Excerpt: In the Market

Excerpt for: In the Market, Book One in the Nordic Heroes 2-book Boxed Set

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Rainer Thorsen rubbed a hand across his squared jaw and shifted impatiently. He didn’t like this—this endless waiting. Nor did he like standing around, biding his time and accomplishing nothing.

Nordic Heroes, final cover

In the Market: Book One of The Nordic Heroes Boxed Set

Everyone else moved with purpose, and normally he did, too. But this wholesale produce market wasn’t his home turf. His retail operation utilized other wholesalers. As much as he wanted to grab a cart and help out the busy salesmen racing back and forth filling orders, he couldn’t. His presence here served a different objective altogether.

Even so, hanging around a loading dock in downtown Seattle, staring at a woman—no matter how attractive—had him as near to crazy as he cared to get. It simply wasn’t his style. Action—now that appealed to him. That’s how he preferred handling problem situations. He’d always lived by a personal motto of “When in doubt, get out there and stir things up.”

Which meant it was time to start stirring.

He narrowed his eyes. Why couldn’t he go over to Ms. Jordan Roberts, look her straight in that lovely smoky-eyed face and say, “Lady, sell me your produce market”? He grinned. That would ruffle a feather or two. Or three. And anything that could ruffle her feathers interested him greatly.

He watched her examine a carton of cantaloupes, bending low to tug open the stapled lid. Firm muscles played beneath her fitted jeans, drawing his gaze. His grin widened. Nice. Very nice. She lifted one of the large textured melons to her face. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply, a tiny smile playing about her lips. The woman understood produce, he conceded. The reverence with which she handled the fruit told him that much.

Rainer spoke to the salesman beside him. “She seems to know her way around all right, but she’s too young for this business, Marco, too sweet. It makes me suspicious. There’s got to be something else lurking behind that angel face. Something with more of a bite to it.”

“She’s got a bite, all right,” the shorter man confirmed. “It’s just that—”

“I knew it! Soft as peach fuzz on the surface, but underneath she’s—”

“A nice kid.”

Rainer chuckled, his gaze once again on Jordan’s trim figure. “Right. A nice kid who bites.”

“That’s not what I meant. She is a nice kid, always has been,” Marco insisted obstinately. “Ten years she’s bought from us. First with that crazy uncle of hers, now alone. She’s always seemed bright and cheerful and—”

“She’s worked this business that long?” Rainer tilted his head to one side, his scrutiny of the dark-haired woman sharper than before. She’d moved farther down the dock, stooping to examine a box of Jonathan apples. She didn’t look a day over twenty-two—twenty-three at the most. He’d have to readjust his thinking a bit.

“You gonna take her down?” Marco asked anxiously. “I’d think snapping up a woman’s livelihood would go against the grain.”

Rainer frowned, not appreciating the reminder. That eventuality disturbed him, as well. But this was family business and nothing stood in the way of that—not even a pretty brunette with a figure that turned every head on the docks.

He decided to answer Marco honestly. “It would bother me more if she owned the store. But she doesn’t. Her uncle owns it. She runs it. If I can win her over to my side, the store will be as good as mine.” He paused to consider. “I bet I’d be doing her a favor by taking it off their hands. She can’t have much of a life, tied to such a time-consuming business.”

Marco looked surprised. “I never thought of it that way. Seems a shame. She’s always appeared to be such a happy, contented—”

“Biter?” Rainer’s admiring gaze drifted back to Jordan.

The salesman scowled. “It’s only when she’s pushed that you see her scrappy side.”

The younger man suppressed a smile at the combative tone in Marco’s voice, intrigued by his spirited defense of the woman. “So much the better,” he said gently. “I prefer a fair fight.”

Marco groaned. “This is not good. No, sir, it ain’t. You don’t understand, Rainer. The lady has this little bitty stubborn streak. You swiped her bananas and that’s bound to make her a tad testy.”

Rainer raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t swipe them. You sold them to me.”

