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Clementine Phillips stared at the dead fish on the wall, only inches from her face, and shuddered. She'd shuddered quite a bit since arriving in Aurora, Alaska, but this time it wasn't a result of the subzero temperatures.
Her gaze shifted from the enormous fish to the brass nameplate hanging directly beneath it. Wild Alaskan Salmon, it read.
Clementine looked back at the salmon, scrunched her brow and tried to reconcile this monstrous creature with the contents of the frozen dinner she'd eaten while sitting in her cubicle at Nature World magazine not more than twelve hours ago. Lean Cuisine. Wild Alaskan salmon in basil sauce. An homage to finally embarking on the research assignment of a lifetime.
She and her officemate, Natalie, had eaten twin low-cal, instant meals and toasted Clementine's newfound freedom with diet sodas. Clementine hated to think about the fact that she'd landed this same assignment a year ago but turned it down to appease her worrywart fiance.
Those days were over, as her ringless finger could attest to.
She forced the unpleasant memory from her mind and focused once again on the fish gaping at her.
Wild Alaskan salmon just the name brought a smile to her lips. Every time she'd heard of Alaskan salmon, it was always preceded by the word wild. Was there even such a thing as tame Alaskan salmon? Or domesticated Alaskan salmon? It was always either wild Alaskan salmon or plain, generic salmon from nowhere.
Wild or not, she was surprised to discover salmon had such big teeth.
"How many photographs have I seen of grizzly bears snatching salmon out of raging rivers? Countless thousands," she murmured to herself. "And yet I never once knew they had teeth."
"Here you go," a grandfatherly voice boomed from behind her, followed by the thud of her luggage landing on the slippery floor of the hotel entrance.
Clementine searched the pocket of her parka for tip money, but soon realized one of her bags was missing from the pile. The most important bag of all. "Um, I don't see my "
"Little pink bag?" The white-haired shuttle bus driver rolled his eyes and snorted. "Yeah, you're going to have to come get that one yourself. When I tried to pick it up, it growled at me."
Clementine's cheeks burned. She'd had every intention of dragging her own luggage inside, especially her dog carrier. But once she'd gotten a look at the ice-covered sidewalk, her confidence had wavered. Sidewalks in Texas weren't covered in ice. Not unless someone accidentally spilled a snow cone. Then again, the heat in Houston was often so unbearable that the ice would have melted before it hit the ground.
She pressed a few dollar bills into the driver's hand. "I'll be right out. Thank you."
"Sure thing," he grunted and clomped back to the shuttle bus. How he managed to clomp on three inches of ice, Clementine would never understand.
She shoved her suitcases against the wall, out of the way of the revolving doors she supposed led to the main lobby, and slipped into her parka. She pulled the zipper until it covered her entire mouth and the better part of her nose, heaved open the door and tiptoed onto the ice.
No sooner did her new pink UGGs make contact with the slick sidewalk than she slipped and went airborne. She squealed, closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable crash landing.
Except it never came. Instead, she found herself falling into a pair of very strong, masculine arms. Arms that belonged to an equally masculine voice.
"Whoa, there," the voice said, and Clementine knew in an instant it wasn't the shuttle bus driver who had come to her rescue.
Her eyelids fluttered open and, with that first glance at the pair of glacial-blue eyes peering down at her with concern, the salmon flipped in her stomach. The one from the Lean Cuisine, not the wall.
Her rescuer smiled down at her, and his blue eyes crinkled in the corners in a most charming way. "Are you okay?"
Clementine swallowed. "Um, yes. A little rattled, that's all."
"Let me help you up." He lifted her to her feet, as if she weighed no more than her tiny Pomeranian, still waiting in the pink dog carrier in the shuttle bus.
"Thank you. I'm not accustomed to walking on ice." Her mind flashed briefly to the Bible story about Jesus walking on water. She supposed if the gospels had taken place in Alaska, he would have walked on ice. It would have been equally miraculous in Clementine's eyes.
"It comes with practice." The man glanced down at her new UGGs and frowned. The frown did nothing to lessen the effect of his startling blue eyes and deep dimples, visible even through his closely trimmed beard. "And shoes with better traction. Take very slow steps. That ought to help."
