Quinn Fortune is the official protector of all the unspoiled beauty in Lost Lake, Alaska, as the head of the community trust. A rugged frontiersman through and through, he doesn't do soft. But he can't help his fascination with the pink-clad professor who shows up in Lost Lake seeking his approval for her cheerful outsider’s proposal about land that isn’t hers. Still, he agrees to consider it—if she can handle a month of good old-fashioned Alaska living. He’s betting she’ll head back to the safety of the Lower 48 within the week.
Violet Parrish is a thinker, not a doer, but desperate times call for extraordinary measures—like taking on the Alaskan wilderness. In January. Off the grid. With a mountain man hot enough to melt a glacier. The frozen Alaskan tundra should be no match for Violet’s determination, but the sheer immensity of the Last Frontier takes her by surprise—as does her attraction to gruff, impossibly handsome Quinn, and the unexpected heat that burns between them during the freezing Alaska nights…
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Violet Parrish, PhD, should have known that her long-distance, never-consummated romance with Stuart Abernathy-Thomason—also a PhD, though the sort who viewed any inadvertent failure to acknowledge his doctorate as a deliberate assault—was doomed.
Looking back, there had been signs of his inevitable betrayal from the start. The long distance itself, because surely it wasn’t that difficult to fly from London to San Francisco, and yet the much-discussed flight had never occurred. It’s been such a busy year, hasn’t it, Stuart had always said mournfully. The failure to engage in even the faintest hint of any intimate acts over their computers, when Violet had read too many articles to count that had insisted that said acts were how couples maintained their relationships across distances. I want you, not a screen, Stuart had told her, and could never be budged.
The glaring fact that when she’d excitedly told him that she was coming to London to visit, after making certain he had a gap in his schedule, he’d initially been excited—then had come back the next day and told her that he’d been called away on those exact dates. What bad luck! he’d said in his plummy voice.
These were all signs Violet would very likely have continued to ignore had there not been the naked-webcam incident.
“I don’t understand,” her boss and mentor said to her now, peering across the length of his crowded desk at the Institute of San Francisco, a small nonprofit with an academic pedigree and lofty ideals. Irving Cornhauser, too many degrees to choose just one, was often confused for a man in his eighties. He was fifty. “What does a web camera have to do with our work here?”
“I don’t think we should focus on that,” Violet said. She remembered all too well the office-wide effort to teach Irving how to use social media. They’d concluded he didn’t want to understand. She slid her glasses up her nose and braced herself. “The issue is the relationship with Dr. Abernathy-Thomason. My relationship with him. My former relationship, that is.”
She should have felt heartbroken. Wasn’t that the typical, expected response to catching one’s significant other in an intimate embrace with another woman? Then again, maybe this was heartbreak. Having never been in a relationship before—by choice, as Violet liked to remind her mother, because she was an intellectual with other things on her mind—she had nothing to compare it to.
She had not expected it to feel like heartburn, acidic and anger-inducing. With a deep and growing sense of outrage that she was now forced into this position. Standing in Irving’s office on the first working day of the new year, confessing things that could only embarrass them both.
“Your personal life is your business, Violet,” Irving said in faintly censorious tones, as if Violet had pranced in here for a cozy giggle about boys. Having never done anything of the sort before, in all the years they’d worked together. “The less said about it, the better. Our role here at the Institute is to lend our considerable focus to small environmental matters that make big differences, and in so doing—”
Violet wanted to scream. But she refrained, because she was an academic, not an animal. “I know the mission. I helped write our mission statement, actually.” But he knew that, of course. “I’m not making a confession because I want to go on a double date with you, Irving.”
He blinked at her in astonishment. Her fault for making reference to the fact that he even had a partner. More personal details he did not care to share on the job. Irving liked to think of these walls as a place of philosophical and intellectual purity. The less reference to the fact that they were humans, complicated, and with lives of their own, the better.
A philosophy Violet had always heartily supported, and yet how the mighty had fallen—to a con man dressed up in a pretty accent. She was surpassingly ashamed of herself.
“The problem is that I discussed my research with Stuart,” she said before Irving could reply, because she wanted to get this out. Stuart’s betrayal and her stupidity had been burning her alive all throughout the Christmas break, when no one at work—especially Irving—answered calls or emails. She’d tried. “And worse, our paper based on that research for the spring conference. I thought it was a circle of trust and I was mistaken. Badly mistaken.”
The acid inside her lit her up all over again as she relived the whole nightmare.
It had been Christmas Eve. She had been at her mother’s place in Southern California, hiding away from too much Prosecco, a selection of white plastic Christmas trees, and the near-constant caterwauling of off-key carolers at the palm trees in her mother’s beach-adjacent compound. She and Stuart had talked as planned, and she hadn’t given much thought to the kinds of questions he always asked her. He was so supportive. He was so interested. Despite her mother’s dire warnings about the lonely lives of sad girls who lived in their heads, he was involved.
