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3 steamy, full-length, standalone romances with a guaranteed HEA in each story from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Escape to Alaska for rugged, alpha heroes and independent women in the wilderness and beauty of small-town Alaska.WHEN LOVE COMESHannah Gray returns home to Diamond Creek on the heels of a painful loss. Once wild and impulsive, she shut her heart off to love and adventure after her parents died. Hannah hopes to rebuild her life and find joy again. Burned once before, Luke Winters has committed himself to nothing but casual dalliances with women. Rugged and sexy, Luke finds no shortage of women happy to oblige. When Hannah and Luke meet, their attraction is instant. Both fight the depth of their feelings—love is not part of the plan. Can two people who don’t believe love is worth the risk find the courage to face their fears and open their hearts?FOLLOW LOVEOn vacation in Diamond Creek, Tess Stanton plans nothing more than fishing and sightseeing. After a rough year that left her convinced love wasn’t worth it, the last thing on her mind is falling for a handsome and way too charming fishing guide. Nathan Winters is the quintessential sexy outdoorsman who finds Tess’s reserve too tempting to ignore. Despite her qualms, Tess can’t resist Nathan’s down-to-earth charm. What was supposed to be a fun fling becomes so much more once Nathan and Tess yield to the sparks that fly between them. Steamy, sensual passion stokes a love that can’t be ignored. Can Tess let down her guard long enough to follow her heart?LOVE UNBROKENEmma Davis is hoping for a fresh start in Alaska after a disastrous marriage. She wasn’t expecting to meet Trey Holden. Trey is so sexy her defenses melt in his presence. Falling for a beautiful woman is definitely not on Trey’s radar. Until he meets Emma. The fire between Trey and Emma burns too hot to be ignored. But the ghosts of Emma’s past may have followed her to Diamond Creek. Trey is everything she thought she could never have, so she finds herself pushing him away just when she needs him the most. Can Emma let down her guard long enough to open her heart? Can Trey convince her that what they have is worth it?*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.
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Note to Readers
When Love Comes
Excerpt: Love Untamed by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved
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About the Author
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Escape to Alaska (Diamond Creek Collection 1 - 3), Copyright © 2016 by J.H. Croix
When Love Comes (A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel), Copyright © 2014, 2015 J.H. Croix; Revised Edition
Follow Love (A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel), Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix
Love Unbroken (A Diamond Creek, Alaska Novel), Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix
Love Untamed (Excerpt), Copyright © 2015 J.H. Croix
ISBN: 1500903140, 1507818424, 1512036153
ISBN 13: 9781500903145, 9781507818428, 9781512036152
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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A shout out to my husband – a man who has the sense to enjoy horror and romance at the same time (only in real life romance), supports every dream great and small, adores our dogs, and loves me in spite of myself.
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Welcome to Diamond Creek, Alaska! Each book in this series can be read as a standalone novel. The Diamond Creek, Alaska Novels are steamy, tender, and poignant contemporary romances set in the beautiful, wild, and quirky community of Diamond Creek.
This collection includes the first three books in the Diamond Creek Series: When Love Comes, Follow Love, and Love Unbroken. You will share the love stories of Hannah and Luke, Tess and Nathan, and Emma and Trey. Diamond Creek has many stories, surprises, and sexy escapades to offer, all set in the breathtaking beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. From someone who called Alaska home for over a decade, Alaska might be cold, but its romance is hot!
Happy reading and thanks for joining us in the last frontier!
Hannah stared at the groceries that had tumbled out of her basket. A smashed tomato rested against a jar of olives, red tomato juice pooling on the floor. A can of soup rolled until it bounced against a display sign for orange juice promising, of all things, to make every day great. Hannah wished a great day could be guaranteed with orange juice. She’d buy it in bulk. She knelt down to clean up the mess. A second ago, she’d collided with someone as she came around the corner of the aisle.
“What the hell?”
She started to apologize, only to be cut off.
“Oh, whatever. Look where you’re going, why don’t you?” a man said, the words more of a demand than a question.
Hannah stood up, leaving her spilled groceries on the floor, and found herself looking down into the face of an irate man decked out in gym clothes, a matching top and bottom of shiny red fabric. She opened her mouth to speak, only to have his words trample her thoughts.
“Jesus, you’re a freakin’ giant. Enjoy cleaning up your mess.” He waved a hand toward the groceries on the floor and stalked off, his shoes squeaking with each step.
Hannah watched him walk away. She looked around to catch a few sympathetic glances, but no one said anything or moved to help. She didn’t appreciate being called a giant, but she was tall by most standards at six feet. She went through the motions of shopping, feeling alone in the store. Back in her small apartment, she turned on the TV to fill the quiet. While she ate a solitary dinner, her mind rolled back to a place where she didn’t feel so alone.
Hannah’s memory of the night she first arrived in Alaska was vivid. She was six years old and wide-awake despite having traveled for more than twelve hours from North Carolina with two layovers and three flights. With her forehead pressed against the plane window, glittering lights came into view in the dark sky, their reflections shimmering on the ocean water as the plane descended. Their destination, Diamond Creek, lay along the shores of Kachemak Bay. The lights shaped a town in darkness for her, streets curving up hillsides and winding along the ocean. A few neon signs shone boldly in the darkness.
As they landed, the tiny plane bounced and rumbled. The whir of the motors grew louder. She would forever associate that particular sound with Alaskan nights. It heralded their arrival. Hannah remembered the distinct sound of tires rolling over snow-packed roads, later the feeling of a heavy quilt tucked around her as she was lulled in and out of sleep, and then awakening to bright sun. Twenty-two years later, her first look out the window was still sharp in her memory. Snow-covered peaks stood stark against a bright blue sky. Deep green spruce trees dusted with snow were scattered across the view. Sunlight glinted on the ocean bay with wind whipping waves across the water.
