Authors: Sarah Varland
Two murdered men are the last thing wildlife trooper McKenna Clark expected to find in the stark Alaskan wilderness. As the only law enforcement in the area, the responsibility for the case rests on her shoulders—along with the danger. Hunting guide and pilot Will Harrison wants to ease the load, but McKenna balks at the thought of letting him close enough to break her heart again. When McKenna’s investigations put her in harm’s way, Will must race against the clock to save his second chance at love from becoming the killer’s final victim.
The wilderness was as treacherous as it was beautiful.
Will scanned their surroundings for possible threats, human or animal, as he followed McKenna.
She stopped by an unmistakable red stain on the brown earth where the bodies had once lain.
Knowing the blood had come from someone churned his stomach. But not as much as the thought that it could have been McKenna’s.
The thought of little McKenna Clark all grown up and mixed up in a job like this played havoc with his mind. She was too young and inexperienced for an isolated post like this.
“Be careful.” An uneasy feeling crept over him.
He heard the bang a split second before the bullet whizzed past.
“Get down!” he yelled to McKenna, taking her to the ground with him. He’d promised her he wouldn’t let her get hurt and she’d almost been killed.
Last night’s note had been a warning. Today, full understanding hit him with all the force of a charging male grizzly. Someone was trying to kill McKenna.
Books by Sarah Varland
Love Inspired Suspense
Treasure Point Secrets
lives in the woods in Georgia with her husband, John, their two boys and their dogs. Her passion for books comes from her mom; her love for suspense comes from her dad, who has spent a career in law enforcement. Her love for romance comes from the relationship she has with her husband and from watching too many chick flicks. When she’s not writing, she’s often found reading, baking, kayaking or hiking.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
To my family—I love and appreciate all of you.
Thank you to my family. John, Mom, Dad, and Alison—you do everything from critique and brainstorm, to babysit, to answer odd questions about crime scenes. Josh and Timothy—thanks for providing a welcome break from writing now and then with your cuteness.
Thank you to Major Dennis Casanovus for answering research questions relating to this book and the Alaska State Troopers. Your help was invaluable and any mistakes or stretches are mine. Thanks also to Lindsay Moore for helping one of my characters stop the bleeding of a gunshot victim.
Thanks to my writing friends who have encouraged me with your friendship.
Thanks, Alice, for being a fabulous agent.
Thank you, Elizabeth, my editor, who has a special skill for making stories shine.
And thank you, Lord, again, for letting me live this dream.
soft wind blew across the tundra, whispered through the grass and sent shivers up McKenna Clark’s spine. The two bodies that lay in front of her were not the caribou or moose the wildlife trooper expected to find when she received a tip that someone might be poaching on the tundra south of Barrow. No, these bodies were definitely human. And they’d definitely been murdered.
Her stomach churned and swirled but she took a deep breath as she edged closer, closed her eyes most of the way and felt each person’s wrist for a pulse, just in case.
She dropped the arm she’d last held, took several steps back and averted her eyes. She’d seen her share of senseless killing in her work, but this was the first time she’d seen a dead person outside of a funeral home. This wasn’t what she’d expected when she’d signed up to be a wildlife trooper. She’d been through the trooper academy like every other Alaska state trooper, and knew her job was dangerous in a unique way. The wild animals she worked to protect were unpredictable and could pose a serious threat to her safety on their own. And anyone breaking hunting regulations had the potential to be dangerous to her. Those were all risks she understood and accepted willingly when she took the job. But this? She’d never anticipated dealing with murder.
She forced herself to glance back down at the bodies, knowing she’d be asked more than a few questions once she called this in. Especially about whether cause of death was obvious. It was—in the form of a gunshot wound on each.
McKenna bristled at the voice of Chris, the pilot, who was too close behind her for comfort. She whipped around, wondering when he’d gotten out of the plane. “No. It’s not.” He may be a contract-based employee of the troopers, but his narrow eyes were full of something she couldn’t identify, and the way he held himself made it seem as though he had something to hide. She didn’t trust him.
He held up his hands in mock surrender at her tone and let out a low whistle when he caught sight of the scene in front of them. “That’s gonna need to be called in.”
As though she didn’t know that.
McKenna started toward the plane and the communications equipment, but paused when she realized the pilot wasn’t following her.
“Aren’t you coming?” She pierced him with a gaze that she hoped conveyed the fact that it wasn’t really a question.
He took one more long look at the bodies, shook his head and followed her. McKenna climbed into the plane, relaxing slightly when the pilot climbed in next to her and began preparing them for the flight. She wasn’t sure what it was about him that made her uneasy, but after a few years on the job, she’d learned to trust her gut instincts. She called headquarters and left a message to report what she’d found, then leaned back against the seat, taking deep breaths to calm her nerves. She wouldn’t be able to fully let her guard down until she was back in Barrow and away from this pilot and his too-watchful eyes.
