After an explosion that should have killed her, Caradine barely escaped her criminal family by leaving her old identity behind. These days she runs the Water’s Edge Cafe in a rugged little town on the edge of nowhere, vowing never to let anyone close to her again.
After his career in the military, Isaac is back home playing the part of an unassuming local in Grizzly Harbor, while also overseeing Alaska Force’s special ops work as the founder and commanding officer he once was in the Marines and beyond. He has better things to do than obsess over a woman who claims she hates him, but every glimpse he gets of the vulnerability beneath her prickly exterior is a distraction . . . and a challenge he can’t ignore.
When Caradine’s demons catch up with her, her cafe isn’t the only thing that blows up. Her past pushes them together, and closer to a future that’s been waiting for them all this time. They just have to survive long enough to enjoy it.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Crane / DELTA FORCE DEFENDER
The call came in at 2:47 a.m.
Isaac Gentry wasn’t asleep because Isaac rarely slept, especially when Alaska Force was running active missions.
And Alaska Force always had active missions.
As the owner and leader of the most elite group of ex–special forces operatives in the worldthe kind of individuals who didn’t think it was particularly heroic to save the world, because it was simply their job, in and out of active military serviceIsaac had long since accepted that monitoring ongoing situations came with the territory. His cabin in Fool’s Cove, a remote and hard-to-reach spot on the back side of a distant, isolated island in the Alaskan Panhandle, was outfitted with enough tech to track his people wherever they found themselves on the globe.
“Report,” he said into his comm unit by way of an answer, the way he always did when a member of his team called in.
“There’s a fire,” Griffin Cisneros, known ice man and almost supernaturally self-possessed marine sniper, belted out. Sounding in no way self-possessed or icy or really like himself at all.
Isaac’s gut twisted. Because Griffin wasn’t on a mission. Griffin was supposed to be at home in his cute little house on the other side of the island in picturesque Grizzly Harbor, tucked up with his woman and enjoying the relatively mild June weather.
“Report,” he said again, though he already knew it was going to be bad.
And worse, local. “Is it happening again?”
The tiny fishing village of Grizzly Harbor was supposed to be too far away from anything to attract attention. It was on a small island in a little-traveled part of Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, where nothing ever happened. Something Isaac knew personally and well, having grown up here.
But the past couple of years there’d been a little too much excitement in the middle of nowhere. It had even drawn down the attention of the Alaska State Troopers, who’d needed convincing that Alaska Force were the good guys. There’d been deaths, a mad preacher with a boatload of explosives, actual deployed explosives onshore and off, two kidnappings and a cult, plus acts of criminal mischief ranging from annoying to life-threatening.
Not exactly what Isaac had in mind. He’d chosen Grizzly Harbor as his base when he’d started Alaska Force because the only danger around was the great Alaskan wilderness and weather. He’d imagined it would serve as an excellent barrier between Alaska Force and the rest of the world, because that was what the great and glorious state of Alaska did by virtue of its location. Alaska was the Last Frontier and the ultimate geographic cure.
All outside shenanigans were supposed to be over now, six months after the last bout of excitement that had involved a high-stakes helicopter rescue of a boat on the cold Alaskan seas. On Christmas Day.
But he let that go. If it wasn’t over, they’d handle it. That was what Alaska Force did.
Once again, Griffin sounded completely unlike himself. It might have been terrifying if Isaac had been in possession of all the necessary information and could allow himself a response. Until then, he couldn’t let himself react.
But when his border collie, Horatio, sat up from his bed in front of the fire and whined softly, Isaac suspected that maybe he was already reacting.
“Isaac. It’s Caradine. Her place . . . the Water’s Edge Café blew up.”
Everything inside Isaac stopped.
But he was entirely too well trained to surrender to it. Or to blank out or freeze as worst-case scenarios swamped him, one after the next, each more horrible than the last.
Griffin made a sound. It took Isaac a moment to understand it was his name.
“I’m on my way,” he said, and he sounded calm. Controlled and even, as befitted a man of his rank and position.
Good to know he could still make that happen when the world was ending.
Might have already ended, with him sitting out here monitoring things he didn’t care about across the planet while she
But he locked that line of thought down, hard.
