Authors: Kara Braden
And then, there was the snow.
Snow in the part of Virginia where he'd grown up was a rare occurrence. An inch of snow could shut down the whole DC metro area. Snow here was thick and steady and blindingly white even with the heavy cloud cover that turned day into dusk. Ian shivered as he watched it build up on the windscreen; the chill outside would be knife-sharp and biting. Uncomfortably, he recalled family vacations in Europe, back when he and Preston had a proper family, before they'd all gone their separate ways. He thought of fires and warm blankets and playing chess with Preston and their younger sister, Amelia.
Cecily stopped the plane and waved at a man walking toward them through the snow. He was obviously insane, wearing a parka zipped only halfway up, hood down, with a radio microphone clipped to the front pocket. Snow dusted his graying brown hair and beard. Like Cecily, he wore sunglasses, and he was carrying two paper cups in his gloved hands.
“You need to get out, stretch your legs?” she asked as she turned off the plane's engine.
Ian almost said yes, because he felt as though he'd been trapped in a coffin, but he wasn't certain his back would stand the strain of climbing out of the plane and back inside. “Thank you, but no.”
“Suit yourself.” Cecily exited the aircraft in a blast of cold air as the man walked up to her door. “Mark, Ian. Ian, Mark.”
“Welcome to Pinelake,” Mark said, reaching across Cecily's seat to offer Ian the other paper cup.
“Thanks,” he said gratefully, taking it. With a nod, Mark closed the door, though the icy air lingered.
Ian sipped and found the cup held vile-tasting coffee laced with artificial creamer, but it was still hot, and right now he'd drink diesel fuel if it would help him warm up. Even his spine felt cold.
Eight interminable minutes passed while Cecily and Mark stood outside, refueling the plane. Ian had finished the coffee by the time Cecily got back into the pilot's seat and started the engine. Cold air blasted through the vents. The cabin began to warm up too slowly for Ian's liking.
“You all right?” she asked as she started her instrument check.
“Fine,” he lied. The plane jolted forward, making Ian flinch from the pain that shot through his back, though he turned away from Cecily to hide his wince.
Once she'd steered the plane around the other parked aircraft to the end of the runway, she keyed her mic and asked for permission to take off. Ian didn't hear the response, but a moment later, the plane accelerated toward the not-so-distant trees. At what felt like the last moment, the plane slowly swept up into the sky.
“We're almost home,” she said, sounding relieved.
He glanced at her, noting the way her posture had relaxed. The tight lines at the corners of her mouth had all but disappeared, and he revised his estimate of her age downward by five years. Her sudden ease was curious, though. She'd been self-confident and comfortable dealing with the baggage handler at Little Prairie and with Mark, but she had apparently maintained a level of tension. Defensiveness. Was she relaxed at the thought of going home, as most people would be, or was it something else?
Whatever the answer, Ian would probably have it figured out soon enough. More than his skills at logic and rhetoric, his ability to read people made him a top-notch criminal defense attorney. At first glance, he might've thought Cecily Knight to be a recluse, but his instincts told him there was more to her than a desire to live a simple life in isolation. And given the crushing boredom that probably awaited him at their final destination, he was glad to have a mystery to solveâespecially one so attractive.
Cecily's property had been in the family for generations, a remnant of an old mineral claim her great-grandfather had staked. At various times, it had been used for gold panning, hunting, and fishing, but it hadn't actually been developed until her father had retired from his medical practice just after she'd enlisted in the Marine Corps. He'd built a small dock for the shallow motorboat he used to take upriver from Pinelake and had cleared land for a cabin he'd never managed to build.
When she'd moved to Pinelake, she'd gotten rid of the boat and demolished the dock. She'd let the cleared land go wild and instead hired an architect and building crew to construct her small cabin on higher ground set far back in the trees. She'd also had them clear land for a short dirt airstrip and a shed that served as a hangar and garage.