“Not on purpose, I didn’t.” The older man’s face drooped into deep weather-beaten creases. “I didn’t hear they were sold till after I’d promised ’em to you. She’ll want ’em back. If she kicks up a fuss and Nick Constantine hears of it, the boss’ll have to side with her, no question. After all, those bananas did belong to Ms. Roberts first.”

Rainer shrugged. “True. Not that it matters. I’ll still have accomplished what I set out to do, regardless of the outcome.”

“Which is?”

“To see what she’s made of. You think she’ll fight me for those bananas, don’t you?”

“Don’t have to think. I know. She’ll fight.”

Rainer laughed, clapping a hand on Marco’s shoulder. “I’m going to enjoy this. There’s nothing a Thorsen relishes more than a friendly tussle with a strong determined opponent.” He paused, his grin wicked. “Nothing, that is, except winning.”

Marco shifted uneasily. “Listen, I’ve been thinking. Your father and me, we go way back. Working for Alaric like I used to, I’d do anything for him. Anything. But maybe you could figure out some other way to test Ms. Roberts. She’s a nice girl, Rainer. Why would you want to start trouble with her?”

“Because I live for trouble,” he said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Marco gave an emphatic shake of his head. “Not with her, you don’t.”

Rainer lifted an eyebrow. “Are we talking deceptive packaging here—as in volcanic possibilities?”

The salesman stirred uncomfortably. “Like I said, only when pushed. Then she’s Mount Saint Helens in action. I’ve seen them both go off.” He shuddered. “Don’t want to see either do it again.”

Rainer studied the woman with renewed interest. “Must have been a beautiful sight.”

“Beautiful from a nice safe distance,” Marco corrected him. “Not so beautiful when you’re standing in the path of the explosion.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.” Rainer frowned. “Where’s that famous spirit of adventure I’ve heard so much about?”

“With my fiftieth birthday, that’s where. Both of which are a good ten years past.” Marco shoved his pencil behind one ear and tucked his order pad into his pocket. “In all the years she’s come down here to buy produce, she’s always kept herself to herself. So why do you have to pick on her? Why can’t you go after someone else—someplace else?”

Rainer continued to study Jordan. She stood by a carton of grapes, sampling them before giving a nod of approval. He liked the look of her, the suppleness of her movements. Trim, sleek and graceful—what wasn’t to admire? Under normal circumstances he’d be tempted to warm himself in the fire Marco mentioned. But business came first, pleasure… dead second.

“If there was any other way, believe me, I’d take it. Unfortunately that miniature volcano stands between me and something I want. Something I want very much. And once I get her figured out, I’m going to ease her over to one side and take it.”

“Yeah?” Marco chuckled. “You’d have better luck easing aside a pallet full of spuds without a forklift. But it might be interesting to see you try.”

“Then stand back and get an eyeful.” Rainer rubbed his hands briskly. “Just make sure Ms. Roberts knows who has her bananas. I’ll be curious to see how she reacts.”

“I already told you how she’ll react.” Marco made the sound of a bomb exploding. “Thar she blows!”

* * *

He was staring at her again; Jordan could feel it. The prickles of reaction started, creating an uncomfortable itch square between her shoulder blades. All morning long he’d watched her and all morning long she’d pretended not to notice.

Until now.

Now she planned to do something about him. She slid her handcart beneath the heavy cardboard boxes of apples on the dock. Angling the stack backward, her arms took the weight of the unwieldy load with ease. She gave the cart an experienced shove and pushed the load over the metal ramp and onto her twelve-foot flatbed, depositing the apples close to the truck’s bright green cab.

Her watcher had the advantage of knowing her identity, or at least where she worked. Both her truck doors read Cornucopia Produce Market, the words emblazoned in letters as rosy as the apples she’d just purchased. Now, if she could only figure out his identity. So far she’d been unable to catch a glimpse of him. But one way or another, she’d change that.

