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Chapter 1

Picking up hitchhikers never worked out for Easton Lockett. It would start fine, but then things always got really weird, really fast.

There’d been the guy who peed in his truck. And the teenage kid who barfed in it. The worst had been the old lady who kept hitting him with her cane until he gave her his phone. You’d think being robbed at cane-point would have been a lesson learned, but here he was, slowing down…again.

The problem was, when a man like Easton saw a woman walking along the road outside the city limits of Moose Springs, Alaska, with suitcase in hand, he couldn’t keep on driving past. Especially when the closest phone was a ten-mile hike through curving mountain roads, and she was going the wrong direction.

Easton pulled his old, faded red truck up next to her and hit the hazard lights. Stretching across the front bench seat to crank a manual window handle was easier for Easton than most. At six foot six, there was little the professional mountaineer couldn’t reach. He didn’t want to frighten her—a strange man arriving unannounced on the side of the road when she was all alone—so he tried for a pleasant smile. The beard would hide it, but the effort was there.

“Do you need any help, ma’am?”

The instant Easton opened his mouth, she wheeled on him. Tilted sideways from the weight of her suitcase, she threw her free hand up in apparent disgust.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Now, for the record, he’d had a very pleasant morning. Pleasant wake up, pleasant breakfast, pleasant trip into town to see his friends. Pleasant drive down the Turnagain Arm, a few miles below the speed limit. The kind of morning that made a guy relax in his seat and think, Yep, got life handled.

The fist on her hip as she glared at him said Nope, not handled at all.

Easton rubbed his neck awkwardly below the bun he’d twisted his hair into. “You looked like you might need a ride,” he hedged.

Her eyes narrowed at him suspiciously. “Don’t think I’m oblivious, buddy. I know what you and your lackeys are up to. You’re messing with us on purpose.”

Easton had absolutely no idea what to say to that. He couldn’t tell much about her from the way she was bundled up, except no one he knew would be wearing a jacket in early July. This woman was dressed as if it were winter, wrapped in layers from head to toe with only her nose and glacier-blue eyes poking out above her scarf.

“My lackeys?”

“Minions, flunkies, those with whom you’re in cahoots. Trust me, I know.”

Easton’s response was squeakier than what he’d hoped for when opening his mouth. “There’s no cahoots.”

“Sure.” She obviously didn’t believe him one bit. “You know, out here on this road, everyone is so helpful and wonderful and keeps stopping.” She gestured in the direction of Moose Springs. “Which would be great back there, where everyone has been awful. I’ve found the nexus of evil in the nicest state in the country.”

“I wouldn’t call us a nexus,” Easton defended. “Maybe more of a node.”

“Great, the last one was a creep, and this one is a thesaurus. Jessie, what is wrong with this place?”

The woman dropped her suitcase to the ground. She pushed back the hood of her jacket, revealing sweat-dampened auburn hair tucked beneath a white winter-appropriate headband. If he’d been wrapped up like a burrito in seventy-degree heat, Easton would have been sweating too. Doubtful he’d look as striking as this stranger did though.

“Sorry to correct you, ma’am, but my name isn’t Jessie.”

“I never said it was.” She gave him a frustrated look. “What can I do for you, now that my shot is ruined? Again.”

Never a big talker, Easton wasn’t used to explaining himself. But he hadn’t gotten a look like this one since he’d used his twin sister’s favorite Cabbage Patch Kid as a way to teach himself physics.

What came up was bound to come down, no matter how high he catapulted the sucker with a rubber hose and two pine trees.

Easton cleared his throat, concentrating on speaking with his normal, deeper tone. No more squeaking. “I saw you on the side of the road. I thought you might need a ride or a phone to make a call for one.”

“Right, I’m sure.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “It’s not going to work. The road is state property, and no one can kick us out of here.”

Oh yes, she was ready to fight. Both hands on her hips now, the stunning redhead glared at him as if she could make him talk through force of eyeball violence alone. Which she probably could if he’d been up to no good. But he wasn’t, so he didn’t. Staring right back, Easton wondered how he had gotten himself in trouble so fast. Normally, it took a few months of a woman getting to know him before he had her so riled up.

“I really don’t understand what you mean, ma’am.”

Those ice-blue eyes narrowed at him, as if she were trying to see right through him. Then finally she sighed, shaking her head.

“No, you probably don’t. You’re probably the one guy all morning who wasn’t an evil minion. The light was perfect, you know,” she lamented, quicksilver emotions going from angry to disappointed. “The road was gorgeous, except everyone keeps stopping.”

Aware he’d lost control of the situation here, Easton chose his words carefully. “I could always back up a few, if that helps?”

A slender hand flapped dismissively at him. “No, it’s fine. It’s already ruined.”

Easton prided himself on being a relatively intelligent individual, but he had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

She tilted her head to the side. “What? Jessie, I can’t hear you. Reception is awful up here.”

And she thought she was talking to someone. Great.

“Jessie. Jessie, I can’t—and he’s gone.” A curse escaped her lips, and the frustrated stamp of her foot was dangerously close to being cute.

“I’m going to call someone to help you.”

Easton kept one eye on her as he picked up the handheld CB radio in his truck, flipping over to the channel he knew the local police monitored. There were limits on the range of his CB, but Jonah—the head officer of Moose Springs’ two-person police force—was known to drive the highway outside town to get a change of scenery. It was worth the effort to try.

“Hey, Jonah? I’ve got a lady out here on the highway just past Hunt Road who could use your help.”

A crackle, then the officer’s voice came on. “Is it an emergency? I’ve got a moose stuck in a swing set I’m dealing with.”

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