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"Waitshe's dead?" Navy SEAL Mason Brown covered his right ear so he could hear the caller. His team was at Virginia Beach's joint base, Fort Story, immersed in close quarters combat training. If his CO caught him on his cell, there'd be hell to pay. Just in case, he locked himself in a bathroom and crossed his fingers to not lose his already-shoddy signal. "Come again. I'm sure I didn't fully hear you.
"M-Mason, I'm sorry, but you heard me right. Melissa and Alec died. Their plane went down, and " Hattie's voice was drowned out by the sort of electric, adrenaline-charged hum he usually only experienced at the height of combat. No way was this real. There had to be a mistake, because even though his ex-wife had betrayed him in the worst possible way, even though there'd been thousands of miles between them, he couldn't imagine life without her at least sharing the planet. "I'm sorry to break this to you over the phone, but with you so far away "
"I get it." What he didn't get was his reaction. Melissa had cheated on him with his old pal Alec six years ago. So why had his limbs gone numb to the point he leaned against the closed bathroom door, sliding down, down until his carefully constructed emotional walls shattered, leaving him feeling raw and exposed and maybe even a little afraid.
"Mason, I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear at a time like this, but Melissa and Alec's lawyer needs to see you. He says you're in the will, and"
"Why would I be in the will?" He clamped his hand to his forehead.
"I don't know. He wanted to call you, but I asked him to let me. I didn't want this kind of news coming from a stranger."
Isn't that essentially what we are? Though he and Hat-tie used to be tight, once he and Melissa split, Melissa had taken custody of the rest of her family, as well. In Divorce Land, wasn't that the natural order?
"Mason? Will you come?"
Just beyond the bathroom's far wall, gunfire popped like firecrackers. That was his world. Had been for a nice, long while and he felt comfortable here in Virginia. Back in his hometown of Conifer, Alaska, he was a pariahwhich still burned his hide, considering he'd been the wounded party.
"Mason? I don't know why, but Melissa's lawyer's adamant you be present at the reading of her will."
Pop, pop, pop. Considering the fire knotting in his stomach, those shots might as well have been to his gut. "Yeah," he finally muttered. "I'll be there."
Thursday night, Hattie Beaumont volunteered for pickup duty. Her mother was too grief-stricken to leave her bed after having just lost her eldest daughter to a plane crash. Her dad wasn't faring much better. Glad to be inside and out of the blustery October wind, Hattie lugged her sister's five-month-old twins to the nearest row of chairs in Conifer's airport terminalnewly constructed after the old one collapsed following a heavy snowfall.
River-stone columns now supported the vaulted ceiling of the otherwise modest space that housed three regional airlines, two charter air companies, one rental-car agency, a coffee bar, sundries shop and diner.
At nine, everything was closed. Only three other parties waited for the night's last incoming flight from Anchorage.
The infants, finally sleeping in their carriers, had been heavy, but not near as heavy as the pain squeezing Hattie's heart.
Her sister Melissa's husband's twinengine Cessna had gone down in bad weather on Tuesday. Alec died upon impact, but Melissa lived long enough for a search-and-rescue team to get her to an Anchorage hospital, where she'd passed Wednesday morning.
The realization that her sister was well and truly gone hadn't quite sunk in. It felt more like a nightmare from which she couldn't wake.
Alec's parents, Taylor and Cindy, understandably hadn't taken the news well. They'd retired in Miami, and it was their flight she was meeting. They planned to be in town until Saturday's double funeral. After that, Hattie wasn't sure of their plansor anyone's plans for that matter. Would her parents and Alec's share custody of the twins?
Covering her face with her hands, Hattie fought a fresh wave of the nausea that she hadn't been able to shake since she'd first heard the news of Melissa's accident. Granted, people of all ages died all the time. Funerals were a sad fact of life, but having a close family member die didn't seem possible.
Then there was Mason.
Yeah. She'd table thoughts of him for another time. Too much history. Way too much pain on top of an already-crushing amount of grief.
Steeling herself for her eventual reunion with him at her sister's funeral, then again at Sunday's reading of the will, Hattie was thankful that she wouldn't have to see him until then. Despite the fact that she'd had years apart from him to think of what she might say should she ever see him again, she still couldn't quite string together the words.
How was she supposed to act around the one guy she'd secretly adored? The guy who hadn't just gotten away, but had married and divorced her sister?
Minutes elongated into what felt like hours.
She tried playing a game on her phone but, after losing a dozen times, gave up.
Finally, the drone of the twinengine Piper Chieftain taxiing to the passenger offloading area signaled the nearend of her grueling night. She doubted she'd even be able to sleep, but if she did, the break from reality would be most welcome.
She rose to wait for Alec's parents. Since the twins were still sleeping, she left them in the seating area that was only thirty feet from the incoming passengers' door.
She glanced to her left only to get a shock. Mason's dad, Jerry Brown, stood alongside her, holding out his arms for a hug. "Girl, it's been ages since I last saw youthough I hear you and Fern visit all the time."
"True. I can't get enough of her shortbread cookies." Fern was Jerry's neighbor. She was getting on in years, and Hattie enjoyed chatting with her. What she didn't enjoy was passing Mason's old house. The mere sight reminded her of happier times, which was why she hustled by, carefully avoiding a possible meeting with Jerry. The last thing she wanted was to hear about his son. For hearing about Mason would only serve as a reminder of how much he was missed.
He laughed. "That makes two of us." His smile faded. "Addressing the elephant in the room, how're you and your folks coping? Both your sister and Alec gone " He shook his head. "One helluva blow."
"Yeah." She swallowed back tears. "I'm here to pick up Alec's parents."