She swiveled and tossed her long dark braid over her shoulder, leaning her arms across the handles of the upright cart. Casually she scanned the groups of men standing on the cluttered loading dock.

Squinting against the early July sunshine, her gaze instantly zeroed in on him. “Lord help me!” she muttered beneath her breath. If he’d carried a giant hammer in one hand and had lightning bolts flashing from his eyes, she couldn’t have been more surprised—or dismayed. A Viking/ The man staring with such unswerving intensity was a living breathing Viking. She froze, unable to look away.

He was around thirty, tall and broad-shouldered, with an impressive physique. The sun glinted in the bright white-blond of his hair, which he wore short in the front and long in the back, the wavy strands curling over the plaid flannel collar of his shirt. He stood unmoving, openly studying her, his legs spread wide and his arms folded across his large chest. But his immobility didn’t fool her. At any moment she expected him to let out a thunderous war cry and come charging her way.

Jordan shivered. She didn’t like the sensations he stirred in her. She felt as if someone had hit an internal panic button, and it took every ounce of her self-control to keep the rush of apprehension from showing.

How could she have overlooked this man for most of the morning? It unnerved her to think she’d been so aware of him, while he’d proved so elusive to spot. More importantly though, why had he singled her out? What did he want?

She forced herself to look away, debating how to handle the situation—if there really was anything to handle. Perhaps she should find out his identity before she took action. With a decisive shove, she pushed the cart off the truck and toward the salesman writing up her order.

“Who’s the Viking, Terry?” she asked quietly.

The salesman didn’t even bother looking up. “What Viking?”

She frowned. “The big blond guy. The one who looks like he just stepped out of some Norse legend.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. That guy.” Terry cleared his throat. “Been wondering the same thing myself. I think he’s some high roller Marco brought by to meet the boss.”

“Well, your high roller’s been staring at me,” she informed Terry abruptly.

The salesman chuckled, relaxing. “Yeah, him and every other man on the docks. Face it. You’re surrounded by a hoard of lusting animals—also known as men. So what’s one more? You should be used to the looks by now.”

Jordan rested a foot on a cumbersome carton of lettuce and bit her lip thoughtfully. “It’s not that kind of staring. He wants something.”

“Tell him to get in line. He’s got a long wait.” Terry paused in his scribbling and yanked a list from his back pocket, running a gloved finger down it. He stabbed his pencil toward the flats of mushrooms she’d selected. “Those kabobs’ve gone up another buck, Roberts. Forgot to mention it.”

Jordan pushed her unease to one side and concentrated on the job at hand. If the prickles on the back of her neck were anything to go by, the newcomer hadn’t budged an inch. She had plenty of time to sort him out once she’d taken care of business.

“Since you forgot to mention the cost went up, you’ll have to sell them to me at the old price,” Jordan insisted, bartering in the expected manner. “They’re not worth a dollar more. Look at the poor things.” She selected a mushroom, upending it so he could see where the stem joined the cap. “They’ve already started to open. And the color—you call this white?”

“Okay. Okay. Ten bucks.” He shook his head in disgust. “Boss will fire me for sure over this one.”

Jordan smiled at his typical response. “Right. Sure he will. When pigs fly.” Nick Constantine would never fire Terry, not when he was the best salesman and haggler on the docks.

She swiftly scanned the long line of stacked boxes left to be loaded, comparing it to the receipt. Oranges vied with kiwifruit, cucumbers with green peppers, the staggering number of fresh sharp odors a source of unending delight.

She checked the order again, her smile fading to a frown. “Wait a minute, Terry. I don’t see the bananas. What’s happened to them?”

“What bananas?”

She shot him a sharp look. “Don’t hand me that. The super deal on the overripes. You were all over me about them when I first walked in.”

“Oh. Those bananas.”

“Yeah. Those bananas.”

He yanked the brim of his cap down low over his eyes, ruddy color creeping up his jawline. “You see, they… ah… sort of got sold.”

