After Mariah McKenna lands in the hospital with a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction she knows she didn’t cause, she realizes her cheating, vindictive husband would rather have a dead wife than a divorce. Afraid that he will succeed in killing her next time, Mariah goes to Grizzly Harbor to hire one of the Alaska Force special operatives to help her survive long enough to finally live a little.
Griffin Cisneros traded in a comfortable future for boot camp, where he learned the virtue of patience and focus—skills that served him well as a Marine sniper. Few things get to him these days, but something about Mariah’s mix of toughness and vulnerability gets right under his skin. Until it’s clear she’s the one thing in the world that might melt the ice in stoic, reserved Griffin, whether he likes it or not.
If he can just keep her alive...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Megan Crane
After the second time her husband tried to kill her, Mariah McKenna decided she needed to get out of Atlanta.
The first time could have been an accident. That night she had gone to yet another strained charity dinner where everyone smiled sweetly, blessed her heart, and made it perfectly, politely clear they wouldn’t be taking her side in the divorce. And even though Mariah knew better than to touch shellfish, it was always possible that there could have been cross-contamination in the food. Especially in a hotel banquet situation with complicated hors d’oeuvres passed around on gleaming silver trays by bored college students.
Mariah knew it was entirely possible that she’d tossed back what she’d thought was a little cheese puff pastry when it was actually cleverly concealed shrimp. She’d been too busy pretending not to notice the speculative, not particularly friendly looks thrown her way to taste a thing.
It could easily have been an unfortunate accident. Or her own fault for not paying attention.
But she was pretty sure it was David.
He had gone out of his way to get nasty with her only the day before.
“You can’t divorce me,” he’d snarled, getting much too close to her in the sunny parking lot of the Publix in her new neighborhood. That had been her fault, too, for not paying closer attention to her surroundings. She should have seen David’s overly polished Escalade. She shouldn’t have imagined for a single second that he’d allow her to go about without permission, having a normal life like a regular person. “You can’t divorce me.”
That was why, when her throat had started to close up, the first thing in her head was the way his face had twisted like that, out there in a parking lot in the Atlanta spring sunshine for anyone to see. When David got mad, his accent—what Mariah’s mother had always called high Georgia—changed. It became clipped and mean. Then there was the red face, the bulging eyes, that vein on his forehead, and the way he bared his teeth. None of that was pleasant, surely.
But for some reason the fact he sounded less Georgia old money and more cruelly staccato when he was mad was what got to her the most. Because she’d worked so hard to get the redneck out of her own decidedly low-brow accent and she never, ever let it slip. Never.
Still, accidents happened. That was what the doctors told Mariah when she could breathe again. It was certainly what the hotel hastened to tell her, in the form of half their legal team crammed into her makeshift cubicle in the emergency room.
And despite the overly exposed feeling that stuck with her every time she flashed back to that ugly parking lot confrontation, Mariah accepted the idea that it was an accident. She wasn’t living in a gothic novel. Her divorce was ugly, but what divorce wasn’t? There was no need to make everything worse by imagining that David was actually trying to kill her.
But the second time she found herself in the hospital, she stopped kidding herself.
There had been no banquet with questionable puff pastries that night. She’d been at home, delighted that she was now pointedly excluded from social invitations as word got around that David Abernathy Lanier and his jumped-up, white trash wife weren’t simply in the throes of one of those trial separations that always ended up with a tight-lipped decision to stay together for the sake of the family fortune. David was divorcing her—Mariah knew that was how the story would make the rounds, no matter that she’d been the one to leave him—and Atlanta society was sensibly siding with the old money that made them all who they were.
Mariah been all alone in the cute Midtown apartment she’d moved in to when she’d fled David’s showcase of a home in tony Buckhead. Her cozy one-bedroom was a mere seven miles away, but located in an entirely different world than the one where David and people like him lived. And it was the only place that she’d ever lived alone. She had gone straight from her mother’s house to her husband’s, where she couldn’t say she’d lived with him so much as near him, surrounded at all times by the loyal staff who might have pitied David’s poor, unsuspecting wife, but were too well paid to intervene. Or even treat her kindly if David didn’t wish it.
