“We’re all going to die this way.”
Caitlin Grant’s head snapped up at the high pitched tones of the small boy in the seat beside her.
He looked up at her with an earnest brown gaze that dared her to disagree.
“Shh…sweetheart,” his mother comforted from his other side, her tone more worried than confident. Still, she rubbed his short nappy hair in a tender gesture. “It’s going to be fine, Joey. You heard the captain. It’s just turbulence.”
“The plane is shaking, mom. This can’t be good.” Joey sounded so adult and so childish at the same time.
Caitlin felt her lips curving into her first smile in months. “We’re coming into Anchorage.” Their early morning flight was right on time. “It’s usually choppy on these flights.”
“You’ve been on a shaky plane before?” the boy demanded.
Caitlin nodded, one bright red curl slipping from its clip to brush her cheek. “Many times.”
Fighting the near irresistible urge to get up and go to the bathroom so she could smooth her hair uniformly back into the clip, despite the captain’s instructions to remain seated, Caitlin tucked the errant strands behind her ear.
“This is really bad.” Joey’s tone indicated disbelief for her calm assurances.
Doubt in her judgment was something Caitlin was very familiar with. Whether it was the way she chose to wear her hair, or the orchestra she hired to play at their annual outdoor fete, her ex-husband had frequently expressed concerns about Caitlin’s questionable choices, opinions and taste.
She’d learned not to defend herself because arguing always made it worse.
Tempted to fall back into old patterns and withdraw, Caitlin couldn’t ignore the small boy’s worry however. And she could not forget the final bit of advice from her therapist at their last appointment.
Leaving your husband isn’t going to change what you need it to if you continue to live as if he’s still looking over your shoulder.
Taking a deep breath, Caitlin forced further reassurance from a tight throat. “I’ve been on planes that shook worse than a baby’s rattle and with a lot more noise.”
How ridiculous for it to be so difficult for her to add support to her own assertions.
“Really?” Joey asked hopefully.
Caitlin managed another smile. “Really.”
“And you didn’t die?”
She actually had to suppress the urge to grin at that. Schooling her expression into lines of seriousness, she said, “No.”
His mother wasn’t as adept at hiding her reaction, doing a poor job of hiding her snigger with a cough.
Joey didn’t seem to notice. “Cool.”
A burst of raucous laughter from the rows behind them surprised Caitlin enough to draw her gaze. Was that Rock Jepsom’s younger brother?
The last Caitlin had heard, Carey had taken off for Hollywood with his inheritance and no intention to return. Just like Caitlin, except her inheritance had barely covered the cost of university.
Carey had had a couple million to support his dreams. He sure didn’t look like he was coming back broken like she was. In fact, he was surrounded by a group who were clearly in the industry.
Caitlin had spent eight years living the life in LA, nine if she counted her engagement. She recognized actors and production people as easily as she did a knockoff Chanel bag.
What were they all doing heading into Anchorage? A lot of movies purported to be set in Alaska, but few actually were.
It was a joke among residents how often the media got it seriously wrong in their attempts to portray America’s largest state.
She wouldn’t have expected Carey to be the one to take up that cause though. Not even a little bit.
But then she’d never expected to move back to Cailkirn either.
Tack MacKinnon finished nailing down the new stair riser on the back porch steps of the Knit & Pearl Bed and Breakfast.
It was a rare morning off for him during tourist season. Even though it was early May, he still had plenty to do getting his business ready for the busier months to come. Whether he was out blueprinting a new tour, navigating old ones and looking for changes in the land over the past year, or taking out some of the early season clients, Tack’s long hours had already started.
He’d planned a trip into Kenai for this morning, but when the eldest Grant sister had phoned to ask for his help, he hadn’t even considered saying no.
He might be a MacKinnon, but everyone pitched in to help the Grant sisters. The last of that particular founding family still living in Cailkirn, they were as close to town royalty as anyone was ever going to get.
While Alma Winter was no longer technically a Grant, she was still considered one of “The Grant Sisters” just as her sister-in-law, Moya Grant, was. Both elderly women had lost their husbands before Tack had even been born. The final sister, Elspeth Grant had never married.
And was one of the most vigilant matchmakers in all of Alaska.
“Oh, thank you, Tack. You’re such a good boy.” Miss Elspeth smiled at him from the wide porch. “You’ll stay for some tea, won’t you?”
