Wicked Naughty Love - Jennifer Bernard - E-Book

Wicked Naughty Love E-Book

Jennifer Bernard

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7,49 €

Beschreibung

“If only I could move to Lost Harbor, Alaska and become part of this fabulous community!”


“I absolutely love this series!!!”


“A ton of fun with wicked chemistry”


 


New box set in the Lost Harbor, Alaska series! This charming harbor town is bursting with stories filled with laughter, danger, and lots of sexy sizzle. Each of the books in this box set is a standalone romance, but you’ll encounter familiar settings and characters (and I do mean characters!) along the way. This is Alaska, after all, where life on the edge of the wilderness makes for unforgettable romance.


 


Wicked in Winter


Former party girl Gretel Morrison has vowed to rely on herself instead of her wealthy and controlling family. If she can survive the winter in Lost Harbor, Alaska, she can survive anything—although maybe not the lethally sexy and attractive next-door neighbor, Zander Ross, and the two little brothers he's raising on his own. When a threat to the Ross family surfaces, Zander gets the shock of his life when Gretel steps up with an outrageous idea that might help them both.


 


Naughty All Night


Lawyer Kate Robinson is lying low at her grandmother’s Lost Harbor peony farm, where she used to spend summers. She’s always had a knack for trouble, but nothing has prepared her for the likes of “hottie fire chief” Darius Boone. Why not have some harmless naughty fun while she figures out her next move? She never expected the heat the two of them would generate—or to fall so hard. The next time trouble strikes, everything she loves is on the line.


 


Love at First Light


Private investigator Ethan James’ newest case should be simple—it’s just a birth-parents search in stunning Lost Harbor. But now he has a sidekick he never expected—the super sexy, endlessly quirky local baker, Jessica Dixon. When these two opposites attract, Jessica may come down to Earth long enough to find love, while Ethan might learn to trust his heart instead of his head…if they make it out of the wilderness alive.

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Contents

Foreword

Wicked in Winter

Naughty All Night

Love at First Light

Foreword

The charming harbor town of Lost Harbor, Alaska, is bursting with stories filled with adventure, fun, and lots of sexy sizzle. Each of the books in this box set is a standalone romance, but you’ll encounter familiar settings and characters (and I do mean characters!) along the way. This is Alaska, after all, where life on the edge of the wilderness makes for unforgettable romance.

Wicked in Winter

Former party girl Gretel Morrison has vowed to rely on herself instead of her wealthy and controlling family. If she can survive the winter in Lost Harbor, Alaska, she can survive anything—although maybe not the lethally sexy and attractive next-door neighbor, Zander Ross, and the two little brothers he's raising on his own. When a threat to the Ross family surfaces, Zander gets the shock of his life when Gretel steps up with an outrageous idea that might help them both.

Naughty All Night

Lawyer Kate Robinson is lying low at her grandmother’s Lost Harbor peony farm, where she used to spend summers. She’s always had a knack for trouble, but nothing has prepared her for the likes of “hottie fire chief” Darius Boone. Why not have some harmless naughty fun while she figures out her next move? She never expected the heat the two of them would generate—or to fall so hard. The next time trouble strikes, everything she loves is on the line.

Love at First Light

Private investigator Ethan James’ newest case should be simple—it’s just a birth-parents search in stunning Lost Harbor. But now he has a sidekick he never expected—the super sexy, endlessly quirky local baker, Jessica Dixon. When these two opposites attract, Jessica may come down to Earth long enough to find love, while Ethan might learn to trust his heart instead of his head…if they make it out of the wilderness alive.

Chapter One

“You have one job,” Gretel Morrison told herself as she walked down the snowy path to the Noonans’ woodshed. “Don’t end up in the snowbank. That’s it. You can do this.”

She pulled up her zipper the last inch so the fleece-lined hood of her parka snapped into place. It felt like wearing a biohazard suit. But the only hazard in this ice-pure Alaskan air was the snow.

Well…and hazards like loading firewood onto the sled. The last time she’d attempted this task, she’d wound up face down in the snow while the sled headed down the path like a magic carpet on the run.

She flat-out refused to let a sled of firewood defeat her. She was trying to turn a corner in her life, after all.

She confronted the woodshed, a sturdy structure about fifty yards from the main house of Abby and Earl Noonan’s homestead. Apparently the family spent much of the fall chopping down dead trees and chain-sawing them into rounds to stack inside the woodshed. On one of his two weeks off from his job on the North Slope, Earl had given her a tour of the shed—green wood in the back, seasoned wood in the front, cut logs to the right, kindling to the left.

He’d shown her the stump that served as a chopping block and the maul used for cutting the rounds into more burnable “splits.”

“Next time I’m here I’ll show you how to split wood,” he’d offered.

She’d laughed out loud, until she realized he was serious. “Oh, um…yeah, sure…that would be—”

“You’re right. It’s not hard. Anyone can show you, Abby or even Eli.”

Eli was their seven-year-old son. Granted, he was tall for his age and had grown up on this homestead. But still.

At that moment, Gretel had vowed to teach herself how to chop wood. Maybe after she managed to fill a sled without diving into a snowbank.

She could do this. She had to do this.

The whole purpose of her living here on this remote homestead was to help Abby through her recovery from brain surgery and a C-section, and right now, the household needed firewood. The Noonans had been so kind to her—she loved them dearly—and she couldn’t let them freeze to death because she was afraid of a sled.

Straightening her spine, she trudged through the snow to her nemesis, which was propped inside the woodshed.

“Let’s talk, shall we?” she said to the sled, a long orange molded-plastic monstrosity. “This isn’t about me. This is about Abby and the kids and the new baby. Whatever your beef is with me, can you just put it aside and think about the Noonans? They’re counting on us here. Do we understand each other?”

A tiny creature darted from inside the woodshed and scurried across the snow. She gave a shriek and staggered a step backwards. The vole or ermine—she didn’t yet know how to distinguish them—disappeared under one of the Noonans’ ancient trucks.

After she caught her balance, Gretel balled up her fists inside her gloves and marched toward the sled. “Oh ho. That’s how you’re going to play it? Calling in your little friends for backup? That ain’t going to fly, mister. Big mistake. Now I’m really fired up.”

