Alaskan Nights

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A remote lakeside cabin in the middle of Alaska’s tundra seemed the perfect place to regroup and let her battered heart heal.

When Brandon Wilks crash-lands into Isabella’s small corner of the state, he believes he’s found his future and the woman of his dreams…if he can convince her to open her wounded heart.

Brandon Wilks compared the lay of the land below him with his chart, making sure he was still on course. Drizzling rain battered the rented Piper Super Cub’s windscreen, and visibility had been getting worse for the last half hour.

The hills north of Fairbanks rose steadily as the clouds lowered to meet them. A quick calculation told him those clouds had pushed him down to only two hundred feet above the ground. His gut told him this wasn’t good.

The weather briefer safe and dry back in Fairbanks could look forward to a few choice words about the accuracy of his forecast when Brandon got back to the airport. Another two hours, though, and he’d be on the tarmac. Tomorrow morning he would head back to the Lower 48, back to his life, back to his job. Back to reality and away from the land he loved.

Brandon looked out his side window and watched the scrub trees pass by below him. Off the left wing a massive herd of caribou roamed over the tundra. This far north, fall tended to come early, and spring was always late. The ducks, geese, and graceful white swans gathered on the lakes and ponds preparing for their flight south, even though it was only mid-August.

From the icy tips of the distant mountain ranges, to the crystal-clear lakes and shining ribbons of rivers and streams winding from the ancient glaciers into the wet lowlands, even the wide, lonely expanses of northern tundra, every bit of Alaska called to him like a beacon flashing Home. It flowed through him like a sweet, healing balm, soothing parts of him he hadn’t realized had become so battered and bruised.

Like his soul.

A flock of geese took flight directly ahead, breaking him out of his reverie. At his low altitude, he couldn’t dodge the birds, and a fifteen-pound Canadian goose exploded through the windscreen with the impact of a cinder block. Brandon’s head and chest took the brunt of the bird’s impact as the cockpit filled with blood and feathers.

The Cub couldn’t sustain flight with no windshield. He was going down.

Blinking blood from his eyes-unsure if it was his or the goose’s-he frantically searched for a place to set down. Wind the strength of a tornado tore through the cockpit so loud he would never get a Mayday call off, even if he could find the radio mike.


Isabella Hammond sat on the porch, staring into her now cold mug of cocoa, in a chair made from hand-carved diamond willow and caribou hide, created by an artisan in years long gone by. Her foot propped on the bottom board of the porch’s handrail, she sat in the quiet afternoon gloom listening to the light rain drip, drip, drip off the roof over the tiny, one-room log cabin.

The cabin sat at the southern end of Ice Worm Lake, and she’d walked the less than four-mile circumference around the edge several times in the past week. Scraggly black spruce dotted the tundra, willow brush grew thick along the banks, and stunted birch and cottonwood sprang up here and there along the glacial stream that fed into the lake.

Blueberries and lowbush cranberries were just starting to ripen on the sloping hillsides surrounding her miniature oasis, and the air was thick with the scent of rain and tree sap. The thirsty moss soaked up the drizzle as if the ground were one big sponge. Hiking would gain her nothing but wet feet and clothes today, so here she sat with too many thoughts in her head and nothing to do but swat the errant mosquito that dared to defy her layer of bug repellant.

When a friend back in San Francisco suggested a flying service that would take her to a remote cabin in the Alaskan wilderness-someplace safe and secluded from any living being-she’d jumped at the prospect of spending a month in the wilds. In a place she’d never been. Alone to think.

And think… And think.

This trip had been a mistake. She shouldn’t be here. Even though she wasn’t sure where she belonged, this was definitely not it. She’d hoped solitude would help her gather her thoughts, force her to figure out what she was going to do with her life now that Cameron was dead, but all she’d found was intense silence and nightmares that invaded her waking hours.

The past seven days had seemed an eternity. For the first time in her life she’d discovered the meaning ofloneliness. In the past when she’d sought respite and solitude, Cam had always been nearby, awaiting her return. The knowledge Cam would never again be waiting for her return engulfed her soul in a shroud of desolation from which she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to escape.

Uncle Cam, I need you!

She laid her head back, squeezed her eyes shut, and let the pain sweep through her. New tears streamed down her cheeks, adding to the tracks of old ones long since dried. No use fighting the pain, she’d come to learn.

Once again she was transported back in time.

Steamy, sticky heat of the Central American rain forest surrounded her. The sickly sweet aroma of rotting foliage turned her stomach. Bird calls and the insistent hum of insects rang loud and clear, pierced her brain, branding her forever.

And then the men appeared. Eight of them standing in their path, wearing torn, tattered military fatigues. Dirty, reeking of alcohol and sweat, they grabbed the group of reporters. Their rifles silenced those who dared speak out. Isabella and Cam were hauled back to the guerilla camp, their Brazilian guides murdered before their eyes.

The tears came again, as they always did when she remembered, hard and hot and fast against her chilled skin. Her only relative. Her closest friend. The man who’d laid down his life for her. The man who’d taken in a scared, parentless twelve year old and raised her as his own, was gone.

