Southeast Alaska Early autumn
Along the Tongass Narrows, the cruise ships that plied Alaska's Inside Passage and spilled tourists onto the docks at Ketchikan were gone with the season. The harbor was quiet, the fishing boats at rest in the Basin. The souvenir shops on the boardwalk were closing their doors.
Dead salmon carpeted the shallow streams, their bodies spent in the grueling race to reach home and spawn. White flocks of seagulls gorged on the remains.
Behind the town, and the highway leading up the coast, evergreen-cloaked mountains towered against the sky. On the narrow lowland that skirted the water, clumps of cottonwood and willow blazed with autumn gold. Alder, dogwood, and mountain ash lent the scene rich hues of bronze and crimson.
Fall in Alaska was a time of fleeting beauty. But that beauty was lost on Emma Hunter. As she fled in terror through the deep-shadowed forest, only one thing mattered—staying alive.
Run! The word shrilled in Emma's mind as she fought her way through the maze of thorny undergrowth, rotting stumps, and fallen trees. Low-hanging limbs whipped her face. Tangled roots snagged her feet.
Again and again, she'd tripped and fallen. Her hands were scratched and bleeding, her jeans ripped, her thin sneakers soaked. Her breath came in gasps. But she mustn't stop, not even to catch her breath or to ease the ripping pain in her side.
If Boone caught her, he would kill her—or make her wish he had.
When Boone Swenson had proposed, two weeks after meeting her at a church dance in Salt Lake City, Emma had felt like the heroine of a romantic novel. The prospect of a life in wild Alaska with the rugged man of her dreams had swept away a lifetime of caution. By the time she'd discovered the truth, it was too late. She was trapped in a nightmare of her own making.
Through the trees behind her, she could hear the hellish baying of Boone's dogs as they followed her scent. The two surly wolf hybrids were probably on leashes. Otherwise, by now, they would've raced ahead of their master and caught her.
If—or when—they found her, would Boone turn them loose on his bride, or would he call them off and drag her back to the trailer for his version of a honeymoon?
Boone was unpredictable. She'd already learned that. But one thing was certain. Given what she now knew about him, he would never let her go free.
Her ankle twisted on a root. A hot pain flashed up her leg. Teeth clenched, she ran on, dodging through the shadowy undergrowth. Giant spruces and hemlocks towered above her. A squirrel scolded from a high branch. A jay screeched an alarm, startling a flock of small birds to flight—all signs of her presence that Boone would recognize.
Why go on, you fool? The voice in her head seemed to mock her. You're miles from the coast, with no place to go—no road, no neighbors, no food, water, or shelter. You haven't got a chance.
Refusing to listen, Emma struggled on. Her lungs were burning. Her legs quivered with every step.
The sinking sun cast fingers of light through the treetops. Somewhere to the west lay the highway, her best hope of finding help. But something told Emma she'd never make it that far. Between the coming darkness, her waning strength, and the dogs, there was only one way this chase could end.
It's over, the silent voice argued. Boone doesn't want you dead. He wants a wife. Give up and go back with him. You can always escape later.
But giving up was not an option, Emma resolved. Whatever happened, she would keep going. She would run until she dropped. And when she could run no more, she would fight.
The trees were thinning now, giving way to brambles and stands of devil's club, a leggy weed with sharp-edged leaves and spines that burned like fire to the touch. Beyond the trees, she could see an open bog, dotted with pools of dark water. 'Muskeg'—that was what Alaskans called places like this, where layers of rotted vegetation, laid down over decades and centuries, clogged the growth of everything but sickly-looking moss, yellowed marsh grass, and a few twisted trees that would never grow tall.