She grabbed hold of the sled and lifted it away from the stack of wood it was leaning against. Even though she dislodged some kindling and nearly tripped over the chopping stump in the process, she managed to wrangle it out of the woodshed. When it was entirely clear, she let it slide onto the snow-packed ground, where she quickly placed one foot on it.

“Gotcha,” she told it. “Now just…chill there for a minute while I get the wood. We cool?”

Oh my God, she was talking to a sled. Had she totally lost it? Had the last couple of months in Alaska caused her to completely lose her mind?

Shaking her head at her own absurdity, she lifted her foot off the sled. It didn’t move—whew—so she headed into the woodshed to fill her arms with logs. Earl had taught her to start by anchoring the load with a couple of the rounds—which were unfortunately the heaviest of all. With the near-zero temperature, they sometimes got iced together by bits of frozen sap.

Of course. Because nothing could be easy here in Alaska.

It took her a moment to pry a round off the top of the stack. “If you fall on my toe, you’re dead to me,” she warned it as she settled it into her arms like a baby.

Carrying her prize, she ducked out of the woodshed and blinked in the pearly morning light. The sled was gone. The sneaky bastard had slid down the path and was now pinned under the ski-booted foot of Zander Ross.

Zander could definitely be considered another Alaska hazard. The rugged and smolderingly sexy male kind.

He’d stuck his skis in the snowbank next to the path. He must have skied over from his own place about half a mile away.

“So…” Zander called to her as he did some kind of flippy move with his boot that sent the sled flying from the ground into the secure grip of his right hand. “I’m trying to figure out if you’re talking to the wood or to the vole or just to the world in general.”

“You left out imaginary friend.” She lifted her chin in defiance. With his height and physique, Zander was one of those men who reminded her of her small size. “Probably because the concept of friend eludes you.”

“Now that’s funny, because if I were your friend I might offer to help you out.”

“I don’t need your help. But I do need my sled back.” Pointedly, she gestured with her head for him to bring it her way.

“Your sled just made a run for it.” Nevertheless, he walked toward her with the sled slung behind his shoulder, its tether hooked by one finger.

She clenched her teeth together. Did he have to be so fricking attractive while he was teasing her? He had the body of an outdoorsman and super-fit former Marine, which Abby had told her he was. His hair was very dark, almost black, in a cut no actual barber would take credit for. He wore Carhartts—the standard outdoor work gear in Alaska—but he somehow made them look mouthwatering.

The closer he came, the more she could make out the hazel green in his eyes and the stubble on his jaw. Like many men here, he kept a short beard to fend off the winter rawness. Unlike some of those men, Zander maintained his facial hair properly.

She’d noticed because one of her talents was cutting hair—not because she’d been closely assessing him. Not at all.

He dropped the sled on the ground at her feet and angled it so that it couldn’t go anywhere.

“Thank you,” she said with dignity. “You can go now. You must have important things to do over at your own place.”

Zander and his younger brothers were the Noonans’ closest neighbors. That didn’t mean much; their house was down the road, with a thick growth of spruce forest between them. But still, they saw more of the Ross family than anyone else.

“I came to see if Abby needs anything from town. Couldn’t reach anyone by phone and I got worried.”

“Ugh. The kids keep unplugging it by mistake. Sorry to make you ski all the way over here.”

“No problem.” Still, he lingered. “Sure you don’t need any help? It’d take about a minute to load this up between the two of us.”

“I’m sure,” she said firmly.

Zander didn’t understand; how could he? Her entire life, things had been made easy for her. Money did that. With enough money, you could pay anyone to do anything for you. She hadn’t become fully aware of this reality until she’d come to Alaska—and until her father had cut her off.

Which was painful, but probably the best thing that could have happened to her. She’d jumped on the opportunity to try something different. To become someone different.

He was still watching her, a perplexed frown on his face. It wasn’t exactly a handsome face—his eyebrows were too strong, his cheekbones too prominent, jaw too stubborn. But it was hard to look away from. He wasn’t a big talker, in her experience, and his face reflected that with a kind of banked intensity. He looked like someone who kept things inside. Maybe not handsome—but definitely smoldering.

Silence always made her nervous—as if it was her job to fill it. And so she added, “I’m on a mission to do things for myself.”

Right away, she regretted telling him that. One of his eyebrows lifted. “Oh yeah? How’s that going?”

Maybe he wasn’t being sarcastic, but it sure felt that way.

“Super,” she said firmly as she placed the log in the sled exactly as Earl had instructed. “Everything’s great. But you’d better check with Abby about town. The only thing I need is eyeshadow, maybe in a sapphire-blue shade?”

He cocked his head at her. “Nah. I’d go for more of a light brown to set off the turquoise.”

As she gaped at him, a smile quirked one corner of his mouth. “YouTube makeup tutorial. Don’t ask.”

A wisp of wind brushed against her cheeks and drew her attention to the fact that her face was growing numb. She turned away to stack more firewood.

“So you’re serious about this,” he said.

“About not needing your help? A thousand and twenty-eight percent.”

“Very specific. That’s not what I mean. I mean you’re serious about staying here?”

She dislodged another round from the pile and hauled it to the sled. She saw his gloved hands twitch, as if he could barely stop himself from helping.

“Staying with Abby? Sure, as long as she needs me. She’s not supposed to lift her arms above her head for like, another month, poor thing.”

“Okay, so another month. And then?”

She scrunched her forehead at him, then turned away to fill her arms with cut logs. “Our arrangement is open-ended. We’re going to see how it goes. Why, are you trying to get rid of me?”

But she’d loaded her arms with too much wood, and one of the logs went rogue and slid off the stack. It bounced on the ground, then landed on her foot. “Ow.”

He made a move toward her, as if to help—but she made a snarly face at him. “Don’t you dare. This is a minor setback.”

With a snort, he shook his head. A puff of condensation curled through the air. His mouth must be so...warm. “It’s not my job to get rid of you. Alaska’s going to do that all on its own.”

“Excuse me?” She dumped the rest of her armful of logs onto the sled with a satisfying clunk. A raven cawed from the woods, as if she’d surprised him.

“You’ll never make it through the winter.”

Gretel bent over to pick up the runaway log. She could have simply knelt, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as provocative a move. Hopefully, even in her snow pants and parka, Zander would take notice. Just because she was trying to do things for herself didn’t mean she was giving up flirting—even with cocky, annoying neighbors. “Is that a challenge?”