Isabella surged to her feet, swiping the tears away with her fists. Stop! She would not let the pain eat her to death. She couldn’t. Cam wouldn’t want it. Cam would tell her to go on, find a life, live that life.

But what am I going to do?

A strange noise pulled her from her thoughts.

Swiping her sleeve over her wet eyes, she stepped from under the sheltering overhang onto the top step of the porch and searched the horizon. The sound buzzed like the small, single-engine plane that had brought her to the cabin. But the engine kept growing louder then fading away, as if someone stomped on the gas then let up again. The plane sputtered wildly as it appeared through the drizzling rain and heavy, pewter-gray clouds just above the treetops at the north end of the lake.

Her ride wasn’t supposed to return for another three weeks. The grizzled bush pilot who’d dropped her there had sworn she was well off any normal flight pattern and, therefore, ensured the peace and quiet she’d demanded when she booked her stay. She hadn’t heard any sound other than twittering birds, chattering squirrels, that annoying high-pitched whine of mosquitoes, and the soft lapping water of the lake for seven long days. Literally in the middle of nowhere, Ice Worm Lake sat somewhere a couple hundred miles northwest of Fairbanks in a shallow bowl surrounded by low-lying hills.

The plane came down toward the lake. Too fast and too unsteady, its wings waved almost frantically side to side as it came straight toward her. And it didn’t have floats. The stupid pilot is going to land on the lake with tires?

The plane’s engine sputtered out, an unnatural silence falling over the lake. She watched, eyes wide with surprise and horror, her fists clenched at her sides, as it glided over the lake losing altitude. “Too fast,” she whispered. “You’re going too fast.”

The oversized tires touched the water then ricocheted back into the air like a rock skipping along the surface. The wings tilted to the right. It bounced again. The nose came down, and the plane dove forward into the lake. A massive wave crested, pushed by the force of the fuselage through the water, as the tail went over the top, completely inverting the plane.

Heart pounding, Isabella ran to the edge of the lake.

It sank slowly, bubbles cresting and spurting all around it. When the nose and the front tires touched bottom, the tail still stuck out of the water at an odd angle. The plane sat less than a hundred feet from the easy-sloping gravel beach where she stood.

Nothing moved but the bubbles breaking on the surface of the lake and waves lapping at the shore. No signs of life appeared from beneath the water’s surface.

Isabella kicked off her hiking boots, stripped out of her jeans and sweater, and charged into the water before any second thoughts could push their way into her mind. With a deep gulp of air, she dove down through the crystal clear water, doing her best to ignore the urge to gasp as the frigid water closed over her head.

When she reached the airplane, she saw a man inside. One man, no one else. The door under the wing was on the opposite side. After scrambling to the surface for a gulp of air, she pushed herself back down to tackle the door. It wouldn’t budge.

The windshield had been broken out. She pulled herself around to the front of the plane and leaned in through the window, ignoring the jagged shards of broken Plexiglas that gouged at her arms and side.

The man was big, the window wasn’t. Dear God, how would she get him out?

She tugged at his shoulders until she had to resurface for more air. Sputtering and coughing, she tried to think.Think! she told herself even as shivers racked her body. Seatbelt. He probably had on a seatbelt.

Diving back down, she levered herself through the window once again and found his seatbelt. It had a central point where his lap belt and shoulder harness clipped together. After struggling to rotate the buckle, she managed to pull it open just as she used the last bit of air in her lungs.

The guy started floating up. Grabbing the shoulders of his shirt, Isabella struggled backwards out the window opening, tugging him along behind her. His shoulders were wide, but with a little twisting and turning, she got him through the window. As she pulled him through the opening, she used the wing to lever herself to the surface, hauling him along by the collar of his flannel shirt.

Breaking through the surface, Isabella gulped air into her burning lungs.

The plane began to shift.

Wrapping one arm around the man’s neck, she shoved off the side of the plane as hard as she could. The plane continued falling over onto its back and settled to the floor of the lake, completely submerged beneath the water.

Struggling through a one-armed backstroke, she dragged the man’s dead weight with her. Oh, God, please don’t let him be dead. Her toes touched the rocky lake bottom. Heaving, coughing, her limbs shaking from exertion, adrenaline, and the bitterly cold water, she stumbled backwards, dragging the man’s limp body up the gravely beach. Slipping on her cold-numbed feet, she landed hard on her butt, the man draped over her legs, his face against her thigh.

She didn’t feel any breath on her cold, wet skin.

He just lay there, still as death.

Isabella scrambled from under him and rolled him onto his back. Her fingers on his throat, her ear next to his nose, she felt no pulse, heard no breath.

As she’d learned in CPR class, she laced her fingers together and began chest compressions. She’d always been a stickler about keeping up her first aid certifications because of the places she and Cam traveled. There was no way to know if medical help would be nearby. Usually it wasn’t.

On the second compression, a bubble of water expelled from his mouth. Grabbing the front on his shirt, she jerked him onto his side to keep him from choking. He gagged, convulsed as he vomited water, then lay utterly still once again.

He was breathing. She felt for a pulse. His heart was beating, though not very strong.

