A brand new series by New York Times bestselling author, Susan Stoker
The Refuge is a place to heal. Where those who have experienced traumatic events can go to heal. It’s run by seven former military men who’ve seen more than their fair share of the ugliness in the world.
Friend-zoned since childhood by the most amazing man she’s ever known, that doesn’t stop Alaska Stein from doing whatever’s necessary—including lying to the military—to be by his side when Drake ends up in a German hospital after a mission gone wrong. The broken man in the bed is not the boy she once knew. Despite that, and despite years apart, when Drake turns his gaze to Alaska, he sees her. Looks beyond the plain-Jane exterior to his childhood friend beneath. He may never be anything more than a friend, but putting her needs aside to see him whole is a sacrifice she’s willing to make.
Drake “Brick” Vandine walks away from the SEALs after his recovery, building a life around helping others struggling with PTSD. But he can’t walk away from Alaska. She was there for him in his darkest moment and her spine of steel saw him through one of the biggest challenges of his career. And now, although she lives half a world away, she’s still his anchor, his daily dose of support as he and several friends build The Refuge. A place of peace, a place of healing. But, for Drake, also a place of loneliness.
When the unthinkable befalls Alaska during a trip to Russia, it’s Drake’s turn to drop everything and race to her aid. Safely back at The Refuge, he just as quickly realizes what he’s failed to see for two decades—his oldest, dearest friend is the love of his life.
A revelation that may be too little, too late. Because Drake’s brought the enemy right to their door.
31 Years Ago
“Hi, are you new?”
Alaska Stein looked up in surprise at the boy who was standing next to her seat on the school bus. “Yes.”
“Cool. I’m Drake. What’s your name?”
“That’s a weird name,” the boy said.
“So’s Drake,” she told him with a shrug.
To her surprise, instead of getting mad, he smiled. “I guess. When did you move here?”
“Last week,” Alaska replied. She’d seen the boy at school and knew he was in fourth grade, a year ahead of her.
“This your first time riding the bus?”
Alaska shook her head. He’d walked past her on the bus four times this week, obviously without seeing her…which was already the story of her young life. Her mom always said she should’ve named her Jane…as in plain Jane. She claimed her daughter could blend in with the walls. Being invisible had never bothered Alaska though. She was shy and didn’t like when people stared at her.
“Oh, wait! I think you moved into the trailer a couple spaces down from mine. The brown and white one?” Drake asked.
“Cool! Wanna play this afternoon? My friends and I are gonna play War.”
Alaska scrunched up her nose.
“It’s fun,” Drake cajoled. “We split up into sides and the entire trailer park is our war zone. We try to get from Mr. Markle’s trailer all the way down to Mrs. Benedict’s without being shot.”
“Shot?” she asked.
Drake nodded enthusiastically. “Not really, but pretend. You can be on my team. I’ll teach you the best ways to sneak by the others. I’m pretty awesome at it.”
Alaska found herself nodding. She wasn’t sure she’d enjoy playing war, but this was the first time in her life she’d been asked to be on someone’s team. Usually she was picked last.
“Cool!” her new friend said again, then he asked her about her teacher, where she came from, if she liked her new school, and a hundred other questions. He continued even after they arrived at their bus stop, keeping up a steady stream of chatter, and by the time they split off to go to their respective trailers, Alaska felt flushed with excitement. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a friend.
She and her mom were constantly moving, and she wasn’t the kind of girl who made friends easily. But her mom had promised this time they were here to stay. Alaska could only hope she wasn’t lying. She had a good feeling about this school, this town. It hadn’t even been a week, and she’d already been invited to play!
27 Years Ago
Alaska stood on the edge of the basketball court alone, watching her classmates dance and laugh with each other. She hated everything about middle school. If she’d thought she faded into the background before, it was nothing compared to now…when boys were becoming acutely aware of girls. But not Alaska. Her basic long brown hair was neither curly and lush nor straight and sleek. None of the current popular hairstyles looked right on her, so she kept it all the same length. She had no idea how to wear the makeup all the other girls experimented with and to top things off…she was on the plump side.
Put all that together, and it meant Alaska was overlooked more than ever. She had a few girlfriends…sort of…people she sat with at lunch and talked to between classes. But no one to talk to late at night on the phone, hang out with on the weekends, or to share her deepest secrets.
She’d come to the dance tonight simply because everyone else was going. No one had asked Alaska to go…no boy, that is. She met up with a few girls she knew at school and they’d hung out at the edge of the court for a while, gossiping and eyeing the boys. When a slow dance sounded over the speakers, the boys who’d come alone got up the nerve to ask the other single girls for a dance…and Alaska was left standing by herself.
“Hey, Al,” a familiar voice said from her left.
Jolting in surprise, Alaska turned to see Drake standing there, leaning against the wall next to her. He bent a knee, putting a foot flat against the bricks behind them.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” he asked.
