by Laura DeHart Young
A National Park Service Ranger in Fairbanks, Alaska, Kay Westmore has all the drama she can handle right now. In addition to escalating problems within her own family, she has become the target of a series of harassing letters and phone calls that she suspects are the work of her abusive ex-lover.
To complicate matters, she’s about to embark on a dangerous survival mission to Northern Alaska at the worst time of the year with her new boss, Grace Perry. Grace is an ambitious (but very attractive) government official, who seems to take pleasure in making Kay’s life even more miserable by being intent on constantly running the show—an act which could get them both killed.
Leaving behind the only thing that seems to bring her peace, Kay wonders if she’s making the worst mistake of her life. Letting go of Stef Kramer, a beautiful, alluring woman determined to win Kay’s heart, plagues her thoughts. Should it matter that Stef is still in college and 10 years Kays junior? What could someone that young possibly know about love?
The helicopter approached Fairbanks from the north. From above, the land surrounding the city appeared flat—until a closer look revealed low rolling hills spreading out from the banks of the Chena River.
The helicopter banked and began its descent to the Fairbanks International Airport. Across clear skies to the south, Kay Westmore noted the snowcapped peaks called “three sisters.” Mt. Hayes, Mt. Hess and Mt. Deborah rose like identical triplets into the heavens. As August faded into September the peaks were already beginning to winter. Cold, white, frozen. As all would be soon.
The helicopter landed gently. The sonorous rhythmic slashing of the blades vibrated through to her spine. Kay removed her helmet. The acrid smell of oil and fuel caused her to jump quickly from the passenger side of the cockpit. Bending low, she ran away from the long day into the blanketed peace of night.
Kay’s associate and pilot, Russell Bend, escorted her to her car. “Better get some good sack time tonight, Kay. We’ve got that meeting tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock sharp.”
“I’ll be there, awake and alert.” Kay smiled at the bear of a man. She and Russell had worked together for the past two years. He was like a brother—protective, playful, never far away when she needed him.
Russell ran his fingers through the patch of thick brown whiskers covering his face from lower cheek to chin. It was a stroke of thoughtfulness as much as speculation. “This meeting’s gotta be something important. Donnelly’s back from D.C. Hear he’s brought some high-level guests.”
Donnelly was Edward Donnelly, Regional Director, National Park Service, Alaska—the agency responsible for overseeing Alaska’s more than 51 million acres of national park lands. It was the same agency Kay and Russell worked for—traveling eight months out of the year from park to park, assessing needs and problems.
“I’ve heard rumors of a joint project with the Forest Service in Yukon Flats,” Kay said.
“Could be why we’re meeting.” Russells large six-foot frame lumbered toward his old Ford pickup. He smiled and waved. “Remember to be civilized tomorrow, Kay! No farting, burping or scratching.”
She laughed. “I’ll try my best!”
“They’re right to keep folks like you and me confined to wilderness areas. Civilization is so bourgeois.”
Kay laughed again and waved. Stepping up to her Honda Passport, she groaned softly. Tired. She’d stop for one or two beers then head home.
* * *
The small dance club glistened neon pastels—pink, blue, lavender. The long oak-wood bar was full, but Kay managed to squeeze into the far left corner. Ten minutes later, cold beer in hand, she stood alongside the dance floor. Swaying to the music, Kay watched no one in particular.
Kay looked up. It was Stef. She reached up and offered Kay a hug. Kay accepted the human contact, putting her arm around Stefs back. “How are you?”
“Great.” Stef took Kay’s hand and frowned. “Called you the other night. No answer.”
Stef was obviously disappointed. “Been traveling.”
“There’re some tables in the back. Want to sit? You look kinda tired.”
“Okay. Actually, it’s been a long day.”
Kay followed Stef into the adjoining game room. Just beyond the pinball and video machines were some tables in a low-lit area near the kitchen. The smell of fried food permeated the room. Some of the tables had been pushed together to accommodate a large group of women celebrating someone’s birthday. Candles were being extinguished amidst cheering and clapping.
Stef sat down at the table farthest from the crowd, her long shapely legs dangling over the side of the chair. A very short skirt revealed perfectly sculptured thighs. Kay blinked. She’d been in the wilderness too long.
Stef’s sun-blond hair bounced luxuriously over her shoulders. Even in the shadows her green eyes shone like glow-in-the-dark paints. “Saw you here last week.”
Kay smiled. “Last Monday. The day before I left for my week-long jaunt. You should’ve said hello.”
“You were with other people. How come you’re alone tonight?”
