Sergeant’s Christmas Siege
Book 3 of The Alaska Force Series
Danger lurks in the wilds of Grizzly Harbor this Christmas but it’s love that has Alaska Force in the cross-hairs, from the USA Today bestselling author of Sniper’s Pride.
When straight-arrow, by-the-rules Alaska State Trooper Kate Holiday is sent to investigate a local band of secretive commandos in remote Grizzly Harbor over the holidays, her least favorite time of year, her objective is clear: disband Alaska Force and arrest them. But Kate didn’t count on the diabolical temptation of Templeton Cross. The former Army Ranger exudes charm and has absolutely no respect for the rules of law that govern Kate’s life – too bad he also makes her mouth water and her knees weak.
Templeton has always been good at keeping his game face on and his emotions hidden, especially in combat. But working with Kate brings back memories of losses he prefers to keep locked up tight. As the pressure mounts – and Christmas draws closer – it’s a given that someone’s going to get hurt.
Trouble is, the more time he spends convincing his careful, wary trooper that there’s more to the holidays than her memories, the more he wants to keep her around. Forever.
But forever is the one thing a man like Templeton can’t do. Not even at Christmas.
Sergeant’s Christmas Siege
The man she was supposed to meet was late.
Deliberately, she assumed.
Investigator Kate Holiday of the Alaska State Troopers noted the time, then sat straighter in the chair she’d chosen specifically because it faced the door of the only café she’d found open in tiny Grizzly Harbor, one of Southeast Alaska’s rugged fishing villages that was accessible only by personal boat, ferry—which at this time of year ran seldomly—or air.
Another minute passed. Five minutes. Ten.
This was not a particularly auspicious beginning to her investigation into the strange goings-on in and around this remote town, tucked away on one of the thousand or so islands along the state’s southeastern coast. Kate took a dim view of strange goings-on in general, but particularly when they consistently involved a band of ex-military operatives running around and calling themselves “Alaska Force.”
Of all things.
Kate was not impressed with groups of armed, dangerous, unsupervised men in general. Much less with those who gave themselves cute names, seemed to expend entirely too much energy attempting to keep the bulk of their activities off the official radar, and yet kept turning up in the middle of all kinds of trouble. Which they then lied about.
She had been unimpressed the moment she’d read the file that carefully detailed the list of potential transgressions her department at the Alaska Bureau of Investigation believed the members of Alaska Force had committed. But then, Kate had a thing about the men up here, on this island and all over the state, who seemed to think that the law did not apply to them. It was a time-honored part of the Alaskan frontier spirit, and Kate had hated it pretty much all her life.
But this was not the time to think about her unpleasant childhood. What mattered was that Kate had grown up. She had escaped from the armed, dangerous, and unsupervised men who had run roughshod over her early years, helped put them away, and had thereafter dedicated herself to upholding the rule of law in the most defiantly, gleefully lawless place in the United States.
This introductory interview with the supposed public relations point person of Alaska Force was only the opening shot. Kate was unamused that the group—who secreted themselves away on the near-inaccessible back side of the island, and when had anything good come from groups of dangerous men with hideouts?—considered it necessary to have a public relations point person in the first place.
She had every intention of taking them down if they were responsible for the escalating series of disturbances that had culminated in an act of arson two days ago that had amped up her department’s interest in what was happening out here in Grizzly Harbor. Because she had no tolerance whatsoever for people who imagined themselves above the law.
Much less people who thought it was entertaining to blow up fishing boats in the sounds and inlets that made up so much of Southeast Alaska, where summer brought cruise ships filled with tourists. This time there had been no one aboard, likely because it was the first week of a dark December.
But it wouldn’t always be December.
The door to the café opened then, letting in a blast of frigid air from outside, where the temperature hovered at a relatively balmy thirty-three degrees. Or likely less than that now that the gray, moody daylight was eking away into the winter dark and the coming sunset at three fifteen.
Kate glanced up, expecting the usual local in typical winter clothes.
But the man who sauntered in from the cold was more like a mountain.
She sat at attention, unable to help herself, her body responding unconsciously to the authority the man exuded the way other men—and the many deadly wild animals who roamed these islands—threw off scent. And she deeply loathed herself for the silly, embarrassingly feminine part of her that wanted to flutter about, straightening her blue uniform. She refrained.
