Can they survive being hunted in the dark forest?
To inherit her father’s estate, Hanna Berlet travels into the rugged wilderness of northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. She thinks falling for her handsome guide is her only risk, but she’s wrong.
Wilderness guide and US Marine Veteran Cord Samuels can handle this simple mission; protecting Hanna from wild animals, from natural hazards, and from his unexpected attraction to her.
But someone is lurking in the forest – a stranger who doesn’t want Hanna to make it home. As their resources vanish and their options disappear, Cord and Hanna gamble on a dangerous escape from the isolated wilderness.
“This sucks.” Cord Samuels stood ankle-deep in sewage and kicked the overflowing toilet in his bunkhouse with his waterproof boot. Every time they had a good rain, the septic tank filled. He had no money to replace it.
His phone rang, and Cord yanked it out of the back pocket of his jeans. “Yeah?”
“Is…is this Swamp Lake Lodge?” A very female voice rolled softly from his phone.
“Yeah, and appropriately named, too.” He set down the shovel and drug the trashcan closer.
“May I please speak to a Cord Samuels?”
He looked at the incoming number. From the Twin Cities. Huh. Sexy voice. He didn’t recognize it. “This is Cord. Who’s this?” His voice came out heavy and low, not intentionally seductive, but a result of the choking stench. Reaching above the toilet, he cracked open a window and let in the evening breeze.
His phone went silent for a few seconds.
“I got your name from Bob Lindquist, the teacher? He’s my cousin-in-law. You took him into the BWCA with a youth group last year.” She spoke quickly, as if she was afraid he’d hang up.
“Yeah, I remember Bob. What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for a guide to Redemption Falls. Tomorrow.”
Nice. A woman who knew what she wanted, but what she wanted was damn near impossible. “Why?”
“Yeah, why? Why do you want to hike forty miles into the woods?” He’d been hired to lead some rough trips, but the route she wanted to take promised just plain torture. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota was not a place for casual vacationers. It was miles of primitive woods, lakes and wild animals, accessed only by canoe and on foot.
“A personal reason. Are you available to take me or not?” She sounded anxious.
“Ma’am, they don’t cut trails out there, and the river that runs to it—”
“I’ve been there before.”
“So you know that this time of year, the river is low, and you’d have to hike more than canoe?”
“I do. I’m up to the rigors.” Now she sounded defensive.
“Are you? What do you do for a living?” With her slinky voice, he’d guess cocktail waitress. At Hooters.
“P.R.” She paused. “That’s Public Relations.”
Clamping his jaw shut, he held back a nasty response. Why did city folks think backwoods people were uneducated and…? He shook his head. What the hell was he griping about? Based on her sexy voice alone, he’d just pegged her as a wet t-shirt contest winner. “P.R. for who?”
“For the Twins.”
Slowly a smile curved his lips. The Minnesota Twins baseball team. Coincidence? Or fate. “Very nice. So what part of being a P.R. woman for the Twins makes you tough enough to haul a forty-pound pack through the woods?”
“As I mentioned, Mr. Samuels, I—”
“My name. It’s Cord.” He liked the way she said it, smooth and drawn out.
“All right. Cord. I made the trip to Redemption Falls with my family when I was five, and every year after that through high school. Since then, I’ve kept in good shape. I run half-marathons, and I’ve done the Iron Woman Triathlon.”
“Uh huh.” All good stuff, but nothing that prepared her for climbing over felled trees with a mini-fridge-sized Duluth Pack strapped to her back. “I’m not sure you’re—”
“Listen, Cord.” Her voice took on an urgent tone. “I have my father’s ashes, and he wants them spread where my mother’s are. At Redemption Falls. I can make the trip, but not alone. Will you help me? Please?” Her quiet, pleading undertone, laced with a heavy dose of pride-swallowing, did him in.
Cord switched the phone to his other ear and glanced out the open door toward the lake as a line of geese flew west into the fading sunset, honking loudly. “Okay. How about the week after the Fourth?”
“Are you free this week? I…have a deadline. I have to be back by the Fourth.”
Cord blew out a breath, puffing his cheeks. This lady was a bulldozer.
Although he didn’t have any customers coming until the weekend of the Fourth, he’d made a date with Ava from the bakery in Grand Marais for Wednesday. Thursday he was going fishing with his friend, Evan. Friday night he had plans to watch the Twins game…
He shifted and his boot squished in the sludge, a foul reminder of how badly he needed her money. “I might be able to clear my schedule, if you are able to…” Pausing, he let the meaning drift toward her.
“I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
Yeah, she was sharp. “I usually double my rate for off-trail hikes, but since you’re connected, how about my regular rates plus a baseball signed by that new pitcher.”
She went silent for a few seconds. “Sure.” He heard a laugh in her voice, and it shot a volt of desire down to his belly.