Hannah glanced around her small living room and sighed, thinking that she was sighing a bit much lately. The nightly news rattled on in the background. She was probably four thousand miles, give or take, away from Alaska. Her view here was of a coffee shop across the street in a small town in Massachusetts. The town’s main street was picturesque in its quaint charm, but it lacked the wild sense of Diamond Creek. Her parents remained in Diamond Creek, where she was raised until graduate school led her to Massachusetts.
Just as she was starting classes for her graduate degree in environmental science, the news came that her parents had died in a plane crash in rural Alaska. Their death had ricocheted through her heart. That was two years prior, and she had yet to return to Alaska since the surreal trip for the funeral throughout which she’d been emotionally numb. She thought back to the incident at the grocery store, a small matter really. She lay awake that night, her mind spinning on the wheel of the feeling that had clung to her in the grocery store. Alone. She tried to remember if she’d had anyone to share dinner or drinks with in recent memory, or if anyone had visited her apartment in the last year. The fact that she had to think about it offered the answer. Her encounter with the rude stranger at the store marked a high point in human interaction beyond when she was at work or in classes. Her life was solitary, a marked contrast to her life in Diamond Creek where a day didn’t go by without someone who mattered being woven into its fabric.
The following morning, Hannah looked across the street to the coffee shop, blinking her eyes at the prick of tears, the wish to be home rushing through her. Visceral memories of Alaska suffused her mind. Cool windy days in summer. Walks along the beach scattered with rocks, the occasional lava stones, seaweed, and starfish. The fuchsia of fireweed come fall, and colors dancing along the ground. The curious quiet of winter, when the snow muffled all sounds. The bite of winter air and breath of wood smoke. Stars bright and bare against the sky. And the tight-knit community of friends—interwoven in such a way that feeling alone was rare.
She stared blindly at the coffee shop across the street and shuttered her memories, shying away from the feelings they elicited. She was one week away from finishing her degree. As she closed her apartment door and listened to the echo of the lock in the hallway of hardwood floors, the yearning to be in Diamond Creek, where they never locked the door, was so acute she swallowed a sob. With no one in the hall to see, she leaned her forehead against the door and let tears slip down her cheeks. Later that morning, she turned in her final papers. It would be one month and almost as many sleepless nights before she found herself on the lone highway that led to Diamond Creek.
Hannah gripped the steering wheel of her parents’ Toyota truck and felt waves of grief alternating with exhilaration flow through her. Her father’s friend Frank had offered to drop off the truck for her when she landed in Anchorage. Nostalgia washed through her when she spied the bright red truck in the airport parking lot. When she opened the back of the cab, she found herself looking at odds and ends that had traveled with her parents in any of the trucks they’d had, her eyes landing on two pairs of brown XtraTufs. XtraTufs were the favored heavy-duty rubber boot in Alaska—her parents never went anywhere without them. Knowing that they had probably last been touched by her parents brought a flash of grief.
For God’s sake, they’re just boots. With her chest tight, Hannah tossed her bags into the back of the truck.
It was late spring in Alaska with lupine starting to bloom in small clusters in the tall grass along the highway. The landscape varied, fields of grass alternating with spruce forests and ocean views. Exhilaration rose through the grief and came from being back in a place where she belonged. She had missed the feeling so much that she hadn’t known how empty she felt away from here. At the same time, the loss of her parents was so sharp; she could barely tolerate it at times.
Hannah’s recollection of her mother, Janet, was one of steadiness and warmth. To those in the lower forty-eight (as the rest of the United States was known to Alaskans), her mother’s beauty would likely have been considered at odds with her willingness to get dirty. She could change the oil on a truck, fillet a fish, chase off moose, and head out for dinner looking beautiful. As for her father, John, he’d loved his wife, his daughter, and his work. His love of biology led them to Alaska and kept him intellectually immersed.
Hannah grinned as she caught sight of a moose along the side of the road, calmly nibbling at an alder tree. They were so common in Alaska that drivers had to be careful in the winter months to avoid them on roads. They were often seen ambling about town and in backyards. Diamond Creek was south of Anchorage toward the lower end of the Kenai Peninsula. There was only one route there, south along Seward Highway and then farther south on the Sterling Highway. This had been the last road she’d traveled in Alaska with her mother –almost two and a half years ago when her mother drove her to Anchorage for her flight out to Massachusetts when she moved away. Hannah blinked when she recalled that she and her mother had argued on that drive, the last time she’d seen her mother. Her mother had tried to bring up her concern about Hannah’s most recent impulsive choice—that she’d blown her meager savings on a trip to Costa Rica with a man she’d barely known. Hannah had reacted as usual—she’d dismissed her mother’s concern and changed the subject. She’d tried to hide what it felt like to let them down time and again and shoved her battered self-respect out of the way with bravado.
The recollection made her cringe. The argument between her and her mother could have been a record she played over and over, the only variations related to where she was running off to and with whom. She didn’t like to think much about it, but she used to drive her parents nuts. In some ways, she had it together in that she had high grades and usually had a job. Before college in Anchorage, she had been less wild, but then she had her heart broken in the worst way. Or that’s how it felt. She’d fallen hard for Damon, a charming, rugged, handsome guy from Juneau.
Damon was everything Hannah thought she wanted—funny, smart, and an avid outdoorsman. She fell hard and along the way ignored all the obvious red flags, such as that he was a tad too familiar with lots of women and tended to be vague if she asked too many questions. But he was so much of what she thought she wanted that she dove right in, convinced they would be together for good. Her fantasy was blown up about a year into their relationship when she and Susie, her best friend, had gone for coffee at a new place in Anchorage. Lo and behold, Damon was there, cozied up to another woman. Susie had walked right up to Damon and called him out. Hannah had slunk back to the car. She’d actually let him persuade her it was a fluke and a huge mistake. Take two was when she ran into him with yet another woman when she was out for dinner with Susie and a few friends.
