Owen Han has a fresh lease on life—he’s kicked cancer’s ass and is roaring through his bucket list. The former investment banker hopes to find his next challenge in Alaska, volunteering alongside park rangers and fulfilling his childhood dreams of snowy winters and rustic life. Of course, those dreams did tend to feature big strapping mountain men in vivid detail…
Ranger Quilleran Ramsey would like to be anywhere other than dealing with newbie volunteers. And really, the only thing he needs less than a green volunteer “partner” is the flirty attentions of a buff city boy who doesn’t look ready to last a week, let alone an Alaskan winter. They’re all wrong for each other, even if Quill’s traitorous body enjoys the flirting more than it should.
As the weeks pass, the two snowbound men give in to temptation. But can their seasonal romance last until spring? For them to have a future together, each will have to trust the other…while hoping that the harsh elements and omnipresent dangers don’t destroy what happiness they’ve found in the moment.
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This book is approximately 89,000 words
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Come for the snow. Stay for the ranger porn. Owen couldn't help his smile as he surveyed the large Department of Natural Resources meeting room. He was really here in Alaska, doing this after it being little more than a daydream for so long. Happy shivers raced up his spine. His fellow volunteers were mainly fresh-faced college kids and retirees, but he lingered over the uniformed rangers near the front, trying not to stare but probably doing a miserable job of that. Because wow. These guys made drab green and khaki downright sexy with their broad shoulders and generous muscles and rugged jawlines.
The orientation was for new winter state park volunteers like Owen, who would spend the season living in remote locations to assist rangers and other paid employees. Experienced rangers would be educating them on everything from avalanche risk to generator operation and state land use regulations. Some returning volunteers and rangers were there for the CPR and first-aid certification refreshers, chummy people who obviously already knew each other and laughed and joked as they helped themselves to the coffee station set up at the side of the room.
He was scoping out the people he might be assigned to work with, and one particular man who stood by himself kept catching his attention — a uniformed ranger who had a few years on him, probably putting him at forty-something, just shy of "silver fox" and firmly in "yes, please" territory with his strapping build and iconic good looks. The DNR ads for the volunteer positions would undoubtedly get triple the response if they slapped this guy's picture on the materials. Hell, if winter in Alaska wasn't already on Owen's bucket list, one glimpse of those steely blue eyes might have done the trick.
He was hoping to be assigned to work with some cool people, since he'd be in close contact with only a handful of people on a regular basis, and he knew from experience how important team chemistry could be. He'd take anyone easy to get along with, but man ... Talk about chemistry. Ranger Blue Eyes took the frisson of anticipation thrumming in Owen's gut and transformed it into something warmer and more intimate. And damn wasn't it nice to feel that sort of attraction again, after all the nagging worries that it might be gone for good. Owen wasn't particularly vain, but he was damn observant, and he'd caught those eyes looking his direction more than once. Sure, part of it was undoubtedly that Owen had misjudged and overdressed in a nice button-down and dress pants and stuck out in the room filled with khaki, flannel, and denim. And maybe some of it was that he was one of only a couple of Asian people in the room. Maybe the guy was simply curious, but Owen had transformed curious into interested more than a few times.
And because Owen was nothing if not a man of action, he took his tea, orientation packet, and notepad closer to the guy, trying to come up with a good opening on the fly. However, before he could speak, a broad-faced woman with dark hair clapped her hands at the front of the room.
"All right, let's go ahead and find seats. We'll be getting started in a few minutes, so get your coffee now!" His ranger prey immediately took a chair, and there it was, Owen's chance to spend the next few hours basking in hot ranger vibes. He was in perfect position to slide into the chair next to his dream guy and offer him his best smile and — fuck — slosh hot tea. That part had not been planned at all, and judging by the man's glare, the intrusion was hardly welcome.
"Oops. Sorry! Are you okay?" Owen passed him a napkin, resisting the temptation to dab at the guy's damp uniform pants himself.
"I'm fine." The ranger continued to frown as he soaked up the tea, which had splashed both his pants and the desk arm of the chair. "It'll dry."
"I'm not usually so clumsy. I'm Owen. Owen Han." Carefully arranging his stuff first, he stuck out a hand. "I'm new here."
"I figured." He took Owen's hand, which was as warm and firm as Owen had hoped. And the tiny smile that tugged at his mouth was almost intoxicating in its endearingness. "And I'm Quill Ramsey. Not new."
"Figured." Owen tried another smile, this one hopefully not too flirty but still inviting more conversation. "Nice name. Not sure I've heard that one before."
"Eccentric mother." The way Quill said eccentric suggested relations between him and his mother were strained. "Apparently she circled all her favorites in the book, then picked at random."
"That's kind of cool, actually. I'm named after the high school teacher who made my parents work together on a class project. Moms, right?"
"Yeah." Quill's tone didn't exactly encourage more talking, but Owen was nothing if not friendly. And persistent. His sister the therapist called it aggressively extroverted, and she wasn't entirely wrong.
