An excerpt of The StrangerBy Anna del Mar
Trouble welcomed me to Alaska. It ambushed me in the guise of an invisible patch of black ice that launched my car spinning into a triple Lutz. I pumped my brakes. Nothing. My rental careened over the ditch and bounced down the steep ravine. The rocks pummeling the undercarriage rattled my brain. I was distantly aware that the shriek piercing my eardrums came from my throat. My headlights illuminated the spruce that materialized before me, down to the huge, corrugated trunk that collided with the hood, bringing my involuntary detour to a jarring stop.
Silence. Only the sound of my ragged breath and my pulse, pounding in my temples, interrupted the atmospheric quiet. I pried my fingers from the wheel and stared at my shaking hands. They flickered in and out of focus until I managed to even out my breaths.
The good news? I was alive and, although the wreck had probably relocated some of my internal organs, nothing seemed broken. The bad news? The air bag hadn't gone off and pain throbbed in my thigh and somewhere behind my ear. Crap. I'd come to Alaska to find my wayward sister, but my search had hit a major snag. Time to figure out how bad of a snag it was.
My hand was still quaking as I reached into my purse and found my cell. Zero bars. I groaned. What was the point of technology if it never worked when you needed it most? I snatched my purse and pulled on the door handle. The door refused to open. I scooted across to the other seat and opened the passenger side door, grateful to crawl out in one piece.
The cold hit me like a slap to the face. My nostrils flared and my lungs ached with the arctic wallop. To a tropical gal like me, the air smelled as though someone had stuffed a live Christmas tree in the freezer. Delicate snowflakes floated in the air like tiny speckles of silver. This was the first time I'd seen snow in real life. It was pretty, kind of magical really, but the cold crawled under my skin, stiffened my muscles and clung to my bones. I pulled my hood over my head. Had it been this cold when my plane landed in Anchorage?
My wrecked rental was wedged between the slope and the spruce like a deflated accordion. I had no prayer of backing it up the hill. I tackled the ravine, scrambling on all fours, and followed the wheel ruts up the slippery incline. It wasn't easy. I wore a narrow pencil skirt under my Burberry trench coat, and a pair of four-inch heels I now wished I'd never bought.
It served me right for allowing my stepmother to choose my outfit for the Darius project presentation. Louise was a sucker for shoes—the taller, the better. Note to self: never again relinquish your feet to someone else's sense of fashion when it's you—and you alone—who has to suffer the resulting torture.
I'm not sure how long it took me to climb back to the road, but by the time I reached the top, my toes had gone numb, my hands ached and my fingertips had turned white. The road I'd been driving on looked totally benign, not like the camouflaged skating rink that had hurled my vehicle into the ravine.
I clapped my hands together to warm them up. The sound echoed for miles around me. Stuck in the Alaskan wilderness. Unreal. It was an unlikely predicament for a gal who'd much rather be at the beach. Shark attack? Sure, it wouldn't surprise me if that ended up being part of my obituary. But frozen alive? Only if it involved a freak accident in Publix's frozen food section.
"Summer Silva, get your act together," I said out loud to break the eerie silence. My father hadn't clung to a capsized raft for three days in the Florida Straits in order for me to die on my first day in Alaska.
I straightened my coat, shoved my hands into my pockets, and began to walk. A layer of slush-covered ice crackled beneath my heels. Crap. My feet slid every which way and my legs wobbled. Steady , Silva . I could handle the unwieldy shoes...on firm, unfrozen ground. The only ice I'd ever dealt with came out in little cubes from the automated dispenser in the freezer door.
Five minutes later, the cold skewered me and not a single car had made an appearance. I leaned into the bitter wind. I wasn't made of sugar and spice. I was tough, and I meant to get out of this one, but I was majorly pissed. I was so going to give Tammy a piece of my mind when I found her.
I envisioned my sister lying on a white pelt in front of a roaring fireplace. I mouthed off into the deepening darkness. I was the levelheaded one. I was the one who always followed the rules, cleaned up the messes, did the responsible thing. And yet, right now, I was the one freezing my ass off on a desolate Alaskan road.
