Publish Date: June 2016
His reluctant damsel in distress
Adventurer Will Margrave loves working in the Canadian wilderness, with only his huskies for company. After losing his wife, he’s determined never to make himself vulnerable again. Until he rescues snowbound Kitty Callaghan, the one woman who always saw past his armor, and can’t continue to deny their long-hidden attraction Kitty’s never allowed herself to get close to anyone, handsome Will least of all!
Yet as he starts to melt her defenses, Kitty wonders is Will the missing piece of her heart she’s always been looking for?
Copyright © 2016 Nikki Logan. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Present Day [Churchill, Canada]
‘YOU MUST be kidding!’
Kitty Callaghan bundled herself tighter in her complimentary blanket and swapped her hand-luggage into her right hand to give her left a break.
‘Sorry, ma’am,’ the polite woman said widening her arms in order to usher her closer to the exit. ‘Canadian federal law. No-one can stay inside the airport after shutdown.’
‘But I have nowhere to go,’ she pointed out, though it was hardly necessary since this was the same official who’d been working for hours to find beds—or even sofas—for the 164 passengers who’d found themselves stranded in their remote dot-on-a-map after smoke started billowing from their A340’s cargo hold 35,000 feet over Greenland.
‘We’ve done everything we can to find accommodation for the final six of you. Three will be bunking down in the medical centre and two will be guests of the Mounties tonight in their holding cells. That’s every bed we have in town.’
Which left her sitting up all night in some waiting room.
This was the price she paid for being good at her job. Or maybe for simply doing it. Airlines had a way of not appreciating it when you captured their stuff-ups on film. She’d been way too busy capturing the whole emergency response that followed the pilot’s spectacular touchdown of the massive airliner on the remote, ice-patched runway to get herself higher up the queue for overnight accommodation. By the time she started paying attention to where she was going to spend what was left of the night, there was literally no longer any room at the inn.
‘You don’t have a hotel here? Or even a B&B?’
The woman’s compassion wasn’t making her feel any better. Because it also wasn’t getting her anywhere. ‘Actually we have nearly as many hotel rooms as residents but they’re all booked up because of bear season. And we’re out of volunteers with sofas.’
‘Bear season?’ Kitty blinked her confusion, glancing around. ‘Where are we exactly?’
Other than someplace snowy somewhere on a high arc between Zurich and Los Angeles up over the top of the planet. She’d been sleeping comfortably when the captain made his emergency announcement and the chaos that followed really wasn’t the time to be pumping the flight crew with curious questions.
Survival first. Curiosity later.
‘Churchill Manitoba, ma’am,’ the woman said proudly. ‘Polar Bear capital of the world.’
All the ice the A340 came sliding in on suddenly seemed to relocate to her chest.
She knew of Churchill…
‘And what is bear season exactly?’ she said, tightly, so that her voice box wouldn’t freeze right over and to buy herself the time she needed to get her fibrillating heart under control.
The woman smiled, oblivious to the sudden extra tension in the near-empty terminal. ‘Oh, hundreds of bears migrate here to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over, to go hunt on the ice for the winter. Numbers are at their peak right now. They’re everywhere.’
‘Maybe I could snuggle in between two of them for the night.’
The woman had a right to be disappointed at Kitty’s tone, but she had a right to be snitchy. Her plane had caught fire in mid-air. She’d endured an emergency landing then been bounced out into the bitter cold via the emergency slides with nothing but the light dress on her back, the complementary blanket she’d been snuggled in, and her cabin bag which—courtesy of a long career of international flying—she’d packed with the minimalist precision of a pro. Just her camera gear, some basic toiletries and an e-reader; none of which were going to help her out here. She had nowhere to go for the night except the heated police station waiting room because apparently this one was off limits. And to top it all off, she’d landed in the only place on Earth she’d never planned on visiting—not because of its resident bears, because of one human resident in particular.
Desperation set in like a low hanging cloud. ‘What about your house?’
The woman had no reason to continue to be kind to her but she did. God love Canada. ‘I’ve already sent two people home to my husband. Both on the sofas. Someone is on their way to get you and drive you into town, Ma’am.’
‘Can’t they just keep on driving me to the nearest city? Something with beds?’
Apparently that thought was just hilarious.
‘The only way in or out of Churchill is by plane or train,’ the woman laughed. ‘And Winnipeg is a thousand miles to the south.’
Right. Which part of polar bear did she miss? Their trusty pilot must really have been desperate to get them out of the air to have landed them in the sub-Arctic.
‘When will they send another plane, do you think?’ she asked weakly.
The woman glanced at her watch and frowned. ‘Let’s just get you sorted for tonight.’
This wasn’t the tightest spot she’d ever been in, though it was the first one involving live predators, and the thought of sitting uncomfortably in some waiting room for hours scarcely appealed. Especially when there was no guarantee that she’d get on a flight tomorrow. Or the day after, or the day after.