She’d had enough sense to break it off for good then. But the damage was done, and she spent the next few years running away from how she felt. She kept her relationships shallow and let the taste of adventure tug her just about anywhere, her heart shielded all the while. She’d convinced herself she could play it just as cool as the men who kept things casual. Her parents worried about her and didn’t like seeing their only child running off on trips around the world with men she barely knew. The consequences of her superficial, flighty choices were the incremental loss of her self-respect and her parents’ disappointment. She also had no savings to speak of and was often scrounging for money to cover bills.
Hannah wished her parents knew she’d stopped being so impulsive after they died. It was as if a switch turned off. She’d become almost rigidly responsible. Actually, the last trip she’d chased after a man had been the trip to Costa Rica, which had been the source of conflict with her mother. The man in question had ended up leaving her stranded in a hotel with no money to pay the bill while he took off with a lovely young woman he met there. Hannah had been forced to sneak out of the hotel, using what little money she had left to pay for the cab to take her to the airport. She’d been wise enough to purchase a round-trip ticket. After her parents died and she’d built up a teensy amount of savings, she’d paid off that hotel bill.
As she approached Diamond Creek, she pulled over to a viewing spot. Parts of Diamond Creek along the shoreline sat high on a bluff that flanked the ocean below. She leaned against a railing along the edge of the bluff. In a few weeks, the area would be filled with campers and RVs, drivers stopping to snap photos of the view. For now, it was blessedly empty. Looking out over Kachemak Bay, Hannah breathed deep. It was early afternoon, and the wind was light. The mountains stood silently across the water, mostly green with patches of snow left in the shady areas. Tears slid down her cheeks, and her chest loosened for the first time in years. A raven flew past her and called to another in the distance. An eagle glided low along the shoreline.
Gathering herself, she went into the rest-stop bathroom. Wiping her face with a damp paper towel, she looked in the mirror. Her long brown hair hung in tangled waves around her shoulders. Sky-blue eyes looked back at her, eyes she’d inherited from her mother. Her mouth was wide with full lips. She was too tall for the mirror, which cut her reflection off at the forehead if she stood up straight. Tugging her hair back, she twisted it into a knot and returned to her truck.
The sign for Emerald Road sat crookedly at the base of a small hill. She remembered when the city had installed new street signs years ago. The Emerald Road sign had tilted drunkenly after the first spring of frost heaves and mud, remaining in that state since. Her childhood home was the last on the road, which ended in a gravel cul-de-sac. The house was a two-story barn-shaped home with cedar siding. Blue spruce trees stood sentry at the entrance of the short driveway. She came to a stop and turned the engine off. Silence seeped through her for a moment before being interrupted by magpies chattering in the trees. Her gaze traveled around the yard. The spruce trees opened up to a small grassy area with the house sitting to one side. A field of fireweed, not yet blooming, flanked the left of the house with trees filling the rest of the area. Her mother’s raised flower beds were overgrown with weeds.
Hannah imagined the family’s old dog, Grayson, running out to greet her. Grayson had died peacefully in his sleep shortly before she’d left for graduate school. She felt his absence sharply. He’d been a fixture of her life with her parents in Alaska, a quiet, steady presence.
Aside from the funeral, which Hannah barely recalled, the last time she’d been here, her parents had been vibrant and well. The house had usually buzzed with activity, holding a sense of motion and purpose. Now it lacked any sense of presence within. The house looked out over the road, which afforded an open view of the bay and mountains. Turning away from the view, Hannah stepped to the deep purple door that stood out against the wood-frame house, reflecting her mother’s whimsical touch. When she entered the house, a soft quiet enveloped her. Despite two years of absence, the house held echoes of her parents’ presence.
Hannah’s heartbeat kicked up as she began to move through the house. The first floor of the house consisted of an expansive living room that opened onto the kitchen, exposed wooden beams angling across the rooms. A bathroom and laundry room were situated behind the kitchen. A deep green soapstone woodstove anchored the living room. Walking upstairs, she stepped onto the landing and into a loftlike space with a railing on one side from which the living room could be seen. It had morphed throughout the years from a playroom to a television area to her mother’s office and sewing area. Her parents’ old bedroom was down a short hallway to the front of the house with the other two bedrooms on the back end.
Her parents’ bedroom looked as it would have had they gone on vacation, clean and quiet with the bed made. Their clothing still hung in the closet. Hannah’s bedroom was as she’d left it last. In here, at least, she felt less of her parents’ lingering presence. Though few of her belongings remained, her bed was covered with the quilt she’d had throughout high school, a spiral of bright colors with a swirling star in the center sewn by her mother. Her chest started to loosen. In spite of two years of fear, she’d gotten through what she had been most afraid of: being here, in the place that held the memory of her parents. Back downstairs, she looked at the empty refrigerator. She needed to go to the store, which while maybe not as difficult as coming to her old home, would actually involve speaking to people.
Hannah left her bags in her old room since it felt the most comfortable for now. Her choice now was to wander around the empty house or take her hungry self to town. She had one granola bar left. She wished Grayson were here to give her courage. He’d loved car rides and often tagged along on errands. But no Grayson, just herself. For a flicker, she felt swamped by the cold emptiness that she’d tried to keep at bay since her parents died. She took a deep breath, shored her feelings into a corner, and hopped back into the truck.
The house sat atop one of the hills overlooking town. As Hannah drove down, she saw familiar names on mailboxes and an old friend’s car parked in a drive. Once on the main road that led into town, she passed the post office, its parking lot busy. In rural towns like Diamond Creek, the post office served as a central gathering point. She caught sight of Frank’s wife, June, walking across the lot. Her throat tightened as she worried over whom she might encounter first, desperately wanting to see old friends yet anxious about it.
