Out of This WorldJill Shalvis
Out of This World
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
I t was one of those should-have-stayed-in-bed days. I should have given my alarm clock a one-way flight out my window courtesy of my old high-school softball arm, and just stayed home watching soap operas and stuffing my face with ice cream.
And I might have, if there’d been a nice, warm, hard male body next to mine. But nope, just as my mother has been woefully predicting since puberty, I’m still single. Not for lack of putting myself out there, mind you. But trust me, no matter what you read, the men in Los Angeles are slim pickings.
Oh, there are lots of them available. But they’re attached to their mirrors, or to their cell phones, where they have their shrinks and personal trainers on speed dial.
I could move away, of course, but where else could I go and have people pay me to paint murals on the sides of buildings? Where else could I wear flip-flops all year long, and have my biggest decision be whether to paint a night sky or a city panorama?
Yeah, despite myself, I am perfectly suited to L.A. living, to the come-what-may, no-plan-ahead lifestyle.
Most mornings I get up, toast half of a sesame-seed bagel and drink a large iced tea with lemon, heavy on the sugar. I shower, pull on a T-shirt and shorts (the upside of three hundred sixty-five days of sun a year), grab my paints and go to work, where, like my father before me, I paint on-spec murals to my heart’s content, while wishing it could be to my checkbook’s content as well.
But at least I love my job, right?
At night I go out to dinner with friends and bemoan the fact that we’re living the best years of our lives single. We have dessert—even though in my case, my shorts are getting a little snug around the waist—and then I go home, feed the fish, get into bed and dream of the cute FedEx guy, who still hasn’t noticed I’m alive.
Then I get up and do the whole thing all over again.
Or that’s what I always did, with some variation—until my great-great-aunt Gertrude died and changed my life.
She didn’t leave me a forgotten fortune or even a diamond necklace, though either would have been nice. No, what dear old Great-Great-Aunt Gertrude willed to me was a B&B in the wilds of Alaska—specifically, just outside the Katmai National Park and Preserve.
I, Rachel Wood, owner of an inn just outside a preserve—it boggled the mind, or at least my city-grown one.
Why had she owned such a thing in the middle of nowhere? Probably because she was mean as sin and liked being far from her entire family. But that’s another story entirely. In this story, here I am: a twenty-seven-year-old L.A. muralist with a B&B in Alaska. What’s a girl to do but go look?
Which means that this morning, instead of grabbing my paints, I packed a bag (okay, two bags), and I was now on a plane heading north.
And I mean waaay north. Nosebleed north.
With some trepidation, I faced my fear of heights and peeked out the plane window, then promptly got dizzy and clutched the armrests.
Wow, Alaska sure was big. And green.
As far as my eyes could focus lay jagged peaks, some still white-tipped, and it was August. August. It was almost beyond my Southern California imagination.
Lining those rugged mountains were ribbons and ribbons of trees. No buildings to paint murals on—not a single one. No coffeehouses in sight either.
Or movie theaters.
My stomach dropped some more, because in fact there were no signs of life at all—at least, not human life.
And more than just my stomach hurt now, because a world without concrete, without drive-throughs and drive-bys, seemed…alien. I knew this was a bit wussy of me, but fact was fact. If I ever had to go on the TV show Survivor, I wouldn’t make it past the first day. I need food on a regular basis. I need a bed every night.
And I need a bathroom, complete with electrical outlets, thank you very much.
“This is insane,” I whispered.
“Tell me about it.”
That voice belonged to Kellan, brother of my best friend, Dot McInty. Kellan was squished into the seat next to mine, his long legs banging up against the seat in front of him, his equally long arms hugging his beat-up leather saddlebag.
Dot is a physical therapist and therefore has a regular job and regular hours, complete with a boss who frowns on his people taking unplanned long weekends simply because their “best friend inherited a B&B in Alaska and needs hand-holding.”
So Dot sent Kellan in her place. Kellan is an actual, true-to-life dolphin trainer at Sea World. What this means is that he’s a tall, lanky brainiac who communicates with animals better than with humans and smells like the sea.
I have no idea what help Dot thought Kel would be to me here in the middle of Nowhere, USA, but he got the long weekend off, and I do have to admit, he’s funny and smart, even if sometimes he is so easygoing and laid-back that I have to check him for a pulse.
The plane dipped, and I gasped.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Kellan said. “Just turbulence.”
“I don’t mean to sound like Chicken Little, but we’re falling out of the sky.”
“No, we’re just coming into Anchorage for our landing. No worries.”
Right. No worries. No worries at all.
I bravely looked down, ignoring my stomach, now somewhere near my toes. The entire horizon was nothing but that disconcerting blanket of rugged peaks and wild growth for as far as I could see. “Where are we going to land?”