“Sort of got sold?” she snapped. “Sort of—”

Jordan bit off the rest of her sentence, checking her anger. Ranting and raving wouldn’t help her case. It was difficult enough working in a male-dominated business without getting a reputation as a shrew. And she’d worked too long and hard to risk losing ground now. Fast thinking and finding the right angle had won many a battle for her—as they would today.

Jordan spoke again, her voice low and even. “The bananas were sold? As in, sold out from under me? I arrived at five-thirty, Terry, which gave me first refusal. You’ll remember I didn’t do any refusing.”

“I remember,” Terry agreed, looking everywhere but at her. “How about if next time I—”

She shook her head, not allowing him to finish his offer. “Not next time, Terry. Distress sales are jam on bread in this business. You know that. That’s why I come so early. How am I supposed to make a decent living if I can’t get my hands on the deals? The competition’s death out there.”

“Maybe I could squeeze you out a box or two.”

“I’m sorry, Terry. A box or two won’t do, and I can’t afford to shrug this one off.” She couldn’t afford to shrug any of them off. Not if she was to get her fair share of the bargains.

Terry nodded miserably. “Yeah, I know.” He kicked aside the small pile of rotting orange peels and discarded lettuce leaves strewn at his feet. “Give me a few minutes. I—I’ll get them back for you.”

In all the years she’d dealt with him, she’d never seen Terry so nervous. There shouldn’t be such difficulty in sorting out a simple misunderstanding. Jordan frowned.

She’d obviously missed something and she had a pretty good idea what—or who—that something might be.

“Who has my bananas?” she asked.

Terry gave a slight shrug. “Does it matter? I said I’d get them for you.”

“Who?” she repeated.

The salesman glanced quickly over her shoulder, speaking in a low rushed voice. “You don’t want to start anything, Jordan. Not with that particular customer. You’d be better off just letting it go.”

“He has them?”

Terry nodded. “Every last one. Why don’t I speak to Marco? I’m sure he’ll straighten everything out.”

Jordan thought quickly, then shook her head. “No. Don’t bother. I told you our… friend was after something. And I very much doubt it’s a pallet load of bananas. This is as good a time as any to find out what he really wants.”

“You think he did it so he could meet you?” Terry brightened, the idea clearly appealing to him. “Now why didn’t I think of that? Imagine, stealing your bananas just to get your attention. You’ve got to admit it’s a novel approach.”

“Yes, imagine resorting to theft,” Jordan mocked dryly, “when all he had to do was walk over and introduce himself.”

Despite Terry’s romantic view of the incident, Jordan suspected the lifting of her bananas had nothing whatsoever to do with romance, or even bananas. The man wanted to instigate a meeting and this was his clever way of going about it. It also forced her to approach him—giving him the advantage. Shrewd, very shrewd.

Jordan appraised the situation. As far as she could tell, she had two choices. She could stand up to him and demand the return of her bananas, or she could shrug it off and walk away. She struggled with her conscience, resisting the part of her urging a hasty retreat. Why for once couldn’t she simply turn tail and run? Dogs did it all the time. She liked dogs. They were insightful intelligent creatures.

Of course a dog didn’t have the responsibility of a business. If she didn’t keep Cornucopia a successful money-making operation, no one else would. And no doubt if Terry’s high roller didn’t succeed in forcing a confrontation this time, he’d dream up another scheme tomorrow. Better to find out what he wanted now and get it over with.

If only she didn’t have this overwhelming urge to roll over and play dead.

She handed Terry his receipt book. “Write up the bananas. I’ll be back in a minute. Probably headless, but I’ll be back—and with the bananas.”

The distance she had to traverse never looked so long. But no matter how appealing the idea of doing nothing was, she couldn’t stand around all day like a coward. She gazed at her adversary, refusing to be intimidated. It was now or never. Taking a deep breath, Jordan strode determinedly across the cement loading dock. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but it seemed as though every last man jack at the market stopped working to watch.