She peered through her eyelashes at him. He flicked his eyes away from her ass just in time. Oh yes, he’d noticed her. Good. Busted, Zander Ross.

“It’s more of a prediction, but sure,” he said coolly. As if she hadn’t just caught him checking her out. “You can call it a challenge. Do you know how many people think a winter in Alaska would be a fun adventure? And how many take off for Hawaii come March?”

“Care to put your money where your mouth is?”

“Never understood that phrase. Am I supposed to smear dollar bills on my face?”

She laughed despite herself as she fetched another armload of firewood. “Nice image. Very creative. I was thinking more of a bet.”

“What are the terms?” he asked promptly. That was one thing she liked about Zander. He picked up on things quickly and he didn’t beat around the bush.

“If I make it through the winter, you have to go on KLSW and make a public proclamation that you underestimated me.”

“Done.”

He was so quick to say it that she had to add on a little more. Blame the deal-making gene she’d inherited from her father. “On the Bush Lines.”

The Bush Lines were a way for people out in Lost Souls Wilderness who could only communicate by radio to get messages to people in Lost Harbor or elsewhere around Misty Bay. Birthday wishes, love notes, requests for ride shares, items for sale—all kinds of things found their way into the Bush Lines.

“On the Bush Lines,” he agreed. “And if you ditch before the winter is over, then you will…do something. To be named later.”

“Oh no. I’m not committing to anything that vague.”

“What does it matter, since you’re going to make it through the winter anyway?” He pulled off his glove, preparing for a handshake.

“Schoolboy taunts are not going to work on me. Come on. Be specific.”

He scratched at the underside of his jaw with his bared hand. It was so large, that hand, and looked so capable. Zander was the surrogate parent of his two brothers, and he had a lot of responsibility loaded onto him. But with those wide shoulders and big hands, he looked like he could handle it.

“You’ll sing something. Abby said you’re a good singer.”

Oh ho, so Abby had been talking about her to Zander? She’d very much like to know more about that conversation.

“Sing what?”

“Whatever. Something about the Alaska winter. About how great it is.”

“I don’t know any songs about how great the Alaska winter is. They probably don’t exist.”

“So write one. Whatever. That’s the bet. If you can’t handle the winter in Alaska, you’ll perform a song in praise of our great state. If you do make it through the winter, I’ll go on the Bush Lines and talk about how stupid I was to underestimate you like that.”

She stuck out her hand. “I like the sound of that. You have a deal.” They moved to shake hands, but she whipped hers away at the last second.

He squinted at her. “What are you, twelve?”

“I thought of something else. Define winter. Is it the first day of spring? Is it when the temperature stays above freezing for a week? Is it when girls start wearing sundresses?”

First he laughed. Then he sobered quickly and his expression went back to its usual reserve. “Everyone knows the winter isn’t over until the snow melts.”

“All of the snow?” She looked around at the Noonans’ homestead. It was composed of a house, a barn, the woodshed, an outhouse, a well house, a spacious hooped plastic tunnel for early planting, a shop, and acres of land—all of which was tucked under at least two feet of snow.

And it was still only early January. People were predicting many more feet of snow to come.

“When does that usually happen?”

“It’s different every winter. Hard to say.”

Gretel considered that, then shrugged. She didn’t actually know if she would stay for the entire winter. She wasn’t really planning that far ahead. She might leave, she might not. But she intended to leave on her own terms.

Besides, she loved to sing.

“Okay, it’s a deal. We can work out the rest of the details later.”

Almost formally, she drew off her glove and stuck out her hand. He wrapped his big palm around hers. The flood of warmth from his hand made her a little dizzy. A big guy like Zander really put out some body heat.

He looked down at their joined hands with a funny expression, as if almost incredulous that her hand had disappeared so completely within his. “May the odds be ever in your favor,” he said solemnly.

“I feel like it’s a bad sign to quote Hunger Games at me.”

“Too late now. Deal’s a deal.”

She pulled her hand away and tugged her glove back on. One more handful of kindling and her sled would be full and she could get her ass inside the house. She grabbed some branches from the kindling stack and added them to the sled. “Excuse me.”

Zander stepped out of her way and edged down the path toward his skis.

She took hold of the tether with both hands. Facing the sled, with her back toward the house, she leaned backwards and tried to make it move across the snow. But the weight of the wood pinned it in place. Once again she’d piled it too high.

She tried again, jerking the line. This time it moved, practically leaping toward her. Yes! She had forward motion. That was the first step. She backed toward the house, digging her cleats into the hard-packed snow. Now all she had to do was turn around and pull it behind her the rest of the way.

The fact that Zander was watching made it extra sweet.

As gracefully as possible, she turned around, switched her hands on the tether. But she pulled too hard on one side of the strap and caused the sled to tilt up.

Before she knew it, she lost her balance and about half the firewood spilled into the snow. She windmilled her arms—don’t end up in the snow. Don’t end up in the snow. It worked, but in the process, the tether strap got wrapped around her glove. Somehow it got ripped off her hand and flung toward Zander.

He caught it just before it landed on the snow.

“So…uh…need a little—”

“No!”

He snapped his mouth shut.

“I don’t need help,” she added stubbornly.

“Fine. At least take this.” He tossed her the glove. “I draw the line at frostbite.”

She caught the glove and quickly pulled it on. In that short time, the chill had already reddened her skin. By now, her face was practically numb. She clapped her hands together, then bent to load the firewood back onto the sled. The raven cawed from a closer perch, almost as if mocking her. She glanced up to locate the bird, and caught one of those dazzling moments that sometimes came her way here at the Noonans’.

The raven launched itself off the branch, dislodging a cloud of snow. The movement of the branch let the morning sun shine through. For a quiet moment, the myriad of snow crystals hung suspended in the air, vibrating with golden light. The snow cloud gently wafted to the ground, where she noticed the tiny snow tracks of the creature who’d fled the woodshed.

She caught her breath in wonder at the perfect serendipity of the moment—the raven, the snow, the ray of sun, the tracks. The fact that she was here in the cold and the snow to witness it.

“Did you see that?” she said softly after all the snow crystals had settled onto the ground. “The raven and the...” She trailed off as she glanced in Zander’s direction. He was already gone, skiing toward the big house to consult with Abby.