“Come on, come on, wake up!” She lightly slapped his whisker-roughened cheek.


She glanced up at the cabin from where she sat. It seemed very far away all of a sudden. Rolling the man onto his back, she noticed something off about his left shoulder. She ran her hands over him, and her stomach flip-flopped. Dear Lord, his shoulder was dislocated.

Okay. She’d had to reset Cam’s shoulder once when they’d been in the Andes and he’d taken a fall. He’d talked her through it, though. Biting her bottom lip, she wished he were here now to help her.

Her stomach took another dip.

The man wore an open, red plaid flannel shirt over a black T-shirt. She needed to get him out of the flannel to see better. Heaving him up on his right side, she yanked on his sleeve, trying to pull it off, until she realized that politely removing the soggy shirt would be impossible. She grabbed the sleeve of the shirt and the shoulder and jerked as hard as she could. The sleeve ripped away at the seam.

Okay. Better. She finished removing it and then shoved him down onto his back.

She checked his pulse again. Getting stronger. “Don’t wake up now,” she pleaded. “If you just wait a few minutes, this will be easier on both of us.”

Sitting on her bottom, the gravel digging into her flesh, she positioned her foot in his armpit and wrapped her fingers around his arm just above the wrist. Her stomach threatened to return her breakfast.

“Breathe, Hammond. Breathe,” she instructed herself between chattering teeth. “Come on, Cam, help me here.”

Slow, steady pressure. She pulled, and pulled. His arm gave with a soft pop. The sound made her gag, but it was over. His arm was back where it belonged. With a sob of relief, she raised his arm and tested its movement.

“Okay, okay. You can wake up now,” she told him as she swiped at her tearing eyes with her forearm.

He didn’t move. In fact, he looked very peaceful. Except for the lump over his right eyebrow. Talk about a goose egg. “Don’t you dare die,” she whispered, running her fingers lightly over the bump.

Shivering uncontrollably now, she ran her hands over the rest of his body to check for bones that didn’t feel right. He didn’t seem to be bleeding. Nothing else stuck out at odd angles. Gently spearing her hands through his thick, dark hair, she used her fingertips to check his scalp for more bumps but found none. Just the one on his forehead.

His hair was long, hanging over his collar, very dark brown and soft. He had a diamond stud earring in his left ear. The watch on his left wrist wasn’t overly expensive, but it was waterproof and still ticking.

Isabella said rose up off the gravel, her skin so cold she couldn’t feel the blood that oozed from the scrapes on her knees. She stripped off her waterlogged socks, bra and underwear and pulled on her slightly damp jeans and sweatshirt, then stuck her bare feet into the blessedly almost dry hiking boots.

Rubbing her arms, trying to get some warmth back into her, she wondered what the hell she was supposed to do with him now. She had to get him into the cabin and out of his wet clothes. She didn’t want to save his life just for him to get hypothermia or pneumonia or whatever else he could get from cold-water exposure. Especially if she was going to be stuck with him until her ride returned in three weeks. She didn’t even want to contemplate what kind of sickness he could get from a lungful of untreated lake water.

“Well, I guess this solves my loneliness problem, now doesn’t it?” she muttered, hands on her hips as she stood over him and tried to decide the best way to move him to the cabin. “Please, don’t get up.” She shook her head at her wandering tongue. “Jeez, I’m losing it.”

Clomping up to the cabin in her untied boots, she looked under the building. The small structure sat on four-foot tall stilts, the area beneath serving as a storage area. She’d stashed a blue plastic tarpaulin there when she’d arrived. Originally intended as a rain jacket for her tent if she decided to go off for an overnighter, it would have to do. She didn’t have anything else big enough or strong enough to drag the guy.

Returning to the unconscious man’s side she tried, once again, to wake him. They were only fifty or so feet from the front of the cabin, but he was a big man. Not fat, not at all. In fact, he seemed a little too thin for his size. His cheeks, covered in about two day’s growth of whiskers, were slightly sunken, which enhanced his masculine, almost sensual lips. His stomach, flat and solid, indented slightly below his ribs. He had sinewy arms and a long, lean body. Even his wet, denim-encased thighs looked impressive. Rather handsome, she thought as she stared at his wide shoulders and shapely pecs.

She’d been hauling packs and traipsing through jungles, up mountains and through deserts for ten years with Cam and had always been proud of her physical strength and stamina. Never had she struggled to keep up with her male traveling companions. But after spending a month in a hovel, being fed nothing more than rice and flatbread, drinking water that was tainted with Lord only knew what and having lost a good twenty pounds, she wasn’t exactly up to her physical best.

She’d come here to regain her strength and the missing weight. To eat her fill of all the fresh fish she could catch in the stream and lake, and gorge herself on the potatoes that had been flown in with her. To hike up the hills and around the lake. To strengthen the muscles that had nearly atrophied with cramped quarters and malnutrition.

Dragging around a full-grown man had not been her expected choice of exercise.

Leaning down, hovering over the man’s face, she shouted, “It’s time to wake up!”

Permanent link to this article: http://annaleighkeatonbooks.com/2014/09/alaskan-nights/

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