Her lashes drifted shut.
‘Does Will Margrave still live up here?’ she breathed.
He’d moved to Churchill right after the quakes in Nepal. Right after he lost Marcella. She’d exploited a working relationship with a clerk at the Department of Foreign Affairs to ascertain that he’d come home to Canada and moved to the ends of the earth and then she’d pretended to delete the knowledge from her brain.
‘You know Will?’
She thought she had. Once. For a very short time. ‘It’s been a while.’
The airport officer moved immediately toward the phone. ‘We don’t usually ask Will because his cabin is so far out of town. Kind of isolated—‘
Of course it was. Because this day wasn’t perfect enough.
‘Just try him, please,’ she urged. ‘Make sure you tell him it’s Kitty Callaghan. My full name.’
Kitty glanced out at the airport car park as the woman made her call. The sideways ice-rain was illuminated against the darkness of the night by floodlighting and she wondered whether the lights might just serve as a beacon for any rogue bears wandering past looking for a late night snack.
‘Any (air)port in a storm…’ she muttered.
The airline officer’s surprise drew Kitty’s focus back across the terminal.
‘Okay! John can take you straight there,’ she called, hurrying across the shiny floor. ‘The taxi ride is on us’
Now that it was really happening, the police waiting room didn’t look quite so bad. Compared to facing Will again. ‘Right now?’
The woman glanced at the clock on the wall. ‘As soon as your taxi gets here. Looks like its your lucky day!’
It wasn’t as far as the airport official had implied, as the crow flew, but no self-respecting crow would be out in this weather. They’d be snugly tucked away in their tree or nest or hollow or wherever the heck crows went to stay out of the weather. The roads gouged through the hardening Boreal sog were slow going, impossible to see more than ten feet ahead of the old SUV that served as one of Churchill’s two taxis. It crept along deeper into the forest until they finally pulled up in front of a shadowy cabin with dim firelight glowing inside.
Proper Snow White territory.
‘Here we are,’ the driver chirped as a hooded figure appeared in the cabin’s gaping entrance. He reached across Kitty to open her door and she clambered out into the bitter cold in pumps already soggy from the dash across the airport car park with only her airline blanket for protection. Immediately her lungs started hurting.
‘Enjoy your stay,’ the driver grunted more to himself than to her, before crunching his vehicle in every ice-topped puddle in the long drive.
She turned and stared at the shadowy forest cabin.
‘Heat’s escaping,’ a gruff voice called from the open doorway. Then the figure turned and went back inside and only the puffs of mist where his words had been remained, backlit by the light pouring out of the cabin.
Time had done nothing to diminish the effect of his voice on the hairs on her neck even as they gathered frost straight out of the sub-arctic air. The gruff rumble turned her insides to jelly just as much now as it had in Nepal. Fortunately, jelly couldn’t stand up to the frost in her chest any more than the frost outside of it.
Ice was good like that.
The timber protested under foot as she eased herself up the frosty steps and squelched into the cabin’s boot-room where she kicked her sodden, purple pumps off amongst the bigger, more rugged footwear already lined up there. The blanket was doing almost nothing to keep her warm, now. But the cabin beyond the boot-room door glowed in a way that just screamed warmth and it was enough to help lure her over the threshold and back into Will Margrave’s world for the first time in five years.
‘Help yourself to coffee,’ he rumbled from the shadowy back of the cabin, somehow managing to make the friendly offer about as unfriendly as it could possibly be.
‘Right,’ she murmured, glancing at the large coffee pot simmering on the old stove. ‘Thanks.’
She turned the steaming mug in her numb hands as Will came back into the room, his face still shielded by the fleeced hood of his coat, only adding to her tension. He passed her, wordlessly, and moved into the boot-room to shirk the coat off and onto a hook before returning.
Sense memory kicked her square in the belly.
A stranger hearing him for the first time would expect some kind of old salt of the woods. But the man that returned, bootless and coatless, seemed scarcely older than the thirty he had been in Nepal five years ago. His brown hair was messy thanks to his hood and it hung longish down over his eyebrows. He was as scrappily bearded as the taxi-driver except that, on Will, it looked almost designer where it followed the angles of his jaw up to his cheekbones. Like he should be in a cologne advertisement on a billboard. For something rugged and woodsy. And exclusive.
Kitty cleared her throat to clear her mind. ‘Thank you for—’
‘You still okay with dogs?’
The direct question finally drew his eyes to hers and she found herself as devoid of breath as the very first time she’d ever gazed into them. Iceberg, she remembered. The ethereal, aqua-mariney, underwater part. Instantly, old ache spread below her skin. She had never expected to look into those eyes again.