She was talking to herself again.

“Anyway, it was beautiful. Totally worth nearly freezing my ass off while I reload this mother-forking sled. You orange beast, I’m going to take you to an incinerator one of these days. I thought we had a deal. But no, you had to betray me in front of Zander Ross, of all people.”

Muttering to herself, she set to work reloading the sled. No way was she going to give Zander the satisfaction of seeing her give up.

Chapter Two

“Is she okay out there?” At the window, Abby Noonan, holding her newborn in a sling that kept the baby above the level of her incision, rocked from one stockinged foot to another. Their dog, a rambunctious mutt named Groovy, snoozed by the woodstove.

“So she says.” Zander stayed in the arctic entry so he didn’t have to take off his snow boots. “Believe me, I tried. She doesn’t want help. My help, anyway. I don’t think she likes me much.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. She likes you just fine.”

Zander grunted. He completely disagreed with that assessment. But it didn’t matter anyway. He gave Gretel another month, at the most. A girl like her, so beautiful, so coddled, so magnetic, could go anywhere she wanted. Why would she choose to be here, twelve miles outside of Lost Harbor, at the end of the road that hugged Misty Bay, a seven-hour winter drive from anything resembling a city?

“I think she’s talking to herself again,” said Abby, peering out the triple-paned glass.

“Not exactly. She might be talking to the sled.”

Abby laughed, then halted the sound. “Can’t laugh yet. Stitches. It’s kind of a problem because Gretel is really very funny.”

“That is one way to describe her,” Zander said as diplomatically as he could. He still didn’t understand how Gretel had ended up here. He might never understand.

Again, not that it mattered. He had enough other things to worry about. “I’m headed into town, need anything?”

“Did the kids unplug the phone again? Damn it. I’d yell at them but they’re napping and I need those nap times more than oxygen. Did you hear that they might put another cell tower up and we might actually get real service out here?”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Right? Anyway, sorry to make you ski all the way over here.”

“It was no problem,” he assured her. “It gave me a chance to set the trail.” Several times each winter, he had to set down new tracks for skiing between their properties. His brother Jason didn’t know it, but he was about to get assigned that task. Jason was thirteen now and a ski nut, so why not?

“Well, let me think.” Abby adjusted the hand-woven sling and glanced toward her kitchen. She and Earl had a passion for living off the land. They fished, hunted, canned vegetables from their summer gardens, picked berries in the fall, made jam, knitted their own sweaters. For a few years they’d made it all work, but once they’d reached three kids, Earl had taken a job on the North Slope to earn extra income. Two weeks away, two weeks helping Abby with the kids and doing what he could around the property.

Even though Zander had his hands full with Jason and Petey, he’d gotten in the habit of stopping by to see if Abby and her kids needed anything. This close to the edge of the wild, people had to stick together.

“We can always use more milk. But make sure it’s the hormone-free kind. Some toilet paper. The biggest case you can find. Unsalted butter. And Gretel has a thing for those shelled pistachios, so can you grab a bag of those?”

“Pistachios? Really?”

“Hey.” She frowned at him. “Anything to keep her here, you hear me? She can have pistachios day and night. Actually, get some pistachio ice cream too. Anything in the entire store that has pistachios in it. If that girl leaves me, I can’t be held responsible for my mental breakdown.”

Zander shook his head as he made a note in his phone. “Is she really that helpful? Has she made it back with the firewood yet?”

Abby glanced out the window. “She’s getting there. And you really need to open your eyes, kid. Considering she was raised with a silver spoon, she’s doing pretty well. Imagine if you were plopped into a situation that was completely new and strange and zero degrees on top of that? Think you’d do half as well?”

Zander gave her a hard stare, until she blinked in recognition.

“Right. You did that when your parents died. Sorry.”

He shrugged, not wanting to make a big deal out of it.

“The main point is, all my babies love her and she’s great with them. So be nice to her. You don’t have to be all grumpy-pants around her. And get her the damn pistachios.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The baby was stirring, so he made his escape.

On his way out of the arctic entry, which was lined with coatracks holding winter gear from toddler size to adult, he passed Gretel. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold and she held a full armload of firewood. She lifted her chin as they squeezed past each other. The scent of fresh snow and lavender swirled around her—along with a touch of spruce pitch. Carrying the firewood like that, she was going to get it all over her coat and that shit never came off.

But she didn’t want advice from him.

“Zander,” she said, with a formal nod.

“Gretel,” he responded. He liked how her name felt in his mouth—like the sugar glass his mother used to make.

“Let the games begin.”

“Make it so.”

Her eyelids fluttered. God, those eyes—they were flat-out dazzling. Sparkling aqua, like sunlight on a tropical sea.

“I’ll see you in court,” she added.

He forgot about her eyes and frowned down at her. “In court?”

“Sorry. I like having the last word. Learn it, live with it.” She pushed open the door that separated the arctic entry from the rest of the house and disappeared inside.

He shook his head and stepped outside, where his skis were propped next to the door. Spoiled princess, that girl. And there was no frickin’ way she’d last through the winter.

Too bad—she definitely brightened things up around here. Oh well. He shrugged and snapped on his skis. She was a short-timer. Learn it, live with it.

Chapter Three

Both the Noonan and the Ross homesteads were carved out of the vast spruce forests that covered the hills and valleys east of Lost Harbor. Previous generations had cleared the land and put up the first buildings from fallen trees.

Zander’s grandfather had purchased their fifty-acre lot, worked it, then willed it to Zander’s mother. She’d married an airline pilot; they’d lived in Colorado until Zander was about fourteen.

When Brenda Ross got pregnant again, they’d all moved onto the Lost Harbor property. His father had flown for the National Park Service and his mother had worked on the house. She was the one with the hands-on skills and artistic eye. Jason was born and three years later, Petey.

Zander had graduated from Lost Harbor High, then joined the military. That life hadn’t suited him much—he’d chafed under all the rules—but it had given him a sense of purpose. After a freak boating accident had killed his parents, he hadn’t hesitated to resign from the Marines and come home to raise his younger brothers. They were ten and seven at that point. He’d been twenty-four.

How was a twenty-four-year-old former Marine supposed to know how to raise two wild and grieving boys?

Three words. Chain of command.