Stay calm, she warned herself. Maybe there’s a logical explanation for what the banana snatcher has done.

Or maybe he was just a modern-day Viking. Plunder and pillage could be in his blood.

She skirted a pile of ice chips, a container of green onions and an unhappy-looking Marco. She stopped directly in front of the stranger.

He dwarfed her with his impressive size. Not that his height bothered her. Working on the docks for so long, she’d learned to handle the occasional disparity her five foot five caused. It was the rest of him that proved so disturbing.

His chiseled face, tanned a deep golden brown, sported a squared-off jawline, a determined chin creased by a slight cleft and high prominent cheekbones. Thick blond brows, several shades darker than his hair, set off the vivid green of his deep-set eyes—eyes, she fancifully imagined, filled with the aggressive spirit of his ancestors.

A bright glitter caught her attention and she glanced at his left ear, astonished and intrigued by the tiny gold lightning-bolt earring he wore. The symbol of Thor, she realized with a momentary qualm. A Viking in fact, as well as in appearance.

Her gaze skittered lower. She took in the broad well-muscled shoulders and chest, the lean waist and hips, and finally the thick powerful thighs encased in form-fitting jeans. She swallowed and her gaze flew back to his face. It took every ounce of self-possession to meet those cool mocking eyes with anything approaching equanimity. She braced herself for a similar visual examination—an examination that never came.

Instead he fingered the bridge of his nose, which had obviously been broken at some point in his life—undoubtedly in a brawl—and grinned knowingly. “I see you got my message and decided to come over,” he murmured. “Very wise.”

Jordan balled her hands into fists, suppressing the temptation to add another crook to his nose. “Was that what it was, a message?” She feigned surprise. “I thought it was your peculiar idea of a joke.”

“Oh, it’s no joke, Ms. Roberts. I’m very serious.”

He knew her name. Which meant she was right; he’d deliberately taken her bananas in order to bring about this confrontation. No matter what Terry thought, this man wasn’t interested in her. At least, not as a woman.

She found herself thoroughly annoyed—at him because his interest was purely a business one, and at herself for even caring. Jordan pulled herself up short. No need to get a dented ego, she scolded silently. He was enough of a threat without that sort of complication.

She glanced at Marco, who stood gazing in fascination at a crushed box of tomatoes tossed to one side of the dock. The poor man couldn’t have shown his discomfort any clearer if he’d jumped up and down and screamed it for all the world to hear.

“Why don’t we dispense with the games and get down to business?” she suggested. “You have my bananas and I’d appreciate their return.”

“My bananas,” he corrected softly, staring down at her.

How could a single glance from those ice-green eyes burn so? she wondered in trepidation. She crossed to the pallet holding her bananas, her back defiantly stiff. Lifting off a cardboard lid, she flicked the thin plastic cover out of the way and, with a quick twist of her wrist, broke off a banana. After peeling the yellow skin she took a bite, then faced him again. Claim staked, she announced silently.

“What do you want, Mr….”

“Thorsen. Rainer Thorsen.”

Jordan inhaled sharply, choking on the banana. The Thorsen name and reputation were well-known in the Seattle produce community—as well-known as their Vikinglike appearance and Vikinglike ruthlessness. Also well-known were the dozens of markets they owned and operated, each one at least as large and profitable as Cornucopia. She should have guessed his identity sooner. Her gaze strayed back to the lightning-bolt earring he wore. She should have guessed from that telltale symbol alone.

“My banana too strong for you?” he inquired with mock-solicitude at her continued attempt to clear her windpipe.

Jordan lifted her chin. “My banana is just fine, thanks.”

“Then you must be choking on the Thorsen name. I’ve found it does tend to intimidate people.”

“I’ll struggle to keep that from happening,” she informed him, surprised by his levity. “As to the bananas—”

“I suppose, since both of us claim ownership, we’ll have to split them.” He waggled his eyebrows at her, waiting till she caught his pun.

