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On the run, Jackie Swann returns to the last place anyone would look for her: Alaska's Delucchi Lodge. The retreat was the site of her brother Danny's fatal accident—and is home to pilot Roman Carter, the man she once loved. The man she still blames for Danny's death. But the Delucchis have secrets of their own that throw her back into Roman's path. With no one to trust, Jackie finds danger closing in on all sides, and the final showdown could ...
On the run, Jackie Swann returns to the last place anyone would look for her: Alaska's Delucchi Lodge. The retreat was the site of her brother Danny's fatal accident—and is home to pilot Roman Carter, the man she once loved. The man she still blames for Danny's death. But the Delucchis have secrets of their own that throw her back into Roman's path. With no one to trust, Jackie finds danger closing in on all sides, and the final showdown could leave her lost in an endless night… or bring the truth to light.
She pressed down the fear. It was all a mistake, a terrible dream from which she'd awaken any moment. The crowded terminal of San Francisco International Airport was filled with people, talking on cell phones and checking flight information. In spite of the crowd, Jackie felt utterly alone as she stood in a corner near the busy ticket counters. Her phone rang. She jumped and clutched at it. "Hello?"
"Did you get a flight out?"
"Asia?" She hardly recognized her friend's voice. "I'm at the airport now but I've changed my mind. This is nuts. We can't run away. If Dr. Reynolds is guilty, we've got to stand our ground and prove it."
"Are you crazy?" Asia hissed. "You know Mick got jumped on his way over here after he called his friend in the police department. Reynolds has paid them off."
Jackie pressed the phone tightly to her ear. "There's got to be a mistake."
Asia's voice rose an octave. "Dr. Reynolds doesn't have the clout to buy off the police on his own. He's selling his patients' information to a crime ring. The errors are too widespread to be the work of one person. I should have seen it before."
Jackie tried to control her own panic. "We've both got to calm down. Where are you? Did you get Mick to a hospital?"
"I'm waiting for him at the clinic now. He's in a lot of pain. As soon as he can travel, we're gone." There was a sound of voices in the background. Asia spoke in a whisper. "You've got to get out of there, Jackie. Dr. Reynolds has men looking for us. They're trying to keep us quiet any way they can."
Jackie jerked around, scanning the crowd, and scooted into a farthercorner.
Asia had been poring over the computer accounts in the darkened office, hours after closing time, downloading information to a thumb drive. Asia's boyfriend Mick who worked on the imaging equipment was there too, sipping coffee. Asia had just begun to explain why she'd summoned Jackie at such a late hour when Dr. Reynolds appeared, briefcase in hand. His wide forehead creased in suspicion.
"What are you three doing here? What are you downloading?"
Asia stood, facing him. "Dr. Reynolds, there are payments coming in for treatments we never provided. Addresses and personal information for our patients have been altered too."
The doctor's face purpled. "I've been watching you poking around, sticking your nose into things. What exactly are you saying?"
Mick stepped forward. "That you're guilty of fraudulent billing."
"It's more than that," Asia said, a tremor in her voice. "It's too widespread. You're working for somebody who does this on a large scale. "
Jackie watched in horror as Dr. Reynolds's face twisted in rage. "How dare you." Spittle flew from his mouth. "I'll ruin you. All of you." He spun around and ran from the room towards the back office.
At Asia's urging, Jackie had snatched the thumb drive and crammed it in her pocket before Mick dragged both of the shocked women to the parking lot. "Go. Now. He keeps a gun in his office, I've seen it."
They raced to Jackie's car.
Mick kissed Asia. "Go to the coffee shop. Wait for my call."
Asia's eyes filled. "Where are you going?"
"I have a friend at the S.F. P.D. I'm going to contact him. I'll meet you. It will be okay."
But it wasn't. He'd returned bloodied and battered.
"I was jumped. They wore masks but I recognized one. He's a cop. Reynolds must have bought them off."
Asia had taken Mick to the nearest clinic, promising to meet Jackie at the airport.
"Listen, I've been keeping detailed notes on all the inconsistencies I've found." Asia started to talk faster. "I contacted someone who used to work for Dr. Reynolds at his office in Thousand Oaks. She's looking too. You've got to give me and Mick some time. We'll call you as soon as we can. Just get away somewhere, anywhere." The phone disconnected.
Jackie's breath seemed to form hard crystals in her lungs. Mick beaten? Dirty cops? Crime rings? The whole thing was absurd. She quickly dialed her friend Patti's cell number.
