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In her rush up the train stairs, Alicia Featherstone smacked headfirst into a massive male chest.
Her breath whooshed out and she reeled back, fighting to recover her balance.
"My fault." The man's voice reminded her of a polar bear's growl. His fingers closed around her arm, almost dragging her upward into the dim train.
His grasp sparked memories of the darkest moments in her life. Memories that threatened to engulf her.
"Please," Alicia gasped, fighting the remembered images while struggling to hold on to the three packages she cradled.
The shadows his hands She had to get free. But his strong grip wouldn't release her. She knew the stranger was trying to help, but years of nightmare memories of being attacked couldn't stem the panic clogging her throat.
The sound of her precious packages tumbling to the floor snapped her back to reality. One box bounced down the stairs and landed on the platform. She couldn't afford to lose it, certainly not because of this big man who'd blocked her way. With anger came clarity.
"Let go of me," she ordered.
His hand immediately dropped away. The man stepped back as if she'd burned him. Alicia inhaled, drawing in oxygen to ease the terror of the past.
"All aboard for Churchill, Manitoba!"
The conductor's call galvanized Alicia. She dropped what she held and hurried down the steps to retrieve her parcel from the platform. She'd barely gained the first step up when the train began moving. Again the man's massive hands closed over her arms. He hauled her upward until his face was millimeters from hers. His deep blue eyes blazed into hers.
"Jumping out like that was a stupid thing to do," he growled.
"Please-" she began, then clamped her mouth closed.
This isn't the past. You aren't fifteen and vulnerable. You don't have to beg.
"Release me," she demanded, then wished she hadn't. He was only trying to help; no point in antagonizing him. He might end up as a customer and Alicia needed every buyer she could get to fulfill her dream of opening a second store.
"Sorry." He dropped her arm and held up his hands, backing away.
"Thank you. I'm going to find a seat," she said firmly as she bent to corral the rest of her packages. One box skittered beyond her reach.
"By all means." The man caught the runaway box and laid it on top of the others in her arms without touching her. Then he opened the heavy door, held it and waved her past.
"Thanks." Alicia tried to ignore his presence as she searched for a vacant seat.
It would have to be one of those days when the tired old train was full. Two of the most biased people in town were on board. Though it hurt, she pretended she didn't notice the way they turned their backs on her and hoped the man behind her didn't notice, either.
Finally she spied two seats together in the middle of the car. She hurried toward them, relieved to let her packages tumble onto the seat.
"Um." He was right behind her. "That's my seat."
"Oh." Her face reddened, but she wasn't going to be intimidated by either his height or his muscle-honed body. She twisted to look at him.
That was a mistake. His face nearly made her gulp. Classic hunk material. All chiseled lines and sharp-angled cheekbones topped by beach-bum-blond hair and rich blue eyes that seemed to bore into her. Alicia inhaled and focused.
"Both seats are yours?"
"Technically, one is my daughter's, but she's sleeping over there." He jerked a hand toward the seats across the aisle. A preteen girl lay sprawled across the two reclining chairs, her long black hair spread around her like a curtain. "Giselle wasn't feeling well earlier so I'd rather not wake her. It would be better if we could share these two seats." His short, terse tone dared her to argue. When she didn't respond, he glanced down at her packages spread across both seats then back up at her. "If you don't mind?"
Actually, Alicia did mind.
The intimacy of sitting beside him made her very uncomfortable. Besides, she'd counted on catching some sleep before the train arrived in Churchill tomorrow morning. With this heartthrob sitting next to her the chances of that were as good as her winning the lottery; however, as the last person to board the train she was hardly in a position to argue.
He tapped his toe, clearly impatient for her decision. As if she had a choice. Still she was making progress in her whole avoid men issue. She could do this.
"Uh, thanks for sharing." Alicia tried to gather the packages, but she no sooner had a grip on two than the third popped out of her arms.
Usually she brought a bag for just this purpose, but somehow she'd misplaced it at the last stop when she'd left the train to pick up Mary Starblanket's beaded earrings. Frustrated and embarrassed that everyone was now watching them, she tried to hide below the seat back and in the process lost all the packages she held.
"Maybe this will help." He held out a sack made of netting. "I'll hold it, you get them inside. Perhaps then we can finally sit down."
"Thanks." So bossy. But at least he was helping. When the bag was full, he tightened the top then swung everything into an overhead bin, including her backpack. She winced at the rough handling but said only, "Window or aisle?"
"Aisle. My legs are too long for the inside seat."
They certainly were; long and clad in designer jeans. But it was his feet Alicia noticed-feet covered in a most amazing pair of boots which lovingly hugged his feet in gleaming black calfskin. For a fit like that, she guessed the boots were custom. She wondered who'd made them. Good craftsmen were hard to find. She should know. She was always looking for unique, handcrafted items for her shop.