“Of course, Miss Elspeth.” It was getting late to make the trip into Kenai and be back in time for his afternoon tour anyway. “A man would have to be a fool to turn down your shortbread cookies.”
Miss Elspeth went pink with pleasure. “Maggie Grant brought the recipe from the Old Country and it hasn’t changed in nearly two centuries. Our dear grandmother passed it down to me even though Alma is the oldest.”
“My da won’t admit it, but they’re even better than my gran’s shortbread.” Tack grinned up at the elderly spinster. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that to Gran MacKinnon though.”
Miss Elspeth laughed, the sound soft and youthful despite being closer to seventy than sixty. “Your secret is safe with me. I’ve got a secret of my own you know.”
“Everyone. I haven’t even told Moya,” she finished in a conspiratorial whisper.
That surprised him. The two elderly ladies had been best friends before they became sisters via marriage and were extremely close. Usually, what one knew, so did the other — and both delighted in knowing something Miz Alma did not.
The childlike delight in Miss Elspeth’s faded blue eyes made him smile. “Are you going to tell me?”
“You know, I think I just might.” She nodded, her straight red hair fluttering in the breeze. “Yes. You deserve it; you take such good care of us.”
Tack knew better than to push the older woman, but he was curious. Any secret Miss Elspeth considered worth keeping would be interesting, to say the least.
Some might the think the Grant sisters were a few crayons shy of a full box. What with all three of them still dying their hair red, claiming to be a good twenty years younger than they were and wearing fancy hats to church every Sunday.
Then there was the way they Miz Moya talked to the ghost of her deceased husband, in company. All three of the sister were convinced their home-turned-bed-and-breakfast was haunted by the first Maggie Grant.
Still, Tack liked them.
No one in the town loved Cailkirn more or was more dedicated to the town’s thriving.
None of them wanted it to turn into another Anchorage, or even Fairbanks, but Cailkirn was less than a decade shy of its two hundredth birthday. He and the Grant sisters shared the need to know it would celebrate that centennial and many more.
Miss Elspeth had fussed Tack’s muscular six and a half foot frame into a sturdy wooden chair at her kitchen table and put the kettle on before she returned to her secret. “Someone’s coming home and I bet you’ll never guess who.”
Tack didn’t want to steal Miss Elspeth’s thunder. So, he didn’t tell her that he’d heard rumors of Rock Jepsom’s younger brother coming. Carey and a bunch of his friends had booked into the Northern Lights Lodge. With twenty guest rooms, it was the only thing resembling a hotel in, or around Cailkirn.
The vast majority of Cailkirn’s tourist income came from the more than half a million guests from the cruise ships that docked daily in their ports May thru September. Day only visitors, they had no need for local lodgings.
In a bid for town harmony, Tack did his best to share the MacKinnon Bros. Tours clients between the lodge run by the Sutherlands and the Grant sisters’ B&B. Thankfully the different types of accommodations appealed to different types of his “Enjoy the Real Alaska Experience” clients.
“Who’s coming for a visit, Miss Elspeth?”
“Oh, she’s not coming for a visit. She’s coming home to stay. I always knew she would, no matter what Alma said. Sean would have too, if he and Gina hadn’t been in that terrible accident.”
The mention of Miz Moya’s dead son and daughter-in-law sent a frisson of foreboding through Tack. “She?” he asked in sepulcher tones.
Miss Elspeth could not mean who he thought she did. Granddaughter to Miz Moya, Kitty…Caitlin please…Barston was married to a mover and shaker in the City of Lights. She hadn’t stepped foot in Alaska since dropping out of college to marry Cain Barston eight years ago.
No way was she coming home to Cailkirn. Unlike Tack, her former best friend and the fool who’d loved her too much and too long, the petite redhead hated Alaska. She especially despised life in the small town that her parents had fought so hard to leave behind.
“Yes, my niece.” Miss Elspeth put her hands together as if in prayer. “Kitty’s coming home.”
Tack took a big gulp of tea and then choked as he tried not to spit it out in shock at its scalding heat.
Miss Elspeth was up patting his back before he realized she’d crossed the kitchen. “Are you all right Tack? You work too hard. You need to take a day off.”
He didn’t mention that today, or at least that morning was supposed to be exactly that. Doing so would be churlish and there was something truly wrong about being grumpy with a Grant sister. Even after she announced the woman that had broken Tack’s heart and abandoned their friendship for the acceptance of people like Cain Barston was coming home.
