2020 HOLT Medallion Finalist!
Book 2 in the Alaska Force Series
Return to Alaska’s Grizzly Harbor where danger strikes with arctic precision and love thaws the coldest hearts, from the USA Today bestselling author of SEAL’s Honor.
After Mariah McKenna lands in the hospital with a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction she knows she didn’t cause, she realizes her cheating, vindictive husband would rather have a dead wife than a divorce. Afraid that he will succeed in killing her next time, Mariah goes to Grizzly Harbor to hire one of the Alaska Force special operatives to help her survive long enough to finally live a little.
Griffin Cisneros traded in a comfortable future for boot camp, where he learned the virtue of patience and focus—skills that served him well as a Marine sniper. Few things get to him these days, but something about Mariah’s mix of toughness and vulnerability gets right under his skin. Until it’s clear she’s the one thing in the world that might melt the ice in stoic, reserved Griffin, whether he likes it or not.
If he can just keep her alive…
After the second time her husband tried to kill her, Mariah McKenna decided she needed to get out of Atlanta.
The first time could have been an accident. That night she had gone to yet another strained charity dinner where everyone smiled sweetly, blessed her heart, and made it perfectly, politely clear they wouldn’t be taking her side in the divorce. And even though Mariah knew better than to touch shellfish, it was always possible that there could have been cross-contamination in the food. Especially in a hotel banquet situation with complicated hors d’oeuvres passed around on gleaming silver trays by bored college students.
Mariah knew it was entirely possible that she’d tossed back what she’d thought was a cheese puff pastry when it was cleverly concealed shrimp. She’d been too busy pretending not to notice the speculative, not particularly friendly looks thrown her way to taste a thing.
It could easily have been an unfortunate accident. Or her own fault for not paying attention.
But she was pretty sure it was David.
He had gone out of his way to get nasty with her only the day before.
“You can’t divorce me,” he’d snarled, getting much too close to her in the sunny parking lot of the Publix in her new neighborhood. That had been her fault, too, for not paying closer attention to her surroundings. She should have seen David’s overly polished Escalade. She shouldn’t have imagined for a single second that he’d allow her to go about without permission, having a normal life like a regular person. “You can’t divorce me.”
That was why, when her throat had started to close up, the first thing in her head was the way his face had twisted like that, out there in a parking lot in the Atlanta spring sunshine for anyone to see. When David got mad, his accent—what Mariah’s mother had always called high Georgia—changed. It became clipped and mean. Then there was the red face, the bulging eyes, that vein on his forehead, and the way he bared his teeth. None of that was pleasant, surely.
But for some reason he sounded less Georgia old money and more cruelly staccato when he was mad was what got to her the most. Because she’d worked so hard to get the redneck out of her own decidedly low-brow accent and she never, ever let it slip. Never.
Still, accidents happened. That was what the doctors told Mariah when she could breathe again. It was certainly what the hotel hastened to tell her, in the form of half their legal team crammed into her makeshift cubicle in the emergency room.
And despite the overly exposed feeling that stuck with her every time she flashed back to that ugly parking lot confrontation, Mariah accepted the idea that it was an accident. She wasn’t living in a gothic novel. Her divorce was ugly, but what divorce wasn’t? There was no need to make everything worse by imagining that David was actually trying to kill her.
But the second time she found herself in the hospital, she stopped kidding herself.
There had been no banquet with questionable that night. She’d at home, delighted that she was now pointedly excluded from social invitations as word got around that David Abernathy Lanier and his jumped-up, white trash wife weren’t simply in the throes of one of those trial separations that always ended up with a tight-lipped decision to stay together for the sake of the family fortune. David was divorcing her—Mariah knew that was how the story would make the rounds, no matter that she’d been the one to leave him—and Atlanta society was sensibly siding with the old money that made them all who they were.
Mariah been all alone in the cute Midtown apartment she’d moved in to when she’d fled David’s showcase of a home in tony Buckhead. Her cozy one-bedroom was a mere seven miles away, but located in an entirely different world than the one where David and people like him lived. And it was the only place that she’d ever lived alone. She had gone straight from her mother’s house to her husband’s, where she couldn’t say she’d lived him so much as him, surrounded at all times by the loyal staff who might have pitied David’s poor, unsuspecting wife, but were too well paid to intervene. Or even treat her kindly if David didn’t wish it.
For a long time she’d measured her life against that falling-down farmhouse in rural Georgia, where there were more boarded-up buildings than people and her family continued to live out of sheer stubbornness. While nothing in Mariah’s life had turned out the way she’d been so sure it would when she’d been a foolish twenty-year-old looking to be rescued by a handsome man in a fancy car, she couldn’t deny that there was a certain pleasure in having her own space at last.