The man before her was dressed for the cold and the coming dark, which should have made him look bulky and misshapen. But it didn’t, because all of his gear was very clearly tactical. He was big. Very big. She put him at about six four, and that wasn’t taking into account the width of his shoulders or the way he held himself, as if he fully expected anyone looking at him to either cower in fear or applaud. Possibly both.
Kate did neither.
It was December on a steep, rugged island made from the top of a submerged mountain and covered in dense evergreen trees, perched there in the treacherous northern Pacific with glaciers all around. One of the most beautiful, if inhospitable, parts of the world. There were only about 150 or so year-round residents of this particular village and Kate was the only person in the café besides the distinctly unfriendly owner, who had provided her a cup of coffee without comment, then disappeared into the kitchen.
Meaning she was, for all intents and purposes, alone with a man who made her feel as instantly on edge as she would if she’d come face-to-face with a grizzly.
Kate didn’t speak as she eyed the new arrival. She’d joined the Troopers after college, and had been on the job ever since, helping her fellow Alaskans in all parts of this great state. And sometimes providing that help had involved finding herself in all kinds of questionable situations. The man standing before her radiated power, but Kate knew a thing or two about it herself.
She watched, expressionless, as he stuffed his hat and gloves in the arm of his jacket, like a normal person when he wasn’t, then hung it up on one of the hooks near the door. All with what seemed to Kate entirely too much languid indifference for a man who was clearly well aware he was nothing less than a loaded weapon.
He looked around the café, as if he expected to see a crowd on this dreary, cold Friday afternoon in the darkest stretch of the year. Then he finally looked straight at Kate.
For a moment, she felt wildly, bizarrely dizzy. As if the chair she was in had started to spin. She went to sit down, then realized three things, one on top of the next. One, she was already sitting down. Two, the man might have made a big show of looking around, but he’d taken in every single detail about her before he’d fully crossed the threshold. She knew it. She could tell.
And three, the man in front of her wasn’t only big and powerful, and incredibly dangerous if the file on him was even partially correct, he was also beautiful.
Shockingly, astonishingly, absurdly beautiful, in a way that struck her as too masculine, too physical, and too carnal, all at once.
He had thick black hair that didn’t look the least bit military, and that he made no attempt to smooth now he’d pulled his hat off. His eyebrows were arched and distinctly wicked. His eyes were as dark as strong coffee, his mouth was implausibly distracting, and his cheekbones were like weapons. He looked the way Kate imagined a Hawaiian god might.
Which was a fanciful notion that she couldn’t believe she’d just entertained about a person of interest in a recurring series of questionable events.
His gaze was locked to hers, and she wondered if people mistook all that inarguable male beauty for softness, when she could see the gravity in those dark eyes. And a certain sternness in his expression.
But in the next second he smiled, big and wide, and Kate was almost . . . dazzled.
“You must be Alaska State Trooper Kate Holiday,” he said in a booming voice. “Come all the way out to Grizzly Harbor to sniff around Alaska Force. I’m Templeton Cross, at your service.”
And when he moved, his strides were liquid and easy, two steps to cover the distance and extend his hand to Kate as if he was welcoming her to his home like some cheerful, oversized patriarch. As if he wasn’t on the wrong side of an interview with law enforcement.
As if he wasn’t very likely responsible for—or complicit in—a string of hospitalizations, explosions, and other dubious events as far away as Juneau, but mostly concentrated in Grizzly Harbor, going back years. With a noted and concerning uptick over the past year.
But being a trooper wasn’t like other kinds of policing, or so Kate gathered from watching police shows based in the Lower 48. Alaska State Troopers had to get used to roles that defied proper job descriptions, because anything could and would happen in the course of a shift when that shift took place somewhere out in the Last Frontier. Kate knew how to play her part. She stood, smiled nonthreateningly, and took his hand.
And told herself that she was cataloging how hard and big it was, that was all. How it wrapped around hers. How Templeton Cross, whose military record stated he had been an Army Ranger until he’d moved off into something too classified to name, made no attempt to overpower her. He didn’t shake too hard. He didn’t try to crush the bones in her hand, to let her know who was boss. There was no he-man, Neanderthal moment, the way there too often was in situations like these.
