Book 3: Alaska Heat
“What are you running from?”
Ben Forsett went utterly still, his hand clenching around the amber beer bottle. For a long second, he didn’t move. Instead, his gaze shot stealthily to the three exits that he’d already located before he’d even walked into this small diner in Where-the-Hell-Are-We, Alaska, his mind calculating with rapid speed which one had the clearest path. A couple of bush pilots were by the kitchen door. Big men who would step in the path of someone they thought should be stopped. At the front door, two jean-clad young women were coming in, shaking snow out of their freshly done hair. The emergency exit was alarmed, but no one was in front of it. Best choice—
“Chill, kid. I’m not going to hunt you. I’ve been where you are. So have most of the men in this place.”
Slowly, Ben pulled his gaze off his escape route and looked at the man sitting next to him. Lines of outdoor hardship creased his face, and wisps of straggly white hair hung below his faded, black ball cap. His skin hung loose, too tired to hold on anymore, but in the old man’s pale blue eyes burned a sharp, gritty intelligence born of a tough life. The man’s upper body was encased in a heavy, dark green jacket that was so bulky it almost hid the hunch to his back and the thinness of his shoulders.
The man nodded once. “Name’s Haas. Haas Carter.” He extended a gnarled hand toward Ben.
Ben didn’t move, and Haas didn’t retract his hand.
For a long moment, neither man moved, then finally Ben peeled his hand off his beer and shook Haas’s hand. “John Sullivan,” he said, the fake name sliding off his tongue far more easily than it had three months ago, the first time he’d used it.
“John Sullivan, eh?” Haas laughed softly. “Couldn’t have picked a more common name. Lots of John Sullivans in just about every town you’ve been to in the last few months, I should imagine. Hard to keep track of one more.”
Ben stiffened. “My father was John Sullivan, Sr.,” he lied. “I honor the name.”
Haas’s bushy gray brows went up. “Do you now?”
The truth was, Ben’s father was a lying bastard who had left when he was two years old. Or got shot. Or put in prison. No one knew what had happened to him, and no one really cared. “I’m not here to make friends,” Ben said quietly.
“No, I can see that.” Haas regarded him for a moment, his silver-blue eyes surveying Ben’s heavy whiskers and the shaggy hair he’d let grow out. Ben let his hair hang low over his forehead, shielding his eyes as he watched the older man, waiting for a sign that this situation was going to go south.
He would be pissed if Haas turned on him. He needed to be here. He was so sure this was the break he’d finally been waiting for. He let his gaze slither off Haas to the old wooden clock hanging on the wall above the bar beside the moose rack. Adrenaline raced through him as he watched the minute hand clunk to the twelve. It was seven o’clock.
“What happens at seven?”
Ben jerked his gaze back to Haas. “I turn into a fairy princess.”
Haas guffawed and slammed his hand down on Ben’s shoulder. “You’re all right, John Sullivan. Mind if I call you Sully? Most Sullivans go by Sully. It’ll make it seem more like it’s your real name.”
“It is my real name.”
Haas dropped the smile and leaned forward, lowering his voice as his gaze locked onto Ben’s. “I’ll tell you this, young man, I’ve seen a lot of shit in my life. I’ve seen scum you wouldn’t even want to waste a bullet on who look like princes, and I’ve seen pieces of shit who would give their life for you. You look like shit, but whatever the hell you’re running from, you got my vote. Don’t let the bastards catch you until you can serve it up right in their damn faces. Got it?”
Ben stared at Haas, too stunned by the words to respond. No one believed in him, no one except for the two men who had helped him escape, people who he’d known since he was a kid. Guys who understood what loyalty meant. But even those two knew who he was and what he was capable of. They stood by him, but they knew exactly what he was. He had a sudden urge to tell Haas exactly what shit was going down for him, and see if the old man still wanted to stand by him.
But he wasn’t that stupid. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he finally said.
Haas raised his beer in a toast. “Yeah, me neither, Sully. Me neither.” As the old man took a drink, another weather-beaten Alaskan sat down on Haas’s other side. This guy’s face was so creased it looked like his razor would get lost if he tried to shave, but the size of his beard said the guy hadn’t been willing to take the risk. Haas nodded at him. “Donnie, this here boy is Sully. New in town. Needs a job. His wife left him six months ago, and the poor bastard lost everything. He’s been wandering aimless for too damn long.”
Ben almost choked on his beer at Haas’s story, but Donnie just nodded. “Women can sure break a man.” He leveled dark brown eyes on Ben. “She ain’t worth it, young man. There’s lots of doe around for a guy to take up with.”
Ben managed a nod. “Yeah, well, I’m not ready yet.”
“We gotta get him back on the horse,” Haas said. “Got any ideas?” With a wink at Ben, he and Donnie launched into a discussion about the assorted available women in town and which ones might be worthy of Ben.
As the two old timers talked, Ben felt some of the tension ease from his shoulders. In this small town in the middle of Alaska, he had an ally, at least until Haas found out the truth. Shit, it felt good to have someone have his back. It had been too damn long—
The door to the kitchen swung open, and a light female voice echoed through the opening. Her voice was like a soft caress of something…shit… he didn’t even know what to compare it to. But it washed over him, through him, like someone had just slid hot whiskey into his veins, burning and cleansing as it went.
Ben went rigid, adrenaline flooding his body. It was seven o’clock. She would be here now. Was it her? Was it her? A woman’s hand was on the kitchen door, holding it open as she finished her muffled conversation. Her arm was long and delicate, with a single bracelet on her wrist. A black leather cord with a silver disk on it. On her index finger was a silver ring with a rough cut turquoise stone and a wide band with carvings on it he was too far away to decipher. Her fingernails bare and earthy, a woman who didn’t bother with enamel and lacquer to go to work. Her arm was exposed, the smooth expanse of flesh sliding up to a capped black sleeve that just covered the curve of her shoulder. She wasn’t tall, maybe a little over five feet.
Son of a bitch. It might actually be her. Come into the bar, he urged silently. Let me see your face. He’d never heard her talk before. He’d never seen her in person. All he had was that one newspaper picture of her, and the headshot he’d snagged from her website.
The door opened wider, and Ben ducked his head, letting his hair shield his eyes again, but he didn’t take his gaze off her, watching intently as the woman moved into the room. Her back was toward him as she continued her conversation, and he could see her hair. Thick, luscious waves of dark brown.
Brown. Brown. The woman he’d been searching for was blond.
The disappointment that cascaded through him was unreal. The frustration. The desperation. He bowed his head, resting his forehead in his hands as the image flooded his mind again, the same image that had haunted him for so long. His sister, her clothes stained with the dark brown of old blood, sprawled across her living room floor, her hand reaching toward Ben in the final entreaty of death. Son of a bitch. He couldn’t let Holly down. He couldn’t fucking let her down.
“Are you okay?”
He went still at the question, at the sound of the woman’s voice so close. It still had the same effect on him, a flood of heat that seemed to touch every part of his body. He schooled his features into the same, uninviting expression he’d perfected, and he looked up to find himself staring into the face that he’d been hunting for the last three months.
He’d never mistake those eyes. The dark rich brown framed by eyelashes so thick he’d thought they had to be fake, until now. Until he could see her for real. Until he could feel the weight of her sorrow so thickly that it seemed to wrap around him and steal the oxygen from his lungs. Until he looked into that face, that face that had once been so innocent, but now carried burdens too heavy for her small frame.
Until he’d found her.
Because he had.
It was her.
He’d found her.
Son of a bitch.
He’d found her.