The Loneliest Cottage
Series: Alaskan Hearts, Book 1

An imaginative Beauty and the Beast retelling set against the Alaskan wilderness…

Lauren Dalton’s world shattered the day her father died. It shattered again when she found a box of old keepsakes commemorating a life she’d never even known he led.

Heartbroken but determined, she accepts a seasonal job in rural Alaska to look after an injured musher’s dogs while searching for the truth about her father’s hidden past. But her cantankerous new boss comes with dangerous secrets of his own.

When a fire ravages part of the property, all will be revealed—and four-thousand miles away from the only home she’s ever known, Lauren will discover just how quickly everything can change.

Don’t miss the chance to lose your heart to Lauren, Shane, and their courageous team of sled dogs in this unforgettable tale of love, loss, and finding where you belong from a New York Times bestselling author.

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The call came in while Lauren was at work. Her eyes practically crossed as she tried to make sense of the never-ending spreadsheet before her. She’d never cared for numbers, but when you graduate with an English degree in the twenty-first century, you take whatever job you can get.

In her case, it was data processing for a large New York-based company that sold their data to other data centers, so together they could invade people’s personal space with the kinds of ads that stalked you around the Internet with an uncanny ability to know where you’d been and what you might buy.

Personally, she hated it.

Which is why she was all too happy for the distraction of whatever waited on the other end of that call.

She took off her headphones and picked up her cell phone. “Hello?”

A man with a deep, unfamiliar voice greeted her. “Lauren Dalton?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed, doing her best to sound friendly but busy, just in case this was a sales call. She didn’t have the money to buy anything even if she wanted to, which is why she was here at this mind-numbing job trying to make a few bucks so she could one day maybe pursue what she really loved.

That is, once she figured out what that might be.

The man on the other end of the line took a long breath out. “I’m Officer Reed. Is this Lauren Dalton, daughter of Edward Dalton?”

Panic gripped at Lauren’s heart. She clearly wouldn’t like whatever this man had to say, so why on earth was he dragging it out? This moment needed to be over, and it needed to be over now.

“What happened to my father?” she whispered, hardly capable of pushing the words out.

“I’m sorry to inform you that your father was involved in a traffic collision and has passed away.”

Lauren let out a loud hiccough of a sob, eliciting irritated stares from the neighboring cubicles.

“There was a deer. We think he died instantly. I know this is a hard time for you, but when you can, you need to come claim his effects at the station.”

Dead? How could her father be dead? She’d just been home for Christmas. He’d given her a scrapbooking kit and a shelf full of novels, and she’d given him a fancy new coffee maker. How could he enjoy his morning lattes if he were dead? How could they take their yearly spring break trip to Disney World if he was gone from this world? And what about in the future when she got married—who would walk her down the aisle then?

She needed to be sure. “Can I see him?” she asked, choking back another sob.

Her father had been the only family she had left. Her mother had died when Lauren was too little to have formed any lasting memories of her, and both her parents had been only children, just like she was.

It had always been Lauren and Dad against the world.

But now it would just be Lauren, all by herself, and the world made a mighty opponent when you had no one to face it with.

“If that’s what you want.” The officer rattled off the location of the morgue and waited as she wrote it down on a sticky note.

“I’ll be right in,” she told him and hung up quickly after he’d given her the address. She looked back at the wall of numbers on her computer screen. Is that what people became once they were no more, just a series of numbers and data, likes and dislikes, buyer profiles and click behavior?

The thought made her sick. It would be up to her to make sure Edward Dalton was remembered for the incredible man he’d been and not just as part of someone’s marketing quota for the year.

She shut her computer down, gathered her things, and went to find her boss. When she couldn’t find her in the office, she checked the conference room, where, sure enough, Joanna Brocklehurst was wooing a couple of well-groomed, bored-looking clients.

“Lauren!” her boss gasped as the employee barged into the room and demanded an audience. “My apologies,” she murmured to the clients, rising to her feet to meet her wayward employee.

“I’m going home early today,” Lauren said and turned to leave again before the door had even managed to swing shut.

Mrs. Brocklehurst chased her out into the hallway. “Excuse you, you can’t just barge into a meeting like that, and you can’t leave early on reports day. You have responsibilities.” She emphasized the word reverently, as if nothing could be more important than her work for data corp.

“Yes, I have responsibilities and I need to go see to them. I’ll be back on Monday, probably.”

“Monday? But it’s only Wednesday. I’m sorry, but I can’t grant you time off with such short notice.”

“Fine, then I won’t be back. At all. I quit. Good luck with the reports.”

Sure, it would have been easy enough to explain what had happened and why she needed to go, but somehow, she just couldn’t bring herself to speak of her father in the past tense or to share any part of him with the stingy boss who signed subsistence level paychecks for her employees while vacationing at St. Bart’s.

She’d given too much of herself to this place already. It was time to move on, to make something of the Dalton name, now that it would be entirely up to her to keep their legacy alive.

* * *

Lauren reached the morgue a couple hours later despite driving at least ten above the speed limit the entire time. Perhaps if she drove fast enough, she could turn back time like in those popular ‘80s movies with Michael J. Fox.

But instead of revisiting the happy past, she soon came face-to-face with her new future, and it wasn’t one she wanted any part of.

The mortician had done a good job cleaning him up, but dark bruises still mottled her father’s skin. Cuts and scrapes peppered his arms, though no blood—indeed, no sign of life at all—clung to them.

And when had he gotten so old?

She still thought of her father as the young man with brown hair and a few days’ scruff framing sharp, green eyes she’d always wished she’d inherited instead of her dull browns. She thought of him as the man who’d graciously attended all her school Mother’s Day events since he was her mom just as much as he’d been her dad. He was the man who’d changed her diapers, taught her to walk. He’d had to help her understand her first period, comforted her after her first heartbreak.

He’d been her world, and now—just like that—Lauren’s world had ceased to turn.

The mortician beckoned her forward with a tight-lipped nod.

“Hi, Dad,” Lauren managed to say as she stepped up to the gurney.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the other woman said, even though she had no idea, no idea at all, what had been lost to Lauren that day.

What kind of brave, new world would she face tomorrow? Because certainly Lauren would need to be brave to carry on in a world that no longer held her heart.

“I love you, Dad,” she whispered, kissing her fingers and placing them to her father’s impossibly cold cheek. She bowed her head and murmured a quick prayer. One day they would meet again, but Lauren still had many more days in which she’d need to make it on her own.

And make it she would, because that’s how her father had raised her, and she refused to let him down.