Jordan’s lips twitched. Impossible contradictory man! Didn’t he realize what a serious issue this was? “That’s one solution, though quite unfair. You know and I know they’re really mine. Unfortunately splitting them won’t do me any good. I need the full pallet. I don’t suppose you’re willing to acknowledge prior ownership?”

His teasing facade vanished, exposing the merciless businessman lurking beneath. So the lighthearted charmer was just for show, she realized, filing the information away for future reference.

Rainer shook his head emphatically. “No, I’m not willing to acknowledge any ownership but my own.”

Jordan lowered her eyes and thought fast. “I suspected as much.” She sighed. “I guess we’ll have to settle it in the only reasonable way I know.”

“Which is?”

“I’ll flip you for them.”

He looked down at himself, then at her, his expression doubtful. “Won’t be easy. I’m a big guy.”

It took her a second, but then she broke down and laughed. This time though, she didn’t allow herself to be fooled. “A coin, Mr. Thorsen. We’ll flip a coin. Heads or tails?”

“Er, Rainer…” Marco began. He was waved silent.

“Tails,” Rainer said and reached into his pocket.

Jordan forestalled him. “Please. Allow me.”

If she’d suspected the buyers and workers along the dock were staring before, she was certain of it now. The shouts and occasional curses that usually rang out over the constant noise of the busy marketplace died down. Men in jeans and flannel shirts who normally bustled around the loading area stood in small knots, their attention on the players. Silence reigned.

Steeling her nerves, Jordan stuck a hand into her right pocket and pulled out a nickel. In a practiced move she flicked it high into the air. All eyes watched as the silver coin spun in the early morning light. It tumbled to earth and landed with a ping. After two bounces the coin lay flat on the cement dock.

“Heads,” she announced, not displaying the least bit of surprise at the outcome.

Rainer lifted an eyebrow. “Congratulations. I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever been beaten.” He frowned. “In fact, I’m certain it’s the first time I’ve ever been beaten.” His frown deepened. “I’m not sure I like it.”

Jordan smiled. “Get used to it, Mr. Thorsen. I can be pretty resourceful when I have to be.” She leaned down with studied indifference, picked up the coin and pocketed it. Curling her pinkie fingers into her mouth, she gave a high shrill whistle. As though by magic, Terry was at her side.

“Please put my bananas on the truck, Terry,” Jordan instructed briskly. She glanced up at Rainer and smiled again. “Nice doing business with you, Mr. Thorsen.” She hesitated. “Our business is completed, isn’t it?”

He folded his arms across his chest and shook his head, staring at her with narrowed eyes. “Not quite. But it’ll keep, Ms. Roberts. It’ll keep.” He held out a large callused hand. “Until next time.”

Faltering, but only for a moment she slipped her hand into his. The man’s handshake was as strong and firm as he was. He tightened his grip, refusing to release her. Her gaze flashed to his and she nearly flinched. She couldn’t mistake the fierce determination in his expression.

“I’m accustomed to getting what I want, Ms. Roberts. You’d do well to remember that.”

Not trusting her voice, she nodded. Carefully, she tugged her hand away and headed back across the loading dock. The distance seemed even longer than before and she was conscious of every eye on her. She touched the double-headed coin in her right pocket. How long would it take for Thorsen to learn how she’d tricked him?

She reached her end of the dock and Terry scurried up to her. “You know who that is?” he demanded in a nervous whisper.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And still you pulled that little stunt with one of your double-sided coins?”

She turned on him. “They were my bananas. I told you I’d get them back one way or the other. Unfortunately it had to be the other.” She glanced at the salesman, not hiding her concern. “Do you think Marco will tell him what I did?”

Terry shook his head. “Not likely. He used to work for the Thorsens a few years back, so he still has a certain loyalty to them. But he’s crazy about you. We all are. If anyone tells Thorsen, it’ll be Mr. Constantine. Once he gets wind of it he’ll spill the beans, if only because he thinks it’s such a huge joke.”