Thank God for his military experience, because that was the structure he’d relied on for the past three years. Rules, consequences, order, accountability. Those were the pillars that kept the teetering Ross household from falling apart.

But being the stern platoon leader could get exhausting, so he cherished moments like this when he was all alone in the peaceful woods, skiing between snow-laden spruce with the wind against his face.

The hissing strokes of his skis were the only sounds—at first. But as he skied, he caught more. The curious chirping of a flock of waxwings wheeling high above. The croak of a raven. The distant whine of a twin-engine plane.

Those few sounds only emphasized how quiet these woods were in winter. The snow absorbed sound, almost like a layer of insulation.

Which reminded him that he needed to patch up the hole that Jason had made in the wall of the weight room during a freak free weight incident. He’d have to pick up some spackle when he was in town.

He checked his watch—set to military time—and picked up the pace. Today was his day for the carpool, which meant he had to pick up his brothers, Abby’s oldest son, and Chloeann, another neighbor girl, from the school bus drop-off about three miles down the road. He and Chloeann’s parents did most of the driving except when Earl Noonan was in town.

So far, no one had suggested that Gretel Morrison take a shift. Winter driving was too sketchy to take that kind of chance.

Abby’s words came back to him—don’t be such a grumpy-pants around her.

Was he? He didn’t intend to be. It wasn’t personal. Maybe he was just that kind of guy. The grumpy kind with a lot of responsibilities.

When he reached his house, he ditched his skis, hanging them on their assigned hook under the overhang. The house that his grandfather had begun was still under construction—and probably always would be. It had a steep metal roof to shed the snow and cedar siding most of the way around. The fourth side still had patches of Tyvek showing.

He really needed to get to that. And to the floors, which were still bare plywood. And a million other things.

But the boys were weirdly sentimental about the house and didn’t like big changes. They staged a rebellion every time he talked about putting down flooring.

Inside, he added a log to the fire in the woodstove and damped it down.

A smile flitted across his face as he remembered Gretel and her firewood struggles. He had to give her credit—she was persistent. And that kind of determination went a long way in a place like this.

He did a quick whirlwind cleanup of the kitchen, putting away the dishes Jason had washed that morning and wiping off the counter Petey had forgotten. Niko, their Alaskan Malamute, followed him as he worked. Even though he was getting on, he still loved to be part of whatever was happening.

He checked the giant chore chart that lived on an erasable easel he’d found at the dump. Yup, Petey had also neglected to take out his choice of frozen meat from the freezer. He added a red dot to that box. Uncompleted chore.

Petey had three red dots already this week. Five red dots and he’d get assigned a much bigger chore, a really no-fun task like scrubbing the bathroom floor.

Oh well—those were the rules. Created by him, the leader of the family, and handed down the chain of command. The only nod to democracy that he offered was a monthly family meeting during which changes to the rules could be discussed. Occasionally—very occasionally—he agreed to revise a rule. But nothing changed unless he said so.

Sometimes one of his brothers would have a meltdown and yell at him that he was being a dictator. He didn’t disagree. His usual answer was something about “power” and “responsibility” and “do you want to be in charge for a day? Be my guest.” That usually worked. Because they could see for themselves that being in charge mostly sucked.

He stepped outside and jogged through the cold to his workshop, which had been the original barn on the homestead. He was repairing an antique chair for one of the wealthy retirees who’d moved to Lost Harbor. His woodworking skills were paying the bills until the life insurance came through. If it ever came through; after three years of angry phone calls, sometimes he wondered if it was a lost cause.

Luckily, his father had taught him woodworking and he’d always loved it. Best of all, it allowed him to stay close to home. It still amazed him that people were willing to pay for simple things like regluing a chair leg. But if someone was willing to pay him to take care of easy shit, why not take the job?

Once again, he thought about Gretel. She came from a rich family. Word around town was that both Gretel and her sister Bethany had grown up with plenty of money to spare. Bethany was now a doctor at the hospital, and had recently gotten engaged to Nate Prudhoe, the firefighter.

He knew that Gretel had come to Lost Harbor because of Bethany, but he wasn’t clear on how she’d ended up living at the Noonans’. He was definitely curious about that, and about most things related to Gretel. He wanted to know more about her.

But what was the point, when she’d be gone before he could blink twice, like some kind of fairy flitting through the woods?

He shook off that ridiculous thought and focused on his handiwork. The glue was dry, so he loosened the clamp that had been holding the broken pieces together. Great. He could deliver this baby and collect a check.

After securing the chair in the back of the big Suburban he used for deliveries and carpooling, he let Niko hop in the back and headed into town. The gravel road had been plowed just this morning; he could still see the ridges of dirty ice left by the blade. The plow truck driver who had the contract for this area had recently asked Zander if he wanted to take over.

He was still wrestling with that decision. Yes, it would be another source of income. But it would also be another layer of responsibility. It would mean early mornings and possibly long hours. It meant more time for Jason and Petey to tear the house apart in his absence.

He let out a sigh as he reached the start of the wider paved road that led to town. Sometimes he felt more like forty-seven than twenty-seven.

His last girlfriend had flung that insult at him. “You’re like an old man, except you still like to fuck.”

She wasn’t wrong.

He stopped at the cluster of mailboxes that served their road—Wolf Ridge Road. Among the bills and circulars, the return address on one piece of mail sent a bolt of fear right to his gut.

The Alaska Department of Health, Office of Children’s Services.

Fuck. He hated hearing from them. Even though he’d been successfully caring for his brothers for three years, they still watched over his shoulder like a set of vultures ready to swoop down if he screwed something up.

Or at least that was how it felt.

He pulled forward and took a moment to scan the letter.

This is to inform you that a new caseworker has been assigned to Jason and Peter Ross. Susan Baker will be contacting you within the next few weeks to arrange a home visit.

A home visit? What the hell? That didn’t happen very often because the department was located in Juneau and extremely understaffed. Alaska was a big territory to cover. Usually the caseworkers only made home visits when there was a good reason—like when he’d first assumed guardianship of his brothers. A caseworker had shown up after Jason had gotten into a few fights at school. Trouble like that could inspire a home visit.

But things were fine at the moment. Jason was pulling a solid B average in eighth grade, which wasn’t bad considering he spent all his time either skiing or thinking about skiing. His main goal in life was making the ski team once he got to high school.

