Stay With Me (A Last Frontier Lodge Novel) - J.h. Croix - ebook

A steamy, full-length, standalone romance with a guaranteed HEA from USA Today Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series!Sometimes what we run from leads us exactly where we need to be.Jessa Hamilton has nowhere else to go. So she’s packed up her little blue truck and driven to Alaska, seeking refuge at Last Frontier Lodge where at least she has family she can count on. A fender bender lands her in the path of Eli Brooks, a man of pure, well, manliness. Rugged and sexy with a smile that sends sparks flying through her, Jessa has no idea what to do with the way Eli makes her feel.Eli has plenty on his mind and none of it has anything to do with meeting a woman who makes him reconsider his commitment to avoiding romance. A painful past led Eli to seek peace in the land he loves—the wilderness of Alaska. Eli is a classic Alaskan—he breathes hunting and fishing. Jessa is unlike any woman he’s ever encountered—quirky, sexy, independent and…a vegetarian.While Jessa tries to put the pieces of her life together, a surprise from the past forces Eli to question just how much running from the past has gotten him. As they each grapple with their own ghosts, passion burns like wildfire between them.*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.

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Liczba stron: 353

Stay With Me

A Last Frontier Lodge Novel

J.H. Croix




Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25


Excerpt: When We Fall (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.

Copyright © 2016 by J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1534786449

ISBN 13: 9781534786448

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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Chapter 1

Eli Brooks leaned his head back and swallowed a sigh. “It’s fine, Mom. I’ll swing by the bank later this afternoon,” he said into his phone.

“I’m sorry to ask again so soon,” his mother said, probably for the fifth time in the last five minutes.

“No need to apologize, Mom. How’s Ryan?” he asked, biting back the frustration rising inside and trying to shift gears in the conversation.

“He’s fine,” she said quickly.

A horn honked nearby and Eli glanced over to see a car backing out of a parking space, the driver clearly not bothering to notice another car passing by. He bit back a laugh when he saw the other car simply veer around and keep going. The minor distraction helped him get through this call without his annoyance showing. He genuinely didn’t mind giving his mother money to make ends meet, but he’d been getting suspicious lately that his father had moved back in due to the frequency of her requests for help. After a few more minutes of stilted conversation, he managed to get off the phone.

With a shake of his head, he started his truck and put it in gear. He glanced over to the passenger seat to make sure he hadn’t left the bolts in the hardware store. His mother’s call had come in while he was in line, distracting him. He rolled slowly through the parking lot. It was summer in Diamond Creek, Alaska, which meant the town was swarmed with tourists, and RV’s and campers crowded the roads and parking lots, limiting visibility and generally contributing to plenty of driving mishaps. He stopped to wait for a giant camper as the driver backed up. After several failed attempts of the camper to successfully back out, Eli put his truck in park and climbed out with a sigh. He’d have to serve as the back up guide for the driver, or he’d be here all day.

Jessa Hamilton stared at the photo in her hand and swallowed against the tightness in her throat. She kept pulling this photo out and looking at it, as if she looked enough, something would be different. Yet, nothing changed. Walls blackened with smoke, charred furniture and nothing else recognizable. Only she knew what had been contained within its walls. Hot tears pressed against the back of her eyes, and she took a gulp of air. Her name was called, and she quickly slipped the photo in her purse and stood. She walked up to the small pick-up counter and grabbed the coffee with her name on it. Once she sat back down at her table, she took a sip and glanced out the windows. The view here was simply breathtaking—a picturesque bay sparkled under the sun with mountains rising tall on the far side. A glacier lay in a valley between two peaks, glowing translucent blue and almost mesmerizing her. The sheer beauty took her mind off the ashes of her life she’d left behind.

After a few more minutes of coffee and soaking in the view, Jessa felt able to drive the last leg of her journey. She slung her purse over her shoulder and walked outside into the parking lot, her coffee cup warm in her hand. It was early summer in Diamond Creek, Alaska and the air had a definite chill to it. Her small blue truck was waiting for her. She climbed in and sighed. Right now, this truck was the closest thing she had to home. It held everything she owned, which at this point was the clothes she wore, a small bag of clothing, and a toolbox that contained her beloved paintbrushes and art supplies. She ran her good hand over the dashboard and gave it a loving pat. “Okay Blue, we’ve got a few errands, a short drive up the mountain and then you can take a break for a while.”