Violet had found someone who not only supported her work, but understood it, as Stuart was part of a think tank dedicated to the same issues. She’d been congratulating herself on that score after the call had ended while enduring a series of frustrating questions from her mother’s sixth husband, who appeared to think Violet taught elementary school students. No matter how many times she corrected him.
Then she’d escaped to the guest room and seen that her laptop was still open. Upon sitting down at the desk to close it, she’d seen that Stuart had not turned his camera off.
It had taken Violet longer than she cared to admit to understand that Stuart had not, in fact, been playing some kind of game with that woman. Right there in his lounge in his tiny flat in London that she knew so well, after a year of looking at it through this same screen.
She’d cleaned her glasses with great care, but no. It was still happening when her lenses were clear.
Maybe it really was the heartbreak and the betrayal that made her stomach hurt so much, but on the flight back to San Francisco the day after Christmas—after a holiday packed full of recriminations (hers) and justifications (his), until he’d sneered at her and told her that he’d been using her all along—all she’d really been able to think about was how insulting this all was. And how embarrassing it was going to be to explain to her colleagues.
She’d met Stuart at a conference in Nice last summer. They’d had one marvelous dinner, followed by a perfect kiss, before Violet had raced to catch her flight home. And their romance ever since had involved a great many letters—okay, emails, but she’d felt like a modern-day Austen heroine all the same—and the odd video chat when their schedules allowed.
Far fewer said chats than there probably should have been, she saw that now. And none of them naked. But Violet had been so proud that at last she was having the relationship of her dreams. Not the shattered glasses against the wall, screaming bloody murder nonsense she associated with her parents’ bitter union—finished before she was born but reenacted during custody skirmishes throughout her childhood—and most of their many marriages since.
Her relationship with Stuart had been cerebral, not physical. Violet had been sure that the next time they saw each other in person, the physical would catch up. How could it not? Everyone knew that sexual attraction started in the brain.
Better than the belly, she thought now, while hers continued its protest.
“I’m afraid that I was wrong about Stuart,” she made herself confess to Irving now, because she might have made a horrible mistake but she, unlike Stuart, was capable of facing her own actions. She straightened her shoulders. “Terribly, horribly wrong.”
“Right. Er. Well.” Irving now looked as if she’d slapped him. “I suppose we can’t all be lucky in love.”
“Irving.” Violet was beginning to feel desperate. It was the dread, she thought. It had sat heavy on her this past week and had gotten worse as she’d prepared to come to work today—and that was before she’d seen the press release. “You don’t understand. Stuart has taken our paper that we intended to unveil at the conference—or all its major points, anyway—and has presented it as his. His center sent out an announcement this morning with excerpts. He’s claimed all of our theories on new technology avenues for brighter environmental solutions as his own.”
This time, Irving understood her. She knew because he had a tell. She watched, with a strange mix of apprehension and relief, as her boss’s bald head slowly and surely turned an alarming shade of red.
Like a shiny tomato of fury.
Irving wasn’t a yeller. He was a seether. He stared at her for a long moment while he grew ever redder, then turned his attention to the computer before him, banging on his keyboard as if it, too, had betrayed him.
But no. Only she had.
Violet’s heart kicked at her, because she loved this place. Because they were such a small nonprofit, they functioned more like a research team—reminding her of her doctoral days. Her colleagues were more like friends and each paper they presented was a communal effort. Their most recent project—half a year of research and debate followed by half a year of drafting the kind of paper that had the potential to shift high-level thinking—had been about specific technologies that might or might not aid in certain proposed environmental protections in remaining wilderness areas, like the Alaskan interior. She wanted to beg Irving not to fire her. She wanted to offer him a host of rationalizations.
But she stayed where she was and she stayed quiet, because she hoped she was woman enough to accept whatever consequences came her way. She’d assured herself she was since Stuart had showed his true colors on Christmas Eve.
Still naked. So naked, in fact, that she’d kept getting distracted by the blinding whiteness of his narrow chest while she should have been laser-focused on his perfidy.
When she heard Irving’s hiss of a breath, she knew he’d found the headlines from the usual industry publications, all of them lauding Stuart for his innovative findings.
Her findings, damn him. Her colleagues’ findings.
“This is a disaster,” Irving whispered. His bald head was still getting redder, which wasn’t a good sign. “Violet. This is a disaster.”
She might have had a week to prepare, but she still wasn’t ready.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you.” She sounded stiffer and more wooden than she would have liked. But there was no helping it—it was that or crying, and she hadn’t cried yet. She refused to cry here. It would be humiliating and also, it might kill Irving. She held out the sheet of paper she’d been holding since she’d walked in here. “I’ve prepared my letter of resignation.”
