“Mark Wright?” the lady behind the airline counter asked.
“That’s me,” Bubba said. It still sounded weird to hear someone call him by his given name. He’d gotten his nickname after completing BUD/S training and eating an entire bucket of shrimp by himself at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company….and ever since, no one had called him Mark.
“Great,” the woman said. “Your chartered float plane should be ready to board in about twenty minutes. If you’ll just wait over there with the other passenger, we’ll call you when we’re ready.”
Looking over at where she was pointing, Bubba saw a woman sitting on a nearby chair. She had a book in her lap and wasn’t paying attention to anything other than the words on the page in front of her. She seemed like an island of calm after the very busy main terminal in Anchorage.
Bubba picked up his duffle bag and headed over to where the airline employee had indicated. They were in the part of the terminal that housed the private planes and charters. His father’s lawyer, Kenneth Eklund, had sent him the details of the flight. It had been arranged by his assistant, on the direction of the lawyer.
He was on his way home to Juneau, Alaska, because his pop had unexpectedly passed away.
Feeling another wave of sadness threaten to overwhelm him, Bubba concentrated on the woman instead. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t put his finger on how he knew her.
Standing in front of her, he waited for her to look up, to acknowledge him. When she continued to read instead, Bubba mentally snorted. How conceited was he? Standing in front of her like she was a serf who should be acknowledging her master.
“Hi,” he said.
She startled so badly, Bubba immediately felt bad for scaring her.
“Oh!” she said, looking up at him. “I didn’t see you walk up.”
That much was obvious. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I guess we’re on the same flight to Juneau.”
She blinked. “Oh, Mark, hi. I didn’t know it would be you sharing the flight with me. I’m so sorry about your dad.”
It was Bubba’s turn to be surprised now. “Um…do I know you?”
She smiled a little self-deprecatingly. “Yeah. I’m Zoey Knight. We knew each other in high school.”
And so it began. One of the things Bubba disliked the most about his hometown was how everyone knew everyone. Juneau wasn’t exactly small, but it felt like it most of the time, probably because there were no roads in or out of the city. It was only accessible by plane or ship.
There were also no secrets in Juneau. It had driven him crazy when he’d hang out with his buddies in high school and by the time he got home, his dad already knew where he’d been, who he’d been with, and what they’d been doing. He wasn’t a bad kid back then, but just once he’d wished he could get away with drinking a beer and not getting the third degree when he got home.
For a second, Bubba couldn’t place Zoey’s name. It sounded familiar, but he was having trouble remembering her from high school
She put him out of his misery. “I went out with Malcom a couple times our senior year.”
It finally clicked—and Bubba studied the young woman in front of him with renewed interest. He remembered her now.
She’d certainly filled out in all the right places since high school. Back then, she’d been super skinny and shy. He estimated she was about half a foot shorter than he was, and he couldn’t help but let his eyes wander over the curves she definitely didn’t have in high school.
Yeah, Zoey Knight had changed a lot…and for the better, as far as he was concerned.
Aware he’d been ogling her a bit too long, he held out his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Zoey.”
She shook his hand. “You too. I’m just sorry it’s under these circumstances.”
And just like that, he remembered why he was headed home. He took a seat next to her. “Yeah, me too. I always thought my dad would live forever.”
Zoey nodded. “It really was a shock to all of us since he used to be so healthy.”
Bubba narrowed his eyes slightly. “You knew my dad well?”
She blinked. “Oh, I guess you didn’t know.”
“I helped your dad out around the house. You know, some housecleaning, did some yard work when he needed it, ran errands, that sort of thing.”
Then Bubba remembered his dad had mentioned a while ago that someone named Zoey had been helping out with some of the chores he hated. He hadn’t made the connection between that conversation and the Zoey he’d known growing up.
She studied him. “What does that mean?”
Bubba held up his hands. “Nothing. I knew he had someone helping him, but I didn’t really know who.”
“Maybe if you’d come home now and then to visit him, you would’ve.”
