Under the Northern LightsS. C. Stephens
PRAISE FOR S.C. STEPHENS
“From page one, this book is impossible to put down.”
—Abbi Glines, on Thoughtless
“S.C. Stephens at her best!”
—Katy Evans, on Thoughtful
“Addicting and heart pounding—you won’t be able to put it down until you’ve devoured every word.”
—Christina Lauren, on Untamed
ALSO BY S.C. STEPHENS
Thoughtless (Book 1)
Effortless (Book 2)
Reckless (Book 3)
Thoughtful (Thoughtless alternate POV)
Untamed (Book 4)
Furious Rush (Book 1)
Dangerous Rush (Book 2)
Undeniable Rush (Book 3)
Conversion (Book 1)
Bloodlines (Book 2)
’Til Death (Book 3)
The Next Generation (Book 4)
The Beast Within (Book 5)
Family Is Forever (Book 6)
It’s All Relative
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2019 by S.C. Stephens
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Caroline Teagle Johnson
For my “mountain man.” Thank you for giving me hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eagerness surged through me as I stared at the bright-yellow Piper Super Cub waiting patiently for me on a bed of crisp white snow. I was dying to get the small plane into the air, feel the rush and freedom that came along with exploring the skies. That wasn’t the primary purpose of the trip I was about to take, but it was definitely a perk. There was nothing quite like watching the world from above.
“Are you all set, Mal?”
I looked over at the grizzled man watching me. Nick. He stored my plane for me up here in Alaska. My home was back in Cedar Creek, Idaho, but that was too far of a trip for a bush plane like this, so Nick kept it secure for me, kept it ready for my annual trip into the wilderness. “Yep. The plane’s all gassed up; supplies are all loaded. I’m just going to do my preflight check—then I’ll be on my way.”
Nick nodded like he wasn’t expecting a problem with the plane. He usually took it out for a spin or two before I arrived, so he knew its condition even better than I did. Safety was high on his list of priorities. Mine too. I fully planned on coming back alive, and with the remote spot I was headed to, that meant being prepared. For anything. As my grandfather used to say, “Live each day expecting the worst possible thing to happen, and you just might get to see the next day.” Considering what I did for a living, I took those words to heart.
My love, my passion, my reason for being, was to photograph the world’s finest creatures in their natural environments—the more untouched by man, the better. I got a rush from capturing pristine landscapes that had remained unchanged by civilization for centuries and photographing wild animals that, until me, had probably never laid eyes on a human being. It was exciting and invigorating, and it filled me with purpose. It was also sometimes extremely frustrating. Truly wild animals weren’t exactly camera friendly. The herbivores were skittish, more likely to run than pose, and carnivores . . . well, it was challenging to take an award-winning photo when you knew you were being stalked. I loved the challenge, though, and the environment—and even the isolation, if only for a few weeks out of the year.
Taking a slow walk around my small plane, I checked for any imperfections that could lead to a disaster in the air. When I was satisfied that the wings were fine, I moved around to the front of the plane. It had already been winterized, skis replacing the tires, and I thoroughly inspected them for any sign of damage. Skis were more reliable for landing on snow, but they didn’t have brakes, and they took quite a beating whenever the plane touched down. Being able to land safely was of utmost importance anywhere, but it was even more so for me, since I wasn’t landing anywhere near civilization. If my plane broke in any major way, I was stuck, possibly for months. And I was only bringing supplies for a few weeks. I wasn’t worried, though. Precaution was practically my middle name—and this trip was important to me, worth the risk.
Everything looked good with the skis, so I moved on to the engine. It seemed to be in working order, so I was good to go. Finally! After reaching into the cockpit, I primed the engine, cracked the throttle, then spun the propeller. It caught just as I expected it to, and the engine roared to life. Yes . . . time to leave. I couldn’t wait!
Looking back at Nick, I waved a goodbye. “See you in a few weeks,” I told him, the joy in my voice uncontainable.
He laughed at my enthusiasm, then shook his head. “See ya, Mallory. Have a safe flight.”
Excitement pounding through my veins, I climbed into the cockpit and put on my headset. Nick’s runway was in his backyard, and his giant log cabin behind me had a thick plume of smoke coming from the chimney. Warmth. That was something I was going to crave over the next few weeks, since the northern Alaska Range wasn’t exactly a tropical beach, but one thing I never skimped on was insulating clothes, blankets, bedrolls, and the best boots money could buy. I was going to be as comfortable as possible while I was roughing it.
