Read an Excerpt
"I've got more diapers and formula," Gage Parker grumbled into the pay phone on the corner of the town's main street. Treasure Creek, Alaska, sandwiched between rugged snowcapped peaks and pristine forests, was an old gold-rush town currently jam-packed with women, thanks to some magazine article. He couldn't hear a single word his grandmother said, because a pair of fancy women strolled by the booth, talking and giggling and commenting on how quaint everything was. He didn't like "quaint" and he didn't like giggling women. Women were everywhere in a town where females were usually scarce. They'd all flown in with their mounds of luggage and driven in with their city cars—not a four-wheel-drive among them. Even in the falling twilight, he could see them. They strolled the sidewalks, took up tables at Lizbet's Diner and went exploring in the wilderness, which is why he was out at nine forty-five at night when any sensible person would be home. But no, some clueless woman had gotten herself stuck halfway up a cliff this evening and he'd been on the search-and-rescue team that rapelled down to save her.
"I didn't know rock climbing would be so hard," the clueless gal had breathlessly explained, once she was clipped in and safely against his chest. She smiled coyly up at him. "My, don't you have strong arms."
Ugh. The lack of needy women was one of the big draws for moving from Seattle back to Alaska. His grandmother needing help had been the other.
"Sounds like all kinds of commotion is going on," Gran chirped, downright chipper on the other end of the line. She would be. Nothing tickled her more than that article telling about how Treasure Creek's men wanting for wives seriously outnumbered the available women. "Any of those gals catch your fancy, Gage?"
"Wishful thinking on your part. There would have to be something wrong with a woman to want to get tangled up with the likes of me." He had proof of that in his ex-wife, who had been one of those women who'd wanted a wedding but not marriage. She'd seen her vows as merely a suggestion on how to behave as a wife. "Anything else you need me to do in town?"
"I'll take pity on you, my boy, and I won't tell you to find a nice girl and bring her on home—at least this time. You already know the baby could use a mama."
Oh, she was having a heyday. Gage shook his head, trying to drum up some patience. He didn't want to hurt the elderly woman's tender feelings. "My nephew is doing just fine with the two of us. What I need is to find the right nanny, not a wife—just so we're clear on that."
"That won't stop me from praying the right woman for you comes along."
Great. More prayers. Just what he needed. God had better things to do than trying to fix the impossible. The darkness he'd seen in his recent life had only reinforced that. His baby nephew's mother had died, his brother had been too busy to raise the child and dumped him off just shy of a week ago. Ben James, Gage's boss and one of his close friends, had died in an on-the-job accident in January, leaving his wife, Amy, a widow, with two young sons and a struggling business. Not to mention his own fight to recover from a bitter divorce. That was plenty enough disillusion to go around.
Yep, there didn't seem much reason to believe God was up there looking out for him. Not these days. He shook his head. "Gran, I'm going to pretend you didn't say that and head home."
"You and that surly disposition of yours. You had better shape up. You never know when your future wife will come along and you go and scare her off. Why, you could meet her on the street tonight."
"Sure, she could fall from the sky like manna from heaven." He did his best not too sound too cynical. His grandmother was a firm believer. He didn't want to mar that for her. He wished he had her strength of faith—a strength she maintained despite all her life's hardships.
He ended the call and grumbled because his cell phone had run out of juice. He wove around another pair of women dressed up in what they thought was Alaska garb, who probably had bought their pricey outfits in some fancy boutique in Beverly Hills. Ridiculous. Thoroughly disgruntled, he hopped into his four-wheel-drive. He pulled his black SUV away from the curb and had to wait for someone in a Porsche—what were people thinking?—to squeeze into a space between a tractor and an ancient pickup, before he could motor away from the madness.
On the outskirts of town, he breathed a pent-up sigh of relief. He hadn't dealt with traffic congestion since he'd been commuting across Seattle's Evergreen Bridge twice a day.
His hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel, a bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck. By the time he'd turned off the main road from town and headed home, twilight was deepening. He switched the vehicle's headlights to bright. The beams swept the shadowed, narrow two-lane road, illuminating undergrowth, a long wood fence line and two grazing deer, who fled into the woods.
Something reflected up ahead. He slowed down, a bad feeling settling into his gut. It looked like dark taillights and the back window of a sports car. Not a car he recognized, and he knew everyone who lived on this road. Not one of his neighbors would be foolish enough to own a car they couldn't drive when the weather turned and the roads muddied up.
Probably another one of those desperate women.
Great. Just what he needed. His grip on the steering wheel tightened. Tension seeped back into his muscles. He slowed down, close enough to make out a faded-purple Fiat perched on the narrow shoulder. The hood was up and the car appeared abandoned. A torn sign hung from the back window, bearing a single, bright pink word: Just.
He rolled to a stop and something white moved from behind the raised hood and into the sweep of his high beams. A woman. No, a bride. He dimmed the lights and hopped out of his rig. He noticed the Washington state plates, an expired UW parking permit decal in the window and the bad feeling in his gut turned into an ulcer. Not just another one of those marriage-crazy women who'd come to town, but this one had brought her wedding dress. How enterprising. Looked like she was having a bit of trouble, and not just with the car. He wondered what happened to the "Married" part of the sign, a sign that looked as tattered as she did.
"What are you doing here? This is a private road," he bellowed.
"Yes, I figured that out as soon as I turned onto it. But is there a place to turn around anywhere? No." She marched toward him, apparently not at all a shy, retiring sort of woman. He placed her as somewhere in her early to midtwenties. Fury punctuated every word and pounded in her heeled footsteps. "Obviously, I'm having car trouble. Do I look like I want to be here?"
"It's hard to say, with the dress."
"Oh, don't even mention that." Her eyes flared.