For a long time she’d measured her life against that falling-down farmhouse in rural Two Oaks, Georgia, where there were more boarded-up buildings than people and her family continued to live out of sheer stubbornness. While nothing in Mariah’s life had turned out the way she’d been so sure it would when she’d been a foolish twenty-year-old looking to be rescued by a handsome man in a fancy car, she couldn’t deny that there was a certain pleasure in having her own space at last.
No matter how she’d come by it.
It was while she lay there in another hospital room cordoned off from the rest of the emergency room by a depressing blue curtain—staring up at the fluorescent lights, waiting for her EpiPen to finish letting her breathe, wondering if she’d have the dreaded biphasic second reaction—that she finally understood.
There was no safe space. Not for her.
David shouldn’t have been able to get in to her apartment, but he had. She was still trying to breathe, feeling like there was a hand wrapped tight around her throat. She didn’t bother telling herself any comforting stories this time. David had broken in or hired someone to break in for him. The latter scenario was more likely, because David was not a man who did anything that he could hire someone else to do for him. She felt a sick sensation roll through her, adding to the panic. It felt a lot like shame.
Because David or some faceless minion had been in her pretty furnished apartment with its pastel walls and view over Piedmont Park. They had touched her few personal items. Rifled through her clothes. Sat on the furniture she’d started thinking of as hers. And at some point, tampered with her food to make sure she ended up right back in the emergency room with a far worse reaction than before.
They’d defiled the one place she had ever considered hers, then she’d put their poison in her own body, and she hadn’t even known it. She hadn’t sensed it. She hadn’t felt any of it. She’d gone about her life as if everything was normal when it was actually a trap.
The sheer violation was almost harder to take than her own near-fatal allergic reaction.
“You need to be very, very careful, Mrs. Lanier,” the doctor said, scowling at her as if she’d thought to hell with this potentially lethal allergy and had treated herself to a big old lobster dinner.
“I’m always careful,” she replied when she could speak. “And it’s Ms. McKenna, not Mrs. Lanier. My name change hasn’t gone through yet.”
“Two anaphylaxis episodes in one month isn’t being careful, ma’am.”
And what could Mariah say? My husband would rather kill me than suffer through a divorce, as a matter of fact. I think he snuck into my new apartment and doctored my food so this would happen. Even if the impatient doctor hadn’t already been scowling at her, she wouldn’t have risked it.
David’s family had a wing named after them in this hospital. In every hospital in Atlanta, if she remembered her father-in-law’s genial bragging correctly. The last thing she wanted to do was find herself remanded to the psych ward where a man whose name was all over the hospital could access her as he pleased. Possibly kill her at his leisure. Right out in the open, no incognito shrimp required.
“I’ll be more careful,” she murmured.
But she decided there was no longer any choice. If she wanted to live, she needed to run.
The only question was how to do it. If David had people jimmying locks and dosing food to kill her with her own allergy she could hardly expect that a change of address would do the trick. She’d already tried that when she’d left that cold, bitter house of his.
She decided she couldn’t call anyone she knew. She couldn’t trust any of the friends she’d made since David had swept her straight off her feet and out of that tiny nowhere town in backwoods Georgia. She also couldn’t go back there, no matter how many times she woke in the night with tears on her face, a deep longing for her mother’s coarse smoker’s laugh, and the scent of wild honeysuckle in her nose. Because David had found her there all those years ago, and it would be the first place he’d look.
Mariah was tough, but David was vindictive. And vicious in the way only a very rich man could be. His family had been proud residents of this city since they’d come in with the railroads, and he had allies everywhere. All his southern captain of industry friends and their wide-ranging, overlapping networks of influence and threat. Police. Government. Charities. Media. Name it, and some person who supported David had a finger in it. Or three.
