Dangerous Ground

Fiona Carver #1

In the remote and unpredictable Aleutians, danger comes without warning in an adrenaline rush of a novel by USA Today bestselling author Rachel Grant.

Archaeologist Fiona Carver has unfinished business in the Aleutian Islands. After an emergency evacuation cut her first expedition short, she’s finally back. But time is not on her side as she races to finish documenting the remnants of a prehistoric village, recover missing artifacts, and track down missing volcanologist Dylan Slater.

Having bluffed his way onto Fiona’s team with fake credentials, wildlife photographer Dean Slater is willing to risk more than federal prison to find his missing brother, but he needs Fiona’s help. She knows the inhospitable terrain better than anyone.

When the two set out together on a perilous journey, it becomes more than a recovery mission. In their fight for survival, nature isn’t the only threat. They aren’t the only ones on the hunt. Mile by dangerous mile, someone is hunting them.

Dangerous Ground Audio Sample

“Grant shines in the heart-pounding romantic thriller that opens her Fiona Carver series.”

– Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)


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CHAPTER ONE

Whidbey Island, Washington
September

Dean had done some risky and dangerous things in his ten years as a wildlife photographer, but nothing that could send him to federal prison. But then, this wasn’t an assignment from National Geographic. He wasn’t going to remote, frigid Alaska to photograph polar bears under the aurora borealis. And while he would certainly be expected to take photos of birds, his role on this expedition wasn’t that of a photographer at all.

He wasn’t even going as himself.

He’d cleared the first major hurdle and now approached the group of scientists and engineers on the tarmac waiting to board the plane. He was just minutes from takeoff, which was the point of no return.

Federal prison might await him at the end of this flight or expedition, but he’d worry about that after he found his brother.

Two women and three men stood in a cluster, watching uniformed marines load supplies into the back of the cargo plane. Dean joined the group and was about to introduce himself when the engines of a small fighter jet on the runway fired up.

He ripped open the pack of disposable earplugs he’d been handed before being permitted onto the restricted tarmac and quickly inserted them. Everyone waiting for the flight watched the fighter jet prepare to take off, so Dean used the opportunity to check out the five people also heading to Chiksook Island.

It was easy to guess which of the two women was the archaeologist. Dylan had said she was tall and beautiful. Both women were attractive, but the one with lighter-brown hair had a good six inches on the other.

Until yesterday, when Pollux Engineering had given him the list of scientists and engineers slated for this trip, he’d known only her first name, making reaching out to her impossible. Now, standing just feet from her at long last, he couldn’t tell her his real name if he wanted to avoid prison. Avoiding prison might not be his top priority, but it was high on the list.

Fiona Carver’s shoulder-length honey-brown hair had gold and red highlights that he could believe were natural. While human subjects were not his specialty, he’d donated his skills over the years to photograph models and actresses on location with various animals to raise money for habitat preservation and protection. He’d since become friends with many in the film and fashion industries, and he knew enough about both to recognize that Fiona had either been blessed by the hair gods or she had a really excellent stylist.

There wasn’t a speck of makeup on her lightly freckled, pale-cream skin, but then this military flight to a remote island in the Aleutian chain for government-contracted fieldwork wasn’t a makeup-wearing sort of trip for most people.

The fighter jet hurtled down the runway just as the military ground crew signaled for Dean and the other civilians to board the waiting aircraft.

This was it. Stepping onto the plane meant no turning back. If he was caught, he could kiss his perfect life and career goodbye.

So be it. He’d risk anything for his brother. Dylan would do nothing less for him.

Finding Dylan was Dean’s number one priority.

Dean followed the archaeologist up the ramp of the small turboprop transport. She settled into a seat in the middle of the inward-facing row that lined the port side. Dean passed her, going deeper into the jet, closer to the cockpit, and took a seat, leaving one spot open between them. There were a dozen seats total—six on each side of the fuselage—for just six passengers. Only a total dick would choose the empty seat between them.

Thankfully, no one on this team proved to be a dick. All six passengers spaced themselves on both sides, with open seats between one another.

In the center of the compartment, field equipment and supplies were strapped down. There was a month’s worth of food and gear for the fourteen-day expedition to Chiksook Island—more than enough in case a storm caused delays for their return flight.