“It’s a deal, Miss…” Would he be spending four days alone in the wilderness with a single woman?
“Hanna.” He liked it. A good name for a bulldozer. “Are you heading up tomorrow?”
“Yes. I should be there by five.” Her breathing grew louder. “Thank you. You don’t know how much I appreciate this.”
“Okay.” The mushy stuff he could skip. “You can pay by credit card on my website. There’s a packing list on there, too. Follow it.”
“Of course.” Her voice shifted back to confident. “See you tomorrow…Cord.”
“Bye.” After ending the call, he set the shovel in the trashcan, and sludged out of the bunkhouse. He didn’t have time to deal with this crap. Literally. “Ha. Ha.” He had to get his maps out, download updates from the park service, plan a route, and pull together four days’ worth of food and equipment.
He speed-dialed Max Greise, the neighbor kid who was his buddy Evan’s son. Max didn’t answer so Cord left a message offering the kid fifty bucks to take care of the mess. Max was the only person Cord knew who needed money worse than he did. After disconnecting, he called Septic Servers and got their promise for a honey truck first thing in the morning.
On his walk to his house, he checked the canoe hut, locked the door to the “lodge,” which was just a convenience store and outfitter, then hiked along the lakeshore toward home.
It’d been a sixteen-hour day, and he yawned, dog tired. He stretched the muscles in his shoulders as he walked along the gravel path. In the Marines, he’d lifted weights and done pull-ups to keep himself bulked up, but up here in the woods, a day’s work was like an extreme body building session.
The quarter-mile trek to his A-frame log cabin seemed longer tonight. His mind kept jumping to Hanna Berlet, and he couldn’t wait to jump online and find out more about her. Did she look as sexy as her voice sounded?
A loud crack from across the lake made him jump, and only sheer force of will kept him from nosediving for cover. “Damn it.” He listened to the rustle of a broken branch as it fell through the tree canopy and thudded to earth. Just a limb breaking off a tree. Not incoming artillery. Even knowing that, the sharp crack had unlocked horror movies of Afghanistan that he kept in a dark compartment of his mind. The screams of injured soldiers, friends, so far gone he couldn’t help them, only hold them as they died.
He started walking again, his knees jittery. When would the flashbacks stop? When would he be able to hear a loud noise and not think of…her.
No. He couldn’t go there tonight. He used the technique he learned in therapy, pushed the nightmares back into the recesses, and focused on this moment. Even though it felt like he’d spent the last year in a cocoon, he was living and breathing while half his squad was not so lucky.
Leaving his grimy boots at the foot of the steps, he trudged up onto the porch and turned to look out over the lake. The sky turned from orange to dark blue and fireflies blinked on and off in the tall grass. “I’m alive.”
His father called Cord’s hermiting here in the woods “searching for harmony,” ninoododadiwin, in the old language. While he loved it here, restlessness scratched at him, told him he was missing something. Was he ready to face the world again?
A chill wind pushed him inside. Damn these northern Minnesota summers. Nights colder than dry ice, days hotter than a sauna. Summers that barely lasted two months. Hell, the crabapple trees had just started blooming. He had to get out of here this winter. The isolation and frigid cold had nearly killed him last year.
Three tours in the Middle East, split by stints in California in between. No wonder he’d lost his Minnesota toughness. It was the “alone” that was the worst, though. He needed to find someone, and tomorrow when he called and cancelled his date with Ava, the baker’s daughter, it wasn’t going to help his seduction plan one damn bit.
Cord powered up his computer and let it chug through the start-up while he made himself a sandwich. Seven-grain bread from the bakery, sold to him with an inviting smile from the pretty redheaded Ava. Ham, Swiss, mayo, mustard. He walked to his desk as he ate, sat, and hooked up to the satellite internet service. He googled the Minnesota Twins, and sure enough, there was Hanna’s name and number listed on the staff page. No photo.
He searched the obituaries for the last name Berlet. There was her father. Died four days ago, eighty years old. “Huh.” How old was Hanna? Preceded in death by his wife, it said. Hanna was his only living relative. Lived in Edina. “Big money.”
He logged into Facebook and searched for her. Only one Hanna Berlet in Minneapolis and… “Goddamn.” Her picture. He set down the rest of his sandwich. Wow. Long blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes. Maybe twenty-five or so. He swallowed the food in his mouth, staring at her like a stalker.
Hearing footsteps on the porch, he shook off the daze and stood to get the door, but Max knocked twice and walked right in. “Got your message.” Pulling his Twins cap from his short, black hair, Max dropped it and his coat on the floor. The gangly teenager and his dad, Evan, were Cord’s closest neighbors. Only five miles away, and like him, their family was one of the few remaining Ojibwe in the area. Cord went for the fridge. “Coke?”
