—Christopher Rice, New York Times bestselling author of A Density of Souls and the Burning Girl Series
He’s built a quiet life for himself in Alaska. But it doesn’t stand a chance against the unrelenting pull of a man who’s everything he shouldn’t want.
Ex-military mountain man Griffin Barrett likes his solitude. It keeps him from falling back into old habits. Bad habits. He’s fought too hard for his sobriety to lose control now. However, his gig as a wildlife guide presents a new kind of temptation in superhot supermodel River Vale. Nothing the Alaskan wilderness has to offer has ever called to Griffin so badly. And that can only lead to trouble…
River has his own methods for coping. Chasing adventure means always moving forward. Nobody’s ever made him want to stand still—until Griffin. The rugged bush pilot is the very best kind of distraction, but the emotions he stirs up in River feel anything but casual, and he’s in no position to stay put.
With temptation lurking in close quarters, keeping even a shred of distance is a challenge neither’s willing to meet. And the closer Griffin gets to River, the easier it is to ignore every last reason he should run.
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
Publisher’s Note: Arctic Sun deals with topics some readers may find difficult, including sobriety and eating disorders.
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"You need me to do what?" Griffin gave a slow blink. He wasn't used to feeling about as off-kilter as a broken tailwheel, but something about his mother's tone had him bracing for a rough landing. No way was her appearance at the hangar a good thing.
"You're our best hope, Griff." His mother leaned against an out-of-commission de Havilland plane that had seen better decades. Worry lines creased her usually smooth face and made her look older, more fragile.
"You sound like a bad action movie," he chided, if only to make her smile.
"I'm serious. The doctors say no way can Uncle Roger make this trip. His knee surgery is scheduled for Tuesday in Anchorage, and they don't want him to make the injury worse by delaying. I'd do the trip myself, but this is our busiest time of year ..."
"And you're needed here. I get it." He could already see where this was going. His mother ran the business side of his family's tourism and transport company, and while a capable pilot and driver in her own right, she was way more comfortable with her account software and customer service lines. "But what about Toby? He would love this opportunity."
He put far more enthusiasm than usual into his voice. Their freewheeling pilot and guide was incredibly popular with everyone other than Griffin, who simply didn't trust happy people. However, he wasn't lying. Toby would love the chance to spend the next ten days ferrying tourists around to the national parks, helping them find great vistas to photograph and ensuring they got their money's worth.
"Toby's already booked." His mother flipped her long, silver-flecked braid impatiently. "Trust me, I checked with him first. And I thought we had Clancy to cover, but his wife's due in two weeks, and he decided today that he's not willing to risk missing it. I knew you'd say no."
"I'm not saying no." He wasn't saying yes either, but he didn't add that. They both knew that unlike Toby, who was apparently in high demand, Griffin was only booked for some local transports and cargo runs in the next week. He seldom needed to deal with the tourists, and that was exactly how he liked it. He'd been planning to spend a lot of quality time with this Cessna engine he was tinkering with, but he could already see those plans slipping away like rocks into Tustumena Lake. "But why not reschedule the tour? They're coming to see Uncle Roger after all."
His uncle was a celebrated wildlife photographer whose personal tours were exceptionally popular among the eco-tourism crowd willing to pay top dollar to spend time trekking around the backcountry with him. At least Toby would have been charming enough to make up for his Uncle's absence. And even Clancy, another of their pilots, was more personable than Griffin, who had zero desire to entertain outsiders, no matter how well-paying.
"You sell yourself short." His mother shook her head. "You're a fine photographer, excellent guide, and this group is mainly newbies — they'll be happy for any assistance. We were able to reschedule four of the participants who'd rather wait for Uncle Roger, but that leaves five still coming. It's today. We can't afford to issue refunds and deal with their ill will at being canceled at the last second."
"Of course not." He wiped his hands on a rag. That last bit was a low blow. Griffin knew exactly why funds were tight for his mother and the business. And while she steadfastly refused his efforts to repay her, no way was he going to make matters worse for her by leaving her with a new set of debts.
"It's over ten thousand a head. And Roger said to tell you that he'll give you his entire cut from it. That should make a nice dent in the cabin fund, right?" She smiled encouragingly. Because, of course, not only would the confounding woman not take Griffin's money, she was also cheering on his plans to buy himself a little land of his own.
Ever since he'd returned to Alaska, he'd set the goal of having a place of his own. Not that he minded so much living at home in the small cabin his grandparents had once occupied, but after his stint in the military, he really valued his alone time and privacy. And she wasn't wrong — Roger's cut would go a long way to supplementing his down payment fund.
"Guess I better start packing." He sighed because he'd known this was going to be the outcome from the moment she'd walked in and made the request. One simply did not say no to Annie Barrett. "Is this one of those friend groups or a family at least?"
