Duck Lake Lodge
Near Bear Bones, Alaska
August 20, 2008
Despite the calm beauty of Duck Lake ten feet below the
pine-tree-lined path, Lisa Vaughn felt compelled to watch
the Wild River on the other side of the low ridge where she
stood. Because the summer sun had warmed the snow-tipped
Talkeetna Mountains for hours, the snowmelt river roared.
When the temperature dropped at night, despite the fact the
skies barely darkened, the river rumbled like distant
thunder. She was amazed by the reddish-colored salmon as
they battled the fierce current on their long journey
upriver to their breeding grounds. It almost looked as if
the river was bleeding.
But mostly the river awed Lisa because, exactly twenty-six
years ago, she'd seen her mother and baby sister drown in
the turbulent, foaming wake of a cruise ship. Since then,
roiling water mesmerized her. And she had never seen
anything like the rapids of the Wild River.
She pulled her gaze away and hurried along the ridge toward
the cutoff to the lake landing where she and Mitch had
agreed to paddle a kayak to a picnic spot. "I know you've
never been in a kayak," he'd said when he suggested it, "but
we'll be fine as long as you match your strokes to mine, so
we don't slam our paddles together."
Match your strokes to mine. His words echoed in her
head. Was it just she who was still furious about the death
of their passion? Although their romance and future together
had ended when they'd slammed their different goals into
each other, the man still got to her in a dangerous way.
This trip had to be all business for her, all about getting
a promotion, not rehashing the wreck of their relationship.
She'd been dreading this whole slippery situation, but maybe
talking it out could help her to finally write the obituary
for what she'd thought was mutual love. She let out a
breath, then inhaled deeply, not to savor the fresh,
pine-scented air, but to calm herself.
Mitch Braxton seemed a different man from a year ago when
they'd broken their engagement and he'd left her and Fort
Lauderdale for the heart of Alaska. He'd broken her heart,
but she'd been so angry with him that she'd quickly patched
herself back together, at least on the surface. She'd gone
on with a vengeance, not looking back until her boss set up
this command performance at Mitch's lodge.
Lisa had worked hard to pretend to get over her resentment
of his shattering her prettily planned-out life. She had
expected to be a skilled attorney, a wife, a working mother
to their future children. Though she knew better, sometimes
she felt that, at age thirty-four, her marital and
biological clocks were not only ticking but clanging. Just
when she'd thought never to see Mitch again, Graham Bonner,
the managing partner of Carlisle, Bonner & Associates,
had been adamant that he had a unique plan for screening the
three candidates for the next senior partner of the
prestigious law firm.
Graham and his wife, Ellie, insisted they were taking the
three junior partners to participate in the family/corporate
bonding program Mitch offered at the lodge he'd inherited in
Alaska. Since they'd only arrived yesterday, all they'd done
so far was walk blindfolded through an obstacle course by
following vocal directionsâ€”but so much more was in store.
Scheduled during the week were ziplining and white-water
rafting, all the while being observed by the Bonners to
decide who would get the coveted senior partner position
Mitch had abandoned.
Some of Lisa's friends had argued it was a crazy way to vet
a lawyer, though it sounded like a great, free vacation. But
Graham was clever and convincing. He'd learned the law-firm
ropes from Ellie's father and her brother Merritt, who used
to run the firm and had used it as a stepping stone to his
fast-rising political career.
Come hell or high water, Lisa intended to be the new senior
partner, but she knew her competitors Jonas and Vanessa were
just as tenacious and ambitious. Maybe that was what the
Bonners were judging them by anyway. She couldn't help but
wonder if, as upset and betrayed as the Bonners had also
felt by Mitch's defection, they hadn't still enlisted him to
help them make the important decision. He'd always been the
Bonners' golden boy. Once Lisa had even thought they were
grooming him not only to take over the firm but to
partnerâ€”in more ways than oneâ€”with their
twenty-four-year-old only child, Claire, who was now in law
school at Duke University, and would soon join the firm as
its third-generation lawyer.
Stopping above another clearing where she could see the
river, Lisa brushed several mosquitoes away, then put down
the small plastic cooler she carried. The cooler had been
beautifully packed, down to bright cloth napkins and a
tablecloth by Mitch's lodge manager and chef, Christine.
Like the lodge, Christine Tanaka seemed both down to earth,
yet frontier elegant. Lisa had sensed something between
Mitch and the striking, ebony-haired, high-cheek-boned
woman, and was annoyed that it bothered her.