“Sure.” Max spotted the computer and plopped down in the office chair. “Hey! You? Have a Facebook page?”
Cord walked back to the desk and set down the can for Max, twisting the top off a Leinenkugel for himself. “Yep. For the business. I lurk around and see what people are doing in the real world.”
Max laughed. “I know what you mean, brother. Stuck out here in the woods is for bullshit.” He opened the can, drank half the soda, and burped like a champion. “This fall, dude, and I’m the hell outa here.”
“Did you decide on the U of M in the cities?”
“Yep. I’ve got my dorm assignment already.”
Cord swallowed hard. He’d hoped Max would attend the U in Duluth, and come home on weekends. He’d miss the little shit. They’d spent a lot of time watching movies to pass the frozen, soulless winter. What would Cord do to keep sane this winter? He grunted. Selfish. Cord was damn proud of Max, working hard to make it into a good college, and told that to the kid often enough to make Max blush.
“She’s hot.” Max clicked through Hanna’s online photo albums. “Who is she?”
“A customer.” One very different from any others he’d led into the Boundary Waters. Typically his customer base was guys wanting to catch the biggest fish of their lives, school groups learning survival techniques, and Scouts looking to earn a badge. Sometimes families, but never a single woman. The prospect of being in the woods alone with Hanna Berlet gave him an odd feeling of anticipation, like nothing he’d experienced in a long while.
“Nice.” Max drew the word out. “You can tell she’s sexy.”
Cord snapped back to the conversation. “Yeah? How?” He leaned in to watch the photos speed by.
“Wild colored clothes. Means she’s adventurous.” Max zoomed in on one picture. “Look at her lips. They’re like slices of ripe peaches.”
Cord laughed and smacked the boy on the shoulder. “When did you learn poetry?”
Max playfully elbowed him in the gut, stood, and finished his Coke. “When I wanted to get into Deena Millburn’s panties.” He burped. “It worked.” He crumpled the can and tossed it in the recycling bin. “You should try it on Miss Sweet Roll.”
It had been too damn long since Cord had been in any woman’s panties. “No way in hell would I repeat that line to anyone, especially Ava.”
“Your loss.” He shrugged and squinted at Cord. “At least try a haircut, man. Chicks don’t go for that unwashed mountain man look.”
Cord ran his fingers through his shaggy black hair then dropped his hand. “I’m not paying you for dating advice.” It had been two months since his last cut, and it curled down over his ears. Should he get to the barber before Hanna arrived? Aw, hell. Who was he kidding? He looked down at her smiling face on the monitor. A rich, beautiful city girl – and him? Not a chance. They had three strikes against them. First off, there was his rule about fraternizing with clients. Second, there was the fact that Hanna was grieving. Third, he didn’t do hookups anymore. Not since it cost him a friend, and cost that friend her life. The memory of that day squeezed like a fist around his heart, and he shoved the pain aside.
Max stuck his arms into his coat and smirked. “Pay me now and I’ll let you get back to your Facebook porn.”
“I told you, she’s a customer.” That came out rougher than he meant. He tempered his tone. “She booked a trip day after tomorrow, which means I won’t be by to watch the game with you guys Friday.” He pulled out his wallet and handed Max two twenties and a ten.
The boy stuffed the bills in the front pocket of his jeans. “You’re gonna miss a hell of a game. Chicago.” Max swung an invisible bat. “Nobody’s hitting on the Twins pitchers this month.”
“Yeah, I know.” Cord had been looking forward to the time with Max and his dad. “I couldn’t turn this one down.”
Max nodded, the look in his eyes suddenly not a kid’s anymore. “Finances?”
“Always.” Times had grown ugly for the tourist industry.
“When are you back?”
“Four days, five at the most. Stop by and check on the place?”
“Sure.” Max opened the door to leave.
“Thanks for handling the bunkhouse.”
Max grinned and the kid in him appeared again. “You give me all the shitty jobs, man.”
Cord laughed. “How else you gonna support your baseball addiction?”
The door closed and Cord took the seat in front of the computer. He read Hanna’s bio. U of M, Masters in Public Relations. Interned with the Twins before moving into a full-time job. She looked curvy and tall, and he liked tall women. Didn’t have to bend so far to kiss them. He liked curvy. A lot. He felt a throb down low, and shifted in his chair, making room behind his fly.
She liked dancing and running. Volunteered her time at nursing homes and women’s shelters. Was a local spokesperson for Toys for Tots and Second Harvest Food Bank. “Huh.” Could any woman be that perfect? He accessed her photo albums and scrolled through, slowly this time.
He mumbled, “Lips like sliced peaches.” How was he gonna forget that one when he was forty miles from the fringe of civilization, alone with Miss Hanna Berlet?