She started the engine and put the truck in gear. She had to maneuver carefully with her left hand, which had been injured in the same fire that burned up the apartment she left behind. With a quick glance behind her, she started to back up when she felt a thump. She whipped her head further back and saw a black truck to the far corner of her line of sight. “Oh hell. Really? Did I really just back into someone?” she wondered aloud. “Sorry Blue, just gave you a little bump there. Here’s hoping we didn’t hurt the other truck.” She laughed to herself, realizing she talked to Blue more than just about anyone. She took a deep breath and rolled the truck forward before putting it back in park. Another deep breath and she climbed out, prepared to face the music of an irate driver. She prayed she’d left nothing more than a small dent in the other truck.

When she walked to the back of her truck, she saw a man leaning against the corner of the black truck and immediately lost the ability to breathe. The man in question had dark brown hair and green eyes that locked onto her the moment she looked up at him. He wore a denim jacket over a navy blue t-shirt and faded jeans that were so worn, the soft fabric molded over his muscled thighs. A pair of scuffed brown leather boots completed the ensemble. His shoulders filled out his jacket, and she caught a glimpse of his muscled chest and abs in the gap where his jacket hung open. His thumb was hooked in a pocket. Her brain fuzzed and her pulse galloped. Desperate for air, she managed to force her lungs into gear and take a few gulps.

“Hi, um, I think I backed into you. I’m really sorry. I thought I looked, but I obviously didn’t look enough. Is there any damage? Let me get my insurance card and…”

The man pushed away from the truck, shaking his head. “No need. Your bumper took the hit,” he said, gesturing to Blue’s rear bumper. “My bumper’s so beat up, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway.”

Her eyes seemed stuck. She just stood there and stared at him. When he arched a brow in question, she finally managed to tear her eyes away and look at her bumper. The corner of Blue’s rear bumper bore a round dent. The knot of tension in her chest loosened slightly. She’d been carrying the little ball of tension for so many weeks now, she was used to it. Any easing of it was a pleasant surprise. She took a breath and looked back at the man, her pulse rocketing again when she met his green gaze.

“Well, that’s not too bad. Blue can live with it,” she said, gently patting the bumper.


“My truck. Her name is Blue,” she offered in explanation.

“If that’s how you name trucks, I guess you’d call mine Dusty,” he said with a chuckle.

His eyes bounced from her truck to her. “You from Washington?”

“Good guess.”

“Not a guess. Your license plate,” he said, gesturing to it.

“Oh, right.” She couldn’t seem to think of what else to say, not when this way-too-sexy man had her tongue-tied and her thoughts fuzzy.

“If you’re planning to get that dent banged out, my friend has a mechanic shop just down the street.”

Normally, she would want to get the dent taken care of, but normally she wasn’t flat broke. She shrugged. “I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to do that.”

He nodded slowly. “Well, if you decide to get it fixed, Dan does good work. Can’t miss it. It’s the shop down the road, says Auto Shop outside.”

“Just Auto Shop?”

“Yup. Dan keeps it simple. What brings you to Diamond Creek? Long drive from Washington. Well, long drive from just about anywhere outside of Alaska.”

Jessa was doing her damnedest to get her pulse under control, but her pulse appeared to have a mind of its own. Aside from the fact that she couldn’t seem to think clearly around this man, the last thing she wanted was to think about what brought her to Alaska. She took an unsteady breath and called upon her manners.

“I’m here visiting family for a bit.”

“You have family here?”

“My brother, Gage Hamilton, runs Last Frontier Lodge. My other brother, Garrett, moved up here last year. He’s married to Delia. I think her maiden name was Peters.”

“Delia Peters is right. I’ve known her for a while. I do some business with Gage and met Garrett once or twice. Everyone in Diamond Creek is damn happy about the lodge being open again. I’ve been up there a few times to ski myself.” His green eyes crinkled at the corners. “Suppose I could introduce myself. I’m Eli Brooks.” He held a hand out.

Her arm moved of its own accord, lifting and placing her hand in his. His palm engulfed hers, the calloused surface and warmth sending shivers followed by heat rushing through her. Once her hand was in his, she froze again. After a long moment, too long to be polite, he slowly loosened his grip and released her palm. Another few beats passed before he spoke again.

