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"Your brother ever show?" Shay Ridiker asked as she climbed into the passenger seat of an old rusty Jeep Cherokee. She fought to keep her voice calm and to shake off the eerie, uncomfortable feeling that she was being watched.
She might be one of the best aircraft mechanics around and people might think she was tough because of it, but that didn't mean she could handle a day of travel to Nowhere, Alaska, without her nerves starting to kick in, especially if there was a chance they would have to face trouble.
And trouble was exactly what she saw in Rick Savage's gunmetal grays. "No," he said.
Aiden Savagea fellow employee of Deep Horizon Recovery Serviceswas supposed to have met them two hours ago to lead them to the plane he had come to Alaska to repossessonly it needed a mechanic, hence why Aiden had asked for Shay's help. They'd arrived to find no sign of him. But Aiden He had a few troubles. Wasn't always the most dependable person, and maybe this was one of those times.
Rick's brother had struggled with alcohol abuse in the past, but Connor Jacobson, the owner of Deep Horizon Recovery Services, had given him a break because he'd served in the armed forces like Connorthe guy had a big heart and was all about second chances. Aiden had been sober for a year now and definitely deserved that chance. And as far as she knew, in the time that he'd worked for Deep Horizon, he'd never let Connor down.
Something was wrong.
"Maybe someone's onto us taking the plane." And had prevented Aiden from meeting them. "Maybe."
Shay rubbed her forehead. His one-word answers were getting to her. Obviously, he was thinking things through and didn't want her opinion. Either that or he didn't want to tell her everything.
Behind the wheel, Rick shifted into Drive and urged the vehicle he'd begged or borrowed for the day out of the dark alley where he'd parked and onto the street. The beautiful, sunny autumn day seemed to contradict the uneasiness spilling off Rick.
Their short visit to Alaska wouldn't allow Shay to experience the midnight sun or inordinately long nights since it was September, and for that she was thankful. But it was the only thing she could find to be thankful about this trip. Shay wasn't a wilderness girl. She might be a mechanic, but she didn't like roughing it.
Rick steered away from the general store and the hostel next door that provided meager accommodations for the few who traveled into Alaska's interior. A glance into the backseat revealed their bags and coats. Rick hadn't checked them into the hostel as planned?
"Your tools, the replacement part for the plane, they're in the back," he said.
Shay blew out a breath. "So that's why you got the wheels? We're going to look for him? As in drive some wilderness back roads?"
"Yes." Rick focused on the road, his voice gruff, concerned.
When Rick's brother had called from Alaska to say that the plane they were supposed to repossess had a mechanical problem, it had been easy for Shay to diagnose the problem as an exhaust leak. The hard part had come when it was decided that she'd have to go out in person to fix it. Add that the plane was in the middle of the Alaskan bush and it was decided that Rick would escort her to meet his brother.
"He'll make sure you get there safely," Shay's boss, Connor, had said.
Somehow, remembering those words didn't make her feel any better now. Rick's semiautomatic rested on the seat between them, but even that didn't give her a sense of security. She had her reasons for disliking guns. Besides, Shay and that particular weapon had a past together that she wanted to forget.
Shay was beginning to think she'd made a big mistake in agreeing to this. She'd only given in after Connor's assurances that she'd be in no danger. Though the Deep Horizon crew occasionally retrieved property in high-risk situations, that didn't happen too often. Nor had Aiden mentioned any concerns or potential problems.
This was a small plane he'd gone to get. Usually, they only saw trouble when they had to retrieve Learjets and jumbo jets from rich people and bad guys in third-world countries. Buster Kemp wasn't either of those, at least on paper. So what had happened to make Aiden disappear? And why did she feel so uneasy?
The Jeep crept along the gravel road of the simple village, barely a town and mostly populated by native Alaskans from a tribe Shay couldn't pronounce. Rick kept going once they'd passed the last of the buildings that made up the townthe only representation of civilization for a good hundred-mile radius.
Shay didn't like the idea of heading for the Alaskan wilderness until she knew more.
A lot more.
