Ghost

By: Stephanie Rowe

Chapter 1




"What are you running from?"

Ben Forsett froze at the unexpected question, his hand clenching around the amber beer bottle. For a long second, he didn't move. Instead, his gaze shot stealthily to the three exits he'd already located before he'd even walked into this local pub known as O'Dell's in Where-the-Hell-Are-We, Alaska. He rapidly calculated which exit had the clearest path. A couple of bush pilots were by the kitchen door. They were large, rough men who would shove themselves directly into the path of someone they thought should be stopped. His access to the front door was obstructed by two jean-clad young women walking into the foyer, shaking snowflakes out of their perfectly coiffed hair. The emergency exit was alarmed, but no one was in front of it. That was his best choice—

"Chill, kid," the man continued. "I'm not hunting you. I've been where you are. So have most of the men in this place."

Slowly, Ben pulled his gaze off his escape route and looked at the grizzled Alaskan old-timer sitting next to him. Lines of outdoor hardship creased his face, and wisps of straggly white hair hung below his faded, black baseball hat. His skin hung loose, too tired to hold on anymore, but in the old man's pale blue eyes burned a sharp, gritty intelligence born of a tough life. His shoulders were encased in a heavy, dark green jacket that was so bulky it almost hid the hunch to his back and the thinness of his shoulders.

The man nodded once. "Name's Haas. Haas Carter." He extended a gnarled hand toward Ben.

Ben didn't respond, but Haas didn't retract his hand.

For a long moment, neither man moved, then, finally, Ben peeled his fingers off his beer and shook Haas's hand. "John Sullivan," he said, the fake name sliding off his tongue far more easily than it had three months ago, the first time he'd used it.

"John Sullivan?" Haas laughed softly. "You picked the most common name you could think of, eh? Lots of John Sullivans in just about every town you've been to, I should imagine. It'd be hard for people to keep track of one more."

Ben stiffened. "My father was John Sullivan, Sr.," he lied. "I honor the name."

Haas's bushy gray brows went up. "Do you now?"

The truth was, Ben's father was a lying bastard who had left when he was two years old. Or he'd been shot. Or he'd been put in prison. No one knew what had happened to him, and no one really cared, including Ben. "I'm not here to make friends," Ben said quietly.

"No, I can see that." Haas regarded him for a moment, his silver-blue eyes surveying Ben's heavy whiskers and the shaggy hair that had once been perfectly groomed. Ben shook his head so his hair hung down over his forehead, shielding his eyes as he watched the older man, waiting for a sign that this situation was going south.

He would be pissed if Haas turned on him. He needed to be here. He was so sure this was finally the break he'd been waiting for. He let his gaze slither off Haas to the back wall of the bar where an enormous stuffed moose head was displayed. Its rack had to be at least six feet wide, its glazed dead eyes a bitter reminder of what happened to life when you stopped paying attention for a split second.

Beside the moose rack was the battered wooden clock he'd been watching all evening. Adrenaline raced through Ben as he watched the minute hand clunk to the twelve. It was seven o'clock.

"What happens at seven?"

Ben jerked his gaze back to Haas, startled to realize the older man had been watching him closely enough to notice his focus on the clock. "I turn into a fairy princess."

Haas guffawed and slammed his hand down on Ben's shoulder. "You're all right, John Sullivan. Mind if I call you Sully? Most Sullivans go by Sully. It'll make it seem more like it's your real name."

Ben's fingers tightened around the frosty bottle at Haas's persistence. "It is my real name."

Haas dropped the smile and leaned forward, lowering his voice as his gaze locked onto Ben's. "I'll tell you this, young man, I've seen a lot of shit in my life. I've seen men who look like princes, but turn out to be scum you wouldn't even want to waste a bullet on. I've seen pieces of shit who would actually give their life for you. You look like shit, but whatever the hell you're running from, you got my vote. Don't let the bastards catch you until you can serve it up right in their damn faces. Got it?"

Ben stared at Haas, too stunned by the words to respond. No one believed in him, no one except for the man who had helped him escape. He'd known Mack Connor since he was a kid, and Mack understood what loyalty meant. But even Mack knew damn well who Ben really was and what he was truly capable of. Mack's allegiance was unwavering, but he did it with his eyes open and ready to react if Ben went over the line.

He had a sudden urge to tell Haas exactly what shit was going down for him, and see if the old man still wanted to stand by him.

But he wasn't that stupid. He couldn't afford for anyone to know why he was here. "I don't know what you're talking about," he finally said.

Haas raised his beer in a toast. "Yeah, me neither, Sully. Me neither." As Haas took a drink, another weather-beaten Alaskan sat down on Haas's other side. This guy's face was so creased it looked like his razor would get lost if he tried to shave, and the size of his beard said the guy hadn't been willing to take the risk. Haas nodded at him. "Donnie, this here boy is Sully. New in town. Needs a job. His wife left him six months ago, and the poor bastard lost everything. He's been wandering aimless for too damn long."

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