And he had already tried to kill her twice.
By the time she was released from the hospital, she’d tried to talk herself out of it a hundred times. After all, accidents really did happen. It was entirely possible that these were freak occurrences and she was letting David get to her. Letting him win without him having to do much more than say a few ugly words to her in a supermarket parking lot.
Imagining that he has this kind of power is giving him exactly what he wants, she lectured herself in the back of the taxi that took her home from the hospital. She gazed out at another spring morning, bright and sweet, filled with flowers and lush green trees and good things that had nothing to do with David Abernathy Lanier. He would love nothing more than thinking you were this scared of him.
It was all in her head. She was sure of it. She needed to pay closer attention to the ingredients in the things she ate, that was all. Hadn’t she heard allergies got worse as people got older? She needed to be more careful, just as the exasperated doctor had suggested, and she’d be fine.
But when she let herself back in to her cute apartment and stood there, looking around at the cheerful rooms that had brought her such pleasure only last night, she knew better.
David wasn’t going to stop.
Because David didn’t have to stop.
He had determined that he would rather be widowed than divorced. It would be better for the political career he’d informed her he was plotting, since he planned to run on wholesome family values—none of which, she’d pointed out at the time, he actually possessed.
“And whose fault is it I don’t have a family?” he’d asked her, his blue eyes glittering, never dropping that soft drawl that sounded the way old gold would if it could speak.
And if Mariah had learned anything over the course of their ten years together, it was that what David wanted, David got. Her wishes and feelings were utterly unimportant to him. He had picked her because she was a good story he got to tell. She got to play Cinderella games, sure, but he was the benevolent Prince Charming in that scenario.
David really liked playing Prince Charming.
And when playing roles no longer worked to keep her in line? He’d showed her what was behind the mask. Threats. Contempt. Maybe even outright loathing.
What Mariah had to live with now was why she’d seen the truth and stayed. For much longer than she should have. And worse, why she hadn’t seen these things lurking in David from the beginning the way her mother had.
Mariah sat on the edge of the bed in the charming bedroom she doubted she would ever sleep in again, and forced herself to think. To really, truly think with all the desperate clarity brought on by two near-death experiences.
Anaphylaxis got worse, not better. She had to assume that all the food in her house was tainted. That anything she touched could have been doctored and likely was. And that if she ingested shellfish even once more, it could kill her. Especially if she ran out of EpiPens.
She also had to assume she had no friends or allies in Atlanta. There was no one she’d met here who didn’t have ties to David in some way. That meant none of them were safe. And she couldn’t head home, no matter how much she wanted to slam through the old screen door into the farmhouse kitchen, let the dogs bark at her, and sit at the table with a slice of her great aunt’s sweet potato pie until she felt like herself again.
Whoever that was.
Mariah blew out a shaky breath. She could always just . . . go on the run and plan to live that way. But that seemed inefficient at best. She would have to take excruciating care in covering her tracks, always knowing that one tiny slip could be the end of her. Every book she’d ever read or movie she’d ever seen about someone going on the run ended the same way. They slipped up and were found. Or they were caught by whoever was after them no matter what they did. Or they couldn’t handle the isolation and outed themselves, one way or another.
Whatever the reason, life on the run never seemed to work out all that well for anyone.
If David was prepared to kill her—really and truly kill her—going on the run would only make it easier for him. And Mariah had no intention of dying in an out-of-the-way horror show of a motel somewhere, on the requisite dark and rainy night, with some pitiless henchmen of David’s choking the life out of her.
She had no intention of dying at all. Not now.
Not when she’d finally gotten herself free of the lie she’d been living all these years.
If David succeeded in killing her the way he’d told her he would, he won. And if he won, nothing would change. He would go right on being the smiling monster she’d married because she’d wanted so desperately to believe that Cinderella stories could be real. Even more hilarious, she’d convinced herself that a white trash girl from those no-account McKennas out in Two Oaks could wake up one morning and find herself starring in a fairy tale.
