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Graham Morrison heard the noisy motor long before the floatplane came into view. He stuck his ax into the top of the log he'd been splitting with a loud thwack, removed his gloves and watched the plane circle the cove and make a graceful landing on the water.
Like other homes and establishments in Port Protection, Alaska, the small community was accessible only by boat, or by floatplane. Most people would have found the extreme isolation on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island unbearable. But never once had Graham regretted coming to Alaska to renovate the fishing lodge his grandfather had left him.
Port Protection was a safe haven.
For him—and for the daughter he was raising alone.
Graham shoved his gloves into the back pocket of his jeans and started down the path to the long dock stretching out below Trail's End Lodge. His place was always the last stop for the bush pilot on Friday, but today Graham hoped Gil Hargraves wouldn't try to amuse him with any of his escapades.
Women were always Gil's favorite subject. And Gil never missed an opportunity to remind Graham what he was missing staying secluded in Port Protection where the population was less than one hundred people and where the only single woman in town was in her late seventies and had outlived three husbands.
On Gil's last trip he'd supposedly been gearing up for an amorous weekend with twin sisters from Anchorage. Other men might enjoy hearing Gil brag about his conquests, but Graham didn't.
Gil was thirty.
He needed to grow up.
The floatplane came to a stop alongside the dock. Gil switched off the loud engine, opened the door and swung himself easily out of the plane. Even Graham could understand why he didn't have a problem with the ladies. Gil was better looking than most guys, kept in shape, and Graham had heard his fifteen-year-old daughter refer to Gil more than once as wickedly hot.
His daughter referring to any male as hot—wickedly or otherwise—always made Graham cringe. Graham prayed Rachel would stay away from guys like Gil who liked to kiss and tell before moving on to the next woman.
"You're looking good, Graham," Gil said as he bent down to secure the plane's tie lead to the dock. He straightened with a menacing smirk on his face. "In fact, you don't look a day over forty."
"Don't push it, Gil," Graham warned. "I won't turn forty until tomorrow. I'm holding on to thirty-nine as long as I can."
"Well, I brought you one hell of a birthday present," Gil said, "that's for sure."
"Yeah?" Graham assumed Gil was referring to the log splitter he'd finally decided to buy rather than continue splitting wood the hard way. This birthday served to remind him he wasn't getting any younger. So he'd circled the splitter in the outdoorsman catalog, and he'd left his credit card in plain view for his daughter's benefit.
Rachel had obviously taken the hint and made the purchase on the Internet the way they did their big-item shopping. Her last words before she left for school were to remind him to stay near the lodge so he wouldn't miss Gil when the plane landed with his birthday present.
"Need any help?" Graham quizzed, offering to assist Gil in unloading.
Gil laughed. "No, but you probably will."
Graham was puzzled by his answer. And he was even more confused when Gil walked back to the plane and opened the passenger side door. There were no fishing parties scheduled for the weekend—a promise he'd made to Rachel—even though May was a peak month for salmon.
Whether Graham liked it or not, his daughter was throwing him a big party on Saturday. And Rachel had been so proud of herself for making the arrangements he hadn't had the heart to disappoint her.
But what the…?
A tall blonde stepped from the plane.
Skintight jeans tucked into high-heeled boots.
Legs that went on forever.
Gil winked at Graham when he reached for her hand. And Graham went from confused to downright stunned. She could have been a model on the cover of a fashion magazine. And now she was walking in his direction.
Graham didn't say a word when she came to a stop in front of him. Her high heels brought them almost nose-to-nose, and her eyes were as blue as the fur-trimmed parka she was wearing.
She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips.
Graham was tempted to kiss her again.
Until she said, "Happy. Birthday. Graham."
Her words were so stilted and robotic Graham took a quick step backward. And when he looked past her, Gil was standing at the rear of the plane grinning from ear to ear.
Just last month Gil had told him about a Russian hooker he'd met in Nome who could barely speak English. And he'd bragged he could fix Graham up with her on a moment's notice.
So the joke was on him.
Gil had paid the hooker to kiss him for his birthday.
Graham was prepared to be a good sport and laugh the whole thing off—until Gil unloaded two matching pink suitcases and placed them on the dock.
"Hey!" Graham called out in a panic and hurried in Gil's direction.
It would be just like Gil to take the joke too far—to pay the blonde to give him more than just a birthday kiss. But damn! Had Gil forgotten there was an impressionable teenage daughter to consider?
Graham made it to the plane just as Gil was reaching out to close the cargo bay door. He grabbed Gil by the arm to keep that from happening.
"Okay, Gil, the joke's over," Graham told him. "You seem to have forgotten I have a daughter. So pick up the luggage, get your friend back into the plane and—"
"Whoa!" Gil said, jerking his arm away. "She isn't any friend of mine. I've never seen her before."
"This isn't funny," Graham warned.
Gil looked past him for a second. "Your guest doesn't seem to think this is funny, either."
Graham glanced over his shoulder.
The frown on her face sent a shiver up his spine.
"Wait right here," he told Gill.
Gil shook his head. "No way. I have a hot date with a redhead in Ketchikan tonight and I'm already behind schedule. The blonde is your problem. I'll be back to pick her up on Monday when I drop off your guests for next week."
Graham took a threatening step forward. "Don't be a wiseass, Gil. I have no idea who this woman is. And she certainly can't stay here all weekend."
