pathways (9780307822208)

I
t was Bryn’s summer to be in Alaska. Would she come, as she had every five years? Memories of their last night together still clung to his heart, like mud in a dog’s fur. He sighed. He knew he needed to put that almost-romance to bed before he’d find the confirmation he sought for his relationship with Sara.

Bryn hadn’t given him any hope in the following years. There hadn’t been a single communication from her. And her intent, even during that visit, had been clear: She wanted nothing from Eli Pierce other than a means of transportation. He was an old family friend, an old flame, nothing more. It was getting his heart to shut away the desire for more that was the trick. Maybe he’d ask his mom and dad when they got back from their summer road trip if they’d heard anything from the Baileys, but that wouldn’t be until August.

He pulled the new Ford into the gravel driveway. Five vehicles belonging to clients in the bush were parked there and an old car with Anchorage identification. He put the truck in park and climbed out. A woman stood on the bank above the water, staring out at Fish Lake and the Talkeetna Mountains in the distance. One of the first sightseers to arrive for the summer? Probably wanted a ride around McKinley—

She turned then, at the sound of his truck door slamming shut.

And Eli felt as if he had been punched in the gut.

Bryn Bailey.

A
LSO BY
L
ISA
T
AWN
B
ERGREN

R
OMANCE
N
OVELS
T
HE
F
ULL
C
IRCLE
S
ERIES
Refuge
Torchlight
Pathways
Treasure
Chosen
Firestorm

C
ONTEMPORARY
F
ICTION
The Bridge

H
ISTORICAL
F
ICTION
T
HE
N
ORTHERN
L
IGHTS
S
ERIES
The Captain’s Bride
Deep Harbor
Midnight Sun

N
OVELLAS
“Tarnished Silver” in
Porch Swings & Picket Fences

C
HILDREN

S
God Gave Us You
God Gave Us Two
(fall 2001)

P
ATHWAYS

P
UBLISHED BY
W
ATER
B
ROOK
P
RESS

2375 Telstar Drive, Suite 160

Colorado Springs, Colorado 80920

A division of Random House, Inc
.

Scriptures taken from the
Holy Bible, New International Version
®
. NIV
®
. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.

The characters and events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.

Copyright © 2001 by Lisa Tawn Bergren

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

W
ATER
B
ROOK
and its deer design logo are registered trademarks of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bergren, Lisa Tawn.

     Pathways / Lisa Tawn Bergren.—1st WaterBrook ed.

          p. cm. — (The full circle series ; 3)

     eISBN: 978-0-307-82220-8

        1. Survival after airplane accidents, shipwrecks, etc.—Fiction. 2. Wilderness survival—Fiction. 3. Bush pilots—Fiction. 4. Physicians—Fiction. 5. Alaska—Fiction. I. Tide.

PS3552.E71938 P38 2001

813′.54—dc21

2001023379     

v3.1

To Cheryl, one of my oldest friends, rediscovered,
sister in the God who saves
.
Thank you for praying me through this last year! I love you!

Contents

Cover

Other Books by This Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Part 1 Trailhead, 1991
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Part 2 Higher Road, 1996
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Part 3 Homeward Bound, 2001
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen

Acknowledgments

Excerpt from
Treasure

The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness
and the world’s deep hunger meet
.
F
REDERICK
B
UECHNER

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest
.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls
.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light
.
M
ATTHEW
11:28–30

Part 1
Trailhead, 1991
C
HAPTER
O
NE

C
ome on, Bryn. Come out in the canoe with me. You haven’t been out of this cabin for two days. And it’s summer. You can study later.”

“No thanks, Dad,” she said, turning her back to him and trying to concentrate on her anatomy textbook. The longer she could bury herself in her studies, the faster this trip would be over.

She heard her father, Peter Bailey, walk to the front window. “Come on, honey,” he said, a slight begging tone to his voice. “The rain’s let up. We haven’t even been over to the Pierces’ to say hello.”