“Don’t suppose you’ll tell me your name?”

Her cheeks heated. “Oh, oh, right. Jessa Hamilton.” Right about now, she wouldn’t have minded if a hole opened up in the ground to swallow her. Cliché or not, she would have liked somewhere to fall in and hide. Eli was doing nothing other than being polite, and she could barely hold a conversation with him.

“Nice to meet you, Jessa,” Eli replied with a slow smile. “If you’re here for a bit, I’ll probably see you around. Diamond Creek’s pretty small.”

Her belly fluttered and her heart gave a little kick. What the hell was going on with her? She’d backed into Eli’s truck, and now she was all but drooling on him. She realized she was about to enter into another long moment where she should say something. That’s how conversation worked. One person said something, the other person listened and formulated a reply. If this were a game of tennis, she would have definitely lost because she couldn’t manage to swing her racquet. She gathered her scrambled thoughts and forced herself to speak.

“Nice to meet you too. I’m sorry about bumping into your truck. It’s been a long few days of driving. I’m glad your truck’s okay.”

Eli grinned. “No problem. Like I said, I probably wouldn’t have noticed if you had.” He stepped away and opened his truck door. “See you around,” he said with a quick wave.

She watched while he drove away. A gust of wind blasted from the direction of the bay, blowing her hair wild.

Chapter 2

Eli glanced in his rear view mirror and saw Jessa Hamilton standing in the parking lot. Her brown hair blew in a swirl around her face. He stopped where the parking lot met Main Street and watched as she brushed her hair back with one hand and turned to hurry back into her truck. She cradled one arm against her waist, and he wondered why. He turned out and headed toward his shop. He was looking at the road in front of him, but all he could see in his mind’s eye were Jessa’s eyes. He’d never seen eyes like hers before—smoky gray with glimpses of silver.

When he was driving by and saw her start to back up, he didn’t have enough time to stop. For a flash, he was irritated as hell. Between the call from his mother, helping a hapless camper driver back up, and dealing with the general madness of his summer schedule, he’d had to bite back his frustration. Summer was the busiest time of year for him. Owning his own business was great, except for the fact that sometimes he only had himself to count on. He owned Game to Fish, a retail store and guiding business for the hordes of wilderness travelers that descended on Diamond Creek once the snow melted. He’d been up since way too early this morning and didn’t have time to deal with a fender bender. For a split second, he considered driving on past the little blue truck that bumped into him. He’d meant it when he said he wasn’t worried about his bumper, but it seemed a tad rude to keep driving when she pulled forward and started to climb out of her truck.

One look at her chocolate brown hair, those silvery gray eyes, and her lush, curvy body, and his frustration evaporated. He could have cared less if she’d completely bashed his bumper. He forgot that he only had a few minutes to get back to his store. Now, he had to make up the minutes he lost and gunned his truck. Within moments, he came to a jerking stop in front of his store and grabbed the small bag from the hardware store. The doorbell jingled when he walked in, and Cliff Gibson glanced up from behind the counter.

“Hey Eli, did they have the bolts we need?” Cliff asked.

Eli tossed the small bag from the hardware store to Cliff. Cliff caught it and immediately dumped the bolts on the counter. Without a word, he stepped from behind the counter and strode to the front windows to climb on the ladder there.

“Need a hand?” Eli asked, slightly bemused by Cliff. Aside from himself, Cliff was Eli’s primary employee. He had a few other employees, but Cliff was the only one involved in every aspect of his business from the retail store to fishing charters to guided hunts. Like Eli, Cliff had been born and raised in Alaska. He knew just about everything there was to know about fishing and hunting in the area. Sometimes, Eli was amazed at how responsible Cliff was given that he’d only graduated from college a year ago.

Cliff glanced down from the ladder. “I left the bolts on the counter,” he said with a grin.

Eli stepped to the counter and snagged the two bolts. After he handed them over, he watched while Cliff carefully adjusted the display rack hanging from the ceiling and replaced the two broken bolts on one side. Once he was done, Cliff returned the ladder to its storage spot in the back room and immediately got back to work on ordering supplies and gear for several upcoming trips.