That hit a little too close to home for Bubba’s comfort, and his response was curt. “Yeah, well, I’ve been off saving the world, sweetheart. I didn’t have much time for visiting my hometown to get berated for not being around more.”
Zoey’s eyes narrowed and she glared at him. “The big bad Navy SEAL. Yeah, we know all about you and how amazing you are. Too good to talk to the likes of me, I’m sure. So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll continue to read until our plane is ready.”
Bubba sighed and ran a hand through his short hair. He hadn’t meant to insult her, even if she kinda deserved it for being a bit harsh and piling on more guilt. But once he’d left home, coming back to Juneau had never taken precedence in his life. His dad had begged him to come home to work for his company. His brother practically ignored him; talking once or twice about the business didn’t really count. And everyone he came into contact with asked him when he was moving back to Juneau. He’d left to begin with because he’d felt stifled in the small town.
Other than the cruise ship traffic in the summers, nothing much changed and gossip was one of the locals’ favorite pastimes. It drove him crazy, and when he graduated, he was more than ready to move on, to see the world.
His twin, Malcom, had been content to stay in Juneau and go to work with their father. Bubba hated that he wasn’t as close to his brother as they’d been as children, but after thirteen years apart, it wasn’t too surprising.
What hurt the most about his pop’s death was that it had been so unexpected. Bubba had thought he’d live well into his nineties. He’d always been healthy as a horse, and his passing away had been a punch to the gut. Especially since Bubba had made plans to visit soon. He’d missed seeing his dad one last time, and that hurt like hell.
“I’m sorry,” Bubba said quietly to Zoey’s bent head. “I just…I feel terrible that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad. Hell, I didn’t even know he was having issues with his heart. This seems so unreal.”
Zoey put her finger between the pages to mark her place and closed the book as she looked up at him. “If it’s any consolation, he’d been sick for a while, but seemed to be on the mend. And when I left to go to Anchorage to visit my mom, he was getting better, and I felt okay leaving him. I hate that I didn’t get to say goodbye too. And I’m sorry about my earlier comment. It was out of line and a low blow. I’m just a little jealous of you. Not all of us had the option to leave after high school,” she said softly. “Although, while Juneau isn’t the most exciting place in the world, it’s not as bad as you seem to think it is either.”
“I know. High school was kind of fun,” Bubba said, trying to lighten the mood. Unfortunately, his attempt seemed to fall flat.
“Yeah, fun,” Zoey said unenthusiastically.
Sensing he was missing something, Bubba did what he always did…tried to solve the mystery. “So, why did you break up with Malcom again?”
She rolled her eyes, and Bubba couldn’t help but think it was cute. Her brunette hair was pulled back into a messy bun at the back of her head, her hazel eyes full of intelligence and spunk. He liked that. “We weren’t really dating,” she told him. “We only went out a couple of times.”
“Really. I’m sure it’s no surprise, but Malcom was a horn dog. All he wanted was to get me into bed.”
Bubba asked the question before he could think better of it. “And did he succeed?”
Zoey’s eyes narrowed. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no. I wasn’t that kind of girl.”
Shit, he really needed to control himself better. But Bubba was surprised at his level of interest in her answer.
“Wasn’t,” she confirmed, then went on. “Aren’t. Isn’t. Whatever you want to say. I don’t date men so I can have sex. If I want to get off, I can take care of that on my own. I date men because I want to get to know them. Because I like them. Because I enjoy being with them. He’s your brother, so I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but it turns out after I got to know Malcom, I didn’t like him all that much. He was too selfish and annoying back then, and not much has changed. And I’m starting to think his twin isn’t too far removed, even if your dad did sing your praises.
“Now, I really am going to read my book this time and try to pretend that we didn’t have this conversation.” Then Zoey opened her book again, turned a little in her seat so her back was to Bubba, and bent her head to read once more.
Bubba mentally smacked himself in the head. God, he was an ass. Asking if she’d slept with his brother was rude and, frankly, none of his business. Rubbing a hand over his face, he sat back in the chair and sighed again.