Entering the grocery store, she went on autopilot and grabbed a cart. In a scant minute, she felt her friend Susie before she heard her squeal. Susie had a forceful presence. As Hannah turned with anxiety beating like wings in her chest, Susie threw her arms around her. She returned the hug, dropping her purse in the process.
“It’s you, you, you, you! I knew you’d be here soon. I felt it,” Susie said in between bouncing on her feet, hugging Hannah, and patting her on the shoulder.
Hannah was so relieved to be in Susie’s presence, the wings of anxiety settled, and she felt almost giddy. Bending to retrieve her purse, she looked up into Susie’s warm brown eyes and took in her matching brown curls, which tumbled as wildly as ever about her shoulders. Susie tended to dress colorfully and held true to that today in a purple blouse paired with green leggings.
Hannah plowed through her anxiety. “Yup, I’m here. Finally…” She stumbled on. “I’m sorry I didn’t call or text or e-mail or write or whatever much. I don’t know what to say. Other than that I missed my parents and anyone connected to them—that meant you…and, well…I wasn’t ready.” She caught herself, startled that the words had poured out so fast. She’d thought for hours over what she’d say to explain her silence and hadn’t come up with anything that made sense. Her words were bald and bare, but they were the truth.
Susie didn’t blink or hesitate. “Of course you weren’t ready. I’ve been waiting—safe to say lots of us have.” Susie reached over for another hug and just held Hannah close. If it were any grocery store other than this one, Hannah might have wondered what other shoppers thought, but here she felt safe to just be hugged by her best friend.
Susie pulled back again. “You must have just gotten in. Frank mentioned you’d be arriving soon. Have to admit I didn’t just ‘feel’ you’d be here. Frank clued me in,” she said with a smile. “Have you even been to the house?”
Hannah nodded. “It was weird, but I’m okay. I wish Grayson were still around. I knew it’d feel empty without Mom and Dad; I just didn’t think how strange it would be without him too. I’m here to stay, you know. Can’t tell you how relieved I am that you’re okay with me being…well…such a mess about staying in touch while I was gone.” She felt tears well up and paused to take a breath.
Susie touched her on the shoulder. “Look, I won’t pretend I didn’t have my moments of being cranky about it. But you’re my best friend and…your parents…to have them go like that, it must have been hell—probably still is. I was worried and pissed off sometimes, but I knew you’d come home. Just didn’t know when. Glad it wasn’t much longer because it’s hard to replace your best friend since first grade.”
At that, Susie’s eyes welled up. “I don’t know if you want my help, but you’re getting it,” Susie said, lifting her chin and looping her arm through Hannah’s. “You need to get situated, so let’s make it happen.”
Despite two years with only a few calls, Susie was the closest thing to family Hannah had left. Being in her presence felt like coming home. She squeezed Susie’s arm. “I’d love your help. You can boss me around.”
In short order, they were back at the house unloading groceries. As Susie looked around the house, Hannah wondered if she’d been by to check on the house since her parents died. Instead of burying the question, she asked and learned that Susie, along with Frank, June, and a few other family friends, had emptied the refrigerator and cleaned the house in the weeks following the plane crash and funeral. Susie explained how they had decided to leave her parents’ belongings for her to deal with because they didn’t want to get rid of anything sentimental. Hannah was relieved to know that someone had taken care of the house since she hadn’t been able. Her parents had loved their home, and when she had allowed thoughts to surface about it while she was gone, she had fretted about leaving the house alone.
Susie stayed late into evening. As it was early summer, she and Susie sat on the deck for a few hours, drinking wine that Susie had insisted on buying and nibbling on remnants of dinner. Over the course of the evening, Susie gently asked when Hannah wanted it to be known she was back in town. She reminded her Frank and June had mentioned it to a few and that word always traveled. Hannah appreciated Susie’s respect about not pushing her but knew she needed to dive in. She’d mastered the art of isolation during the past two years, and if she carried that over here, it might become a safety blanket she couldn’t release.
Summer in Alaska meant endless sunsets. It was well past midnight when Susie left, and the sky was still wispy gray. Hannah took a long shower in her parents’ bathroom. The bathroom remodel had been one of her mother’s pet projects. It was tiled floor to ceiling in a soft green tile. There were wall jets and an overhead rainfall shower. It was bliss and helped her wash away her trip and the surreal feeling of being in the house and seeing Susie again. The quiet of the house offered a comfort she hadn’t expected. She fell asleep within moments of tugging up her old quilt.
Salty ocean water sprayed Hannah’s cheek when the salmon bounced against her shoulder. The salmon in question splashed back into the water, disappearing from sight with a flick of silver. She heard a laugh and turned to glance at Susie, who stood in the water alongside her, the strong current flowing around them.
“Close, but not close enough. Needs to be in your net,” Susie commented, her smile wide.
Hannah shrugged. “We already have plenty; I don’t mind missing a few. Just glad it didn’t hit my face.”
She adjusted her grip on the dip net and glanced back toward the water. They stood waist-deep in waders in water where the ocean surged into the mouth of the Kenai River, engaging in a yearly ritual for most Alaskans: salmon dipnetting. This occurred midsummer and involved standing in icy ocean water flowing upriver with salmon fiercely following the current on their way to yearly spawning grounds. Those who braved the water held tight to large nets and hoped for salmon to swim into them as they made their way up the river.
Hannah had been home a few days, dipnetting the last thing on her mind. Susie called the day before and insisted Hannah accompany her today, cajoling her into coming by reminding her that they used to go together every year. Now that they were there, Hannah couldn’t believe she’d hesitated. She’d forgotten how invigorating it was to be in the midst of the thrum of activity. A wall of salmon seemed to be entering the river today, riding the momentum of the tide. Within an hour, they had caught close to thirty salmon. Hannah felt the cold water through her waders. Though perfectly dry, her legs were beginning to tire from the cold surrounding them. Salmon bumped against her legs as they swam past. Her net abruptly surged, the weight of a salmon almost pulling it out of her hands. After a quick tug to pull the net under her control, she turned to drag it to shore.