Eli walked into his office and looked around. His office was small and crowded. A small desk and chair were tucked into the corner with two chairs on the other side of the desk. The rest of the office was filled with a jumble of fishing and hunting gear, everything from fishing rods and hunting knives to high-end outerwear. He kicked a box out of the way and sat down at his desk, quickly opening his laptop and starting to plow through emails for reservations on guided hunts. As usual, he simultaneously tapped the speaker button on his office phone and started listening to his voice mails. The first two were from customers and the third was his mother.

“Hey Eli, haven’t heard from you in a while. I wanted to see how you were doing. If you get a chance, give me a call.” There was a long pause. He could hear his mother take a deep breath. “I’m doing okay, just so you know. Love you.” The recording held another deep breath from his mother before she hung up. She must have called here before she tried his cell phone.

Eli tried to keep reading his emails, but nothing was registering in his brain. He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. His mind circled back to his mother’s call earlier. He’d taken purposeful steps to cut his ties with his family, almost solely due to his father. He hadn’t spoken to his father in over a decade when he moved to Diamond Creek from Juneau. Alaska was such a part of him, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, so he moved far enough away to get some distance—literally and figuratively.

The only time his mother called was when she needed money. She only needed money when his father went on a drinking binge and blew through what little she had to get by. Eli wished she would call more, but he knew she didn’t because she felt guilty. Even though he’d done his damnedest to keep his father boxed out of his mother’s life, his father still had access to her bank accounts and she didn’t have it in her to cut him off. Eli kept in touch with his mother and tried to keep tabs on his younger brother Ryan, but he could only do so much from a distance. He was in a much better place than he had been when he moved away, but one thing that helped bring him peace was steering clear of the wrecking ball that was his father. The thorn in that peace was the guilt he felt leaving his mother and Ryan behind.

Eli shook his head sharply and forced himself to focus on work. He confirmed a few reservations and made it through the rest of his emails before walking back out front. Cliff was talking to a few early tourists and issuing temporary fishing permits for them. He glanced to Eli when he rounded the back counter.

“I’m headed to the bank and maybe a coffee run. Need anything?” Eli asked.

“Thought you were getting coffee earlier,” Cliff replied with a grin.

Eli shrugged. “Forgot. How about now?”

“Sure thing. Just get me whatever the house coffee is at Misty Mountain today.”

“You got it. Be back in a bit.”

Eli swung through the bank and transferred enough money into his mother’s bank account that she could get by for a few months. Shortly thereafter, he walked out of Misty Mountain Café, took a welcome gulp of coffee and climbed back into his truck, tucking Cliff’s coffee in the holder while he kept his in hand. As he drove down Main Street, he saw Jessa’s bright blue truck at the grocery store. He found himself pulling into the parking lot and walking into the store, compelled solely by the possibility he might see Jessa again.

Grabbing a cart, he started tossing groceries in as he passed through the aisles. He couldn’t quite believe he was meandering through a store, hoping for an incidental encounter with a woman he’d met for a total of maybe three minutes, five tops. Yet, here he was. He was jittery with restless energy between the jolt of coffee, his call with his mother, and this out of the blue attraction to a woman he barely knew. He practically careened around the end of an aisle, swinging his cart into the next aisle when he bumped into something, or rather someone.


At the muffled comment, he glanced up to find Jessa standing in front of the pasta section. His cart rolled back into him. He took in a few more details this time. She wore a denim skirt over blue leggings with a fitted white t-shirt and a gray fleece jacket tied around her waist. A pair of black cowboy boots that looked beyond worn completed her attire. As his gaze traveled to her face, her amazing silver gray eyes met his. Her hair was tied in a loose knot atop her head with wispy brown curls framing her heart-shaped face.

“I’m sorry! I wasn’t even paying attention. Are you okay?”

She cradled her left hand against her, the same one he’d noticed earlier. “I’m fine,” she said quickly. “Just a little bump. My hip can take it.” Her mouth hooked in a rueful smile at that.

“You sure?” he asked with a nod toward her hand.

She glanced down and then up again. “Oh, you didn’t hit my hand. I, uh, injured this a few weeks ago.” She held it out, and he saw her hand was sporting a gauze wrap. “It’s healing fine, but it seems like I’m always walking around with it pinned to my side. I don’t even think about it.”