No matter how she’d come by it.
It was while she lay there in another hospital room cordoned off by a depressing blue curtain—staring up at the fluorescent lights, waiting for her to finish letting her breathe, wondering if she’d have the dreaded biphasic second reaction—that she finally understood.
There was no safe space. Not for her.
David shouldn’t have been able to get in to her apartment, but he had. David had broken in or hired someone to break in for him. The latter scenario was more likely, because David was not a man who did anything that he could hire someone else to do for him. She felt a sick sensation roll through her, adding to the panic. It felt a lot like shame.
Because David or some faceless minion had been in her pretty apartment with its pastel walls and view over Piedmont Park. They had touched her few personal items. Rifled through her clothes. Sat on the furniture she’d started thinking of as hers. And at some point, tampered with her food to make sure she ended up right back in the emergency room with a far worse reaction than before.
They’d defiled the one place she had ever considered hers, then she’d put their poison in her own body, and she hadn’t even known it. She hadn’t sensed it. She hadn’t felt any of it. She’d gone about her life as if everything was normal when it was actually a trap.
The sheer violation was almost harder to take than her own near-fatal allergic reaction.
“You need to be very, very careful, Mrs. Lanier,” the doctor said, scowling at her as if she’d thought to hell with this potentially lethal allergy and had treated herself to a big old lobster dinner.
“I’m always careful,” she replied when she could speak. “And it’s Ms. McKenna, not Mrs. Lanier. My name change hasn’t gone through yet.”
“Two anaphylaxis episodes in one month isn’t being careful, ma’am.”
And what could Mariah say? My husband would rather kill me than suffer through a divorce, as a matter of fact. I think he snuck into my new apartment and doctored my food so this would happen. Even if the impatient doctor hadn’t already been scowling at her, she wouldn’t have risked it.
David’s family had a wing named after them in this hospital. In every hospital in Atlanta, if she remembered her father-in-law’s genial bragging correctly. The last thing she wanted to do was find herself remanded to the psych ward where a man whose name was all over the hospital could access her as he pleased
“I’ll be more careful,” she murmured.
But she decided there was no longer any choice. If she wanted to live, she needed to run.
The only question was how to do it. If David had people jimmying locks and dosing food to kill her with her own allergy she could hardly expect that a change of address would do the trick. She’d already tried that when she’d left that cold, bitter house of his.
Mariah was tough, but David was vindictive. And vicious in the way only a very rich man could be. His family had been proud residents of this city since they’d come in with the railroads, and he had allies everywhere. All his southern captain of industry friends and their wide-ranging, overlapping networks of influence and threat. Police. Government. Charities. Media. Name it, and some person who supported David had a finger in it. Or three.
And he had already tried to kill her twice.
By the time she was released from the hospital, she’d tried to talk herself out of it a hundred times. After all, accidents really did happen. It was entirely possible that these were freak occurrences and she was letting David get to her. Letting him win without him having to do much more than say a few ugly words to her in a supermarket parking lot.
Imagining that he has this kind of power is giving him exactly what he wants, she lectured herself in the back of the taxi that took her home from the hospital. She gazed out at another spring morning, bright and sweet, filled with flowers and lush green trees and good things that had nothing to do with David Abernathy Lanier. He would love nothing more than thinking you were this scared of him.
It was all in her head. She was sure of it. She needed to pay closer attention to the ingredients in the things she ate, that was all. Hadn’t she heard allergies got worse as people got older? She needed to be more careful, just as the exasperated doctor had suggested, and she’d be fine.
But when she let herself back in to her cute apartment and stood there, looking around at the cheerful rooms that had brought her such pleasure only last night, she knew better.
David wasn’t going to stop.
Because David didn’t have to stop.
He had determined that he would rather be widowed than divorced. It would be better for the political career he’d informed her he was plotting, since he planned to run on wholesome family values—none of which, she’d pointed out at the time, he actually possessed.
“And whose fault is it I don’t have a family?” he’d asked her, his blue eyes glittering, never dropping that soft drawl that sounded the way old gold would if it could speak.
And if Mariah had learned anything over the course of their ten years together, it was that what David wanted, David got. Her wishes and feelings were utterly unimportant to him. He had picked her because she was a good story he got to tell. She got to play Cinderella games, sure, but he was the benevolent Prince Charming in that scenario.
David really liked playing Prince Charming.
And when playing roles no longer worked to keep her in line? He’d showed her what was behind the mask. Threats. Contempt. Maybe even outright loathing.
What Mariah had to live with now was why she’d seen the truth and stayed. For much longer than she should have. And worse, why she hadn’t seen these things lurking in David from the beginning the way her mother had.