“I don’t want to accept it,” Irving said, shaking his head. “You know I don’t. I recruited you out of graduate school myself.”
Which wasn’t the same thing as not accepting it, she noted.
“I understand.” Violet swallowed. “I prepared a statement. Explaining the situation to everyone here, so there can be no doubt that I’m taking complete responsibility for my lapse in judgment.”
That was the part that really burned. Violet had always considered her judgment unimpeachable. She didn’t like this discovery that she’d been wrong—that she’d apparently been human and fallible all along.
“Your taking responsibility is all well and good,” Irving said, rubbing his hands over his face. “But there’s the upcoming conference to think about. What do you propose we present now? What will we tell our donors? You know a huge part of our fund-raising is based on the reception our papers receive.”
Violet felt a surge of temper, but she tamped it down. She’d always objected to the Institute’s insistence on focusing on only one idea at a time. Surely, she would argue in meetings, their small size should allow for nimble navigation between many ideas. Not so much communal focus on one thing—though that was what had given the Institute its sterling reputation for intellectual approaches to modern environmental dilemmas. The application of those approaches—in places like universities and corporations or, better still, more broadly in the world insofar as that was measurable—was what excited their donors. Violet had always thought they therefore ought to present several papers each year, to better have more nuanced discussions in more directions. But she suspected that if she broached that theory again today, it would be seen as self-serving.
Worse, she honestly couldn’t tell if it would be or not, since as of a week ago, she’d stopped trusting her judgment.
One more reason to detest Stuart.
“We’re going to lose our funding,” Irving moaned. But at least this was familiar ground. As the CEO of a nonprofit, he spent the bulk of his time concerned about funding. And his head was noticeably less red.
Violet was grateful that she’d had this week to plot. To do what she was paid to do here and think outside the box. To frantically research all the projects that had gotten away, either because there hadn’t been enough in-house enthusiasm to make them the idea of the year or because they’d tried to get them off the ground in their initial debate stage, but had failed for one reason or another.
And she’d circled around and around again to the same place. To the big one.
The one dream project that could bring her back into the fold, not just having paid a debt for her sins, but as a rock star.
The very small nonprofit version of rock star, that was, but she would take her polite applause and strained smiles where she could, thank you.
She shoved her glasses into place and cleared her throat. Irving frowned at her.
“As a matter fact,” she told him, “I have an idea.”
Three days later, Violet found herself on an extended layover in the Anchorage, Alaska, airport.
Some people might consider having to suffer through a thirteen-hour layover a kind of penance, but she was choosing to see it as a celebration. Because she’d convinced Irving—and the rest of her colleagues, because, yes, she’d had to face that firing squad of mortification—that she could do this thing no one else in their field had managed to do.
Yet, she told herself.
Not that anyone at work really believed she was capable of the task she’d set herself, of course. She knew better than to believe they had that kind of confidence in her. It was far more likely they were sending her off into the literal dark of the Alaskan frontier in winter because they thought she might very well get eaten by a bear. An effective way for the Institute to wash its hands of her. She could see the solemn statement of genteel regret to the press now.
But bears or no bears, she was doing it. Violet was a thinker, not a doer, and she avoided outside things like the plague—but she was doing this.
She had no choice but to do this.
When it was finally time to catch her plane, one of three weekly flights to a tiny village in the Alaskan bush, it felt a lot like vindication.
The flight was rough—or the plane was small. Maybe both. Her stomach, fragile since Christmas Eve, threatened a full-scale rebellion as they bounced around the clouds. Violet screwed her eyes shut and tried to think about anything else. Anything at all but the fact that she was bouncing in midair over the wild Alaskan tundra she had researched feverishly over the last few days while trekking back and forth between her apartment in the Marina District and REI in SoMa for the approximately nine thousand things she thought she would need to survive Alaska.
The trouble with the research she’d done was that she knew too well that she was currently flying over some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. Knowing that did not exactly help her stomach.
She thought instead about Irving and the way his tomato-headed fury had turned to disappointment, which was worse. She thought about the colleagues she had considered friends, many of whom had been unable to meet her gaze at their last meeting. Even her closest friend at the Institute, Kaye, had looked flushed with quiet condemnation when Violet had dropped off her enormous rabbit, Stanley, who Kaye had agreed to watch for the foreseeable future.
I’m going to fix this, she had declared to Kaye. A little bit fervently.
I wish you’d told me about Stuart, Kaye had replied softly, clutching Stanley to her chest as if using him as a rabbit barricade, her eyes wide and reproachful. He has a reputation.
I’m going to fix this, Violet had said again.
The cargo plane bounced again, hard.
She gripped the armrest, hard enough for her fingers to start cramping, and hoped she’d live long enough to even try fixing it. Something that seemed touch and go for a while there.