But it wasn't as if she and Rick could just go home and come back later. Getting there had already been a two-day journey, starting with a flight from Nebraska to Seattle, then another flight to Fairbanks and finally a ride out on a seaplane mail flight to this remote village.
Until now, Shay's job description hadn't included being put in the field. She liked working behind the scenes. Yet here she was.
"Why are we going to trek through the wilderness to look for him when we don't even know where the plane is? That's why he wanted us to wait for himso he could show us where to go."
"Well, he's not here. Just what do you want me to do?"
"I don't know. Ask around?" When Aiden had been late in meeting them, Shay had left Rick to wait for his brother while she hung out at the general store, looking at all the handcrafted beadwork and turquoise jewelry created by the local natives for the tourists.
"What do you think I've been doing? I asked around. Nobody knows anything. Nobody has seen him, of course. We make it our job to slip in and out, remember? To be invisible."
She frowned, hating that she'd not given Rick the benefit of the doubt. Of course he would have already covered the basics.
Peering through the back window, Shay watched the town of Tanaken growing distant. She resisted the urge to say that they should get back on that seaplane when it returned and head back to Fairbanks. She knew that wasn't going to happen. Not without Rick's brother, Aiden.
Not without that plane that he'd come to retrieve that Shay could only hope hadn't been lost through a flare-up of Aiden's old problem.
"I can honestly say I was hoping to find him drunk somewhere." Rick rubbed his temple, worked his jaw. "That'd be better than the other scenarios running through my mind."
Shay wanted to reach over and squeeze his shoulder. Her heart went out to the guy, and for more than his missing brother. But he scared her, too. He kept too much bottled up inside him, and she'd seen it explode at the wrong time.
"He's had troubles in the past, but there are good reasons for that." He sighed like an Alaskan facing more snow after a record-setting storm. "He wouldn't just disappear like this, not with us coming to meet him."
"So talk to the sheriff, then."
His half laugh sounded forced. "They don't have sheriffs in Alaska. Out in the bush, they have village public safety officers. When I asked around, I was told she was helping deliver a baby, so I left it at that."
"Are you kidding me?"
"I wish I were. Besides, Aiden hasn't been gone long enough to cause concern for the authorities. But I'm still worried. Something about this job hasn't felt right to me from the start."
Shay gazed over her shoulder and stared out the back window again.
"That's why I brought the gun. I had a feeling." He tossed a glance her way. "You ever have one of those?"
Shay angled her head to look at Rick while she considered his question. When the light hit his eyes just right, the gray almost looked blue. With his thick brown sun-kissed hair, the tanned skin of a man who spent a lot of time in the sun, his toned physique and the way he handled himself Oh, yeah, she had a few feelings herself.
But attraction wasn't where the feelings ended, and that was the problem. She'd also had a feeling that Rick Savage would never notice her, and so far he hadn't disappointed. That was okay, because seeing the pain her father went through after losing her mother, Shay didn't want to fall in love. Shay was all about staying safe, and love wasn't a safe choice. Especially not with a man like Rick. That had been especially true after the day he pointed a gun at her.
"I've had a few feelings, sure, like the one I have right now that I'm not going to like where we're going. It's not like we can get too far on wheels in the direction you're heading." Oh, yeah, she'd looked at the maps of Alaska, all right.
"There has to be an airstrip somewhere around here or else there couldn't be an airplane. I didn't mention anything to the seaplane's bush pilot because I didn't want him to know what we were up to, but I did ask an old-timer, a native Alaskan woman, who looked like she'd been around long enough to know something."
"And?" Shay's question was accompanied by a jolt.
The shocks on this Jeep were in serious need of repair. She'd never liked Jeeps as it was. Squeezing the handgrip, she pressed her other palm against the top of the cab, but her head bumped the ceiling anyway.
Rick tugged a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it over. She recognized his handwriting and read the lengthy, convoluted directions.
"Directions to a gold-mining claim? Are you serious?"
Shay sat up, not liking where any of this was taking them. "What aren't you telling me?"
Rick exhaled. "Someone's been watching us. Following me around. They were getting a little too close for comfort."