"So, are you helping with the presentations or here to get recertified in the first-aid stuff?"
"Both." Quill's mouth quirked in something close to a grimace. Owen dug his voice — low and deep, Western without the twang. The he way he spoke like there was a tax on each word made Owen feel like he'd earned a gift when Quill continued. "Didn't realize I'd let my CPR lapse — we had support staff changeover in our field office, but still, I should have known. And yeah, since I'm here, Hattie talked me into leading the discussion about avalanche risk awareness." He gestured in the direction of the woman at the front of the room before his eyes swept over Owen again. "Not that all of you will need that lecture. You interning here in the home office? Heard they were getting a few folks in finance and business relations."
Owen had to bite back a groan. He really should have gone more outdoorsy with his wardrobe choice instead of "need to make a good first impression." He well knew he looked young, but he was beyond tired with reading as a college-aged twink instead of professional adult. And maybe he had been in finance once upon a time, but he was bidding that life good riddance. "Not a business intern. I'm thirty-six. I'm scheduled to winter in Chugach State Park."
"That so?" Quill blinked, and Owen kind of liked knowing that he'd caught him off guard. Good. Maybe he could surprise him in other ways too.
The ranger's mouth moved like he wanted to add more, but Hattie clapped her hands again and called their attention to the podium. As she began her welcome, which was accompanied by cheerful PowerPoint slides, Owen couldn't resist another glance over at Quill. His assumptions might be irritating, but he was everything Owen had always imagined an Alaskan ranger would be. Damn. He really needed to find out where he was stationed stat, because Owen would like nothing better than to be snowed in with those biceps and those intense eyes. Talk about a dream winter.
Thank God the too-chatty newbie wasn't going to be Quill's responsibility. Someone else would have to keep him alive until spring, because this guy was a popsicle waiting to happen. It wasn't just his wardrobe choices that were more suited to the accounting department — his carefully styled dark hair and hipster glasses said he was the sort of high maintenance that never meshed well with the hard, often grueling work of winter parks management. At least he had the sort of build that might be able to keep up — surprisingly muscular arms and shoulders on a lean body. It had actually been his build that Quill had noticed first, his uncanny resemblance to a certain state champion butterfly swimmer who Quill had obsessed over a million lifetimes ago.
But that was then, and here and now Quill couldn't get distracted. He was here as a favor to Hattie, not to get caught up in any fresh eye candy. Besides, if the guy's build had pulled one memory loose, his voice and relentlessly friendly demeanor had hearkened back to another, reminding Quill a little too much of JP, who'd had that similar never-met-a-stranger thing going on that Quill had never fully understood. He'd never figured out why some people enjoyed filling a perfectly good silence with inane questions. He'd had colleagues for twenty years without ever needing to have a deep chat or fill in personal details. He liked working with competent individuals, appreciated hard work and a positive attitude, but mainly he enjoyed his autonomy, liked the days that passed without ever needing to make small talk or figure out the sort of social niceties that had never come naturally to him. God, he hoped they didn't assign him a talker for the winter. That was the last thing he needed.
Also not natural? Sitting through long meetings. God, he felt like he was back in college again, sitting through a lecture he didn't need, fighting the urge to find something else to occupy his attention. The margins of his agenda called to him, the siren song of white space needing filling, but he wasn't twenty anymore and he wasn't going to let his colleagues catch him doodling. He could make it through some boring introductions and reminders that he'd long since memorized. So he kept his pen firmly capped and tried not to let his attention wander too much to the newbie, who was leaning forward, attention fully on Hattie, occasionally jotting a note in the small red leather notebook with a bullet-shaped silver pen. His good taste in accessories spoke to a certain level of income and comfort that Quill didn't usually see from the seasonal volunteers.
Owen had a way of biting his lip when he wrote that directly challenged Quill's resolve to let in zero distractions. The guy's eagerness really was strangely compelling, and Quill had to resort to making subtle hash marks with his department-branded pen to keep from staring. He was beyond relieved when Hattie declared a break after she and a ranger from Kenai finally finished a presentation on department regulations and policies. Quill made his way to the front of the room because he might be antisocial, but he wasn't that much of an asshole friend. "You're doing great," he told Hattie as she clicked around on a laptop, setting up the next topic. "All settled in? How's Val?"
"Val's okay. Still fighting morning sickness, but we're on track for a March delivery. Having a house again is such a novelty. I think I'm driving her nuts with all my plans for the nursery."
"Good for you." Quill tried to mean it. It wasn't Hattie's fault that her on-again-off-again girlfriend had shocked them all with a proposal and a serious case of baby fever. Now Hattie had a desk job, a baby on the way, and for the first time in fifteen years, Quill had to face a winter without his best friend, his right-hand person. She understood Quill like few others, gave him the space he needed while still being a positive, helpful presence in his life. And instead of giving their office another ranger to replace her, budget cuts meant that the department in all its wisdom was bringing in a winter caretaker volunteer for the Hatcher Pass area that was Quill's primary jurisdiction.