Thoughts of Eli Pierce flashed through her mind. People thought that Californians were snobbish. Eli wouldn’t give her the time if he had the last watch on earth. They’d played together when she was at Summit Lake with her dad the year she was ten, but when she’d arrived over her fifteenth summer, the guy had avoided her like a bad case of barnacles on a barge. Sure he was handsome, but Bryn had better things to do than get snubbed by a small-town jerk. “I’m just fine where I am,” Bryn said.

“Suit yourself,” he said. She could hear the shrug of defeat in his voice.

She wondered what her dad saw in this place. It took hours to fly to Anchorage from Southern California, and a couple more to drive to Talkeetna. Then they had to take still another hour to get
the floatplane loaded with their gear and fly in to Summit Lake. Bryn heard the door shut behind her father.

All day to get here
. She turned over and looked at the two-room log cabin, built by her father twenty years before. Her eyes floated over the hand-hewn logs and white, crumbling chinking. She lay in the bedroom in back, which held a bunk bed on either side. The front room was reserved for a tiny kitchenette and sitting area. It was dark, with no electricity, and it smelled musty, like an old basement blanket at her Grampa Bruce’s in Boston. Bryn had to read by the light of a kerosene lamp when it rained during the day. No wonder her dad hadn’t been able to get Bryn’s mother, Nell, to come all these years.

She closed her eyes as the hollow, scraping sound of her father dragging the canoe off the rocks and into the water reached her ears. She wished she were home working a summer internship at the hospital, heading to the beach, catching a movie with friends—anywhere but here. In two years she would be twenty-two, a graduate from college with a degree in premed. And she would finally tell her father that their days at Summit Lake together were to be no more. She would, after all, be an adult, no longer compelled to please her dad, despite her own desires. He’d have to accept that.

A pang of loss pierced her heart and she frowned, then sighed. Probably guilt pangs. The guy just wanted some quality time with his daughter. She could at least make the most of this trip with him. Appease him, share with him, make the proverbial memory together. Dutiful daughters did such things all the time.

Bryn tossed aside her textbook and shoved her feet into shoes, hurrying to catch him before he was too far out. Bumping her head
on the top bunk, she grimaced. “Dad, wait!” she called, hoping he would hear her from outside. She rubbed the top of her head and rushed out to the front room, then out to the lakeside where her father was already nearly fifty feet out. “Dad, wait! I changed my mind!”

Her father turned and flashed her a white-toothed grin. He was dark and handsome—Bryn’s roommate, Ashley, referred to him as “the sexiest man alive,” which always made Bryn’s skin crawl. No matter how others saw him, he was still just Dad to Bryn.

“Oh good, Bryn Bear,” he responded, using her childhood nickname. “I was already missing you.” The warmth and welcome in his eyes made her glad for her decision. It seemed his eyes were too often full of sorrow and longing these days, although she couldn’t think of a reason for such emotions.

Bryn turned and ducked her head in the cabin door, grabbing her parka from the hook inside. Summers in Alaska were notorious for turning suddenly cold, so she always kept the warm coat at hand. She walked back to the shoreline, pulling her long hair out and into a quick knot. Her hair was the same color as her father’s—Indian black, Peter called it—and they shared the same dark olive skin. Her nose was his too, straight and too long. But her eyes were her mother’s—wide and a bit tipped up in the corners. Smoky brown, a boyfriend once told her. “Just like the rest of you,” he had whispered. “Smoky.”

He was long gone. She had seen to that. Keeping a straight-A average at the University of California at Irvine was no small deal, and he had been in the way, always wanting to party and go out rather than study. But she wanted to graduate and go on to Harvard, at the top of her class all the way. It took discipline and
concentration to accomplish that. And vision. No man was going to get in the way.

The canoe crunched to shore again. “Push us off, Bryn Bear.”

“Okay,” she said, wrinkling her nose a bit when her boots got wet and the cold lake water seeped through her socks and to her toes. While they glided backward, Bryn balanced on the bow, then carefully climbed in.

“There’s a jacket and paddle beneath the seat,” Peter said from behind her.

“Thought I was goin’ on a ride,” she tossed back.

“If you ride, you paddle,” her dad responded. “Can’t make an Alaskan out of you if you sit up there like a Newport Beach priss.”