The scene she’d just observed flashed before her and she wasn’t able to suppress a shudder.
Though she had no logical reason to fear for her own safety, McKenna had a feeling that, back in Barrow or not, she wouldn’t feel like letting her guard down any time soon.
* * *
“I got your message. You think you found a murder scene?” Captain Wilkins’s voice was skeptical. McKenna squeezed her phone tighter. She could almost picture him frowning, bushy eyebrows pressed together, even though she’d only met him once—last week after she’d accepted the transfer and flown up here to the middle-of-nowhere.
“Yes, sir,” McKenna said more calmly than she felt, knowing she’d stumbled over her words when she’d left her message and had likely confused an already abnormal situation even more. “I received a tip that someone had been poaching south of Barrow and had Chris fly me down to investigate. That’s when I found the bodies.”
McKenna exhaled, feeling a weight lift from her shoulders. This was almost over. She’d fill out a little paperwork, get that sent off before she left the office and be done with this case. Her heart ached for the dead men, for their families. For the lack of justice. But she’d done what she could. It wasn’t her case. Other law enforcement agencies would look into it from here.
She wasn’t sure she’d ever been so relieved. She sipped a long drink of coffee as she waited for the captain to tell her how he wanted her to handle her report. The coffee was cold and left over from that morning. But it was better than nothing.
“Thanks for letting me know. Keep looking into it and update me when you know more.”
She almost choked on the coffee.
“Excuse me?” McKenna’s voice pinched in her throat. “It’s...it’s not a wildlife issue, sir. I assumed I’d notify you and you’d pass it on to another trooper nearby. Or another agency.”
“There are no regular troopers near there. Didn’t they show you the map with currently filled trooper posts? You’re it up there, Officer Clark. You were put in command of the Barrow post. That means someone had confidence in your abilities. Do the best you can and resolve this.”
“Work with the North Slope Bureau Police Department if you need to, but this is a state trooper investigation. And you have the lead.”
McKenna knew she shouldn’t argue, but when had that ever helped her keep quiet? “But I’m a
trooper.” She stated what should have been obvious, her mind flashing images from earlier in the afternoon that she’d prefer to forget. She couldn’t handle deliberate crimes against people. That was her brother’s expertise—he was an Anchorage police officer and loved every minute of his job. McKenna didn’t know how he dealt with the hate. Hadn’t she just told him yesterday when they’d talked on the phone about his latest case that she’d be terrible at that sort of work?
But the extra layer of steel in Captain Wilkins’s voice made it clear he didn’t care.
“You are. You’ve also been promoted to a position of authority. Poaching is often a motive for other crimes, like murder. It’s not the first time we’ve had a wildlife trooper investigating a homicide. As I said, you have the lead, Officer Clark. I wish it hadn’t happened your first week up here, but it did. Like it or not. Now, solve it or go back to the city.”
McKenna heard a click. “Hello?” She pressed the phone harder to her ear. “Hello?” He’d hung up on her.
Solve it or go back to the city.
She hated herself for it, but for an instant she considered the second option. She loved the city of Anchorage. She’d hoped to make a difference doing a job she was passionate about while living her dream life in the city. That’s what she
been doing until this “promotion” moved her out here into the bush. She was alone in this small town, with no colleagues to consult with, no superiors to go to for advice or mentorship. Nothing. It was just her. And Chris, the contracted pilot, if she counted him. Since the thought of him made the hair on the back of her neck stand up and she still couldn’t erase the look in his eyes that had unsettled her at the crime scene, she wasn’t inclined to think of him as someone on her side.
she go back to the city and admit that she wasn’t ready for this opportunity, after all? No. She’d never been a quitter and she wouldn’t start now.
McKenna hung up the phone and stared around at the tiny building designated as her “office.” It was little more than a single-wide trailer, about fifteen feet long. But it had a coffeemaker, a desk and a space heater, and that really covered all the essentials. If she needed more she’d have to ask the police department for help or fly to another village or city where there was a regular trooper post.
She shook her head. This wasn’t where she was supposed to be. Since early in high school, she’d started creating a list of goals for the year every January first. They weren’t just resolutions, they were more specific than that. Like when she’d set a goal to graduate as valedictorian, which she’d eventually accomplished with a perfect GPA and quite a few advanced-placement classes. After she had her yearly goal list, she’d rework her five-year plan to include the current year and write out specific steps she’d need to take to keep herself on track.
This promotion taking her to the middle of nowhere was most definitely not on her five-year plan. Neither was pretending to be some kind of detective when she’d become a trooper, a
trooper to help make sure wildlife in Alaska was managed and treated properly.