The headlights caught me by surprise. They sprang out from behind the curve and pierced the dusk. I waved my hands to flag down the speeding vehicle. As it got closer, I made out a Ford F-450 Super Duty, black as night, the type that would've made my truck-obsessed sister drool with envy. The truck drove right by me before the taillights lit up and it skidded to a stop, then accelerated in reverse.
The window whirred down to reveal the warmth and comfort of the softly illuminated cab. The leather-scented, heated air wafted from the window and teased my frozen senses. A man sat at the wheel, enveloped in a black thermal jacket that I would've gladly traded a thousand bucks for, on the spot. His face might have been handsome, if it hadn't been distorted by the scowl that wilted my poor attempt at a smile.
He more or less growled. "Who the hell put you up to this?"
"Excuse me?" I clutched my hood against a sudden burst of wind.
"You better come clean right now," he bit out in a tone that matched the frosty temperature. "A name. I want to know who the hell hired you and what you were expected to do."
"Don't play dumb with me." He eyed me like a wolf eyed a meal. "Who was it? Was it someone related to me? I swear, if you don't tell me this goddamn minute, you're going to be sorry."
I stared at the man in the cab, unable to comprehend his rage. What on earth was he talking about? The fury blazing in his striking amber eyes frightened me. As it was, I was so cold I couldn't think, let alone make sense of what he was saying. I rubbed the sore spot behind my ear. Maybe I'd hit my head harder than I thought. Maybe this was a dream or a nightmare. Oh, God. My stomach clenched. I really hoped I was awake. I shoved my hand up my sleeve and pinched my arm. It hurt. In fact, a lot of me was either throbbing or aching. A good sign, yes?
"Well?" he said. "Are you going to speak up or are you dumb, deaf, and mute?"
"Um, no." I rubbed my arms. "I usually have a lot to say. It's just that...well...I'm cold and you—I'm really sorry to have to tell you—but you sound like a crazy person."
He launched another blistering glower in my direction. "For the last time," he said, his tone intractable, "who the hell put you up to this?"
"Nobody," I said. "I don't know what you're talking about. My car skidded off the road and I've got no cell reception."
"Your car?" He looked up and down the road. "I don't see a car. Where is it?"
"Back there somewhere." I'm not sure whether my treacherous heels slid on the ice or if fatigue did me in, but my feet went out from under me and, though I clung to the window, I landed on my knees. "Ow," I might have said aloud.
"What the hell?"
I let go of the window and my dignity at the same time. I surrendered to the elements and settled precariously on the frosty ground. The cold iced my shins, traveled up to my core, and chilled my spine. I was about to pass out from exhaustion. I'd been up for over seventy-two hours. On top of that, I was suffering from a bad case of jet lag. If all of that wasn't enough, the wreck had jarred my senses. I wasn't in good shape and I knew it.
But I couldn't allow myself to go unconscious. No, sir, no way in hell. I knew the risks of passing out in front of a stranger too well. I just needed a moment to gather my strength, defrost myself and get my act together. I leaned my forehead on the door and, basking in the warmth radiating from the undercarriage, forced myself to stay alert. Surely, I could get some help, the crazy man would go on his merry way, and I could move on to finish what I'd come to do.
The engine quit. The truck quaked with the slam of a door. Angry steps crunched on the road. A pair of hiking boots parked by my side. I looked up and cringed. The man's scowl pummeled me. From my perspective on the ground, he soared above me, tall and imposing, a giant really. His knees cracked when he crouched next to me.
"Did Alex hire you?" he said. "Alex Erickson?"
"Are you telling me you don't know who Alex Erickson is?"
His breath came out in angry puffs that condensed in the air. "Do you know who I am?"
"No clue," I said. "Am I supposed to know?"
"You tell me." He looked like he was about to spit fire. "If no one put you up to this, then what the hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"Not taking a walk in the park, that's for sure."
My throat made this weird noise, a cross between a sob and a giggle, a sound that combined confusion with hilarity, fear with absurdity. But I wasn't going to cry. No freaking way. I wasn't going to panic either. The part of me that felt utterly ridiculous kneeling on the frozen pavement in the middle of nowhere won out. I pressed my hand over my mouth, but the quiet giggles leaked out anyway.
