Pulling up next to a black Jeep at a little past one o’clock, Sarah registered the large log home the new owner had built. It looked as though it belonged in the pages of a home and garden magazine, not out here in the wilderness. It had clearly cost a fortune and was much more grandiose than the smaller log cabin where Murphy had once lived. She fleetingly wondered if that place still existed somewhere further back behind the trees while allowing her gaze to roam over the newer structure. A wide gable spanned the front entrance and tall glass windows and doors opened out onto a deck turned toward the view of the mountains.
Sarah glanced across at her grandfather, who sat stiffly in the seat beside her. “Well, we’re here. Ready to check out the ridge?”
“It’s just a formality,” her grandfather reminded her. “I already know I want it.”
She didn’t comment. Instead, she turned off the engine, repositioned her scarf so it covered the lower part of her face, and pulled her hood up over her head before stepping out into the cold. She’d just closed the truck door when the front door of the cabin swung open, and a man stepped out. He descended the front steps quickly and came toward them at a brisk pace. “Hello.” He extended his hand. “I’m Pierce Jackson.”
Somehow, Sarah managed to untangle the knot her tongue had formed the moment she’d laid eyes on him. If his voice had seemed rather enticing, then the man himself was…
Straightening her spine, she accepted the hand he offered and gave it a firm shake. “Sarah Palmer.” She gestured toward her grandfather, who stood a little off to one side. “This is Thomas Palmer, my grandfather. He and I work together. It was his idea to come up and look at the land you’ve got to offer.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” Pierce said as he shook Thomas’s hand.
“Likewise,” Thomas said. “We’re just behind those trees – about two hundred yards away, I should think – but with all the snow we’ve been having this winter and last season keeping us occupied, I’m afraid we never managed to come and welcome you to the area.”
Pierce crossed his arms. “It’s alright. I’ve been pretty busy myself since I moved here.”
For reasons she could not explain, Sarah wanted to know more. “What—”
“Sarah and I are mostly interested in the ridge,” Thomas said, cutting Sarah off and getting straight to the point. “We’re familiar with it of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to take another look, if that’s all right with you.”
“It’s the reason why you’re here, isn’t it?” Pierce asked as he looked from one to the other. “Why don’t we grab the Argo and head on over there? If you like what you see, I’ll invite you for coffee while we go over the contract.”
“And if we don’t like what we see?” Thomas asked with a mischievous glint to his eyes.
“Then I’ll still invite you for coffee,” Pierce said. “Just give me a second. I’ll be right back.”
Sarah watched him go, unable to stop herself from comparing him to Billy as he walked to the garage. Their height and hair color were similar, but Pierce was broader, his stride more solid. “Why did you cut me off before?” she asked her grandfather as she turned to face him.
“Because you were about to pry, and if there’s one thing that man doesn’t want or need, it’s prying.”
Sarah frowned. “I was just curious to know how he ended up here.” Her grandfather raised an eyebrow. “How do you know he wouldn’t want to tell us?”
“Trust me. The haunted look in his eyes is more than enough. I’ve seen it before.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as he stared straight back at her, unflinching. “Leave it alone, Sarah, and let’s just focus on what we came for.”
For a second, she felt as if the ground was falling away beneath her feet. She didn’t need to ask what he was referring to, because she already knew. Which was why she just stood there, saying nothing, while snowflakes drifted lazily around her shoulders and until Pierce returned with his all-terrain vehicle. “Climb aboard,” he yelled over the sound of the engine.
Leaving the front passenger seat of the Argo to her grandfather, Sarah took a seat on the back bench. Holding on tight, she anticipated the occasional bumps and a few sharp turns, enjoying the speed and the illusion that all the memories her grandfather had just stirred to life were being left far behind.
Focus.
That’s what she’d been doing for the past three years, and that was what she would continue to do now. So she pushed her thoughts of Billy from her mind and considered her grandfather. He needed her, depended on her, and she would not let him down.