Something about the way he said it pricked Clementine's nerves. She had to stop herself from asking him what he could possibly know about women's shoes.
"Slow steps," she repeated curtly, with a nod. Clementine could do that. She was, in fact, an expert at taking slow steps. She'd been taking things slowly her entire life. Stepping on the plane to Aurora had been the most daring thing she'd ever done.
"This is your first trip to Alaska I take it?"
Clementine flushed, although whether from the realization that he still had a protective grasp on her arm or the fact that he seemed to read her thoughts, she wasn't sure. "Yes.
Yes, it is."
"Enjoy your stay." He released her arm and lingered, watching to make sure she was steady on her feet.
"Thank you." She did her best to ignore his rugged good looks and instead focused on keeping her feet flat on the icy sidewalk. Not falling seemed like the best way to avoid a lecture on her choice of footwear. And she was having enough trouble maintaining her balance without thinking about those dimples. "And thank you again for the rescue."
"Anytime." He winked and headed toward the parking lot.
Clementine followed him with her gaze and couldn't help but notice his steps were most definitely not slow. In fact, they were downright brisk.
Then again, he looked Alaskan. He'd probably had more than enough practice walking on ice.
"Ahem." The gruff voice of the shuttle bus driver interrupted her thoughts. "Are you coming or do you need some help?"
"No, I've got it." She took a quick glance over her shoulder to check on her bags. They still sat right where she'd left them, under the cold, watchful eye of the mounted salmon.
Wild Alaskan salmon.
The words danced in her head.
Maybe everything in Alaska was wild. It certainly looked that way in the many photographs she'd sorted through for the magazine throughout the years. She thought about the calendar of Alaskan sled dogs that hung above her computer monitor. Mark had given it to her last year when she'd turned down the assignment in Alaska. As if looking at photos of Alaska could ever take the place of actually being there.
The dogs on her calendar looked nothing like her own sweet Pomeranian. They had hungry eyes and paws that moved so fast that they were nothing more than a blur.
Wild Alaskan sled dogs.
She laughed. She'd be willing to bet money they didn't even have cubicles in Alaska. Or Lean Cuisines.
And maybe, simply going to such a place could change a person. Take an ordinary girl with an ordinary life and transform her into someone just a little bit wild herself.
Clementine could only hope so.
She repeated the words from John 10:10 to herself, the words she'd clung to since finally making the break with Mark.
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
A shiver ran up her spine. She looked around for the blue-eyed stranger who'd rescued her from falling, but he'd vanished in the darkness. Anticipation swelled in her chest, and she inhaled a deep breath as she took her first tentative step onto the ice.
Oh Lord, I hope so.
Ben Grayson paused in front of the revolving door of the Northern Lights Inn, half hoping to find the woman who had fallen into his arms earlier. The woman with the mass of blond curls spilling from the fur-lined hood of her parka and the less-than-appropriate footwear.
When he found himself alone in the bitter cold, he pushed the memory of her delicate features out of his mind and whistled for his Alaskan husky.
"Kodiak, come on."
The dog trotted to Ben's side and nudged his head square underneath the palm of his hand.
Kodiak had always been an expert nudger.
"Subtle." Ben gave him an affectionate scratch behind the ears.
The husky nuzzled against his knee until Ben pulled a worn, leather leash out of the pocket of his parka. As soon as Kodiak got a glimpse of the leash, his plumed tail uncurled into a straight line and hung between his hind legs. He furrowed his doggy brow and gazed up at Ben with sad copper eyes.
"Don't look at me like that. I'm not any happier about being here than you are, you know." He snapped the leash onto Kodiak's collar and told himself this was the last year he would darken the door of this place during race week. Even beautiful blonde women in need of rescue weren't enough to keep him coming back. The way he saw it, there was no reason he couldn't commute from his secluded cabin on the outskirts of Aurora to the official race events.
The plan was simple. Drive in, snap a few photos, drive out.
His boss at the Yukon Reporter didn't quite agree. He had all sorts of reasons why Ben needed to be "in the thick of things" at the race headquarters. That, and the very real threat of an avalanche wiping out the one highway between Knik and Aurora, kept him coming back year after year.
So here he was. Again.