“What about Barston?”
“She divorced him.” There was something in Miss Elspeth’s tone.
Grief. Anger. Satisfaction.
It was all there.
“I didn’t realize they were having problems.”
“Well, it’s not as if you listen to talk about her. You practically run from the room when Kitty is mentioned.”
“I do not.” Though probably? He did.
She’d been the love of his life and she’d never seen him as more than a disposable friend.
“Well, that is neither here nor there. Kitty always said everything was fine, but we could see there were difficulties. She lost her spark, our Kitty. She also lost so much weight she looked like a skeleton.” Miss Elspeth had maintained the trim figure of her Miss Alaska days, but she’d never been rail thin like so many of the women he’d met in Los Angeles.
“That’s not all that abnormal for LA, Miss Elspeth.” He didn’t like the thought that Kitty’s blue eyes had lost their shine though.
Her summer sky gaze, so different from his dark one, had been the first thing his six year old self had noticed about the new girl in school. Pale with tiny freckles, she’d been so different than a boy who took his coloring from his Inuit mother. He’d been mesmerized by that difference and she’d never lost her fascination for him.
Which was why he’d never allowed himself to stick around when people were talking about her. The only way to sever his Kitty addiction had been to cut off all ties to her, just like she’d cut off all ties to him.
“If you’d seen her, you wouldn’t say that. When she called from the hospital, she weighed ninety-three pounds.”
Pain pierced Tack’s heart, though he’d never acknowledge it. “That can’t be right.”
Sure Kitty had lost some weight once they moved to California to attend USC, but she’d been healthy the last time Tack saw her. Curves in all the right places, she might have been a little thin for his taste. She’d still turned him on like no other woman ever had. Kitty hadn’t been bone-protruding skinny by any stretch.
Miss Elspeth sat down with her own cup of tea, her expression somber. “Our Kitty almost died and we weren’t there. Moya went though, after our girl called. She stayed with Kitty for six weeks. You remember?”
“Yes.” It had been the previous winter.
Despite her lifelong and very vocal lack of desire to ever visit the Lower 48, Miz Moya had said she was going south for the sunshine. Tack had thought it odd, but chalked it up to the elderly woman missing her only grandchild.
“Kitty said that’s why she’d had so many broken bones over the last couple of years. They’d gotten brittle she said.” Miss Elspeth frowned. “Grant bones don’t go brittle. We’re hardy stock. My grandfather lived to be ninety and Gran another twelve years after that. Neither had a single bone break in all those years.”
“Kitty broke something?” Tack asked in disbelief.
She’d gotten into more scrapes as a kid, always taking risks. He could remember the tumble she’d taken when they’d been hiking on Resurrection Pass when they were twelve. It had about stopped his heart, but she hadn’t so much as gotten a hairline fracture.
“More than one something. She didn’t break her wrist, crack two of her ribs or her clavicle bone bumping into walls, no matter how brittle her bones.”
Bile rose in Tack’s throat. “Cain Barston beat her?”
Elspeth’s lips thinned in a sad line. “Kitty never said so, but that man destroyed our girl.”
“She’s coming home now, though.” Tack just didn’t understand why, if it had been that bad, Kitty hadn’t come back a long time ago.
Or at the very least last spring when a pretty subdued Miz Moya had returned to Cailkirn. She’d stayed in California another full year by his reckoning.
Was her dislike for their small town life so strong she’d rather live with a monster than come back to it?
Miss Elspeth reached out and patted Tack’s hand, her smile belied by the tears sparkling in her faded blue eyes. “You’re right. She is moving home. And it’s going to be all right.“
Tack rose from the table and gave the older woman a gentle but firm hug. “Of course it will.”
Tack had more doubts on that front than he’d had since bringing his broken heart home to Cailkirn seven years ago, but he wouldn’t voice them.
He’d transferred to Idaho State after the summer Kitty got engaged to Cain Barston and graduated with a degree in Outdoor Education two years later. He’d come home to an offer from his father and Granddad MacKinnon to help finance Tack’s dream of starting a wilderness guide business back in Cailkirn.
Their only proviso had been he take Egan his brother into the business as well, once he’d gotten training. Tack had agreed without reservation. Even thought he was four years younger, next to Kitty Grant, Egan had been Tack’s best friend.
Kitty had dropped out of USC her junior year in favor of her MRS and moved on to bigger and brighter things.