He went wide on the comm unit, barking out orders and rousing anyone who was on the island instead of out on a job. He was already moving, shoving his feet into his boots and then tossing himself out into the late-night blue of the June night. He was glad he was from Southeast Alaska, where the summer nights weren’t that full-on white midnight sun they got farther north, because the eerie half-light was more than enough to make him feel restless.
Though possibly that wasn’t what was clawing at him tonight.
The helicopter was already waiting for him when he made it to the launchpad, a ten-minute hike up from his family’s former fishing lodge, which currently served as Alaska Force’s base of operations.
Tonight Isaac made the climb in approximately three minutes.
He nodded at Rory, the former Green Beret who was piloting tonight, and he was distantly aware that there were other people in the helicopter, but he didn’t speak.
Instead, he stared out at the dark, inky water and the lights from the lodge and the cabins as they rose into the air over Fool’s Cove. And he tried to keep his head productively blank, the way he always did before a mission. Free of his personal thoughts, open to focus on what cropped up.
But all he could see was her face. Caradine’s face.
He had to grit his teeth to make himself stop. And all told, twenty minutes elapsed between Griffin’s initial call and Isaac’s arrival in Grizzly Harbor, but to Isaac every minute was a lifetime.
Rory set down near the docks, where there was a stretch of even ground when the tide was low. Isaac knew he’d jumped out when his boots hit the ground, but his focus was already up the hill, into the cluster of buildings that made up the village, and the knot of people and smoke where Caradine’s café was supposed to be.
Then he was moving automatically, trying to assess the damage as he went. The fire looked to be contained to the lower part of the building where the café was. Not the living quarters up above, which was something. Then again, he couldn’t see what had happened around back.
He had a flash of her, dark eyebrows raised and that belligerent I dare you look on her face
But he couldn’t.
He couldn’t go there until he knew, one way or the other.
And he was trained for this. He was trained to gather information first, then react.
No matter the circumstances.
Isaac realized he’d been running when he stopped. He’d reached the semicircle of villagers and Alaska Force members who’d formed a perimeter around the fire. All were engaged in fighting what looked like the last of it, some of them half-dressed or in their pajamas, because this really was the middle of nowhere. If they didn’t put the fire out, it could sweep through the whole town.
That was when he realized he’d showed up in nothing but the T‑shirt and cargo pants he’d been wearing while not sleeping back in his cabin. Not exactly his tactical best.
Isaac nodded at the Grizzly Harbor residents he knew, which was most of them. His brain filed away the rest into a mental file marked summer tourists. But when his gaze found Griffin, it stayed on him. Hard.
He didn’t ask the question.
“It’s a garden-variety Molotov cocktail,” Griffin told Isaac immediately when he came over to him, sounding cold and assessing again.
Which was precisely how Isaac wanted his favorite sniper. “It went through the front window of the café. And it was a weak one, because all it did was blow out the windows and make a mess of the front room. The structure appears sound, and the living quarters upstairs are undamaged.”
“Undamaged,” Isaac repeated, while everything in him that had stopped still clicked over, an engine starting up again. His heart, maybe.
“Empty?” There was a thud inside him, like a mortar shell hitting its target, but he refused to acknowledge it. “Signs of a struggle?”
“None.” Isaac recognized the voice before he glanced to the side to find Jonas Crow had materialized from the ether, or the night itself. Because Isaac hadn’t seen him in his initial sweep of the area. As one of the few men still alive who knew exactly what Jonas had done in the service, Isaac shouldn’t have been surprised that the man still managed to make like a ghost. Yet he always was. “If I had to guess, my take would be that there was an attempt to flush her out, but she didn’t go down the back stairs. There are tracks leading away from that side window, but they disappear at the hot springs. One set of tracks, moving fast.”
Isaac tried to take the information in, and everything it meant, but he was stuck on the most critical part. She was alive.
She was alive.
“This is good news, right?” Rory asked, on Isaac’s six.
Former SEAL Blue Hendricks, who had caught the helicopter with Isaac, was closer to the fire perimeter. He shook his head. “Caradine in the woods? I don’t see it. She doesn’t even like the hot springs.”
“She likes them fine,” Isaac retorted without thinking.