Mariah sat on the edge of the bed in the charming bedroom she doubted she would ever sleep in again, and forced herself to think. To really, truly think with all the desperate clarity brought on by two near-death experiences.
Anaphylaxis got worse, not better. She had to assume that all the food in her house was tainted. That anything she touched could have been doctored and likely was. And that if she ingested shellfish even once more, it could kill her. Especially if she ran out of EpiPens.
She also had to assume she had no friends or allies in Atlanta. There was no one she’d met here who didn’t have ties to David in some way. That meant none of them were safe. And she couldn’t head home, no matter how much she wanted to slam through the old screen door into the farmhouse kitchen, let the dogs bark at her, and sit at the table with a slice of her great aunt’s sweet potato pie until she felt like herself again.
Whoever that was.
Mariah blew out a shaky breath. She could always just . . . go on the run and plan to live that way. But that seemed inefficient at best. She would have to take excruciating care in covering her tracks, always knowing that one tiny slip could be the end of her. Every book she’d ever read or movie she’d ever seen about someone going on the run ended the same way. They slipped up and were found. Or they were caught by whoever was after them no matter what they did. Or they couldn’t handle the isolation and outed themselves, one way or another.
Whatever the reason, life on the run never seemed to work out all that well for anyone.
If David was prepared to kill her—really and truly kill her—going on the run would only make it easier for him. And Mariah had no intention of dying in an out-of-the-way horror show of a motel somewhere, on the requisite dark and rainy night, with some pitiless henchmen of David’s choking the life out of her.
She had no intention of dying at all. Not now.
Not when she’d finally gotten herself free of the lie she’d been living all these years.
If David succeeded in killing her the way he’d told her he would, he won. And if he won, nothing would change. He would go right on being the smiling monster she’d married because she’d wanted so desperately to believe that Cinderella stories could be . Even more hilarious, she’d convinced herself that a white trash girl from those no-account McKennas out in Two Oaks could wake up one morning and find herself starring in a fairy tale.
If she died, David would tell her story however he liked and no one would know any different.
But if she lived, Mariah could change everything.
She could go back home and see her mother at last. She could try to figure out which one of them had caused this distance between them. She had nieces and nephews she’d never met, and she was sure her network of cousins had some things to say to her after all these years. She could repair those bridges before they burned up altogether.
If Mariah lived, she could do what she wanted with her life. She wouldn’t have to wait tables in her uncle’s dinky roadside diner in the middle of nowhere the way she’d been doing when David found her on that fateful hunting trip. And she wouldn’t have to play the society princess role she’d never quite managed to pull off to anyone’s satisfaction in David’s snooty circles, where everyone’s great-grandparents had known each other and they all had clear opinions about uppity backwoods tramps like her.
If Mariah lived, she could find out who the hell Mariah McKenna really was.
Assuming, of course, that there was anyone in there, locked away behind all her bad decisions.
You told me not to marry him, Mama, she acknowledged inside her head. It was the only way she talked to her mother these days. Another scar she carried around and pretended wasn’t there. You begged me to think twice, but I was sure I knew better.
If her mother were here now, Mariah knew what she would say in that smoker’s voice Mariah had always secretly thought sounded like velvet. Think, baby girl. You didn’t use much of your brain hopping into this mess, but you sure could use it to get yourself out.
Panic kicked at her, and for a minute she couldn’t tell if it was another anaphylactic episode. Mariah laid her hand against her throat and told herself that she was fine. That she was alive and could breathe. She told herself that a few times, then a few more, until her heart rate slowed down again.
She decided it was nervous energy, and she would deal with it the only way she could. By doing something. She pulled one of her bags from under the bed, settling for the one she knew she could carry no matter what. The one she knew she could pick up and actually run with, if she had to. And then Mariah took her time packing, letting her mind wander from the task at hand to all those videos she’d watched online about how to pack a carry-on bag for a month-long trip. Or three months. Or an indefinite amount of time. It had been one more way she’d tried her best to fit in with the effortlessly set of people she knew during her marriage. Women who seemed to be able to trot off to Europe for a month with either the contents of their entire house or nothing more than a handbag, a single black dress, and a few scarves.
David had mocked her, of course, though she’d convinced herself it was good-natured teasing at the time. Sure it was.
Maybe you can watch a video on how to make a baby, he had said once, smiling at her across the bedroom as if he’d been whispering sweet nothings in her ear.
The cruelty of it took her breath away now, the same as it had then. This time, however, she didn’t have to hide it. She blinked away the moisture in her eyes, then threw the shirt she’d been folding to the side, because her hand was shaking.