“Just got back a half-hour ago. You’re the first person I’ve seen.” Kay studied the young woman’s face—perfect pink-blush skin, cute ski-jump nose, beautiful smile. She’d met Stef Kramer six or seven times within the last few months, enjoying many buoyant conversations and, admittedly, the attention Stef seemed eager to give. A mutual friend had introduced them at a party near the river earlier that spring. Kay and Stef had talked for hours on a bank of grass beneath a towering spruce tree, listening to the water flow as easily as their conversation.
“Have you thought about me, Kay?”
Kay didn’t have to lie. “Yes, I have.” But there were complications in her life and she was reluctant to involve Stef—as intriguing as she was. And, of course, there was the age problem.
Stef reached across the table and rested her hands on Kay’s. “You look fantastic.”
Kay tried to swallow the golf-ball-sized lump in her throat. “Thanks. That was nice of you to say.”
Her lips protruded slightly into a pout. “Why haven’t you called?”
Kay intertwined her fingers with Stef’s. “Like I said, I’ve been away. And, we’ve talked about this before. I suspect I’m a bit too old for you.”
“I adore older women. Most people my age are dull and boring.” Stef smiled disarmingly.
Kay leaned forward. “How old do you adore them? I’m thirty-eight.”
“Kay, we’re perfect for each other! I just turned twenty-two in January. Let’s dance.”
Kay sighed and got up. Her legs felt like rubber as Stef slipped an arm through hers. “I suppose one dance can’t hurt.”
Stef smiled again. “Don’t count on it.”
* * *
The young woman’s curves fit into Kay’s as though the two of them had been parted at birth. The warmth was not unwelcome. Kay’s travels from one side of the state to the other left little time for romance.
Stef’s head rested on Kay’s shoulder. Her hair was fragrant and baby soft. But she was a baby. What am I doing, Kay thought.
Stef wrapped her arms securely around Kay’s neck. Looking directly into her eyes she asked, “Where were you, darling?”
The word darling threw Kay off-balance. “Pardon?”
“You said you just got back from a trip.”
“Gates of the Arctic. National preserve up north. Ever been there?”
“No. Will you take me?”
Kay laughed. “Maybe.”
“I’d keep you warm.”
“Being a forest ranger, you must know all the nifty spots. Romantic. Private.”
“A few. Still at the university?”
“Yep. Full-time now. My education grant finally happened so I cut back my hours at the Alumni Office to part-time. With the grant, and a little help from Daddy, I’m in pretty good shape.”
Kay ran her hands along Stef’s sides, stopping at her hips. “Yes, you certainly are.”
Stef giggled softly, flicking Kay’s right earlobe with her tongue. “Thank you.”
Stepping back, Kay tried to compose herself. “Well, we better sit down and finish our beers. Can’t make this a late night. Important meeting tomorrow.”
Stef grabbed Kay’s arms. “This is an important meeting too, Kay. I know we’ve met before—but this time’s special. I can feel it.”
She took Kay’s hands and leaned upward, her soft mouth finding Kay’s, gently biting Kay’s lower lip.
Kay drifted away—from the music, the room, the hour. She was locked on Stef’s lips, sensuously parting her own, on the tongue that slipped inside her mouth. No. This couldn’t be happening now. This mustn’t happen now.
Kay ended the kiss. “Think we better sit down.” Stef followed her back to the table. “Didn’t you like the dance, Kay?”
“I liked it.” A little too much, Kay thought.
Stef volunteered to get two more beers. Kay was relieved for the time to regroup. What did Stef want with her, she wondered. She felt strangely weakened by the attention. Vulnerable.
“Well, Kay. Fancy meeting you here.”
The all-too-familiar voice cut like a machete into her quiet reflection. She looked up, resigned to the presence even before sight made it official. “Barbara. What brings you out tonight? Full moon?”
“Kay, I’m so glad you haven’t lost your sense of humor. It’s so damned endearing.”
Kay glared at her former lover, heart sagging with the effort it took to communicate with this person.
Barbara was dressed immaculately in neatly pressed navy blue slacks, white cotton shirt and gray sweater vest. As usual, not a stitch out of place. “Please, not tonight. Go have a drink. Meet some new people. Have fun.”
“You’d like that, I’m sure. Anything to be rid of me.”
“I tried the friendship thing, Barb. It didn’t work.”
Her face softened into cavities of pain. “I’ve no interest in being friends, Kay. I want you back in my life. Back in my bed. I love you.”
Eleven months had passed since their break-up. After five years together, the relationship had ultimately twisted and turned into suffocation for Kay. Barb’s jealousy and possessiveness had choked her off from friends, family—from herself. She had somehow come to be lost in an existence of Barb’s choosing. The break-up went badly for both of them. Barb refused to let go. Lately, there had been phone calls in the middle of the night. Hang-ups. Odd notes in the mail. Typed. Unsigned. Kay suspected Barb but chose not to confront her, hoping she’d grow bored. Find someone new.
