Chapter 1

DR. Paige Barlow leaned against her assistant’s desk, took a deep breath, and held it. The desk and credenza still had that new out-of-the-box scent. She exhaled, then chuckled. “I love the smell of newly assembled high-quality furniture in the morning. Smells like victory.” Her new assistant didn’t react to the Apocalypse Now reference. That’s all right. A few days into this job and she’ll understand why I refer to my office as the Odinapocolypse from time to time. She hiked up her trim skirt a little to make the transition from standing to sitting atop the edge of the desk easier. “So, what do I have this morning?”

Lara opened the calendar on her laptop. “Nothing until eleven. Then you have a two-hour session with patients you have listed here as ‘The Blood Brothers.’ Whatever that means. Sounds like a metal band.” She scrolled down the screen. “You have a file review at one-fifteen. The DHL notation left on the door this morning says the files are with security, downstairs.”

Paige interrupted. “Glad I hired you. The temp-of-the-day scheduled that way too close after my session with the brothers. I need some down time after seeing them. I never see patients after treating them. File reviews only, and only after lunch and a short nap. I like keeping to a schedule, even on Wednesdays. Bump the file review to one forty-five. Are those the files from the Department of Corrections?”

Lara nodded. “Their potential new hires, yes.”

“They love the work I do for them. I can spot lies on an application from twenty paces. That’s why they send them all through me before even doing background checks. I am single-handedly repopulating our state’s prison system with what you might call employees with heart who can shoot straight.” She paused. “After the boys arrive I’d like it if you would run an errand for me. Just lock the door behind you.”

“The boys?”

“The brothers.”

“All right, well, whatever you need,” Lara replied.

“I’m going to need lunch after they leave. Sessions with them expend a terrible amount of energy. I’ve already phoned in two orders to the lunch counter at the pharmacy a block down. Know the place? Albacore all right?”

Lara nodded.

“You can take your lunch to the park if you want. Bring mine back here at one-fifteen. It should be all ready to go. I paid for it over the phone.”

“You want me to leave at eleven and take a two-hour lunch break?” Lara asked. “I think I’m going to like it here.”

Paige laughed. “Every Wednesday, yes.”

“When the brothers have a session? How am I supposed to bill them? There are no names or addresses in their Quicken file.”

“They’re a corporation. Look under Borsson and Sons. You can bill that. And yes, when they have a session, it’s a day off or long lunch. They can’t speak freely knowing anyone else is here—they’re unique. Actually, most of my clients are unique. But you’ll find that out soon enough.”

“I’m beginning to understand why your interview intake sheet had a quote from Ghostbusters on it. ‘Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster, and the theory of Atlantis?’ I answered truthfully.”

“Well, writing ‘If there’s a steady paycheck in it I’ll believe whatever you want,’ did help. I love that movie. I couldn’t hire someone without a certain joie de vivre. A zest for life, you know? Plus, you have the right background. Believe it or not, it’s not the bookkeeping certificate on your resume that piqued my interest. It was that Bachelor of Arts in Scandinavian Studies.”

“Which is why I have the bookkeeping certificate. Scandinavian Studies…not much marketable there. It was the will of my grandmothers that I major in that interesting yet useless area of study.”

Dr. Paige chuckled. “I’m glad you have some historical knowledge of the Norse era. I promise you, it will come in handy. A smidgen of Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic. Impressive. I’m glad you accepted the job so quickly. I had to hire an assistant. I’m getting way too busy to handle my own schedule, but there’s no reason why I can’t spoil my staff, so a two-hour lunch it is. The brothers pay a premium for use of the entire office suite. They get their therapy wherever the mood strikes them. If they punch out a window or rip up the carpet, they’ll pay for it to be repaired.”

“Aggressive tendencies or what? Wow. I’ll get billings done this morning. And, Doctor, let’s keep in mind that Scandinavian Studies is a broad topic. I can tell you all about Norway’s and Sweden’s politics in the 1930s, the current wind farming initiatives, and give you a lengthy list of fabulous museum tours, but everything else I learned from my grandmothers. All the dyed-in-the-wool Norse stuff, I learned from them. Including the Icelandic. I speak a rather North Dakotan bastardized dialect.” She paused. “Looking through this program here…I find it funny how so many of your clients are private pay.”

“Insurance is a bitch.”

“Well, thank you for providing me the slap of said bitch. I haven’t had medical, dental and vision in years,” Lara replied.

“Only the best for my staff. We’re actually on the Borsson’s company insurance. He keeps me under contract so I can utilize the group benefits.” Dr. Paige stood and straightened her clothing. “Back to the therapist’s couch with me—after I look at these fabulous shoes one last time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Paige stretched and rotated an ankle. “You know, these shoes are praise-worthy, but they’re not meant for walking or standing.”