The cabin itself had four habitable rooms, a small attic, and a basement that allowed access to the pipes for repairs. It was built of tightly chinked logs, double-pane windows, and a sturdy stone roof meant to withstand the weight of thick, wet snow. Her team of hired engineers had designed a redundant system for power and heating: a bank of batteries charged by diesel and propane generator systems. The fuel tanks for the generator and the propane heating system were safely stored in a shed well away from the house.
“City boy, aren't you?” she asked sympathetically. Her first couple of years out here, the snow had intimidated her. Winter had been absolutely terrifying, in fact, but she'd survivedâthrived, even.
Huddled in his chic wool overcoat, gloved hands tucked under his arms, Ian let out a breath that showed faintly despite the best efforts of the plane's heater. “You could say that,” he muttered.
She nodded her understanding and taxied the plane as close to the house as she could get. Preston had said his brother had been injured. He seemed fine now, except for a little stiffness to his gait, but there was no sense in risking a fall. Dress shoes didn't mix with snow.
“Go on in,” she said as she engaged the wheel brakes. “I'll carry your stuff.”
He looked at her directly, catching her gaze for a long, silent moment. In the twilight, his glasses had finally gone completely transparent, and she saw his eyes were the silver-blue of the bright winter sky at midday. She regretted putting her own sunglasses up on top of her head, feeling exposed under his sharp gaze.
“Thank you,” he said and fumbled with his safety harness. His fingers were clumsy beneath his gloves.
Sympathetic, she reached over, pressed the catch, and then tugged the straps to retract them. He nodded in thanks and let himself out into the cold, shivering. “Go on in,” she told him and looked back at the clothes that had shifted during flight. She'd need to get a bag for them, so she hopped out and went around the plane, grinning to herself. At least he hadn't put up a fuss about losing his suitcase back at Little Prairie.
Despite her invitation to get inside out of the cold, he was waiting for her on the back porch. She gave him a curious look and pushed the kitchen door open, gesturing him inside.
“You don't lock your door?”
“A polite visitor will knock. Anyone else would just break a window if they couldn't get in through a door. Do you know what a bitch it is to get new windows out here?” Cecily answered, not mentioning that she welcomed anyone to try, as long as she was home. And if she wasn't home, she really didn't care. Her few valuables were in the bedroom safe, and it would take explosives to open it without the proper combination.
The door led into the kitchen and dining area that filled the back part of the cabin. A tiny table, currently with just one chair, sat by the back door. To the left was a small, well-appointed kitchen. Beyond the pantry, a door led to the bathroom, which also let out into the bedroom in the front corner of the cabin. A living room filled the rest of the front half of the cabin.
Taking pity on her guest, Cecily stomped her feet to clear off the snow and then went right to the potbellied stove. She stripped off her gloves, pocketed them, and then knelt down to build up the fire. She'd banked it before leaving.
“Where's the light?”
“Oh. Sorry,” she apologized, getting to her feet to retrieve the oil lantern hanging on a hook over the sink. She lit the wick and put the lamp on the kitchen table where Ian sat, watching her.
“Don't you have electricity?” he asked, sounding worried.
“I do. I try to minimize using fuel to run the generators,” she explained as she went back to the fire. The stove was more efficient, putting out almost enough heat to fill the whole cabin. She'd had the architect put fireplaces in the bedroom and living room, though. Even after all these years of living out here, she loved curling up under blankets in front of a crackling fire.
“If you don't mind my asking, why are you doing this?”
“Which âthis'?” she asked, coaxing the fire in the stove to life.
She heard the scrape of the glass oil lamp on the table. “Allowing me to stay here. You're not one of Preston's soldiers.”
She froze, swallowing against the lump that lodged in her throat. She wasn't
soldier anymore. “No. I'm not.”
Ian made a thoughtful, quiet sound, accepting her nonanswer without question. Instead, he asked, “What's there to do around here?”
She shrugged and rose, closing the stove door. “Whatever you want.” She went to the back door and picked up her empty frame pack. “Do you fish?”
She snorted. “Why
you here then?” she asked, shouldering the pack.
“What did Preston tell you?” he countered.
The evasive answer made her turn to study his face. He was even more attractive in the soft lamplight than he'd been in direct sunlight, but there was something stiff and defensive in his expression.