But this was absolutely the last time he would agree to this arrangement. He breathed out a weary sigh and led Kodiak into the hotel lobby.
He stomped the snow from his boots and looked around for a clock. This was a wasted effort, as every available square inch of wall space played host to some sort of mounted animal head. There was the customary Alaskan moose hanging above the enormous stone fireplace, surrounded by a variety of antlered cousins. Above the coffee bar, a bison watched over the mixing of flavored lattes and cappuccinos. Next to the registration desk, the full body of a polar bear rose up on its back legs and towered over guests waiting to check in.
Ben groaned when he saw the crowd of people waiting in line. His heavy eyelids told him it had to be well past midnight, but from the look of things, half the population of the Lower Forty-Eightas Alaskans called the rest of the United Statesstood between him and a room key.
"Welcome to race week." A large hand smacked Ben between the shoulder blades. Hard enough that he dropped Kodiak's leash amid a sudden coughing fit.
"Sorry." Reggie Chase's dark face split into a wide grin. "I would have thought living out there in the middle of nowhere would have toughened you up by now."
"You live even farther out than I do," Ben managed to sputter as his ability to speak returned. "Remember?"
"Oh, yeah." Reggie wore mukluks, the traditional winter moccasins common to those living in the bush. For as long as Ben had known Reggie, he'd made his home in the remote village of Prospect. Reggie enjoyed living in the bush, away from the road network. "Off the grid," as he called it. Ben's cabin in the woods seemed cosmopolitan by comparison, even with its long-abandoned doghouses dotting the landscape.
Reggie let out a hearty laugh. "I saw your name tag over at the registration desk and wondered when you'd be rolling in. There's just one problemthat tag still says Media after your name."
Ben's jaw clenched, and a familiar throbbing flared in his temples. "Don't start."
"It's a shame to let that nice dog yard out at your place sit empty. That's all." Reggie crossed his arms, leaned closer and lowered his voice. Ben noticed his beard had grown a shade or two closer to silver since last year's Gold Rush Trail. "How many years has it been, friend?"
"You were the one who packed away all my sledding equipment, remember? You know exactly how many years it's been."
The number hung, unspoken, in the awkward space between them.
Four years, five ten. Ben knew without a doubt the passing of time would in no way dim the memory of the land surrounding his cabin, once scattered with sledding equipment. A sled here, a cabled line there. After the accident that had ended his mushing career, Ben couldn't bring himself to touch any of it. He was afraid of his own muscle memorythat the drive bow would still feel comfortable in his hands. He'd let the snow cover it all, inch by inch, day by day, until it became nothing more than a series of mysterious white mounds. Then one day, he'd come home from work and they were gone. His yard was flat, smooth and white as a snow-covered sea of ice. Ben had been almost afraid to walk on it. He'd sat in his car and stared at his propertyan unnatural blank slateuntil darkness hovered on the horizon.
He'd found his equipment cleaned, polished and carefully stacked in the shed out back. Reggie's work to be sure, although he'd never admitted as much. Ben had taken one look, locked the door to the storage shed and never opened it again.
Now he massaged his forehead with his thumb and index finger. It made no difference. The throbbing only intensified. A war was being waged in his head, full of long-forgotten memories of the trail fighting to make themselves known. "Kodiak is the only dog I need these days."
Reggie's nostrils flared as he blew out a frustrated puff of breath. Let him be frustrated. Reggie could join the long list of people, led by Ben's very own father, who were all frustrated with him. Ben couldn't care less. "Where did that monster run off to anyway?"
At that precise moment, Kodiak's deep bark echoed off the wood-paneled walls, followed by a distinctly feminine squeal.
"That didn't sound good." Despite his ominous declaration, Reggie chuckled. "Kodiak!" Ben called.
By now, the barking had grown louder. Ben followed the sound to the crowd of people waiting at the registration desk, in the shadow of the outstretched paws of the rampant polar bear.
The group parted like the Red Sea as he approached, revealing a woman with thick waves of blond hair standing alone, frozen to the spot.
Her. Ben's heart leaped with recognition.
Despite the way the color was draining from her face with alarming speed, she possessed a sort of innocent beauty. That, coupled with her mass of platinum curls, gave her the air and grace of a princess.
A princess who looked woefully out of place in Alaska.