While Christine knew where they were going, Lisa hoped they
wouldn't be missed by the others during this three-to-five
afternoon break, when everyone had some private time before
gathering for pre-dinner appetizers and wine.
She sprayed herself lightly with the bug repellent she'd
brought along. Close to the lodge they fogged the area and
the brisk breeze today kept most of the mosquitoes away. She
was used to them, being from South Florida, but the Alaska
version seemed especially voracious. At least, in his
introduction to them yesterday, Mitch had mentioned the bug
season was waning.
She forced her gaze away from the river rapids and stuffed
the small spray can back in the top of her sock, then rolled
her jeans back down. She wore her running shoes and a life
preserver over a light jacket and T-shirt, but the day
seemed warmâ€”too warm, if she kept thinking about Mitch.
Turning back to the river, Lisa fastened the Velcro straps
of her orange PFD jacket. Mitch had warned them, "No one,
not even Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, if he shows up
here, goes out on the lake or the river without a PFD!"
She and her colleagues had joked that an attorney, on the
losing end of a lawsuit, must have named it a Personal
Flotation Device, but then it wasn't a plain old life
preserver. PFDs were made of sleek, contoured neoprene, a
far cry from those old bulbous, canvas jackets the cruise
ships had passengers wear during lifeboat drills. For all
she knew, that drill had given her mother the idea to jump
If Lisa was getting in a kayak for the first time, she was
going prepared. She could swim like a fish, but since her
family tragedyâ€”though she tried not to let people
knowâ€”churning water not only horrified her but lured her.
She picked up the cooler and glanced back down the path
toward the sprawling two-story log lodge with its four
rustic cabins huddled nearby like chicks around a mother
hen. No sign of Mitch yet; he was busy here, king of his
realm. But then, he'd seemed to be master of his fate in
Florida, too, before the dam broke and their mutual future
was swept away.
She heaved a huge sigh, staring down into the river. Mitch
said he'd bring the drinks, and she wondered if it would be
wine. Last year, the night they had broken up, she'd snapped
her wine goblet off at the stem when he'd told her he had to
get out of the rat race and leave Fort Lauderdale. Her hand
had bled from a puncture wound; she still bore the scarâ€”that
and too many others as she went on with her high-flying
career. That terrible night, she had tossed her engagement
ring at him, and would have thrown the gold bracelet with
the flying seagulls he'd bought her as well, except the
clasp had stuck.
But now, when she looked back on that night, she knew she'd
done things to upset him, too. She recalled Mitch's
explosion when she'd told him she had volunteered both of
them to testify at a state senate committee hearing. They
were both under pressure then, working day and night on a
high-profile money-laundering case. They'd been harassed,
even stalked by someone, until Graham had suddenly taken
them off the case for their safety. She was trying to find
another way to keep them in what she thought of as "the
local lawyer limelight." They were having drinks on the
patio of her condo with its view of a golf course she'd
"No way!" he'd shouted, shocking her. "I just can't take
time to testify at some senate hearing! Leave that political
stuff to Ellie's beloved brother, who will probably be our
next senator or even president, for all I know!"
"Listen, I realize it will take time from your other cases,
but it's great PR, and your name carries clout now," she'd
"I may be successful, but I'm so stressed I'm getting
distractedâ€”carelessâ€”when people's futures are in my hands.
I'm scared I'll not only ruin someone else's life, but my
own. Carelessness can lead to self-destruction. Sometimes I
don't give a damn about things I need to care for, to
control. Half the time, all I've worked for seems pointless."
"Including a future with me? Our love, our plans, both
professional and personal?" she'd demanded in her best
litigator's voice. "Mitch, we can have everything together,
including our careers, helping people, not wasting time on
That was when he'd dropped the bomb that he'd inherited his
uncle's land and lodge and wanted to move to Alaska. He'd
been meaning to find the right time to tell her. Would she
change her plans to go with him?
Shocked and angry, she'd refused, accused him of being
self-centered. But she saw now she had been, too. Why
couldn't he understand that no urban career woman who loved
luscious, lively Fort Lauderdale needed a dropout who
preferred the lonely wilds of Alaska? No, she couldn't risk
loving someone who suddenly claimed to be nearly suicidal,
not after all she'd been through.
Now, lost in her regrets, trembling again at the memory, she
frowned at the raging river. Then something happened...