Those were always easier — a group of people who already knew each other and didn't require Griffin to break the ice. Hell, he could barely pull off his own socializing, let alone be facilitating it for others.
"Uh. No." His mother scratched her temple, and dread gathered in the pit of his stomach. Whatever was coming next, he wasn't going to like it. "Two married couples, not friends. One couple's from Europe. Netherlands, I think. And then there's the supermodel." She mumbled the last bit, and Griffin had to strain to hear her.
"Supermodel? Really?" Oh, Jesus, the last thing he needed was some simpering miss in high heels scared of bears and missing the big city nightlife. "I thought those girls usually travel in packs. What's she doing traveling alone?" "He," his mother corrected. "Male supermodel. That guy, you know, who wrote the book? Professional Nomad? They're making a movie of it. He's a sensation."
"I just bet he is." This got worse and worse. A male supermodel might not wear high heels, but he still wouldn't be prepared for the elements or for roughing it, of that Griffin was sure. And he had only a vague recollection of the book — probably caught mention of it on one of the talk shows his sisters liked — but he already knew he wasn't going to like its author. Those woo-woo spiritual finding-yourself memoirs did absolutely nothing for Griffin. He'd found himself alright. Right here where he'd always belonged. He didn't need some grand rich boy quest to show him what he'd always known — that this, right here, was his place in the world.
"Be nice." His mother touched his arm, her touch gentle but firm. "He's paying. I'm sure he's very ... interesting at least."
"I said I'd do it. But I don't have to like it." Griffin resisted the urge to shake off her touch. She meant well, and he loved her, but no way was he enjoying this supermodel's company. "How long till we head to Anchorage?"
"Three hours. Uncle Roger is going to come — that way he can meet the guests, introduce you, and then stay on in Anchorage for the surgery. I've booked you both rooms."
"You were that sure I'd say yes, weren't you?" He looked around, made sure he wasn't leaving things too much a mess. This engine would just have to wait.
"Maybe." A little smile teased at the corners of her mouth. She looked younger again and rather self-satisfied to boot. "Might have already laid out a bag for you on my couch too."
"And don't forget your walking stick — last thing we need is you too getting injured out there."
"I'll grab it." No sense in arguing with her when he knew perfectly well that his bum foot would need the cane at some point in the next ten days. Ten. Freaking. Days. Good Lord what had he gotten himself into?
He was still wondering that a few hours later when he made his way into the lobby of the downtown Anchorage hotel where they often met tourist groups. The flight in from their tiny town on the Kenai Peninsula had been an uneventful forty-five minutes — he did the flight so often, he was pretty sure that he could land at Lake Hood Seaplane Base blindfolded. He'd spent the flight quizzing his uncle about the trip details. His mother had printed off ample documentation for him, and this was hardly Griffin's first roundup with tourists, but it never hurt to be prepared. They'd picked up the rental van that Griffin would be using for much of the trip and then narrowly made it to the hotel in time to meet the customers. Oh, his mom called them guests, but really, it helped Griffin to think of them as what they were — big dollar signs that could make the difference for him and the rest of his family.
The company liked using this modern, high-rise hotel to start and end trips because customers always seemed surprised to find such luxury in Alaska, and it made a nice contrast to the more spartan accommodations that would follow. The huge multistory atrium lobby was tastefully appointed in greens and browns and was about as far from Griff's vision of a perfect little cabin in the middle of nowhere as one could get. All the high ceilings and metal artwork made his eye twitch.
A concierge who knew Uncle Roger on sight from all their repeat business helped them to set up a welcome table with a sign with their company logo. Almost immediately two middle-aged women came over to check in, and in Dutch accents, they fussed over Uncle Roger's crutches and his injury. Griffin immediately gathered that they were a couple — the matching red sweaters were his first clue as were their hyphenated last names. But his attention was quickly diverted by a ... creature unfolding itself from one of the oversized leather chairs in the middle of the lobby.
It took a moment before he placed the gender as most likely male, distracted as he was by a pair of the longest legs he'd ever seen encased in dark purple, skintight jeans. Bright blue hair topped a surprisingly angelic and youthful face, with an equally unexpected square jaw with the barest hint of stubble. A leather jacket that probably cost more than the engine Griffin had been working on earlier topped a T-shirt that advertised some band that he'd never heard of. Please, don't let this be ...
Griffin didn't even get the prayer out before the elegant person sauntered toward their table.
"River Vale," a melodic voice announced. Hint of New York to it, with just enough of the sort of lilt that always did something to Griffin's insides. He wasn't sure why he'd always been so attracted to musical voices, and this was an incredibly bad time for the libido he'd put in deep freeze to remind him about what he liked. His turn-ons were irrelevant here — he needed to be focusing on how completely unsuited for their ten-day trek this River person was.
