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From: [email protected] /* */

Sent: November 13, 2013

To: [email protected] /* */

Subject: A toaster?

Finn,

You spent a fortune to mail me a toaster? My friend Sophie thinks it’s some silly joke, but I know you, and this isn’t a joke. What’s the story?

Carrie

From: [email protected] /* */

Sent: November 13, 2013

To: [email protected] /* */

Subject: Yes, a toaster

Carrie

You are a girly girl, aren’t you? The picture of you wearing your high-heeled boots slipping and sliding across the ice on my lake, tugging your suitcase behind you, plays in my mind.

Yes, a toaster, and it isn’t a joke. I want you to have it. I’ll call you later tonight. Eleven your time. Work for you?

Finn

From: [email protected] /* */

Sent: November 13, 2013

To: [email protected] /* */

Subject: Waiting for you

Yes, Finn, I’ll be here. Call anytime. I’m planning on listening to Christmas music, getting in the mood for the holidays, and sipping hot chocolate. Wish you were here.

Carrie

Finn leaned back in his chair and slowly exhaled. The picture of Carrie sipping hot chocolate and listening to Christmas music while waiting for his call filled his mind. That shouldn’t surprise him. Carrie Slayton had dominated his thoughts from the moment she’d left Alaska. And if he was honest, even before that, too.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He’d assumed that once she was out of sight he’d be able to forget her. That hadn’t happened. If anything, it was ten times worse—thoughts of Carrie hounded him. He went to sleep thinking about her, and when he woke, she was right there, filling his mind and his heart.

Even Hennessey missed her. She’d won over his dog in record time, and now that she was gone, Hennessey moped around, his tail between his legs. His eighty-pound dog acted like a lost and lonely puppy. That shouldn’t be any surprise, seeing that Finn had reacted much the same since she’d left.

Whatever was happening to him didn’t sit well. This was a dead-end relationship, and the sooner he accepted that, the better off they both would be.

And yet … Finn couldn’t forget Carrie. It was bad enough that she was in the forefront of his thoughts during the day, but it was getting worse, as she had invaded his dreams as well. The kiss they shared was what had started it all. He’d managed to restrain himself from taking her in his arms until the very last minute. Once she was gone, life would right itself again. He even managed to convince himself this attraction was a simple matter of proximity. Naturally, they were attracted to each other, he’d reasoned. They were both young and single, and they’d been cooped up together for nearly forty-eight hours. As soon as she was gone, life would return to normal.

Carrie had been back in Chicago nearly a week now, and it hadn’t happened. It was as if Carrie had indelibly stamped his heart with her own brand and he was marked for life.

What Finn feared most was repeating the mistake his father had made and falling in love with the wrong woman. After his mother left, Finn’s father was never the same again. When they learned Joan had remarried, it had about killed the man. In his entire life, his father had only loved one woman. Now, just like his father, Finn was irresistibly drawn to a woman who was his opposite in far too many ways. It was enough to send warning bells ringing so loud they threatened to activate an avalanche.

He glanced at his watch, calculating the time difference between Fairbanks and Chicago. Carrie would be home by now, unless she was meeting a friend for dinner. Instantly, Finn’s gut tightened and his blood pressure spiked. He couldn’t bear the thought of Carrie with another man. It drove him to madness. Never having experienced jealousy this strong, he found the emotion distressing and worrisome.

This was the end of it. He was finished walking around like a wounded moose. He made the decision right then and there not to contact her again. But an immediate sense of emptiness and loss settled over him. After talking to her nearly every day and sharing an almost constant flow of emails, cutting off their relationship abruptly wouldn’t be good. He’d ease himself out of it, he reasoned, and instantly he felt better. Baby steps. That decided, he made a second decision—no further contact with her for the rest of the day.

Restless now, he stalked the condo and then decided to get out and do something. He headed to a local hangout, had a beer with one of his friends, and before he knew it, he was back in his condo.

Immediately his gaze flew to the telephone. He tilted back his head and stared at the ceiling. Unable to stop himself, he reached for his cell. He wouldn’t contact her tomorrow. But for now she was impossible to resist. He dialed Carrie’s number, as eager to hear the sound of her voice as a starved man is for nourishment. Oh, yes, he had it bad.

The phone rang, and Carrie nearly stumbled over her own feet in her eagerness to get to it.

“Hello.” She nearly blurted out Finn’s name but stopped herself in the nick of time. They’d spoken every day, sometimes two and three times. Finn had upgraded his cell phone so they could now text when he was in Fairbanks. He seemed to commute between the cabin and his condo on a regular basis.