That was the thing about Drake. In the four years since she’d met him, he’d never treated her as an outcast. Never let on that he was aware of how invisible she was…even if he didn’t actually notice her in the way she wished he would.
They still sometimes hung out after school, but it wasn’t to play War in the neighborhood anymore. Now it was to play video games in his trailer. Sometimes he had other friends over too, but he always picked her to play on his team. She’d gotten good at the military games he liked to play. It felt nice to be good at something…and to be wanted.
“Yeah, this is kind of lame,” Drake agreed.
“Didn’t you come with Bev?”
“Yep, but as soon as we got here, she saw Miles and Courtney fighting and made her move. She’s always liked him better than me,” he said with a shrug.
“You don’t care?” Alaska asked, genuinely curious.
“Nope. I mean, girls are okay I guess, but when I graduate from high school, I’m joining the Navy anyway. I’m gonna be a SEAL. I won’t have time for girls.”
“Really?” Alaska asked. “Isn’t that super dangerous?”
“It is. But I don’t care. I’m gonna be the best SEAL the Navy’s ever had. I’m gonna kick terrorist ass.” His voice dropped as he said, “Tim says I’m too small. That only big strong men can be SEALs, but I’ll show him.”
Alaska put her hand on Drake’s arm. “You’re gonna be amazing. You’re the only one who never got caught when we played War. You were somehow always able to sneak by everyone without them seeing you. And no one has a chance when they play video games against you.”
He stood up straight and grinned. “I know. I’m awesome.”
Alaska laughed. One of the reasons she liked Drake so much was because he was so confident. In everything. School, girls, athletics…as if it was just a given that he’d excel at whatever he did.
“You wanna dance?” he asked nonchalantly.
Alaska’s heart began to beat faster in her chest. She had no idea exactly when or why her feelings toward her friend and neighbor had changed. But one day at his place, as he shouted at the TV, frantically trying to get out of a sticky situation on the game they were playing, Alaska glanced over at him…and realized she liked Drake as more than a friend.
But she never held out hope that he’d ever return her feelings. She saw how the girls at school fawned over him. He was popular, and she was…just there. Not unpopular, but definitely not one of the cool kids either.
“Sure,” she said after a long pause.
He smiled and pushed off the wall. Alaska followed, not knowing if she was supposed to hold his hand or what.
Just as he turned and reached for her, there was some shouting behind him.
Michael Jones was yelling at Miranda Brotherton and causing quite a scene. The two had been going together for most of the school year, but Alaska had no idea why. They didn’t even seem to like each other much.
“I saw you staring at Julio!” Michael sneered, reaching out and shoving Miranda’s shoulder as she cried, making her stumble back a few steps.
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to…” Drake said, gesturing toward the couple.
Alaska nodded and stood in the middle of the dance floor as Drake headed for the couple. He got up in Michael’s face and told him pushing Miranda wasn’t cool. There was a moment when Alaska thought they were going to fight, but eventually, Michael turned and left the dance floor.
Drake immediately went to Miranda, putting an arm around her shoulders and leading her away.
Realizing she was standing in the middle of all the couples dancing, Alaska bit her lip and slunk back to the wall she’d been standing in front of earlier. Regret filled her. That was probably the one and only chance she’d ever get to have Drake’s arms around her. She wasn’t surprised he stood up for Miranda though…that was just the kind of guy he was. And one of a hundred reasons why he’d make a great SEAL.
Alaska didn’t get asked to dance by anyone else that night. She smiled and chatted with her friends, but deep down, she couldn’t escape the odd sense that something precious was slipping away. Drake would be switching to the high school next year, and she’d only get to see him on the bus. She was sad for herself, but happy for her friend.
23 Years Ago
Alaska’s heart hurt. Drake was leaving to enlist in the Navy tomorrow. He was not only smart, but he’d also ended his high school baseball career with the most runs in a season and as the captain. She imagined he’d be an equally successful SEAL. The attention he got from teachers, girls, and all friends had only increased, people gravitating toward him naturally.
Still…he’d never forgotten about Alaska. They didn’t get together as often as they once had, but every now and then he’d invited her over to his trailer, and they’d have dinner and play a video game for old time’s sake.
His mom had thrown him a graduation party earlier today, before he left for boot camp. All his friends had been there, boys and girls. There were balloons, a cake, and everyone had brought presents. Alaska had felt weird giving him a gift in front of everyone else, so she waited until the party wound down before running back to her trailer to grab what she’d made for him.
Her mom had been drunk—again—and Alaska had to take the time to get her to bed. Her drinking had gotten out of hand and if it wasn’t for Alaska, her mom probably would’ve starved by now. Alaska had taken it upon herself to make sure her mom ate dinner every night, since usually she got home from work and immediately started drinking.
By the time she was able to leave the trailer to go back to Drake’s, it was later than she’d planned. Her heart dropped as she approached his home. No one was outside anymore…the party was obviously over. Alaska knocked on the door and held her breath.
