Read an Excerpt
Somewhere over the interior of Alaska
Sam Harbeck would have given anything at the moment to be in sunny Key West bolting down margaritas and kicking back with friends. They'd invited; he'd refused. Which was why, instead of lounging around in swim trunks, he was capping off his first vacation in years by piloting a floatplane into a September snowstorm deep in the Alaskan wilderness.
Some vacation, he thought ruefully. A killer storm roaring out of nowhere, a decrepit plane hell-bent on shaking itself apart, a distasteful errand and, on top of all this, Kerry Anderson. She wasn't expecting him, and Sam didn't relish the encounter. Oh, she was gorgeous with that wild tumble of blond hair and those long shapely legs—not to mention thick-lashed gold-and-silver eyes whose unerring gaze knew how to pierce right through a man. But leaving out her spectacular good looks, there was something about Kerry that made Sam uncomfortable. And when she found out what he wanted from her, all hell would break loose.
Sam gripped sinewy fingers around the yoke of the Cessna 185 and forced himself to concentrate on the challenge of setting this baby down safely on Kitty Kill Lake.
If he was anywhere near it, that is. To the north, summits of the highest mountain range in North America shored up the sky—had to stay clear of them. Somewhere to the west, a vast frozen river ground toward the sea: Williwaw Glacier. Its icy tongue split the land, its meltwater fed the lake below as well as the Kilkit River. Silverthorne Lodge was at the juncture of lake and river—God's country.
But he didn't see the glacier, the lake or the lodge. All he saw was dreary gray clouds concealing the glorious scenery of what Sam considered the United States' last frontier. With its icy tundra, vast distances, untold natural resources and teeming wildlife, Alaska was big, bold and unlike any other place in the world. Sam liked to think that he was like the land—rugged, brash and untamed. A lot of people would have agreed with him.
No point in trying the radio; too much static. He peered out the Cessna's window, searching for landmarks. A sudden blast of turbulence knocked the plane into a prolonged pitch and yaw. Cursing, Sam yanked back on the yoke to halt a sharp descent before he rammed in the power. Clouds fell away to reveal the snow-crested tops of trees and a dark slice of water. Ahead lay a curve of the river surmounted by a rocky bluff.
He fought to hold the plane level in the wind and tipped the nose up slightly as a swirl of snow across the windshield blurred his vision. Forget a clean approach; he'd have to make do with these less than ideal conditions. Adrenaline kicked in, the high he always got when faced with a dangerous and demanding task.
As he swooped low over the gray belly of the river looking for a patch free of rocks, he saw a downed tree spreading a tangle of limbs across the riverbank and into the water. He cursed again and tried to avoid the obstruction. Too soon he felt a thud of impact against the right float and strut. Something snapped, and a branch scraped across the top of the plane before the Cessna veered and hit the water with a sickening lurch.
It was a couple of minutes before Sam's head cleared. The Cessna was upright, at least, but the right wing leaned into a tangle of vegetation. The left float was in place on the water. He climbed out of the cockpit groggily, sidestepped along the length of the float, and jumped across to the rocky bank before easing down on his haunches to assess the problem.
The plane's right strut was broken, and its float had sheared off and lay on its side amid snow-covered boulders a few feet behind. The plane was skewed at an angle, its left wing canted in the air. Wait until he told his friend Vic Parnell that he'd damaged the plane. Vic admitted to a sentimental fondness for the Cessna, his first and only floatplane.
Sam straightened and brushed the snow from his shoulders before climbing back into the cockpit. He checked the Emergency Locator Transmitter, the ELT; evidently the plane hadn't impacted hard enough during the landing to trigger the signaling device automatically. The ELT would guide search planes to him if anyone was monitoring. He flipped the switch experimentally. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. Great. Apparently the battery was dead.
Jeez, if he'd known this would be the result of doing Vic a favor, he never would have taken off this morning. Sam kept his own planes in excellent condition, and this particular friend wasn't ordinarily lax about safety precautions. However, Vic had been sick for over a year and was now recovering from an operation at his daughter's house in Anchorage. Sam checked the survival gear and discovered that there wasn't much. A roll of duct tape, a musty sleeping bag, a Mylar survival blanket, some canned food. No flare gun, no matches, no drinkable water.