He shook her hand like a good man might, and she filed that away because she suspected he wasn’t a good man at all. And a man who could fake it was exponentially more dangerous than one who oozed his evil everywhere like a fuel leak.
She angled her head toward the table she’d claimed, removing her hand from his and waving it in invitation. Because she could act like this was her home, too. No matter that the hand he’d shaken . . . tingled. “Please. Sit down.”
“Right to business,” Templeton said, with a big laugh that jolted through Kate. She told herself it was an unpleasant sensation, especially the way it wound around and around inside her and heated her up from within. “Caradine!”
The unfriendly owner of the café was a woman with a dark ponytail and a scowl, who appeared in the doorway to the kitchen and glared. “I can’t think of a single reason you should yell my name. Not like that. Or at all.”
“Deep down,” Templeton said to Kate, with a conspiratorial grin, “I’m convinced that Caradine is a marshmallow. Just wrapped up in all that barbed wire.”
“No marshmallow. No barbed wire. And no interest whatsoever in being psychologically profiled.”
Caradine came over to the table as she spoke, then plunked down what looked like straight black coffee at the place across from Kate.
“Thank you for opening today,” Templeton drawled, grinning wide, as if this was all a complicated friendship ritual. Which maybe it was, if Caradine had opened the café for this meeting on a day that she likely wouldn’t see much other business, if any. “And you know you love my psychological profiles.”
Caradine did not grin back. “I love nothing, Templeton, except your money.”
Kate couldn’t decide which one of them was putting on a show. Or was this a coordinated performance for her benefit? Yet somehow, as Caradine stomped back toward her kitchen, she didn’t think so. Caradine struck her as a typical sort of resident found all over the wildest, largest state in the union: happy to mind her own business and downright ornery when someone else attempted to mind it for her.
Templeton struck her as a problem.
She smiled at him anyway as he threw himself down into the seat across from her, taking up more than his fair share of space. And his big arms, clad in a tight henley, showed her exactly how seriously he took his physique.
“Do you think this will make you seem more approachable?” she asked.
He belted out another laugh. “Do I seem approachable? I must be slipping.”
And for a moment they both smiled at each other, competing to see who could be more pleasant.
“You must know that I’m here after the rash of incidents that seemed to stem entirely from your little group,” Kate said, folding her hands on the table and watching his face. His expression didn’t change at all. “You’ve chosen to show up for this conversation late, then engage in what I imagine you think is charming small talk. Your military record goes to great lengths not to say what sort of classified things you engaged in after you were a Ranger, but I’m going to guess it was Delta Force.”
“I don’t like that name,” Templeton said, almost helpfully. “It’s so dramatic, don’t you think?”
“Now you’re being funny,” Kate observed. “Which suggests you find yourself entertaining. What interests me, Mr. Cross, is that you think comedy is the appropriate way to handle the situation you find yourself in.”
She knew a lot of things about Templeton Cross. Among them, that he’d achieved the rank of master sergeant—but unlike many people with military backgrounds she’d encountered, he didn’t correct her when she failed to address him by his rank.
“And what situation is that?” he asked instead. “I’m having a cup of coffee with a law enforcement officer. As a former soldier myself, I have nothing but respect for a badge. I didn’t realize there was an expectation that this conversation stay grumpy. But we can do that, too.”
“Fascinating,” Kate murmured, though he wasn’t answering her questions with these evasions and she was certain that was intentional. “Why don’t we start with you explaining Alaska Force to me.”
“Alaska Force isn’t anything but a group of combat vets who run a little business together,” Templeton said genially. “It’s all apple pie and Uncle Sam around here, I promise.”
“Mercenaries, in other words.”
“Not quite mercenaries,” Templeton said, and she thought she saw something in his gaze then, some flash of heat, but it was gone almost as soon as she identified it. “I can’t say I like that word.”
“Is there a better word to describe what you do?”