Had she really tried to tell herself he hadn’t meant that? She knew better now. But she’d spent years excusing everything and anything David did.
Because she’d been the one who’d been broken, not him.
David had kept up his end of the bargain. He’d swept Mariah away from that abandoned backwoods town and he’d showered her with everything his life had to offer. He’d paid to give her a makeover. To make her teeth extra shiny. He’d found her a stylist and hired a voice coach so she could transform herself into the sort of swan who belonged on his arm. Or at the very least, so she wouldn’t embarrass him.
All she’d ever been expected to do was give him a baby.
Looking back, it was easy to see how David’s behavior had worsened with every passing month she didn’t get pregnant. Less Prince Charming, more resentful spouse. And increasingly vicious.
When she’d walked in on him and one of the maids, he hadn’t even been apologetic.
Why should I bother to give you fidelity when you can’t do the one thing you low-class, white trash, trailer park girls are any good at?
She would hate herself forever for not leaving immediately that first time. For staying in that house and sleeping in that bed for months afterward. For telling herself that it was a slip, that was all. That they could work through it.
As if she hadn’t seen the hateful way David had looked at her.
She had. Of course she had.
The charming man she’d fallen in love with had never existed. David could pull out the smiles and the manners when he liked. But it only lasted as long as he got his way.
The trouble was, Mariah had turned thirty. And despite years of trying, they hadn’t ever had so much as a pregnancy scare. She’d found David with the first maid the week after her birthday. But it had taken her months to leave.
He never bothered to pull out his charm for her again, and she’d spent more agonizing months than she cared to recall imagining she could fix something he didn’t care was broken.
In the end, after the second time she’d caught him in their bed with another woman employed in their household, Mariah had been faced with a choice. She could look the other way, as she knew many wives in their social circle chose to do. She could figure out a way to keep what she liked about life as Mrs. David Lanier and ignore the rest. It was a dance she’d seen performed in front of her for years, from David’s parents right on down.
But the part of her that had been sleeping for a decade had woken up. That scrappy, tenacious McKenna part of her that she’d locked away. McKennas had rough and tumble stamped onto their stubborn, ornery bones. They fought hard, loved foolishly, and didn’t take much notice of anyone else’s opinions on how they went about it or what kinds of messes they made along the way.
Roll over and play dead long enough, her grandmother used to say, and pretty soon you won’t be playing.
Mariah had decided she’d played enough. And maybe it had taken months of humiliation, but she’d left.
And she would live through this, too, by God.
“I should watch a video on what Mama would do to a man who treated her like this,” Mariah muttered to herself, aware as she spoke that her accent didn’t slip no matter how angry she got.
The idea of a video made her laugh a little. She already knew what her mother would do in this kind of situation. Country folks weren’t society folks, and McKennas were a whole different level still. Back in the day, Rose Ellen had reacted to Mariah’s father’s infidelities by throwing his drunk, cheating butt out. She’d never let him back in.
That was when it came to her.
It wasn’t the family legend of her mother tossing her naked father out of the house at gunpoint, then all his belongings after him, though that was one of Mariah’s most tender childhood memories. It had to do with all those videos she’d watched so obsessively over the past ten years. Her own private version of higher education.
And then it clicked. Just the trickle of a memory of one of those late nights she’d sat up, pretending not to wonder where her husband was—or who he might be with, which was better than when she hadn’t needed to wonder, because he made sure she knew. She’d clicked through video after video on her phone, careful to leave all the lights out in the bedroom so she could pretend she was sleeping and David’s spies could report back to him accordingly.
She’d found herself watching an unhinged conspiracy theorist ranting about satanic signs he alone had found in a children’s television program. Maybe she’d found a little comfort in the fact that there were people out there a whole lot crazier than a lonely Buckhead whose husband openly hated her. She might have been the one staying in a marriage gone bad, but at least she wasn’t her every paranoid notion with a video camera.
But the man had said something interesting at the end of his garbled insistence that the end was nigh, and in puppet form. He’d mentioned a group of superhero-like men off in the wilderness somewhere. Like the A-Team, Mariah had thought at the time. But not illegal. Or faked for television.
Mariah cracked open up her laptop now and got to work. It took a while for her to find her way back to that odd video. And yet another long while to try to figure out whether anything in that video was real.
But eventually she found her way to a stark, minimalist website that had a name emblazoned across the top of the page. Alaska Force. And a choice between a telephone number and an address. Nothing more.
Mariah didn’t overthink it. She typed out an email, short and sweet.
My husband is trying to kill me. He’s already come close twice and if he gets a third try, he’ll succeed. I know he will.
End of excerpt
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