As she reached the sandy beach, she looked back to make sure the salmon remained in the net. Its silvery skin gleamed in the bright sun. She stumbled when she ran straight into someone. Turning forward, she found herself looking into bright green eyes. She straightened and looked at the tall man she’d barreled into. At six feet, she rarely had to look up at men, but she found herself tipping her head back slightly. She took in windblown, shaggy black curls, a wide sensual mouth, chiseled masculine features, and a loose-limbed, athletic body.
“Oh, sorry,” she said.
“No need to apologize. Wasn’t paying attention,” the man said, dimples joining a smile to cause a flutter in Hannah’s belly. For a moment, she wished she wasn’t garbed in fishing waders and rubber boots. She guessed her hair was a mess, not to mention that she had fish slime smeared on her shoulder.
“Just coming by to say hey to Susie. She’s a friend. Don’t think I know you, though. I’m Luke…Luke Winters,” the man said with a question in his eyes. He lifted a hand to brush curls away from his eyes. There didn’t seem much point to it, as the wind blew his curls wild again.
Hannah realized she was staring at the same time she felt the salmon in her net make a leap. She turned back to see the salmon had managed to untangle itself from the gill net and was flopping its way out of her net. With a lunge, she moved to grab the salmon at the same time Luke did. Their shoulders collided as Hannah reached for the errant salmon. Needless to say, her hold on the fish was poor, and she ended up flinging it into Luke’s chest just as she stumbled and fell in the sand. She looked up at him and sighed inside. He appeared to be the quintessential rugged outdoorsman and had quickly gotten hold of the salmon she’d flung at him. With a lifted eyebrow, he unhooked a small, bright orange fish whacker from his belt and proceeded to stun the fish. He took two quick strides and dipped the fish in and out of the water, rinsing the sand off.
“Are those coolers yours?” he asked, gesturing toward two coolers nearby as he stepped back.
At her nod, he tossed the salmon into the cooler closest to him. Hannah remained in the sand, where she’d fallen with her legs splayed in both directions. Her dark brown hair had come loose from its ponytail and blew in long strands across her face. She pushed them away and then realized her gloves were wet and sandy, leaving sand in her hair and streaked across her face.
“Need a hand?” he asked, extending one toward her.
She silently reached up and grasped his hand. She got her feet under her and felt a strong pull bring her up effortlessly. Once standing, she felt a little less clumsy and pulled her gloves off. She quickly brushed the sand off her cheeks and tucked her hair behind her ears. She looked back into Luke’s eyes and took a deep breath.
“I’m Hannah…Gray,” she belatedly said. “And no, I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m an old friend of Susie’s, but I was away at school for the last two years.”
“You caught that I’m Luke, right?” he asked.
“You mean before I threw a fish at you? I caught your name, but got a little sidetracked there. How do you know Susie?” she asked, glancing out to the water where Susie remained, her back to them as she spoke to someone else standing nearby in the water.
“She does the accounting for the fishing business I have with my brothers, The One that Didn’t Get Away. We live about an hour south of here in Diamond Creek,” he said.
“Oh, that’s where I’m from. Love the name of your business,” she said and paused, not wanting to explain just yet that she’d spent most of her childhood there and that her parents had died in a plane crash while she was away at graduate school.
Luke’s green eyes held a questioning look. At her silence, he remarked, “Well, I just came over to say hi to Susie.” He cupped his hands around his mouth to call to Susie.
Susie turned with a wave and hollered a return greeting to Luke but remained in the water.
Luke turned back to Hannah. “How long have you been here? Looks like you’re close to your limit already,” he said with a nod toward the coolers.
“We’ve only been here about an hour. Seems our timing was good. With the tide coming in, there’s a ton of salmon passing through. I think I’m about done for now.”
She usually managed polite conversation perfectly well, but something about this man muddled her. If she were feeling cliché, she’d blame it on his handsome, manly appearance, but growing up in Alaska had exposed her to reams of men who looked and lived the modern version of frontiersmen. She thought perhaps it was her, seeing as she felt like a giant bumbling mess at the moment. Between her waders and rubber boots and the fact that she had managed to cover herself with sand when she fell, she wanted to hide. The wind coming in from the ocean kept blowing her hair in her eyes.
The silence started to drag, at which point Luke spoke again. “Well, it was nice meeting you. Are you back from school to stay?”
Wonders didn’t cease, and she managed to respond. “Yeah, I am. Back to stay. I just got back a few days ago. I’m still settling in, but Susie got me here today.” She glanced to Susie again, who was chatting away with the nearby net holder. “She’s one of my best friends. I forgot how much fun dipnetting is.” She paused, again running out of words, and then pushed forward, taking the focus off herself. “How long have you been in Diamond Creek? I don’t remember you from before.”
Luke seemed unaware of her internal struggle, both the effect he had on her and the constant bubble of her parents’ memories in her consciousness. Trying to explain what it was like to return to Alaska involved boulders of memories that she wasn’t ready to roll out of the way.
“Moved here about two years ago with my two brothers. Before that, fished in Alaska for a few years, commercially that is, and decided we’d rather live here instead of coming up from Seattle. We love it. Sounds like we moved to Diamond Creek right about when you left for school,” he said.
Just as she started to respond, someone called Luke’s name. Hannah followed Luke’s gaze and saw another black-haired man at a distance waving at the base of one of the paths toward the parking area. Luke returned the wave and turned back to her.