Designer clothes. Thin frame. Delicate leather shoes better suited for a night of clubbing than any outdoor activity. High maintenance hair. Rich, floral smelling aftershave. Pants so tight Griffin seriously worried about circulation on a long van ride. Everything about River screamed trouble, the sort of trouble Griffin absolutely did not need.
The mountain man scowled at River. The older guy next to him was the one splashed all over the website — well-known photographer Roger Barrett — with the sort of craggy features that suggested a long life lived in the sun. He smiled at River, shaking his hand, and telling him what a fan his sister-in-law and nieces were of his book. But it wasn't the old guy who held River's attention at all. No, that was all reserved for Mr. Tall, Dark, and Cranky, who clearly didn't share Roger's good opinion of River, but good heavens, the man certainly made all those rumors about mountains and fresh air resulting in larger-than-average humans seem true.
He totally looked the mountain man part too — shaggy brown hair, the sort of tan that River's friends would pay good money to emulate, hazel eyes that reminded River of the greenish brown stone of a mosque he'd visited in Istanbul. And muscles for days. Big, broad shoulders stretching the fabric of a denim shirt, thighs like tree trunks, and that scowl. This was a guy who would be at home playing the sheriff in some old west drama. Or maybe a gunslinger ...
It took River a second to realize that Roger had asked him a question while he'd been busy riding off into the sunset with Sheriff Cranky. Probably he'd asked more than once, judging by the deepening of the lines around his eyes.
"Um. Sorry. Jet lag." River gave a wave of his hand, but neither of the men smiled.
"I asked if you'd eaten. Typically, the group dines together here at the hotel restaurant. A chance to get to know each other before departing in the morning."
"Food sounds good," River lied. The alarm on his phone earlier had said it was time to eat, so he would, and the group setting would be nice. He always loved getting to know new people.
"Excellent. My nephew Griffin Barrett here has some waivers for you to sign before we get started."
Griffin. The name totally suited the man, all masculine and larger-than-life and a little rough around the edges ... And there River went into fanciful territory again. He'd been in Milan most recently and wasn't kidding on the jet lag — he'd been traveling over twenty-four hours now with only some catnaps on the flights. He knew the tour website recommended coming a few days early to acclimate to the time change, but River had had to make an appearance at a friend's fashion collection unveiling in Milan and hadn't had that kind of time to spare.
But Griffin's glare made him wish he'd complied with the recommendation — both so that he had the mental capacity to deal with the paperwork and because this was the sort of guy one did not like to disappoint. He dealt with the paperwork quickly — he'd been on enough tours to guess at the wording. Risk of death, not responsible, blah blah blah. River's corporate lawyer father would shudder at the speed with which River signed all liability away, but his father wasn't here to glower at River.
No, that privilege was all Griffin's, who managed to make River feel like an annoying bug. Which was weird because usually people loved River. He got along with everyone. It was a huge part of what made his travels so successful — he knew how to make friends just about anywhere.
"Tell me you brought better shoes than those." Even Griffin's voice was hypermasculine, all rich and deep with the sort of slowness and deliberate pauses that River associated with western states.
"I brought suitable clothes." River narrowly avoided rolling his eyes at the guy. This might be his first time to Alaska, but he'd survived traveling all over the globe. A little tundra wasn't about to do him in. "I just like to look glam when flying. Better service, you know?"
Griffin's raised eyebrow said that he most certainly did not know, and River had to sigh. Mountain Man had probably never been upgraded to first class before. Although one look at those thighs, and River would have moved him to the head of the line pronto.
Another couple joined the women from the Netherlands, who had been at the table when River walked up. The man and woman were both doctors from Kansas City celebrating their retirements. They were the sort of earnest, overeager Americans that River had met all over the world, the sort you could spot as tourists a mile away, but whose niceness made up for the embarrassing gaffes. They had to get a picture with Roger and hear all about his upcoming surgery as the group slowly made their way from the welcome table to the hotel restaurant.
River had received the emails about Roger's fall and the tour company's subsequent efforts to find a replacement guide. They'd offered to put him on a different tour, but River was under something of a time crunch. He needed his North American outdoor adventures done so he could write those chapters before the whirlwind of movie release activities in the fall. Because so much of his first book focused on Middle East and Asian travel, his publisher wanted the follow-up to focus more on this hemisphere, on finding himself closer to home this time.
Which was a little hysterical as River didn't have a home, didn't want a home, and wasn't going to get a home. He had a small storage unit for off-season clothes, valuables at his dad's place, and an endless string of friends to crash with when he got lonely. But he trusted his editor about what would sell — and the movie rights for this book had already sold at auction, so he darn well better finish the thing. Besides all his social media followers were expecting pictures of bears and such. He wasn't going to disappoint. And if this Griffin was the replacement guide, then he was far from disappointed as at least he could guarantee quality scenery even if it rained every day of their tour.
It would be easier, of course, if Griffin didn't seem so determined to dislike River.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arctic Sun"
Copyright © 2019 Annabeth Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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