Will obviously tired of waiting for her answer and he broke the spell by moving to the door he’d emerged from earlier and opened it wide. Two thick-coated dogs burst in and, behind them, a third. Before Kitty could do more than twist away from them, three more bound into the room and immediately pounced on her. A sixth held back, lurking by the door.
Will barked their names but Kitty was far too busy protecting herself from the onslaught of their wet noses and tongues to pay attention to who was who. She twisted up and away from them.
‘You keep your dogs in the house?’ she cried out of surprise as their assault finally eased off.
Those ice-blue eyes weren’t exactly defrosting like the snow on her blanket had. ‘You think that they should be out in the weather while you enjoy the comfort in here?’
‘No, I…’ Well, things were getting off to a great start! ‘It’s just that you kept them outdoors in Nepal.’
And winters there could be brutal, she was sure. She flinched as doggie claws scraped on her bare arms.
‘Churchill isn’t Nepal,’ Will grunted then made a squeaking noise with his lips and five of the six dogs happily mauling her immediately turned and grouped around his legs. The sixth needed some manual assistance from Will.
As he reached around the dog to pull it back, his hand brushed her thigh where her summery skirt stopped. Her skin was too cold and numb even to feel it, let alone to blush at the unexpected contact but her imagination was in no way impeded by the cold. If anything it was doing double duty standing here in this cabin with Will.
It was like a dream. Maybe she’d wake up and still be curled up in her plane seat…
‘You’re freezing!’ Will observed, unhelpfully. ‘Not exactly dressed for the conditions.’
Injustice burbled up immediately, as strong as it had once before. Only this time she defended herself. ‘Actually, I was perfectly dressed for Zurich where I departed, and for Los Angeles where I should be stopping over by now.’
Two tiny lines appeared between his brows. ‘You don’t have anything else to put on?’
She shuffled her blanket more firmly around her and wished the fire would do its job more quickly.
‘Our luggage won’t be released until tomorrow.’ Assuming it hadn’t been damaged in the fire. As if to make his point, her body unhelpfully chose that moment to shudder from the chill.
Those glacial eyes stared needles into her but then he broke the gaze by sweeping his thick sweater up over his head and tossing it gently to her. ‘Put this on, my body heat will help warm you faster. Tuck the blanket around your legs while I get you some socks. And stay by the fire.’
The sweater he removed smelled exactly like the cologne she’d imagined him advertising before. With a healthy dose of man for good measure. Because he’d left the room again in search of emergency socks and because she could disguise it in tugging the thick sweater over her head, Kitty stole a moment to breathe his scent deeply in.
Her eyelids fluttered shut against the gorgeous pain.
All the progress she’d imagined she’d made in the years since Nepal evaporated into nothing as Will’s scent filled the spaces between her cells. She’d come to believe she’d simply fabricated her memory of that smell as some kind of residual reaction to her unwelcome crush on Will in Pokahra. But here it was—live and warm and heady—exactly as she remembered.
Except better for the passage of five years.
Like a good wine.
‘Folk at the airport must be in quite a spin,’ he grunted, returning to the room.
She abandoned the blanket for as long as it took her to tug the large socks on and pull them almost to her knees. Between their heat from below, Will’s body heat soaking into her torso and the fire at her back, she finally started to feel the frigidity abating.
From her skin, anyway.
‘Not a sight they’ve probably had before, I guess. The plane was bigger than the entire terminal.’
‘Oh, it’s happened before,’ Will said, easing himself down onto the edge of his dining table, across the small space. About as far back from her as he could be without leaving the room again. ‘Courtesy of being the best piece of concrete for a thousand miles.’
Talking about airfields was a close second to talking about the weather. Awkwardness clunked between them like a bit of wood broken loose in the stove.
‘I’m grateful you can give me a bed,’ she finally murmured. ‘And that you remembered me.’
Those eyes came up. ‘You thought I wouldn’t?’
She swallowed against their blazing focus. ‘Wouldn’t remember me? Or wouldn’t help me out?’
Thought. Feared. Potato/potahto. ‘ I wasn’t sure whether you’d say yes.’
His grunt sounded much like one of the six dogs that had settled down into every available corner of the room. ‘And leave you to the bears?’
She glanced at the fire. Then back at him though he seemed as far away now as Nepal was from this place. The only sounds in the cabin were the crackling of the wood stove and the wide yawn of one of his canine brood. Neither did much to head off her sleepiness.
‘So, where should I…?’
That seemed to snap him back to the present from whatever far away place he’d gone. Remembering Marcella, no doubt. She’d probably dragged his wife’s memory in from the snow with her.
Sudden sympathy diluted her own tension.
Will had lost so much.
‘Second door on the right,’ he murmured standing aside to unblock her way. ‘Bathroom is across the hall. Go easy on the water use, I truck it in.’
