Wicked in Winter
Zander has his hands full raising his two younger brothers. The last thing he needs is distraction in the form of a spoiled rich girl who has no idea what she's in for. He'd bet anything she won't make it past the next blizzard—although he might not either, not with his sanity intact. With her dazzling smile and lighthearted style, she's everything he's not. And everything he longs for.
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. Can he trust her enough to take a chance? Or will Gretel's mega-millionaire father find a way to ruin their amazing-but-fragile new bond?
Alaska winters are always wild, but this one is about to get wicked.
Release date: March 31, 2020
Print pages: 316
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Wicked in Winter
“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.”
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.
“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.
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