If she died, David would tell her story however he liked and no one would know any different.
But if she lived, Mariah could change everything.
She could go back home and see her mother at last. She could try to figure out which one of them had caused this distance between them. She had nieces and nephews she’d never met, and she was sure her network of cousins had some things to say to her after all these years. She could repair those bridges before they burned up altogether.
If Mariah lived, she could do what she wanted with her life. She wouldn’t have to wait tables in her uncle’s dinky roadside diner in the middle of nowhere the way she’d been doing when David found her on that fateful hunting trip. And she wouldn’t have to play the society princess role she’d never quite managed to pull off to anyone’s satisfaction in David’s snooty circles, where everyone’s great-grandparents had known each other and they all had clear opinions about uppity backwoods tramps like her.
If Mariah lived, she could find out who the hell Mariah McKenna really was.
Assuming, of course, that there was anyone in there, locked away behind all her bad decisions.
You told me not to marry him, Mama, she acknowledged inside her head. It was the only way she talked to her mother these days. Another scar she carried around and pretended wasn’t there. You begged me to think twice, but I was sure I knew better.
If her mother were here now, Mariah knew what she would say in that smoker’s voice Mariah had always secretly thought sounded like velvet. Think, baby girl. You didn’t use much of your brain hopping into this mess, but you sure could use it to get yourself out.
Panic kicked at her, and for a minute she couldn’t tell if it was another anaphylactic episode. Mariah laid her hand against her throat and told herself that she was fine. That she was alive and could breathe. She told herself that a few times, then a few more, until her heart rate slowed down again.
She decided it was nervous energy, and she would deal with it the only way she could. By doing something. She pulled one of her bags from under the bed, settling for the one she knew she could carry no matter what. The one she knew she could pick up and actually run with, if she had to. And then Mariah took her time packing, letting her mind wander from the task at hand to all those videos she’d watched online about how to pack a carry-on bag for a month-long trip. Or three months. Or an indefinite amount of time. It had been one more way she’d tried her best to fit in with the effortlessly languid set of people she knew during her marriage. Women who seemed to be able to trot off to Europe for a month with either the contents of their entire house or nothing more than a handbag, a single black dress, and a few scarves.
David had mocked her, of course, though she’d convinced herself it was good-natured teasing at the time. Sure it was.
Maybe you can watch a video on how to make a baby, he had said once, smiling at her across the bedroom as if he’d been whispering sweet nothings in her ear.
The cruelty of it took her breath away now, the same as it had then. This time, however, she didn’t have to hide it. She blinked away the moisture in her eyes, then threw the shirt she’d been folding to the side, because her hand was shaking.
Had she really tried to tell herself he hadn’t meant that? She knew better now. But she’d spent years excusing everything and anything David did.
Because she’d been the one who’d been broken, not him.
David had kept up his end of the bargain. He’d swept Mariah away from that abandoned backwoods town and he’d showered her with everything his life had to offer. He’d paid to give her a makeover. To make her teeth extra shiny. He’d found her a stylist and hired a voice coach so she could transform herself into the sort of swan who belonged on his arm. Or at the very least, so she wouldn’t embarrass him.
All she’d ever been expected to do was give him a baby.
Looking back, it was easy to see how David’s behavior had worsened with every passing month she didn’t get pregnant. Less Prince Charming, more resentful spouse. And increasingly vicious.
When she’d walked in on him and one of the maids, he hadn’t even been apologetic.
Why should I bother to give you fidelity when you can’t do the one thing you low-class, white trash, trailer park girls are any good at?
She would hate herself forever for not leaving immediately that first time. For staying in that house and sleeping in that bed for months afterward. For telling herself that it was a slip, that was all. That they could work through it.
As if she hadn’t seen the hateful way David had looked at her.
She had. Of course she had.
The charming man she’d fallen in love with had never existed. David could pull out the smiles and the manners when he liked. But it only lasted as long as he got his way.