The no-frills seating inside a plane heavy with supplies wasn’t much different from some of the flights he’d taken on assignment for National Geographic or Smithsonian, except this wasn’t an expedition to stalk and photograph big cats or the elusive pangolin.

He wasn’t even sure how he was going to search for Dylan. If he was safe and sound in the field camp or in the tiny Aleut—or as the locals preferred to be called in their own language, Unangax̂—village, he’d have emailed Dean and postponed the LA visit instead of being a no-show.

The last correspondence Dean had received that was unequivocally from Dylan had been sent from Chiksook Island nearly six weeks ago. The email had come from Dylan’s personal email account and described the project and Fiona, in addition to listing restaurants he looked forward to frequenting during his upcoming trip to LA. Remote fieldwork always made Dylan long for fine cuisine.

A few days later, Dean received another email, supposedly from Dylan but which could have been sent by anyone with access to his work email account.

When Dean was unable to get in touch with Dylan, he’d wasted no time in contacting Pollux Engineering for an explanation of that last email, which stated that Dylan was going off the grid for a few months. Pollux informed Dean that his brother had flown home to Seattle and promptly taken a leave of absence, and they had no information on how to reach him.

The military wouldn’t provide Dean with a manifest of the flight—which had been a transport like this one—because it violated operational security. He’d had to rely on Pollux Engineering’s account.

Had Fiona Carver been on the boat that evacuated Chiksook and the transport flight that followed? Could she confirm Dylan had flown home?

The only way to get to Chiksook Island and its heavily restricted US Navy property was to be a member of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, which was the federally recognized tribal organization of the Unangas, or to be hired as a contractor working on the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed submarine base project.

Given that Dean couldn’t claim Unangax̂ affiliation, he’d instead “borrowed” the name of an ornithologist he’d worked with years ago and applied for Pollux Engineering’s last-minute call for an ornithologist. A mated pair of rare birds might be nesting on Chiksook, and Dean had no qualms about taking advantage of that situation. He had a wildlife biology degree and knew enough about birds to bluff his way through. But given his fake identity, he couldn’t reveal his real reason for being here to the others on the team. Not without risking federal prison.

He pulled out the disposable earplugs and tucked them in his pocket. As he settled in, he studied the other passengers. He would question each in turn, but his first order of business was to question the woman his brother had been dating in the months prior to his disappearance.

Dean reached out a hand to her and flashed a smile that never failed to please. “Bill Lowell, ornithologist.”

She shook his hand, her smile polite. “Fiona Carver, archaeologist. Pollux Engineering hired you to find the gray buntings?”

He nodded. “I take it you don’t work for Pollux?”

She shook her head. “Civilian navy employee, not a contractor.”

He glanced toward the open end of the aircraft and the tarmac of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. “Is this your base?”

“No. I’m on the Kitsap Peninsula. Near the shipyard.”

That checked out. Dylan had said she lived a ferry ride away from Seattle. But Dean had discovered Washington had a lot of ferry runs, several of which terminated in the Seattle area, so instead of narrowing Dean’s search for Dylan’s girlfriend, that piece of info only made it broader.

“Is this your first time going to Chiksook?” he asked.

“No. Fourth trip in six months. Between the historic World War II site and prehistoric sites all over the island, I’ve been busy.”

He grinned. “Excellent. You can show me the ropes, then.”

Her pale-green eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “I’m sure I’ll be too busy with my fieldwork.”

“I can start my search for the gray bunting anywhere.” He shrugged. “Might as well start wherever you’re working. It gets lonely in the field.”

She kept her expression mild, even though he was being pushy and presumptuous. Her eyes gave her away, however, sparking with a not entirely unpleasant heat. He guessed his persistence both irritated and amused her.

This didn’t exactly endear. Dylan had been missing for weeks, and his girlfriend had yet to show any sign of caring.

Had she already moved on?

Faint freckles dotted her nose and cheeks, and his eyes were drawn to a darker freckle just to the right of center on her full, pink bottom lip. His camera would love that freckle, and he itched to pull it out and start taking photos with her backlit by the open ramp. What else would his camera reveal?

“Are you afraid of bears or something, Mr. Lowell? Hoping I’ll protect you from the dangerous beasts?”

