You don't have to wait! Read the first 5 chapters of The Brightest Light right now. Be warned there are some spoilers for book one in the series. If you haven't read The Brightest Light yet, you can read a sample from book one here.
Scarlett watched until Lauren’s sled became nothing more than a pinpoint on the horizon. Her best friend had found a new life living amongst the world Scarlett longed to join for herself.
Ever since she had accepted the job as an Anchorage librarian and moved from her tiny hometown in Texas all the way north, the Iditarod had been one of Scarlett’s foremost passions—along with books, of course. And now she was here, best friends with one of the top racers to watch… but watching from the sidelines.
To her, the snow glimmered with magic, the winds hinted at adventure, and helping the dogs fulfill their purpose gave her one of her own. The main problem, of course, was that dog sledding was not a sport that could be taken up casually. Her friend, Lauren, had left everything about her old life behind when she chose to become a handler for the infamous Shane Ramsey, who had since transformed into her doting husband and committed race coach.
But none of that exactly helped to bring Scarlett clarity.
Could she really starve one passion to feed another? Ultimately, racing for herself would mean quitting her job as a librarian, possibly to never return. Books were just too special for her to willingly cast aside.
She still fondly remembered herself as a five-year-old girl hanging on the arm of her papa’s recliner as he taught her how to sound out the words splashed across the front page of the local Sentinel. She’d learned so much more than how to read—she’d learned the power of stories, the power of words.
Writing these words herself had never been on the table. She preferred to live out her adventures, either vicariously or in reality, which was what had also drawn her to the great race as she’d begun to learn about her new home state.
Now that she was also best friends with an actual musher, Scarlett’s longing intensified. She’d always been happy to live between the pages, but now she craved the open air, the rushing winds, the slick drive across the snow.
Lauren was so happy, and Scarlett knew she could be, too. But she also didn’t know how to bring this dream into actuality. Perhaps she would figure it out one day, or perhaps she would forever be stuck between two worlds, not knowing to which she truly belonged.
Her phone buzzed in her coat pocket, and she bit the thumb of her glove to pry it off her hand so she could press the teeny, tiny button to answer.
“Scarlett, you’re going to have to go without me,” her friend, Liz, announced without preamble.
“Without you? But we go together every year!” she argued, referring to the Miners and Trappers Ball that celebrated the start of the annual race.
“I know, I know. I’m so sorry.” At least Liz did sound genuinely apologetic about the last-minute change of plans. “I would be there if I could, but something has come up.”
This wasn’t like her usually reliable friend, and that worried her. “Is everything okay?” Scarlett asked, fearing the worst.
“Yeah, it will be fine. I’ll tell you more when I know more. I wouldn’t cancel if it weren’t important. You know that.”
“I do, and don’t worry about me. I can hang out with Shane and Rosie.”
“Oh, pfffhew. Good. Okay. I’ll talk to you later. Have a great time at the ball, Cinderella!”
Scarlett laughed as they hung up. She and Liz Benjamin had made fast friends almost immediately after Scarlett arrived in town. Her father, Ben Benjamin, served as one of the race officials and always had the best access to insider events, like the Miners and Trappers Ball. Liz had never much cared for racing, having grown up with it as a constant, but she was happy to help indulge Scarlett’s interests.
That’s what good friends did, after all. And as a good friend, Scarlett needed to feel happy for Lauren rather than envy her success.
With one last glance toward the horizon where she had last seen Lauren and the other racers charge forth toward Nome, she buried the piece of her heart that belonged to this sport and headed home to find a good book to cozy up with for the night.
Tomorrow was the ball, and she wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Scarlett placed a hand on her stomach and sucked in a deep breath as she stood outside the hall, working up the nerve to go inside. She’d attended the ball for the past few years, but never on her own.
Shane had texted earlier to let her know he’d be late. His ex-wife was creating trouble when it came to collecting their daughter, Rosie, and he’d promised the little girl she could come and be a princess for the night.
This meant Scarlett was totally alone, except for the sea of acquaintances that flanked her on every side—not all of them recognizable in their costumes to match this year’s theme.
