He dismissed the beauty of the majestic eagle soaring overhead and sucked in air cold enough to burn his lungs. His gut, and the fresh shoe prints in the snow, told him he was getting close to the survivor of the plane crash. He knew the direction the pilot had taken would lead straight to a river.
And a dead end.
He hoped the pilot wasn’t stupid enough to try and cross the river to the other side. It would be suicide. Even if some of the water was frozen, the ice would never hold up beneath the weight of a person, even a small one. A sense of urgency came over him. If the person was foolish enough to leave the crash site, then they just might be crazy enough to try and cross over a frozen river.
The darkening sky revealed the signs of an approaching snowstorm. That was nothing new for this time of year. Lately it snowed every day, sometimes twenty-four hours a day for days on end. There were days when he couldn’t leave his cabin. Those were the only occasions he regretted the isolation of his mountain home. When he couldn’t come and go as he pleased. So why was he going out of his way to rescue someone who was probably going to end up invading his privacy for the next couple of months?
Luke knew the answer to that because it was the right thing to do. He might be a loner, but he was still human. He’d seen the small Cessna go down, and couldn’t ignore the fact that there might be survivors. Only he hadn’t counted on that person being stupid enough to leave the crash site.
He took a deep breath, exhaling a cloud of white air. It was a good thing he’d thought to bring his backpack with him because he knew the extra warm clothes would most likely come in handy. He began to follow the small footprints left behind in the snow, again.
His instinct told him the pilot was a woman.
* * * *
Charlie Wayne came to an abrupt halt and stared in disbelief at the raging river in front of her. Of all the rotten luck! She glanced both ways. A sick feeling settled in her empty stomach. She couldn’t see any way around it. At least nothing that didn’t involve getting wet.
Why isn’t the blasted thing frozen over like everything else in this godforsaken wilderness? She glanced down at her feet and frowned at the inadequate sneakers that were fast becoming caked in ice. She could barely feel her toes. Shivering violently, she strained to see to the bottom of the dark, churning water in an effort to determine if it was shallow enough to cross. One thing was certain, it was far too wide for her to try and jump over. Even with a running start.
The thought of getting wet appealed to her about as much as returning to the wreckage of her plane. Which Charlie knew she should never have left. She knew what the rules of survival were.
And she had broken the most important one. Only staying could have meant her death, too. She’d been way off course. She hadn’t had time to radio in a mayday call with her location. And the thought that no one knew where to begin looking for her had convinced her to leave the wreckage and take her chances.
The sky was turning a dismal gray. She knew from years of living in the north that it was going to snow and the temperatures were going to drop. The last thing she wanted was to become a frozen Popsicle for some carnivore to munch on when spring arrived. It was bad enough that disappearing would probably give her agent a heart attack. Charlie couldn’t help wondering if she was going to make her next singing engagement. Now that her comeback tour was well under way, Charlene Benton was becoming a household name again.
Charlie pulled herself back to her immediate problem. It was already late afternoon and she’d have to find some kind of shelter before dark. The thought crossed her mind that if she turned around and headed back to the plane she’d be safe for another night. And in the morning she could try a different direction.
She searched the sky again for any signs of smoke that would reveal the possibility of a cabin nearby. She knew she was in a remote area, which the empty skyline emphasized with stark clarity. With a heavy sigh she turned to start walking again, and came face to face with a large, white dog.
Her heart fell as fast as the blood freezing in her veins. She halted so swiftly that she lost her balance. One foot slipped down the muddy embankment into the icy water, but Charlie hardly acknowledged the freezing temperature. For a timeless moment she and the wolf squared off like two adversaries sizing each other up before a fight.
A feeling of doom settled in the pit of her stomach when she realized that if the wolf charged she’d have no alternative but to jump into the icy river, facing one death to escape another. Freezing or drowning would be a welcome alternative to being torn apart and eaten by a wolf. A chill ran down the length of her spine that had nothing to do with the frigid weather, as their gazes remained locked.
