Sunny eyed his half-eaten candy bar with obvious disapproval as she finished off a bag of granola, her eyes darting intensely. For the first time he considered how everything must look in comparison to an off-the-grid community on an Aleutian island. Could that also have something to do with her decision to leave so abruptly?
If so, understanding her better could give him some insights to change her mind.
He draped his wrist over the wheel. “Culture shock, huh?”
“A little.” She crumpled the bag of half-eaten, store-bought granola she’d purchased with money from the wire transfer from her family. She wouldn’t even let him pick up the tab for her freaking lunch.
“Anything I can do?”
“It’s not like I’ve lived in an Amish community all my life.” She cocked an eyebrow, some of her old spitfire spark returning. “We have electricity, running water, cars. It’s like living in a small town, which sums up Alaska in a lot of ways. And I run a gym. I’m a successful businesswoman.”
“I didn’t mean to sound condescending.”
“Try uninformed,” she snapped.
“And you’re touchy.”
“I’ll grant you that one. It’s been a scary day. I’ve lost friends I didn’t even know were dead,” she said, avoiding his gaze. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a rubber band she’d bought when purchasing the granola. “And you might laugh, but I’m worried about my dog.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“Your friends, Liam McCabe and Hugh Franco, they’ll really check on him, just because you asked?”
“Just because I asked. You could say if Chewie’s with me, then that makes him officially one of our pack.”
“That’s nice, really nice.” Her eyes fell away, shifting to stare out the window. “They must think I’m a freak.”
He pulled the truck into a parking spot, jacked it into park.
“Since when do you give a damn what other people think?” His hand gravitated to the shiny blue streak through her hair, hesitated only an instant before stroking down the length slowly, very slowly, taking his time to touch her. He wouldn’t waste a second of what could be his last chance with her.
Her throat moved in a long swallow, her chest rising and falling faster. “Maybe I care what you think.”
She swayed closer to him, the first sign she’d given him that she felt the same connection from last night, the same regret that it would end so soon.
He reached toward her hair, carefully, waiting for her to object. She eyed him warily, but stayed quiet. The snow and slush and slow-motion world outside faded as the truck cab narrowed to just the two of them. He moved closer and slicked back her hair in his hands, the long silky strands gliding across his skin, reminding him of the way it brushed across his chest as she moved over him.
Holding her hair back with one hand, he extended his other palm for the rubber band. “I think you’re a fascinating, incredibly competent woman.”
“And hot, right?” She dropped the hair tie into his grip.
“That goes without saying.” He slid the purple band around her ponytail, and while the job wasn’t perfect, there was something definitely sexy about the low-slung hair gathered slightly to the side.
All the more sexy because every time he looked at it, he thought of his fingers in her hair, his right to touch her. The way she granted him that right without pulling back. It was something to hold on to in a day where frustration chewed through him over saying good-bye, over the secrets she still held.
Her lips parted.
He waited for her, taking her with his eyes while he waited for her to take him right back.
“Sorry. Gorgeous babe?”
She rolled her eyes. “Have you ever had a moose burger?”
Not the pillow talk he was expecting, but then when had this woman ever done the expected? He gathered her ponytail in his hand. “Can’t say that I have.”
He lost himself in the slide of her hair between his fingers while waiting to see where she would go with this line of conversation.
“Moose burgers are amazing. They have less fat, with the gamey kick of deer, but the high-quality taste of a prime cut.” Her eyes held his, unflinching as they sat mere inches apart in his truck cab, connected by his hold on her hair. “There are no artificial growth hormones. It’s healthier all the way around.”
She reached toward him slowly, deliberately, almost touching, then her hand shot past him to snag his candy bar and pitch it in the tiny trash bag. “You shouldn’t eat so much crap.”
Okay, he was having serious trouble following her train of thought. Had seeing the pictures of all those dead friends rattled her seemingly unshakable grip? “What does the fat content in my diet have to do with anything?”
“If you come home with me, you could have a moose burger at my place.”
Her question stunned him silent. She was really, no shit, inviting him to follow her to the inner sanctum of her sacred little community.
Suddenly her conversation made perfect sense, a simple offer in keeping with the more subdued tone of the day. Once that settled into his brain, he realized… Finally, she’d made a real step in admitting they had something going. He should be rejoicing.
Except hiking back up that mountain was the last thing she should be doing.
“Stay here, Sunny, just until your dog’s better, and then we can all three go together. I’ll take leave before my deployment.” Something he did not want to discuss right now and risk sending her running.
“I don’t just want to go home, I need to go home.”
He clasped her shoulders. “Tell me what’s going on. Why all the secrecy? I think we moved beyond superficial when I tossed your panties into the fireplace.”