He knew Malcom was kind of a jerk. He always had been. They’d been close when they were kids, but as they got older, Bubba realized that his brother used people for whatever he could get out of them. He’d date girls until they’d put out, then dump them. He’d begged Bubba to do the ol’ twin switcheroo game so he could get out of taking tests. Bubba agreed a few times, but got sick of the game and refused to do it again after they’d gotten caught one time in the eighth grade. It was juvenile and stupid and, by that time, Bubba already knew he wanted to go into the military, so he’d done everything he could to stay out of trouble.
Malcom, not so much. He’d been caught shoplifting and driving drunk. He’d also broken curfew too many times to count and regularly skipped school. Their dad was constantly punishing him and threatening to kick him out of the house.
But they both knew their pop wouldn’t do that. Malcom didn’t have anywhere else to go. So he’d apologize, clean up his act for a while, then eventually fall right back into his old habits.
Turning his head, Bubba studied Zoey while she read and did her best to ignore him. Now that he remembered who she was, he very clearly recalled when Malcom had gone out with her. Zoey had moved to Juneau in the tenth grade, and had always been quiet and kept to herself. Malcom been so smug that he’d gotten her to say yes to a date. He’d claimed she was one of the few girls he hadn’t had sex with and was thrilled that he’d finally get the chance.
Bubba told him that he’d probably have a girlfriend longer than a couple of months if he actually treated them nicely and less like a piece of meat. Malcom had blown him off and told him he didn’t know what he was missing.
It was only after a couple dates that his brother had come home one night, pissed off. Apparently Zoey had dumped him after he’d felt her up. He’d proceeded to trash her for the next hour, telling Bubba she was frigid and uptight and would end up an old maid.
The next evening, he went out with some friends and they’d crashed a college party, where he’d supposedly had sex with three girls.
Bubba remembered feeling sorry for Zoey for the way his brother had treated her. He’d always liked her back in high school…more than just a little, truth be told.
“Once again, I’m sorry,” he told Zoey. “I’d like to think I’m nothing like Malcom. I don’t know him as well as I used to. But what I said was out of line and rude as hell. My father had to really like and respect you, because I know he never liked people ‘all up in his business,’ as he always used to say.”
Zoey sighed and closed her book once more. She turned to look at him. “No, I’m sorry. We’ve definitely gotten off to a rocky start here, since we’re both doing a lot of apologizing. I shouldn’t have said what I did. And I loved your dad. He was always nice to me and really helped me out when I needed it.”
Concerned now, and not sure why, Bubba said, “That sounds like Pop.” He wanted to know why she’d needed help, and what his dad had done to help her, but he figured he’d already put his foot in his mouth once and he’d better not push his luck. “So, you’re headed to Juneau? Are you visiting your family?”
“You really have ignored everything going on back home, haven’t you?” she said with a small smile, letting him know she was teasing him. “I still live in Juneau. I rent a small house from your dad. He gave me a break in rent in exchange for helping him out. I only went to Anchorage to visit my mom. Your dad’s lawyer called while I was here and told me Colin had passed away, and he said I needed to come back for the reading of his will.”
Bubba was surprised at that. “You’re in my dad’s will?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Apparently. But if you say anything rude about my relationship with him, I’m going to hurt you. I loved your dad, but not like that. We were friends. That’s all.”
Bubba shook his head. “No, I wasn’t going to insinuate anything, I swear. I’m just surprised. That’s all. I obviously don’t know much about his life…even less than I thought.”
Zoey pursed her lips. “When I left, he seemed happy, and he’d seemed to have gotten over whatever weird illness he’d been dealing with recently. He told me not to worry about paying rent this month, to use it on the plane ticket to get to Anchorage instead. He was the most generous man I’ve ever known, and he was like a father to me. I’m going to miss him.”
Bubba felt like shit. He knew his pop was a good man, but it hurt to hear things about him that he didn’t know from a stranger. The regret in his gut that he hadn’t visited years ago sat there like a hard lump.