Petey was…Petey. A stubborn little ball of energy who did things his own particular way. Sometimes the other kids thought he was weird, but so what? They just didn’t know him the way his family did.

Maybe there was nothing to worry about. Maybe this was a routine visit from a dedicated new caseworker. Maybe the only problem was how clean they’d have to keep the house until she’d come and gone.

An hour later—chair delivered, groceries and spackle acquired—Zander pulled up at the turnaround where the school bus dropped the kids. The spot happened to offer an incredible view of Misty Bay and the snow-covered mountain range on the other side. Clouds hovered over Zertuche glacier, which was wedged between steep slopes. More clouds were stacked behind those, as if a storm was flowing from the ice fields into Lost Souls Wilderness.

He turned on the radio to listen to the forecast. Ironically, the announcer was reading out the Bush Lines. “To the fishing boat that stopped at Ninlik Cove two days ago, please come back for your cooler. It’s becoming litter, and that’s rude. Ride needed from Lost Harbor to Anchorage on January 13, willing to share the usuals.”

He smiled at the thought of submitting a Bush Line praising Gretel Morrison. “When pigs fly, Niko. That ain’t happening.”

Niko had nothing to say.

The bus pulled up a few minutes later. It was already mostly empty, since their stop was the last on the route.

Jason, Petey, Chloeann and Eli came spilling out in a flurry of parkas and backpacks. The driver gave Zander a salute, performed a complicated five-point turn, and steered the bus toward town. It made a splash of yellow against the backdrop of snowy peaks across the bay.

The Suburban filled up with kids and chatter.

“I need new ski poles, I snapped one of mine in half,” Jason announced. “On accident,” he added quickly.

“I’m going to need a complete incident report,” said Zander. “Filed in triplicate.”

“Can Petey come over to play?” asked Eli hopefully from the passenger seat. “We got a new trampoline.”

“After his chores and depending on his homework.”

Zander glanced at Petey in the rearview mirror. He was listening to Chloeann whisper something in his ear and had missed the request from Eli. Being three years older than Eli, he wasn’t always interested in playing with him.

“A trampoline, huh? When did that happen?”

“Gretel got it. It’s a little one and it’s only in my room and I’m the only one allowed to jump on it. Except her, since she got it for me. And Petey if he comes over.”

Gretel got him a trampoline? Interesting. It made sense because Eli had a lot of energy to burn off, especially in the winter. And he would love having something that was just for him, since the twin toddlers got so much attention.

It was thoughtful.

Another surprise from the pretty girl next door.

“What if I come over? Can I try it?”

Eli shot him a dubious glance. “You might break it. No way.”

Zander hid a laugh. That was the thing about this whole surrogate parenting gig. The kids could really crack you up. Especially the ones you weren’t directly responsible for.

“Moose!” shouted Chloeann, pointing to the trees off the road. He located it—a spindly-legged youngster who swung his big head toward them and watched as they passed.

“Thanks for watching my six,” he told Chloeann.

“What?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “He means thanks for watching his back. That’s how they say it in the military. Like how he always says that he’ll pick us up at sixteen-thirty. Sixteen is four o’clock in normal people language.”

“But why does six mean the same thing as your back?”

“Imagine a clock face, and you’re looking toward the twelve. The six is at your back.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s by my feet.”

Zander laughed along with the other kids. She had a point, he couldn’t deny that.

Petey spoke up for the first time. “Zander, can I go to Chloeann’s and do homework?”

“Sorry, kid. You have chores to do.”

Storm clouds gathered on Petey’s face. “I always have chores. Life doesn’t stop because of chores. I’m not your prisoner.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. If you finish your chores quickly, I’ll drive you over to Chloeann’s.”

Petey subsided, though he still looked furious. Too bad—Zander took chores seriously, because if he didn’t, no one else would, that was for sure.

Just wait until Petey heard about the red dot on the chart.

They reached the mailbox that marked the end of Chloeann’s driveway. Zander pulled over and let her out. Out of habit, he watched her until she was safely at the door of her house.

“Come on, Z,” said Jason impatiently. “I’m already behind on my miles.”

Jason had set himself a goal of skiing twenty-five miles a week. That was a lot, but Zander approved of the goal-setting part.

He wasn’t so sure about the nickname.

“Since when do you call me Z?”

“Out loud? Just since today.”

Zander hid another laugh. These kids. They truly cracked him up. “Well, I’m not sure I like it.”

“There’s no rule about nicknames. Petey, is there a rule about nicknames?”

“Prisoners have numbers, not nicknames,” Petey said morosely.

“Good God, how’d I turn into a prison warden named Z? Sounds like a character in a movie.”

That lightened up the mood, and they spent the rest of the drive tossing out ideas for this hypothetical movie. The prison warden was also a bandit who went only by the letter Z. He jailed people by day, robbed people by night. He had an accomplice known only as X, who was a master swordsman, while Z specialized in archery.

“What about Y?” Zander asked.

“Y is their nemesis, he wants to kill everyone. Why, Y? Why?” Petey clutched his hands at his heart. The kid was such a natural when it came to drama.

When they dropped off Eli at the Noonans’ place, Zander got out to hand him the box of groceries. “Is that too much for you to carry? Want me to bring it in?”

“Course not. Jeez.” The boy shifted the box in his grip as he peered inside. “Pistachios?”

“They’re for Gretel. Hey, can you pass on a message to her?”

Eli nodded. His hat had gotten displaced during his exit from the van; Zander reached out and adjusted it for him.

“Tell her pistachios grow best in warm climates. Can you remember that?”

“Pistachios grow best in warm climates,” Eli repeated obediently, with little puffs of breath accenting every word.

“Good. Thanks, dude. And hey—Petey will come over and jump on your trampoline soon, okay?”

Eli nodded and marched toward the house with his bulky load.

On his way back to the driver’s seat, Zander noticed a piece of firewood in the culvert by the driveway. It must have rolled out of Gretel’s sight when the sled spilled over.

Should he pick it up despite all her instructions about not helping her?

Screw that. Firewood was valuable. And she didn’t even know it was there.

Quickly, he snatched it up and whisked it into the woodshed, then hurried back to the van.

“Why were you running?” Jason frowned at him from the backseat, where he was slouching with his iPhone. Service was very spotty in their area, but there were a few hot spots. The Noonans’ driveway occasionally got one bar.