She pulled out the life jacket, pausing to flick off a rather large spider, then put it on and reached for the paddle. Just then a bald eagle swooped low, his long wings spread wide, almost touching the surface as his thick talons clutched a trout from the waters across the lake. “Wow!” Bryn said.

“Isn’t it something here?” Peter replied. “I never get tired of seeing things like that. If only your mother would share it with me …” His voice trailed away, as if the admission were too painful to tell his daughter.

“You always wanted to live here, didn’t you, Dad?”

“Summers anyway. Your mother wouldn’t hear of it. Wouldn’t even come and see it.” There was a shiver of anger in his tone, frustration, as well as pain.

“It is a bit … isolated,” Bryn said, wondering why she felt compelled to defend her mother. She considered her father’s words as she dug her paddle into the water. She had to admit that it felt good to be out on the lake, out from the dank little cabin.

“The solitude is part of what I love,” Peter said, finally breaking the silence. “The first day Jed brought me here, I knew it would be a part of my life forever.”

Bryn looked about them at the small, shallow lake, edged here and there by thick, swampy areas full of reeds, with thick-treed snow-covered mountains that shot up on all three sides. A river fed into Summit from the mountain streams to the south. “This place is
wild
,” she said, shivering. “Mom would not like it.”

He was quiet for a moment, paddling. “I know. There’s something about being here—it’s so … primary, basic. Not your mother’s style at all. Reminds a person of who he is and who he wants to be.” He dug in his paddle again, and Bryn remained silent, waiting for him to go on. “Jedidiah said to me once, ‘The bush teaches a man about what he wants and what he needs, and the difference between them.’ Every time I come here, I remember. And I leave rededicated to discovering it in Newport, too.”

Bryn’s mind flew from this thin-aired, low-maintenance hide away to their rather ostentatious home in Newport. Her mother had made a career out of volunteering with the Junior League and decorating their home with only the finest furnishings and accessories. “How did you and Mom ever get together?” She looked over her shoulder to see his rueful smile.

“We were more alike once. In college, I thought …” His words drained away like the water off of his paddle. “At some point, your mother changed. I changed.” He halted, as if trying not to say too much.

“She’s been pretty mean lately,” Bryn said, digging her paddle into the water again. “Are you two okay? I mean, your marriage and everything?”

He was silent for a long moment. “Sure, Bryn. We’re fine.”

Bryn licked her lips and kept paddling, searching the approaching shore for the Pierces’ cabin. The sounds of sharp axes cutting through soft wood carried across the lake, as they had since morning, and she caught sight of Eli and his father as they stood around an old, dying tree. Built the same year as the Baileys’, the Pierces’ cabin had been completed first, then Jedidiah and Peter had moved on to finish the Bailey abode. All in one summer. “We were young then,” her father would say wistfully. But there was something in his eyes, in the way he held his shoulders slightly back, as if still proud of the accomplishment, that made her ask him to tell the story again and again.

Peter Bailey had met up with Jedidiah Pierce, born and raised in Alaska, in the summer of ’62, backpacking through Europe. In Germany, the pair had stayed at a youth hostel overnight and went out the next day to try the locals’ fabled Gewürztraminer. Frequently wineries set up tents along the road, and the duo stopped at the first one they saw. It was only much later that they learned they had crashed a wedding party, and the father of the bride had them tossed out.

From then on, the men were like blood brothers, and Jed, having spotted the pristine site on a hike years before, brought his new friend to Summit Lake the following summer. Both purchased several acres from Ben White, who owned much of the land surrounding the water. Ben was an older man who had been living alone on Summit since 1953, when he was discharged from the army. His home was at the northern tip of the lake. No one else owned land on the lake or lived in the small mountain valley.

“There she is,” Peter said from behind Bryn. “I’m always amazed
that I can’t see their place from the water until I’m nearly on top of it.”

Deep in the shadows, the cabin did blend wonderfully with the trees, hidden behind a copse of alder and white spruce.

Jedidiah stood up with his son, ax in hand, panting. They had been working on felling an old-growth, rotten spruce that threatened their roof in the next winter storm. He wiped the sweat from his upper lip and took a step closer, grinning. “I knew that must be Peter Bailey who flew in,” he said. “And he’s got Bryn with him. Man, what a beauty!”