It was a measure of how completely he’d lost his cool tonight. Since when did he show his hand? Since when did he fail to think everything through and strategize before speaking? He needed to pull himself together.
Meanwhile, he thanked whatever deities still bothered to check in on a man like him that Templeton Crosshis best friend and brother since they’d survived the six-month hellscape called the Operator Qualification Course for what was known in some circles as Delta Forcewasn’t around to witness his slip. Isaac could hear Templeton’s booming laugh anyway, the way he was sure he would in real time once Templeton heard what Isaac had inadvertently admitted.
Someone was probably texting him right now to tell him.
She’s alive, Isaac reminded himself as the silence dragged on around him, because no one dared actually get in his face. Jonas could have, but wouldn’t. That was Templeton’s job.
He concentrated on the fact they hadn’t found her body and not the fact he’d just contributed to the endless gossip concerning what was or wasn’t happening between him and Caradine. She was alive. She’d understood what was happening and extricated herself from the situation.
Then she’d taken off.
And had yet to return, though the fire looked contained and most of the village was milling around on the wooden boardwalks that served as streets.
That told him a whole lot.
Isaac scanned the scene. The one official firefighter in the village, Chris Tanaka, was barking out orders to the rest. Most of whom he’d trained at one point or another, whether they were part of the official crew or not. No one wanted Grizzly Harbor, with its boardwalks and huddled-together houses, to go up in flames. Their one truck, parked on an angle in front of the blackened, smoky front of the café, pumped water up from the harbor while a few men were supplementing with buckets. The fire was down to a smolder now, which supported Griffin’s theory that it had been a weak firebomb in the first place. It had been about damage, not death.
Which meant Jonas was right, too. They’d been trying to flush her out.
He had a flash of her then, bright and hot, lighting up all the parts of him that had stopped still when he’d gotten that call. Caradine Scott, mouthy and bad-tempered and beautiful. Prickly and stubborn and wedged deep beneath his skin since the day she’d arrived here. That chipped black nail polish she always had on her fingernails. Those too-blue eyes. The baggy clothes she wore, like that could fool anyone into overlooking her toned, fit body beneath. Her astonishingly good cooking, which he’d told her once was basically her true heart on display.
That had been the first time she’d thrown him out of the Water’s Edge Café. It wasn’t the last time. Not to mention the many times she’d thrown him out of her bed upstairs, too, then slammed the door in his faceand locked itin case he’d missed her point.
He felt that mortar shell hit him again. Artillery fire rained down inside him, pummeling him.
Isaac had seen her scowl at him a thousand times. He’d kissed her silly.
He’d even made her laughthough she’d told him he was mistaken and it had simply been a coughing fit gone wrong. He’d seen her stare down drunken locals three times her size, and he’d seen her intimidate tourists with a single arched brow.
What he couldn’t imagine Caradine doing, ever, was running scared.
The very idea made him want to tear apart the world with his own two hands.
“I want to know who threw the bomb,” Isaac said tersely to the suspiciously silent group around him. “Now. And then I want to know why, once again, people are rolling up into Grizzly Harbor and getting bomb-happy without us seeing them coming. I thought we were done with this.”
“On it, boss,” Blue said, in a way that had Isaac looking at him sharply. Sure enough, the ex-SEAL was exchanging a glance with Griffin that Isaac knew was as good as that text to Templeton.
He ignored that, too, because he could. Because Templeton wasn’t here.
Templeton was tending to his family issues in the Lower 48 and wasn’t on hand to call Isaac out.
That meant Isaac could deliver another spate of orders without receiving so much as a raised eyebrow in return. Once he was done, he turned away, realizing as he did that Alaska Force was one thing. His fellow citizens, friends, and neighbors were another.
And it took him more effort than it should have to pull out that genial smile he usually wore for the public.
“You keep bringing your messes into this town, Isaac,” growled Otis Taggert, who ran the Bait & Tackle. He’d always made his dislike of the Gentry family well known, even way back when Isaac had been a kid here.
Whether he disliked Isaac personally or lumped him in with Gentrys past was hard to figure. And tonight, Isaac cared even less than usual.
“Where’s it going to end?”