Kellan pushed his glasses up his nose and pulled a file from his saddlebag. He flipped through some papers and located a map. With his disheveled brown hair falling into his eyes, the strands at least six weeks past the need for a trim, and the glasses already slipping again, he looked a little like an absentminded professor as he unfolded the map and studied it. “Here.” He pointed to a circle in red ink. “Here’s Anchorage. See it? We’re going to land there, then take a float plane up King Solomon River to…here.” He tapped his long, work-roughened finger on another spot on the map. “There we’re going to be dropped off at a spot where we can rent a Jeep and ride up a short road to Hideaway.”
Apt name for a B&B in the wilds of Alaska, I decided.
He looked up, his eyes meeting mine. “You know all this already.”
Yes, and I knew that in this current leg of the trip, we were heading nearly three hundred air miles to the Alaska Peninsula, directly into unspoiled, unpopulated wilderness.
No highway system touched the area. Access was by small plane only.
And yet here we were. Willingly heading into isolation, into unstable weather, into an area where even the winds could be life threatening, where time seemed to be measured in terms of pre- and postvolcanic eruption, judging by all the articles I’d read.r />
Good God. Volcanic eruption…
“Somehow it all seemed far less threatening from inside my apartment,” I said, “surrounded by four walls and electricity, with the comforting sounds of traffic coming in my window.”
“No traffic here.” Kellan leaned over me and glanced out the window, his bony shoulder poking me. “Unless you count the four-legged variety.”
“Oh God.” This was a whole new horror I hadn’t considered. I looked down at my pink ruffled top and Capri jeans. Not much protection against wild animals. “You think there’ll be wolves?”
“I was thinking even bigger.”
“Moose,” I said. Were moose friends or foes?
“No, not moose.” His face gave little away, which was exactly the problem with Kellan, because I could never quite tell when he was kidding. “Bears.”
“Yep, bears. And maybe mountain cats, too.” He had these intense baby blue eyes, which always seemed slightly magnified behind his glasses, eyes that were amused now, at my expense.
“Well, that settles it,” I said, only half-kidding. “We have to turn around.”
He smiled, pushing up his glasses again. “You wanted to come out here, Lucy.”
As if I’d forgotten that this was completely of my own doing. Or that my nickname was I-Love-Lucy, due to my uncanny ability to land myself in outrageous situations without even trying.
Welcome to my most outrageous situation yet.
“In fact,” he went on, still amusing himself, “I think your exact words were ‘I want to broaden my horizons, Kel. I want to take my adventures to a whole new level.’”
“I did not say that.”
“Yes, you did. You said Alaska was going to be a good start on the rest of your life. A change from the dull and mundane.”
Okay, I’d actually said that, but it hadn’t sounded so cheesy at the time. “Thanks for throwing my own words back in my face.”
His knowing smile said “any time,” and I rolled my eyes and stared out the window again, at the sharp, craggy precipices and dizzying valleys coming up to greet us at stomach-shrinking speed as we came in for a landing.
Nerves hit me like a one-two punch, knocking the air out of my lungs. I didn’t need a restart, I thought hastily. My life was just fine! But unfortunately, they weren’t kidding when they said “starving artists.” And though I wasn’t exactly starving (in fact, I was stuffed into my Capris with some overflow), I wasn’t exactly flush with cash either.
Truth was, I barely scraped by each month.
Being broke wasn’t anything new to me, but this B&B hadn’t come with a college fund. So really, I had no choice but to come here and check it out, to decide what to do with it before—I don’t know—someone got stepped on by a moose and sued me.
“Hard to believe that just yesterday I was hanging off the CFS building,” I said, “painting a forty-five-foot mural of a seascape, while ten thousand cars passed by on the 405 during rush hour.”
“Nice dolphin on the far right, by the way,” Kellan said. “I caught it yesterday while stuck behind that two-car pileup.”
I managed a smile, sidetracked by the praise. “It was harder to do than I thought.”
“No, you got the dorsal fin just right.”
If I’d gotten it right, it was because he’d hounded me about it night and day since he’d learned I’d be painting it, sending me e-mails, faxes, pictures. “Thanks.”
“You’re really good.”
“He said, sounding so amazed.”
A grin split his face, and he went back to his notes, his too-long hair falling over his forehead and into his eyes. He wore his usual faded Levi’s, athletic shoes that looked as if they’d been on their last legs for a while now and a T-shirt that invited the general public to KEEP THE OCEAN BLUE.
He was, undoubtedly, a complete geek, but he was my geek, and I was very fond of him.
The plane dipped again. Just beneath us, I could see treetops, dense undergrowth and narrow canyons, which challenged the contents of my stomach, and I clutched Kellan’s big, warm hand. “Should we say our last rites? Admit our sins?”
“Oh, you don’t have time for that,” he said. “We’re going down.”
I think I squeaked.
“Down as in landing. It’s going to be fine, Rach. An adventure, remember?”