Eli met his father’s knowing eyes.

“She was always like catnip and you the tomcat,” Jed said in gentle warning. “Watch yourself.”

“I don’t think she’s interested, Dad. The girl couldn’t even manage to say hello last time I saw her.”

“She was a kid then. Now you’re adults. And that makes your dance a little more dangerous.”

“What’re you talking about?” Eli asked crossly.

“Can’t you see it? Trust a father’s intuition then. Just watch your step, Son. Listen to the Spirit’s lead,” he said, looking upward into the sunlight filtering through the dense alder and spruce boughs. He slammed his ax into the tree trunk and left Eli’s side to greet his old friend.

After a moment, Eli began to follow. As he walked down the path, he tried to get a covert look at Bryn. When he saw her grin up at his father on the bank, it made him pause and almost trip. The girl, who had been a fox at fifteen, had grown into a classic Greek goddess, with long, lithe limbs and dark, swinging hair—an uncommon grace in every movement. And when she smiled, sweet heaven,
it made his heart hurt and sail back to the year he was sixteen. The year she wouldn’t even speak to him. Too good for him, he had supposed. Their childhood friendship plainly dissolved.

Forcing himself to leave the cover of the trees, he approached his father, keeping his eyes on Peter Bailey, not risking a fall on his face in front of Bryn. Eli shook Peter’s hand firmly, noticed the look of admiration in the man’s eyes, his glance down to his daughter. And then Eli had to. Had to turn and look at her, greet her. Like an adult, just when he felt a keening teen shyness he hadn’t encountered in years.

Eli reached up for his grandfather’s airman’s cap and pulled it off his head, slipping it under one armpit. He forced himself to smile and look into her eyes—the color of a beaver’s tail in water. “Hi, Bryn,” he managed.

“Eli,” she said with another smile and a short nod. “Your dad roped you into a trip to Summit too, huh?”

“Every summer,” he said, wondering at her words.
Roped?
This place was heaven on earth. The kind magazine crews scouted for catalog shoots. Thoreau would have died a happy man after he’d seen a place like this. He glanced out at the honey glaze on the water, the deep forest green of the mountains, the snow at the peaks that was almost lavender. “What’s it been, four, five years?”

“Five years,” she said, confirming what he already knew. “Dad can only make it two years between visits here. Every five years is right on track for me. I mean, it’s pretty … 
rustic
.”

“Ah, I get it,” Jedidiah said, giving her a warm hug. “Californian would rather be at the beach? You’re a sight, Bryn. Pretty as a state fair queen. You must be proud, Peter.”

“Couldn’t be prouder. And she’s smart as a whip too.”

“Dad—,” Bryn tried, obviously embarrassed.

“Straight A’s, at the University of California.”


Dad—

“So focused on her studies she won’t even look at the guys,” he said, punching Eli on the shoulder.

“Dad!”

“What?” Peter asked innocently.

Bryn sighed and passed her father, shaking her head. “Dad still thinks I’m a deaf teenager,” she said under her breath to Eli, “so that he has license to say anything that passes through his head. Sorry.”

“No problem,” he said, watching her go by, catching the scent of vanilla and green apples. Her shampoo? A lotion? She sat down on a chair on the porch and looked out at the lake.

“My boy has his pilot’s license,” Jedidiah said to Peter, clearly not wanting to be one-upped. “Has his sights set on his own operation out of Talkeetna.”

“Great,” Peter said in wistful admiration, as if he wished he were the one starting a company in Alaska. He clapped Eli on the shoulder. “That your de Havilland?”

Eli looked past him to the old, restored Beaver on shore, knowing full well that it was the only plane in sight. “She’s mine.”

“A beaut!” Peter said. “I would’ve had you fly us in had I known you were looking for work. Your operation will be all floatplanes?”

“Float
plane
, in the singular form,” Eli said, following his father and Peter up the path to the cabin. “Maybe someday I’ll have one outfitted with skis, take the tourists to land on the glaciers, up around Denali, that sort of thing.”