“That’s my younger brother, Nathan. Time to go,” he said. Despite his parting words, he took a speculative look at her, not yet moving to leave. Hannah swore her toes curled in her boots. She thought for a split second that he saw right past her waders, boots, and messy hair. His green eyes seemed to darken for a moment that passed in a flash, and she wondered if she were tricking herself.
“Well, with you back to stay, I’ll see you around. Diamond Creek isn’t too big. Not to mention that Susie’s a friend,” Luke said.
Hannah realized she was staring and silent, again. “Oh yeah, I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Nice to meet you,” she said.
“Ditto,” he said, dimples winking again. At that, he turned and walked across the beach toward his brother, weaving his way through stations of coolers, people cleaning fish, and areas where seagulls were gathered, feasting on the easy meal offered from the scraps of cleaned and gutted fish.
His stride was long and loose. His shoulders were broad and muscled, the cotton jersey he wore pulled tight across them. He met his brother at the path, and they disappeared from sight as they crested the small slope that led to the parking lot. She looked around and saw Susie turning to head into shore. Glancing down, she groaned. There was so much sand on her, she might as well have laid down and rolled in it. Sand stuck in sheets on her damp waders from her brief tumble when she ran into Luke. She blushed when she realized she had actually thrown a fish against him by accident. She swatted her gloves against her legs, knocking some of the sand loose.
A flash of black and gold caught Hannah’s eye. She turned to look out the window and saw a dog in motion come to a quick stop and start sniffing madly along the edge of the deck. The dog was mostly black with gold accents on its feet, eyes, and chest. The dog’s fur was long and glossy, its tail a waving flag of black and gold. The dog lost interest in that particular spot on the deck and turned toward the window. She caught the dog’s eye, at which point the dog sat down and stared intently at her through the window. With a shrug, she walked to the door and stepped outside.
The boards on the deck were cool on the soles of her bare feet. It was early morning, just past seven. The sun was slowly climbing above the horizon, and a damp mist coated the grass. Drops of dew glinted on the grass where the sun touched. As she stepped out, the dog immediately walked over and circled around her legs, a bundle of softness and friendliness. After a brief inspection, she determined the dog was a female. She was lovely and sweet, her fur silky and luxurious against Hannah’s hands.
Hannah heard the sound of footsteps on the gravel road, moving in the rhythmic pace of a run. The dog’s ears perked, and she turned to face the road. Hannah guessed that the dog’s owner was running up the road. A tall, lean man crested the hill of the road, jogging at a fast pace toward the house. She waited on the deck while he ran toward them. As he got closer, Hannah realized it was Luke, the man she’d thrown a fish at a few days prior. The dog started to wag her tail wildly and ran off the deck to greet Luke when he reached the steps. Hannah bit her lip and sighed to herself. While she was perhaps in better shape than she had been when she ran into him at the beach, she hadn’t showered yet and had thrown on sweatpants and a cotton top. He came to a stop and tugged at the edge of his sleeve to wipe sweat off his brow, exposing a flash of a muscled abdomen. Despite the cool morning, he was dressed only in running shorts and a lightweight shirt. She guessed he’d been running for some time to work up a sweat in this temperature.
“Well, hey there, Jessie,” Luke said, reaching to pet the dog who came to his side. He looked up at Hannah with those deep green eyes. His gaze unnerved her. Her belly felt hollow for a moment.
“Hey, sorry about this one here,” he said, gesturing to the dog. “Jessie sometimes does her own thing when I take her running. She’s not actually my dog, but a stray that showed up a few weeks ago. Been keeping her until we can find her a home.”
Luke took a glance around the yard and brought his gaze back to Hannah. “Didn’t know this is where you lived. I live down the road a bit and usually run by here a few times a week. It’s been empty for the last two years,” he said.
Hannah wanted a chance to gather herself before responding. Luke brought flares to life in her, and she wasn’t ready to deal with it at this hour. She couldn’t simply not respond though. She took a breath. “Right. It’s my parents’ house, but they haven’t been here.”
She thought of what to say next. Two years and she still hadn’t figured out how to talk about her parents dying. Saying they hadn’t been here didn’t seem to capture why the house had sat empty. She forged on. “It’s not just that they haven’t been here. They passed away while I was away at grad school.” She stopped and looked down into Luke’s eyes. He strode forward just as she moved to walk down the two steps that led to the ground.
Something flickered in his green eyes, and then a rueful smile touched his lips. “Heard about your parents. Didn’t connect the dots just now. I’m really sorry.”
Hannah felt his warm hand engulf hers. Even when she was standing a step above him, Luke was almost eye to eye with her. She was used to being as tall, if not taller, than most men. She’d been relieved when she’d finally stopped growing at seventeen. When she’d started to sprout in junior high, it had seemed like she grew overnight and towered over her female friends. Truth be told, she did tower over them. Susie was a contrast, petite and barely five feet tall. The two of them had made an odd pair in high school—Susie, the tiny dynamo, with Hannah, the tall, not too elegant one.
Her hand warmed in Luke’s grasp. She wanted him to hold on and then thought it was crazy to wish for a strange man to just hold her hand. Her toes curled against the bottom step. The sun pushed past the tops of the spruce trees that had been shading the spot where she stood. A warm beam of sun streamed across them. She pulled her hand from his grip, feeling awkward.
“I mostly grew up here, but I stayed away to finish school after my parents died,” she said.
“My brothers and I bought a house just down the hill on Bay Ridge Road. I usually run up here most mornings. Nice spot here.” He caught her gaze. “Diamond Creek’s a small town. That’s how I heard about your parents. Again…I’m sorry.”
She searched his eyes, almost mesmerized by the green. She looked away, but not before she caught a sense of curiosity in his gaze. “It’s small, that’s for sure…and thanks…for understanding about my parents. It’s not easy to talk about,” she said. She looked down at Jessie, who’d moved closer to her and was rubbing against her legs.