Drake’s mother answered. “Hey, honey. Did you forget something?”
“No, I went home to grab the present I got for Drake, but my mom needed me for a bit. Is he here?”
“I’m so sorry, he’s not. He and his friends went out one last time before he leaves in the morning.”
Alaska did her best to keep the tears in her eyes from falling. She’d missed him. He was leaving way early tomorrow, and she wouldn’t see him before he left.
“Oh, honey…I’m sure he won’t be out too late,” Drake’s mom said, obviously seeing Alaska’s distress.
But she knew otherwise. She’d heard his buddies saying they weren’t letting him go home until right before he had to leave…their way of “toughening him up.” Their words, not hers.
“It’s okay,” she said with a small shrug.
“Do you want me to give him that for you?” his mom asked, gesturing to the gift.
Looking down at the messily wrapped present, Alaska suddenly felt ridiculous. She’d seen some of the other presents he’d gotten…expensive things. Clothes, electronics, money. She hadn’t had any extra cash to get him a gift, hence the homemade offering. She was well aware that it looked awful. The thought of giving it to Drake now made her cringe.
She shook her head and said, “No. It’s not a big deal. If you can please tell him that I wish him the best?” she asked. The words were as lame as her gift. There was so much she wanted to tell Drake, but not through his mom.
“I will. I’m sure he’ll want to keep in touch.”
Alaska smiled and nodded once more. Drake promised to send her his address once he got to boot camp, but she had a feeling he was going to be way too busy to write letters.
He’d been her best friend for years, even if he didn’t realize it…and losing him felt as if she was losing a vital part of herself. She knew this day would come. When he’d walk away without looking back.
He was destined for greatness, and she was destined for…
Alaska didn’t know what. Mediocracy? She had okay grades, completely average looks, and was hopeless when it came to athletics. She had no idea what she wanted to do when she graduated. She’d probably stay here and take care of her mom. Maybe take some classes at the community college. Get a boring desk job with a cubicle and slowly fade into the woodwork.
She backed away from Drake’s mom, giving her one last wave as she headed back to her own trailer. On the way, she stopped at the trash can at the end of Drake’s driveway, waiting to be picked up in the morning. Glancing back to ensure his mom was no longer in the doorway, Alaska opened the bin and threw the ridiculous present inside, the one she’d worked on for weeks, before trudging back to her own trailer.
As she lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, she whispered, “Good luck, Drake. But you don’t need it. You’re gonna be one of the best SEALs the Navy ever had. I know it.”
15 Years Ago
Drake wasn’t the kind of man who spent a lot of time thinking about his past. He had good memories from high school, but he was a completely different man than he’d been at eighteen. He’d seen and done a lot since then. Making it through the training to become a SEAL, living through harrowing missions, losing teammates.
But tonight, after attending the funeral of yet another friend who’d lost his life too soon, he was feeling nostalgic. The SEAL who’d been killed while on a mission had a family. A wife who was devastated and a little girl who was too young to have any real memories of her father.
It was that little girl, who’d sat on a chair way too big for her at the graveside service, swinging her legs and paying no attention to what was going on in front of her, who now had Drake remembering a childhood friend from the trailer park he’d grown up in. He had a regular reminder of Alaska Stein…but he hadn’t thought of her so deeply in years. Tonight, he couldn’t seem to get her off his mind.
Guilt and sorrow for a lost friendship inexplicably consumed him. He’d promised to write, but after arriving at boot camp, he’d been too busy making it from day to day to take the time. He’d been young, excited about life, figured he’d have time to connect with her later.
It wasn’t until he’d finally become a SEAL, had been awarded his Budweiser pin, that he’d sat down and written her a letter. But it was returned to sender unopened.
When that letter had come back, he’d felt a sense of loss that he couldn’t begin to explain. It was silly. He could’ve probably found her on social media, but that felt too…impersonal. He didn’t like the idea of being one of hundreds of pseudo “friends” online.
Life stayed busy…meetings, missions, training. But every now and then, like tonight, his old friend returned to the forefront of his mind, making Drake wonder where she was, what she was doing. Was she married? Did she have children?
Did she ever think about her old childhood friend?
Maybe he’d ask his mom if she knew anything about Alaska, how to get in touch. His mother had always liked her, and unlike Drake, she was constantly on social media. If anyone could find his one-time friend, it would be his mom. He regretted losing touch with Alaska and hoped she was doing all right.
Sighing, Drake did his best to drag himself out of the doldrums. The Navy, and the world, had lost a good man today. He needed to get his head out of the past and concentrate on the future. Needed to train harder, to make sure he and the men on his own team didn’t end up like his friend.
“Wherever you are, Alaska…I hope you’re happy,” Drake whispered before opening the folder on the table in front of him. He needed to study the intel on his upcoming mission…not think about what he’d lost.
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