Gil peered around him again. "Don't you be a dumb ass, Graham. Whoever she is, she's a knockout, man. And you've got a big lodge with a bunch of empty rooms for her to choose from. If you don't know her, get to know her. That's what I'd do."
"I'm not you," Graham said between clenched teeth.
"Your loss," Gil said and bent down to unfasten the tie lead.
"I mean it, Gil," Graham said. "Don't you leave this dock until I get this straightened out."
Graham turned and walked in the blonde's direction. He was midway to where she stood when the sound of the noisy engine coming back to life jerked Graham's head around.
Gil's reply was a final salute before he sped across the cove. Two seconds later the only chance Graham had of his birthday present leaving before Monday lifted into the air. Two seconds more and the plane flew around the cove and disappeared out of sight.
Graham looked over his shoulder again. Now she had her hands on her hips. And she didn't look one bit happy.
That made two of them.
When the floatplane left without her, the first thought that crossed Courtney Woods's mind was tojumpoff the dock and start swimming to the mainland. And she might have done just that had she not been so upset with the man walking up the dock in her direction.
She obviously didn't measure up to Graham Morrison's standards. She'd seen the shocked look on his face the second she stepped off the plane.
But did she really look so different in person than she did in her pictures? Or was Graham one of those guys who only got into the fantasy part of an online relationship? Now that she was actually standing on his dock in the flesh, all of the interest was gone.
But why send her the airplane ticket?
Why invite her to his birthday party tomorrow?
Why lie to her on so many different levels?
What a disaster!
Had her best friend Beth not given her a membership to an online dating service for her birthday as a joke, Courtney never would have known about a Web site called LoveFromAlaska.com. And she certainly wouldn't have been suckered by the man walking toward her now, who had obviously changed his mind.
But turning thirty-five had hit her like the big wrecking ball she'd used in one of her most successful ad campaigns. And the catchy slogan she'd come up with for the career placement service had been: "Break out of your going-nowhere life."
For once, Courtney had taken her own advice.
And what had it gotten her? A trip all the way across country only to be rejected by the very man who had invited her to come.
Still, Courtney thought, what a shame.
She'd been so sure Graham Morrison was the real thing.
He stopped in front of her. And as luck would have it, he was even better looking in person. Thick, black hair. Rock-hard body. Dark brown eyes she could easily get lost in.
He cleared his throat and said, "There's obviously been some mistake here."
"You think?" Courtney shot back.
He seemed surprised by her sarcasm.
"It's also obvious you can hear every word I'm saying," Courtney said. "Why would you lie about something so serious, Graham? Why would you say you lost your hearing in an explosion while you were clearing land for the lodge?"
"What?" he bellowed back at her.
Courtney's eyes narrowed. "Well, isn't this convenient? You miraculously have your hearing back, but now you've lost your memory!"
"Now, look here," he began.
"No, you look here," Courtney told him. "Are you really going to stand there and pretend we haven't been corresponding on the Internet since February? That you didn't invite me to your birthday party tomorrow? And that you didn't pay for my airplane ticket to get here?"
Before he could answer, Courtney dug into her purse and pulled out the card that had finally made her decide to come to Alaska.
Don't you think it's time we met? Say yes, and come to my birthday party. Love from Alaska, Graham.
Courtney shoved the card into his hands. "I guess you also didn't send me this card when you mailed me the itinerary for my e-ticket."
He frowned. "This is my daughter's handwriting."
"Rachel wrote that?"
Now he looked concerned. "How do you know Rachel?"
Courtney snatched the card back. "You know perfectly well how I know Rachel. She calls me every night."
Or did he know that?
The thought made Courtney gasp.
He kept staring at her.
And Courtney said, "You really don't know who I am, do you?"
"No," he said. "Who are you?"
Courtney needed to sit down.
But there was nowhere to sit!
"I'm Courtney Woods," she finally told him. "The idiot who's been corresponding with your daughter pretending to be you."
His expression said he'd figured that out already.
He headed down the dock for her suitcases. When he returned, he said, "I'm sorry, but that was—"
"The last flight out of here until Monday," Courtney finished for him.
"And there aren't any hotels in Port Protection."
"No," he confirmed, "there aren't."
"So, basically I guess that means—"
"It means you can stay at the lodge until Monday."
He'd saved her from saying "you're stuck with me."
But they both knew that's what he was thinking.
He motioned toward the path leading to the lodge. "Let's go inside," he said. "I'll make some coffee while we sort this out."
Lace my cup with strychnine, Courtney prayed. All she wanted to do was curl into a ball and die!
Graham took their coffee cups to the kitchen for a refill, trying to process everything Courtney had told him so far. She said Rachel had contacted her on an online dating Web site. And the minute Courtney said she was an advertising executive from New York City, Graham knew exactly why Courtney was the one Rachel had picked.
Rachel had been furious with him for months now because he refused to let her return to New York to finish high school. She'd even dragged his parents and her mother's parents into the fight. Both sets of grandparents promised she could live with either of them and they would take good care of her.
Graham simply wasn't willing to take that chance.
Rachel was his responsibility. She was staying in Port Protection and that was final. Having his parents and his former in-laws irritated with him was old news.
But he blamed himself for not paying more attention to what his soon-to-be-punished daughter was doing on the Internet. And he also realized he shouldn't have dismissed Rachel's accusation that he didn't want her to have a life because he didn't have a life of his own.