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Nick Pierce stood on the tarmac gazing upward, though he knew from experience the high mountain air of Frostbite, Alaska, meant he'd hear the single-engine plane before he actually saw it.
He was anxious to get this over with. He was anxious to get back home. There was nothing he could tell the woman flying out of her way to talk to him. He would have made that clear when she called, but like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, he'd figured if he ignored her she'd go away, and he'd never actually taken one of her calls himself.
It hadn't worked. Hell, that approach to problems never worked, but he always seemed compelled to give it a try anyway.
To top it off, the weather was changing. He could feel the cold bite of an approaching storm on his face, sweeping over the inlet, up the Panhandle, bringing snow and ice. Winter days were short this far north and at two-thirty in the afternoon, there was only about an hour of daylight left. Oh, face it — he was sorely tempted to drive away and forgo the meeting before he got stuck at the airport.
And then he heard a drone overhead and realized the time to leave had come and gone. A few minutes later, Toby Macleod's aqua DeHavilland Otter came to a stop a few yards away from Nick's four-wheel-drive truck, the wheel skis making slide marks in the accumulating snow. Nick stamped his feet to get his circulation moving, waiting for Toby to turn off the big turbo engine, then walked around to the far side of the plane, waving at Toby as he did so.
The sole passenger making the long climb out of the plane was bundled up to her ears in black boots, jeans and an olive-green parka, her head wrapped securely in a pale blue wool scarf. When she looked around to survey her surroundings, flaming red tendrils escaped the folds of wool, snapping like scarlet ribbons against the increasingly white environment. Reaching up and taking her ungloved hand, he helped her step down.
She stumbled as her right foot touched the ground, immediately straightening herself. Her head barely came level with his shoulder. She struck him as small, delicate, and out of place as she shoved her hands in her pockets and shivered.
"You're Nicolas Pierce," she said through clattering teeth, looking up at him with eyes as deep and blue as a fjord. She was extremely pretty and extremely young, at least to his world-weary eyes. He'd be thirty-eight in a few months and this woman looked about eighteen, though he guessed she was actually in her early twenties.
Taking her arm, he ushered her around the plane toward his truck.
"Call me Nick," he said, the weather clock ticking in his head. "And you're Tess Mays," he added.
He felt her flinch through her padded coat. "No, my name is Katie Fields."
"I don't understand," he snapped, suddenly suspicious. Helen, his housekeeper, had said his father's new stepdaughter had called a few times, the last to announce the fact she was on her way. The stepdaughter's name was Tess. He turned to look down at the woman beside him. "Who?" he snapped.
"Katie Fields. I'm Tess's sister." She glanced up for a second, her breath a cloud of icy vapor, a few sparkling ice crystals sticking to her cheeks and brow.
"I don't understand," he repeated, but he resumed ushering her forward as she appeared about ready to freeze in place. The limp grew more pronounced as she hurried beside him.
"It's a little complicated," she told him as he opened the truck door for her, struggling for a second as the heavy metal met the resistance of the quickening wind.
Gripping her shoulders, he leaned down to talk close to her ear so she could hear him. "It's too cold to stand around discussing things. Stay inside where it's warm while I talk to Toby. I'll be right back."
With his help, she made the high step up into the cab of his truck, hunkering down in the leather seat with a sigh of relief, covering her lower face with her bare hands, breathing into them in an effort to defrost her nose and lips and fingers, too. He'd done the same thing a million times since relocating here from southern California.
"Turn up the heater," he told her as the wind finally won the tug-of-war with the door and slammed it back into place. He nodded reassuringly through the window at her alarmed expression, then went back to the plane.
At his approach, Toby opened a little window by the pilot's seat and poked his face cautiously through. Snowflakes immediately stuck to his beard and bushy red eyebrows.
"Hey, Nick," Toby called. "How's Lily?"
"Growing like a weed. How about Chris?"
"Two more weeks before the baby comes. She's about ready to explode." He grinned. Apparently, the thought of becoming a father for the fifth time pleased him. "Say, the weather is deteriorating quick," Toby added. "I've got medicine aboard for the Lambert woman in Skie. I've got to get it to her, which means I have to be able to take off from here. You've got five minutes with the lady, tops."
"It won't take even that long," Nick said.
He retraced his steps to the truck and climbed aboard, struggling with the door again.