Lara laughed. “They are for posing. They’re so others will notice you. I like the ensemble, actually. That skirt and jacket are killer. New? It’s got that I’m-quite-pleased-with-this-purchase feel about it.”

“Why yes, everything is new. Even the skivvies. I felt the need for some retail therapy the other day. I think it can be a healthy, self-empowering if occasional activity.”

Paige strolled into her office and closed the door. My eleven o’clock clients are going to like these shoes too. Indeed. Not sure the panties will be on long enough for them to enjoy the color…but whatever.

* * * *

Lara lifted her coffee mug and downed the last of it. “Amen to that. May I be so blessed with the time, money, and desire for a little shopping self-empowerment.”

She giggled and settled in to do the books for Dr. Paige Barlow of three medical and criminology degrees. That woman had an education with a capital E. She had twenty-seven regular weekly clients, more than half of which were identified by initials only. Digging into the electronic files, it seemed all her clients did indeed have corporation names for billing. Busy woman. Nice office. New desk. A two-hour lunch on a Wednesday. Every Wednesday. Thank God for the blood brothers, whoever they are.

Lara tuned into the streaming radio station she enjoyed and then sorted out about three months’ worth of statements. Dr. Paige had not billed her clients for over ninety days. And yet she has no cash flow situation.

The streaming radio station sent a cacophony of static into the airspace around her desk. Lara cringed and turned it down. Her computer screen flashed, then the lights above her desk flickered. Through the frosted glass door leading into the ninth floor hallway she saw flickers of light as well. She shrugged it off. The building itself was older. Maybe the remodel contractor had taken a few shortcuts or not completely wired the place for multiple electronic device usage in every office on every floor.

Her thoughts on her empty mug, she forced herself to finish the array of billings before allowing herself a break. Glad for the work, though arduous without the java, it took two and a half hours to extract the data from the doctor’s appointment book, upload it into the system and double-check all her entries. Not bad for work done sans caffeine.

She submitted the print job to the copier, which was far from conveniently located down the hall in another room. The wiring looked fine in the office to move it closer, but Dr. Paige had simply said she didn’t want it “in the line of fire.” Lara didn’t ask. No questions about idiosyncrasies on the job until after my ninety-day evaluation and raise. Her own rule.

She passed the kitchenette and restroom on her way to the copier closet. The corridor walls were painted a deep amber color. With the huge bay window and glass door to the fire escape allowing for ample light, the hallway was far from dim. It had a very pleasing glow. The wallpaper border, far from stylish, was, if nothing else, interesting. Lara knew the pattern. She said it aloud as she walked down the corridor. “Futhark.” The grandmothers used the Futhark symbols for everything, whether it was baking bread or hanging clean laundry. Every act had a symbol attached to it. A rune. A Futhark rune.

Of course, Great-Grandmother had been a superstitious, elderly Icelandic woman trapped in a loveless marriage in North Dakota, and who drank a lot to “forget.” No one ever really spoke about what Great-Granny wanted to forget. Just that it was “best if she did.” Grandmother, the only child produced by Great-Gramma and the Icelandic-American Dakotan sunflower farmer, was more down-to-earth, though she held the tales of her ancestors in high esteem. Every bedtime story from age seven on had been from Norse mythology. That was Mama’s legacy. Two heathen grandmothers in North Dakota. Both widows. Interesting upbringing.

Gramps had grumbled quite a bit about how his marriage had made him the first organic farmer in North Dakota. Seems Great-Granny insisted “the land be respected” and apparently even had the farm consecrated to the fertility god, Freyr. Another bit of family history only whispered about after too many whiskeys. After he passed, the grandmothers had hired out the land and reaped in the profits of more modern, yet still organic, farming practices. The house and land were now rented out. She had no plans on returning to North Dakota now that not a single relative lived.

Lara often bemoaned the “no father listed” on her birth certificate. Mama always said Daddy had been an angel and left it at that. An angel who played a horn. Mom had left behind a few framed clippings from magazines she’d said reminded her of that glorious “visitation” by the angel.

It wasn’t until long after her death that Lara had figured out that “glorious” meant “best freaking sex evah.” Mother’s diary alluded to it, though it was cryptic at best. The dour matriarchs of the clan had kept it from her for years. It was left to her at Great-Grandmother’s passing. That and a dreadfully heavy, god-awful, gold, hematite, and carnelian ring. She glanced at her right ring finger. Apparently, this gaudy piece of jewelry was Great-Grandma’s original wedding ring. Original being the key word. The farmer from North Dakota was not her first husband. There had not been enough whiskey in the world to get the grandparents to discuss that topic.