“Thanks for your concern, Otis,” Isaac replied, managing to keep his voice amiable. He couldn’t say the same about his expression. “It looks like Caradine made it out.”
The scrum of locals got a little loud at that obvious slap, but Isaac didn’t take it back. Neither did the older man. And Isaac had to order himself to shift his weight, get out of a fighting stance, and run a hand over his face like he was a mere mortal instead of a highly trained piece of weaponry meant for war, not social interactions like these.
“Hero status can only go so far,” Otis said, not even pretending to keep it beneath his breath.
“I never pretended to be a hero,” Isaac retorted, another clue that he was maybe not operating on all cylinders, the way he would have been if this hadn’t involved Caradine. Since he’d been confounding Otis with a bland smile and no reaction for years now. “But I am a resident and a local business owner. So maybe don’t talk to me like I’m the enemy.”
“Gentrys have been here since the gold rush,” Madeleine Yazzie chimed in then, her red beehive trembling the way it usually did, even if tonight she was in her pajamas. Next to her, her on-again, off-again husband, Jaco, stood with his arms crossed, his usually dour expression aimed directly at the Bait & Tackle owner. “They weren’t Johnny-come-latelies like you, Otis, swanning in and acting like you own the place.”
“It’s not a competition,” old Ernie Tatlelik growled.
“It is to Otis,” Nellie Oberlin retorted in the same brisk voice she used to keep the rowdy patrons in line at the Fairweather, the only bar in town.
“If you’ll excuse me, I thought maybe I’d go look for Caradine,” Isaac heard himself say with far too much edginess and not enough of that boy next door, aw shucks thing he’d been cultivating since moving back here.
Something he’d probably regret when he recovered from this night and that call. But he’d worry about that when he found her. “Who’s missing?
In case that part wasn’t clear.”
“You’re too much like your uncle Theo,” Otis complained, glaring at him as if he’d said he was off to take a nap. “Always more important than everyone else in the room.”
“What room is that, Otis?” Madeleine snapped at him. “That tiny little cabin in the woods where Theo lives, all alone, with nothing but his thoughts? Or that store of yours where you hold court over a kingdom of worms and flies?”
And as they all started sniping at one another the way only people with usually buried small-town grudges could, Isaac melted away, skirting around the destroyed café. He took a look at that side window and the tracks in the dirt two stories beneath it. Then he headed for the path that wound up the hill, leading away from town. Toward the hot springs where Jonas had lost Caradine’s trail.
As if summoned by the thought of himwhich wasn’t outside the realm of the possibleJonas materialized beside Isaac.
“Are you okay?” he asked. As if the question pained him.
And later, maybe, Isaac would think about the state he must have been in for his brother-in-arms to ask him a question like that. When they’d been neck-deep in just about every slice of hell this planet had to offer and Jonas had never inquired into his well-being.
Because he’d always assumed that Isaac had himself handled.
Isaac didn’t respond.
Jonas nodded, as if that was answer enough.
“Rory located a boat out in the sound,” he said instead, his voice sounding the way it always did. Dark and rusty. “No sign of Caradine, but we have eyes on her perpetrators.”
Isaac jerked his chin to indicate he’d heard. Inside him, the artillery fire shifted, turning into something like an earthquake.
He had another flash of her, naked and smiling, her clever face alight with mockery aimed straight at him. Listen up, Gentry, she’d said, with all that scornful haughtiness only she could make so hot. If you can’t pull it together, I’ll throw you out in the cold.
That had been their first night together.
Your problem, she’d told him a long time later, is that you like it when I’m mean to you.
But he’d been inside her, the only time she let him talk to her, and he’d pressed his advantage, the only way he could, until she’d shuddered and come apart.
Your problem, he’d replied, his mouth at her ear, is you don’t want to be.
He’d believed that until tonight.
“Keep me informed,” he told Jonas, who nodded again, then vanished.
Isaac kept going. He took the trail out of town, and he didn’t look over at the house he’d grown up in, because he didn’t torture himself like that anymore. He’d been a commissioned marine officer. Then he’d been Force Recon. And then he’d gone deep into a far darker hell. If he started counting up ghosts, he’d be too haunted to take a breath.
Caradine had taken care of haunting him for years now.