The man rubbed the back of his neck and frowned, a dip of full eyebrows that screamed vexation. "Do you think this is funny?"
"Funny?" I couldn't stop giggling. "No, not funny, more like hilarious."
"Jesus Christ." He raked his fingers through his longish hair, leaving a bunch of straight, flaxen strands in disarray. He didn't know what to make of me, but he sure knew how to scowl.
The shivering, combined with his radioactive glower, stifled my giggle attack. I forced myself to pay attention. Determination whetted the man's features and set the line of his jaw into a straight angle. A shade of stubble covered the lower half of his face, imbuing him with a golden glow that echoed the gleam in his eye, but there was nothing soft in his stare, not a hint of humor or friendliness.
At least he looked clean and groomed, unlike the rugged, hygiene-challenged bunch I'd met in the back-to-back episodes of Alaska's Bush Men I'd binge-watched on the plane. Alaska had never been on my long list of places I wanted to visit, and after watching the show, I'd questioned my sister's sanity along with that of people who lived away from even the most basic human comforts. Now I wondered about this surly stranger too, the first off-the-grid Alaskan I'd met.
"Is your cell working?" I said. "Could you please call the police?"
"There's no reception on this stretch of road." The copper-hued eyes probed my face. "If you really need help, I'm all you've got."
Great. Just great. The world whirled around me. I steadied myself against the truck. Three days ago, I'd been in the middle of the most important presentation of my professional life when Louise had called to tell me about my stepsister, Tammy. I'd already been short of sleep and high on stress, but since then, I'd been on the go, trying to get to Alaska.
The earth beneath my knees shifted again. I tightened my grip on the truck and took a deep breath. I wasn't one to fall apart so easily. To bad weather , a brave face , my father used to say, quoting an old Spanish proverb. I might be out of my comfort zone, but I hadn't given up on my pride just yet. I straightened my coat and, balancing carefully on one knee, planted one foot first, then the other. I rose slowly from the iffy crouch.
"Oops!" My heels skidded in opposite directions. I fell, bounced on my butt, and ended up sprawled on the ground all over again, rear smarting from the impact. I cursed under my breath.
"Dammit." The man hooked his hands under my arms, lifted me up, and set me upright. "There. Do you think you can stand on your own?"
"Maybe," I mumbled, rubbing my ass. My legs buckled, but I steadied myself on the truck and willed my feet to stick to the ground.
"You're shivering." He opened the car door. "Get in."
"No, thank you." Even if I was freezing, there were rules about cars and strangers. "Can you please call for Roadside Assistance?"
The man actually scoffed. "No reception, remember?" He eyed me impatiently. "Lady, you do know that there's a storm barreling down on south central Alaska, right?"
"The clerk at the airport did mention that."
"But did he mention that anytime now, a Bering Sea superstorm is expected to bring blizzard conditions with winds in excess of sixty miles an hour?"
"Yeah, no." I swallowed a dry gulp. "He didn't put it quite as bad as that."
"It's going to get a hell of a lot colder," the man said. "Emergency services went on lockdown about fifteen minutes ago."
Fabulous, just fabulous.
"What I'm trying to tell you," he explained in a strained tone obviously intended for the dimwits among us, "is that—assuming you're not a trap—I'm your only option at the moment. So get in the damn truck, before you freeze your ass off."
Dressed in his black jacket and blue jeans, glinting with all that gold in his eyes and hair, he looked perfectly normal. Minus the scowl, he might have even been good looking. But his bad temper and my flash-frozen brain made for a bad combination. Plus, there was a good chance he was more than paranoid and grouchy. Maybe he was off the grid in more ways than one.
"Look," he said. "I've had a long day and I'm in a shitty mood."
I rolled my eyes. "No kidding."
"I wasn't expecting this. You. Whatever."
I perched my fist on my hip. "Do you think I was expecting you?"
"Just get in, okay?" He gestured to the cab. "I want to get indoors before the storm hits."
"Oh, I don't know." I considered both, the brawny guy and his burly truck. "Where I come from, hitchhiking is dangerous."
"Too bad," he said. "In Alaska hitchhiking is a common form of transportation."
"As far as I know, you could be a serial killer."