All kinds of questions tumbled through his mind. He didn’t know what it was about Jessa, but she made him want to know everything about her. He didn’t think it was prudent to bombard her with questions, so he merely nodded. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay.”

She laughed softly. “You didn’t hit me nearly as hard as I hit you with Blue.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, but that was my truck. This was you.”

One shoulder lifted in a slow shrug. “I’m fine. No need to worry.” Her eyes canted down into his grocery cart. “Wow, that’s a lot of frozen pizza.”

He looked into his cart and saw he’d tossed probably ten frozen pizzas in there, along with an array of snacks. He shook his head and met her eyes again. “Not the best cook. Once I’ve got some fish stocked up, I’ll be eating a bit better. Then comes hunting season in the fall. Usually, I’ve got enough to make it through to summer, but my back up freezer died a few weeks ago, so I lost my stock,” he offered with a rueful smile.

Jessa’s eyes widened, alarmingly so. “You fish? And hunt?”

He nodded slowly. “I do. Hard to find anyone in Alaska who doesn’t.”

Jessa was quiet for a long moment. “Oh.” She fiddled with the sleeve of her fleece jacket, twining it around her good hand. “I guess you don’t get many vegetarians here, huh?”

Eli couldn’t help but laugh as he shrugged. “Maybe a few. We get plenty of people visiting just because they like to fish and hunt though.”

Jessa bit her lip, her teeth denting its plump softness and sending a jolt of awareness through him. “Oh. Well, I’m a vegetarian.” She offered this with a slight smile.

“There’s plenty to do here that doesn’t involve hunting and fishing, but I’d suggest you steer clear of the harbor when the boats are coming in.”

“How come?”

“Because once fishing season starts, when the boats roll in, that means fish,” he offered with a grin.

Chapter 3

Jessa came awake with a start. She pushed herself up and leaned back against the headboard. Her heart was pounding and her skin was damp with sweat. She gulped in air and shoved away the flames flickering in her sleepy brain. It had been over three weeks since the fire, but she could only manage to sleep through roughly every other night. The nights in between found her jolted awake, fear choking her as she felt trapped again in her apartment with flames climbing the walls. She didn’t remember much from the fire other than waking up with it all around her, struggling to breathe through the smoke and scrambling to get out. She vaguely remembered gulping in the cool air once she crashed through the window, but that was it.

She forced herself to breathe slowly and kicked the covers back. A few minutes later and she stood in the shower, cool water cascading over her. She’d never in her life considered anything other than a hot shower until she woke from these fire dreams. Several moments of cool water washed away the fear and then she turned up the heat and savored the hot water. Once her mind was clear, she stepped out and toweled off, snagging the luxurious terry cloth robe hanging on the back of the door.

She’d visited Gage and Marley here a few times now, but she still marveled at what Gage had done. He’d come up here on his own to restore Last Frontier Lodge to its former glory after its closure over two decades ago. He’d pulled that off and then some. He was headed into the ski lodge’s third season, and it was already fully booked for next winter. It was also mostly booked up for the summer with Gage focusing on pulling in business from the tourists that poured into Alaska every summer, seeking a glimpse of its wilderness and breathtaking scenery.

As she padded out of the bathroom, her breath caught in her throat. Even though it wasn’t quite five in the morning, the sun was already cresting behind the mountains. Jessa had heard summers in Alaska meant long days and short nights, but it was still strange to wake at this hour and find the sun rising. Her suite, along with every suite at the lodge, had a clear view of the ski slopes behind it and the mountain range stretching beyond. To one side of the view lay Kachemak Bay, its water glimmering in the soft light of dawn. Jessa cast her eyes up to the horizon where faint rays of light angled skyward behind the mountains mingled with streaks of pink and lavender.

After a few moments, she turned away and climbed back in bed. She propped herself up on the pillows and pulled a book out of the nightstand drawer. She was an avid reader, but her books and her digital reader had been destroyed in the apartment fire. Marley had given her free rein to borrow from her own collection of books and a rotating pool of books for guests at the lodge. Knowing she likely wouldn’t fall asleep again, Jessa settled in to read. She was faintly surprised when she woke later, the book tumbled to the side of her on the bed and bright sun splashing through the windows. She was squished down into the pillows, so she slowly pushed them out of the way and sat up again. A glance at the clock told her it was past nine in the morning. She swung her legs off the bed and stood, straightening her robe as she did.