The irony of that in a region practically mired in water most of the time—
She picked her way carefully through supine dogs but stopped just as her hand found the doorknob. ‘Seriously, Will. Thank you. I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in a waiting room.’
‘I’m better than that, at least,’ he murmured, holding her gaze.
No ‘you’re welcome’. No ‘it’s lovely to see you again, Kit’.
Because she probably wasn’t—again—and it almost certainly wasn’t.
Had she really expected open arms after the last conversation they’d ever had?
Will sagged against the door the moment his unexpected guest closed it quietly behind her. How far did you have to go to outrun the past? Clearly, the top of the world still wasn’t far enough.
Five long years and that time had compressed into nothing the moment Kitty Callaghan stepped through his front door. The moment he’d answered his phone, really. His heart really hadn’t stopped hammering since then. Maybe he should have just let it ring, but he’d recognised the number and he knew that the airport wouldn’t have called him at this time of night without very good reason.
But it never occurred to him that the reason would be her.
‘Shove up, Dexter,’ he murmured nudging the big, brown male blocking access to his favourite chair. The dog grumbled but shifted, only to whomp down with exaggerated drama a few feet away, and Will sank down into his pre-loved rocker.
Old man’s chair, the Mei Tei mother who sold it to him had joked.
Yup. And if he had his way he’d still be rocking gently in it by a roasting fire when he’d been in the North long enough to actually earn that title.
Just him and his dogs… As it was supposed to be.
Last time he’d seen Kitty, she’d been hurriedly tossing her belongings into the back of a dodgy Nepalese taxi and scrambling in after it. Couldn’t get off their hillside fast enough. Marcella had wept as her favourite new distraction departed only ten days into her month-long stay, but he’d kept a careful distance—his heart beating, then, at least as hard as it was now—relieved to see the last of her, certain that Kitty leaving was going to make things with Marcella right again.
He’d worked on their relationship for three more years and it had never been right again.
Which made having Kitty here an extra problem. A man didn’t move halfway around the world to escape his past only to invite it right back into his front room. Especially not given how they left things.
But… Polar Bears.
Kitty didn’t have nearly enough blubber on her to be truly attractive to a bear, but one might react defensively if she took it unawares coming around some corner. So leaving her to her own devices in Churchill town after-dark in bear season wasn’t really an option. Past be damned.
‘It’s like a Tardis back there,’ a soft voice suddenly said behind him.
He lurched upright in his chair.
It had been so long since the only voices other than his in this place were canine, it took him aback but, somehow, rather than ricocheting around the room, the walls of his cabin simply absorbed the soft, feminine tones. Like her words were cedar oil and his timber walls were parched.
Kind of like his eyes sucking up her appearance. Dark curls, pale, pale skin, red lips, grey eyes. Like someone from a well-thumbed storybook. Every bit as familiar and comforting.
He struggled for something resembling conversation.
‘Plenty of pre-fabs in town, but I wanted something a little more personal.’
‘And private,’ she murmured glancing out the window. ‘It’s very isolated.’
Yep, it was. Just how he liked it.
‘A mile’s a long way in the Boreal,’ he murmured. ‘But I have neighbours up the creek and Churchill’s only ten minutes away if you know the roads.’
Twenty-five if you didn’t.
Did he imagine it, or did her eyes get a shade more anxious at the seclusion? Maybe she, too, was remembering the electricity they’d whipped up between them back in Nepal.
He didn’t whip up much of anything these days. No matter who was asking.
It just wasn’t worth the risk.
‘So… I think I’ll head to bed,’ she murmured and, again, it somehow had the same tone as the crackling fire behind him. ‘In case they get the plane back in the air early.’
Nup. That wasn’t going to happen. At least not with her on it. Churchill was set up for small aircraft—twenty to thirty seaters coming and going across the vast Canadian North like winged busses—and its apron was barely big enough to turn a colossal jet around, let alone get it airborne without a support team. Someone was going to have to fly engineers and safety inspectors up here to help prep the plane for its return flight.
And no way they were going to pack a wounded jet full of passengers.
Not after they’d taken such risks to get everyone down safely.
But it was two in the morning and Kitty was almost grey with fatigue, he wasn’t about to put that thought in her head.
Time enough for her to find out tomorrow.
‘I’ll be up at dawn,’ he said, instead. ‘I’ll check on the status for you and wake you in plenty of time.’
Up implied he was going to sleep, which he absolutely was not. Not tonight.
‘Okay, see you in the morning.’
He turned back to the fire.
Seriously…what was it about a female voice here? His skin was puckering up like he’d never heard one before.
‘Thank you. Truly. I really appreciate the sanctuary.’
Yeah… she’d nailed it. That’s exactly what this place was when he’d bought it. Even now.
Though not so much since his past had stepped foot so confidently in it.