Authors: Char Chaffin
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Rae Monet, Inc.
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who asked me
when my second novel would be finished—
and then encouraged, advised, and loved me,
until I finished it.
This one is all yours, Dear.
Thanks to my amazing critique partner, Colleen Greene, who knew what needed to stay and how much to toss. The occasional boot to my butt did wonders, too!
Thanks to Donna Honeycutt, who’s always ready to beta read for me, and to my editor, Debby Gilbert, for her enthusiasm and never-ending optimism.
Also, thanks to the awesome LaLaLas for consistent caring, above and beyond the call. And many thanks to RWA’s Alaska Chapter, AKRWA, for their brainstorming when I asked for help with my title, and their cheering when I told them I’d written, ‘The End,’ on a romance set in beautiful Alaska.
Northeast Oregon, April
Hidden was good. She could live with hidden.
Kendall Martin stared at the speck on the map. She’d have missed it if she blinked twice. Lakes, streams, and rivers surrounded it. A single road, at least something resembling a road, ran from the speck to another slightly larger dot, both surrounded by rough terrain and flanked by a ribbon of river.
On a map of Alaska, within the vastness of its landmass, the minute spots of civilization were insignificant.
She laid the oversized atlas on the edge of the bed and continued folding sweaters. She stashed underwear and nightgowns, neatly rolled socks, and three pairs of slippers in the open packing box. Two more boxes, already sealed and labeled, sat stacked in a corner of the bedroom. She’d packed her linens, cleaned out her medicine cabinet, and threw away anything resembling a sedative.
Where she was headed, she should never again need a sedative.
Her kitchen looked stark with its scrubbed counters and empty cupboards. What few plants she’d nurtured had been given to a neighbor. Dry foodstuffs went to the local Bread Line. She’d dumped the rest.
A single four-hour garage sale had ridded her of the sofa and matching recliner, a few end tables, as well as the stripped bed. Its new owners were slated to come for it later in the day. She hadn’t been in town long enough to collect more than some basic furniture and a few necessary kitchen odds and ends. Nevertheless, Kendall had ruthlessly pared her belongings down to what she could fit in a handful of boxes and three hard-sided suitcases. Without an ounce of regret, she’d rifled through a collection of photographs, using scissors to cut out images she didn’t want, keeping others intact, and tossing the discards into the trash.
She didn’t want any visual reminders. She had enough mental ones to last a damned lifetime.
Nerves, anticipation, worry, all fluttered inside her stomach, a queasy, anxious mix. A hundred times already, she’d asked herself if such a massive move was right for her. She couldn’t help the tremors overtaking her as she sealed the last box of clothing. Several times during the day, she stopped in the middle of whatever she’d been packing and sucked in one long, deep breath in an attempt to keep from hyperventilating.
She’d never lived anywhere other than Oregon. And yet, her journey would take her to a tiny speck within the immense, formidable force of nature called Alaska.
Scared spitless. Unbearably excited.
Yeah, that about covers it.
Southwestern Alaska, Early May
“There it is.” The pilot pointed toward a grayish mass off in the distance, dipping a wing as if in salute. Kendall’s stomach promptly tried to revolt and she swallowed three times in a row, forcing back the nausea. The tiny plane was difficult enough to deal with, without its pilot doing wing flips.
“Do you see it?” Thom Banks nudged her shoulder, before he gave his full attention to his piloting. Kendall figured she had to be as white as the snow coating the highest mountain peaks visible outside the window. She also knew Thom wasn’t trying to purposely scare her.
Cautiously, she nodded, relieved when the queasiness abated. “Yes, I saw. How much longer until we land?”
“Maybe another half-hour. We’ll probably have to circle a few times, in case the wind’s too strong for a safe landing. But we’ll make it. Eventually.” He eyed her again. “You always get airsick?”
“I guess so. I’ve never flown like this before.”
“Yeah? You mean in a two-seater?”
“I mean in anything.” She wiped her clammy brow and longed for a tissue.
“Ah, I see. First-timer.” Thom indicated a compartment near the floor between their seats. “I got a roll of toilet paper in there. Help yourself.” He shrugged at the look she gave him. “Hey, you never know when you have to improvise. I don’t always fly this thing between real airports with bathrooms.”
“No, I guess not.” Kendall opened the compartment and ripped off several sheets, blotting the remaining moisture from her skin. A careful peek out the window assured her they’d gotten closer to the area Thom had pointed out. “There’s a lot of snow. More than I expected.”
“Yeah. The mountains never lose it. But in town, it’s mostly melted. Still damned cold, though. Won’t warm up until mid-May.” He reached above the console and flicked a switch. “So, what’s your story? Staamat isn’t exactly the kind of place someone like you would be moving to,” he commented, as he made a few adjustments on his console.
“Someone like me? What do you mean?”