When Preston Fairchild had called her two days earlier, he'd tried to elaborate about the reasons behind the favor he needed from her. He'd said his brother had been in an accident and needed to get away after a series of back surgeries had led to a problem with painkillers. The whole thing felt like an invasion of this unknown brother's privacy, so she'd interrupted to ask if the brother was a security risk. When Preston assured her that he wasn't, she'd agreed to let him stay and cut the conversation short.
“It doesn't really matter, does it?” she asked. “You're a grown man. Stay as long as you want, and do whatever you'd like.”
Ian went very quiet and still, and the controlled mask slipped, revealing a vulnerable expression of surprise that made her wonder if she'd said the wrong thing. “My brother must be a very good friend of yours,” he finally said.
Cecily thought about the desert, about a man who was smart enough to follow an impossible trail of clues and determined enough to risk everything rescuing soldiers who weren't even his own. She remembered the pain and blood and screams. Her men. Her enemies. Herself.
“You can put on a kettle of water if you want something hot to drink,” she said, rather than answering. She went to the back door and pushed it open. Cold air gusted inside. “I'll get your stuff.”
Intrigued, Ian folded his arms and watched her leave. Already, his mind was cataloging everything he'd picked up about her, analyzing and assessing. What kind of person carried a handgun but left the house unlocked? If she hadn't been a part of Samaritan International Security, then she must have been militaryâAmerican military rather than Canadian, judging by her Midwestern accent. But what branch? How had she met Preston? Had she been stationed in a war zone?
And for the love of God, why did she live like this?
He got up, feeling the strain in his back. The chill had settled into his bones, knotting up his muscles even more tightly than the successive plane trips had done. A hot drink would help, so he picked up the heavy iron kettle and brought it to the sink. He turned on the tap and was relieved when water flowed without him having to turn on a pump somewhere.
Despite the primitive surroundings, the kitchen was actually beautiful and neat and well-crafted, with loving attention to quality showing in every detail. In one corner of the kitchen, there was a trapdoor in the ceiling, with a long rope handle to pull it open. There were three doors that led to a pantry, a small bathroom, and a narrow set of stairs down into a dark cellar.
Curious about the rest of the cabin that was to be his home for the next few months, he picked up the oil lamp and walked through a river stone archway into the living room. The walls were lined with bookshelves packed with chewed-up old paperbacks. There was a single sofaâa wood frame with thick, dark brown cushions on the seat and backâand a matching rustic coffee table. A battered old desk was pushed up against the front window, with a secretary's chair wheeled up in front of it. Instead of a computer, it held an old-fashioned manual typewriter between two stacks of paper.
The fireplace here was also river stone, a massive construction with an empty slate mantel where there should have been photos or keepsakes. Frowning, he looked around and realized the entire room lacked any sort of personal touch. No photographs, no paintings, no mementos. There wasn't even a deer's head or a rifle on the wall.
The woodstove in the kitchen put out a surprising amount of heat, already driving off the chill. He felt comfortable enough to take off his overcoat, which he hung on a hook by the front door, next to an intimidatingly thick parka with a fur-edged hood. He tucked his gloves into the pocket of his coat. They were thin leather, not even insulated. If he did stay, he'd need warmer clothing.
The back door banged open, bringing with it a blast of icy air. Shivering, Ian carried the oil lamp back into the kitchen. Cecily set down the frame pack and disappeared out into the gloom once more without a word. He switched the lantern to his left hand, picked up the pack with his right, and grunted in surprise at the weight. Stubbornly, he shouldered the pack and carried it into the living room; then he stopped, mentally putting together a floor plan of the cabin.
There was only one more door he hadn't explored. He nudged it open with his foot and saw a bedroomâ
bedroom, perhaps, since there didn't seem to be any empty space left in the cabin. A large bed filled the room, with a fireplace off to one side. A dresser and massive gun safe took up one wall, with a closet built in the corner to the left. When he checked the door beyond the closet, he found it let into the tiny bathroom that connected to the kitchen.