Dressing up had never been required for the ball, but Scarlett had always thrown herself into the theme full-force. Last year they’d gone as glammed up lumberjacks, and the year before they arrived dressed in homage to Buzzwinkle, the local trouble-making moose.
Oh, the compliments they’d received that time!
For tonight, they had planned sexy Yeti costumes. Scarlett’s was far more modest than Liz’s, but she still felt awkward about arriving alone in such a bold getup. Instead, she’d opted for a floor-length formal gown she had worn as a bridesmaid a few years back.
She inhaled another deep breath as she reached into her tiny clutch purse and pulled out her hulking iPhone. Activating selfie mode, she checked her makeup and hair, both of which were definitely overdone upon second glance. As much as she enjoyed socializing, she was by nature an introvert and spending time with people she only knew in passing quickly exhausted her.
She held the air inside her lungs as she broke through the throngs at the entry and into the main event. She let her breath out again once she’d confirmed that everyone’s eyes hadn’t drifted toward and then stayed with her. Silly to think that everyone would stop enjoying themselves to stare her way, but that kind of thing often happened in books, so it felt like a real enough possibility.
Just in case, she took a slow, sweeping view of the hall, only to notice that her fears were not entirely unfounded. In the far corner, she spotted an unfamiliar face fixed intently on her. Scarlett didn’t recognize him despite her obsession with the sport and general familiarity with its players, and she doubted he recognized her.
No, if she’d met this man before, she would certainly remember. Everything about him had obviously been arranged to leave an impression. His dark hair was heavily styled into a sleek wave above his forehead. The tuxedo he wore was meticulously pressed and perfectly matched the shoes that shone proudly on his feet. The plaid kerchief tucked into his pocket was the only indication he’d considered the night’s Northern theme.
Scarlett felt like a fish out of water as she glanced down at her dark purple gown with faux jewels laid boldly along the neckline. She’d worked her white blonde hair into a French twist and borrowed a pair of big dangly chandelier earrings to go with it.
And the stranger’s eyes were still on her. She felt them as she walked toward the open bar and requested a lime and seltzer.
She felt them as she found her assigned table and took a seat. Even still, she felt them as she checked her text messages for an update from Shane.
When at last she could take it no more, she decided she’d rather have a few very awkward minutes of confrontation than an entire evening spoiled by his unforgiving gaze.
She rose suddenly before she could change her mind, snagging the bottom of her gown on the chair’s leg but thankfully not falling or tearing it in the process.
Making direct eye contact, she strode over to him, hoping she looked as confident as he seemed to feel. For the seemingly endless eternity of her walk along the edges of the dance floor, his eyes remained on her, tracking each step. His face gave away nothing.
Scarlett needed to know why.
Scarlett’s heels clacked against the marble floor as she pressed through the crowd in her attempts to reach the enigmatic stranger who’d thus far refused to let her out of his sight.
A wan smile inched from one of his cheeks to the other as at last she came to stand face-to-face with him.
Now that she was closer, she saw that his eyes were mismatched. She’d read about the rare and enviable trait of heterochromia, but had only ever seen in dogs and cats before tonight.
One crystalline blue eye resembled the sky on a sunny day. The other swirled with bright amber and green. She didn’t know where to look or what to say.
And he seemed in no hurry to help her out. Placing a hand inside his suit jacket, he continued to watch her—to wait. His smile slowly broadened like a flower opening its petals to face the sun. Not just any flower, though—something carnivorous or with thorns. She honestly didn’t know whether she felt intrigued or enraged by his easy confidence, especially since it was so opposite to her own nature.
She took in a deep breath and widened her stance to ground herself, make sure she didn’t lose her nerve and run away before learning more. The sweet scent of lavender and honeysuckle flooded her nostrils. Was this him? It felt so at odds with what she saw standing before her that she lost hold of the tirade she’d prepared on her way over.
A heat rose to her cheeks, and she knew they must be burning as bright red as her name. What was she doing? Why was she still standing there speechless? Why had this strange man already gotten so far under her skin?