A little while later, Jessa walked into the lodge kitchen, the scent of freshly baked bread assailing her immediately. The large kitchen was a whir of activity with two line cooks standing side by side at a grill, quickly preparing orders, and waitresses spinning in and out of the kitchen. The swinging door that led into the restaurant was in motion constantly. Jessa glanced around, wondering what she should do. Marley had insisted she make herself at home at the lodge, but she didn’t know quite what that meant. She’d yet to meet all of the staff, so she wasn’t sure if they even knew who she was. She heard her name and looked in the direction of the voice to find her sister-in-law Delia standing by a doorway.

“Hey Delia!” Jessa called out as she made her way across the kitchen to Delia’s side.

Delia immediately pulled her into a warm hug. When she stepped back, she started to slide her hands down Jessa’s arms, but paused when her hand bumped into the bend of Jessa’s elbow. Her eyes canted down and back up. “I didn’t know you got hurt in the fire,” she said, her voice soft.

Jessa shrugged. “Nothing major. I got a few burns on my hand and arm when I climbed out the window.”

Delia turned and gently tugged Jessa through the door into an office. Jessa glanced around, her eyes taking in the space. A fern hanging in the window and a multicolored rug in front of the desk gave the office a warm, lively feeling. Delia’s desk held a laptop and papers scattered over its surface. Delia sat on a small couch across from her desk and patted the cushions, indicating for Jessa to join her.

“So, how was your trip? I still can’t believe you did the drive all the way from Washington by yourself.”

Jessa sat down on the edge of the couch and looked over at Delia. If someone had told her Garrett would fall for Delia, she’d never have guessed it. Yet, once she saw them together, there was absolutely no question Delia was perfect for Garrett. Her honey gold hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, wispy curls framing her face. Her blue eyes were warm, and she carried a soft energy that soothed the sharp edges of Garrett. Garrett was Jessa’s second oldest brother and Becca’s twin. Like Becca, he was a brilliant attorney. His brains, sharp wit, and strategic thinking had catapulted him into being one of the most sought after corporate attorneys in Seattle. Jessa had watched while he chased success madly, yet even when he was wealthy and at the top of his game, he’d brimmed with restlessness and dissatisfaction. Delia came into his life and he fell so hard for her that he said goodbye to his corporate career and moved to Diamond Creek. Jessa was beyond happy to see how well he was doing now.

She looked into Delia’s gaze and fiddled with the silver chain that hung around her neck. “The drive was long, but it was beautiful. Have you ever driven the Alcan Highway?” She was referring to the Alaska-Canadian Highway, abbreviated for so many years, it was known simply as the Alcan. The lone highway through the Yukon into Alaska stretched 1382 miles through pristine lands, following along glacial rivers, winding through mountains, dipping into valleys, and hugging the shorelines of massive lakes. Portions of the highway were so remote, even today sections of it remained gravel.

Delia shook her head. “Nope. I was born and raised in Diamond Creek, but I haven’t traveled too much around Alaska beyond between here and Anchorage.”

“Well, just getting from the border of Alaska to here is over three days of driving,” Jessa commented wryly.

Delia laughed softly before her gaze sobered. “So, how are you? Garrett’s been worried ever since you called a few weeks ago. We’ve all been worried, but you know how Garrett gets.”

Jessa felt a little twinge in her heart. Garrett held his cards close, but he was a protective older brother. He’d sent a few potential customers her way over the years. Seeing as her income relied on people willing to pay pretty high prices for her individually designed and painted furniture, he’d helped her maintain her business. That thought sent a knot of fear and anxiety spiraling through her. What little of her artsy furniture she’d stocked up had been burned to ashes in the apartment fire. She’d used the second bedroom in her small two-bedroom apartment for storage and her living room to paint. Everything there was gone, gone, gone. Her thoughts must have shown on her face because Delia reached over and squeezed her hand.

Jessa glanced over and took a breath. “I’m okay. It’s just been a long few weeks.” She lifted her injured hand. “This really isn’t much, but it hurt like hell at first. The doctor told me I need to keep putting the burn cream on and changing the bandage every day until the skin heals over. It’s almost there.”

