Authors: Sarah Varland
As it was, she could veer off the trail, but she was so unfamiliar with the territory that it might end up being a bad move. She could be lost forever out here.
No, it was better to stick to the route she knew. Will shouldn’t be too far ahead. If only she could reach him before the mystery man reached her.
The world slowed as the ATV slammed into her from behind and McKenna fought two warring impulses—hang on with all her might, or let go so she wasn’t crushed if another attack came.
The question was answered for her as he hit her a second time. As metal crunched, she was thrown from the seat of the machine. She landed on the cold ground with a hard thud. She scrambled to stand immediately and ran in the direction where she knew Will was waiting, a scream building in her throat.
Heavy footfalls behind her left no doubt that the stranger was pursuing her. The crash must have knocked him off his four-wheeler, too. McKenna pushed herself as hard as she could, feeling her muscles burning but ignoring their protests.
Her shoulder took the force of the impact as he tackled her and she found herself falling to the ground.
“Will! Help!” She yelled the words as loud as she could but the wind snatched them away. She had no idea if she’d been loud enough for him to hear.
McKenna’s attacker clapped a heavy, gloved hand over her mouth with one hand, and with the other reached to his side.
The menacing black handgun he pulled out made her heart skip. As long as they were fighting hand to hand, she stood a chance. Not much of one, but a chance anyway. She was unarmed, though, with her own weapon back with the four-wheeler, and could do nothing against a gun.
Desperation propelling her motions, she flailed and knocked the gun from his hand. He watched it fly through the air and land ten feet away or so. She hoped he’d go after it and give her a chance to escape.
Instead, he pulled something from his pocket—a long, dangerous-looking knife with some kind of white carved handle and a silver blade that glittered menacingly in the sunlight.
As he raised his arm, McKenna kicked with all her might, but nothing she did allowed her to overpower him. “Will!” she yelled one last time, knowing if the knife came down and found its target, it wouldn’t matter how fast he got there, it would be too late.
The sun glinted and flickered off the knife and her attacker gave a hint of a smile at the despair that must be showing on her face.
A shiver ran through her as she took a deep breath, realizing this was probably the end.
As the man’s arm tensed and he began to bring the knife down, a blur behind him made McKenna’s eyes widen. Will knocked the man sideways in a tackle and the two of them grappled on the ground, the attacker still wielding the knife and Will, as far as she could tell, unarmed.
She stood and moved away from the fight, wanting to help but knowing from experience that getting in the middle of the fight was as likely to cause problems as do any good. With the knife, the attacker had the stronger position, and she wouldn’t risk distracting Will at the wrong moment. She considered running back to the four-wheeler for her gun, but knew it would be useless to try to aim while the men were tangled up fighting. Hitting Will was too big of a risk.
After another minute of struggling, Will managed to wrench the knife from the man’s hand. Seeing he’d lost his advantage, the attacker freed himself from Will’s grasp and ran to reholster his gun. Stunned, McKenna stared for a second, then pulled herself off the ground and chased him as fast as she could.
She’d almost caught him when he jumped back on his four-wheeler and gunned it. McKenna ran to hers, climbed on and pushed the starter button. Nothing happened. She tried again, mashing the throttle to rev the engine.
The smell of gasoline and the refusal of the machine to start told her she’d flooded the engine.
She’d have to wait to try again.
McKenna shut the machine off, climbed down and kicked one of the tires. So close. Yet he still got away.
ill gripped the knife in his hands, taking deep breaths as he fought to regain control over the surging waves of what he guessed might be adrenaline. He sat up and stared at the shaking of his hands. The knife fell from his grasp, onto the grass.
He looked up at McKenna, half wondering if he’d dreamed the entire scene. The haunted look in her widened eyes told him he hadn’t. It had been all too real. As if the knife he’d been holding hadn’t been enough proof.
“Are you okay?” He finally forced the words out as he stood, scanning her for injuries. He saw none, but still needed the reassurance.
“I d-don’t know,” she stuttered. “I mean, yes. I think.”
She sounded so vulnerable, so shaken, he didn’t know what else he could do but pull her into his arms.
He’d expected her to resist, to protest somehow, but instead she turned her face into his chest and began to cry.
Will kept a careful watch on their surroundings as he held her. He was relatively certain the threat was over for now, but it never hurt to be careful. Still, he was grateful McKenna was taking a break. She needed someone to help her carry this load—he could see how much it was weighing on her. And he wanted to be that person.
He tightened his arms around her and bent to her ear. “It’s really going to be okay. Soon.”
Will thought he heard her sniff.
Eventually, she pulled away. Will’s arms felt empty without her in them. He could face down just about anything the Alaskan wilderness had to offer and not flinch. But the way he was starting to feel about McKenna scared him. If anyone else described these feelings to him, he’d say they were in love. No hesitation. But with him and McKenna...it had to be something else. Just a close-friendship kind of feeling? Crazy emotions from the danger and stress?