She looked away quickly, staring out along the frozen bay and nibbling her bottom lip. “I’m freaking out over all my dead friends, okay?” She shook her head. “I can’t accept that this was a random act. Why did some get away? Are they dead out there too? And what about those families that haven’t been notified yet? The authorities aren’t interested in me taking them up there until they finish their investigation here, and quite frankly I’m not sure I want them there. Just inviting you is a huge deal for me. I don’t think you realize how big it is to bring a new person in, especially one who doesn’t intend to stay.”
Her arguments had meat to them. Almost too much. He covered her hand with his. “You know all of this only makes me want to tuck you away some place safe all the more. Let the authorities do their job.”
Slipping one finger out from under, she stroked the top of his hand, a simple touch, strangely personal. “I don’t mean to be insensitive. I’m just not used to…”
“Sharing, being open.” She twitched, a small flinch, but telling. “I have a sister…”
Her words trailed off and he waited, letting her take the lead. “Our family lives remotely. A lot of people in Alaska live off-the-grid because it’s just too far or too expensive to hook into a power plant. It’s easier, cheaper even, to make use of what’s here.”
“And that’s what your family has done.” He’d already deduced as much, but she was talking and he didn’t want to interrupt the flow.
“Hydropower from hot springs works year-round as long as you can keep the pipes from freezing. It’s effective—”
“Why are you worried about your sister?”
She bit her lip and the words dried up. Frustration sharpened, its gnawing teeth slicing clean through the last of his patience.
“To hell with it all.” He sagged back in his seat. “If you want to go, then fine. I promise to take good care of your dog. Have a nice life.”
“Wait.” She clasped his wrist.
Thank God. He swallowed back relief that she hadn’t called his bluff, because yeah, it was a bluff. One thing was certain. There wasn’t a chance in hell he could let this woman walk away alone. “I want to hear what you have to say, but I don’t have the luxury of a lot of time. I’m in the air force. I have to report in, let my superiors know if I go too far from base.”
Her hand turned cold under his. “You didn’t have to go with me today. I appreciate your help this far, but I don’t want to be the cause of your standing in front of a firing squad for going AWOL.”
Firing squad? Where had that extreme statement come from? Pieces of this woman’s life shuffled around in his brain with jagged edges that didn’t come close to fitting together. He was missing something. “Where did you say your sister lives?”
“I didn’t. We’re private.” She thrust her hands into her hair, her voice cracking. “Call us weird or freaks or whatever.”
“Whoa, tone it down a notch there.”
Her fists thumped the seats. “Okay, fine. My sister’s deaf. She wants to get a cochlear implant. It’s going to take some major maneuvering to make that happen for her, logistically and financially. But she wants it. I’m on board.” Her words tumbled on top of each other, steamrolling through his brain, almost too much information to assimilate after so long of her parceling out every crumb. “Misty’s planning to leave soon and I’m just worried about her alone out there if there’s still some killer on the loose targeting people who leave my town.”
“All the more reason we should just leave this to the authorities.”
And still, Sunny evaded his eyes. “Everything I said about my sister is true. I’m scared for her, leaving on her own. I want to talk to her, to make sure she has solid plans in place. To tell her good-bye.”
He studied her hazel eyes and for once he hated all the military training, because he could see she was still evading, still hiding a crucial piece of herself. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Believe me when I tell you, I’ll do anything to protect my family.” The honesty of her words was unmistakable this time.
He waited for more, for the rest.
Something shifted in her eyes, taking them from hazel to a dewy green. She cupped his face in her hands. “Our time together was amazing. Memorable. Special. I wish I had the luxury of staying longer, of basking in the afterglow. But I need to check on my sister.”
The turmoil behind her eyes built, swelling with the sheen of tears, the last thing he would have expected from her. Then she sealed her mouth to his, her lips cool even in the warmth of the truck cab.
Her fingernails dug into his face, not enough to hurt but enough to hold. Not that he intended to back away from her, now that he finally had her in his arms again. Her tongue met his, fully demanding and taking. The salty taste lingered, mixing with coffee and the wild abandon of Alaska that seemed to permeate her. He took risks and lived on the edge as a rule, yet still she knocked him off balance.
The need to have her, to be inside her again, seared through him so hard and hot and fast he wanted to throw the truck in gear and take her home with him. Did that make him a caveman? Hell if he knew, and right now, hell if he cared. He just burned to keep her with him, to protect her from whatever it was out there that had her so damn frantic. And he could have sworn she wanted to stay with him too.
But then she tore herself away, panting, gasping for air and grappling for the door. “The plane leaves in twenty minutes. I hope I don’t have to leave alone.”
Without a word, she thrust the door open and almost fell out of the truck cab, uncharacteristically clumsy. She yanked her stuffed-full backpack with her and kicked the door closed.
She charged across the parking lot into the mist of blowing snow as if she truly didn’t give a damn whether he joined her or not.