What is it waiting for?
As if reading her mind, the large beast crooked its head to look at something in the opposite direction. Was there a pack lurking somewhere beyond the trees? Fear galvanized Charlie into action. She turned to run, knowing that if the wolf decided to come after her it would be over in a matter of seconds. There was no way, as numb with cold and as exhausted as she was that she could outrun a predator.
Especially a hungry one.
In her haste to get away she fell several times. She cursed with frustration. The snow, knee deep in places, slowed her down. But Charlie was determined not to let it keep her from putting as much distance between her and the wolf as fast as possible as her survival instincts kicked in. She could hear movement behind her but wasn’t certain if it was the animal or the blood pounding in her ears.
Charlie heard the command but didn’t believe it. It had to be the wind playing tricks on her. She pushed herself harder, but all at once the wolf was upon her. A heavy force hit the back of her body with a strength that knocked her to the ground. She screamed, expecting to feel her flesh savaged by canine teeth at any second.
Something snagged the hood to her parka pulling it away from her head. Charlie was sure the animal was going for her jugular. She screamed again, not realizing her face was in the snow until it rapidly filled her open mouth. She turned her head, and cried out desperately. “No!” Maybe the sound of her voice would frighten the animal away. “Get away from me!” she screamed, hearing the sound echo throughout the surrounding mountains.
The sheer weight and size of the animal was crushing, holding Charlie nearly immovable. She was helpless against its strength. Suddenly and without warning she was flipped onto her back. Her hands were pinned to the cold ground above her head. And she realized it was a man and not the wolf pinning her down. For a moment she could only lie there in stunned silence and gasp for air.
Charlie relaxed beneath him when she realized he wasn’t a threat to her. Where had he come from, and where was the wolf? She tried to move her head to see, but the hair he’d released when snagging her hood was wrapped around his gloved fingers preventing her from moving. He was slightly winded, looking her over with mild interest as he held her against the frozen ground.
“Why didn’t you stop when I called out?” he said above her, his voice laced with more annoyance than concern. His hands shifted slightly, allowing her to move her head.
“The wolf,” she whispered. She held herself stiffly beneath him. Her gaze darted everywhere around them. The wolf, where had it gone?
“The wolf,” he said and Charlie’s gaze was drawn back to the man. He was looking down at her, not an inkling of concern in his tone. “Won’t hurt you.” He got to his feet, bringing her with him.
“Who are you?” Charlie brushed at the loose snow covering her clothes. Then pulled the hood up and tucked in her hair. She watched his gaze fall to the socks covering her hands. The faintest hint of a grin spread across his chiseled mouth but disappeared in the time it took to blink.
“Luke.” His tone was flat.
Movement out of the corner of her eye caused Charlie to look at the wolf again.
“Lady won’t hurt you,” he repeated, obviously noticing her unease. “Look, we’re losing valuable daylight. We need to go.”
The impatience and hardness of his clipped words caused Charlie’s head to whip back in his direction. Go? Just like that he expected her to go with him? Okay, she really had no choice, but he could at least be sensitive to her situation.
As their gazes locked it was unclear what was going on behind those watchful eyes of his. They narrowed on her slightly. She began to wonder about him, wondered if he was dangerous. Her gaze ran over his tall form, made massive by the heavy insulated snow jacket he was wearing. She couldn’t tell what color his hair was because all that was visible was his rugged face. Most of that was covered with a neatly trimmed black beard. Eyes the color of dark chocolate stared at her set in a face that could be handsome if he softened it with a smile.
“I won’t hurt you, either.”
Did she look worried? Charlie forced a smile, when what she really wanted to do was spin around and run the other way. She was completely alone with him and at his mercy, lost somewhere in the wilds of Alaska. She had no choice but to trust him, or die.
“I’m sorry if I gave you the impression you frighten me. I’m very thankful that you came along. I didn’t know what I was going to do come nightfall. How did you find me?”