“Talkeetna’s hopping. Must be twice as many people in town this summer as compared to ten years ago,” Peter said, as if hoping he was wrong.

“Yeah,” Jedidiah said. “Have a seat, everyone. I’ll get some coffee on.” Through the open doorway, over his shoulder he said, “Princess Cruises bring busloads of tourists into town now. You should see them, walking through, completely oblivious to the locals trying to keep on with everyday life. It’s as if they think they own the place. And the trash they leave behind!”

“You know what they say,” Eli interjected. All eyes turned to him. “An environmentalist is someone who already has their own cabin.”

Peter laughed. “That’s a good one. It’s true.” He looked back out to the lake. “I never want Summit to be discovered, changed. This is our place. Ours.” He almost whispered the last word, and Bryn studied her father as if confused. She clearly was not as enamored with the pristine Alaskan valley as were their fathers or Eli. But the way she leaned back against the Adirondack chair, her hair falling out of its knot like a curling oil slick along the Kenai peninsula … She looked as if she belonged there. At Summit Lake. In Alaska. Whether she knew it or not.

“Where’s Meryl?” Peter asked as Jedidiah came out, a tray of coffee mugs in hand.

“She’s taking this summer off. Said us boys needed some man time.” He smiled and offered the tray to each before setting it on the porch floor. “Truth be told, I kind of like our reunions after a little time apart.” There was a twinkle in his eyes. “So how long you stayin’?” he asked, directing the question to Peter.

“A month, if I can keep her here that long,” Peter said, nodding at his daughter.

She paused for a telling couple of seconds. “I think I can last.” She paused, obviously thinking. “You know, Dad, a porch like this would help a lot.” Bryn looked around at the overhang that extended
from the roof. “Allow us to be outside more. Keep us from getting cabin fever.”

Peter nodded, looking around at it too, walking over to touch a post as if already doing measurements in his head. “Been a while since we’ve made any improvements to the old place.”

“I could bring you some supplies,” Eli offered. “Headin’ out tomorrow.”

“We could harvest the poles and crossbeams ourselves,” Peter said, throwing Bryn a cocked brow of challenge. “I think the boards for the roof would have to be flown in,” he allowed, gratefully accepting a refill from Jedidiah. “Not as young as I once was.”

“Not ready to hew your own lumber?” Jed teased. “Gettin’ soft there, city boy.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m not soft, just smarter. I’d rather spend my month building and hunting and hiking and canoeing, rather than harvesting wood. We’ll maintain the integrity of the cabin with a few native elements,” he said, looking at Bryn again to see if she was in on the idea, “and buy us some relaxation time by getting Eli to fly in the rest.”

“You can do that?” Bryn asked of Eli, forcing his eyes to hers. “Fly in a load of lumber?”

“Sure. I’ll strap it to the Beaver’s belly, compensate for the weight, and bring it right to your door.”

“Can I go with him?” Bryn asked suddenly, casting the question toward Eli as much as to her father. “To mail my letters, pick up some supplies I forgot?”

“Bryn, we just got here—”

“Please, Dad. I’ll just be gone a day. And you said yourself this would be a good project.”

Peter cast anxious, narrowing eyes from Bryn to Eli to Jedidiah. “He’s a good pilot, your son?” he asked of Jed.

“You know as well as I do that bush pilots are the best of the best. And he was trained by a couple of old-timers.”

Peter sighed. “All right.” He looked to Bryn and shook his finger at her. “But you ever tell your mother of this and there’ll be you-know-what to pay.”

“My lips are sealed,” Bryn agreed.

“It’s not you, my man,” Peter said to Eli. “My wife was very explicit about her desire to keep Bryn out of small planes as much as possible.”

“I understand,” Eli said. “Tomorrow then, Bryn. At eight?”

“I’ll be ready,” she said, and Eli wondered at the glint in her eye. Had she changed so much in five years?

C
HAPTER
T
WO

A
t least you’re talkin’ to me this year,” Eli said, unable to hold it in any longer.