"So could you." He held the door open for me. "And my risk is higher than yours since, according to the Discovery Channel, female serial killers have been proven to be more dangerous than male serial killers."
I'd either met my match or found the only other person in the world who watched as much Discovery Channel as I did.
"Get the hell in," he said impatiently. "We're running out of time."
The weather was getting colder. The wind had picked up and the snow fell in bigger, wetter chunks. I was shivering violently, but still, I hesitated.
"Can you please take me to the nearest gas station or hotel?" I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering.
"The nearest gas station is sixty-five miles that way." He stuck out his thumb and pointed behind him. "The nearest motel is seventy-eight miles in the opposite direction. There's no time to get there. My cabin is close by and I have the full intention of being there by the time the storm hits in..." he paused to look at his watch, "...anytime now."
The mention of the word "cabin" did nothing to appease my fears. I'd seen plenty of "cabins" in my reality show marathon. I didn't want to spend a moment—let alone hours—chewing on squirrel parts in a rustic shelter without heat, electricity, or plumbing, especially in the company of a pissed-off guy whose actions so far put the strange in stranger.
"What is it going to be?" he said. "I'm willing to play the female killer odds if you decide you don't want to turn into an icicle. It's your choice, but I'm hauling ass right now."
What's the use of choices when one has none?
I said a little prayer, shuffled on the ice and, balancing carefully on my unwieldy heels, climbed into the front seat. He helped me up, shut the door, and walked around the truck. My head began to hurt, pangs of pain stabbing behind my eyes. Not good.
The man climbed in next to me in the cab. "Strap in."
He switched on the ignition, pressed on the pedal and accelerated down the icy track as if truck skating was an X Games signature event and he was going for the gold. My knuckles tightened around the door handle. I bit down on my lips, but the backseat driver in me was out of control. Whether he was a serial killer or not was irrelevant. We were both going to die today.
He glanced in my direction. "You got a name?"
"Yes." I pressed my frozen fingertips against the heating vent, reveling in the blessed heat.
"Well?" he said in that demanding tone of his.
I stared at him, mystified by his persistent state of grouchiness. "Well what?"
"Are you going to tell me what your name is or what?"
"Oh." I was close to frozen stupid. "My name is Summer, Summer Silva."
"Summer in Alaska?" He stared at me for an instant, then burst out into quiet laughter. "You're a little late. Summer arrived in Alaska just in time to meet winter."
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I hadn't slept in a while, but yeah, no. He wasn't going to laugh at my expense. I narrowed my eyes on him.
"That's quite the glare." He suppressed another round of laughter. "I didn't mean to be rude."
"Well, you are rude, a lot rude in fact, accusing me of God knows what and acting like a total jerk."
"Sorry," he said. "It's just that... Summer in Alaska." His lips twitched. "You've got to admit. It's pretty damn good."
"Are you drunk?" I said. "Because if you are, maybe I should be doing the driving. I imagine they've got laws in Alaska, including some about drinking and driving?"
"You're turning out to be a piece of work," he said, smirking. "Bossy too, for someone riding in my goddamn truck. Here I am, doing you a favor, not letting you freeze off your pretty little stuck-up ass and yet you're being a smartass and giving me attitude."
"Are you for real?" He had a lot of nerve calling me a smartass. "You're not exactly attitude free yourself."
"And yes," he added, ignoring my comment, "we do have some laws here in Alaska, although not nearly as many as they've got in the lower forty-eight. As to your question, nope, I'm not drunk, haven't had a drop all day. Should've, but didn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean that if there was ever a good day for drinking, today was it." He stomped on the clutch and shifted gears. "But no, unfortunately, I'm not drunk. That and the shitty day probably explain why you're getting a double dose of sarcasm."
"Sorry about your shitty day," I said. "But you need to mellow out. Do you always go around trying to bully people into doing whatever you want?"
"Pretty much." He flashed what could've been a semi-contrite glance in my direction. "Look, I apologize for my lack of manners." He offered his hand. "My name is Seth, Seth Erickson."
