Ash Bleu navigated the curvy, mountain road toward Heartbreak. The last place in the world he wanted to be, and he’d even endured the hell of the Amazon during the rainy season. He preferred the torrential rain, poisonous bugs, and venomous snakes to returning home again.
Ten years since he’d left with his heart shattered—ten years of attempting to fill the hole that still ached within. He wasn’t quite sure it had mended enough to return to his past…and to her.
Granted, he hadn’t traveled from the other side of the world to see her.
A lump formed in his throat at the thought of his larger-than-life father in failing health. Once he’d received the message that Quinton Bleu was sick there was no choice but to come home.
He rounded the bend and came to a stop at seeing the log post sign:
Welcome to Heartbreak, Alaska.
The words he’d carved under the welcome, on the night he’d left, read:
“If Alaska doesn’t break your heart, the women here will.”
Interesting that the words hadn’t faded in all this time. In fact, they looked more pronounced. Curious, he killed the SUV he’d rented at the airport in Fairbanks and walked over to the sign, boots crunching on frozen snow.
The letters were bolder as if someone—or several someone’s—had painted over the letters throughout the years. His lips quirked into a sardonic smile. Guess he wasn’t the only one to leave Heartbreak heartbroken.
Rubbing his cold hands together, he traipsed back to the warmth of the SUV.
February in Alaska was colder than most winters in other parts of the world, and he should know. His job as a travel writer had him investigating the four corners of the planet. He’d yet to find a place that spoke to him like Alaska did.
Cold or not, it was home, and he’d missed Alaska more than he realized.
He engaged the engine and drove into the quaint mining town with its slapstick wooden houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colors. The citizens of Heartbreak were proud of their town and did a fair job of keeping it looking picture perfect, not only for themselves, but for the tourists who flocked to this edge of the world throughout the seasons.
Heartbreak nestled before him in a valley fortified on three sides by snow-frosted, purple mountains, with a spattering of lakes to the south that never froze due to the volcanic activity and resulting hot springs. Once the gold had dried up, the hot springs had insured that Heartbreak hadn’t died like so many other mining towns across Alaska.
Ash crept down Main Street, or the Main Artery, as the locals referred to it. They took to heart the name of the town until it was almost comical. In his jaded mind, Heartbreakers could do with a lot less of that, but as a travel writer, his fans got off on visiting places like Heartbreak.
He refused to write a book featuring his hometown, not wanting to dredge up the painful memories the place stirred up. This trip would be no different, even though his editor had been after him for years to feature Heartbreak and other eclectic towns that dotted Alaska’s map. Alaska was made up of an interesting bunch of unique tourist stops, and it reflected in their towns, villages, and cities.
Turning off the main artery, Ash drove up the hill toward his father’s house.
He didn’t want to think about what he’d find there. His father’s text had been cryptic, and Ash hadn’t been able to get Quinn Bleu on the line since. All his message had said was:
My heart is sick. Come home.
Ash had left message after message and all he’d received in return was another vague text:
I’ll explain when you get here.
The hill leveled out, and he turned onto the gravel, ice-packed trail choked on both sides with black spruce. The trees needed to be thinned out, for that matter, the road needed a serious grading. He hit a teeth-rattling rut, surprised the suspension hadn’t fallen out of the SUV. Good thing he’d opted for the added insurance. Alaska’s roads were treacherous at best, and then there were the moose to contend with. Winter had them crashing through trees and brush and out of the heavy snowpack to traverse easier roads.
He came around a corner and slammed on his brakes, skidding on the ice as a bull moose stood there staring down at him. It was like he’d conjured up the massive animal. Ash honked the horn, flashed his headlights, and swore when the moose only snorted, his breath a foggy plume floating in the air.
Until the moose decided to move, he wasn’t going anywhere. The immense animal took up the breadth of the lane.
He picked up his cell phone and tried his dad again. No answer. Worry snaked through his gut. What if his dad lay incapacitated at home, or worse, had already died alone? Old Man Lester had died alone one winter, his family snowed out from reaching his place up in the hills. Things like that happened all the time here in Alaska where people lived remote and were cut off by weather and circumstance.