The trouble was, Mariah had turned thirty. And despite years of trying, they hadn’t ever had so much as a pregnancy scare. She’d found David with the first maid the week after her birthday. But it had taken her months to leave.
He never bothered to pull out his charm for her again, and she’d spent more agonizing months than she cared to recall imagining she could fix something he didn’t care was broken.
In the end, after the second time she’d caught him in their bed with another woman employed in their household, Mariah had been faced with a choice. She could look the other way, as she knew many wives in their social circle chose to do. She could figure out a way to keep what she liked about life as Mrs. David Lanier and ignore the rest. It was a dance she’d seen performed in front of her for years, from David’s parents right on down.
But the part of her that had been sleeping for a decade had woken up. That scrappy, tenacious McKenna part of her that she’d locked away. McKennas had rough and tumble stamped onto their stubborn, ornery bones. They fought hard, loved foolishly, and didn’t take much notice of anyone else’s opinions on how they went about it or what kinds of messes they made along the way.
Roll over and play dead long enough, her grandmother used to say, and pretty soon you won’t be playing.
Mariah had decided she’d played enough. And maybe it had taken months of humiliation, but she’d left.
And she would live through this, too, by God.
“I should watch a video on what Mama would do to a man who treated her like this,” Mariah muttered to herself, aware as she spoke that her accent didn’t slip no matter how angry she got.
The idea of a video made her laugh a little. She already knew what her mother would do in this kind of situation. Country folks weren’t society folks, and McKennas were a whole different level still. Back in the day, Rose Ellen had reacted to Mariah’s father’s infidelities by throwing his drunk, cheating butt out. She’d never let him back in.
That was when it came to her.
It wasn’t the family legend of her mother tossing her naked father out of the house at gunpoint, then all his belongings after him, though that was one of Mariah’s most tender childhood memories. It had to do with all those videos she’d watched so obsessively over the past ten years. Her own private version of higher education.
And then it clicked. Just the trickle of a memory of one of those late nights she’d sat up, pretending not to wonder where her husband was—or who he might be with, which was better than when she hadn’t needed to wonder, because he made sure she knew. She’d clicked through video after video on her phone, careful to leave all the lights out in the bedroom so she could pretend she was sleeping and David’s spies could report back to him accordingly.
She’d found herself watching an unhinged conspiracy theorist ranting about satanic signs he alone had found in a children’s television program. Maybe she’d found a little comfort in the fact that there were people out there a whole lot crazier than a lonely Buckhead trophy wife whose husband openly hated her. She might have been the one staying in a marriage gone bad, but at least she wasn’t broadcasting her every paranoid notion with a video camera.
But the man had said something interesting at the end of his garbled insistence that the end was nigh, and in puppet form. He’d mentioned a group of superhero-like men off in the wilderness somewhere. Like the A-Team, Mariah had thought at the time. But not illegal. Or faked for television.
Mariah cracked open up her laptop now and got to work. It took a while for her to find her way back to that odd video. And yet another long while to try to figure out whether anything in that video was real.
But eventually she found her way to a stark, minimalist website that had a name emblazoned across the top of the page. Alaska Force. And a choice between a telephone number and an email address. Nothing more.
Mariah didn’t overthink it. She typed out an email, short and sweet.
My husband is trying to kill me. He’s already come close twice and if he gets a third try, he’ll succeed. I know he will.
As soon as she hit send, Mariah felt silly.
When was she going to learn? There was no use believing in things that might as well be magic. Fairy tales were fairy tales, whether she was telling herself lies about Prince Charming in a backcountry diner or larger-than-life, military-trained superheroes who could save a damsel in distress.
Even if such men existed, why would they save her?
“You got yourself into this mess,” she told herself sternly, the way she knew her own mother would. With absolutely no sympathy, only that hard certainty that Mariah was going to figure it out herself. Because she had to. “You’re going to have to find a way to get yourself out.”