Luke followed Hannah’s eyes to Jessie. “Don’t know where she came from. Started following me in the mornings when I went running and ended up camping out on our deck a few weeks ago. No one seems to know if anyone local had her before, and no one’s claiming her. She’s a sweetie, though. Been calling her Jessie. We’re scouting around for a home for her—not the best plan for us to have a dog when we spend so much time away fishing in the summers. Sorry she interrupted your morning. Every so often she wanders off.”
“It’s okay. I’m up early anyway. She seems like a sweet dog,” Hannah said and reached to pet Jessie again, her fingers slipping through the glossy fur. She looked over at Luke again. “I guess you’d probably like to keep running, huh?”
He nodded, his eyes holding hers, the green darkening. “Figured I’d see you around and probably will again,” he said. His eyes lingered for another moment before he turned to walk back toward the road. Jessie remained at her side. Luke whistled and Jessie took off, running to his side. She watched them go as he began to jog, silhouettes against the rising sun in the sky as it curved up along the hillside.
Luke jogged back down the hill that had led to the Grays’ old house. He’d been surprised to see someone there, although he had heard a few rumors that their daughter was moving back. He hadn’t realized that she was the friend that had been with Susie the other day. He glanced down at Jessie and smiled. She trotted alongside him, her tongue hanging out to one side, black and golden tail swaying with her gait. He hadn’t wanted to admit to Hannah that he’d let Jessie run around in the yard there a few times. The place where her parents’ house sat was about the halfway mark of one of his five-mile running routes. He sometimes took a brief walking break after he got to the top of that hill. Jessie would meander about the yard for a few minutes. He hadn’t thought much of it since the house had sat empty the entire time he’d lived in Diamond Creek.
He thought back to Hannah. He’d been startled to see her when he’d crested the hill. She was tall and lovely in an unconscious way, which he’d noticed at the beach the other day. When she’d stepped down to shake his hand, he’d realized she was only a few inches shorter than he was. At six foot four, he was used to feeling larger than he wanted to around most women. She’d looked slightly disheveled this morning, as if she’d had just enough time to toss on some clothes. She’d been barefoot, wearing thin gray sweatpants that clung to the curves of her long legs and flared at the bottom, swinging around her calves. A worn blue cotton shirt had hung softly from her shoulders. Her hair was a rich brown, long with curls at the tips, bangs brushed carelessly away from her eyes. And those eyes. A sky blue, almost ethereal. Luke sensed her to be a little shy, but then he didn’t know if he could get a sense of her from that moment in time—an unexpected encounter, at seven in the morning no less, and her just home after being away for two years.
He’d liked her feet, of all things. He laughed aloud, and Jessie looked up at the sound. He smiled down at her and kept on running. Hannah’s feet were long and slender, the arches high against the wood on the deck. Her toenails were painted a deep blue, adding a touch of whimsy to her overall appearance. He’d hoped he’d see her again after meeting her at the beach, and now wished he could have more than a passing encounter. He kept jogging toward home, the road curving in front of him. As he rounded a corner, a view of the bay opened up. The water looked calm this morning. A few clouds billowed in the sky.
Luke thought of his day ahead, which included a trip to the harbor to check on their boats. Another turn in the road, and the house he shared with his brothers came into sight. It sat back from the road at the base of a sloping hill. Spruce trees stood tall behind the house with a small stand of birch to one side and wildflowers along the edge of the small lawn in the front yard. He slowed to a walk when he reached their driveway, looking up when he heard his older brother’s voice.
“Where are those damn keys?”
Jared appeared to be talking to himself and hadn’t yet noticed that Luke and Jessie were coming down the drive. Jared stood in the garage. Their younger brother, Nathan, had left his truck parked halfway in the garage with the back end far enough out that the garage door couldn’t close. When Luke had noticed it on his way out for his run, he’d shrugged and figured Jared would be pissed when he got up. At twenty-eight, Nathan was careless. He was prone to haphazard parking on late nights. Of the three brothers, Luke was in the middle and often played to stereotype, functioning as the middleman between his younger and older brothers. Jared was a full seven years older than Nathan, with Luke in the middle—three years younger than Jared and four years older than Nathan.
Jared finally noticed him when Jessie ran up to his side as he leaned into Nathan’s truck. She licked his hand, Jared petting her head in return. He gestured to Nathan’s red truck. “Our little brother has managed another marvelous parking job. Just crooked enough that I can’t back out.”
Luke followed Jared’s eyes to the back of Nathan’s truck. He shrugged. “Not much to do about it unless we find the keys or drag his sorry ass out of bed. You try the house for his keys?” he asked.
“Yup. And everywhere else but his bedroom. Thought about waking him up, but honestly, he’s like molasses after a late night. Waking him up is more annoying than dealing with it myself. But if I don’t find the keys soon, I’ll have to.” He gestured to Luke. “Good run?”
“Yeah. My favorite time of day. Was up by the Grays’ old place. You know…the couple that we heard about that died in that plane crash on the way to Barrow not long before we moved here? Their old house has just been empty the whole time we’ve been here.”
At Jared’s nod, he continued, “Ran into their daughter by chance. Jessie took off ahead and was nosing around the deck. I actually met her the other day when we went dipnetting. Was interesting to meet her. Name’s Hannah.”
Jared lifted an eyebrow. “Old friend of Susie’s, right?”
Luke nodded. “Just interesting to meet her.”
Jared lifted his other eyebrow.
“What?” Luke asked.
The eyebrows stayed up. “Just curious that you find the need to tell me this now.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Around here, meeting someone new is news. Whatever.”