He left another message, informing Quinn that he was stuck in a moose stare down on the lane, then he waited, giving the horn a frustrated punch, before laying heavily on it. The moose finally decided to mosey over to the side, and Ash gunned the SUV. The rear tires slid and he fishtailed, coming close to nosing the front of the SUV into the snowbank, until he got the vehicle under control again. He flipped the moose the finger, even though the moose wouldn’t give a rat’s ass, but hey, it made him feel better.
He pulled into the gravel drive and parked next to a Subaru he didn’t recognize, looking at the log cabin he’d grown up in. It was a modest A-frame, the logs weathered to gray and badly in need of treatment. An arrow of guilt intruded. He was his father’s only child and should have visited more often. The neglect around the place testified to his long absence. Steeling his courage, he grabbed his duffel bag and climbed out of the SUV. The cold hit him with a frosty slap, and he struggled to drag air into his lungs.
Walking up the creaky, ice-coated steps, he came to a stop at the front door and braced himself for what waited for him inside. He opened the door and stepped into the overwhelming heat of the house.
“Dad?” he hollered, setting down his bag in the boot-crowded entryway, struggling out of his coat. He hung it up on the wooden, homemade pegs that had been a Christmas present for his dad when Ash was in elementary school.
A cough sounded, followed by a weak, “Ash? Is that you?”
Ash entered the main room and came to a halt. The furniture had been pushed together in a corner pile to make room for a hospital bed. His bear of a father lay there, looking flushed, an IV hanging from his arm, and an oxygen tube anchored in his nostrils and looped around his ears. A buxom woman with a short bob of red hair stood next to the bed, looking official in blue scrubs, taking Quinn’s blood pressure.
Ash swallowed hard, dread flipping his stomach inside out and causing his heart to clutch.
“My boy,” Quinn said, holding out his hand and motioning him over toward the bed. “You made it.”
The words seemed unfinished, like they were missing, “Before I died.”
“What’s wrong?” Ash gripped his dad’s hand, surprised to find it clammy. Sweat beaded Quinn’s hairline and upper lip, his cheeks ruddy in color.
“It’s my heart, son. I’m so glad you’re here.” He gestured to a woman who had to be in her mid-thirties. “This is my home health nurse, Rea. Rea, my son, Ashworth Bleu.”
“Call me Ash, please.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Rea said, her hazel eyes kind and sympathetic. She glanced down at the chart and noted Quinn’s blood pressure.
“Don’t worry, it’s all been good,” Quinn said, a twinkle in his eye when he looked at Rea.
“Why aren’t you in a hospital?” Ash wanted to bundle him up and drive him into Fairbanks to be seen by a specialist this second.
“Bah, you know I hate hospitals. If I’m going to die, it will be in my own home.”
Ash swallowed again, emotion clogging his throat. “What’s wrong with your heart? What doctors have you seen? We should fly you to Seattle and get a second opinion.”
“I’m not going anywhere. There’s nothing that can be done anyway. Just having you home will make all the difference, I’m sure.”
Quinn squeezed his hand, and Ash was surprised how much strength there was in the grip. His dad was putting up a good fight, trying to show how strong he still was.
“Tell me what you need me to do.”
“Well, for starters, I need help with the business. I can’t oversee the jobs like this.”
“Done. What else?”
“That’s my main stress at the moment. Those men are counting on their paychecks, and in order for that to happen, the jobs need to be completed.” Quinn signed deeply. “I hate letting them down, and I haven’t told anyone in town what’s going on.” He arrowed a sharp look at Ash. “You have to promise not to mention it either.”
“No buts. You have to promise. They have families to feed, mortgages to pay. I won’t have them worried they’ll be out of a job. I need this, son. Until I can secure a buyer, or talk you into taking over, I need business to carry on as normal as possible.”
“Normal? But, Dad—”
“No buts. Remember? And there’s something else, I need you to promise me one more thing. This is important.”
“Anything, Dad, you name it.”
“I want to see you married before I croak.”