She could be a cute little thing if she wasn't so angry. Note to self: Don't let this one too close. It wasn't often a man got to see what lurked beneath a woman's guileless face and pretty smile before they said "I do." What he could already see was a major turn-off. He took a step back, because he didn't need this kind of a headache. He had enough of his own. "I'll put a call in and get a tow truck out here."
"Great. You have a cell phone?"
"Not a working one."
"You don't? You're kidding, right? Mine wouldn't get reception out here. Stupid phone." She hiked up her skirt and gave the Fiat's back tire a hard kick. "Stupid car."
"Ordinarily, I'd worry about a woman alone at night, but my guess is that you can hold your own against any threat, including a bear." No doubt a grizzly would take a look at her and run.
"Bears?" The anger drained away. She turned to face him, standing full in the light. Soft golden curls tumbled to her shoulders and framed a face that was both beautiful and unique. Big china-blue eyes dominated her pixie face, with a perfect slope of a nose and a mouth that had to have been sculpted by angels. "Are there really bears here?"
"Yes, but not many would want to take you on." Maybe he'd better look at her engine first, then figure out what to do with her. "What's with the car?"
"It started smoking. The temperature thingy has been higher than normal for a while. I think from about Vancouver on."
"British Columbia?" He grabbed the flashlight he kept behind the seat.
"But a few miles down the road it started creeping into the red zone. There was no place to stop, so I turned in here, thinking there might be a house. But there are only trees."
"And your husband? Didn't he have the sense to check the fluids?" Please tell me there is a husband, he thought. "Where is he?"
Figures. Love and marriage were supposed to mean something, but not to this flighty woman. "Why did you leave him? What was the problem? He wouldn't do what you wanted? Wouldn't take you on the honeymoon of your dreams? Give you every little thing you demanded?"
"Not your business." The anger returned, her soft jawline went rigid and her hands turned into fists that looked ready to punch something. Maybe him. "What about the tow truck?"
"I'm going to have to call from home, but I'm not wild about taking you to my house."
"Me, either." She hiked up her chin. "Where's the closest residence? I was about to grab my things and start walking, but I didn't know which way to go. I haven't seen anyone so far on this road."
"Myron lives up a ways. You're right. It's too far to walk. I'll take you there. Get in." He didn't sound happy about it.
That made two of them. She yanked open the Fiat's door and pain shot through her fingertip. Another broken nail. The third one to break on this impulsive trip. So much for her pre-wedding spa day. What had she been thinking?
She hadn't been. She'd been driving on pure anger, coffee and heartbreak all the way. She yanked her purse off the seat and followed the mountain man to his SUV. Maybe she should introduce herself. "I'm Karenna Digby."
"Gage Parker." He wasn't a friendly sort, and there was no missing the frown he tossed at her. No doubt he didn't think much of her.
And why would he? She looked a fright. If only she wasn't wearing this stupid gown. This dress had been the start of her problems—the catalyst that set everything in motion. The gown she had to have, that had cost three months of her salary, because it had represented everything she'd prayed for as a little girl.
She gathered up her train, climbed into the passenger seat and groaned at the pristine condition of the leather. She sat down, wincing because she wasn't exactly sure how much dirt, mud and grease was on her skirt. Should she apologize ahead of time? One sideways glance at Gage Parker made her change her mind about saying anything at all. Stoic guy, dark look, scary frown. Best to clean up any grime she left behind after she'd gotten out of the vehicle.
He slammed her door, circled in front of his Jeep and stalked through the headlights like a Sasquatch. He was deep shadows, big brawn and leashed power. Suddenly the shadowy woods seemed enormous and she felt very small. Miniscule, in fact. She'd been so steamed about Alan leaving her at the church, her broken-down car and her emotional decision to drive all the way to Alaska, it hadn't even occurred to her she was alone with a strange man. Sitting in his SUV. He could be a rapist or a serial killer who lived in a weird cabin, miles from known civilization.
The driver's door swung open and he angled in behind the wheel. No smile, no reassuring clue to signify he was a decent, respectable, law-abiding, nondan-gerous man. The dome light winked out, leaving him in shadow, making it easier to think the worst.
Okay, I'm out of my element, alone in the dark. Could You please send me a little sign here, Lord? Just something, so I know I'm all right? She knew the Lord might be busy. There was a world of strife and suffering He was tending to, but she still hoped for a small heavenly hint before the SUV started to roll and it was too late to jump out.
"When you get to Myron's, be sure you call the hotel so they can hold your room." The mountain man eased his vehicle around her disabled car and accelerated along the road. Twilit forests and a pair of antlers on a startled-looking deer sped past her window.
"My room?" She bit her lip, not quite wanting to admit the truth to the imposing man. Of course he would assume she had a reservation. Any sensible person would. But had she taken the time? No. She'd been too wound up and upset over Alan's hastily scrawled note.
"I don't love you enough to marry you," he'd written. "You're just too much to deal with."
"You have a room, right?" Mr. Imposing glowered at her. The look on his face clearly said he thought she was one of those stupid women who wouldn't have planned ahead.
Since she'd used that word a lot over the last thirty-eight and a half hours, she couldn't argue with him. Her mother's voice blasted in her head like a badly burned CD. "You have no common sense, Karenna. You don't think things through. Who can blame Alan for chickening out? I don't know if I can ever forgive you."
No place to sleep. Another inadvertent blunder. She should have done an Internet search for Treasure Creek hotels. Now what? She couldn't look at Mr. Disapproving, so she pulled at a loose thread on her embroidered skirt. "This wasn't exactly a planned trip. I figured I could find something once I was here."
"Do you realize half the women in the contiguous United States are in Treasure Creek? At least it seems that way. There can't be an available hotel room within fifty miles."