“We like to consider ourselves problem solvers,” Templeton said, sounding friendly and at his ease. He looked it, too. Yet Kate didn’t believe he was either of those things. “You start throwing around words like mercenary, and people think we’re straight-up soldiers of fortune. Soulless men who whore themselves out to the highest bidder. That’s not us.”
“And yet Alaska Force has, to my count, been involved in no less than six disturbing incidents in the past six months.” Kate replied in the same friendly tone he’d used. She even sat back a little, mirroring his ease and supposed laziness right back at him. “There was a member of your own team, if I’m not mistaken, who presented at the hospital in Juneau with injuries consistent with being beaten over the head and forcibly restrained. He claimed he tripped and fell.”
“Green Berets are notoriously clumsy,” Templeton replied blandly.
“Right around that time, an individual known to be a self-styled doomsday preacher, who Alaska Force interfered with years back—”
“If you mean we made sure he couldn’t hurt the women and children he was terrorizing.”
“—stole a boat and then rendezvoused with your team this past spring. And with you, if I’m not mistaken.” Kate knew she was not mistaken about anything involving this case. She didn’t even have to glance at the notepad in front of her to refresh her memory, though she pretended she did. “This interaction involved a high-speed chase in the middle of the night, followed by an explosion.” Kate nodded toward the front windows, but didn’t take her eyes off Templeton. “You claimed he blew up his own boat a few yards outside this harbor and then jumped in the water. Where you saved him out of the goodness of your heart. His story has always been more complicated.”
“His story changes every hour on the hour.” Templeton’s smile struck her as more edgy than before, his eyes more narrow. “We happened to be in place to contain a potentially far more threatening incident. You’re welcome.”
“Since then, there have been four more incidents involving property damage in and around this island and the surrounding area. Culminating in what happened two nights ago when a boat that shouldn’t have been in the harbor in the first place blew up within sight of the ferry terminal. The anonymous tip that we received suggested Alaska Force was responsible.”
Templeton looked unconcerned. “We’re not.”
“That’s it? That’s the whole defense you intend to mount?”
“I’m not going to waste my time defending something we didn’t do,” Templeton said in that amiable, friendly, excessively mild way that was beginning to grate on Kate’s nerves. “A reasonable person might ask herself why Alaska Force would blow things up right here in our own backyard. If we were the kind of mercenaries you seem to think we are, that would only draw unwanted attention. Like this meeting.”
It was the first hint of anything other than excessive friendliness in his voice. Kate was delighted she was finally getting somewhere.
“You claim you’re not that kind of mercenary,” she said. “So what kind of mercenary are you? The kind who thinks it’s fun to blow things up, maybe? Just because you can?”
“Are you accusing me of something?” Templeton looked and sounded as if he were asking for a menu. Not as if he was facing down an officer of the law and defending himself, whether he wanted to admit that was what he was doing or not.
“Who are the other members of Alaska Force?” Kate asked, instead of answering his question.
Templeton studied her for a moment.
“We tend to be a reclusive bunch,” he said after a moment. “I wouldn’t want to give you any false impressions. What if I told you what a man calls himself only to be accused of making up a name for villainous purposes? That strikes me as a quagmire I’d be better off avoiding.”
Kate smiled. “Isaac Gentry, your leader. Benjamin Hendricks, otherwise known as Blue. Jonas Crow. Rory Lockwood, the former Green Beret who lied about how he got his injuries last spring. Alexander Oswald.”
Templeton laughed. “Who?”
“Otherwise known as Oz.” Templeton blinked, and Kate made a show of looking at her notes as she rattled off the rest of the list of names she’d memorized. Then she lifted her gaze to his again. “Up to and including Alaska Force’s latest and first female hire, Bethan Wilcox, who joined your team in late August. Did I miss anyone?”
“I don’t know why you asked me for a roster when you already have one memorized.”
She couldn’t tell if that was a figure of speech or if he knew she wasn’t really checking her notes. “Are you a doomsday cult of your own? Is Alaska Force involved in some kind of territorial squabble with other less-than-savory groups?”
“A doomsday cult,” Templeton repeated, and then let out that laugh again. It was big and bright, and most irritatingly, it seemed to lodge itself inside Kate’s chest. She told herself that was the strong coffee the surly Caradine had brought her, warming her from the inside out. “I can’t wait to tell everyone you said that.”