Sam prided himself on being pretty good at flying by the seat of his pants, so not being able to use the plane's radio hadn't hampered him too seriously. As for the ELT's being out of commission, that was a blow. Now Sam regretted taking off at all today. He certainly hadn't expected a change in the weather, and snow didn't usually fall in this part of the Country until mid-October.
Sam pulled a compass from his pocket and studied it. If he was where he thought he was, Chickaback Creek was to his right. According to the direction of the river's flow and the compass reading, Williwaw Glacier lay to the north. Ditto Silverthorne Lodge… and Kerry Anderson.
There was nothing to do but strike out in that direction on foot. The Cessna, he noted glumly, wasn't going anywhere. At least not until he repaired that strut and float. Hell, he could probably do it with the aid of chewing gum and a few paper clips, and the thought made him smile. It was what his old buddy Doug Anderson might have said.
He and Doug had prided themselves on being cracker-jack fliers, and between them they thought they knew everything there was to know about airplanes. Except, sometimes, how to keep them in the air. Doug had died a year ago in a crash of the commuter plane he was piloting, leaving Kerry a widow and Sam with the possibility of becoming a father. But Sam was about to nix that option.
Sam saw now that ice was already forming along the river's shoreline; not a good sign. He quickly scribbled a note to leave in the plane in case anyone should happen along and wonder where he was; he listed his destination as Silverthorne Lodge. Then he shouldered his pack and survival gear, checking carefully to make sure that the forms he'd brought for Kerry to sign were safe in their waterproof pouch in the inside pocket of his parka. Yeah, they were there, all right. If everything had gone according to plan, they would have been signed, sealed and delivered to the sperm bank in Seattle within the next forty-eight hours. It could still happen if the river doesn't freeze, he thought to himself with a dark sense of foreboding.
His hunch told Sam that he'd arrive at Silverthorne Lodge shortly after dark. Despite the way this whole situation was shaping up, he couldn't help but grin as he thought of Kerry's reaction when she saw him, of all people. She'd never liked him, had considered him a bad influence. That alone was enough to spur him on across rugged terrain and through the blinding, blowing snow.
Kerry Anderson lay sprawled on the floor beneath the wildly swinging moose-antler chandelier and tried not to scream her frustration. Her finger, the left ring finger, was broken. She just knew it. Thank goodness she'd left Doug's wedding ring in the wall safe at her friend's house in Anchorage. There sure weren't any jewelers around this neck of the woods to cut it off after her finger swelled.
Talk about stupid! She hadn't been able to stand looking at the thick furring of dust on those moose antlers for one more minute, and against her better judgment, she'd climbed the first few rungs of a shaky ladder before it had toppled to the floor, taking her along with it. She'd better get an ice pack on her injured finger, and fast.
Kerry sat up and took stock of the rest of her. Fortunately her hand had broken her fall, and aside from a bruised hip, she was okay. But what if she wasn't okay?
Something else could go wrong, and she'd never forgive herself if it did. Experimentally she smoothed her right hand, the uninjured one, over the slight curve of stomach and abdomen. Nothing hurt, nothing cramped, and she drew a deep breath of relief.
She had planned it all so carefully: She'd stayed in Seattle until she could take care of business that had been postponed for too long, then she'd retreated to the lodge. In the three months since she'd been there, she'd accomplished a lot in the refurbishing of the eighteen-room building, but it had taken much longer than she'd expected, mostly because she sometimes got hung up on details. Like dusty moose antlers.
But the moose antlers were, well, picturesque and would lend an air of rustic authenticity to the lodge. That's what tourists in Alaska paid good money for. And money was what Kerry needed at this point. Otherwise she'd never even contemplate opening her late husband's ancestral fishing-and-hunting retreat to the public.
She couldn't help sparing a thought for funny old Captain Crocker. He'd wanted her to leave with him on the last run of the River Rover over Labor Day weekend, and he'd called her a crazy cheechako, which was what Alaskans called someone new to the Country. The word came from the Chinook language, and it meant "tenderfoot."