From his side view, he could see her lips moving and he motioned to his headset, reminding her that over the noise of the de Havilland’s engine, little could be heard without the headset. Her face turned red at having forgotten his instructions, and she pulled the microphone down and said, “I could say the same thing.”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise, but he had to concentrate on the plane as he ran through a quick flow check and eased the throttle forward, heading toward the north end of the lake. There was a slight chop to the water, perfect for taking off and landing. He turned the plane into the wind. The Beaver shot along the length of Summit, picking up speed, swaying a little, and then they were aloft, clearing the riverbed below by a couple hundred feet.

Eli chanced a look at Bryn and she was smiling, clearly enjoying the ride. He picked up his radio mike and pressed the button. “Talkeetna radio, this is Beaver-four-two-six-Alpha-Bravo. We’re leaving Summit Lake and headin’ home. ETA is 0930 hours.”

“Roger that, Beaver-four-two-six-Alpha-Bravo.” With Denali just twenty miles away, he knew they would encounter their fair share of air traffic, it being the height of tourist season.

Once they settled into the flight, circumventing the towering Mount Foraker and heading toward Gevanni Pass to the southwest,
he spoke into the headset microphone again, talking to Bryn. “What did you mean by saying you could say the same thing?”

She faced him briefly, her look incredulous. “You were the one who wouldn’t say more than two words to me five years ago.”

“Oh no.
You
were the one who blew
me
off.” They looked at each other for a long moment, and their smiles grew. Eli shook his head. “Guess we both assumed too much, huh?” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “And I guess I was in love with Chelsea that summer.”

“Yeah, well, that’s a good excuse. And we were kids.”

It was funny, hearing her say that. Eli still felt like little more than a kid, just on the brink of adulthood. He sometimes looked at himself from the outside, shaking hands and talking like an adult, and yet he felt as if he were playing a role, pretending to be grown up. Getting his pilot’s license, establishing a line of credit, and purchasing this old plane were all new territory for him. But there was something about Bryn that told him she was born old. Something exotic and knowing.

Like catnip to a tomcat
, his father had said. How had he known?

Eli Pierce was like a cougar cub in a cage, Bryn decided, covertly looking at him. One minute playfully showing off his floatplane, and the next minute holding back for some reason, as if he were pacing. The combination was charming, she decided. Intriguing. And his declaration that he thought
she
had blown him off five years ago had her at once confused and relieved. Confused that they had gotten so off track and relieved that he didn’t believe her to be beneath him, unworthy of his attention as an Outsider, a cheechako, as the Alaskans referred to those from the Lower 48. Her fears had been for nothing.

Because as much as she didn’t quite understand Alaska and its draw for her father, she knew she wanted to belong. She wanted at least to find acceptance here. She had always needed approval from others, she realized, regardless of their roles in her life, regardless of how much she didn’t
want
to need it, chafed against the need.

Bryn stared out the window at the miles of rolling forest passing by below them, mostly lime green birch and black, pointy spruce, if she remembered the names right. She admitted to herself that it was curious, her simultaneous need for acceptance and her solitary life. Was there something deep inside her that kept her from reaching out, joining the circle? Something that would incapacitate her for the rest of her life? She hoped it was just a phase, just this time of reaching for her goal of becoming one of the best physicians in the country. Once that was attained, surely she would make room in her life for deep friendships, soul connections.

She didn’t want to become her mother, distant and angry, constantly blaming her childhood for her miserable adulthood. Nor did she care to become her father, wandering and searching for something intangible, something that would lead him to happiness. Bryn chanced another look at Eli. He and Jedidiah had a way about them, a peaceful aura that calmed those around them. Maybe that was what drew Peter Bailey to Jedidiah. Her dad wanted a part of Jed’s secret, that sureness about his life. Could it be the place? Alaska? Summit Lake? Surely such certainty about himself had to come from more than a sojourn to the great outdoors. But what?

“Penny … your thoughts,” Eli’s tinny voice came through her headset, broken up.

“It would take many pennies for me to share,” she said. “How long until we reach Talkeetna?”