He shook his head and walked toward the door that led from the garage to the kitchen. He heard the door to Nathan’s truck close as he stepped into the kitchen. Jessie followed him in and immediately went to the water bowl they’d set out for her. Thirsty himself, Luke gulped down a full glass of tap water, then stared at the empty glass and thought of Hannah. His mind seemed to be on a pull chain to her. He wasn’t sure what it was about her, but he was drawn to her in a way that he hadn’t experienced before. He couldn’t deny that she was easy on the eyes. He could have looked at her all day. She had a soft beauty that she didn’t seem to notice. He was unfortunately aware of how many women thoroughly understood the superficial attributes they had and used them to their advantage. He’d been burned one time too many with women who seemed to think they could access his parents’ money through him.
He and his brothers had grown up in and around Seattle. While their mother had been a teacher, their father had run a successful engineering business that designed and manufactured parts for the aviation and aerospace industry. He had sold it at the height of its success. Their family wasn’t world-famous for their money, but they were well known in Seattle. Luke and his brothers were accustomed to plenty of attention from women. Hannah held herself at a distance, which was a change for him. His parents had a solid, down-to-earth marriage. They’d met long before his father started making good money and didn’t emphasize the material side of life. When Jared had started talking about moving their fishing business to Alaska since they often fished there anyway, Luke had jumped at the chance to live somewhere more grounded and less pretentious. He also thrived on the challenge of outdoor sports, skiing, hiking, and the like. Alaska offered that in spades.
Diamond Creek had turned out to be what he wanted. The starkness of the seasons in Alaska, coupled with the small community and distance from the rest of the world, brought most everyone down to earth. There were few, if any, class distinctions here. The range of connections and friendships crossed financial lines, political lines, and more. The small world of Diamond Creek was how he’d heard rumors that the Grays’ daughter might return. He knew she’d been a good friend of their accountant, Susie. He hadn’t heard much else about her, other than that her parents were deeply missed in the community, and their deaths rippled in the tiny town where friends still mourned them.
Luke looked out the windows that faced the bay. Their kitchen opened onto a living room and a wall of windows, floor to ceiling, that offered a view of Kachemak Bay, one of Alaska’s coastal jewels. Kachemak Bay was a bay off the Cook Inlet, which extended from the Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. A winding highway traversed a branch of the inlet, Turnagain Arm, and led to the Kenai Peninsula. Diamond Creek was situated toward the southern end of the peninsula. The views along the highway were breathtaking. At points, it felt like one could touch the mountains that stood tall across the water while the road hugged the bottom of the mountains. A few glaciers were visible along the way, their eerie translucent blue ice an alluring beauty.
Diamond Creek and a few other communities were interspersed on the shores of the bay, which was a popular area for sportfishing, in addition to many commercial fishing businesses using the towns as launching points into Alaskan waters. Luke and his brothers had initially started their fishing business in Seattle. After a few ventures to Alaska and obtaining the necessary commercial permits to fish there, they decided to relocate since they collectively fell in love with the area.
The calm of the morning was gradually fading as the wind picked up, ruffling the surface of the water. Luke dimly heard Jared rummaging around in the garage and wondered when he’d give it up and go wake Nathan. For the most part, the brothers got along well and managed to play off one another’s strengths to handle their business. Despite Nathan’s careless attitude at times and his penchant for late nights in the summer, he was a hard worker and didn’t shy away from the less savory tasks of fishing. Jared’s patience with his bad parking was limited. But then, Jared tended to be impatient with anyone who didn’t take his methodical, organized approach to life. Luke heard a burst of profanity from the garage and then the distinct sound of an engine starting—the keys had been located. In a few moments, Jared came through the door that led to the garage.
Luke switched on the coffeemaker as Jared stepped into the kitchen. “Guessing you found those keys.”
Jared nodded. “Looked all over only to find them sitting on the seat of my truck. Think I might hide the keys from him one of these days.”
“Not a bad idea. When are you headed out?” Luke asked.
“Soon,” Jared said. “Thanks for the coffee. Got sidetracked looking for Nathan’s keys. What’s your plan for the day?”
“Planning to head to the harbor to check on the boats and make sure we’re geared up for our trip in three weeks. Did you get the list ready for shopping?”
“Yup, ready to go. Headed to town in a bit here to go to the bank and check in with Susie. Then parking myself in the office downstairs to go over our finances before next week.”
Luke nodded and checked how close the coffee was to being ready. “Have to see if we can find a place for Jessie here. She’s great to have around, but we’ll be gone for three weeks on this trip. Any ideas?” he asked.
Jared shook his head. “Not off the top of my head. I’ll ask Susie, though. You know her. Knows everyone and their business.”
“That she does. I’ll ask around at the harbor again too.”
Seeing that there was enough coffee, Luke grabbed a mug to fill. A dash of cream, and he took a welcome swallow of coffee. “Well, I’m headed for the shower. If you’re gone before I’m done, leave that list for me. I’ll rouse Nathan and send him off to take care of it,” Luke said.
“Got it. Better you than me. I’m too annoyed with him right now,” Jared said.
At that, Luke walked out of the kitchen down the hallway that led to the bedrooms.
A week later, Hannah woke with the sky barely light. Waking up in her old room was still soothing and strange. She took a shower and rummaged for breakfast. Seated at the kitchen counter that faced into the living room, she took in the view of the bay and mountains and soaked in the familiar sight of the yard. She pondered Luke and his green eyes. She said his name aloud and caught herself glancing sheepishly about the kitchen, as if anyone could hear her. As she was washing dishes, she heard the sound of a vehicle rumble into the drive. Looking out the window, she saw an unfamiliar green Toyota truck and watched as Luke climbed out. She was surprised to see him and curious, taking in details as he went to the passenger side of the truck to check on something. His wavy and careless almost-black hair curled along the edge of his collar. He wore faded jeans, worn leather boots, and a red windbreaker. He turned to look at the house and shrugged to himself before walking up the deck stairs to the kitchen door. She stepped out just as he reached the top of the stairs. She caught the flash of a dimple and his warm green eyes.
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