Shay didn't speak for a few seconds. Rick cut her a glance, catching her frown. Did she think he was overreacting? He couldn't tell. He'd never spent this much time with her, especially in such close quarters, so he had no experience reading her expressions. Looking for clues into her thoughts, his eyes skimmed over the few freckles splashed across her nose and the short-cropped auburn hair framing her face that was a little mussed from their travels.
"You think it's related to Aiden and the plane? Why don't you just ask them instead of running away?"
Rick shot her a glance. "I did."
Shay's sunset-blue eyes grew wide with her gasp. "And what did they say?"
"Let's just say they weren't forthcoming with answers. They made a wrong move and I had to make a fast exit. That's when I came for you."
He glanced her way and she watched him. He didn't like the look of concern on her face. "Not to worry. We lost them."
For now, at leastbut depending on what they wanted, he could expect to see them again. Were they bent on stopping them from taking the plane? Did they know something about Aiden? Or were they just a couple of guys preying on tourists in backcountry Alaska? If something happened to him, then what about Shay? What would she do? He'd tried to find out what he could in town but when they'd grabbed him, thinking he was an easy target, he'd opted to leave them behind and come for Shay.
The trick would be to stay safe until they could find Aiden or make it out of here on the next bush flight tomorrowwhichever came first.
The Jeep bounced to the right, and Rick turned his focus to the uneven dirt roada thirty-five-mile loop to a secluded lake. He wasn't sure he wanted to endure the bumpy road for another thirty-plus miles, and he doubted Shay would be too happy with the journey either, but there was strength behind her beauty. He knew she could handle it.
She sighed and stared at the paper with directions. He knew she was probably still worried about those men. He could only be grateful she wasn't with him when the confrontation had happened. They could have easily used her against him in that situation, and then where would they be?
"This looks like it's going to be the scenic route," she finally said. "What happens when we get to the nine-mile ridge trail? Don't we need ATVs or something? How're we going to get there?"
"I suspect there's an easier way in, but those directions are all I have for now." If anyone was actually mining the claim, as his conversation with the woman had made him suspect, they'd have had to have built a road to move in the type of equipment used these days. But if something sinister was going on and his brother was in trouble, going in the direct way would be a mistake. The roundabout path would be their best bet.
"Rick," Shay said, startling him out of his thoughts.
He realized now that she'd been talking to him for a while and he hadn't been listening. Looking over at her, he sent her a look like he'd heard every word. "Just focusing on the road, thinking about the directions."
Hoping I wrote them down right.
"These directions aren't a stroll in the park," Shay said. "Unless you've done a lot of shopping, we're not prepared to get to this claim. Haven't you heard a word I've said?" Her gaze skewered him, burning a hole through his head.
"I just want to drive the loop to get a look and feel, okay?"
If he was brave enough to stare her down at the moment, he might risk a look into her eyes. Back at the Deep Horizon shop, any time Shay explained some sort of complicated repair she was making, Rick would get lost in those eyes, then shake himself free and pretend he'd been listening. Just like he'd been doing now. He had a feeling he hadn't fooled her then.
Or fooled her now.
She slapped his arm.
"Hey, what was that for?" He grimaced, making sure she witnessed it.
"What are the plans? I don't like being left out."
"Let's check it outor as close to it as we can get in the Jeep. See if we can find Aiden. Maybe he's at the airstrip waiting for us and we just got our signals crossed." Now, that was like Aiden.
Something in the rearview mirror caught Rick's attention. Uh-oh. "We've got company."
Shay twisted in the seat to see. "We can't be the only ones traveling this road. They're probably just heading home for the day."
"Or maybe it's the same two men who gave me trouble. Let's test your theory and see if they come after us." He punched the accelerator.
The engine roared to life and echoed the truck behind them as it raced forward, gaining on them. That was a bad sign. A very bad sign.
His weapon bounced on the seat and almost out of reach, but Shay caught it.
"You know how to use one of those?"
"My daddy taught me how to shoot. How to fire a weapon at a target after "