Mariah sat there in front of her laptop, clicking around aimlessly until she found herself on a crafting blog, frowning with great concern over something called mindful making. One more thing she wasn’t doing, apparently. She concentrated on her breathing. On the fact she could breathe. She reminded herself that she was alive and that was what mattered.
It could have been hours or mere minutes. She couldn’t tell. But when her email beeped to indicate an incoming message, she jumped like she’d been shot. Her heart clattered, the way it kept doing, as if her natural state these days was panic. When her airway didn’t close up tight as a fist—panic wasn’t anaphylactic shock—she took a few more deep breaths and made herself click over to her email, certain she would find yet another mailer from some clothing company.
But it wasn’t one of the approximately nine thousand online catalogs that were emailed to her daily, urging her to buy more stuff. It was an email from that same address she’d written to earlier. It was direct. To the point.
Get to Juneau, Alaska, in time to catch the Friday morning ferry to Grizzly Harbor.
If you are not on the Friday ferry, consider this offer rescinded. Further communications will be ignored.
If you can’t leave your current situation unassisted, advise us and we will consider options.
Mariah could hear her heart drumming in her temples and the same kick in her throat, her gut, even her feet—but she knew it wasn’t panic or shellfish this time. It felt a lot more like relief. Possibly even hope.
No wonder she didn’t recognize it. It had been a long, long time since she’d felt anything similar.
I’ll be there, she typed in reply, hoping no one could read her giddiness through the screen.
So much giddiness, in fact, that she had to sit there a moment, in case moving too fast made her dizzy.
When she shut her laptop, she felt that same, drumming sense of purpose she’d felt when the McKenna spirit in her had dusted itself off and marched her straight out of that house she’d shared with David and the staff he apparently sampled at will.
Mariah had been out of the hospital for a total of five hours when she left her apartment again.
She tried to convince herself she was on an adventure. Not a life-or-death race toward the unknown thanks to a random email. Not because she was afraid she would die before the week was out, accidentally eating something dressed up with essence of crab, or eating nothing at all out of fear and starving herself to death.
Whatever waited for her on the other side of that email didn’t matter, because it wouldn’t be David.
Mariah could handle pretty much anything but another dose of David.
She raced downstairs, ignoring how terrible she felt, and got into her car. She checked the back and then tossed her bag on the passenger seat beside her. And then she drove, making her way through the typical Atlanta traffic until she hit I-85. She pointed the car north and east, heading for the coast.
You might feel lethargic, the doctor had told her. It was a whole lot more like being run over by a very heavy truck. Twice. But she could drive her car, so she did.
David had always mocked the thrillers she liked to read, but Mariah put them to good use that day. She deliberately laid a trail. She drove through the Georgia countryside up into South Carolina, then continued straight into Virginia, filling up her car along the way and buying snacks she knew no one could have doctored. She continued out to the coast, and some ten hours after she’d gotten that email, locked herself in a motel room with a lurid green carpet and a view of the Virginia Beach Boardwalk. And the ocean beyond it, which she could hear but not see.
She paid for three days on her credit card, but left the next morning, after she’d fallen asleep exhausted and woken up too many times with her heart pounding, certain that someone was in the room with her. Before she climbed back in her car she took her coffee down to the water’s edge and stuck her feet in the ocean. She might not have felt quite like herself just yet, but she was out of Atlanta.
Whatever else happened, she’d made it out in one piece. And for the moment, anyway, with her cell phone firmly switched off, no one on earth knew where she was.
She drove back inland, then turned north, leaving a trail of receipts along the I-95 corridor from Richmond through Baltimore, then on into New Jersey. She crossed the bridge over the Hudson River, sneaking glimpses of New York City standing proud in the spring sunshine, then drove on to Connecticut. She stopped in a town called Fairfield that she’d located on the map the night before, found another hotel, then settled in for the night.
She ordered room service, deliberately. She went online and bought a plane ticket for the following evening, from New York to Athens, Greece, because she’d always wanted to see Greece. The following morning, she bought a one-way Metro-North train ticket back down to New York City.