There was only one way to find out…
“Do I know you?” she demanded, her voice meeker than she’d hoped, but at least she’d said something now.
“Not yet,” he answered glibly, removing his hand from his jacket and extending it toward her. “But you will.”
Startled, she accepted by placing her own newly manicured hand into his. All the air whooshed from her lungs as he pulled her in tight to his chest.
Things like this didn’t happen to Scarlett Cole. This right here was straight out of a book, straight out of many books. It wasn’t how her real life was lived. She was a small-town librarian, not a wealthy debutante, and definitely not a member of the royal family.
Still, in that moment she became a living princess.
An angry princess.
“You didn’t say please,” she pointed out as he walked her toward the center of the dance floor and moved them seamlessly into a dance.
Oh, what a childish thing to say at such a grownup moment, she chided herself. Yet somehow it felt better than saying nothing at all. Words were her only power against this overpowering man, and she needed any that managed to come to her.
“I didn’t know I needed to,” he answered with a chuckle, the two clashing colors of his right eye seemed to dance along with them.
“Who are you?” She tensed in his arms upon realizing that she knew nothing about her new dance partner, only that he was here and his very presence did strange things to both her mind and body.
His answer came fast and smooth like the tracks on a sled across fresh snow. “A handsome stranger.”
“Tell me your name,” she rasped, feeling her words leaving her once again. As much as they comforted her, they gave her no strength. He paid them no heed.
He smiled across at her, for in her heels, she easily matched his height. Their eyes locked as he declared, “It’s not important. Just dance.”
And so they did.
And Scarlett fell more and more under his indomitable spell as the music carried them through the night.
As the man with no name moved Scarlett across the dance floor, she felt her tension lighten and eventually float away into the tall ceilings above. Some moments were a gift for the future, ones meant to look back on often and relive fondly. Others, like this night, were gifts of the present. They needed to be enjoyed while they lasted and then pushed to the back archives of the mind, retrieved if and when it ever became necessary to look back.
She silenced her voice, a feat on its own, but even more remarkably, she let her thoughts rest as well. In that moment, she belonged to the music, to this stranger, to the night.
He pulled her closer, bringing his lips to her ear. “You want to kiss me,” he informed her.
And she realized that maybe she did but wasn’t sure how she felt about him announcing it to her like this, especially considering they’d only just met that evening.
She shifted subtly in his arms. Her body wanted to conform to his will, but everything in her spirit now resisted.
The spell was broken.
“How do you know what I want?” She pulled back to add distance between them. It was the only way to make sure her body didn’t rebel and kiss him anyway as he’d so boldly suggested.
“It’s written all over your face, in every curve of your body. I’m simply putting words to the feeling. It’s one we share.”
She shook him off when he tried to resume the dance. “I’m not sure why,” she hissed, “but I thought you were a gentleman. I do what I want when I want, not when I’m told by some guy who won’t even give me his name.”
“Relax. You’ve misunderstood me.” He tried to take her in his arms again, and she pulled away again.
As her rage grew, her power returned. The shy, wilting Scarlett had officially left the building, and in her place was the girl who was used to being the heroine of every story, especially her own.
“Stop. I no longer wish to dance,” she said, jabbing a finger into his broad chest. “That’ll show me to dance with a man who can’t even ask appropriately. Have a good rest of your night.”
She stormed off through the crowd, the others too lost in their own enjoyment to notice the passing tempest.
He did not pursue her. Still, his eyes weighed heavily on her as she moved across the hall, trying to cut loose the anchor of desire that tied her to him.
“Scarlett!” a little voice cried as it raced toward her, and its speaker clasping small arms around her hips.
“Sorry we’re so late,” Shane Ramsey said. “Isabel…” As he mentioned his ex-wife’s name, he gave Scarlett a look that luckily escaped Rosie’s notice. His ex had a way of ruining all the most special moments between the father and daughter, and she doubted Shane was even still surprised by that maddening woman’s interference. Scarlett certainly wasn’t.
