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"Tell me you've found him." Jake Rodgers planted his palms on the Treasure Creek, Alaska, police chief's desk and tried to keep the guilt and worry churning in his gut from spilling out. His friend Tucker Lawson was missing. And Jake should have done something to stop it.
Police Chief Reed Truscott's haggard expression bore concern and patience. "Jake, you'd be the first to know if we had. We've got search-and-rescue out. There just doesn't seem to be any trace of him."
Jake pushed away from the desk. Aggravation and distress burned in his chest. He should have been a better friend to Tucker during his father's passing. But Jake had been dealing with his own issues, and hadn't taken the time to console his friend or talk him out of the crazy idea of renting a plane and flying it across Alaska in search of solitude at some remote cabin.
Regret lay heavy on Jake's shoulders. He ran a hand through his hair, his short nails scraping along his scalp.
"How can a plane just disappear? We're not in the Bermuda Triangle. This is Alaska, for crying out loud. And it isn't even snowing."
"My best guess is he got disoriented in the thunderstorm we had just after he left, and he headed in the wrong direction." Reed rubbed his jaw. "Thanks to your funding, we've expanded the search area. Even as we speak, Gage Parker is leading another search. All we can do now is wait."
"No, what we can do is pray," Jake countered, with a meaningful look at Reed, another friend he should have done better by.
Reed's mouth tipped upward in a rueful grimace. "Right. Good luck with that."
This was old ground—one Jake and Reed had covered before. Jake didn't understand Reed's ambivalence toward faith. For Jake, relying on his belief and trusting in God were the only things that had given him strength to survive the tumultuous years of his marriage, subsequent bitter divorce, and then later, struggling to balance his career and single parenthood after his ex-wife's death.
Deftly changing the subject, Reed said, "So your dad is finally giving you both reins of the family oil rigs?"
Jake sighed with a mixture of acceptance and anticipation. He'd left home vowing not to be like his parents, and now here he was hoping to carve out a life similar to theirs. "Looks like I'm going to be an oilman after all. He left me in charge of the whole shebang."
"How's Veronica taking the move?"
Reed's question layered more tension on Jake's already tightly strung shoulder muscles. "She's angry. We can barely have a civil conversation."
Reed shrugged. "She's twelve. And you moved her away from all her friends in Chicago—the only place she's ever known—to Podunk little Treasure Creek, which doesn't seem all that Podunk to you, because it was the only thing you knew growing up."
Of course he was right, but knowing that didn't help. "Mom tells me Veronica is acting like a typical preteen, but I don't know."
"She is. She'll adjust."
"Hopefully sooner, rather than later." Jake pinched the bridge of his nose. "She's so addicted to her electronics, she hardly even steps outside."
"Why don't you take Veronica on a wilderness tour, using Amy's company?"
Amy James, one of Treasure Creek's more prominent citizens, owned and operated a company called Alaska's Treasures tour company. Hmm. A guided wilderness tour. The idea had merit.
Get Veronica out into the great outdoors, away from the television and the electronic gadgets she so loved. Some physical activity they could do together. Some father-daughter time away from all the distractions might be just the ticket to getting her to adjust to her new surroundings.
He'd have to confiscate her magazine stash. She'd fight him on it. Loudly. She'd start out hating the adventure, but maybe, by the end, she'd appreciate nature and come to accept their move. And he really wanted her to fall in love with the beauty and majesty of Alaska. It had taken him moving away to realize the specialness of this part of the world.
"Do you think Amy would be willing to take us out?" Jake asked, knowing that Reed and Amy had a relationship of sorts. He wasn't sure of the particulars, but he knew Reed had proposed to the widow and was turned down.
Reed's brows drew together. "Actually, I think you'd do better to ask for Casey Donner."
"Why does that name ring a bell?"
"The Donner twins," Reed prompted.
"Oh, yeah. I remember them." Jake could picture the two girls, both with dark, curly hair, big blue eyes. One had been the prom queen while the other a tomboy. Each pretty in different ways.
Not that he'd ever dwelled on the fact. He'd been so set on leaving Treasure Creek that forming any ties, even with a pretty girl, was not something he allowed. He left town with a clear conscience. No broken hearts to come haunting him.
"I assume Casey is the tomboy?"
Reed grinned. "Yes. And she's a great gal. She'd be a good influence on Veronica. Very capable and levelheaded, just like her uncle Patrick. He taught that girl everything there is to know about nature before he passed."
Patrick Donner had been an icon in Treasure Creek when Jake was in high school. The original mountain man, tamed by two little girls. Jake remembered how scandalized the folks in town had been that Patrick would be caring for the orphaned twins when he spent so much time in the woods. But he'd surprised them all by taking in the girls and raising them right.
If Reed vouched for Casey, then that was good enough for Jake.
"You've sold me," Jake said, as he rose from the chair. "Thanks. And please, let me know the minute you hear anything about Tucker." His gut churned with anxiety and guilt. "I can't help but feel like something bad has happened to him."
Reed's jaw tightened. "We're doing our best to find him."
Contrition for questioning Reed's dedication arced through Jake. He knew they were both concerned about their friend. Jake couldn't shake the unease nipping at his mind. "I know. And I appreciate it."
Jake left the police station and headed up Treasure Creek Lane, the main thoroughfare. The weather was unseasonably warm for August, enough so that merchants had set up a few sidewalk displays for the flood of tourists, mostly female, that had recently descended upon Treasure Creek.
It wasn't the beauty of the scenery—all green trees, lush mountains with snowcapped peaks, and stunning vistas—or the quaint and rustic ambience of the town that had once thrived during the a booming Yukon gold rush of the late 1800s that had women flocking to this out-of-the-way Alaskan paradise. An article had appeared in some women's magazine, proclaiming that Treasure Creek men were looking for brides.