Suddenly aware she was staring, Alicia huddled against the wall to give him more room.
His smile and the way he pointed his booted toes up were the only signs he gave that he'd noticed her scrutiny. He thrust out a hand. "Jack Campbell."
"Alicia Featherstone." As his fingers engulfed hers a tiny shiver of-what? Fear? Dread?-made the hairs on her arm stand to attention. She blinked. No, it felt more like anticipation. Surprise bloomed inside her. It couldn't be anticipation. Men made her nervous. Had done ever since-
"What's in the packages, Alicia?" he asked.
"Stock for my store." He certainly wasn't reticent. "I buy handmade goods from First Nations people to sell to visitors to Churchill," she explained. "Canada has a thriving Native arts population. I'm trying to help it expand."
This handsome traveler spoke her native Cree language? Delighted, Alicia shot back a greeting in the same language.
"Pardon?" Jack raised both eyebrows in an imperious question mark.
Uh-oh. Alicia switched to English. "I thought you were speaking to me in Cree."
"Maybe I was and didn't know it." His tanned face relaxed and suddenly he looked much younger. And more handsome, if that was possible. "I don't know what it means but isn't Tansi the name of your store?"
"In Cree it means 'hi' or 'how are you.'" She tilted her head to one side. "And yes, my store is called Tansi. How did you know?"
"I've been to Churchill before." Jack inclined his head. "My sister, Laurel Quinn, lives there. She runs a rehabilitation project for troubled boys called Lives Under Construction."
"I'm very familiar with it. I teach her boys classes on Aboriginal culture." Alicia silently completed a second inventory on Jack. Yep, he was the stuff of romantic teenage dreams. Fortunately hers were long gone. "How long will you be visiting?"
She followed his gaze to the girl who slept so peacefully across the way. Giselle didn't look anything like her father.
Perhaps she favors her mother. A pang of loss pinched Alicia's stomach into a knot as she remembered a baby, so tiny, so precious.
Where is he now, Lord?
"Giselle and I aren't visitors this time." The tightness in Jack's voice made her curious. "We're moving to Churchill permanently. I bought a hotel."
"You're the new owner of the Northern Lights Lodge," she said in sudden understanding.
"Yes." He didn't exactly look thrilled.
"You aren't excited about your venture? Do you have lots of experience?" She wished she could make herself small enough so his broad shoulder didn't keep brushing hers, but that was not easy when she was five foot eight.
"No. I was a cop in Vancouver." His voice hummed with a low rumble. "It's all I ever wanted to be and I was good at it."
A cop who loved shoes? She'd think about that later.
"I lived in Vancouver once." Alicia couldn't quite suppress a shudder. "Why'd you quit being a cop to run a hotel?" she asked, then realized how nosy she sounded. To change the subject she said, "You'll probably regret leaving mild Vancouver when winter returns to Churchill."
"I doubt it." Jack said it with a bald fierceness, his gaze on his daughter. "I'm moving for Giselle, to keep her safe." His jaw clenched and a tiny tic appeared.
"Oh. Is she in danger?" Alicia couldn't contain her curiosity about this obviously hurting man and his very cute daughter.
"Maybe." He gave Alicia the kind of look that sized her up in about three seconds. "Her mom was an internal-affairs cop. We thought she'd be safer there than on the street. Turns out we were wrong. Simone was killed by a dirty cop two years ago."
"I'm so sorry." Alicia's heart winced at the grief that colored his voice. "So you're left to take care of Giselle on your own. But you can't do that if you're working as a cop, so you bought the hotel," she guessed. "Good for you."
"And because Laurel's here in Churchill. She's the only family we have left." Jack's gaze drifted to the other passengers, who were settling into a drowsy state as spring's twilight faded and darkness fluttered over the land.
Then he faced her, a line of strain deepening around his mouth. His blue eyes turned navy. Alicia felt the tension emanating from him.
"I'll do anything to protect Giselle," he said in a fierce voice. "Including figuring out a new occupation. It helps that Laurel has a friend who is a mega-hotelier. His name is Teddy Stonechild and he comes to Churchill a lot. He promised to help me get the place up and running."
"Giselle will be safe in Churchill. We're so isolated that most of the world barely knows we exist," Alicia said, trying to lighten the mood.
"I hope that's not true." A smile tried to play with the corner of Jack's mouth. "Otherwise, my hotel will go broke."
"Highly unlikely. Teddy knows everything about running a hotel. He should, given how many he has." Alicia shrugged. "Anyway, the polar bear seekers book every available room from mid-September to November, the northern lights hunters come in January and February, and we get a lot of folks stopping by to see the belugas from now till fall. Lodging in Churchill is very limited and very relaxed, so I'm sure you'll do well."