"I'm grabbing Mason. It'll be damn good to see him, though I wish our visit was under happier circumstances."
Mason will be here? Now? As in the next thirty seconds?
Considering her sister had just died, fashion hadn't topped her priorities. Hattie wore jeans, a faded Green Bay Packers sweatshirt a patron had left at her bar, and she'd crammed her hair into a messy bunas for makeup, it hadn't even occurred to her. Jeez, what is wrong with you? Why are you worried about how you look?
She shook her head, suddenly feeling jittery.
Sure, she'd known Mason would be coming for the funeral, but she'd assumed they wouldn't run into each other until Saturday. This was too soon. What would she say or do?
Whereas moments earlier grief had slowed her pulse, panic now caused it to race. She couldn't see him. Not yet.
And then an airline representative stole all options for possible escape by opening the doors. In strode Mason. Out went her last shred of confidence.
She took a few steps back into a shadow. With luck, Mason wouldn't even see her.
The plan proved simple, yet effective, as Mason and his dad were soon caught up in their reunion.
Two strangers entered the terminal, and then Alec's parents. What were their thoughts about Mason having been on their flight? Or were they so absorbed in their grief, they hadn't noticed?
"Cindy? Taylor?" Hattie waved them over. "Hi. How was your flight?"
Cindy's eyes appeared red and sunken, her expression hollow. Taylor didn't look much better.
"It was fine," Taylor said, "but we're ready to call it a day."
"I understand. Should I get a cart for your luggage?"
He shook his head. "We don't have much."
"Okay, well I'll grab the twins, and we'll be on our way." Awkward didn't begin to describe the moment, especially when she accidentally glanced in Mason's direction, but he turned away. Purposely? She hoped not.
Sunday afternoon Mason shoveled for all he was worth, but still couldn't keep up with the mid-October snow. Located on the eastern shore of Prince William Sound, Conifer was known for impressive snowfalls. As an oblivious kid, he'd spent hours happily building forts and snowmen and, if he'd been really ambitious, even tunnels. Now he needed to dig out his dad's old truck, carefully avoiding the passenger-side door, which was barely attached to the vehicle after it had been rammed by an angry plow driver some ten years earlier.
His dad's trailer was dwarfed by towering Sitka spruce. Mason used to like playing hide-and-seek in them. Now, having grown used to the open sea, the dark forest made him feel trapped.
It had been six long years since he'd been home.
Best as he could remember, he'd once enjoyed the whisper of wind through the boughs. Today, the world had fallen silent beneath the deepening blanket of snow. If pressed, he'd have to admit the evergreen and ice-laced air smelled damned good. Fresh and cleanthe way his life used to be.
"This is the last place I expected to see you."
"Same could be said of you." Mason glanced toward the familiar voice to find little Hattie Beaumont all grown up. He'd seen her in the airport when he'd come in, but with Alec's parents having been there, the timing was all wrong for any kind of meaningful conversation. That morning, at the funeral, hadn't been much better. "Not a great day for an afternoon stroll."
"I like it." At the funeral, he'd been so preoccupied, he hadn't fully absorbed the fact that the former tomboy had matured into a full-on looker. She was part Inuit, and the snow falling on her long dark hair struck him as beautiful. Her brown eyes lacked her usual mischievous sparkle, but then, given the circumstances, he supposed that was to be expected. "Feels good getting out of the house."
"Agreed." He rested his gloved hands on the shovel's handle. "Snow expected to stop anytime soon?"
"Mom says we could see ten inches by morning."
"Swell." Around here, pilots flew through just about anything Mother Nature blew their way, but a major storm could put a kink in his plans to fly out first thing in the morning.
"We still on for this afternoon?"
He nodded. "Two, right?"
"Yes. Benton's opening his office just for us, so don't be late."
He couldn't help but grin. "Little Hattie Beaumont, who never once made it to school on time, is lecturing me on punctuality? And how many nights did your mother send me out to find you for dinner?"
Eyes shining, she looked away from him, then smiled. "Good times, huh?"
"The best." Back then, he'd had it all figured out. Perfect woman, jobeven had his eye on a fixer-upper at the lonely end of Juniper Lane. Considering how tragic his parents' marriage had ultimately been, he should've known better than to believe his life would turn out any different.
Joining the navy had been the best thing he'd ever done.
"Well " She gestured to the house next door. "I wanted to thank Fern for the pies and ham she brought to the wake. Might as well check her firewood while I'm there."
"Want me to tag along?" He'd forgotten the spirit of community up here. The way everyone watched out for everyone else. He'd lived in his Virginia Beach apartment for just over five years, but still didn't have a clue about any of his neighbors.
"Thanks, but I can handle it." Her forced smile brought on a protective streak in him for the girl who'd grown into a woman.
"I'm not saying you can't. Just offering to lend a hand. Besides " Half smiling, he shook his head. "I haven't seen Fern since she ratted me out for driving my snowmobile across her deck."
"She still hasn't built railings. I'm surprised nobody's tried it since."
"What can I say? I'm an original."
"More like a delinquent." She waved goodbye and walked down the street, then shouted, "Don't be late!"
"Ohand, Mason?" He'd resumed shoveling, but looked up to find her biting her lower lip.
She looked down. "Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it."
"Sure. No problem," he lied. Actually, returning to Conifer had brought on an unfathomable amount of pain. Remembering Hattie's big sister, Melissathe love of his lifewas never easy. Not only had she broken his heart, but spirit. She'd taught him trust should've been a four-letter word. He hated her on a scale he'd thought himself incapable of reaching. Now that she was dead?
All that hate mixed with guilt culminated in killer heartburn and an insatiable need to escape.