Excerpt: Burn

Excerpt: Burn

Book 4: Alaska Heat

Mack Connor had been in Alaska for less than an hour, and he was already restless. He wanted to be back in Boston, but when Ben Forsett asked for his help, he got it.

Always.

Every single time.

No matter what.

It had been that way since they were kids, both of them trying to survive the streets, the drugs, and the gangs long enough to get the fuck out of the hell they’d grown up in. Ben had gone to college and law school. Mack had gone into the military and become one of the world’s renowned experts on security tech, and all the shit that went with that.

Their connection had never faltered, even when life had blown up around them. Ben was the only friend Mack counted, and the only one he needed.

They always leaned on each other when the shit got real. Always. Until last month when Mack had uncovered a living hell…

“You okay?” Ben looked over at him, his brow furrowed.

Mack cleared his throat and looked out the window at the trees rushing past. So many damn trees. “Yeah. Fine.”

“What happened last month?”

Mack shot a sharp glance at Ben. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit. Something fucked you up. What was it?”

For a split second, Mack was tempted to tell Ben the truth, to rip the darkness out of him and throw it onto his friend.

But just as quickly, he shoved it back down inside him, deep and hard, where it couldn’t see the light of day.

“Nothing.” He wasn’t going there. He just fucking wasn’t. He hadn’t told Ben about it then, and he wasn’t going to tell him now.

Darkness settled in him, and he growled as he dragged his thoughts away from the nightmare that had jerked him awake every single night for the last month. “How about you?” Ben had been through hellacious year.

Ben hesitated, and Mack saw the moment that he decided not to push Mack for more answers. “Better. Mari helps. A lot.”

Mack nodded. “Good.” He was glad Ben had found someone who fit him. “I can’t believe you proposed to her.”

Ben smiled, a legit grin that lit up his face. “She changed my world, bro. She’s a gift.”

A sliver of envy flickered through Mack at the happiness on his friend’s face. He’d never seen him like that before. It hadn’t even occurred to him that either of them would ever feel that, that it could be a part of their lives. “Damn, man,” he said softly. “I’m almost jealous of that stupid grin.”

Ben’s smile faded into seriousness. “I’m staying in Alaska. I’ve found peace here.”

“Not coming back to Boston?” Mack felt darkness settle in him again. He and Ben had both been in Boston for the last few years, and it had settled him to have Ben around again. Having him move to Alaska? Shit. But he grinned at his friend anyway. “Good for you.” He meant it, too.

Ben cocked an eyebrow at him. “You might like it here, too. It’s an amazing place.”

Mack snorted and jerked his thumb at mountains in the distance. “Where are my skyscrapers? No fucking way.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Things change.”

“Not for me.” Mack shifted, suddenly restless to get back to topics he felt comfortable with.

They’d spent the first part of the drive from the airport going over the serial killer he’d helped Ben track a few weeks ago, and now it was time to focus on the present.

“Talk to me,” he said. “What do you need me for?” He knew it must be bad for Ben to ask him to fly to Alaska for it. The fact Ben had refused to give any details over the phone about why he needed him had jacked up his adrenaline even more.

Ben glanced over at him as his truck bounced over the rutted dirt road. “Mari’s friend. Charlotte.”

Charlotte. Mack liked the name. He wasn’t sure why. It was soft and strong at the same time. He knew nothing about soft, and he didn’t particularly want to, but her name seemed to settle in him whenever he heard it.

“The one who got kidnapped.” He’d tracked her phone for Ben to help find her. “She doing okay?”

Ben inclined his head. “Sort of.”

Mack narrowed his eyes, studying Ben. “You brought me here for her?”

At Ben’s nod, Mack settled into the familiarity of business mode. “What’s she into?” He unzipped his backpack and pulled out his computer. It booted up instantly, and he created a file with her name. “Her last name is Murphy, right?”

“Yep.” Ben rattled off her address, and Mack entered it into the computer.

“What else?”

“That’s it.”

Mack looked up. “What do you mean, that’s it? What’s going on with her?”

“I don’t know.” Ben took a right, the truck lurching over a big rut in the dirt. “It’s something though. Something from her past.”

Mack frowned. “A person? A man? Something someone else did? Something she did?” The last question stopped him hard. He knew all about someone who had done something bad, something that came back to haunt him. He was not getting involved with someone who had done bad shit. Not again. He cast a suspicious look at Ben. “How well do you know her?”

“Not well, but she’s good. She’s been Mari’s friend since the day she arrived in town.”

Not well. Mack closed the lid to his computer. “Look. I owe you a thousand times over, but I’m not feeling this one.”

“You will.” Ben slowed the truck. “I arranged for you to stay at her place with her.”

“No.” Mack put his computer away and zipped up his backpack. “Absolutely not. I live alone. I hate people, except for you. And even you I don’t want in my space.”

At that moment, Ben’s phone rang. He hit the speaker button. “Hey, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart? Mack frowned at his friend as a woman’s voice filled the car.

“Hey, babe. We have a problem,” she said. “Charlotte says Mack can’t stay with her, and she’s leaving town. She’s inside packing right now.”

Mack couldn’t help but grin. He liked the fact that Charlotte was refusing to be railroaded by Ben. The woman had backbone. “See? It’s been decided.”