Taking a risk, he reached out and put his hand on Zoey’s forearm. “Thank you for being there for him. I haven’t been the greatest son, but I’ve always wanted the best for Pop.” When she didn’t pull away, Bubba felt a little better. “I’m glad he included you in his will, and it doesn’t surprise me. Pop always took care of people he cared about.”
Zoey looked up at him with her big hazel eyes—and Bubba was surprised when a jolt of…something…went through him. He couldn’t have looked away from her if his life depended on it.
She opened her mouth to respond, but the airline employee interrupted before she could.
“It looks like your pilot is almost done with her pre-check. You should be able to board in about five minutes.”
Zoey swallowed hard and shifted just enough that Bubba’s hand fell from her arm. “Thanks.”
Realizing he needed to call Rocco as he’d promised, Bubba stood. “I need to make a phone call before we take off,” he told the airline employee.
“You’ve got five minutes,” she replied, seemingly disinterested.
After she’d walked away, Bubba turned to Zoey. “I’m sorry, but I promised my friend I’d call him before we took off. He’s a little paranoid and I’m humoring him.”
Zoey shrugged. “Whatever.”
Feeling oddly off-kilter at her casual dismissal, Bubba took out his phone and stepped toward the window for a bit of privacy as he dialed Rocco’s number.
He answered after only two rings. “Hey, Bubba. You getting ready to leave?”
“The flight to Anchorage was good?”
“Uneventful,” Bubba told him. “The pilot is about done doing her preflight checks and we should land in Juneau in about three hours.” He stared out the window at the woman walking around one of the float planes that were so common in this part of the state. There were at least ten other small planes lined up on the tarmac, as well. They were extremely popular in Alaska, as a lot of communities, Juneau included, had no access via road. A lot of people got their pilot’s license around the same time they got their permit to drive.
“We?” Rocco asked.
“Yeah. A woman named Zoey Knight is on the same flight as me. Apparently she was helping my dad out, and was visiting her mom in Anchorage when he passed. She’s in my dad’s will, and has been asked to come back for the reading too. So the lawyer got us on the same flight.”
“What’s funny?” Bubba asked.
“Her last name is Knight and yours is Wright. Hell, if you got married, she’d only have to change two letters in her last name.”
“Fuck off,” Bubba told his friend with a snort. “We aren’t getting married. Jeez. Just because you’re about to tie the knot doesn’t mean the rest of us are.”
“Right. Anyway, things here are good. The commander doesn’t see any missions in the near future, although we both know how quickly that can change. Try to enjoy your time back home. I know you haven’t been back in years. You’ll see your brother, right?”
Bubba winced. He felt bad that he wasn’t really looking forward to that. Malcom was his twin. He should be ecstatic to see him and catch up. But if Zoey’s words were any indication, his brother hadn’t changed much. “Yeah. Mal will be there. As will Sean, my dad’s business partner. I haven’t seen or talked to him in years either. Oh, and probably everyone else I grew up with who I haven’t seen in thirteen years.”
Rocco chuckled. “Gotta love small towns.”
“When’s the memorial for your dad?” Rocco asked.
“I think in two days. He’ll be cremated according to his wishes tomorrow. So I think the next day is when the memorial is planned.” Bubba saw the airline employee coming toward them and knew he had about thirty more seconds to talk. “I gotta go, looks like it’s time to board.”
“Okay. Be careful up there. You don’t have your team at your six this time.”
Bubba rolled his eyes, and that made him think about Zoey. “You worry too much,” he told his friend and SEAL team leader.
“It’s my job. And just wait until you find your woman. You’ll feel the same way. I swear to God, I’m more nervous now about the smallest things than I was before I met Caite.”
“Pass,” Bubba told him. “I don’t want to turn into a Nervous Nelly like you, so I’ll just stay single.”
“Famous last words,” Rocco said with a laugh. “Call me the second you land. And if you need us, we’re here. I know this isn’t easy for you, and if things get too overwhelming, all you gotta do is call and one of us, or all of us, will be there in a heartbeat. Got it?”