"I hope so." The words emerged in a quiet murmur as Jack stared at his daughter. "Because failure is not an option."
"I'll say a prayer for you and Giselle," she offered.
"I doubt that will make a difference." His voice hardened. "God abandoned us when He let Simone die."
"God doesn't abandon His children." Alicia bristled under the look Jack gave her, a look that said he thought she was being childish. "Believe me, I know."
"Why? Do you have kids?" Jack asked.
"I'm single," she said firmly. Then, lest he think she was angling for a date, she added, "And I intend to stay that way."
"Not exactly what I asked." His gaze narrowed. "But I agree with you. I intend to stay single, too."
"Oh?" A hunk like him staying single? In Churchill? Alicia almost laughed.
"I will never allow myself to go through losing someone I care for again." The absolute loss in Jack's voice killed her amusement. When he spoke again, his voice was more even. "If you had kids, you'd understand how they become the focus of your life. You'll do anything for them. Giselle is my world. Besides her, nothing else matters."
I do understand what you mean, Jack. I know exactly how you feel. I'd do anything to keep my son safe. But I don't know where he is, or how to find him.
"Sorry, guess I'm not very good company tonight," Jack muttered turning away. The keep-away signs were clearly posted. Only natural, given he'd lost his wife.
Not that Alicia was interested in Jack. The idea of a relationship with any man scared her. That was her legacy from Vancouver. After the attack she'd never felt safe there, so she'd come to isolated Churchill, got a job and eventually, with the help of her dear friends, she'd bought her store.
Churchill was Alicia's escape from the ugliness of her past.
Minutes passed. She felt Jack's occasional scrutiny but kept staring out the window. She didn't want to talk anymore. Not now that the dark curtain of memories had fallen around her. Her heart ached with the same old longing- to know her child was safe, loved, cared for. If only God would answer that prayer.
Not that Alicia had any right to ask a thing of God. Giving her son away when he was most vulnerable made her unworthy of motherhood.
But I was vulnerable, too, her heart cried. I didn't know I'd never see him again. Don't let him grow up alone and scared like I was, Lord. Please keep him safe.
Her cell phone vibrated. She snapped it open. "Hello."
"It's me. Listen, Alicia, there's something you must know. Jeremy Parcet has been asking questions about you." Nancy Runningbear's voice was as clear as if she was seated beside Alicia in the train instead of miles away in Vancouver. "He's been looking up kids who were in your class, asking them where you are, what you're doing, stuff like that."
"M-Mr. Parcet is?" Terror stole Alicia's breath. "Why?"
"His father died. Apparently there's a stipulation in his will that Jeremy must show proof of an heir within three years or he can't inherit." Her old friend paused. "I was told Jeremy's wife can't have children," she murmured.
Alicia's throat choked with fear.
"My guess is he's done some research, knows you got pregnant after he attacked you and is now after the child." Nancy harrumphed her disgust. "I thought you should know."
"Thank you." The words came out in a whisper.
"Don't thank me. That man was someone you trusted, your teacher for goodness' sake. He should be in jail for what he did to you." Nancy paused. Alicia could hear Nancy's husband's voice in the background. "Harold's telling me to get to the point which is, if Jeremy can prove he's a father, he'll be able to inherit. It's around four million, Alicia, very big motivation to find you. Once he does, he'll turn up and press for details about your child. You have to be careful."
"Yes." Fear clamped a band around the back of Alicia's neck. "I appreciate your warning, Nancy," she murmured, checking over one shoulder to be certain no one was listening. "I'll always be grateful for the way you and Harold took me in back then. I don't know what I'd have done without you."
"God would have provided someone else," Nancy assured her, her voice cracking. "He always does. We're just happy He used us. I have to go now. You be careful."
"I will. Thanks for the heads up. Bye."
Alicia stared into the darkness outside while she absorbed what she'd heard. The wheels clicked over the tracks in a rhythmic motion that had apparently lulled Jack to sleep. She peeked over at him again. The man was certainly handsome. But she couldn't think about his looks or the way his raspy voice made her skin tingle.
The same ten-year-old prayer sighed from Alicia's heart. Surely God would answer soon. Surely this time He'd protect her from Mr. Parcet. If not her, because she'd failed to be the mother she should have, then surely for her innocent child.
She'd let herself imagine expanding her business, but she ought to know that God didn't give people like her their dreams. That was for better people, people who didn't make terrible mistakes like giving away their child.
But the past didn't matter now. She had to concentrate on finding her son, on making certain he was safe and loved. And far away from Jeremy Parcet, her rapist.
Again Alicia's gaze rested on Jack. He'd been a detective. Maybe- No! Asking him for help would mean revealing her past. She could imagine the disgust she'd see in those blue eyes.
No. She'd have to handle this herself.