“Twenty, twenty-five minutes,” he said, glancing out as if able to pinpoint exactly where they were. There were few landmarks other than winding, silver ribbons of rivers among the miles of trees. Did he know this wild, seamless country so well that he could identify each tree? Perhaps it was such familiarity that made him seem so at ease. She wondered. As they got closer to town, they saw more dwellings—summer cabins and year-round homes. “Up ahead,” he said, suddenly. He dipped the nose of the plane and then pulled off some throttle to lose some altitude. “See? In … pond, two o’clock.”

She smiled as a bull moose raised his head—the living mantel for a huge rack of antlers—with slimy bottom sludge hanging from either side of his huge snout. He shuffled out of the water, disgruntled by their passing, and the de Havilland sailed by. “How many of those do you see from up here in a summer?”

“Train bait?” he asked with a grin. “A hundred or so.”

“Train bait?” she chanced, feeling every bit the cheechako.

“Trains kill about forty every year in this area alone. They’re slow, they’re big, and they like the open track. Easier going than the forest.”

The rest of the trip was spent in relative silence, with only air traffic control coming through their headsets.

“Talkeetna,” Eli said with a toss of his chin. In five minutes they were landing on a narrow stretch of the Susitna River and, in another five, were tied up. “Want to come with me to the lumberyard?” Eli asked her. “I’ll have to get my dad’s truck to haul the wood. He leaves it parked at the church. I’ll be gone for about two hours.”

“No thanks. I think I’ll poke around town and mail my letters, pick up a few things. Meet you back here at, say”—she pulled up a sleeve to look at her watch—“three o’clock?”

“That’ll be fine,” he said, staring into her eyes a moment longer than necessary as if he could see through her, ascertain why she was reluctant to spend time with him. She wasn’t even sure herself, except that he seemed dangerous, too risky a diversion from her carefully laid plans. She looked away, busied herself with gathering her belongings, and pulled her backpack up on one shoulder. “See you then, Eli,” she said.

“See you then, Bryn,” he returned, nodding at her once. She turned away first.

As soon as she was talking to her mother on the phone, Bryn wondered why she had called. Maybe it was the vague longing in her heart, the pervading sense of displacement, missing home, wanting that security Eli seemed to have—

“Bryn? Are you there?” Her mother’s voice jolted her back to the present.

“I’m here, Mom. We’re doing fine. I’m just in Talkeetna for some groceries and then heading back to Summit. Is there … is there anything you want me to pass along to Dad?”

A long silence followed. “No. No, honey. Tell him I said hello. I’m going sailing with the Bancrofts tonight. It’s always awkward to do that sort of thing without your husband. I tell you, I just don’t understand why he has to go off to the end of the world every other year.”

“Maybe you should come up and see—”

“Oh no. I have no need to go someplace that has no running water or a decent toilet or a telephone.”

“We heat water on the stove for a bath every day. It’s kind of fun actually,” Bryn said.

“I’d rather have hot water at my disposal without lugging it anywhere. And listen to you! You sound as if you’re actually enjoying it this year.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it enjoyment, but—”

“Are the Pierces still there? Have you seen Jedidiah’s son?”

“Yes. He was sweet. We’re getting along better than last time.” She carefully held back the information that he had flown her to Talkeetna—her mother would never let Peter hear the end of it if she knew a twenty-one-year-old, just-licensed pilot had been in charge of her safety. There was no way to express in a way her mother would understand that Eli had a way about him that just made a girl trust …

“… that’s good,” her mother was saying. “Remember last time how crushed you were when that boy wouldn’t say boo to you?”

“I was fifteen, Mom. I guess we had a misunderstanding. He was dating someone.”

“Fifteen. My, it seems that was just yesterday. And now you’re twenty. I miss you, honey. Want to come home? We could tell your father the truth—that you prefer being here in California to Alaska in the summers. He’d … understand.”

He wouldn’t. Her mother knew it as well as Bryn. “I don’t think so, Mom,” Bryn said gently. “I think … this will be good for me. Good for me and Dad.”

“I … see,” her mother said, a bit icily. Bryn had chosen. And it was the wrong choice, as if electing to stay was an admission of loyalty to her father over her mother.

“I gotta go, Mom. We’ll send you a report in the mail in a couple of weeks. We’re fine. Don’t worry about us, okay?”

