A novel of betrayal and passion in a frozen landscape far from the city lights, by the bestselling author of All In and Falling …
Ambra Vinter dreams of making it to the top of her chosen field. But instead, the beautiful young journalist is sent on assignment to Kiruna, a tiny mining town far north of Stockholm, chasing after yesterday’s news. In December, this is a place on the edge of darknessand Ambra’s memories of it are just as bleak, for it is where she once suffered at the hands of a brutal foster father. Yet it is here, in the middle of nowhere, that she meets a man who takes her breath away…
Tom Lexington has left Special Forces for a career in private security. But he is still haunted by a mission that almost cost him his lifeand by the woman who shattered his heart. When he meets Ambra in a café, she brings a promise of light, and heat, to his lifeif he dares to let go of all he’s been holding onto.
Now, as Ambra risks looking more closely at her own painful past, and stumbles into a story that’s hotter than she ever expected, she and Tom must decide whether to take a chance on each other and come in from the cold…
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Ambra Vinter looked down at her notebook. Ideas for articles, the phone number of someone she'd interviewed, and a reminder to herself that she needed coffee. The last part was underlined twice. She didn't demand all that many things in life, but drinking coffee in the morning was one of them.
"Ambra, are you listening?"
I was trying not to.
But since the voice belonged to her immediate superior at Aftonbladet, news editor Grace Bekele, Ambra replied with as much diplomacy as she could. "It would be great if you could send someone else. I was on a job in Varberg last week. And I just got back from the fire in Akalla."
Ambra attempted a pleading look. There had to be some other reporter Grace could send on this particular lousy job. A young, hungry journalist who wasn't yet as cynical as she was, someone who would appreciate being able to leave their desk.
"Except I want you to go." Grace made a sweeping gesture with her slender hand, and her long, pointed nails glittered. She looked like a supermodel, but it was for her dynamic leadership that she was renowned. And Ambra knew that Grace would win this battle, just as she always did.
"Where was it again?" Ambra asked. Her clothes smelled of smoke. She never got used to how quickly a fire could spread. Three minutes and there were flames everywhere. No fatalities, which was a bad angle, but good all the same. Families should never die in fires three days before Christmas.
"Norrland, like I said."
"Norrland's huge. Could you be more specific?" Ambra had good reason not to want to go north, lousy job or not.
"Norrbotten then. I have the place here somewhere."
Ambra waited while Grace riffled through the papers on her overloaded desk. They were at the Breaking News desk, the very heart of the machine that was the Aftonbladet newsroom. It was two in the afternoon, and it was pitch black outside. Freezing rain and sudden gusts of wind battered the windows. The weather report was heading up the home page, of course. Unusually good or unusually bad, the weather was always on the main page online, because it was something that always sold. It was the day's most-read article, with almost one thousand clicks a minute.
Ambra leafed forward to an empty page in her notebook and said, as obligingly as she could, "What exactly do you want me to do in Norrbotten?"
Grace picked up a few stacks of paper and almost managed to knock over a mug of stale coffee. No one had their own desk, not even the editors. Grace was one of four news editors who manned the desk, round the clock, every day of the year. The other editors, everything from Sports, Entertainment, and Crime to Foreign Affairs, Investigative, and Culture, were spread around the room like satellites orbiting a never-sleeping hub.
"The note was just here. I want to say it was Kalix," said Grace.
Always something to be grateful for. She obediently wrote down Kalix in her notebook.
"You'll be interviewing Elsa, ninety-two. Call up and arrange a meeting. I should have her number, too. It came in through the tip service. I had a feeling it could be something."
"Great," Ambra said, managing not to pull a face. The tip service was Aftonbladet's digital space for ordinary people to submit news tips and earn 1,000 kronor if it paid off. In 99.99 percent of cases, it didn't, but Ambra wrote down Elsa anyway and then rubbed her forehead.
"Elsa's a person, at least?" she asked.
The question wasn't irrelevant. Once, she was sent out to interview a certain Sixten Berg, twenty. Sixten turned out to be a white-crested cockatoo who could sing and dance along to "Hooked on a Feeling." The interview became an amusing paragraph with a funny video clip online. Not quite what Ambra dreamed of during her journalism training.
Grace pulled out a neon yellow Post-it note. "Here. Elsa Svensson, born 1923. She had an affair with one of our prime ministers and evidently gave birth to his secret love child."
That made Ambra look up. "Recently?" she asked skeptically.
Grace raised an elegant eyebrow. "The woman's ninety-two, so no, not in this century. But she's never talked to the press before and she seems to be a real Norrbotten original. Could be a good story. Long, interesting life story, exotic place, you know? And it's perfect for Christmas. People love that kind of thing."
"Mmm," Ambra replied without any enthusiasm. "Which prime minister?"
"One of the dead ones. You'll have to double-check."
"Didn't they all have a load of illegitimate children?" Ambra really didn't want to do this. Give her double homicides and traffic accidents any day.