My plane sped down the runway, the skis making it a bumpy ride until I smoothly lifted into the air. A huge smile was on my face as I soared above the treetops. Takeoff was my favorite part of flying. Feeling that pull, the force pushing against your stomach in reminder that humans weren’t meant to be in the air . . . it was a little addictive. Grinning as I sailed higher into the sky, I glanced back at my cargo. Somewhere back there, safely nestled next to my survival pack, was my professional-grade Nikon camera. My pride and joy and the sole purpose of making this potentially dangerous trek into one of the remotest places in America. I was almost giddy to discover what surprises my camera and I would uncover this year. This job was so unpredictable—I could find nothing, or I could capture the photo that would become the epitome of my career. I loved the mystery of it all. The unknown called to me.
Once I was at my plane’s cruising altitude, I headed south, toward the range I’d been fr
equenting for the last ten years. My favorite spot to land was about a three-hour flight from Two Rivers and about one hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. It wasn’t on the way to anything, and I’d never once seen another plane or person while there. It was isolated heaven. It was also bear country, and the grizzlies were plentiful. As were the wolves. That was why I had a rifle strapped to the outside of the plane, and I never went anywhere without it. While I lived for photographing animals doing what animals did, I had no intention of becoming their dinner.
There were so many creatures I wanted to encounter on this trip. The bears should be out, gathering food for hibernation. I’d come across a gigantic male last year, and I’d absolutely love a repeat encounter with him—from a safe distance, of course. Seeing some wolves would be amazing. Alaskan gray wolves were some of the smartest creatures out there. They hunted in packs that could take down a moose. Dangerous, yes, but so incredibly beautiful. Lynx were on my list too. Plus eagles, owls, martens . . . there was so much I was eager to see.
I’d gotten interested in photography in high school when I’d gone to an art exhibit with my mom and had seen some of the thrilling shots captured by professionals. My mind had spun with the possibilities. In what other line of work could you spend ample amounts of time outdoors, go all around the world, and see extraordinary things that most people never got to see? It had seemed like the perfect career for me. My parents had thought otherwise. They just hadn’t been able to see how photographing animals could sustain me financially. And of course, they’d worried about my safety. Accepting that your child was going to be alone in the middle of nowhere all the time was difficult for a protective parent. They wanted me to stay home and stay safe.
There had been countless arguments with my parents over the years, especially in the beginning, before I’d started earning money from my photos. I’d been living with them back then, and not a day had gone by without one of them telling me that I should give up my improbable dream and get a real job, a paying job, a less adventurous job. They’d been over the moon when I’d finally relented to my incessant boyfriend, Shawn, and agreed to marry him. My parents adored Shawn and thought he would be a stabilizing influence on me. I thought they’d secretly been hoping he would convince me to stay home and give them tons of grandbabies. But it hadn’t worked out that way, and marrying Shawn had been a huge mistake, probably the biggest mistake I’d ever made. The two of us had always been better at being friends, and even as I’d said “I do,” I’d known Shawn wasn’t the right one for me. He was too much like my parents and spent too much time telling me everything that I couldn’t and shouldn’t do. Within a year, Shawn and I had divorced. My parents had been crushed. Shawn too.
But none of them had understood and accepted the vision I had of my life and that nothing short of achieving my goal would make me truly happy. And it had taken a lot of hard work, time, and determination, but I’d done it. I’d managed to make a name for myself, and I’d eventually found a way to make a small but steady income doing what I loved, on my own terms. I’d been my own boss ever since graduating high school more than a dozen years ago, and even though Shawn and my family hadn’t entirely approved of my risky passion, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had to live life my way and not within the confines of someone else’s expectations. I hoped someday they could appreciate that and forgive me for not compromising.
A heavy splatter landing on my windshield distracted me from my reminiscing, and when I looked up at the sky, my chest tightened with dread. Clouds were billowing across my projected path, and they were getting darker and more ominous by the second. Damn it. The weather report had been telling me all week that my path would be clear; this wasn’t supposed to happen. But the unpredictability of Alaska’s weather was about the only thing you could be certain of up here. You had to adapt to survive, and I was pretty good at adapting.
But getting caught in a sleet storm was one of the most dangerous things that could happen in a small plane like mine. Like most bush planes, my Cub didn’t have any navigational instrumentation. All I could rely on were my eyes—I had to be able to see the ground at all times—and low, dark clouds releasing a thick rain-snow mix meant no visibility. And no visibility meant I could easily crash into something . . . like a mountain. Ice buildup was also a problem. If too much formed on the wings, I’d be too heavy—I’d go down. I needed clear air, so I had no choice but to land and wait for the storm to pass.
God, I hated having to make emergency landings in unexpected places. So much could go wrong . . . but even more could go wrong if I stayed airborne. Trying not to worry, I started studying the ground, looking for a place suitable for landing—it needed to be a long enough stretch that I could slow to a stop without running into something. Panic started creeping up my spine as I studied the earth. I wasn’t seeing anything even remotely close to an open space—everything beneath me was dense forest. But having gone this way several times before, I knew there was a wide-open meadow in a low valley, just on the other side of the first pass. I had no choice but to brave the storm . . . and pray that I could see well enough to pick my way through the mountains.