He listened to Blue’s conversation with the hired guns Rory had rounded up over his comm unit and wasn’t surprised the two of them had nothing productive to say about who had contracted them. Only that it had happened in Juneau.
And when Jonas returned and started trailing him again, he was aware of it by the prickle on the back of his neckbut that was the beauty of his silent, infinitely lethal friend. Jonas was never going to feel the need to make idle conversation.
Together, they followed Caradine’s tracks to the collection of little huts that functioned as the community baths and sauna, taking advantage of the island’s natural hot springs. Beyond the hot springs, the trail wound out toward the far point of Grizzly Harbor proper. Isaac stood there, ignoring interior mortar shells and tectonic shifts alike. He was aware that he was holding himself funny, stiff and furious as he glared out at what he could see of the trail in the strange summer night.
“She jumped out her side window.” It wasn’t a question.
Jonas made an affirmative noise. “She climbed down. Fast.”
Isaac nodded, because that was how he’d interpreted the tracks, too.
Enough of a depression in the dirt beneath the window to suggest a jump from a height, but not too much of one, and then she’d taken off running. Until she got here. The baths were a great place to switch out whatever shoes she’d been wearing, he figured. For a pair of hiking boots, maybe, that looked like every other shoe impression in the dirt trail.
It was June. There were a lot of tracks on the island’s most accessible trail. Tourists and locals alike, this time of year.
He could picture Caradine here too easily. And as he did, separate threads he’d gone out of his way not to knit together braided up tight.
He saw her face perfectly, as if she were standing before him with her arms crossed belligerently, the way she liked to do. That smirk that drove him wild. The cool, challenging way she stared him down, as if he’d never torn her up and never would again, when they both knew better.
Isaac was done being haunted.
It was time to drag the ghost that was Caradine Scott out into the light, no matter what happened.
“You have command,” he told Jonas shortly. “If I’m not back before Templeton, you can argue it out with him.”
“I don’t argue,” Jonas replied coolly. He paused. “Are you thinking she hired those fools?”
“Caradine doesn’t suffer fools, Jonas. I doubt she’d hire a couple.”
Isaac stared down the trail. Follow it long enough up into the trees that covered the side of the mountain, and it branched out. The official trail carried on toward the summit of what the locals called Hard Ass Pass and were rarely dumb enough to test, because it got dangerous, fast, up there. Other paths wound around as they pleased. Many led out to the farthest, most off-grid homesteads and cabins.
Like the one where Isaac’s grumpy, people-hating uncle Theo lived.
With his thoughts, like Madeleine had said. That, and his own personal arsenal.
Isaac highly doubted Caradine had headed there.
But beyond the various, little-traveled trails that led to all the survivalist enthusiasts who called this island home was another path that dead-ended in a tiny inlet. Where Theo and some of the other locals who preferred not to deal with people in townor having agents of the man, like the Grizzly Harbor harbormaster, knowing their businesskept their boats.
If Isaac was going to sneak out of Grizzly Harbor and then off the island, without being seen and without access to the various toys he had at his disposal thanks to Alaska Force, that was how he’d do it.
He’d steal a boat, but unlike the idiots who’d thrown that pipe bomb through Caradine’s window, he wouldn’t hit the open water. He’d stick to the rugged coast, find a hidden cove on a neighboring island, and hunker down until daylight. When there would be enough fishing vessels out there that it was worth the gamble that Alaska Force wouldn’t catch him before he made it to a better boat. Like the Alaska Marine Highway ferry that could take him out of here and all the way down to the Lower 48, if he liked.
“I don’t think Caradine lit her own restaurant on fire,” he said to Jonas now. “But she sure was prepared for it to happen. Practiced for it, even, if that climb down two stories is any indication.”
“Looks that way.”
And those threads braided up tight inside him seemed to ignite.
There were the things he knew about her. The things he’d long suspected.
This long, maddening dance of theirs had already gone on for what felt to him like too many lifetimes.
“Bring her back safe,” Jonas said gruffly when Isaac started down the trail to confirm his first set of suspicions.
“I will,” Isaac promised him.
He’d bring her back, all right.
But how safe she stayed while he did it was going to be entirely up to her.
Because as far as Isaac was concerned, it was high time for an overdue reckoning.