But she didn’t get on the train. Instead, she got in the car again and drove up the coast to Providence, Rhode Island. She stayed over that night in a motel on the outskirts of the city that took cash and didn’t ask for ID. She took out the cash maximum from ATM machines every day—because she was sure David would cut her off at any moment, the way he liked to. And she needed more time to access the accounts he didn’t know about, which she hadn’t set up with a debit card. Early on Thursday morning, she drove her car to a different hotel in the center of Providence and left it there.
Then she got on a bus to Boston Logan Airport. She bought herself a ticket to Juneau, Alaska, with her cash, and boarded it a little before noon.
Mariah was feeling pretty pleased with herself by the time she landed in Juneau that night.
Spring in Atlanta had already been warm. All the flowers in bloom and temperatures in the seventies. Mariah had only taken clothes appropriate for that same kind of weather, in case whoever had broken in to her apartment had taken stock of her wardrobe and might be able to figure out where she was headed by what she took with her. Luckily, she’d had a layover in Seattle, and had outfitted herself there for whatever spring looked like so much farther north.
Friday morning, as she found her way to the only ferry that headed to Grizzly Harbor, an island out in the moody Alaskan sea, it was cold. Crisp and clean and almost unbelievably beautiful, but cold.
Colder than Mariah had ever been in her life, though she tried to wrap the woolly things she’d bought in Seattle around her twice to combat it.
The chill in the air was sharp and sweet and it slapped her awake.
It felt like hope.
When she finally boarded the ferry she took a seat near a window and tried to take it all in. She’d spent the better part of the last week on interstate highways, or in motels nearby. She’d seen a lot of truck stops. Grimy fast food restaurant bathrooms with that cloying, astringent smell to mask the more unpleasant smells beneath. More construction than should have been possible, all kinds of traffic choking the different eastern cities, and apart from the glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean she’d had here and there, there had been tarmac, concrete, and steel as far as the eye could see.
Alaska was like an antidote.
There were mountains everywhere, some draped in white with a comforting canopy of dark green pines and imposing rock faces. Some pasted across the horizon, so stark and white she’d assumed they were clouds at first. Everywhere she looked, mountains sloped down into the mysterious blue inlets and sounds, beckoning and beautiful.
It had been downright cold outside at the ferry terminal, despite the sun. In the course of the ride across the water, with stops at tiny Alaskan villages bristling with the masts of boats and the hint of wood smoke, there was rain. Then fog. Then more sun when Mariah least expected it, doing its best to burn the fog away.
When the ferry finally reached Grizzly Harbor, Mariah moved to the outer deck with some of the other passengers, smiling her apologies when a woman with a young boy bumped into her at the railing. She felt the wind on her face, a sharp slap that left salt behind. The water below the ferry boat looked dark in the fog, and she could smell the rich scent of ocean life. It was the same as it had been in Virginia Beach—only deeper. Wilder and unspoiled by high-rises and too many people.
David had taken her to exotic places—or at least, they had been exotic to a girl from the middle of nowhere, who’d gone nowhere and seen nothing. New York City. Paris. A yacht on the Caribbean.
But she’d never seen anything quite like Grizzly Harbor. The spring sunshine danced in and around the clouds, lighting up the hardy fishing village that clung to the steep sides of another imposing mountain. All the buildings clustered together there above the water’s edge were painted in different bright colors, most of them peeling and weathered—though that in no way took away from their appeal. There were boats at the docks, pleasure boats and fishing vessels alike. Mariah had never given Alaska a whole lot of thought, but she discovered it looked exactly the way she’d imagined it would. All it needed was a moose cantering down from the woods or a bear roaring up on one of the narrow streets, and the image would be complete.
She was smiling to herself as she walked off the ferry, swept up with the rest of the passengers getting off here. The whole town had come out to meet the boat and were applying themselves to help unload supplies or greet returning locals. Maybe everyone was as charmed as she was, she thought, as a bearded man in made-to-order Alaskan flannel jostled her slightly as they disembarked, as if he was rushing to get out into all that goodness.