"Come on, Ambra. This one is practically made for you — it's what you're good at. Guaranteed to bring in a load of clicks, and I'm under orders to do more of this kind of thing; it sells like mad. Plus, the woman specifically asked for you."
"Of course," said Ambra. It happened sometimes. The readers wanted to meet a specific reporter.
She glanced over toward the window again. An electric Advent chandelier flickered irregularly at her. The entire media world rested on numbers of clicks, because that meant advertising revenue. And there was no ignoring the fact that, in practice, she was probably only one reshuffle away from losing her job. Her career had been on what could only be described as a downward curve for the past few years. If she didn't play ball, she would end up on night shift. Taking the night shift was a one-way street; those who went down it never came back. They lived like nocturnal pale creatures, translated pointless articles from English, and died a spiritual death. She gave up.
"Photographer?" she asked.
Grace nodded. "Local freelancer. You can contact him once you're there."
"Okay." Ambra got up. There was no point going home now. She would grab a coffee; buy an ice-cold sandwich from the staff room vending machine; call Elsa, ninety-two; and stay at the office to do some research. Hurrah.
"And you'll send me the info you have?" she asked.
"I want a first piece as soon as you can. If it's really good, maybe we can run a couple. Norrland Christmas, reindeer, cozy snow feeling, stuff like that."
Ambra rocked on her heels.
"Was there something else?" Grace asked.
"I know it's short notice and a long way to go, but you should be able to get home before Christmas." Grace's tone was stressed but friendly, and Ambra knew her boss meant well, but it wasn't exactly her holiday plans that were the problem. Ambra had exactly one relative — her foster sister, Jill — and she and Jill hadn't celebrated Christmas together for the past few years.
It wasn't that it was beneath Ambra to talk to the ex-lover of a dead celebrity either. A journalist was never meant to be forced into a humiliating piece (a rule no one cared about), but Ambra had worked on Entertainment and done far worse things. No, this was about the fact that she had serious issues with going north.
"I'll figure it out," she said with a repressed sigh. Her private life was no one else's business.
"I know you will." Grace's eyes were steady on her from across the desk.
At thirty, Grace was just two years older than Ambra. She was already an experienced news editor with one of the toughest papers in the division. And as though her relative youth and gender weren't enough of a handicap, Grace was also black. Born in Ethiopia, she'd moved to Sweden as a child and was some kind of academic genius. Grace Bekele was legendary in the media world, and when she looked at Ambra like that, Ambra was prepared to walk over burning coals. Or go to Kalix.
"And listen, I know you want that job with the Investigative desk. I didn't forget. I'll put in a good word for you with Dan Persson, if I get the chance."
Ambra didn't know what to say; gratitude was such a difficult feeling. But that was her dream. Working for Aftonbladet's Investigative desk, hunting down scoops and writing longer articles. Rumor had it there would soon be a vacant position there. They rarely came up, meaning there would be a lot of competition. Most likely all of her colleagues and competitors. But if she didn't make a mess of things in the next few weeks, then maybe she stood a chance. Providing she managed not to offend the editor-in-chief too much. Maybe it was just as well she went away for a while, now that she thought about it.
"Thanks. I'll leave tomorrow." Her mind was already thinking through the various possible angles as she automatically checked off what she would pack and which equipment she would need.
"Hold on," said Grace. She held up another Post-it note, an orange one this time, shaped like an arrow. "Found it. I was wrong. It's not Kalix after all. Sorry."
So long as it's not Kiruna, Ambra had time to think before Grace said, "The woman lives in Kiruna. I always mix up those two. Anyway, it's pretty much the same thing."
She uttered the words with the nonchalance of someone who thought that Stockholm was as far north as civilization stretched. The vast expanse of Norrland was a blank sheet even for well-educated city dwellers. But Ambra knew better. After all, there were varying degrees to every hell.
Kiruna. Of course it was Kiruna.
She snatched the note from Grace's hand and left the desk.
Why did it have to be Kiruna, of all places? A town she never wanted to visit again. A place where she had shivered, cried, and hated more than anywhere else in the universe.
Ambra passed the Web-TV studio and the Crime desk; she walked by Investigative and glanced longingly into their office, one of the few departments allowed to work with the door closed. She grabbed a mug of coffee and her laptop, managed to avoid her nemesis, Oliver Holm, and slumped onto a free couch. She started up her laptop and logged in. The mail program opened. Twenty e-mails in ten minutes. Nineteen of the messages were hate mail on an article she'd written about sexual harassment at a gym, published the day before. She scrolled through them and knew that she should forward the worst to the security department, but she didn't have the energy. She had been working for too long now to care about anonymous misogyny. Tomorrow, she would write about illegitimate children in Kiruna instead.
She dialed Elsa Svensson's number and sighed impatiently while she waited for an answer. She assumed it would be a while before she made it back to her apartment, her TV, and her couch.
Tom Lexington threw a log onto the open fire. Although the house was well insulated, the fire provided some welcome extra warmth. Outside, it was four below zero, and the snow was coming down heavily. He would have to dig himself out if he wanted to leave the house.