He laughed at that. “Bill, please. And no, I’m not afraid of bears.” That was true. He’d spent enough time photographing them to have the utmost respect for their power and beauty, and he knew how to stay out of their way. “Especially given that there aren’t any bears on Chiksook or any of the Aleutians west of Unimak Island. In fact, on Chiksook, foxes and caribou were introduced in the fifties for hunting excursions, but otherwise, the only fauna you’ll find are rodents and birds.”

She smiled and tilted her head in acknowledgment. “Then why are you so eager to join me in the field?”

He shrugged. “I’m just a fan of the buddy system when it comes to fieldwork.”

“For your bird search, you’ll have to stick to the roads to cover the most ground, so you’ll be fine alone. While the environment is rough, it’s easy to get a bearing even without a compass. It’s all green tundra and grasses. Trees can’t survive due to the low temperatures. Easy to find your way around when it’s not foggy, and utterly beautiful with or without rain, snow, and fog.

“I’m afraid accompanying me in the field would hinder your search. I’ll be working in one place for days at a time, and you’ll need to keep moving if you’re going to search the entire island.”

She’d been deliberately patronizing with the bear comment, but he had it coming, given how pushy he was being. He respected that. Plus, he felt his first rush of actual like for Dylan’s new girlfriend as she described a place that was also known for being one of the foggiest, rainiest, windiest, and basically most miserable places in the United States. She didn’t speak of the negatives as others might. She liked Chiksook Island. It showed in her sharp green eyes.

“Anyone could twist an ankle at any time,” he said with a wink.

She rolled her eyes even as she gave him a genuine smile, and his gaze fixed on the lip freckle. It was a perfect focal point for the composition of her features, which, as Dylan had described when he’d first told Dean about Fiona on the phone two months ago, were stunning not for their perfection but for the lack of it. Her eyes were a bit wide, her chin a bit sharp. Together, they were a thing of beauty.

“Tell you what—you can radio me if you trip and bust your ankle,” Fiona said.

“Deal,” he said, transfixed by that perfect stray freckle. Her mouth was another bit of charming imperfection, with the bottom lip fuller than the top. He’d photographed—and, truth be told, slept with—models who’d paid good money to have their lips puffed to perfection, and this wasn’t it. But on Fiona, it was deeply alluring.

Which was the kind of thought he absolutely shouldn’t be having about his brother’s girlfriend.

Her eyes narrowed at his unwavering stare, and she pulled her lip between her teeth, hiding the spot . . . and telling him she was aware of the power of the freckle.

She turned and faced forward, toward the scientists on the other side of the fuselage, ending their conversation.

He had to find a way to pull her back in. He needed information, and she might be the only one who could provide it. “Sorry. It’s just . . . I dabble in photography, and the way you’re backlit with the tail open right now, you’d make a stunning subject.”

She gave him a side-eye, letting him know he’d just made things worse. She was a scientist heading to the field, and he’d reduced her to a pretty face.

So different from the models he’d dated, whose livelihoods depended on them being seen as nothing but a pretty face. In that world, if he wanted to get a woman’s attention, all he had to do was pull out his camera and use a little flattery to coax her into letting him take her picture.

In those situations, he could always tell if he was going to get laid simply by looking at the photos he’d snapped on the camera’s digital screen. If he photographed Fiona Carver now, the image would reveal a decided no. Which, he reminded himself, was a good thing.

She’s Dylan’s girl.

Had Dylan told Fiona about him? Probably not. And if he did, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned exactly who Dean was.

Months ago, Dylan had admitted that when he started dating again, he’d learned the hard way that he couldn’t tell his dates his brother was Dean Slater, the wildlife photographer known for his photos of animals in their natural habitats on all seven—yes, seven—continents. According to Dylan, a lowly volcanologist couldn’t compete. His dates were more interested in hearing about the brother who was off exploring the world, not the scientist who studied it.

After that, Dean had been determined to fix Dylan up with a model he knew. She was perfect for his brother and eager to meet him. But once the LA visit was on the calendar and plane tickets were purchased, Dylan had refused the blind date on the grounds that he had a girlfriend. He went on to tell Dean all about the brainy and beautiful archaeologist he’d met while working on Chiksook Island in the spring.