Right. An adventure to the land of snow and moose and mountain men.
And it wasn’t as if I had something else to do. Long-term planning was not a strong suit of mine, much to my perpetually exasperated mother’s frustration. She’d long ago given up trying to coax me into a “real” career, or a marriage, for that matter.
I love painting, and I don’t intend to give it up. A man, however, that might be nice. But I’ve been through quite a few, and I’ve learned a few lessons.
Such as that a good thing never lasts.
The nose of the plane took a sharp dip. Oh God, oh God. Just descending, I told myself. As if I couldn’t tell by the way my eyeballs pressed back into my head.
Finally the wheels touched down. Actually “slammed down” would be more accurate, so hard I nearly ate my own teeth, and I reminded myself I’d done this out of curiosity, which was a good thing, a healthy thing, and I’d make the best of it.
Then I remembered something else: Curiosity was all well and fine, but it’d also killed the cat.
We switched planes in Anchorage, and now we sat in a tiny tin can, a butt-squeaker of a float plane.
“Oh. My. God.” I gripped Kellan’s hand, and stared at the lake below, racing past us at a dizzying speed. We’d been on the float plane for only five minutes.
The wind made tears stream out of my eyes, and I think I had a bug in my teeth. “Kellan!”
“You’re going to break my fingers.” He tried to free his hand from mine, but that wasn’t going to happen. I had a death grip on him, and the only way he was getting free was to chew free.
Supposedly this “air taxi” could handle both water and air, though as near as I could tell, we hadn’t left the water more than a foot or two below us. The top was open, like that of a biplane, the noise incredible.
The landscape whipped by so fast, I couldn’t catch more than a brown-green-blue blur, the only constant being Jack, the pilot. He sat behind the controls yelling “Woo hoo!” at the top of his lungs as he dodged trees like we were playing some sort of Xbox game with our lives.
Jack looked the mountain-man part: long hair held back by a leather string, the mass flying out behind him. He wore aviator sunglasses, beige cargo pants whose every pocket was filled with God-knew-what and a long-sleeved shirt open over a T-shirt that said FLY MY FRIENDLY SKIES—PLEASE.
The light in his eyes as he flew the plane said he was either very good at what he did or he was thoroughly, one-hundred-percent insane. I was betting on the former, while praying it wasn’t the latter. In spite of the way I had led my life—that is, without much precaution or a single thought-out plan—I was not reckless.
And yet, here I was, on a plane I could have parked in my bathroom, with a man who might have smoked a crack pipe for lunch, flying over the wilds of Alaska.
I’m telling you, the crazy streets of Los Angeles were tame compared to this. Here, there were peaks on peaks, each bigger than the last, layers upon layers, stabbing up into the sky to heights I’d never imagined.
“Seriously, Rach”—this from Kellan, at my side—“I need my fingers back.”
We made another heart-stopping turn at the speed of light, following the river below. Ignoring Kellan, I closed my eyes, then felt my stomach leap into my eyeballs. Whoops. Definitely not a good way to fight vertigo, so I opened them again. “Are we almost there yet?”
Jack craned his neck. “Why, what’s up? You need a pit stop?”
I looked at him hopefully. “You have a bathroom on board?”
sp; He laughed. “Nope. But I can find you a tree.”
Even Kellan laughed at that—the jerk—and I squeezed his fingers harder, until he paled.
There. That made me feel marginally better, but the only thing that could fix this situation entirely was to have Dot at my side. She wouldn’t have found any humor in my need to pee. She’d have been right there with me, demanding a bathroom complete with blow-dryer and scented hand soap.
“Serious,” Kellan gasped, “my fingers—”
I squeezed harder. Suck it up, I thought. And then I couldn’t think, because right in front of us—right in the middle of the river whipping by me so fast that the landscape looked like one of my paintings, still wet and also blurred, as if I had swiped my fingers over it—was a fallen log the likes of which Paul Bunyan had never seen. The thing was massive, with branches still reaching into the sky, like the arms of a downed giant ghost.
And we were going to hit it.
So I did the only sensible thing: I closed my eyes, opened my mouth and screamed.
My stomach bounced, down to my pink toenails, then back up into my freshly touched-up roots and finally to somewhere near the region where it was supposed to be, so I knew Jack was doing some fancy flying—not that I looked. No sirree, my looking days were over.
Then I realized Kellan was saying “It’s okay” over and over in my ear, his breath tickling my skin. Maybe it was the fact he’d grown up with only his mother and three sisters, smothered in feminine woes and Barbie dolls. Or maybe it was from all that practice with the dolphins. However he’d gotten the gift of knowing the right thing to do and to say to a woman, I was grateful. Especially since comfort was an almost foreign concept, given that the men I dated tended to be, well, badasses, and badasses typically don’t do comfort.