“Nuts.”.

“You got that right.” Terry leaned toward her, lowering his voice. “I’d hoped to avoid a confrontation with him, get you to forget about those bananas. But it’s too late for that. You’d better know, Jordan—the Thorsens have always bought their produce from houses closer to Boeing Field. I hear Marco convinced them to give us a try. You realize what that means, don’t you?”

“Another showdown tomorrow?”

“That, and more.” Terry’s expression was unusually serious. “Thorsen buys big, real big, and he always, always gets what he wants. If he decides to buy from Constantine, he’ll keep two of our salesmen hustling and more importantly, he’ll pay same as everyone but you—cash on the barrel head. None of this line-of-credit stuff the boss has been willing to give Cornucopia. And that’s a lot of bucks.”

“Nick must be jumping through hoops,” she muttered.

“He ain’t crying in his beer, that’s for sure. Mr. Constantine may think your little stunt funny now. But if he loses any business because of it, you’ll find yourself out on your pretty little keister—no matter how close you are to the boss’s daughter.”

“That’s not fair!” she protested. “Andrea and I have always kept our friendship separate from the business. Cornucopia has a line of credit because we’re a safe risk, not because of personalities.”

But her concern deepened. She didn’t like the sound of this. Nick Constantine was a hardheaded businessman. If Thorsen decided to make things uncomfortable for her, Nick might choose to go with the money—and to hell with ten years’ worth of loyalty.

Her mouth firmed. She wasn’t beaten yet. In fact, she hadn’t even begun to fight. “I may not be in the same league as the Thorsens, but Cornucopia is nothing to sneeze at.”

Terry sighed, shaking his head. “It is compared to the Thorsens. If it meant getting their business, the old man would sell his own daughter. Hell, he’d give her away. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Jordan stirred uneasily. “I’ll consider myself duly warned.”

She glanced over her shoulder and down the long length of the dock. The Viking was still there, standing and staring once again, his brawny arms folded across his chest. As clearly as if he’d shouted the words at her, she knew their business—whatever that might be—was far from completed.

* * *

Rainer watched Jordan climb into the cab of her truck and start the engine. He’d been impressed by her. Very impressed. He hadn’t seen any volcanic activity during their confrontation, but that didn’t bother him. Once she found out what he really wanted, he bet he’d see a major eruption.

A damned shame, really. Jordan Roberts fascinated him. He sensed a shrewdness behind those cool direct eyes—eyes an intriguing shade between blue and gray. He’d discovered that her face held more than beauty; it contained a wealth of character. The rounded chin and dark angled eyebrows suggested determination. The high cheekbones and firm set of lips and jaw hinted at an inner strength lacking in most women he knew. Even the way she’d subdued that mane of curly black hair warned of her need for control.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. Black velvet over steel. An intriguing image. It was both enlightening—and revealing. Probably more revealing than she’d have liked.

“Judging from her reaction over those bananas,” he said, turning to Marco, “there’s little doubt how she’ll respond once she learns I’m after Cornucopia. I have to admit she’s got nerve. That was quite a gamble she took with the coin toss.”

“If you say so,” Marco muttered, mopping his brow.

Rainer frowned at the salesman. “I say so.” He tilted his head to one side, analyzing his options. “Looks like I have three choices. I can either buy Cornucopia out, go around it or break its hold on the north end with a competing market.” He grinned. “And since I’ve never been one to go around an obstacle when I can bust right through it, I guess we can eliminate at least one of those choices.”

Marco shifted uneasily. “I don’t know. Sometimes it’s faster to skirt a mountain. Tunneling through can take time.”

Rainer was unswayed. “Tunnels make for a shorter trip over the long haul. Besides, it’s cleaner. Cornucopia is going down, one way or another. It’s best not to prolong the agony.” That resolved, he gave a decisive nod. “Well, Ms. Roberts. You have your bananas. But soon, I’ll have you.

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