The Argo slowed, producing a spray of snow before coming to a stop. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” Pierce asked as he looked out over the ridge at the far end of his property. It was a steep drop to the river below and equally steep on the other side too, where a grey wall of rock rose toward another peak.
“I think it’s beautiful everywhere in the Klondike,” Sarah whispered, her voice muffled by her scarf. She spoke up, this time wanting to be heard. “Life up here can be harsh. The city folk don’t understand why anyone would choose to live in such a remote location. Personally, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s just a cleaner, less complicated way of life.”
Turning in his seat, Pierce looked at her as if she’d somehow managed to put into words an idea he’d been trying to hold onto. And she saw then, in that fraction of a second, the devastation her grandfather had spoken of earlier, only this time she felt a piece of her heart break for this man. Nobody deserved to suffer the kind of pain that left such a mark.
Breaking eye contact, Pierce climbed out of the Argo and turned to offer her his hand. It was firm beneath her own, his arm strong and steady, supporting her weight until she reached solid ground. She barely managed to get her balance before he’d released her again and started toward the other side of the vehicle, his boots squeaking against the snow.
“Would you like a hand as well?” he asked her grandfather, who readily accepted the offer, much to Sarah’s surprise. In her experience, Thomas liked to handle everything on his own. The fact that he was giving up some of his control to a perfect stranger reminded her that he was getting on in years.
Disliking the thought, she chose not to dwell on it, walking out toward the edge of the ridge instead. “There’s at least twenty feet to the river below,” she called out, her voice pulled away on a gust of wind that swept in behind her. Hugging herself, she turned back to face the others. “How wide do you suppose the area is?”
“A quarter mile, last I measured,” Pierce said. “I’ll add another quarter mile in width and sell you the claim for forty grand. How does that sound?”
“Well,” Thomas began, “I’d say it’s probably reasonable enough if there’s gold here. But if there isn’t…” He allowed the point to remain unspoken.
“Look, the way I see it,” Pierce said, crossing his arms, “you called as soon as my ad appeared in the paper. Furthermore, you seemed pretty eager to come take a look at it, even though I’m sure that doing so was just a formality. Your insistence on the ridge tells me you’re pretty certain of what you’ll find once you start digging. So the offer stands. Take it or leave it.”
Watching her grandfather hesitate, Sarah decided to take charge. “You’re right, but contrary to my grandfather’s opinion, I happen to think you’re asking too much – almost twice of what we paid last year.”
“Except last year, you were mining somewhere else,” Pierce said. “If you want the ridge, then this is the price you’ll have to pay.”
Glancing over at her grandfather, Sarah prepared to tell Pierce Jackson they weren’t interested, only to find her grandfather telling the man, “We accept.”
She could only stand there gaping at them both as they shook hands, completely dumbfounded by what had just happened. Finding her tongue, she walked over to her grandfather, determined to talk some sense into him. “I know you were hoping to claim the ridge, but—”
“No buts about it, Sarah. I’ve already agreed.”
She wanted to scream or hit something. Pierce Jackson would do nicely right now. God, she was angry with both of them, except to his credit, Pierce had no idea how much money they had at their disposal. Sure, they could dish out forty grand on the claim, but there would be other expenses on top of that, the most costly being the new equipment they needed.
“Shall we go back to my cabin so I can print out the paperwork for you?” Pierce asked, already helping her grandfather back into the Argo.
“Will it be served with fresh coffee?” Sarah asked, sounding more irritable than she’d intended. Too late for that now.
“Of course,” Pierce said with a somewhat puzzled expression. Coming toward her, he held out his hand. “Would you like me to help you get in as well?”
“Thank you, but I think I can manage.”
Shrugging, he turned away and climbed into the front, leaving her to get in on her own. Cursing beneath her breath, Sarah scrambled on board, her butt landing on the bench with a thud. Somehow she would have to fix this before her grandfather gave up all of his hard-earned money for a dream Pierce Jackson seemed all too happy to indulge.

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