"It'll all work out." Hattie squeezed his arm. "For you too. Change is good for all of us."
Quill had to snort because if there was one thing he hated, it was change. Give him the same brand of boots, the same turf to patrol, the same menu, and the same friends, and he was a happy ranger. The change from Hattie to someone new had had his back stiff for weeks now, tense with worries over who they might assign him and how they might get along — or not.
But he tried to keep his voice upbeat for Hattie's sake. "Says you. So, which of these is our person? Or people? Did they give us a couple?"
"Ah. About that." Hattie shuffled a stack of papers next to her laptop, looking away. "Your caretaker's been delayed. We're trying to reach her by phone, find out what the problem is. She's a recent college grad and seemed super promising. But one way or another we'll have something worked out for you by tomorrow at the latest."
"Fine." His back went from tense to rigid. Fuck. More uncertainty. There was plenty else Quill wanted to say, chiefly that he didn't want to winter with someone who'd skipped the training. And that a recent college grad was undoubtedly too green to start with. But this was Hattie and she was trying her best with her new position, and budget cuts and unreliable people weren't her fault.
"You're up next. Try not to scare them too much with winter weather risks. Smile."
"Hey. I'm not that scary." Presentations were a part of the ranger job, but he'd typically let Hattie handle a lot of the tourist education duties because yeah, it wasn't his favorite thing. And he supposed he did tend to come off as a bit dour, covering his nerves at talking to a crowd with warnings and reminders.
"Yeah, you kind of are." She shook her head, but her voice was laced with affection. Turning her attention to the crowd milling about the room, she directed people back to their seats, then introduced Quill in the sort of glowing terms he'd let only her get away with.
His stomach did the weird quiver it always did before public speaking, something he tried hard to ignore. He wasn't the shy kid who hated being called on anymore, and despite his unease, he was prepared with picture slides of different dangers. Twenty winters in, he knew his stuff, and he tried to remind himself of that as he got started.
Stupid tips about eye contact and imagining the audience in comical situations had never worked for him, so he focused on the back of the room as he explained the risks unique to Alaskan winters. However, his attention kept drifting to Owen Han and his earnest expression and shiny pen moving across his page of notes. Surprisingly, something about his concentration settled Quill, made his voice surer and stronger, made him feel like he was speaking directly to Owen instead of the room at large.
Of course Owen, like a good chunk of the audience, was ill prepared for what lay ahead. Even people with a lot of snow experience in places like Minnesota had trouble grasping what an ever-present danger avalanches were.
Quill took his time with lots of pictures and patient explanations, trying to keep in mind what Hattie had said about not scaring people, but he needed them to understand the often harsh realities. It was a rare winter when he didn't see at least one fatality, usually from a human-triggered avalanche, and he was determined to do his best to make sure that none of the volunteers ended up a grim statistic. The more he spoke, the more comfortable he became, but he was still relieved when he reached the end of his slides.
The audience had some good questions, including one from Owen about avalanche beacons. Despite the whole resemblance to JP thing, Quill liked his voice, which had more than a hint of California to it — casual vowels and easy confidence. Too much confidence re- ally, assuming that technology like the beacons were foolproof.
Quill explained their limitations, but he wasn't terribly surprised when Owen caught up with him again in the line for lunch.
"So why tell backcountry visitors to get beacons if they often fail to make a difference?" Owen asked, notebook out, which really was rather adorable. And smart, taking this training seriously. Made Quill respect him that little bit more.
"Well, they can save lives, but everyone in your group needs one, not just a few designated persons, and you need to practice with them. Most people skimp on the number of beacons or they never practice, so when disaster strikes, they're not prepared. Beacons don't substitute for preparedness. And some people use them as an excuse to get overconfident or take risks, and that's also problematic."
"So practice is key." Owen jotted down notes in a crisp, precise handwriting.
"Also, not to get too gruesome on you, but a certain percentage of victims will die from hitting trees and rocks on the way down. The beacons only work if you survive the ride."
"Ah." Owen's skin paled as he considered this fact. "Makes sense, I guess. And you did a great job, laying out all the dangers."
"Thanks." Quill's neck heated as he wasn't sure what to make of the praise. Lunch was a simple buffet of sandwich fixings, chips, and cookies, but the line in front of them was slow as people took forever deciding. He supposed it was only polite to try to keep the conversation going. "Have you been around snow much yourself?"
"Well, I grew up in the Bay area, so not much snow there. But I worked at a Lake Tahoe ski resort a couple of winters in college. Summers too. And I've been on other ski trips. I like snow," Owen said with the sort of authority of someone who'd never had to deal with months on end of the stuff.
"That's good." Quill wasn't going to be the one to burst his bubble, but volunteers like Owen had a tendency to not make it through their first real winter. Loving snow wasn't the same as being able to cope with the dark, frigid days that defined an Alaskan winter. But he'd promised Hattie he wouldn't scare the volunteers, so he simply added lightly, "Being able to ski will definitely be a plus for you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arctic Heat"
Copyright © 2019 Annabeth Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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