Some part of him knew otherwise, knew better, but he wasn’t ready to go there yet. He shoved the thoughts away, knowing distraction could get them both killed. Or worse, get her killed and leave him dealing with the guilt at not having kept her safe.
He already knew all too well how that felt.
“What now?” he asked.
“I’ll need that knife.” McKenna dug through her backpack until she came up with a brown paper bag. “For evidence. I’ll send it to the crime lab in Anchorage for processing. One of the guys working forensics there is one of the best in the nation, Luke says. If there’s something to find, he’ll find it.”
“You haven’t heard back on the evidence from the first crime scene yet, have you?”
She shook her head. “It’s not like you see on TV. That kind of information takes a few weeks to get, usually. I should hear soon, though.”
“Not soon enough to suit me.”
McKenna shrugged. “Me neither, but that’s how it is.”
“Ready to head back?” he asked her after she’d snapped some pictures of the area, treating it as a crime scene.
“I guess so.”
“We’ve got a long ride.” He caught her gaze and held it. “Are you okay to drive or should you ride with me? We could come back for your four-wheeler later.”
“I’ll be okay.” She smiled a little and hesitated over the next words. “But it’s sweet of you to ask.”
McKenna seemed surprised at his concern, had seemed even more surprised by his embrace earlier. Did she really not have a clue to the depth of the feelings he had for her—that he’d
had for her, even before he left their little town for Anchorage all those years ago?
Those feelings were part of the reason he’d left. She’d always been off-limits, and too many times on the rocky beach at Resurrection Bay, he’d almost kissed her and crossed the invisible line they’d drawn between friends and something more. It wasn’t just his friendship with Luke that had stopped him, although that had been a big part of it. It had been the knowledge that if they started to date and it didn’t work out, he would lose McKenna’s friendship. He hadn’t had many good things in his childhood, and he wasn’t going to risk one of the relationships that meant the most to him for a silly teenage crush.
Maybe the lengths he’d been willing to go to in order to make sure that didn’t happen should have given him a clue that he’d cared about her more than he realized, even then. But it hadn’t.
* * *
“I really did have fun today,” McKenna insisted again as they drove down the road in his truck, the trailer pulling the four-wheelers behind them.
Will grimaced. “You mean before someone chased you down and tried to kill you?”
“Tried. I’m okay, Will. Would you quit worrying?”
He didn’t know how to tell her that the nagging, churning feeling in his gut when it came to her safety was something that had been there for quite a few years—he was pretty convinced it wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
If he could turn off the protective instincts, he would. No, that wasn’t right. She was still a friend, and he wanted to do everything in his power to keep her safe. But he could feel his heart wavering between the kind of caring one gives to a friend’s safety and something more and he wished there was a way to shut down those feelings.
Hadn’t he learned his lesson about relationships with daring women? He’d loved every minute he’d had with Rachael, loved her with all the love he had to give. But she’d had adventures to chase and those adventures had eventually taken her from him.
McKenna was even more of a spitfire than Rachael had ever been. More independent. And in the week since she’d been back in his life, she’d managed to get herself in more trouble than he’d thought one woman could get in.
How did she report to a new job and find someone trying to kill her almost from day one?
Will bristled. “McKenna, do you ever wonder if it’s not just coincidence that has you in someone’s sights? Like, maybe you’re an intentional target—not just the person who happened to find the bodies.”
“Is that your way of saying you’re going to ignore the request not to worry?”
“Yeah. For the moment I am. Now, focus on my theory. What do you think?”
She paused, seeming to consider it. “I can see it. It’s not too outrageous. But why? I’m just your average run-of-the-mill wildlife trooper.” She shrugged. “Nothing special.”
He’d argue with her there, awareness of her specialness seemed to be distracting him from just about everything these days. “What about Luke? Isn’t he working some high-profile case?”
That seemed to get her attention. “You’re thinking this is tied to the Davis case?”
“Yeah. He mentioned it was really important. Living up here I haven’t heard details. Remind me what’s going on with it.”
“There’s not much to tell, unfortunately. They haven’t been able to get any solid leads. Several months ago Maggie Davis disappeared from the grocery store she worked at, never to be heard from again.”
“Maybe Luke’s getting close to something. Maybe the guy behind it is trying to distract Luke by going after his family. It’s been done before.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, it has. It’s pretty cliché, actually. I doubt it.”
“I’m not ready to dismiss any valid theories,” he insisted as they bumped over the gravel road that was taking them closer to Barrow by the minute.
McKenna pulled out her cell phone. “Fine. I’ll text Luke and see if he’s gotten any new leads lately. But I’m not going to tell him about this ridiculous theory because he worries worse than you do.”
Her thumbs flew over the screen of the phone and then she set it down, giving him a look. “Are you happy?”
“Happier.” He was pretty sure he couldn’t be completely happy until this danger was behind them. “Do you have any theories, since you don’t seem to buy into mine?” Will asked, changing the subject but keeping it focused on the case because he was afraid of where their conversation would go if they didn’t stick to work. The times from earlier in the day when they’d almost brought up their past and all the might-have-beens that needed to stay there had been too numerous for comfort. This was a safer subject.