Mariah couldn’t blame him. It was like walking into a postcard.
A postcard that highlighted the adorable wooden boardwalks that made up some of the streets climbing up the hill—as well as what had to be the most lethal man she’d ever laid eyes on in her life.
She could have sworn he hadn’t been there a moment earlier. He stood apart from the rest of the crowd gathered at the dock, his back to a weathered shack Mariah assumed belonged to the ferry company. Or maybe it was for fisherman, given the number of fishing boats she could see in the harbor.
But she was only looking at the shack because he was in front of it. And he was . . . too much to take in.
Too much of too many things Mariah didn’t know how to feel.
He was tall and dark and the kind of lean that made her think of sharply honed hunting knives, precisely balanced to kill with a single throw. His arms were crossed over his powerful chest, calling attention to the way his biceps threatened the fabric of the henley he wore while the larger, bearded men all around him wore coats.
But the most noticeable thing about this man was his unflinching gaze. It was much, much colder and harsher than the Alaskan afternoon settling deeper into Mariah’s bones with every step she took.
And he didn’t pretend he was staring at anything but her.
Mariah felt something in her shake. As if a critical part of her had come loose and was rattling around in there now, threatening to take her down to the cold dock at her feet.
But it didn’t. She ignored the bizarre sensation the way she’d learned to ignore just about everything else. She reminded herself she was still recovering from anaphylactic shock, so of course she felt . . . odd. She felt her smile shift from actual, unconscious delight at the pretty town around her to the familiar baring of her teeth she’d used to hack her way through Atlanta society.
She made herself breathe as she walked over to the terrifying man, because holding her breath could end in embarrassing disaster. He didn’t strike her as the sort who would exert himself to catch her if she fainted.
And as she moved closer to him, she couldn’t help but notice any number of wholly unfair things. He was already too powerful, too lethal. That had been obvious from the ferry. Was it truly necessary that he have the kind of chiseled jaw that belonged in a lovesick poem or two? Or a mouth that another woman—one who still felt anything at all in her heart, and maybe even places lower than her heart—might actually, physically swoon over? Whether she was breathing or not.
His cold gaze was a particularly compelling brown, lit with a deep gold that did nothing at all to warm it, and a few shades lighter than the brown of his skin.
He was the most beautiful man Mariah had ever seen in her life.
And also, clearly, the deadliest.
“Hi,” she said, stopping in front of him.
She was free of Atlanta now. So far away from David he almost seemed like a bad dream, here in all this crisp, cold blue, and moody splendor that was making her teeth start to chatter. It had to be thirty degrees, not that anyone else seemed to notice. And still, the man in front of her made her uneasy. He looked exactly the way a lethal special ops “problem solver” ought to look, but it wasn’t that.
Maybe it’s the way he’s already looking at you like he hates you, a sharp voice inside her suggested.
That hurt, and it shouldn’t have. Mariah was used to people hating her on sight. And, like her inlaws, long after no matter how her father-in-law smiled and pretended otherwise.
She could have dropped her high society persona, but she didn’t quite dare, out here in all this wilderness, so far away from everything civilized. Her usual mask firmly in place, she treated the man before her to the sort of smile her mother-in-law had always employed as her go-to weapon of mass destruction. Because for all Mariah knew, this man was more villain than superhero. And she’d yet to meet a single living human that smile couldn’t wither down to nothing.
Mariah aimed it right at him, and played up her drawl, too. “You look dangerous enough to belong to that very cloak-and-dagger website. I surely hope that you’re here to save me.”
If possible, his harsh gaze grew chillier. He was like granite encased in a glacier, except much harder and much, much colder. She told herself it was the stiff breeze from the water that was making her shiver.
Most importantly, he didn’t wither.
“I’m no savior,” he said, his voice dark and deep, and if she wasn’t mistaken, disgusted. “But if you’re Mariah McKenna Lanier, that makes you my problem.”