Book 1: Alaska Heat
Kaylie’s hands were shaking as she rifled through her bag, searching for her yoga pants. She needed the low-slung black ones with a light pink stripe down the side. The cuffs were frayed from too many wearings to the grocery store late at night for comfort food, and they were her go-to clothes when she couldn’t cope. Like now.
She couldn’t find them.
“Come on!” Kaylie grabbed her other suitcase and dug through it, but they weren’t there. “Stupid pants! I can’t—” A sob caught at her throat and she pressed her palms to her eyes, trying to stifle the swell of grief. “Sara—”
Her voice was a raw moan of pain, and she sank to the thick shag carpet. She bent over as waves of pain, of loneliness, of utter grief shackled her. For her parents, her brother, her family and now Sara—
Dear God, she was all alone.
“Dammit, Kaylie! Get up!” she chided herself. She wrenched herself to her feet. “I can do this.” She grabbed a pair of jeans and a silk blouse off the top of her bag and turned toward the bathroom. One step at a time. A shower would make her feel better.
She walked into the tiny bathroom, barely noticing the heavy wood door as she stepped inside and flicked the light switch. Two bare light bulbs flared over her head, showing a rustic bathroom with an ancient footed tub and a raw wood vanity with a battered porcelain sink. A tiny round window was on her right. It was small enough to keep out the worst of the cold, but big enough to let in some light and breeze in the summer.
She was in Alaska, for sure. God, what was she doing here?
Kaylie tossed the clean clothes on the sink and unzipped her jacket, dropping it on the floor. She tugged all her layers off, including the light blue sweater that had felt so safe this morning when she’d put it on. She stared grimly at her black lace bra, so utterly feminine, exactly the kind of bra that her mother had always considered frivolous and completely impractical. Which it was. Which was why that was the only style Kaylie ever wore.
She should never have come to Alaska. She didn’t belong here. She couldn’t handle this. Kaylie gripped the edge of the sink. Her hands dug into the wood as she fought against the urge to curl into a ball and cry.
After a minute, Kaylie lifted her head and looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were wide and scared, with dark circles beneath. Her hair was tangled and flattened from her wool hat. There was dirt caked on her cheeks.
Kaylie rubbed her hand over her chin, and the streaks of mud didn’t come off.
She tried again, then realized she had smudges all over her neck. She turned on the water, and wet her hands…and saw her hands were covered as well.
Stunned, Kaylie stared as the water ran over her hands, turning pink as it swirled in the basin.
“Oh, God.” Kaylie grabbed a bar of soap and began to scrub her hands. But the blood was dried, stuck to her skin. “Get off!” She rubbed frantically, but the blackened crust wouldn’t come off. Her lungs constricted and she couldn’t breathe. “I can’t—”
The door slammed open, and Cort stood behind her, wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
The tears burst free at the sight of Cort, and Kaylie held up her hands to him. “I can’t get it off—”
“I got it.” Cort took her hands and held them under the water, his grip warm and strong. “Take a deep breath, Kaylie. It’s okay.”
“It’s not. It won’t be.” She leaned her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes as he washed her hands roughly and efficiently. His muscles flexed beneath her cheek, his skin hot through his shirt. Warm. Alive. “Sara’s dead,” she whispered. “My parents. My brother. They’re all gone. The blood—” Sobs broke free again, and she couldn’t stop the trembling.
“I know. I know, babe.” He pulled her hands out from under the water and grabbed a washcloth. He turned her toward him and began to wash her face and neck.
His eyes were troubled, his mouth grim. But his hands were gentle where he touched her, gently holding her face still while he scrubbed. His gaze flicked toward hers, and he held contact for a moment, making her want to fall into those brown depths and forget everything. To simply disappear into the energy that was him. “You have to let them go,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to bring them back—”
“No.” A deep ache pounded at Kaylie’s chest and her legs felt like they were too weak to support her. “I can’t. Did you see Sara? And Jackson? His throat—” She bent over, clutching her stomach. “I—”
Cort’s arms were suddenly around her, warm and strong, pulling her against his solid body. Kaylie fell into him, the sobs coming hard, the memories—
“I know.” Cort’s whisper was soft, his hand in her hair, crushing her against him. “It sucks. Goddamn, it sucks.”
Kaylie heard his grief in the raw tone of his voice and realized his body was shaking as well. She looked up and saw a rim of red around his eyes, shadows in the hollows of his whiskered cheeks. “You know,” she whispered, knowing with absolute certainty that he did. He understood the grief consuming her.
“Yeah.” He cupped her face, staring down at her, his grip so tight it was almost as desperate as she felt. She could feel his heart beating against her nearly bare breasts, the rise of his chest as he breathed, the heat of his body warming the deathly chill from hers.
For the first time in forever, she suddenly didn’t feel quite as alone.
In her suffering, she had company. Someone who knew. Who understood. Who shared her pain. It had been so long since the dark cavern surrounding her heart had lessened, since she hadn’t felt consumed by the loneliness, but with Cort holding her…there was a flicker of light in the darkness trying to take her. “Cort—”
He cleared his throat. “I gotta go check the chili.” He dropped his hands from her face and stood up to go, pulling away from her.
Without his touch, the air felt cold and the anguish returned full force. Kaylie caught his arm. “Don’t go—” She stopped, not sure what to say, what to ask for. All she knew was that she didn’t want him to leave, and she didn’t want him to stop holding her.
Cort turned back to her, and a muscle ticked in his cheek.
For a moment, they simply stared at each other. She raised her arms. “Hold me,” she whispered. “Please.”
He hesitated for a second, and then his hand snaked out and he shackled her wrist. He yanked once, and she tumbled into him. Their bodies smacked hard as he caught her around the waist, his hands hot on her bare back.
She threw her arms around his neck and sagged into him. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly against him. With only her bra and his T-shirt between them, the heat of his body was like a furnace, numbing her pain. His name slipped out in a whisper, and she pressed her cheek against his chest. She focused on his masculine scent. She took solace in the feel of another human’s touch, in the safety of being held in arms powerful enough to ward off the grief trying to overtake her.
His hand tunneled in her hair, and he buried his face in the curve of her neck, his body shaking against hers.
“Cort—” She started to lift her head to look at him, to see if he was crying, but he tightened his grip on her head, forcing her face back to his chest, refusing to allow her to look at him.
Keeping her out.
She realized he wasn’t a partner in her grief. She was alone, still alone, always alone.
All the anguish came cascading back. Raw loneliness surged again, and she shoved away from him as sobs tore at her throat. She couldn’t deal with being held by him when the sense of intimacy was nothing but an illusion. “Leave me alone.”
Kaylie whirled away from him, keeping her head ducked. She didn’t want to look at him. She needed space to find her equilibrium again and rebuild her foundation.
“Damn it, Kaylie.” Cort grabbed her arm and spun her back toward him.
She held up her hands to block him, her vision blurred by the tears streaming down her face. “Don’t—”
His arms snapped around her and he hauled her against him even as she fought his grip. “No! Leave me alone—”
His mouth descended on hers.
Not a gentle kiss.
A kiss of desperation and grief and need. Of the need to control something. Of raw human passion for life, for death, for the touch of another human being.
And it broke her.