Now he faced Katie Fields, who had warmed to the point that she'd unwrapped her hair and unzipped her parka. He could have saved her the trouble. Five minutes wasn't long enough for anyone to get cozy.
As he pulled off his gloves, he took a good look at her face, trying to see something of her mother in her, but he'd never actually met the woman, just seen a wedding photograph sent north by Tess Mays. As he'd torn it in half the moment he figured out what it was, there was nothing left but a vague impression of a middle-aged woman with wispy, graying blond hair.
There was nothing, however, wispy about her daughter. Katie Fields might be small, but passion burned in her eyes like twin fireballs. Her red hair heightened this perception. Her golden eyebrows suggested she was actually a natural blonde, like Patricia, and with the thought of his late wife, his heart seized for an interminable moment.
"Like I said, I'm Tess's sister," Katie said, jerking him back to the present. "She didn't know about me until recently — "
He shook his head as he pulled off his black wool cap. Straight strands of sandy hair fell into his eyes and he brushed them out of the way. "We don't have time for details," he told her. "You've made this trip for nothing and I'm sorry about that, but I don't have anything to tell you. If I'd taken your call I could have saved you the expense of this trip."
"But you were never around to take the call," she said, and he got the distinct impression she knew perfectly well that he'd avoided this discussion like the plague. He shrugged.
"Your father — "
"As far as I'm concerned," he interrupted, "my father was the perfectly ordinary man who married my mother when I was eight years old. His name was Jim Pierce. He adopted me and undertook the task of raising me. He owned a shoe store in San Diego. He played golf and told bad jokes. He died ten years ago. He was a great guy and I still miss him."
She looked confused. Stuttering, she muttered, "But I thought Tess said your father "
"Your mother's new husband is my biological father. I'm sorry your family got mixed up with him. But again, I haven't seen the man in over two years and if my luck holds, I'll never see Bill Thurman again."
"My mother married a man named Bill Swope."
"Seems as though Dad got himself a brand-new name."
"Why would he do that?"
More memories of Patricia invaded his head, but this time her own blood soaked her blond hair. Looking over Katie's shoulder, Nick pulled on his gloves. "Toby is gesturing like crazy, the weather is about to close in, you have a plane to catch," he said in a clipped voice.
Avoiding her gaze, he tugged on his hat and pushed open the door. The weather had further deteriorated in the few short minutes he'd been inside and the blast of cold air streaming into the truck had his visitor shivering again. He darted around and opened her door, anxious to get this woman into Toby's plane before it was too late. She sat in the seat looking down at him, her scarf still in her lap, her pretty face puzzled.
"Come on," he said, reaching up for her. Time was up.
She bit her bottom lip, then shook her head. "No." The wind was howling; he must have heard her wrong. He glanced at the plane. Toby had rubbed a clear space on the inside of the windshield and could be seen holding up one finger.
"I'm not leaving," she yelled. "You have to help me."
"I told you — "
"Listen," she said, her voice still loud but her tone somber. "I get it. You don't like your bio dad. I couldn't care less what your problem with him is, all I know is he's disappeared with my mother, a woman I haven't seen since I was a few months old. My sister is lying in a hospital with a gunshot wound, worrying herself sick. My mother and your father never showed up in Seattle where they had reservations at a downtown hotel. I'm going to find our mother and take her to my sister, and if that means I have to stay in this frozen wasteland till the blasted daises pop through the snow, then so be it."
He stared at her with disbelieving eyes. She couldn't be serious. On the other hand, there was something about the stubborn tilt of her chin that suggested otherwise and it came to him with a jolt: Katie Fields wasn't bluffing. Or budging.
He slammed her door and approached the DeHavilland, gesturing with his arm for Toby to take off. Toby disappeared for a moment and then opened the door and threw out a small brown suitcase that landed with a thud. After Nick retrieved the bag, he stood there in the freezing snow as Toby started the engine and taxied down the runway, gaining momentum, lifting to the sky and almost instantly disappearing. Being a pilot himself, he knew Toby would make it to Skie within an hour, and that Skie's weather was never as bad as Frostbite's.
Then he turned to look back at his truck and the woman sitting inside.
He'd have to take her home with him.
As he labored through the gathering snow, Katie Fields's suitcase clenched under his arm, Nick swore at his father, wherever he was, and at the woman trusting enough to fall for his lies and marry him.
What was going on? Just exactly what had his father roped Katie Fields's mother into?
Hopefully she wouldn't pay for her naiveté with her life.