"Hey, Jackie. You're out of milk. I came to borrow some before rehearsal. I should have taken up a smaller instrument. I work up an awful thirst dragging that cello up five flights."
"Patti, listen. I've got to go out of town. Can you take care of the place?"
"Sure, where you going?"
"Just a quick getaway."
"Sounds great. You know I'm kinda miffed. You never mentioned your darling boyfriend."
She felt a stir of alarm. "That's because I don't have one."
"Care to explain the good-looking cop who stopped by? He was in plainclothes, of course, but he showed me a badge."
Jackie froze, unable to speak.
Patti continued. "Handsome fella. How can you resist an ex-Navy man? Just the thought of dating a sailor gives me a charge."
"He told me that you decided to break things off because of his dangerous job and all that. He wanted to come patch things up. He wondered if you'd left town, maybe gone to Maryland."
"Maryland?" The lights flickered before her eyes. He knows I have family in Maryland? Jackie forced a cheerful tone. "He sure has put a lot of thought into it, hasn't he?"
"I guess so. Anyway, I gotta go."
"Can you take care of my things until I get back?"
"Okay, but you're going to have an empty fridge by that time. Bye."
Jackie squeezed the phone between her clammy palms.
The stranger knew her father was in Maryland. He knew where she lived here in San Francisco. The cop, if he really was a cop, was probably out right now checking all the places she frequented. Dr. Reynolds had set things in motion with alarming speed. She could feel nothing but cold, blind panic.
An image of Roman rose in her mind, the rock solid strength that had never failed her except for the one awful moment in Alaska that had changed everything. She thought of his laughter and sense of adventure, which had been a balm for her as long as she could remember. That part of your life is dead, Jackie. She blinked the memory back into the past where it belonged.
In a fog she joined the end of the nearest ticket line. For the first time, she considered where she could go. She just needed time, time to think things through, a safe place to figure out a plan. Not in Maryland—she could never risk involving her father. He'd be safe as long as she stayed far away until things were settled.
The line snaked its way along until Jackie found herself at the front. The efficient woman behind the desk looked at her. "Where to?"
"I…" Speech failed her. What place would be safe until she could climb out of the mess she'd gotten herself into?
"What is your destination, ma'am?"
She would fly to the farthest corner she could think of, the place that held her most precious memories and the echoes of her most terrible nightmare. Jackie's mouth formed the word, but her mind did not believe it.
Roman Carter drove the rattletrap van with Wayne's Aviation emblazoned on the side to the small airport on the edge of town. The day was clear, the roads newly plowed of snow. He felt an unusual surge of optimism. Maybe the tourists would start to come again, in spite of the economy. If the flight load picked up, he might be able to make progress toward owning his own plane.
He pulled up at the airstrip that cut its way through the tiny town of Foster and headed toward the two people in the shuttle-waiting area, a heavyset, dark-haired man with a mustache, and a small figure, bundled into a coat that wasn't warm enough with a crumpled baseball hat pulled down low over the brim.
"Hello, folks. I understand you need a ride to the Delucchi Lodge."
The heavyset man nodded and extended a hand. "Byron Lloyd."
"Roman Carter. Good to meet you." Roman noticed a price tag sticking out from the neck of the man's jacket and hid a smile.
The man followed Roman's look and detached the price tag with a chuckle. "Luggage got lost somewhere. All I have is my duffel bag—it's a good thing I carry it everywhere. Had to buy this jacket at the airport, and it cost me a good chunk of change."
Roman turned to the other figure, wondering at first if the person was hard of hearing. After a long moment, she lifted her chin so he got a good view of her face.
"We've already met," she said.
He blinked in shock. Jackie Swann stood before him, strands of her copper hair trailing from underneath her hat, amber eyes looking at him with a mixture of surprise and anger. He couldn't speak.
Jackie cleared her throat and straightened her small frame. "I didn't know you worked for the Delucchis."
He forced his mouth to start moving. "I don't. I work for Wayne Fisk. I fly people to the lodge." The fierce desire to ask why she was here burned in him. Why would she come back? He bit down on the words, forcibly stilling the barrage of feelings that whipped through him like a savage Alaskan storm. He moved to take her small bag.
She grabbed it before he could. "I'll carry it."
"Fine." The two followed him out to the shuttle. Byron Lloyd filled the strained silence by peppering Roman with questions.