He gestured toward her bare left hand. “In most remote Alaskan villages, you’re in the minority. Single, right? Usually whites who move to a place like Staamat are married. They work for the state, take professional jobs. Teachers, nurses. Sometimes even a doctor. You any of those?”
She shifted uneasily in her seat. She knew the bush pilot was just being friendly, but she wasn’t used to answering questions. When you answered questions, people often were compelled to ask even more. Until you had no secrets left. And then, somewhere down the road, they’d remember you, and the answers to those questions.
Okay, too paranoid.
To be fair, the man hadn’t been overly nosy, aside from the usual, polite questions strangers often asked in any given social situation. Not that flying in a dinky plane over the Alaskan Range could constitute a social situation.
Still, old habits were hard to break. “I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.” Her tone was even, but her body language said what her words wouldn’t. He didn’t probe any further.
For the next twenty minutes, Thom whistled tunelessly through his teeth as he maneuvered a few areas of mild turbulence. Kendall made herself stare out the side window at what patches of terrain she could spot between the clusters of low clouds. She leaned her head against the icy plexiglass and wondered, yet again, if she’d made a huge mistake. Everything would drastically change for her. Her old, once-familiar life was gone. Her friends, gone. Not that she’d had so many, because she hadn’t. But what few she’d claimed were important to her, and none of them knew her destination. She’d purposely kept quiet about her plans.
Nobody would know how to get hold of her. Nobody would know if anything happened to her.
Her teeth chattered as trembles swamped her body, and Thom spared her a fast glance of alarm. “What, are you getting sick? Airsickness bags are under the seat.” He’d been banking to the right but straightened out, no doubt thinking his maneuvers were going to make her toss her cookies.
Kendall shook her head as her trembles became shudders. She’d have liked nothing more than to confide in someone, anyone. She’d taken note of the photos the pilot taped to whatever free space was available in the cockpit. A pretty middle-aged woman held a toddler in her arms. Other photos, some of young adults also holding babies, told her Thom Banks was a family man, old enough to have grandchildren. He seemed like a nice person, probably compassionate and wise. Someone you could talk to.
For a moment, the words hovered on her tongue.
But she couldn’t say it. Not a word. Because if she told him anything, sooner or later he’d tell someone else. And they’d tell another, and then another. Until those impulsive words trickled back to Oregon. Until they fell on the wrong ears.
“Ms. Martin? Are you all right?” Thom’s concerned voice broke through the fog of panic, and she unclenched her fingers, opened each fist. She didn’t know she’d gripped the armrests so hard.
Deep breaths, calming breaths. Throttle back the damned fear
. She’d done the right thing. Kendall met Thom’s worried frown with as much reassurance as she could dredge up.
“I’m all right. Truly. Just a bit of claustrophobia.”
“We’ll be on the ground in no time. I promise.” He sounded relieved. Probably wanted to escape before she either sobbed or puked all over him. She had to smile at the thought.
Twenty minutes later, they skated quickly across what appeared to be the shortest runway in the world, bumping over the packed dirt. The brakes caught on a hard jerk, and again Kendall clutched the armrests, this time to keep from being thrown forward.
One more shudder and a grind of brakes, and they were still. Thom gave her a smile.
“Welcome to Staamat.”
Smaller than Kendall had expected, Staamat didn’t appear to be much more than a couple of rutted streets dotted with a few cabins and scattered Quonset huts. The runway Thom had landed on was near one of those Quonset huts, which when new might have been painted a dark green. Now the oddly shaped building boasted rust in some places and bent siding in others. Dust coated everything. She glanced at the tree line, noting how stunted and sparse it seemed to be.
“I was expecting more of a forest,” she said, as Thom unloaded her bags from the storage compartment of his Cessna Skywagon.
“Not around here. You’d have that, closer to the Interior. But this region is pretty arid and the dryness keeps the tree population down and the dust up.” Thom carried her bags over to a planked platform in front of the hut.
“But this area is surrounded by lakes. Isn’t it?” Kendall asked, confused.
“Yeah, lakes and streams, but they don’t have much to do with humidity, especially in some Arctic regions. Growth is slow, and the areas around water might have more trees, but they’re young trees. Winter often kills them off before they can grow to any noticeable size.” He nodded toward the tree line. “What you see there are hardy trees that have managed to survive for a hell of a long time.”
“What about rainfall?”
He shrugged. “We get rain but the season for it is pretty short. Turns into snow damned fast which is why this area is about worthless for gardening. The brief growing season is tough on tomatoes and corn.” He grinned at her. “You’ll get used to it.”
“The lack of tomatoes and corn?”
“Yep. And the dust.” He indicated a beat-up plastic chair near the door of the hut, and wiped off the seat with a bandana he removed from his back pocket. She thanked him and sat, holding her handbag in her lap. She looked around, wondering what they were waiting for. Staamat seemed deserted.