Then he angled himself forward a little, which seemed to make him that much bigger. That much more.
Kate did not allow herself to betray so much as a flicker of reaction. Or to shift herself back at all.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a cult,” Templeton told her, as if they were sharing their hopes and dreams. “Seems like it would be one of those can’t-miss life experiences.”
“It’s not a life experience any reasonable person would want.”
For the first time since he’d sat down opposite her, Templeton Cross looked intrigued. “You were in a cult? And they let you be a trooper?”
“I have experience with fringe survivalist groups, yes. Some might call them cults. I personally view them as criminals, the same as any others.”
It had been so long now that Kate knew her voice stayed cool. Even. She could easily have been talking about any old experience she might have had on the job, and she didn’t know why she had the distinct impression that this man could see right through her. That he could tell, when so many others hadn’t had a clue, that she was talking about herself. Her own experiences. Her personal life that she talked about with no one of her own volition.
That notion chilled her straight through.
“Are you asking if Isaac Gentry has cobbled together a group of fringe survivalists?” Templeton asked. “I’m not sure I know what that even means. This is Alaska. Isn’t everyone here a survivalist by default the minute they make it through their first winter? What makes them ‘fringe’?”
“There’s a difference between what I would call a dangerous survivalist mentality and regular folks who like to keep to themselves, stay off the grid, and conduct their own lives as they see fit.”
“If you say so.”
Kate leaned forward. “Grizzly Harbor has become the epicenter of an ongoing series of violent incidents. And involved in each and every one of these incidents is this group of yours. A band of men with military skills, who like to get themselves in trouble and then tell lies to the authorities about what happened. This is an unacceptable situation.”
“Lies?” Templeton looked innocent—or tried to, anyway, though his face looked purely wicked. “That seems like a harsh word.”
“Everybody lies,” Kate assured him. “Especially to the police.”
“Everybody does? Have you interviewed everybody?”
“It’s the quality, quantity, and kind of lies that you and your friends keep telling that concern me. I have to ask myself what exactly you’re hiding out there in Fool’s Cove. It’s supposed to be nothing more than an old family fishing lodge and a few cabins.”
“Fishing is very relaxing. You should try it sometime.”
“The thing about a basically inaccessible Alaskan cove that no one can sneak up on is that from where I’m sitting, it looks a lot like a fortress.” Kate smiled again. This time, Templeton didn’t return it. “And I have yet to discover something that looks that much like a fortress that isn’t filled with men who are prepared to defend it like one, too. No matter who comes calling.”
“If you’re so interested in whether or not Fool’s Cove is an armed fortress,” Templeton said with a drawl, “why didn’t you just show up there and see for yourself? Isn’t that what police officers do?”
“This conversation is step one,” Kate said. “The friendly approach. I invite you to consider it a warning.”
“I’d better behave, then,” Templeton murmured, and there was a heat in his voice that made her wonder if he even knew what the word behave meant. “You sound like my mama used to. It was best that she never did count all the way to three, if you know what I mean.”
“When we asked for this meeting, we expected to meet with Isaac Gentry,” Kate said, because she found it oddly disconcerting to imagine the woman a man like this would call Mama. “Why isn’t he here? Is he too intimidated to have this conversation himself?”
There was what sounded like a snort from the kitchen. Kate didn’t turn around, but Templeton’s mouth curved the slightest bit in one corner.
“There must be some misunderstanding,” he said after a moment, and a deepening of that small curve. “I’m here as a representative of Alaska Force, and also as its first, best member. Isaac and I go way back.”
“You and Isaac served together, didn’t you?”
“I consider him a brother,” Templeton said. Which was a touching way to not answer the question, much less talk about what he and Isaac had done while active-duty members of the military. Kate suspected it was part of that highly classified section of his record. “But if you feel more comfortable talking to him directly, I’m sure we can arrange that.” He glanced at his wrist, where he wore a technical watch that looked as if it controlled a fleet of space shuttles. “Thing is, it’s getting dark. It’s a miserable boat ride this time of year, and it’s next-level suffering at night. But I’m game if you are.”