“Please, Barb. As I said, not tonight. I’m really beat. Okay?”
“Can’t we even get together and talk?”
“About what? What topic is there that we haven’t already covered concerning the end of our relationship?”
“Here’s your beer, Kay.” Stef set the frosted mug on the table. Turning toward Barb, Stef introduced herself. “Hiya. I’m Stef. You a friend of Kay’s?”
Barb smirked, obviously amused by the question. “You could say that. Barbara Reynolds.” Barb glared at Kay with transparent disdain. “You didn’t tell me you had a date.”
“Stef is a friend I just happened to run into tonight.”
Stef pointed toward the empty chair across from Kay. Grab a seat, Barbara. Join us.”
Barb sat down. “Thanks. Kay and I weren’t finished talking yet.” She took a napkin and wiped the table down to her own satisfaction.
“On the contrary, Barb was just leaving,” Kay said. Taking Stefs hand, she squeezed it. “Thanks for the beer. You sit down.”
As Kay was about to get up, Stef plopped herself into Kay’s lap. “I can sit here, Kay. That way your friend can talk with us for a while.”
Kay avoided Barb’s stare, utterly afraid of those dagger eyes—eyes that could pierce titanium steel. Beads of sweat trickled down the nape of her neck as Stef continued to blunder on, oblivious of the situation.
“Kay and I met at a party this spring.” Stef flipped some stray hair away from Kay’s eyes. “I was attracted to her right away. She was so easy to talk to. Great sense of humor. Beautiful blue eyes.”
“Yes, Kay can be quite charming when she wants to be,” Barb said with a callous sneer.
Stef smiled sweetly and hugged Kay. “Kay’s a great kisser, too. Found that out tonight.”
“I’ve had quite enough of this!” Red-faced, Barb got up and kicked the wooden chair into the table. Drinks spilled from one end to the other. “Picking them a little young, aren’t you, Kay? Been hanging out at the elementary school?”
“Barb, for God’s sake…”
“Well, you and your little whore can fuck right here and now for all I care.” Barb kicked the wooden chair once more. “This isn’t over yet, Kay. I’ll get you back—one way or another.”
And then she was suddenly gone. Kay was stunned, speechless. Stef had tears in her eyes. Kay hugged her tightly. “I’m so sorry that happened.”
Stef kissed Kay’s cheek, fingers running softly through Kay’s dark hair. “Who was she? She was horrible.”
Kay sighed. “She wasn’t always so horrible. Barb and I were lovers for five years. We broke up about a year ago. Two days after my birthday.” Inside, emotions ripped at her stomach.
“Now I’m the one who’s sorry. I didn’t mean to make her mad. I thought she was just a friend.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Kay got up, lifting Stef from the chair with her. Setting her down, Kay said quietly, “Time to go. This party’s unfortunately over.”
“You’re not going to leave me here are you?”
Kay put her hands on either side of Stef a face. “Listen to me. You’re beautiful and sweet. I’m utterly flattered that you like me. But I’m too old for you.”
Stef crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Everyone thinks they know what’s best for me. Can you at least give me a ride back to campus? A friend of mine dropped me off here.”
Kay grabbed her hand. “I’m sorry. Of course I can give you a ride.”
* * *
The moon was full, the night air cold. They rode in silence. Kay took Philips Field Road to University Avenue.
“Where’s your dorm, hon?” Kay asked.
“Hang a right here. Two blocks down on the left.”
Kay stopped in front of a three-story stone building. “This it?”
“Yeah. ’Night, Kay.”
Stef leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips. “Hope I see you soon.”
Kay watched and waited as Stef disappeared into the building’s side entrance. Just as she was ready to drive away, Stef returned—face pressed up against the passenger window. Kay reached over and rolled it down.
“Shit, Kay. My roommate’s entertaining a friend.” She rolled her eyes. “Not a good time to bust in on her, if you know what I mean.”
Kay shook her head back and forth. Slightly annoyed, she said, “Get in. You can stay at my place for the night.”
Stef grinned. “Thanks, Kay.”
“I’ve got an extra room. That’s where you’ll sleep.”
Stef shrugged. “I can think of better arrangements.”
“I’m sure you can.”
* * *
In the guest room of her three-bedroom apartment, Kay flipped the light switch on. “Think you’ll be comfortable in here. There’s an extra toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet. And there’re some extra sweats—whatever you want to sleep in—in the hallway dresser. Help yourself.”
“I usually sleep in the nude.”
Kay ignored the flutter in her stomach. “In that case, you’re all set. Goodnight.”