I shook his hand, mostly because, sarcasm aside, he was making an effort to be civil. Plus, he was a fellow Discovery Channel watcher. His hold was firm, hot, and supremely comforting to my fingers. My entire body wanted to shrink into his grip if only to bask in his radiant heat. My fingertips tripped against the unusual texture at the bottom of his hand. I spotted a patch of mangled skin scarring his palm, crawling up his wrist and disappearing into his sleeve. He caught me looking and covered most of the scar with a self-conscious tug of his sleeve.
"You've got some icy fingers there." He tapped on the console's screen and punched up the temperature of my heated seat. "Tuck them under your thigh. Trust me. It's the quickest way to warm up those puppies."
He was right. Trapped between the heat of my body and the seat, my fingers began to thaw.
"Where the hell are you from?" he asked. "Miami."
"Ah." He smirked. "That explains it."
"Your inability to cope with ice. And the outfit."
I looked down at myself. "What's wrong with my outfit?"
"No gloves, hat, boots, or a proper coat," he said. "When I first saw you I thought you were either crazy or—well—you know."
"No, I don't know."
"I thought maybe you were a plant, someone looking for attention, or more specifically, my attention."
I stared at him for a full thirty seconds, unable to figure out what he meant. "What are you talking about?"
"Nobody in their right mind out here wears skirts and high heels on the roads, except the occasional call girl, playing a pre-ordered role or meeting a very specific customer..."
"Oh no you didn't." What was wrong with this man? "You thought I was a whore?"
"I couldn't see beneath the coat..."
"Are you like...freaking insane?"
He cleared his throat. "It was probably the heels that gave me the wrong impression..."
"You're out of your mind, you know that?" I snapped. "First you think your family is out to get you. Then you think I'm...what? A prostitute? Which implies that you think someone in your family was going to set you up with a...Jesus!" I rubbed my temples, wishing that I'd never come to Alaska and also that I'd ditched those damn shoes. "I really want to go home."
"Don't get upset." His eyes betrayed a hint of concern. "I would've bought the look if I'd seen you down in, say, Ketchikan getting down from one of them fancy cruises. For future reference, Alaska 101: dress warm, keep dry, stay warm. That coat might look fine for a fall afternoon on Fifth Avenue, but in Alaska? It'll kill you faster than a dip in the Bering Sea."
Great. Advice from Mr. Sunshine himself. His condescending tone annoyed the hell out of me. "Okay, fine, maybe I'm not properly dressed for the weather, but that's only because I had no time to plan for this trip. I'm not as stupid as you're making me out to be."
"No offense," he said, "but all the tourists are gone. What the hell is someone like you doing all the way out here at the end of September?"
"It's kind of a long story."
"I don't know why," he muttered, "but I'm itching to hear it."
"If you must know," I said, "my sister ran away with a guy she met on the internet. He's from Alaska and I came to find her."
He flashed me a skeptical look. "Is your sister stupid?"
"No," I said, but at times like these, I wondered. "Tammy is just...impulsive."
"Has she done stuff like this before?"
"Well, yeah, but it's not really her fault."
"What do you mean it's not her fault?"
"She struggles with bipolar disorder."
"Hey, lady, Summer—right?" he said. "There's no excuse for stupidity. I've met people with all kinds of injuries and disorders who know better than to run away with a stranger they met on the internet."
"I know, but Tammy is..."
My cell rang to the tune of chirping birds. Reception. I had reception! I groped through my purse until I found the phone.
"You might get a minute or two if you're lucky," Seth cautioned. "After that, nothing for a while."
My tepid fingers fumbled over the keypad, accidentally hitting the speaker in the process. "Hello?"
"Did you find Tammy?" Louise's voice blared in her best Brooklyn accent, shrill, loud, and capable of busting an eardrum or two. "Where is she? Is she okay?"
"Calm down." I tried to turn off the speaker but my stiff fingers succeeded only at increasing the volume. "I'm on my way to find her now. There might be an itsy-bitsy delay. The weather is not cooperating, but don't worry, I'll find her."
"Are you locked in a fancy hotel room?" Louise demanded. "You won't find Tammy from behind a bolted door."
"Of course not." Louise could be such a witch when she was anxious. "I promised you I'd find Tammy and I will."
"I sure hope you're not enjoying room service while your sister is gone and I'm here, suffering, imagining all the terrible things she could be going through..."
"Please, don't be a drama queen," I said. "We don't have any evidence to suggest that Tammy is in immediate danger."