“I saw your plane go down. When I came across the crash site I realized someone had survived. Your tracks were easy to follow in the snow.” His gaze raked over her with amazement. “I’m surprised you survived without so much as a scratch.”
“I was lucky,” Charlie admitted. She shuddered a little as she recalled her frightened, helpless feeling when the plane’s engines had stalled, forcing her to crash. Practices during flight school hadn’t compared to the real thing.
“Very lucky,” he agreed. “Why didn’t you remain at the crash site? Search and rescue would have eventually found you.”
“I know that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I couldn’t count on anyone finding me.” Charlie brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. “I was way off course.” She’d flown back and forth to Skagway enough over the years to know that. “None of my gauges were reading correctly, and before I was able to get off a distress signal they went completely dead.”
He acknowledged that he was listening to her with a brief nod of his head. Then cast another brief glance at the sky. “We need to get going.” He turned and began walking.
“Going where?” Charlie had to practically run to keep up with his long, brisk strides. “Is there a ranger’s station close by?”
“I’m not a ranger.” He continued to walk without sparing her a glance.
Charlie didn’t know if she liked the sound of that or not. She struggled to keep up. “Are you taking me to a ranger’s station, then?”
It was clear he didn’t want to talk but Charlie didn’t let his sharp, one-word answers discourage her. “Do you have some kind of transportation near here?” Her tone was hopeful.
She clenched her teeth. He certainly wasn’t very informative. She was beginning to get annoyed. She fell to her knees and quickly got up again when he didn’t even notice. She was panting by the time she caught up to him again and more than a little frustrated. In spite of the fact he’d come looking for her, she got the impression he’d leave her if she didn’t keep up.
“Look, can you please slow down? I can’t keep up.” She wasn’t going to whine, but they’d been walking for hours already. “Where are we going?” In her opinion, nowhere fast. When he didn’t say a word she grabbed him by the arm to get his attention. “Luke…”
He swung around and glared down at her.
She caught her breath.
“I’d forgotten how talkative and troublesome females were.”
His expression said he wasn’t joking. Charlie’s mouth dropped, she couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. “Excuse me?”
“Look, I’ve been living alone in these mountains for three years and have gotten used to not talking to anyone. To not being touched.” His glance took in her sock-covered hand on his arm, before traveling back to her eyes. “Now I’m going to be punished for being nosey, and checking out a damn plane crash.”
Charlie could only stare at him in stunned silence. She didn’t know what to say. If he feels that way why did he even bother?
“My name is Charlie.” She stood her ground in spite of his firm tone. And she would not cry.
Luke released a heavy sigh. “I’m not interested in knowing your name or anything else about you. I’m taking you to my cabin, which happens to be about two miles in that direction.” He indicated the direction with a careless sweep of his arm.
Charlie’s gaze followed the same route. She frowned. “All I see is snow and snow-covered trees. No roads of any kind, no paths, nothing to indicate we’re heading anywhere near civilization, much less a cabin. Where is this cabin, in a cave?”
The next thing she knew he was glaring down at her. His mouth thinned. “What?”
“Are you going to chatter all the way? Because I’m warning you right now, if you sap your strength I’m not carrying you. And before you ask, I don’t have a phone.”
How did he know she was about to ask him that? Charlie gave him a scowl. “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” She did her best to keep her tone light, feigning a smile. “What about a pigeon?”
“Look, we can talk later.” He sounded aggravated, his tone sharper than the cutting edge of a hunting knife.
“Fine,” Charlie snapped, tight-lipped.
He pulled his arm away and bent to a backpack he’d obviously dropped in his pursuit of her. She hadn’t noticed it until now. She wondered what they were going to do after it got dark if they didn’t reach his home. The backpack was the size of a small car but she doubted it contained a blow up house with a fireplace in it.