Or so he’d thought.
Tack could not believe the vibrant girl who had sparked every one of his fantasies since his first sexual thought had stayed with a man who abused her. That she’d let herself get so dangerously underweight.
He didn’t know what had gone on in that marriage, but it didn’t sound like Kitty’s plans to get away from their small town had worked out the way she’d expected them to.
Troubled, Tack left Miss Elspeth in her immaculately clean kitchen after promising to return to the B&B for dinner with the sisters that evening.
It was their customary way of showing gratitude. Since Miz Moya was one of the best cooks on the Kenai and Miss Elspeth was equal in her baking, most Cailkirn residents considered such an invitation a pretty nice thank you.
Keyed up by the idea of returning to Cailkirn for the first time in almost a decade, Caitlin walked behind Joey and his mother toward baggage claim.
When they arrived a huge man stepped forward stopping the mother and son’s progress. Like a lot of Alaskan men, particular those who lived outside of the major cities, he had facial hair. However, he had it neatly trimmed close to his face. Even so, it was longer than the close cropped beard and mustache Tack MacKinnon wore, which looked like a perpetual five o’clock shadow, but was a lot less bristly. The only beard Caitlin had ever found appealing.
And why she’d already started thinking about Tack, Caitlin didn’t know. She’d callously jettisoned the man from her life, betraying years of friendship. She doubted Tack would have the time of day for her anymore, much less be interested in renewing their acquaintance.
There would be no healing of that particular self-inflicted wound in her heart. Considering how stomped on and shredded that organ had been over the past years, Kitty was surprised at the level of regret that thought elicited in her.
She’d pretty much decided her heart was beyond fixing. And the last thing she needed was the vulnerability of any kind of relationship, even friendship.
Pushing aside her own disturbed thoughts, Caitlin couldn’t help noticing the way Joey and his mother reacted to the man who was so clearly there to meet them. Joey was staring up at the man in rapt fascination, but his mother appeared as nauseated as she had on the plane, her gaze shadowed by trepidation.
“Is this my new daddy?” Joey asked with the keen interest and innocence of a small boy.
The man having the looks of a modern day Cossack, the mother with the accent and delicate pale features of a Southern belle and the little boy with short nappy hair and skin the color of coffee with just a dash of cream, the small family embodied the diversity so much a part of her home state.
The man stared down at the boy for several seconds of tense silence. Then he addressed the woman. “Savannah Marie?”
“You didn’t say you had a child.”
“You didn’t ask.”
He turned abruptly and started walking.
Savannah’s shoulder’s slumped, the defeat in her posture too familiar for Caitlin to ignore it.
Not that she’d let her sense of despondency show like this woman, but Caitlin had felt it too long and too deeply not to recognize it in another human being.
She reached out to touch Savannah’s shoulder and offer help, though heaven knew Caitlin wasn’t anyone’s idea of a hero.
However before her hand connected the man turned back with a brusque, “Aren’t you coming? You’ll need to point out your bags for me. We’ve got to get on the road. The drive to Cailkirn from here isn’t short.”
The Southern woman’s sigh of relief and whispered, “Thank God,” got to Caitlin in a way that nothing else had in a long time.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she let her hand fall on Savannah’s shoulder, causing the other woman to stop and turn to face Caitlin. “Pardon?”
“You’re going to Cailkirn?” Caitlin forced herself to ask.
The other woman’s grey gaze reflected the mix of emotions Caitlin had heard in her voice a moment ago as well as confusion. “I think so?”
Caitlin nodded. “Come on then. Let’s get our bags. We’re going to the same place and I’m going to ask your…friend,” she settled on, uncertain what the relationship was at this point. “Into giving me a ride.”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“Don’t worry. I won’t take up a lot of room.” Caitlin winked, proud of herself for making the comment without feeling the shame that usually accompanied any reference to her body.
“He won’t mind. It’s an Alaskan thing. Neighbors help neighbors. Especially in the small towns, but nowhere more than in Cailkirn.”
They reached the luggage carousel and the bearded man.
“Caitlin Grant.” She put her hand out to him. “I’m headed to the Knit and Pearl B&B. I would really appreciate a ride if you’ve got room.”
“Nikolai Vasov.” He shook Caitlin’s hand. “I know the Grant sisters.”
Caitlin gave Nikolai the polite expression that she’d perfected in her years with Cain. “I’m not surprised. Most people in Cailkirn do.”