"Find your sister!" Louise's voice flickered in and out of range. "Find her! I don't care what you have to do, just do it..."
The phone lost all its bars again and the call dropped. The narrow reception zone had ended. Part of me was grateful for the reprieve. The other part knew I was cut off again. The headache throbbing behind my eye intensified. The sights blurred before me.
"Hey," Seth said. "You okay?"
"Fine." I dropped my cell in my purse and straightened my back, fighting the exhaustion.
"Who was that very loud woman?"
"Is she right in the head?"
"She's just worried about Tammy."
"Something's not adding up here." He rubbed his wide back against the seat like a great big bison scratching against a tree. "Your sister's an idiot. Your stepmother demands that you drop everything and go chase her. Your family? Sounds like a major clusterfuck."
"Look who's talking." I sniffed. "My family may be a little different, but we love each other. We don't hire people to try to set each other up. Sure, we can be loud and a tad dramatic on occasion, but honestly? Your family sounds a million times more screwed up than mine."
His mouth twisted into the sarcastic smirk he favored. "You might have a point there."
"Yeah, you bet I do." I leaned back on the headrest. After a two-day journey, a three-hour drive, and a car wreck, I felt as if someone had taken a bat to me.
"You're looking very sleepy there," he said. "Talk to me. Are you all right?"
"I'll live," I mumbled, rubbing the knot behind my ear.
"Are you hurt?" He turned on the cabin lights and leaned over to inspect my head as he continued to drive. "Is that a bruise behind your ear? Hell, I didn't notice before." The truck swerved in the road. "Did you hit your head when your car went off the road? Are you sure you're all right?"
"Just concentrate on driving straight, please." I inched away from his touch and switched the cabin lights off. "I'm a little tired, that's all. I haven't slept for a few days."
"A few days? That's not good." He groped behind the seat, opened the top of a small cooler and, after grabbing a bottle, handed it over to me. "Here you go."
"No, thanks." I wasn't about add alcohol to my troubles.
"It's not for drinking." He pressed the cold bottle to the side of my head. "It's to keep the swelling down."
"Oh." I took the bottle from him and held it against the lump.
"Hang on tight," he said. "That's a real nice handcrafted lager. I wouldn't want it to go to waste."
"Got it," I said. "Hanging on to the brew over here."
He smiled, a genuine, eye-lightening grin that eased the angles on his face and radiated charm and warmth. Could a guy who smiled like that really be a jerk or a serial killer?
The world around us turned into a white maelstrom. The wind wrestled with the truck. The road became invisible under a new layer of snow. Seth geared down and kept his eyes on the road as we negotiated some hairy turns and the road's deteriorating conditions. In all my twenty-nine years of life, I'd never seen weather like this.
"We're not beating the storm, are we?"
"This is just the beginning." He tilted his head and surveyed the sky. "It's going to get bad soon, thirteen hours of very nasty wind, snow, and ice."
My timing sucked. "And I thought this was bad."
"This is nothing." He slowed down to maneuver over a bridge. "I don't suppose you get blizzards in Miami. But don't worry, we're almost there."
"Goody," I mumbled.
I knew my chances of getting to a hotel tonight were nil, but I needed to keep it together, at least until we got to the cabin. With a little luck, it might be a two-room cabin, with a door and a lock between me and the rest of the place. A door chain would be nice, but I could always improvise.
I eyed the man riding next to me. Maybe under all that hubris, he'd turn out to be a decent human being. After all, he had stopped to help me. I toyed with the idea of giving him a quick rundown of my condition, but my hackles went up. No way. He was a stranger and a guy and maybe even a little off, with all that paranoia. I knew from experience what would happen if I warned him. No need to add premeditation to humiliation.
All of a sudden, my vision narrowed. My thoughts slowed down to a crawl. My body slacked and my eyelids slammed over my eyes like hurricane shutters. I ran out of time and energy at the same moment. Oh, crap. I knew exactly what was happening to me.
"Hey, Summer." Seth's voice came from far away. "We're almost there." He shook me softly. "Wake up. Stick with me, girl."
I had no time to explain. "Make sure you lock the door," I mumbled, before I conked out.