Tom stared at the fire. When he focused on the flames and the crackling of the wood, he felt almost normal. He reached for another log. As he threw it onto the fire, he heard the quiet hum of his cell phone on the coffee table. He got up to see who it was. Lodestar Security Group, switchboard. Work.
He scratched his stubbled chin, knew he should answer — it could be important — but he didn't have the energy today. Instead, he shuffled into the kitchen and then couldn't remember why he'd gone in there. He paused, staring out the window at the snow and the trees. Waiting for the weather report on the radio. Suddenly, a loud, popping sound came from the speakers. A jingle for the next program, which was about hunting. Tom's hands started to shake. Then his thighs. His field of vision shrank, and he struggled to breathe. It happened quickly, less than a second between hearing the noise and feeling as if he was about to collapse.
He groped for the countertop to prop himself up. His heart was pounding as though he were in combat. Suddenly, he was no longer in the house. No longer in the woods outside of Kiruna, in a winter landscape of freezing temperatures and snow. He was in the desert. In the heat. In the hellhole where they'd interrogated and tortured him. His blood was rushing through his veins so fiercely that it was as if the ground was trembling beneath him. Memories flashed before his eyes like a film. He forced himself to breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth. But it didn't help. He was there.
He braced himself and then brought his hand down on the counter with all his might. The pain shot up his arm and into his body, and it did actually help. It hurt like hell, but the pain cut through his panic attack, and he was back in the room again.
Tom took a deep, shaking breath. The flashback had lasted only a few seconds, but he was soaked through with sweat. His legs were unsteady as he took the few steps to the pantry and grabbed a bottle of whisky. He didn't think about how many empty bottles were already beneath the sink, just poured the whisky down his throat and then turned on the faucet. Kiruna was north of the Arctic Circle and the water in the pipes was ice-cold, but he drank it greedily. As he put down his glass, he heard his cell phone again. He went into the living room and picked up the phone from the coffee table.
Mattias Ceder, he read on the screen. Again. Mattias had been calling him all fall. Tom hadn't answered once. He rejected the call and took the phone with him into the kitchen, where he poured another whisky. Two seconds later, it started to ring again. He peered down. Mattias Ceder, of course. The man always was a stubborn bastard. At one point in time, Mattias and Tom were best friends, brothers-in-arms. Back then, they would have given their lives for each other without a moment's hesitation. But that was a long time ago. Plenty had changed since then. Tom studied the phone until it fell silent. It beeped to signal a message: Could you answer the damn phone sometime?
He took a big gulp, poured more whisky, swirled the glass.
It was years since he'd last talked to Mattias. When they were young men, they could talk about everything, but that was before Mattias betrayed him.
Tom looked down into the sink. It was full of mugs, plates, and cutlery that he hadn't had the energy to load into the dishwasher. The woman who cleaned would be here tomorrow, so he let it be, well aware that he never used to be the kind of man who let other people clear up his mess.
He grabbed the glass, the bottle, and the cell phone and went back into the living room. It wasn't the first time he had struggled with PTSD — he'd been a soldier in one way or another ever since he was eighteen. He had been in combat, seen his comrades die, been injured. That kind of thing left its mark, and he'd suffered from both anxiety and flashbacks before, after particularly difficult experiences. But nothing like this. These memories appeared as though from nowhere. An unexpected sound, light, or smell, practically anything could set them off, and then suddenly it was as though he were there, back in captivity. The whole thing was entirely out of his hands. If things were different, maybe he could have talked to Mattias about it. Mattias was a soldier, too, had been in tight situations, knew how it could be. The type of thing civilians would never understand.
Tom emptied his glass. His head was spinning slightly. He grabbed his phone and wrote to Mattias: Go to hell.
It felt good to send that, actually. He stared at the screen to see whether he would get an answer, but nothing came. If Mattias called again, he might answer, he decided. He was drunk now, could feel it, knew that his judgment was clouded, that he shouldn't call anyone, not while he was crashing like this. But he dialed the number anyway. Not Mattias. Someone else. He tumbled onto the sofa and listened to the ring.
"Hello?" Ellinor answered.
"Hi, it's me," he slurred.
"Tom." She sounded sad as she said his name.
"I just wanted to hear your voice," he said, attempting to speak as normally as he could.
"You need to stop this. You're just torturing yourself. You shouldn't be calling me."
"I know." He should take a shower. Shave, pull himself together. Not keep calling his ex, week in, week out. "But I miss you," he said.
"I need to hang up." Tom heard a faint sound in the background.
"Is he there?"
"Bye, Tom. Take care." Ellinor hung up.
Tom stared straight ahead. Calling Ellinor was a mistake, he had known that in advance. But how was he meant to go on without her? He really didn't know. All his years of military training had been about just that. Being able to force yourself to do the impossible. Forcing your body to continue, even when it wanted to give up, even when things seemed hopeless and despite devastating losses. It was about not thinking of anything but the task at hand.
Excerpted from "High Risk"
Copyright © 2016 Simona Ahrnstedt.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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