Dean had been happy his brother had met someone, even as he feared Dylan was getting too serious, too fast. Dylan was still raw from his divorce. The guy needed to learn how to casually date. Sex didn’t have to mean commitment.

But then Dylan vanished, and Dean didn’t hear so much as a peep from his brother’s new chick. The one he was wild about and who was wild about him.

Had they broken up? Did she know no one had heard from Dylan in weeks, with the exception of one abrupt email that claimed he was going off the grid?

If, for some unfathomable reason, the email was real and Dylan actually had gone off to find himself, did she know where he was? And even more important, was beautiful and brainy Fiona Carver the cause?

* * *

The new ornithologist was hot, but he had an air of full-of-himself that billowed out in waves, like too much aftershave. He was too smooth, and Fiona wasn’t a fan of the I want to photograph you pickup line. She’d heard that one before, also from a scientist hoping for a field fling.

The usual ratio of men to women on the Chiksook expeditions was four to one, with the majority of both genders being heterosexual. Given the ratio, guys looking to hook up didn’t waste time before making the first move, but this had to be a record. The ramp at the back of the plane hadn’t even closed yet.

She glanced at his hand. No ring and no cheater band. At least there was that. A fisheries guy on the last trip had been married and thought that was a selling point. He’d gone so far as to pitch, “What happens on Chiksook stays on Chiksook.”

She told him she preferred to post everything on Facebook and would be happy to tag the guy’s wife. And then she showed him his wife’s page and threatened to send a friend request.

She loved fieldwork, but sometimes people could make the whole experience miserable.

She rolled her shoulders, eager for the jet to take off. The noise of the flight made conversation difficult, and she had a book to read. Plus, she was impatient to get back to the island. They’d been called out of the field abruptly last time, thanks to a problem with the generators. She hadn’t been able to collect the samples she needed for testing and analysis. The quick evacuation had also meant she’d left the prehistoric village site exposed to the elements, and the elements that battered Chiksook were not to be underestimated.

She didn’t think she’d gotten a full night’s sleep in the last month as she agonized over the state of the site. It was possible she’d made a significant find that could alter theories on trade routes during the Iron Age, or she’d found artifacts made with meteoric iron. But it was all speculation without the actual tools and rocks. The site had been buried for over a millennium until she’d uncovered it, and it was now exposed in one of the harshest environments in the United States.

A storm could have compromised the structure. The artifacts could have been washed away, the dwelling flooded.

She frowned at the open cargo-bay door, wondering what the delay was. They needed to get this party started before she completely lost her mind.

She startled when a guy in uniform with a military police armband came running up the ramp. Irrationally, she feared he was there for her. She wouldn’t go to Chiksook today. Wouldn’t return to the site. She’d failed at her one job.

She exhaled to dispel the ridiculous fear, then glanced around the jet interior, catching the look of alarm on the new ornithologist’s face before he managed to hide it.

What is he afraid of?

“Which one of you is Trevor Watson?” the MP asked.

The geologist seated across from Fiona raised his hand. “Me.”

“I need you to come with me, sir.”

“I can’t. We’re about to take off. My job is mission critical.”

“Yes, sir. Orders from the base commander, sir. You must come with me.”

Trevor frowned and unbuckled his straps, then stood. They all knew you didn’t argue with MPs.

“Grab your bag, sir,” the MP said.

Trevor unclipped his duffel bag from the rack above him, then scanned the faces of everyone inside the plane. Fiona held his gaze and shrugged. She was the only navy employee on this flight. Everyone else worked for Pollux Engineering. If this was some kind of internal company issue, she knew nothing about it.

The moment Trevor was off the plane, the ramp began to rise. Several people let out pent-up breaths, including the bird guy.

“That was weird,” Cara said. “Anyone know what that was about?”

“No clue,” Fiona answered. The engines flared to life, making further conversation difficult, and she settled back in her seat. She’d text her boss for an explanation when they landed on Adak. She’d hoped to consult with the geologist about the site stratigraphy.

Her gaze returned to the bird guy, and she found he was studying her with an intense look; then he gave her a confident—maybe even smug—smile.