“Exercise.” He didn’t feel like explaining anything related to Gretel. Maybe because he couldn’t really explain it to himself. Why did he think about her as much as he did?

Well, there was the obvious explanation—she was new around here.

And so beautiful.

And fun to talk to.

When she wasn’t actively trying to piss him off.

He took one last lingering look around the property, but she was nowhere to be seen. No flash of hair with magenta streaks or tasseled snow boots or sparkling blue-lagoon eyes.

He slowly backed out of the driveway. With his head turned to look behind him, he caught sight of a figure in the woods. Someone small, wearing a snowsuit, using snowshoes to wend their way through the woods. He couldn’t really get a good look, so he checked the rearview mirror, angling it to get a better view.

It was Gretel.

If he had to guess, this was her first time on snowshoes. She was exaggerating each step, making sure she didn’t catch the snowshoe on any stray brush. She wasn’t looking where she was going, at all. The contraptions on her feet drew all her attention.

The hood of her parka had blown back and her hair clung to her face. She must be sweating. Her vivid magenta streaks glinted in the dappled sun coming through the branches.

“Z!”

He snapped back to attention. Jesus, he’d nearly driven off the edge into the culvert. He’d completely forgotten that he was even driving.

He maneuvered the van back into the proper direction and continued reversing down the driveway.

When they passed Gretel, she waved. He pretended that he’d just spotted her and waved back. Then he winced as she tripped on a spruce branch and tumbled into a snowbank.

As soon as they reached the road, Jason burst out laughing. “You like Gretel.”

“What?”

“You were watching her. I saw you. You nearly crashed into a tree. That’s how much you like her.”

“I didn’t nearly crash. And I like her okay.” He reached the road and made a sharp swerve to head for home.

“I’m going to tell Eli.”

“Tell what?”

“That you nearly crashed the van because you were looking at her like this.” Jason widened his eyes as big as they could get and stuck out his tongue like a panting dog.

“The hell you are.”

“Is there a rule against talking to Eli now?”

Of course there wasn’t. Try as he might, Zander couldn’t think of any of their rules that applied to this situation. “Insubordination and disrespecting your superior officer?”

“Nice try.”

“Tell you what. I’ll take care of dinner tonight. That’s on your chart. You can go ski.”

“Buying my silence?”

“Want it or not?”

“Yes,” Jason said quickly.

A moment later they pulled up outside their house. Jason was already halfway out the door when Zander remembered the letter from the Office of Children’s Services. Jason was old enough now for Zander to run stuff like this by him.

“Wait.”

His younger brother sat back down and closed the door, but kept hold of the handle. “What now?”

“I got a letter about another home visit from a new caseworker. They usually only do that if there’s a problem. Is there anything I should know about?”

Jason’s eyebrows drew together. Just recently his voice had changed and his face had grown more bony. He too had their mother’s hazel eyes and dark hair, just like Zander did.

Sometimes it hurt to see the resemblance.

“What do you mean?”

“Grades are good? No trips to the principal’s office I didn’t hear about?”

“No.”

“Arrests? Drugs? Alcohol?” Zander was mostly joking about that, but it was worth throwing out there.

“Yuck, no. Dude, I’d never make the ski team if I did that shit. Can I go now?”

“So there’s nothing?”

Something crossed Jason’s face—maybe guilt? “Why don’t you ask the caseworker why they’re coming?”

Okay, well, that was a good suggestion. But he didn’t want to look like he was scared of the caseworker.

Jason opened the door and made his escape, sending a swirl of cold air into the van.

Zander put the letter and the rest of the mail onto his box of groceries and hurried inside, Niko at his heels. Jason was already racing to his bedroom, stripping off his school clothes as he ran. Zander had gotten him a winter ski suit for Christmas. It was Jason’s favorite possession in the world, second only to his skis.

“Can I borrow your ski poles?” he asked as he came racing back out.

“Yup. No pole-vaulting with them, though.”

Jason came screeching to a halt. “How did you know?”

Zander burst out laughing. “Damn, I’m good, aren’t I?”

“Did someone tell you?”

“No one told me. I’m just that good. Remember that the next time you think of some dumbass stunt like that.”

Looking spooked, Jason loped out of the house. Zander chuckled to himself as he unpacked the box of groceries.

He’d broken two ski poles that same way when he was in high school. Why did kids always think they’d invented their stupid shit? Someone else had always done it first—and probably worse.

He stuck the letter from Children’s Services on the pile of “important things he needed to deal with and better not forget about.”

Before this new caseworker, Susan Baker, showed up, he had to find out what was going on. Because he knew his little brother well enough to know that he was hiding something.

Chapter Four

When Lloyd Morrison—mega-millionaire, father, and control freak—had cut Gretel off last fall, she’d panicked at first. She’d never had to completely rely on herself before, since she’d always had his credit cards as a safety net. She knew that he liked funding her life because that gave him a say in what she did. It worked out well for both of them.

But then two things had happened. One, he’d gotten mad at Bethany and wanted to punish her. Since Bethany didn’t need his money, he’d gone after Gretel. That wasn’t the real reason, though. Even Bethany didn’t know the real reason. Gretel had done something he considered unforgivable—she’d played Robin Hood with his money. She’d donated funds to a group fighting to protect a butterfly sanctuary from the Morrison Group. Yup, her own father’s investment firm was trying to develop that land, and she’d gone directly against him. To the tune of seventy-five thousand dollars.

Oops. Sorry not sorry.

“You can earn your own money and throw it away,” he’d raged. “Let your sister take you in. I’m done.”

She couldn’t really complain because she’d brought it on herself. But yeah, she’d panicked.

Her mother, Aimee, had begged her to consider one of the wealthy older men who filled her contacts. Why get a job when she could simply marry a rich man?

But Gretel kept refusing her suggestions. It was time to grow up and fend for herself.

She’d accepted the position with the Noonans and taken an extra job at the Wicked Brew Coffee Shop, which had recently been purchased by a Hawaiian guy named Danny D. He’d changed the name from the Dark Brew to the Wicked Brew to give it some edginess.

“I’m here!” she announced as she twirled through the door.

“You always say that as if you deserve a medal.” Danny D rolled his eyes as she waltzed toward the espresso counter.