“Who was that you were dancing with when we came in?” Shane asked, looking over her shoulder and back down the path she had just blistered through the room.
She turned, feeling the chain that tied her to the mystery man break as if it were a physical sensation. When she looked back to the place where she’d left her suitor, he was no longer there.
Well, whoever he was, that would be the last she needed to worry about him. The night would soon come to a close, and she wanted to spend the rest of it making good memories with the people she loved.
And that did not—could not ever—include him.
Scarlett slept in the next morning, choosing to skip church and catch up on rest. Funny that she’d chosen to forgo services on the day she most felt she needed to repent. Her reaction to the charming stranger had been almost animalistic, and thinking of it now, she felt as if she’d done something wrong by agreeing to dance with him.
No, Scarlett wasn’t one of those crazy folks from that town in Footloose. She absolutely loved to dance, to live her life to the fullest. Only last night she’d felt full in a different way—and it bothered her.
Perhaps she could call home and talk to her old friend Elise about all this. They had been thick as thieves until Scarlett had declared her intention to leave Texas and pursue greater adventure. Her high school friends never understood her desire for more, nor did they understand how she intended to get by working as a librarian in Alaska.
But her friend was a youth pastor now and would surely have more experience dealing with hormonal surges like the one that had coursed through Scarlett’s body last night.
Could she bring herself to admit what she’d felt? Could she even put it into words?
Hmm… Hopefully she’d have more clarity after a cup of coffee or two. She pulled herself out of bed and made her way into the kitchen, her goldfish pajama pants picking up dust as she walked. How long had it been since she’d last given this place a good sweep?
Too long, obviously. She mentally added this new task to her lengthening list for the day.
In the kitchen, she found her favorite vanilla brew coffee and popped a K-Cup into the machine. Next, she fished a croissant from the bread drawer and lathered it with a generous slab of butter.
Already, she began to feel more human as she left yesterday behind and forged a new path for today.
It was just an adventure, just a one-time, weird thing, she told herself as she heated a bit of milk in the microwave. Back in her bedroom, her phone jingled with the ringtone she’d set for Liz.
Calling to get all the gossip now, are you? She smirked at how well she knew her friend and realized that her current conundrum wouldn’t even exist if Liz had gone to the ball with her as planned.
“Hey,” Scarlett croaked into the phone, using her voice for the first time that day and hating how it sounded.
“Scar, quick! Turn on the TV!” her friend shouted, and the sound shot straight to Scarlett’s brain, forming an insta-headache.
“Do you have to be so loud before I’ve had my coffee?” she grumbled, tracing her way back to the living room and searching for the remote.
“Do you see it yet?”
“My remote? No.”
Liz let out an impatient sigh. “This is important, Scar! Just push the button on the TV set.”
“Fine.” Scarlett walked up to the TV and felt around under the flat screen surface to find the power button. “What chann—?”
Her question was immediately cut off when the screen flickered to life, only to reveal her mysterious suitor from the night before.
“Liz! How…?” So many thoughts fought for her attention that all Scarlett could do in that moment was gasp as she watched the familiar face speak unheard words on the local news station.
“Keep watching. There’s footage of you, too.”
She frantically felt for the volume buttons. What was he saying? How did Liz know him? And why would there be footage of Scarlett?
“I would’ve come if I’d known you needed me there to keep you out of trouble,” her friend said gently, then exploded again. “I can’t believe you spent all night flirting with Henry Mitchell, III!”
At last he had a name, and surprisingly, it was one she already knew. Dread pooled in her stomach, hot and bitter like the coffee that sat losing steam in her kitchen. She wanted to vomit.
“Mitchell? As in…?”
“Yes, yes, that’s him! His grandfather is the first, his dad is the second—”
“And he’s the third,” Scarlett finished, immediately understanding why she’d felt such a severe case of ick upon waking up that day.
Now more than ever, she hoped she would never see this man—this Henry Mitchel, III—again.
But first she wanted to hear what he had to say and learn why her face was splashed all over the news.
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