“Mack? Is that Mack?” The warmth in Mari’s voice surprised him. “I’m so glad you’re here. Ben’s told me so much about you. Charlotte needs you.”

Her words ripped the smile off his face. “Charlotte appears to disagree with you both.” He tried to sound civil, but he knew he wasn’t particularly good at it.

“She freaked out when we got here, Ben,” Mari said, ignoring Mack so completely that he got a little more respect for her. “I thought she was going to leap out of her skin when I knocked on her window. She was scanning the woods like she knew someone was watching her. It freaked me out, too.”

Her words piqued Mack’s interest, despite his reluctance. A woman in danger was a dangerous trigger for him right now, even more than usual. “You think it was nerves from the attack?”

“No.” Her convocation was absolute. “It definitely had to do with someone else. Whoever it was that she said would be coming back for her.”

“Coming back?” Mack leaned forward, listening more intently. “When did she say that?”

“At the hospital, when she found out that the story had been in the papers and on the Internet. She said he’d see it, and he’d come back. She was so freaked when she got home.”

Ben swore under his breath and shot a scowl at Mack, as if it were his fault.

“Joseph found me,” Mari said, her voice cracking slightly. “There’s nowhere to hide if someone wants to find her. We all know that.”

Mack did know that. He was one of the ones who could find anyone. And he’d completely fucked it up a month ago.

“We’ll talk to her when we get there.” Ben’s voice was gentle, gentler than Mack had ever heard him use. “You doing okay, Mari?”

“Yeah. She kind of wigged me out, but Haas is here, so I’m okay.”

“Haas Carter?” Mack repeated the name, fighting the temptation to open his computer back up and add it to Charlotte’s file. Ben had such praise for the old-timer Alaskan that Mack was actually interested in meeting him.

“Yes, he’s here—” Mari paused. “Charlotte’s coming out the door now with a bag. Haas says he won’t shoot her to make her stay. How far away are you?”

“We’re here.”

As Ben spoke, the truck rounded a bend, and a well-worn log cabin came into view. A second building had part of the frame up, a couple trucks were in the driveway, and an old man and a woman were next to the bigger one.

But what caught Mack’s attention was the woman jogging down her front steps with a duffel bag that was twice as big as she was. On her heels was a gorgeous German shepherd, glued to her side as if it were trained to perfection.

But it wasn’t the dog that riveted his attention.

It was the woman. Charlotte.

It wasn’t the gorgeous dark waves of her hair. Or the rigid set of her shoulders that told him of a raw, inner strength. Or the way her jeans hugged her hips like they were made for her.

It was the way she stared at the woods, terror etched over every line of her body as she came to a sudden stop.

She spoke to the dog, who took off at a sprint, nose to the ground as he bolted into the trees.

Mack was peripherally aware that Ben and the two folks in the driveway had paused to watch the dog.

He didn’t.

He watched Charlotte.

She remained still, but she wasn’t watching the dog either. She was carefully scanning her property, her gaze focused and methodical, as if she knew exactly what she was looking for while she waited for the dog to finish.

After her survey, he saw her shoulders loosen infinitesimally. She then raised her gaze to the dog, who was trotting back, his body at ease, and his tail waving peacefully.

She relaxed more, and held out her hand to the dog, who ground his head affectionately into her palm as she spoke softly to him.

The brief moment had told Mack much.

She was strong.

She was smart.

She was good to her dog.

And whoever was hunting her had been doing it for long enough that she’d developed a defense system, one that she no longer believed could keep her safe. 

He swore under his breath as Ben pulled up beside an old, battered pickup truck that he assumed belonged to Haas.

Charlotte looked up and saw Ben’s truck. As soon as she realized he was there, for a split second, she relaxed, a full and complete release that made her face soften.

Mack knew it was because Ben’s appearance made her feel safe, and for that split second, she leaned into it, grasping for a respite from being constantly on edge. He liked that she trusted Ben. It showed she had good sense. Ben was the only person he trusted, so he appreciated that Charlotte could see that about him as well.

Then her gaze went to the passenger seat, and she realized Mack was with him.

Her jaw immediately jutted out. She pulled her shoulders back. And she set her hands on her hips. A fighting stance that made him grin.

“She’s ready to kick you out before you even move in,” Ben said, resting his forearms on the steering wheel.

“I see that.”

Ben cocked an eyebrow at him. “What are you going to do about it?”

Mack leaned forward, watching Charlotte. She was too far away to see clearly, and he knew she couldn’t see him well behind the windshield. “She believes she’ll be attacked in her own home,” he observed.

“I agree.” Ben drummed his fingers on the dash. “What if you walk away, and that happens to her?”

Mack was unable to take his gaze off her as she stared him down. She was attitude and sass, even when she was scared shitless. He respected that. Which made Ben’s question jab right into his gut and twist its blade. What if he walked away, and she was killed? “Really? That’s the line you’re throwing my way to get me to stay?”

“Yep.” Ben cocked an eyebrow.  “Did it work?”

Mack sighed and picked up his backpack. “Fuck you, Forsett.” He grabbed the door handle and stepped out of the truck.

Ben leaned across the seat, grinning at him. “So, that’s a yes? It worked?”

Mack’s only answer was to slam the door in his friend’s face, but he was grinning as he heard Ben’s laughter.

Yeah, it had worked.

Charlotte Murphy was officially his next case.

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