The idea of showing up at the same time at the same place over and over again—that was new to her, she had to admit.

“Have you seen those roads? And have you seen my truck? It might honestly be faster to snowshoe into town.”

She took off her parka—the hot-pink fur one she’d found at the thrift shop—and hung it on the coatrack in the back. She found an apron and tied it around her waist. For today’s shift, she’d chosen a black lacy top layered over a form-fitting burgundy long-sleeve leotard. A striped spandex miniskirt over leggings and her zebra-print boots completed her outfit.

Joining Danny D behind the bar, she pulled herself an espresso shot. All the coffee she could drink—a reason to dress up—a chance to chat with the Lost Harborites—honestly, she loved this job.

“So you finally got out there with the snowshoes, huh?”

“Yup. And you know something? I am not a sporty person. I suck at skiing and tennis and swimming and jogging and skating and anything that has a ball—except for croquet, I’m pretty good at that—but I think I’ve found a sport I can get behind.”

“Basically walking?”

“In my case, there’s a lot of standing too. The occasional fall into the snow.” She grinned at him and blew on her espresso. “But I love it because you’re absolutely encased in fluff. Snowsuit, lots of fleecy gloves and so forth, fluffy snow. And it’s literally impossible to go fast so there’s no pressure. There’s a reason why there’s no Olympic event for snowshoeing. It would be like watching tortoises race.”

He shook his head with a laugh and untied his apron. He wore a Kingdom of Hawaii bandanna to keep his dark hair off his face. He claimed to be a descendant of King Kamehameha and from his imperial manner, Gretel didn’t doubt it. “You almost talked me into it.”

“Into what? Don’t let her talk you into anything, before you know it you’ll be hot air ballooning over the South Pacific or something.” Her sister Bethany strolled toward the bar, holding hands with her new sweetie, Nate.

“Now that doesn’t sound so bad.” Danny D balled up his apron and headed for the back room. “Don’t burn the place down, Gretel. No freebies for anyone.”

Gretel mouthed “ignore him,” and poured mugs of coffee for Nate and Bethany. “Looks like we have cranberry muffins this morning, are you guys hungry?”

“No, we ate. Nate made pancakes.” The adoring glance that Bethany gave Nate was sweeter than the triple dose of simple syrup Gretel added to her coffee.

Nate smiled down at her, just as blissful as Bethany. On the surface, the two of them seemed very different—Nate was lighthearted and fun, whereas Bethany was a doctor and more serious and reliable. On the other hand, they’d both dedicated their lives to helping others, so they weren’t so different. And they’d fallen madly in love with each other after a few false starts. They were both wonderful people who deserved happiness. Gretel couldn’t wait for their wedding next summer.

An actual wedding between two people who intended to stay together for life? Imagine that. Having witnessed Lloyd and Aimee’s divorce, then two subsequent marriages apiece, honestly it was difficult.

“Do you both have the day off?” Gretel set to work preparing the behind-the-counter workspace the way she liked it.

“Yes, for once. Do you have any time off today? There’s a new movie at the theater.”

“I’m here until three, and then I need to drive Abby to a checkup.”

Bethany frowned as she tucked a long strand of blond hair behind her ear. “You’re working too much. I’m worried about you. When you’re not helping Abby, you’re working here, and you never have any free time. Why do you need this job, too? Isn’t one enough?”

“It’s fine. I’m making up for my lazy past when I didn’t work at all.” Gretel tossed back her espresso shot.

“You were not lazy. You were fun-loving,” Bethany said sternly. “Don’t you dare criticize my favorite person. Besides Nate, but he’s in a different category,” she added quickly.

Nate put a hand on his heart. “Ego check. Yup, still holding strong.”

“I was a party girl.” Gretel shrugged lightly. “No point in denying it, the evidence is all over social media. The internet is forever. Anyway, I like this job. I’m going to get a sound system in here and get some live music going. Danny has this dark moody vibe that he likes, but he couldn’t say no to some local talent.”

“That’s a great idea. But you’re trying to change the subject from your overbooked schedule. Can you cut back on your hours here, at least? Maybe Abby and Earl can make up the shortfall?”

Gretel had no ability to withstand her sister’s concern. Her whole life, Bethany had been the one person she could rely on, the one person who loved her unconditionally.

“Our arrangement isn’t about cash flow,” she finally said. “They give me room and board and a truck and that’s more than enough. They offered to pay me but I refused. Anyway, as soon as Abby’s healed, she won’t need me as much.”

Bethany opened her mouth to respond, but Nate slung an arm around her shoulders. “It sounds like Gretel has it worked out the way she wants.”

“Yes.” She gave her future brother-in-law a tiny, grateful smile. “Even if they paid me, it wouldn’t be much because they give me room and board. And I need quite a bit of money.”

Bethany’s eyebrows lifted. “For what?”

“I kind of…committed some money to some people.”

“Oh my God. Are you in debt? Do you need a loan? Are there people after you?”

Crap, she’d phrased that wrong and now her sister was panicking.

“No, nothing like that. I don’t owe the money. I donated it. Thinking that I had it, thanks to Daddy. But I didn’t and now the group is in trouble thanks to me. So I need to work as much as I can to make up for it.”

Bethany blinked at her in confusion. “What group?”

“It’s a…butterfly sanctuary in Texas…”

Catching on, Bethany burst out laughing. “Oh boy. It’s all making sense now. The one near Daddy’s development?”

“That’s the one.”

“How much did you pledge?”

“A lot. But it’s not your problem. It’s mine.”

Someone cleared their throat. “Uh, I got a problem. I need a quad shot cappuccino with two pulls of coconut syrup if you’re done blabbing.”

She turned to see Old Crow, one of the weather-beaten fishermen who mostly hung out in the harbor. “Well, look who the halibut dragged in. Shouldn’t you be bugging the poor bartenders at the Olde Salt?”

“Toni told me to broaden my horizons,” he grumbled as he leaned his elbows on the counter. “Besides, their coffeemaker broke.”

“Oh really, is that the story you’re going with?”

He scratched at the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin. “Fine. You make a damn good cappuccino. When you stop gossiping.”

She accepted the compliment with a gracious nod and slid over to the espresso machine. “No one in this town gossips more than the fishermen, so you can just eat those words for breakfast along with your quad shot.”