She shook her head. There was something charming about him. She even almost found the smugness appealing, and that made no sense whatsoever. Ornithologists weren’t usually the big egos in camp. It was the geologists and volcanologists you had to watch out for. Except for that one—Dylan Slater. He’d been kind and smart and a professional to his core.

She glanced around the group again, but she knew what she’d find. Dylan wasn’t here. He wouldn’t be back, which made her belly twist.

There wasn’t a volcanologist on this expedition at all, but maybe one was being flown in with the team from Anchorage. In two days, Fiona’s field assistant would be catching a flight from Elmendorf Air Force Base just outside Anchorage, along with other scientists, but until then, Fiona would be the only archaeologist in the field.

With her on this flight were Roy and John, both engineers of one type or another—she always forgot the exact specialties—and Cara, a marine biologist. Fiona had worked with everyone here except the bird guy with Paul Newman–blue eyes.

Like Newman, Bill’s hair was blond, but his was a bit darker with sun streaks, which made sense if he spent a lot of his time in the field chasing birds. He had lines on his face that gave him a weathered look. Rugged and appealing. Comfortable and confident.

That had to be where the egotistical vibe came from. He knew exactly how good-looking he was. She’d bet his cheesy lines and brooding stare worked like magic to make women’s panties disappear.

They all donned headsets to hear the pilots’ instructions as the plane rolled toward the runway. There would be no flight attendant or refreshments on this flight, except for what Fiona had brought with her. Still, she preferred this to commercial flights any day. Plenty of legroom for her longer-than-average legs and no unexpected overnight layovers in Chicago or Denver. Layovers on Adak—where this flight terminated—happened occasionally, but it wasn’t the same as being stuck in a hotel in the Midwest or Rockies. It was an island that was beautiful and brutal and utterly exhilarating.

She leaned against the headrest and closed her eyes, feeling the rumble of the plane’s engine at her back. Between the noise of takeoff and her closed eyes, Hot Bird Man wouldn’t be able to get her attention, and she would enjoy a moment of peace knowing she was finally on her way back to Chiksook.

Did he really expect her to help him settle in on the island, like she was some sort of concierge and not a fellow scientist with a job to do?

She wished she’d sat next to Cara. She hadn’t seen her since she’d left the last expedition early and wanted to hear all about the woman’s misadventures in the intervening weeks. They’d have plenty of evening hours over the next fourteen days to catch up, so she hadn’t been concerned with seating on the flight. A mistake, apparently.

The jet aligned with the runway. The engines revved, the plane vibrating beneath and behind her. Fiona opened her eyes a tiny bit and looked askance at Hot Bird Man.

He looked tense. Fear of flying, maybe?

They raced down the runway, and the nose of the turboprop lifted. His shoulders seemed to relax, and he appeared to settle back in his seat as they rose into the air, yet he was strapped in like the rest of them, so the difference was subtle.

Maybe he didn’t suffer fear of flying so much as fear of takeoff?

She opened her eyes all the way and unabashedly studied his profile. While his eyes and hair reminded her of Paul Newman, that’s where the resemblance ended. His nose was broader and his brows were thicker. A trim beard framed his lips and covered his chin and cheeks, and she wondered how those bristles would feel against her skin.

She jolted at the unwelcome thought, and the motion drew his attention. His gaze turned to her, and his intense blue eyes lit with an amused heat. As if he knew exactly what she’d been thinking.

The guy was full of himself.

Except she had been thinking inappropriate thoughts that involved his mouth.

She glanced across the aircraft to where Cara sat. The woman’s gaze bounced from Fiona to Hot Bird Man and back, and she flashed Fiona a speculative and knowing grin.

Fiona rolled her eyes. She didn’t do field flings, and Cara knew it. She had a list of reasons why it was a bad idea, starting with personal experience, but there was also the issue of her professional reputation being jeopardized in a way that male scientists rarely had to fear for doing the same deed.

Cara just grinned. She didn’t share Fiona’s concerns and had in fact hooked up with one of the engineers in May. She’d claimed it was worth it because the nights were darn cold. Fiona had to admit, she had a point there.

Again, her gaze strayed to Hot Bird Man.

No. No way. Nothing good ever came from field flings, even when the guy was a hot birder with Newman eyes.

What happened to Dylan Slater was proof enough of that.