“Thanks, Roc. I appreciate it. And I’ll call when we hit Juneau.”
“Anytime. Talk to you soon.”
Bubba hung up and turned his phone off in preparation for the flight. He heard the airline employee telling Zoey she could board the plane, and he stuffed his phone into his duffle bag then joined them.
He wanted to offer to carry Zoey’s bag for her, but he had a feeling he’d pushed his luck enough for one day.
As they walked across the tarmac, Bubba was glad it was sunny. The temperature was moderate for this time of year, in the lower sixties. The forecast called for rain later, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait twenty minutes and it’ll change,” was very appropriate for this part of the country.
As they walked, Bubba’s eyes went to Zoey’s ass. He wasn’t proud of himself for ogling her, but she definitely had an ass that was meant for ogling. He managed to raise his eyes just in time when she turned around to ask if he had a preference for which side of the plane he wanted to sit on.
“Nope. You can pick. My plan is to take a nap, so it doesn’t matter.”
Zoey nodded and turned back around, and Bubba found his gaze dropping to her ass once more.
God, what was wrong with him? He was tired, that wasn’t a lie. He’d slept like shit the night before, wondering what was waiting for him in Juneau, but it wasn’t like him to be so rudely obvious about staring at a woman’s body.
Bubba turned his attention to the pilot as they approached the small plane. She looked young, in her early twenties, but that didn’t concern Bubba. He knew people frequently learned to fly at a very young age in Alaska.
“Hi,” the woman said as they approached. “My name is Eve Dane. I’ll be your pilot today. If you leave your bags at the bottom of the stairs, I’ll get them loaded and we’ll be on our way soon.”
Zoey thanked her and, after dropping off her bag, climbed into the plane. Bubba held out his hand and shook Eve’s. “I’m Bubba. That was Zoey. We appreciate you taking us to Juneau today. How long have you been flying?”
She smiled distractedly, shaking his hand even while looking at something in the plane. “I know I look young, but I’ve had my license for eight years. I started flying with my dad when I was fourteen and passed the test when I turned sixteen.”
Bubba nodded. That didn’t surprise him at all. “It’s good to meet you.”
He dropped her hand and put his bag down beside Zoey’s before climbing inside the small plane. There were two seats in the front and two in the back, the latter of which were bench style, separated only by an armrest. It would put him and Zoey very close together. It was a tight fit, especially for him, but Bubba strapped himself into the seat next to her with little difficulty.
Eve climbed in after a few minutes and turned to smile at them briefly. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Zoey told her.
He wasn’t a nervous flier, and he’d been in more than his fair share of helicopters, jumbo jets, and even small, private planes like this one. So he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. If he could sleep for the few hours it would take to get them to Juneau, he’d arrive in a much better frame of mind. Which was important, since he had a feeling it would take all his patience to deal with the lawyer, his brother, his dad’s business partner, and the countless other people who would want to know everything he’d been doing for the last thirteen years.
He wasn’t even there yet, and Bubba was already feeling claustrophobic and wanting to leave. As much as he regretted not making the effort to see his pop before he’d died, he didn’t regret not spending more time than necessary in the stifling town where he grew up.
Seconds after he felt the plane’s wheels leave the tarmac, Bubba was out. Sleeping the sleep of the exhausted.
Zoey Knight has lived in Juneau, Alaska her entire life. She loves her friends, but yearns for more excitement. She gets more than she ever bargained for when the plane she’s in goes down in a remote stretch of wilderness.
Mark “Bubba” Wright regrets not spending more time with his pop. Heading up to Alaska for the reading of his father’s will isn’t high on his list of things he wants to do, but seeing a girl he knew in high school on the same tiny plane was a pleasant surprise.
After they’re stranded in the Alaskan back country Zoey and Bubba have to figure out how to survive, discover who’s behind wanting them dead, and deal with an intense attraction all at the same time.
New York Times Bestselling Author
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