* * *
In the darkness Kay drifted just short of sleep, thinking about Stef down the hall. Thinking about Barb and the painful scene at the club. How long was Barb’s anger going to last, festering like an open wound? It wasn’t as though their relationship had been perfect. Barb had strayed several times, but she always came back, holding on tighter than before. More controlling. More determined to keep Kay to herself—away from parties, away from family events, away from life. They did everything together or nothing at all. And while Barb had her solitary forays out into the world, Kay stayed home. Cleaned. Cooked. Worked. Work had been her only escape. And jogging.
One day Kay had jogged along the Chena River. She often ran two or three miles. But that day she jogged five…six…seven. By the time she got home she was much later than usual. Barb was waiting for her at the top of the front porch steps. Arms crossed in front of her. Anger leaping from her eyes.
“Where’ve you been?”
Kay shrugged. “I went farther than I usually do.”
“Barb, for Christ’s sake! Will you look at me? I just jogged seven fucking miles. Now get out of my way.”
Barb stood firm, blocking Kay’s way inside the building. “Who is she?”
“The bitch you’re fucking behind my back. That’s goddamned who!”
“You’re crazy. Get out of my way.”
“Why are you doing this to me, Kay? I love you.”
“I’m not doing anything, Barb. You won’t let me do anything. And it’s killing our relationship. Don’t you see that?”
“I only see you’re trying to dump me.”
“No. I’m trying to run away from you, but I can’t seem to run far enough. Five miles. Ten miles. A thousand fucking miles! It doesn’t matter. It’ll never be far enough.”
She had pushed by Barb, running up the stairs into the apartment. Running away. The voice behind her was always there. “I’ll never let you go, Kay. Never.”
* * *
Kay rolled over, curling up against the memory. So far, Barb had kept her promise. She wasn’t letting go. A sudden burst of cool air hit Kay’s back…then a welcome warmth, arms gently clasped around her stomach.
“It’s freezing in that room,” Stef said. “I could croak in there.”
Kay chuckled. “Sorry. I usually keep that room closed off. No need to waste heat.”
“You’re not going to send me back to that frozen tundra, are you?” Stef asked hopefully.
“No. You may stay.”
“But you must behave.”
“Of course.” Stef nuzzled against Kay’s neck.
Kay closed her eyes—hoping for instantaneous sleep. But that was like hoping for long winter days. There was movement behind her. Suddenly, Stef’s lovely thighs were straddling Kay’s stomach. She kissed Kay’s forehead, cheeks, mouth. Kay’s shirt was lifted above her head. Lips continued to kiss her, moving down Kay’s chin, along her neck to her chest, Stef’s mouth lingering at her nipples. Her tongue slid across each one, sending Kay’s thoughts far away from the ticking clock—as if the passage of time ever mattered at moments like this. The mouth continued its work, pressing Kay into what she fondly referred to as the “sensual dimension.” It was a crossing over she hadn’t made in many months.
Stef rose slightly, took Kay’s hand and drew it in between her legs. Kay felt herself slip inside. She followed Stef’s rocking movements, her free hand caressing Stef’s breasts.
“I’ve wanted you ever since the river,” Stef whispered, staring straight into Kay’s eyes. “I wanted you to have me.”
Kay leaned upward, kissing Stef gently—but with enough force to consecrate their actions.
“Hold me, Kay. I want to come in your arms.”
Kay rolled her over, hand still pumping inside. Stef put her arms around Kay’s neck and stared into her eyes. She shuddered, moaned, then shuddered again.
Stef pushed Kay onto her back. Opening Kay’s thighs, she slowly stroked Kay with her tongue.
Kay’s head swam with pleasure—with confusion. She hadn’t wanted any of this. Really. Passion, tenderness, complications. The orgasm came and pulsed away. She pulled Stef into her arms and held her there, caressed her, kissed her. Not wanting to hold on, not wanting to let go.
* * *
Kay woke to the grayness of morning. Her first thoughts belonged to Stef. She looked down to find Stef’s arm draped across her waist. Stroking Stef’s hair, she kissed her forehead, pulled her closer. She noticed the lightly freckled skin atop Stef’s shoulders; the curve of breasts not seen in the darkness; the soft, pink lips Kay had kissed again and again, stopping only when the moments had regrettably run down into sleep.
Stef stirred. Kay smiled and kissed the bridge between Stef’s two gray-green eyes, eyes the color of tree bark moss. “Morning, beautiful.”
Stretching her arms upward, Stef yawned. “Kay, I’m really here with you. Thought it was a dream.”
Kay turned over. “Then it was a wonderful dream.”
“How would you like to get away for the weekend?” Stef kissed Kay’s fingertips. “My parents have a cabin near the mountains and Chatinika. It’s kinda rustic. Definitely your style.”
“We could go this weekend?”
“No one’s using it right now.”
“Looking forward to a weekend with you may actually get me through this day.”