McKenna shoved the chair back and stood, frustration building in her. She hated when things didn’t go according to plan.
Knowing there was nothing else she could do today, she shut off the light and let herself outside. Sunset wouldn’t come for several more hours, since even September liked to remind the world that Alaska was the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” McKenna kept herself alert as she walked to her car. She was new in town, with no idea who she should trust. And though the site of the murders had been miles away, Barrow was the closest town to the crime scene. Chances were good either the murderer or the victims had started out in Barrow. Questions terrorized her mind as she thought through the case again. Would the culprit kill again? Who might be the next victim? She had only a theoretical idea of how crimes like this worked. She’d been through regular training at the trooper academy but lacked the experience to back up what she’d learned. Maybe she’d call her brother later. He’d know what to do.
She dismissed the idea as soon as it came to mind. She loved Luke, but he already saw her as his baby sister. Calling him for help would just reinforce the perception that she needed him to take over and decide what was best for her. She’d been trying to break him of that habit since she was about ten years old, begging Luke and his best friend, Will, to take her with them on their adventures, and hearing time and time again that she was too young. No, she’d have to handle this herself. She was an adult.
McKenna climbed in her car, slamming the door shut behind her and jamming her thumb against the lock button with more force than necessary. Hopefully she could solve this case fast and wrap everything up before anyone else ended up hurt.
Chills started at the back of her neck and chased each other down her spine. She was as sure as she’d ever been about anything—someone was watching her. Not just watching. Observing. Studying.
She studied her surroundings. There were too many places someone could be hiding. Under the trailer that made up her office. Or farther away, in another car, behind a building.
It was impossible to know.
But she knew for sure she wasn’t imagining it. Someone had her in his sights. And since she’d never felt this way before, it seemed safe to assume it had something to do with the case today. Someone knew she’d found the bodies. Now they were following her.... Why? To see what she did with that information?
McKenna didn’t know. And she didn’t know what to do about it. Her mind tried to form a coherent prayer, but part of her resisted. She wasn’t in over her head yet. No need to bother God about it now when she could still handle it herself.
She drove away, the uneasiness dissipating with the distance she traveled, confirming further to her that it hadn’t been nerves, but that someone had been very nearby, watching.
Maybe she was closer to over her head than she’d thought.
* * *
Will Harrison shut his locker and blew out a deep breath.
“Rough day, Harrison?” His friend Matt Dixon entered the staff room and gave him a slap on the back as he walked by him.
“You could say that.” The tourists he’d taken out today were hardly competent to hunt wildlife, as they’d paid to do through his employer, Truman Hunting Expeditions. He’d spent the day on edge, cringing every time someone picked up a gun. If it had been up to Will, he would have refunded their money and sent them home, but Rick, his boss, had made it clear that he’d accept whatever clients came their way, take them on a successful hunt and keep them safe.
Some days that seemed like a lot to ask for.
“Want to come over tonight? Lexi’s cooking caribou stew.”
Lexi’s food was some of the best Will had ever tasted. But he shook his head anyway. “Thanks, man, but not tonight. Think I’m just gonna go home and crash.” Maybe look at his bank statements again and see if he had enough yet to open his own guide service. One where sure, he’d have the stress of running his own business, but he wouldn’t have the hassle of taking people he didn’t feel comfortable giving guns to on dangerous hunting trips.
The door opened. “Good day, guys?” Rick Truman asked as he walked in. Matt nodded his answer, Will said nothing. There were some things he and Rick didn’t see eye to eye on, and the clients were one of them. But overall he was a good boss, and besides, Will needed this job. Just until he finished saving money. Then he’d have his own agency, do business his way.
“I have a little bit of bad news. Those raises I promised you guys?” He shook his head. “They won’t kick in quite yet. It may be a few more months.”
Will raised his eyebrows, waiting for more of an explanation.
“Seriously?” Matt shook his head. “Man. I was counting on that so Lexi could stay home when the baby comes.”
Rick’s expression was pinched. “Sorry. You’ve earned it. Both of you. But things are tight. Tighter than I thought they would be.”
Will took in Rick’s camos, which looked as if they’d never been worn, in contrast to his and Matt’s, which had seen more than a few hunting and guiding trips. Maybe Rick had a different definition of “tight” than they did.
Rick sighed. “It’s the economy right now. It’s tough on everyone. But we’ll push through it, take some more trips, come back out on top.” He sounded as if he was reassuring himself as much as them, which made it easier for Will not to hold the lack of raise against him. “You’ll see, guys.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Will finally spoke up. “It’s just money.”
Matt nodded along with him, as did Rick, who cleared his throat and added, “Just money indeed.”