. She could survive nearly anything that long.
"Have the contestants been picked?" Marsha asked.
"Yes, but they're keeping it a secret until the big announcement."
"Anyone we need to worry about?"
"I don't think so. I've looked over the files and everyone seems fairly normal." She thought about Finn. "We do have a family member who isn't happy." She explained about the twentyoneyearold twins. "If they're half as goodlooking in person as they are in their pictures, they're going to be on the show."
"Do you think their brother will make trouble?"
"No. If the boys were still underage, I would worry that he would try to ground them. As it is, he can only worry and threaten."
Marsha nodded sympathetically. Dakota knew the mayor's only daughter had been something of a wild child, then had gotten pregnant and run away. It couldn't be easy, raising a child. Or in Finn's case, two brothers. Not that she knew about being a mother.