“A mother always worries,” Nell said with barely disguised irritation. “Take care of yourself.”

“I will. You too.” Bryn hung up the phone then, unable to rouse the words
I love you
from her lips with any semblance of honesty. She felt jumbled, confused, after her talk with her mom, as she always seemed to feel when they spoke.
Maybe this summer I can figure out exactly how I feel
, Bryn thought.
Maybe that’s why I need to be here. To get my thoughts straight. To figure out where I belong. How I belong
. There was certainly time and quiet on the lake.

And Eli. He clearly knew who he was. “Comfortable in his own skin,” as her Grampa Bruce would say. Maybe … No. She could never talk about such personal things with someone like Eli. He might laugh, or worse, feel sorry for her.
Poor, mixed-up Bryn Bailey
. Nobody at school thought of Bryn as mixed up. Everyone said she was so purposeful, focused. And she liked it that way.

She turned away from the phone, an open half stall against the side of Nagley’s Mercantile, and left to mail her letters. She passed five college-age kids, probably river guides, who were laughing and playing around as they walked.

Suddenly she wished she were with Eli. Smiling and half flirting. Out flying or maybe hiking … Thinking about anything but her mother and her father and the widening abyss between them all.

What would it take to reach Bryn?
Eli wondered, driving back to Talkeetna from Willow with Peter Bailey’s wood and nails. When he entered town, he waved at the postmistress, walking with her toddler, then at Sheriff Ross. The tourists were out in force, and with Bryn not in sight, he turned down a dirt road to circumvent
the crowd, heading back toward the river and his floatplane.

It took him twenty minutes to get the lumber properly secured under the belly of the plane. If Bryn didn’t show up with too many purchases, they’d be perfectly balanced for the flight back to Summit. He rose, panting from the exertion of tightening the cinches, and wiped his hands on a cloth. He looked about for Bryn and spotted her approaching, only two sacks in hand—one a plain brown grocery bag and the other bearing the logo of a local T-shirt shop. It reminded him that she was only just passing through. Staying long enough to eat a few meals, but briefly enough that she needed a T-shirt as a memento.
Hang on to your heart, Pierce
, he told himself.
Pull back on the throttle
.

Two guys passed her and turned around to stare. She moved forward, oblivious to the strangers’ admiration, focused only on him or the de Havilland. He couldn’t tell which. There were some cute girls in town, but no one as amazing as Bryn Bailey. He knew it; those guys knew it. Bryn could be a model with her perfect features and long, shiny hair and curves right where a man appreciated them. A shiver ran down his neck to the middle of his back and out to his elbows and knees. What would it be like to take a woman like Bryn in his arms and kiss her? To feel her cling to him and press her lips hard against his?
Hang on to your heart, Pierce
.

She drew near and smiled shyly at him, her head slightly ducked. It made him want to hold her, to reassure her nameless, subtle fears. To kiss them away … 
Hang on to your heart, Pierce
. The warning was clear, a holy urging from deep within, but he didn’t want to hear it.

“Hi, there, pilot,” she said, finally at his side. “I see you got the wood. All set?”

“All set. You can climb on in.”

She paused on the float, one foot inside the doorway. “I was
wondering, would you take me out hiking sometime this week? If you’re not busy, I—”

“Sure. I’d love to.”
So much for pulling back
. “I have a flying job over the next couple of days. How about after that?”

“Well, I gotta check my social schedule.” She pretended to mentally mull over an intense calendar, finger to lip, eyes aloft. “Let’s see, other than a promise to my dad for a daily canoe ride, I don’t think I’m busy. So, Sunday?”

“Make it Monday. My dad and I hit church every Sunday morning, and that pretty much wipes out the day. Hey, you could come with—”

“That’s all right,” she said, climbing into the plane. “Monday will be fine.”

“Okay.” He climbed in behind her and buckled himself in, then grabbed the headset and put it on. He glanced at her, but she was staring outward, already quiet and thoughtful again.
Hang on to your heart, Pierce
. And this time the warning was as clear and alarming as a stall horn in the cockpit.