Delia nodded. “How are you though?”

Jessa slumped against the couch cushions. “I don’t know. I lost everything in that fire. Everything. I didn’t have any money saved up, so I pretty much have to start all over. I didn’t know where to go, so here I am.” She lifted her good hand and let it fall against the armrest.

Delia’s eyes coasted over her, and Jessa felt like she could see right through her. Delia couldn’t know this because it wasn’t something Jessa talked about to anyone, but she’d always felt like the bumbling sibling in her family. She was the youngest and had never quite felt as if she was put together as well as the rest. Gage was, well, Gage. He was a Navy SEAL with all of the qualities associated with being a SEAL naturally part of his personality. On top of that, he was warm, kind and the rock of their family. Then came Garrett and Becca, twins who were so different and so alike. Both were brilliant attorneys and fearless. The only time Jessa had seen Becca vulnerable was when she saw a look between her and Aidan. Aidan seemed to be the only person who got behind Becca’s guard. Next came Sawyer who’d followed Gage’s footsteps into the Navy SEAL’s and was now traveling the world on one classified mission after another.

Then, there was Jessa. She’d always been a step out of tune. She’d done perfectly fine in school, but she’d chafed at the structure. Once she got to college, she found her calling in painting classes. Even though she loved designing and painting furniture, she always felt like she should have tried to make herself conform to something more traditional. A stint as a paralegal and then in banking had made her miserable. It didn’t help that she tended to barely scrape by even when she had good months. In the last few weeks, she’d spent hours and hours beating herself up for not having some kind of long term plan. An apartment fire started by the neighbor down the hall who fell asleep with a lit cigarette had burned up her life and illuminated just how flimsy its foundation was. Broke with nothing to fall back on, Jessa couldn’t bring herself to move back in with her parents, so she’d called her brothers and spent what little money she had left on the gas to get herself here. A knock on Delia’s office door broke through Jessa’s train of thought.

“Yes?” Delia called out.

The door opened and Garrett stepped through. Jessa forgot how depressed she was about the shambles of her life and leapt up. “Garrett!”

He caught her in a swift hug before stepping back. “Hey sis. Gage told me you got in late yesterday afternoon. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it for dinner last night. We had to go to Nick’s school concert. I thought about asking if you wanted to come, but I figured after a drive like that, you probably weren’t up for a school concert. They’re a special kind of music and you never know what to expect,” Garrett said with a grin.

“It might have been fun, but I was exhausted. What’re you up to today?”

“Breakfast with you.” He looked past her to Delia who stood up from the couch. “You have time to join us for a bit?”

Delia glanced at her watch quickly. “Enough time for a coffee. I’ll meet you two out there in a few minutes. I have to check on the soufflé I left in the oven.”

Jessa followed Garrett through the kitchen out into the lodge’s restaurant while Delia veered over to the massive baking oven on the back wall in the kitchen. Once Garrett pushed through the swinging door into the restaurant, he immediately sat down in a booth in the closest corner.

Jessa looked around and saw the cluster of customers waiting in the reception area. “Shouldn’t we wait?” she asked, gesturing in that direction.

“Nope. Gage and Marley keep this booth for family. Don’t go feeling bad about it. Look around. This is the only booth that doesn’t have the nice new leather upholstery. It’s also way back here in the corner and doesn’t have the view like most of the tables do.”

Jessa scanned the room and saw he was correct, not that she doubted it. She sat down across from him. When she looked over at his sharp blue eyes and his ever-present half-grin, the knot of tension inside eased a little more. Even if she often felt like the oddball of her family, she loved her siblings and felt more comfortable with them than anyone in the world.

“So, how was the drive?” Garrett asked.

“Long and beautiful. You and Delia should take a trip sometime with Nick on the Alcan. I bet he’d have a blast.”

“Oh, I’m sure he would. Maybe someday we will.” Garrett scanned her face and looked down at her bandaged hand, his eyes narrowing at that. “You said you didn’t get hurt in the fire,” he said, his words brusque.