And Kate knew she didn’t mistake the challenge in the way he looked at her. In his glinting gaze that made her body temperature click up a few degrees, though she refused to acknowledge it.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I think I’ll pass on the offer to travel in the dark, over rough December seas, on a boat of unknown provenance with a man I suspect to be involved in criminal activity. Much less to a heavily armed fortress in the middle of nowhere.”
“Technically, you just described almost every house in rural Alaska.”
“Do you know what sort of people don’t turn up to meetings like this? Ones who have something to hide. Or, say, your run-of-the-mill cult leader who feels he’s far above such mundane concerns. Which is Isaac?”
Templeton tipped his head back and laughed uproariously at that.
He took his time looking at her again, and when he did, he shook his head a little, as if the hilarity had all but overcome him. Somehow, Kate doubted it.
“He’s working, Ms. Holiday. He’s a busy man.”
“You can call me Trooper Holiday, thank you,” Kate corrected him. “But I suspect you know that. Or did they not teach you proper forms of address when you were in the army?” She tilted her head slightly. “Sergeant?”
“I apologize.” Though he looked, if anything, amused that she’d used his title in return. Entertained, even. He did not look apologetic. “We keep it pretty informal around here. It helps remind us we’re not active duty anymore. Trooper Holiday.”
And there was . . . something else in the way he said that. It shivered all the way down the length of her back. Kate sat taller, but the glint in his dark eyes told her he knew why.
When he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t.
“Let’s get back to this latest incident two nights ago. I’m assuming you know the details.”
“I know the details because I know a thing or two about explosives,” Templeton said, which was agreeing without incriminating himself, as Kate was certain he knew. “And I tend to take a dim view of them being used in the place where I live. Call it a weird preference of mine if you want. So, yeah, I’m aware that some joker blew up a boat. Until your office called us, we figured it was the usual drunk nonsense. Because, let’s face it, out here it usually is.”
“Was it drunk nonsense that knocked your friend Rory on the head and left him tied up for a few hours last spring?”
“My recollection is that he fell.”
“That’s not even a good lie. A man like you can do better. I’m sure of it.”
“First, how can a recollection be a lie? You know what memories are like. So unreliable. And second, what do you mean by a man like me?”
Kate smiled. “This whole performance. Swaggering in late. Lounging around like you don’t have a care in the world. I understand why they picked you to be their ambassador. You seem so friendly. So approachable, until a person realizes that it’s all a show. And I saw your face when you walked in the door. Before you started smiling so much. I think that’s probably a whole lot closer to the real Templeton Cross.”
She didn’t know when the tension between them had gotten so thick, but she didn’t do anything to break it. She waited, her gaze steady on his, to see what he would do.
To see who he was.
“I’m pretty sure there’s only one Templeton Cross,” he said after a beat, his voice a deep, amused rumble. “I don’t keep extra ones in a jar by the door.” He tapped a lazy finger on the table between them. Kate figured he was reminding her of his intense physicality, the way men often did. Though she didn’t usually feel it inside her, as if he’d stroked her with that finger. “Life isn’t a Beatles song, you know.”
“I read your military file, and what wasn’t classified made it pretty clear that you’re one of the most dangerous men alive today. And what I have to ask myself is why a man with your background would spend so much time trying to convince me that he’s a tabby cat.”
“A tabby cat?” Kate thought she heard another snort from the kitchen. “I can tell you with one hundred percent honesty that I have never attempted to act like a tabby cat in my entire life.”
“You’re only making this worse for yourself,” Kate said softly. “You’re making me wonder what you’re trying to hide. And here’s the thing about me that you should know because, of course, you don’t have access to my file.”
But when she said that, something in his face changed. And she wondered if that little flicker she saw in his dark eyes meant that he did indeed have a file on her. The way ex-military types probably would. She would have to assume he did.
Kate kept going. “When I start wondering about things, it tends to lead to investigations. And those investigations tend to lead to convictions. Incarcerations. You get where I’m going with this.”
“I can’t say I’m a big fan of cages. Or courtrooms.”
“Then I suggest you help me.”
“I’m nothing if not helpful.” His gaze got significantly more intense when he stopped smiling. “How about this? Alaska Force is being framed.”