Ha! The last thing Jake was looking for was a bride. He'd done the marriage thing. No interest in going down that road again. All he wanted was to focus on raising Veronica and helping her become a productive human being, and then he wanted to live a quiet life, running the oil business his great-grandfather had started back in 1911.
He frowned and tried to analyze why that thought left him feeling hollow inside.
As he made his way toward the log cabin–style Alaska's Treasures office, he decided self-examination wasn't such a good thing. Not if the discontent rising to the surface was any indication.
He had to stay focused on what was important and within his control. His daughter and her well-being. He sent up a silent prayer that Casey Donner would be the answer.
Casey Donner fidgeted with the pencil as her boss, Amy James, a stunning, red-haired woman with a smattering of freckles and bright blue eyes, gave out the tour assignments for the month. So far, everyone had a tour planned.
Everyone except Casey. No one wanted a female guide. Not even the few men who'd come to town, hoping to cash in on the invasion of women.
Ever since that article came out in Now Woman magazine, Casey's work life had taken a nosedive. Women had swarmed Treasure Creek, hoping to hook one of the many eligible bachelors purported by the exposé to reside in town. Several of whom were part of the Alaska Treasures tour company's staff.
It didn't help that the article also stated that the company's lone female guide was not a threat to the converging women, because everyone in town—meaning said bachelors—considered Casey Donner to be "one of the guys".
Casey blew out an exasperated breath. So what if she was a tomboy, more comfortable in hiking boots and traipsing through the woods than wearing heels and throwing parties, like her twin sister, Amelia? The two were as different as night and day. If her sister were here, no one would claim she was "one of the guys."
God had made Casey this way. Who was she, or anyone else for that matter, to question the Almighty's decision?
Not that she talked with God much these days. An uncomfortable tinge of longing hit her. She mentally snuffed it out.
Over the past ten years she'd become comfortable with her life. She had a family in the tour company's staff and a mentor and friend in Amy. So really, what more could she ask for?
The door to the conference room opened and the receptionist, Rachel Adams, poked her blond head inside.
Amy paused and smiled at Rachel. "Yes?"
"There's a gentleman here asking about a tour."
"Tell him I'll be right out," Amy answered.
"Actually, he wants to talk with Casey," Rachel replied, with a note of suppressed mirth.
Casey snapped to attention, as every set of eyes in the room zeroed in on her. Heat crept up her neck. "Who is it?"
Rachel flashed a grin. "Jake Rodgers."
Casey couldn't have heard right. Jake Rodgers was here asking for her? Of course she knew of the Rodgers family. They had started one of the first oil-drilling operations in the Treasure Creek area, back in the early nineteen hundreds.
She'd never had more than a passing conversation with Jake. He'd been two years ahead of her in high school, a star athlete and salutatorian of his class. He'd left Treasure Creek right after graduation, with a scholarship to some fancy college. He'd returned recently to take over his family's business, or so she'd inadvertently heard one day, while dining at Lizbet's Diner. She made it a personal rule not to be privy to the town gossip, most of which was inaccurate anyway. On that particular day, she'd been intrigued to hear Jake's name, but almost immediately caught herself and left the diner.
And now he was requesting to see Casey about a tour? Why her specifically? How did he even know she existed?
"May I?" Casey asked, nodding toward the door.
"By all means," Amy replied, with a smile that was both approving and encouraging.
Hastily, Casey left the conference room and halted in the hallway. Taking a few deep breaths to calm the sudden nervous jitters battering her stomach, she strove for a professional and detached demeanor. This was business, not personal. The man wanted a tour.
She paused in the waiting room doorway, aware that Rachel was avidly watching from behind her reception desk. Trying to keep her reaction from showing, Casey couldn't stop her heart from jumping a bit at the sight of Jake Rodgers.
He stood with his back to the door, staring out the large picture window that overlooked the main thoroughfare running the length of Treasure Creek. Tall, wide-shouldered and dressed impeccably in a navy business suit that attractively hugged his physique, he made Casey's breath catch.
Forcing her immediate reaction back to neutral, she cleared her throat before speaking. "Hello?"
He pivoted, making a stunning picture. The contrast of him in his business suit and the mountains rising in majestic peaks over the old gold-rush town, as his backdrop, somehow seemed right, like he was a man made to conquer the world. He'd been a heartthrob in high school, but now…a heartbreaker for sure.
His face had matured and become impossibly more striking, his jaw firmer, his cheekbones more pronounced. His dark, wavy hair was still thick and…so tempting.
Casey fought the sudden desire to run her fingers through his hair. Deep lines crinkled at the corners of his obsidian-colored eyes when he offered her a smile that knocked the air from her lungs.
He stepped closer and held hand out his hand. "Jake Rodgers. Not sure you remember me, but we went to high school together."
"I remember," she murmured. That was an understatement, if ever there was one. She hadn't realized how much of an impression he'd left on her.
Slipping her hand into his, she tried not to let the little shivers dancing up her arm go to her head. His hand was warm and smooth, his fingers strong, as they curled around her own. Yet, to her surprise, his hands weren't sissy hands. Though the short nails were clean, they weren't buffed by some manicurist, like some of the city men who visited Treasure Creek.
Keep it professional, Donner.
She extracted her hand. "What can I do for you, Mr. Rodgers?"
"Please, call me Jake. Reed Truscott suggested I hire you to take my daughter and me on a wilderness tour."
"Your daughter?" How had she missed that? Obviously, if she'd listened longer to the town gossips, she'd have known he had a child. "Your wife doesn't wish to come along?"
"I'm a single parent."