Jessa felt a flash of frustration. Having three protective older brothers was sometimes annoying. She shoved the feelings away because she knew Garrett was only asking because he cared. “It’s nothing to worry about. I burned my hand when I was trying to get out. It’s almost healed up.”

Garrett didn’t look convinced, but he let it drop, unfortunately moving on to a more uncomfortable topic. “What’s your plan now?”

Jessa shrugged. “I dunno. I lost everything in the fire. I’m not sure what to do now. I figured it was the perfect time to come to Alaska. Isn’t this the place people go when they need a fresh start and to get back in touch with, well, life or something?”

Garrett smiled, a hint of rue in his eyes. “Maybe. I suppose that’s what I did and it turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.”

At that moment, the swinging door opened from the kitchen and Delia came through. She held a tray with three large mugs on it. She quickly set the tray in the center of the table and slipped into the booth beside Garrett. “Fresh coffee from my amazing new espresso machine!” she announced as she handed a mug to Jessa and then Garrett.

Garrett dipped his head and dropped a kiss on the side of Delia’s neck. “I was just telling Jessa coming to Alaska last year was the best decision I ever made. Actually, that’s not right. It wasn’t Alaska, it was you.”

Delia’s cheeks flushed. She kept her eyes on Jessa. “Try the coffee. Let me know what you think. I wasn’t sure what your preference was, so I made a triple shot Americano. Seems like everyone in your family likes their coffee strong and dark.”

Garrett lifted his mug and took a long swallow, leaning his head back with a sigh. “It’s perfect.” His eyes caught Jessa’s again. “She even makes the best coffee.”

Jessa giggled, enjoying how relaxed and easygoing Garrett was with Delia. She took a sip of her own coffee. “Oh, this is amazing! You guessed right by the way. I like my coffee dark and strong.”

Delia laughed softly. “Good to know. So what’s on the schedule for today?” she asked generally.

Seeing as Jessa had absolutely no plans whatsoever, she was relieved when Garrett immediately answered.

“After breakfast, I’m headed to the office. I’ve got some work to do on that zoning case.”

Delia nodded and started to reply when her name was called from the front of the restaurant. “I’d better go. Harry’s up to his ears out front since our breakfast hostess called out sick. Natalie apparently got a fishhook caught in the back of her head yesterday. She said they had to shave her hair to stitch it up. She doesn’t know when she can work again.” Delia shook her head and sighed. “My guess is she won’t be in for weeks. Natalie likes to look good, and her partial buzz cut probably won’t meet her standards. That means I’ve got to figure out how to cover her shifts.”

Garrett rolled his eyes. “It’s not like you have to hold her job for her forever.”

Delia’s eyes widened. “If I let her go over this, no one would want to work here. Diamond Creek’s not much bigger than a thimble. Everyone would know and I’d look like a bitch.”

“I can help,” Jessa said, suddenly energized at the idea of being useful somehow.

Delia and Garrett looked to her in unison. Delia’s eyes immediately glanced down at Jessa’s bandaged hand. “I don’t know if…”

“My hand is fine! I just have to be a little careful. I waited tables all through college. If the hostess part is mostly seating customers and helping out to fill waters and coffees, I can do that with one hand. In another week or so, I could even help waiting tables. Please let me help.”

Delia took a sip of coffee, her eyes considering, before she nodded. “Okay, but not today. I’ll check with Harry about Natalie’s schedule and you can start covering her next shift. This way, I can do a run through with you later tonight.” A slow grin spread across her face. “This is awesome!”

Jessa felt a little buddle of joy inside and returned Delia’s grin. She liked to help and was craving something to help her feel grounded and useful again. Helping Delia when she needed it gave her a little boost inside and right now, she could use every boost she could get.

Delia slipped out of the booth. “Okay, make sure to help yourself to the buffet. We have some amazing smoked salmon to go with the bagels and cream cheese.”

Garrett caught her hand as she started to turn away. He leaned over and dropped a kiss on the inside of her wrist. “See you tonight.”

After Delia rushed off, Garrett looked across to Jessa. “Well, you’ll be busy if that’s what you were hoping.”

“I love being busy. Maybe I wasn’t sure what I planned to do when I got here, but I don’t want to just sit around.”

Garrett grinned. “No worries there. This place is hopping all day up through about midnight. Just promise me you’ll take it easy on your hand if you need to.”