“Carrie, it’s Mom. What’s up with you, honey? We’ve hardly spoken to you since you got back to Chicago. The only time we’ve talked is when Dad and I called you about your Christmas gift.”

“Oh, Mom,” Carrie tried to hide the disappointment in her voice. “I’m sorry. I’ve been meaning to call.” Which was true.

“I have to tell you, honey, Thanksgiving just won’t be the same without you.”

“I know. I wish I could be there, too.” Carrie was upset about it herself. This was the choice she’d made before flying to Alaska. The thought of spending the holiday alone filled her with dismay. She would miss the huge family gathering for the first time in her life.

“It isn’t like you not to call.”

This was a bit more difficult to explain. “Well, for one thing, being away from my desk for so long means I’m swamped at the office.”

“But, honey, you know your father and I are dying to hear what happened in Fairbanks; we’ve only heard snippets. Tell us more about Finn Dalton. Everyone here wants to know what he’s like and if the things he wrote about in his book could really be true.”

Carrie’s stomach twisted in a huge knot. “Mom, who have you told about me meeting Finn?”

Her mother must have heard the panic in Carrie’s voice, because she asked, “Are you keeping it a secret?”

“Yes,” she nearly shouted. “This is important. Please don’t mention my meeting Finn to anyone, okay?”

“If that’s what you want, but surely once the article—”

“There isn’t going to be an article.”

“But I thought—”

“I know, but I’ve come to know Finn and want to respect his privacy.” Her voice softened as her mind traveled back to the moment when he’d passionately kissed her and held her in his arms before she boarded the flight with Sawyer.

“Carrie?” her mother said. “You better tell me what happened between you and this wilderness man. And don’t try to hide it from me. Clearly there’s something going on here; I can hear it in your voice.”

Carrie swore her mother had special radar where she was concerned. It seemed she was unable to keep anything from her mother, and perhaps that was a good thing. Besides, Carrie felt like she would burst if she couldn’t talk about her feelings for Finn. The way she’d been lately with her head in a cloud was causing all kinds of speculation among her friends, especially Sophie.

“I’m falling in love with Finn Dalton.” It felt good to admit it, good to say out loud what was already in her heart.

Her announcement was followed by a short, stunned silence. “After only two days?”

“Does it sound crazy?” Then, before she could stop herself, Carrie blurted out nearly the entire story right to the point when he’d kissed her and asked Carrie not to write the article.

“Love is a strong emotion after such a short acquaintance,” her mother warned softly.

“I agree, I do, but I can’t help how I feel. It was all sorts of crazy and wonderful. Finn and I were playing cribbage, and I looked up at him and something happened. Something physical. All at once my pulse started racing and I looked at this burly, unshaven man and I thought Finn Dalton was the most attractive, appealing man I’d ever met. At first I tried to ignore it, tried to rationalize this attraction away with an entire list of excuses why a relationship between us simply wouldn’t work. It hasn’t done me any good. And since I’ve left Fairbanks, that feeling has grown stronger and stronger. He’s on my mind nearly every minute of the day. It’s like I’m only half alive since I returned.”

“Oh, dear, you do have it bad,” her mother said with a sympathetic sigh.

Carrie didn’t need her mother to tell her the obvious.

“But surely there’s a way for you to write the article and maintain the relationship,” her mother suggested. “You could write it and give it to him to read and approve. That way he would have control over what information was released to the public.”

“I thought of that, too.” Her mind had worked its way around several scenarios, but in the end she feared even approaching Finn with the idea would be a breach of trust.

“Doesn’t he realize what that article would do for you and your career?”

“He knows. Finn didn’t ask for this notoriety when he wrote his book. He doesn’t want the focus to be on him but on the beauty of the land and the adventures that await those willing to explore the great outdoors.”

“Well, he should have thought of that before he wrote the book.”

In theory, Carrie agreed, but Finn had had no idea how popular his tales of life in Alaska would be. “Do you know why he decided to write Alone?” she said, thinking back over a recent conversation. “He said he saw what was happening to men and boys in America, addicted to computer games. People are not getting outside and enjoying the outdoors and the wilderness nearly enough. He wanted to awaken a sense of adventure in people to get excited about what’s outside their front doors.”

“It worked,” her mother said. “I wonder if he knows all the outdoor groups his book has inspired.”

“I told him about that, but I don’t believe he truly grasps the extent of it. I think he finds it all rather humbling. Finn never sought the national spotlight. In hindsight, I wonder if he’d have written the book if he’d known what a sensation it would cause.” His motives were good. If Carrie had learned anything in the time they’d been together, it was that he deeply loved Alaska and that he had respect for nature.

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