Cheechako or no, Kerry had blithely waved him away from the dock anyway. If he were here, she would have grudgingly admitted that he'd been right. She should have left when she had the chance. No one with any sense, particularly a cheechako, would camp on the edge of an Alaskan glacier with winter coming on. Now, feeling the weight of responsibility settling squarely on her narrow shoulders, she wanted to cry. She couldn't, wouldn't fail.
As soon as she could perambulate, Kerry dusted herself off and headed back to Silverthorne's original homestead cabin, where she'd been living ever since she'd arrived. A light snow was sifting out of a milky gray sky, and the temperature had dropped drastically since lunchtime. It was only the middle of September, and it wasn't supposed to be snowing yet. She'd been prepared for lots of rain, since she knew that it rained overmuch in Alaska. But snow? No.
As if I don't have enough to worry about without bad weather, she told herself as she tried to ignore the stabs of pain darting up her arm. She was chilled to the bone and wondering if she'd made the worst mistake in her life when she'd told Captain Crocker to go back to Anchorage without her.
Four hours later, the pain in Kerry's finger was horrendous, but a broken finger wasn't her worst worry. The storm was.
The cabin was engulfed in a blinding snowstorm complete with a howling wind that shook it to its foundations. Kerry huddled drowsily on the couch nursing her finger with an ice pack, her favorite goose-down pillow cradling her head. She wished she had a first-aid kit, and somewhere upstairs was one of those medical advice books. But right now she didn't have the energy to climb the narrow ladder to the loft to get it. She was exhausted, and sometimes she felt so queasy. And if only her finger didn't hurt so much, she'd sleep. She closed her eyes, trying to drift away, making herself think of pleasant things, of happy times…
She awoke with a start. Her finger was swollen to twice its size, and the ice she'd packed around it had melted. No telling how long she had dozed; she glanced out the window and tried to figure out if the storm was letting up. No, it was as fierce as ever.
And then she saw it—a face at the window above the couch. It wavered in the flickering light from the kerosene lamp on the table.
Kerry jumped up with a little shriek, clutching the pillow to her chest. Was she dreaming? She didn't think so. She must be having hallucinations from the pain. There could be no other explanation for such a frightening visage.
The face was distorted in the wavy glass and encircled by a big furry hood. The eyebrows bristled white with crusted snow. The nose was red from the cold, the jaw dark with stubble, and the mouth a wide gash uttering words that she couldn't hear for the lashing of wind-driven snow against the windowpane.
As she stared at the apparition, it moved toward the door. She was seized with sudden irrational fear. She was alone here and at the mercy of anyone who came along, and she'd thought she was protected by the surrounding wilderness, by the fact that the closest human beings lived sixty miles away. Yet here was this stranger who was now banging loudly on the door. She hadn't bolted it when she came in earlier; she had been in pain and thought there was no need.
Whoever it was scrabbling at the latch. In a panic now, Kerry threw her full weight, all one hundred and ten pounds of it, against the door.
Too late she realized that she should have armed herself with the poker from the fireplace. As the door swung open on rusty hinges, the sound of the wind was deafening. A snow-covered figure stumbled into the storm vestibule, the wind gusting hard against its broad back. Knowing that she had to protect herself from this unwelcome intruder, Kerry summoned all her strength and socked it as hard as she possibly could—
With the pillow. Which broke open and scattered feathers everywhere.
A cry of outrage drowned out even the howl of the wind.
"Hey, don't you know me? I'm Sam, Sam Harbeck!" The figure ripped off its hood, and Kerry's mouth dropped open in astonishment. She forgot, for the moment, her pain.
"Sam?" she said, her voice rising on an incredulous note. The intruder couldn't be Sam Harbeck.
But it was. In those crazily disoriented seconds, she couldn't imagine how Doug's best friend came to be tapping on her window here in the middle of the wilderness during a blinding snowstorm, but it was Sam, all right. How could she not have recognized his square, stubborn chin, that sharp, straight blade of a nose?