She was frozen to the bone. Thinking about a roaring fire and a cup of hot cocoa wasn’t helping. On top of that, snow had gotten down her back when her hood had been pulled off during their struggle. Her goose bumps had goose bumps. She ripped off the frozen socks on her hands, and pulled the sleeves of her parka down over them. She watched in curious silence as Luke pulled out a stack of clothes and something that resembled a rain poncho in an ugly shade of green. It reminded her of something she’d seen her brother wearing once in a picture of him taken when he was in boot camp.
“Two miles can seem like ten in these mountains. It’s going to start snowing harder and the clothes you have on aren’t adequate. In these frigid temperatures it won’t take long for frostbite and hypothermia to set in.”
Charlie’s eyebrows arched high with astonishment. Her mouth fell open when it dawned on her what he was getting at. “Surely you don’t expect me to change my clothes out here, like this!” Her arm made a sweep of the openness of the surrounding area. “Two miles or ten miles doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m in good shape,” she insisted, which had absolutely nothing to do with the fact he wanted her to change clothes.
His eyes narrowed, his gaze ran over the length of her almost as if he was trying to see through her clothes. “Are you cold now?”
Charlie nodded reluctantly, but only because she had a feeling he already knew the answer.
“How cold?” he asked.
She was numb she was so cold. “A little,” she lied, unable to meet his eyes. He didn’t know her. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize the signs that gave her away.
“You’re lying,” he said without a second thought, dashing her hopes. “We don’t have time to argue over this. Put these clothes on and the rain poncho, which will keep you from getting damp again as the snow continues to fall.”
Her eyes clung to his stony gaze. She was looking for understanding, but only found steadfast determination. She knew it wouldn’t be to her advantage to fight him on this. He looked about as solid as one of the pines towering over them and just as unbending.
“What about you?” She was hedging and they both knew it.
“My jacket repels water and I’m used to these temperatures.”
Charlie realized he wasn’t going to give an inch. She reached up and unzipped her lightweight parka and slipped it off before shaking her hair around her for the little bit of warmth it would offer. Luke just watched until he finally noticed her fingers were so numb she couldn’t undo the buttons to the flannel shirt she was wearing. He pulled his gloves off with his teeth, shoved them in a pocket then brushed her hands aside with an impatient growl.
Charlie caught her breath and accepted his help with reluctance. Her eyes looked everywhere but at him. She welcomed the rush of heat filling her frozen cheeks. His warm fingers worked deftly at the buttons, and when he was done he pulled her shirt open. She thought his hard mouth curved into a slight grin, but it was so fleeting she must have imagined it. She had a second flannel shirt on just like the first. Luke quickly got rid of that one, too. He stepped back when he came to the sweatsuit. Was he wondering if he’d reached the last layer? Wordlessly, Charlie reached for the hem, and pulled the top over her head. Then, just as quickly kicked off her sneakers and wiggled out of the bottoms. His brows shot up, but he remained silent.
“This is the last layer,” she said, making no effort to remove her cashmere sweater and ski pants. She shrank back with a cry when he reached forward to touch her. However, all he did was test the dampness of her clothes.
“You can leave these on. Just slip the clothes I brought over them. But take off those socks and replace them with these.” As he spoke he rummaged through his bag until he found what he was looking for, a pair of thick, wool socks.
Charlie did as she was told. She sighed with gratitude from the warmth that came with putting on new layers of warm, dry clothes, even if they were miles too big on her. Luke helped her with her socks and sneakers.
He glanced up at her from his position at her feet. “How does that feel?”
Before straightening he stuffed the clothes she’d removed into his bag. “Good, let’s get going.” He slipped the rain poncho over her shoulders.
The sky darkened at an alarming rate. The snow began to fall harder. For a moment Charlie watched powdery flakes land upon Luke’s beard, before carefully tucking her hair beneath the hood of the poncho.
His eyes met hers briefly as his fingertips brushed against her cold cheeks. For a second his movements faltered, his dark eyes frozen on hers, and then he turned away.