"I'm a freelance writer, you see. Covering this Winterfest deal. A festival to celebrate winter. Clever marketing. How many people are you expecting?"
"Hard to say. Not as many travelers these days."
"Am I going to get cell phone coverage and Internet at the lodge?"
"Internet, yes. No cell unless you have a satellite phone."
They arrived at the airstrip and loaded the plane. Roman hated to do it, but he asked Jackie to sit in the front to balance the weight properly. She reluctantly agreed. He offered an arm as she climbed up into the plane, but she ignored it.
He ducked into the office to check in with Wayne once more before he flew out.
Wayne looked up from his top-of-the-line computer and gave Roman a close look. "What's the matter? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"It's nothing." He walked to the plane feeling that Wayne was right. The ghost of his past, of his sins, of his longings, had come back to dredge up the horror he'd tried so hard to put behind him. Looking at Jackie's delicate profile as she stared out the window, he wondered.
Why are you here?
Jackie stared out the window at the blinding white below. She felt it inside too—a stark, flat feeling, as though her heart was as frozen and untouchable as the tundra. Why hadn't she seen it coming? Roman had always been interested in flying. He loved the outdoors. It was a logical leap that he would still be working in Alaska, but she never suspected he would be so closely connected to Delucchi Lodge. Not after what had happened, not after two long years.
Her stomach knotted and she kept her gaze as far away from Roman as possible. Dark hair, longish, falling into his face. A shadow of stubble on his strong chin, dimples when he'd smiled at Byron Lloyd, and the eyes, the familiar hazel eyes, self-assured, confident, cocky. In the two years they'd been apart, nothing had changed. He was the same Roman.
She could hear her father's angry voice in her mind.
He killed your brother. I will never forgive him. Never.
They had had only one tortured conversation after the accident. It was the only time she'd seen Roman completely vulnerable, unable to even form a coherent sentence, his then twenty-three-year-old face twisted in agony. She closed her eyes at the awful memory.
Squeezing her hands together she forced herself to take a breath. She had more important matters to worry about than Roman. After he dropped her at the lodge she would put him out of her mind.
At the airport in San Francisco, she'd bought a satellite phone, though she'd almost choked at the thousand-dollar price tag. She had to be sure Asia could reach her, so she e-mailed her the phone number via her laptop just before the flight. It might be a risk if Reynolds's people could hack into her e-mail, so she sent only the phone number and didn't include any other details. She wished again that Asia and Asia's boyfriend, Mick, had come along. But Asia was right—Mick needed medical attention for his injuries and it was probably smarter for them not to fly together, anyway. In the agonizing hours before the plane departed, she'd been lucky enough to find a place in the airport to charge her phone and to buy a duffel bag and some sundries. There were no messages from her friend through the Internet or on her home answering machine. Where was she? Jackie could still hear the panic in her friend's voice.
Just get away somewhere, anywhere.
Under the pretense of studying the mountains, she shot a glance behind her at Byron Lloyd. She found him gazing at her intently.
"Where do you hail from?" he asked.
Jackie's stomach knotted. "West Coast."
She forced a smile. "Oh, you know. Here and there. How about you?"
"San Francisco area."
Her gut twisted even further. "Well, you'll love the Delucchi Lodge." She realized she'd given herself away.
"Oh, you've been there before?"
She nodded, saved from a reply when Roman took the plane down toward the cleared strip of frozen ground. She saw Skip Delucchi waiting, his hair a little sparser than she remembered, his long face and prominent nose giving him a hound-dog look.
Skip wrapped her in a hug when she dropped down from the plane. "Jackie, it's so good to see you. I was completely surprised when you called me from the airport. Thank goodness we had one cabin still vacant." He shot an uneasy glance at Roman, who was pulling luggage out of the plane's cargo hold. He lowered his voice. "Did you and Roman get a chance to catch up?"
"No. I'm not feeling chatty, I guess."
He hesitated for a moment. "Yes, well, it doesn't matter. June is so excited that you're here. She hasn't stopped baking since sunup."
Skip introduced himself to Lloyd, who Jackie noticed had been taking in their conversation with interest. He helped them into a battered Range Rover and, with a final word to Roman, headed toward the distant lights of the lodge. Jackie glanced quickly into the side mirror. Roman stood tall and straight against an unforgiving glare of white. In the distance, above the snow-crusted bluff, she thought she could just make out the roofline of the still unfinished cabin, the place where everything had ended in the blink of an eye.
Posted September 11, 2010
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