Lara stopped, turned into the kitchenette, and made a fresh pot of coffee. She held her empty cup under the spigot to catch the steaming brown nectar. Coffee. First.

She retrieved her copies and balanced a cup of coffee on her way back to her desk. She was certain the grandmothers must have had a rune for balancing full mugs with whatever else they were carrying. Even if it was a goat or hundred-pound sack of potatoes. Coffee. First. Wait…make that three-quarters cup of sugar with a splash of coffee. Icelanders like it sweet.

A boisterous laugh caught her attention. Clients, probably. She hurried back to the reception area with her coffee and stack of invoices. She took a moment to gain her composure. Smooth the skirt. Hair off shoulders. She didn’t want to look rushed or frazzled when greeting patients. Especially not the ones indirectly providing her with insurance.

Two minutes to eleven they burst into the office in a fit of laughter. The younger of the two, a tall, muscular, red-haired man with a short-trimmed red beard and sunglasses spoke first.

“Well, hello. When did the good doctor hire you?”

Lara wasn’t sure if she could speak. Words formed in her brain but failed to issue forth from her mouth. Tongue-tied had never been an issue for her. That guy left her speechless. Black leather motorcycle chaps and jacket, red hair, and sunglasses, oozing sensuality with a come-hither voice. This was the perfect male.

Must not stare. The perfect man’s cell chirped and he stepped aside to answer it. He turned his back. Yeah, the reverse was as shiny as the front. She strained to hear his whispered conversation to no avail. She stood to introduce herself.

“Hi, I’m Lara, the doctor’s assistant. You are her eleven o’clock? Or do I need to schedule an appointment for you?” Her voice cracked embarrassingly. And astonishingly, she had verbalized the non-Anglicized version of her name. Lou-rah, where the first “a” sounded like the “ow” in the word “plow.” Old school.

The older man held out his hand. “You pronounce your name using the Icelandic vowel sounds. Þú ert Íslensk, já? Are you Icelandic, dear?”

Lara nodded. “Third generation. Yes.”

She shook the large hand offered to her. His grip was warm and firm. She always tried to make eye contact when shaking hands. This man had only one. The whole pirate eye-patch thing looked good on him, however. He wore a very nice suit and his white hair and well-trimmed beard gave the overall appearance of refined wealth. Saying he was older wasn’t exactly true. His entire countenance was more mature than his companion’s, but he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than the redhead.

“Mr. Borsson,” Lara said. “Nice to meet you.”

The elder Borsson chuckled. “Ah, I feel a fight or flee moment emanating from you. Don’t let my brother disarm you, dear Lara. We are here to see the good doctor. We are, indeed, the Borssons.”

The redhead ended his call and turned. He winked and cleared his throat.

She shook Red’s hand next. He was far from refined. Anything but. Any word in any language to describe the exact opposite fit. Barbaric. Savage. He, too, had a strong handshake, but his touch left her feeling edgy. Red held her hand for a moment longer than was socially acceptable. It unnerved her. She thought for a moment he might kiss it.

He placed his left atop hers, sandwiching her hand. “So very nice to meet you, Lara.” He said her name in English. Lara, like in “car-a.” Softly. The word rolled off his lips as if he recited poetry.

She pulled away. “I’ll let the doctor know you’re here.”

“No need, Lara. I heard them come in. Thank you. Were you able to introduce yourself to the Borsson brothers?”

“Yes, Doctor,” she replied, noting the look on Paige’s face as she and the elder Borsson caught sight of each other. For a split second it reminded her of adoration. Of devotion. Of a pilgrim’s face at a shrine. Then the look turned as sultry as the younger Borsson’s handshake felt. Fire. Want. Need. Now.

Lara flexed the fingers of her right hand. Residual heat inflamed them. “I’ll get going now, Doctor,” Lara said. She opened her desk drawer and removed her purse. She slung her bag over her shoulder.

Red lifted his shades. “Leaving so soon?”

He had chocolate-brown eyes with flecks of green. The fluorescent lights played off their twinkle. Lara felt at a loss for words. “I…have errands.”

“Pity,” he replied.

“Lock the door on your way out. See you soon.” Dr. Paige’s summary dismissal couldn’t have been more transparent.

Paige nodded her gentleman clients into her office. Lara turned her head to see something very odd as she departed. Paige literally leaped into the older brother’s arms.

Then the door slammed shut, but not before Lara saw the sly smile of the younger, cast directly at her. She felt herself flush crimson from toes to ears as she left the office.