Her grandmother and great-aunts had lived in the small town on the Kenai Peninsula their entire lives. With her grandfather and Great-uncle Teddy gone, the three elderly ladies shared the spacious Victorian house that had been built on the original Grant homestead more than a hundred years ago — after the family had amassed sufficient wealth.
As far as Caitlin knew, her Aunt Elspeth had never lived anywhere else and her grandmother had lived in the Grant home since her marriage to Uncle Ardal forty years ago. Aunt Alma had moved back into the big house after Teddy Winter’s death a few years after the turn of the century.
It was a couple of years after the oldest Grant sister moved in that the sisters decided to turn the house into a bed and breakfast. Caitlin had been preparing to go away to college and her grandmother and aunts claimed they needed something to keep them busy.
“You are a relation?” Nikolai asked.
“Moya is my grandmother.” Caitlin didn’t recognize Nikolai, but he looked a little like the Vasov boy who had been a couple of years ahead of her and Tack in school. “Are you related to Alexi Vasov?”
“He’s my cousin.”
She nodded, vaguely remembering talk about Alexi’s uncle. Peder Vasov had left Cailkirn right after high school just like Caitlin’s parents. Somehow, both their children had ended up back in the town settled by Scots and Russians, integrating a small Inuit village along the way to incorporated town status.
Sudden clarity washed over Nikolai’s expression. “You are Kitty. You grew up in Cailkirn.”
“Since I was six, yes.” Since the devastating death of both her parents. “Gran Moya and her sisters raised me. Uncle Teddy too.”
His death had hurt almost as much as that of her parents.
Every single one of her older caregivers had loved Cailkirn with a passion she’d never been able to match.
The only thing Caitlin had ever wanted was to get out. Out of Cailkirn. Out of Alaska. Away from the pain of loss she associated with living there.
She’d made it, only to learn that the world outside was cruel and demoralizing.
Nikolai had the look of a man who might have figured that out too, even if he’d originally called the Lower 48 home.
He nodded his head abruptly. “We’ll make room for you.”
He didn’t ask how much luggage she had. It wasn’t the Cailkirn way. He might not have been born there, but he’d apparently lived there long enough to learn it.
Caitlin turned to Savannah and her son. “I should introduce myself to you too, I think. I’m Caitlin Grant and you can find me at the Knit & Pearl Bed and Breakfast. You and your son will always be welcome.”
Though she was probably the last woman who should be trying to offer hope and help to someone else, Caitlin couldn’t seem to stop herself.
“I’m Joseph, but everybody calls me Joey,” the little dark-haired boy offered while his mother stood in apparent shock.
Caitlin shook his hand and didn’t tell him she’d heard his name on the plane. “It’s very nice to meet you, Joseph. I’ll call you Joey if you like.”
“Yes.” He stared at his mom, clearly waiting for her to say something.
The other woman offered her hand. “My name is Savannah…” she cast a sidelong glance at Nickolai.
He gazed back, his expression impenetrable.
Savannah took a deep breath. “Vasov. I’m Savannah Vasov.”
Caitlin schooled her features not to show her shock. She hadn’t heard of a proxy marriage since she was a teenager, but what else could this be? With Nikolai not knowing about Joey and Savannah showing such uncertainty about the use of her last name.
In a state where the male population outnumbered females of marriageable age especially, long distance relationships were not uncommon. Marriages brought about through a third party weren’t unheard of either.
Heck, they happened in the Lower 48 too. The dot.com matchmaking entities were an ingrained part of American life now. Entire reality shows were dedicated to the concept of matchmaking and selective pool dating with the endgame being a marriage.
Proxy marriages were a lot less common though, to the point of being almost unheard of. Oh, they happened, most commonly among active duty military though.
They were only legal in six states, California being one of them — which explained how Savannah and Nik had managed to marry by proxy. It wasn’t a legal practice for an Alaskan based marriage ceremony.
Though foreign brides marrying American men by proxy was still an active practice. Caitlin had known more than one beautiful Eastern European or Asian woman back in LA who had married her wealthy, but otherwise unremarkable middle aged husband, by proxy. It had worked out beautifully for some and not so well for others.
But then Caitlin’s marriage had been its own horror story. She was the last person to judge another woman for the criteria by which she made her choices.
Regardless, the strong suspicion that Savannah had agreed to such an arrangement only told Caitlin how desperate the other woman had to have been.