Thom dug in his battered wallet for some bills. “Want something to drink? There’s a pop machine inside.”
While he was gone, Kendall left her bag on the chair and walked the length of the platform, taking in as much local scenery as she could. There wasn’t anything resembling a ‘main street,’ from what she could see. Rough hewn, cabin-type dwellings perched on either side of the street, flanked by the remnants of a wooden sidewalk here and there. One building flew a US flag, so she assumed it was a post office. Oversized cylindrical tanks clustered nearby. The chill breeze made her shiver and she briskly rubbed her hands over her arms.
Thom stepped out onto the platform carrying a couple of Pepsis and handed her one. “They’re pretty icy. Want to move inside, out of the weather?” When she shook her head, he gave an approving nod. “That’s the way, toughen yourself up. The wind here can be a real bitch, but you’ll get used to it. Where’d you move from?”
Kendall swigged a third of her drink before she answered him, hesitant to offer much information. Finally she gave a slight shrug and replied, “Northeast Oregon.”
“Yep, been there. Been to Portland, too, but northeast is a lot different. Dry and hot in the summer, and dry and cold in the winter, right?” He didn’t wait for her to comment. “Well, you’ll find Alaska has many regions, and each region has a different climate. But it’s all cold in the winter. You’ll like the summer, though it’s shorter than where you lived. We sure have some pretty ones.”
“You live around here, too?”
“Eagle River. Closer to Anchorage. I fly vacation charters mostly. Hunting, fishing. Some hike-in trips around Denali National Park. But I fly all over the state, do the village run whenever it’s necessary.” He leaned against a skinny railing that ran along the front of the platform, and it gave an ominous creak but held his weight easily enough. After a few seconds, she returned to the hard plastic chair.
“These remote villages, are they all fairly similar?” She waved her hand to encompass the entire area.
“In some ways. They’re all predominantly Native, with some white and a few other ethnic groups mixed in. Used to be, nobody but other native Alaskans ever bothered to come out to the villages, but tourists are finding the lesser-known places, especially in the summer. Hiking the hills, good hunting, fishing. Outdoorsy stuff.”
Kendall frowned. She didn’t like the idea of having to deal with a bunch of tourists. It would mean an influx of people from anywhere. Maybe other Alaskans, or maybe other people who lived south of Alaska. Anyone could slip in, couldn’t they? Anyone at all.
“I’m not much for living in a tourist area.” She strove to keep the concern out of her voice.
Thom shrugged. “Well, who is? But it’s necessary. Tourism is important for Alaska. You’ll—”
“Yeah. I’ll get used to it,” she finished wryly.
“That’s right.” This time, when he offered a grin, she returned it.
As she shifted on the rigid seat, Kendall sipped her Pepsi and took in what she could of her new home. The lack of trees and the dust she could handle. But the dinginess of the buildings, the overall look of neglect, would take some getting used to. She’d grown up in a lovely, well-kept home with pretty landscaping. She was accustomed to living around people who cared about what they owned.
So far, what few cabins she could see, from her limited vantage point, had dirt yards surrounded by broken fencing. Maybe she’d made a huge mistake.
Anxious for some kind of reassurance, she turned to Thom Banks. “I should probably get myself settled. I’m staying at the Four Hills Inn. Which building is it?” She gestured toward the clot of structures.
He followed the direction she indicated, his expression confused. “Four Hills? But it’s not—oh, I see, I’m sorry.” His face cleared and then creased into an easy smile. “This isn’t all there is of Staamat. I should have explained better. This is just the airport.” He jerked his chin toward the dusty street. “And a few other businesses. An import office, a warehouse, fueling area for planes. Staamat is a couple of miles or so down the road.”
“There are roads?” At Thom’s raised eyebrows, she hastily amended, “Of course there are roads, stupid me. I meant, well, I studied a map of Alaska, and all I could see was a lot of lakes, and nothing much like roads.”
“You didn’t do a hell of a lot of research before you came up here, did you?” He narrowed his eyes as her cheeks heated, and raised his hands in defense. “Hey, none of my business, honest. But most folks, when they make this kind of move, have a checklist of things to investigate.”
“Well, roads weren’t really at the top of mine.”
“No big. I’m just giving you grief. But yeah, we have some gravel streets in town. Thanks to the mining company, we have a road to New Mina. About eight miles south, right on the river,” Thom clarified. “Otherwise, you hop on a snowmobile in the winter or a four-wheeler in the summer. You won’t find many vehicles in town to speak of. There’s no need for them. The police station has a few. Couple small businesses in town have SUVs and trucks. That’s about it.” Unsmilingly, he regarded her. “You still want to live here,
She was so relieved to discover how limited access was to Staamat, she didn’t think to ask him what he’d just called her.
Instead, Kendall replied firmly, “More than ever.”