McKenna considered his question, her face edged into a frown as she did so. “I have a few, yes.”
Subject changed. Will felt his shoulders relax. “Like what?”
“Well...” she began. “Let’s go back to square one.”
“The initial murders. Which, like you’ve pointed out, I discovered because of the tip that someone might be poaching there. Because of that—the initial incident—I have a few main suspects.” She looked at him warily. “I’m not 100 percent sure you’re going to be happy with them.”
What did she mean by that? Surely she didn’t suspect him; they went too far back for that. Will shrugged. “They’re your suspects.”
“Okay.” She paused again. “You’re sure you want to hear?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“The first one is that George guy.”
“And why do you suspect him?”
McKenna twisted uncomfortably. “It was the way he said things that night on the beach. Like he knew more than he was saying. And the way he smirked... He sounded like he was glad the other man had died. And he brought up hunting regulations.”
“Which doesn’t make someone a criminal.”
She glared at him. Will threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Just trying to play the other side here, make you think through things.”
“I think he’s involved. Somehow,” she said. Will didn’t know George well enough to comment on his character. And what she said did make sense, he just wanted to make sure she had solid proof before she went around accusing people.
was the one who was supposed to be investigating, wasn’t she? “Okay, who else?”
A shadow darkened her expression. “Chris. The pilot the troopers had assigned to me.”
“I think I know who you’re talking about. I don’t know him, but I’ve seen him around town. Is he an actual trooper?”
She shook her head. “No, but he’s on the payroll. He knows people in the department. I hate to suspect him because of that, but he didn’t seem surprised when we stumbled upon those bodies. It was like he kept watching me to see my reaction, but he never had one himself.”
That was odd.
“The way he watched me... I don’t have a good feeling in my gut about him.”
“That also sounds logical. But if he was behind the murders, why didn’t he kill you right there, then?”
McKenna shrugged. “I haven’t figured that part out yet. This case seems to have several layers. And the last person I’m really looking at right now...” She drew a deep breath. “He has a connection to your hunting company. It would be logical for an actual hunting service to be involved in this, even though yours has a good reputation.”
Will bristled. “I might not always like the kind of clients he takes on, but Rick is too smart, too much of a straight-lines kind of guy to get involved in something so drastically illegal.”
McKenna’s face was blank and impassive. “I wasn’t talking about Rick. I was talking about Matt.”
“Matt?” The question exploded out of him even as he felt his face heat and his blood pressure begin to rise. “You’re putting one of my best friends up there on your suspect list to be investigated? Is this list official in any way? Are other people going to come after him? Because you could end up ruining his life.”
“Didn’t you tell me he had a criminal past?”
Will flexed his grip on the steering wheel, squeezing tight and then letting go to help release the pressure he felt building up inside of him. “I told you that to help you understand where he and his wife were coming from, why they’d understand what you’re going through.”
“Well, he has the opportunity to have committed such a crime, with all that time he spends alone on the tundra with various people.”
“So do I,” Will countered, defending his friend. “So does my boss, for that matter.”
“But I checked out the official business records and those seem to indicate Rick’s clean. Besides, neither of you has a criminal record.” Her face had hardened now; her gaze was all business. “That stands against Matt.”
“But you don’t have any evidence?”
“Nothing solid—against him or anyone else. But we have opportunity, and money is always a good motivator. Didn’t you say things have been rough for them lately?”
“Things have been rough for everyone. What makes you think he’d do something illegal?”
She shrugged. “He has before. And now he has a wife to take care of. He feels responsible for providing and business is tough. People have broken the law for less.”
Will jerked the truck over to the side of the road, suddenly unable to focus on driving. He turned to McKenna. “You know what? I know some of that looks bad. But Matt is not your guy. I know him, and if you trust me at all, you’ll cross him off that list and look somewhere else.”
His chest tightened when she didn’t immediately nod. He watched as she stared out the window, off into the distance somewhere. Finally she turned to him, slowly, and spoke. “I’m sorry you’re taking this so hard. I didn’t say I wanted to suspect him. But several things point to him as a possible suspect. And until I have a solid reason not to, he’s staying on that list.”
She held his gaze, not flinching. Will tried not to take it personally. Matt probably wouldn’t. But for some reason, the combination of her suspecting a good friend of his, and not trusting his word that she didn’t need to, rankled him. He put the truck back in drive and continued down the road. The crunch of gravel beneath the tires was the only sound for several miles.
The chirp of a text message notification on McKenna’s phone broke the silence. She glanced down at it and read the message. He glanced over at her.
“It’s from Luke.” McKenna’s face had been drained of all its color. “He says they’re getting close to finding this guy.” She swallowed hard. “And he said that one of the other officers on the Davis case has had family members get threatening notes. And just last night someone made an attempt on one of their lives.” She gulped. “He says to be careful. That the guy could come after me next.”
* * *
McKenna watched expressions chase across Will’s face and wondered briefly if he knew how much of his thoughts she could see clearly in his bright blue eyes.