Heart racing, I lifted a small golden cross hanging around my neck, brought it to my lips, and said a quick prayer. Help me see—help me find the path. I let out a slow, calming breath once my prayer had been whispered and concentrated on my training, my years of experience, and my knowledge of the land. This wasn’t my first scary moment in a plane, and it probably wouldn’t be my last. Hopefully it wouldn’t be my last. No, I couldn’t think that way. I had to stay positive, had to stay focused. I could do this. I’d done it before.
The ceiling was getting lower and lower as more clouds moved in, and that meant I’d have to hug the bottom of the pass while making sure I still had room to maneuver. One wrong move, and I’d be a permanent part of the countryside. Shit. I’d had to do this once or twice before, and it always made me feel ice cold inside, almost numb with terror. I hated this . . . but it was my only option—I needed to get to the meadow on the other side of this pass.
My heart thudded against my rib cage as I dipped toward the earth, and my hands started trembling. As I inched lower, I visualized clear air, a pristine runway, a perfect landing—anything to keep calm. It was hard to do while my windshield was being pelted with heavy raindrops; I needed to be on the ground—now—before it was too late.
The clouds were still lowering, the mountains seemingly rushing up to meet them, cutting off my view of the gap between the giant peaks. Keeping as low as safely possible, I searched for a way through the pass . . . a pass that I was rapidly, inexorably approaching. And then, a split-second clearing of the clouds showed me a sliver of blue sky. A hole! The clouds quickly hid it again, but it had been there . . . I was sure of it.
I kept my eyes glued to the spot where I’d seen the patch of blue sky; I didn’t even blink for fear of losing my path. My stomach felt like jelly, and my heart was thundering so hard that it was almost louder than the rain pounding against my plane. Knowing I was taking a huge risk, I crossed all my fingers and toes and flew into the gray taffy that was blocking my view. Please let this be a hole and not a mountainside. As the clouds enveloped me in a blanket of haze, my body tensed in anticipation. This was it . . . all or nothing.
Fear tried to seize control of my limbs, tried to jerk the plane left or right, up or down. It took a tremendous amount of willpower to fight the instinct, to resist the urge to move. Sweat formed on my brow as I concentrated . . . as I prayed. When the fog didn’t clear right away, I started to panic; this was how planes hit mountains. My entire body started vibrating, wanting to flee, but I didn’t alter my trajectory. This was the last course I’d known to be true. I had to stay on target.
My breath came out in frantic bursts. “Please, please, please,” I murmured over and over. “Clear up . . . show me the way.” And just like that, the ceiling lifted, and I saw the mountains piercing the sky on either side o
f me. I’d made it through the pass. Relief instantly washed over me. “Thank you. Oh my God, thank you . . .”
Maybe to show me that I wasn’t entirely out of the woods yet, the weather made a turn for the worse, and heavy, icy sleet pellets started pummeling me. I’d made it between the mountains, but I still needed to land. Spotting the clearing off to my left, I started banking the plane toward it. And that was when the unthinkable happened . . . the engine stalled.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I’d never had the engine stall on me before. Horror flashed through me, paralyzing me. What do I do? Jesus, I had no one to ask, no way to call for help, and my mind was completely blank—I couldn’t remember anything my instructor had taught me. It was just . . . gone.
The plane was unnaturally silent with the engine off. All I could hear was the sound of my fierce breath and the sleet assaulting me. Panicking was the absolute worst thing I could do right now, so, closing my eyes, I tried to refocus. All I needed to do was restart the engine and find a place to land. No problem. I can do this.
Blowing out a long, slow breath, I opened my eyes and tried restarting the engine. Nothing. I tried again and again and again. Still nothing. Shit. My plane was gliding, but with no real way to gain altitude, it was only a matter of time before I ran into the ground.
No, no, no . . . this could not be happening. I’d made it through—it was supposed to be smooth sailing from here! I didn’t want to die. I wanted to see my home again; wanted to see my sister, Patricia; wanted to let her know how much I loved her, even though she was a know-it-all pain in the ass. I wanted to see my parents again, wanted to help them out with their diner, like I did every summer. I wanted to see my dogs again, spoil them rotten like I did whenever I came back from a long trip. I even wanted to see Shawn again. I wanted my life. I loved my life. I did not want to die in the woods, alone.
But I was getting lower and lower, the ground was coming closer and closer, and the damn engine still wouldn’t restart. The tops of the trees started scratching the underside of my plane like claws, trying to tear me from the sky. “Oh God . . . please start, please start, please, please, please . . .” Begging had worked before; maybe it would again.