Passage to Passion
Complete Box Set
The heat level goes through the roof, and the action never stops!
A gorgeous survival guide. A deadly whiteout. A cozy igloo.
When the heat is this scorching, passion is never far behind.
A tropical climate. A torrid affair. A treacherous game.
When the line between friendship and love suddenly blurs.
A chance for riches. A chance for love. A gutsy couple who reach for both.
Emily took aim and fired off a few shots. The shutter chattered quietly as the camera recorded the images. If she wasn’t careful, she’d need to swap out the memory card soon. She snapped just a few more.
Austin Atoruk had no idea how good looking he was.
He was putting the finishing touches on the igloo and was finally oblivious to her. It’d taken the better part of the day but he had stopped hearing the camera. Most of the time her subjects began to ignore the tool of her trade much sooner but he was different. He seemed to be conscious of everything she did.
The Alaskan sun beat down on the icy plateau as it stretched away to the horizon. In the distance to the west, the dark blue ocean glittered brightly. In every other direction, white dominated. Though Austin had said they were near the banks of a river that flowed to the sea, it was frozen. To the east and north, mountains jutted upward but they were white as well. Silky tendrils of ice and snow drifted from their peaks, parallel to the horizon, evidence of the extreme winds at those altitudes. It was a land of harsh conditions but stark beauty and one of the reasons that Emily was known for these types of cold weather assignments—she enjoyed the challenge and the majestic views.
Austin was an unexpected bonus.
He’d taken off the traditional sealskin parka an hour ago. As he sawed, lifted and stacked the blocks of ice, he was working up a sweat—and a sweat could be deadly in a cold environment. Once you stopped exerting yourself, the moisture would quickly evaporate, taking away an enormous amount of precious heat. Traditionally, the Inuit would have worn two sealskin parkas in the winter but Austin had decided to wear one and use underwear to wick away any moisture. At this point, he was down to the traditional leggings and a grey, long-sleeved, polyester t-shirt—a tight one. She rotated the barrel of the huge lens and zoomed in. As he turned toward her, he hefted the latest block onto his shoulder.
She smiled, still mesmerized by the show. As he raised his arms, his pectorals bunched and mounded. Then his rib cage lifted to showcase his slim waist. His muscular arms held the block in place on a single thick and broad shoulder.
He must lift weights.
Click. A single shot that time. She zoomed in again. The shiny polyester hid nothing. Although all that muscle mass was generating heat, his nipples said that it was cold.
Suddenly she realized he wasn’t moving. She zoomed out. He was staring at her.
She immediately lowered the camera and felt her face flush hot, even in the freezing air.
“Did you want to get a picture of this from inside?” he said. “It’s the last block.”
“Great!” she chirped. “I mean, sure. That’d be great.”
Her boots quickly crunched over the ice and thin layer of accumulated snow. As she passed in front of him, she glanced up. He was a little over six feet tall but his fresh face and sweet voice said he was barely out of childhood, still in his teens. The high cheeks and radiant dark eyes were magnetic but it was his full lips that made him seem tender. He smiled shyly as she passed and she looked down rather than stare. He had to be at least seven or eight years her junior which, at his age, was a lot.
She got down on her hands and knees and crawled through the semi-subterranean entrance.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” he called from outside.
She would have loved to do exactly that. As she stood and looked at the hole in the center of the dome, she sighed and brought the camera up. It had become her way of relating to the world. Although she’d like to say something to him—or anyone, for that matter—she knew that was just a fantasy. The only two things that she’d really mastered were taking photographs and keeping men at arm’s length.
She quickly assessed the interior shot. A wider angle lens would work best—maybe even a fisheye. To start, though, she’d need something that could zoom. She went to the camera bag, selected the 17-35 mm, and swapped it for the telephoto.
“Ready,” she called.
She saw his shadow fall across some of the chinks in the igloo and could see his outline through the translucent and blue light that filtered through the ice. The perfect triangle of his upper body loomed large as the last block landed with a thud, about halfway up the dome. Tiny crystals of ice rained down, sparkling like glitter. She quickly raised the camera, reframed the shot, and pressed the shutter. Then she heard the scraping of ice on ice as he pushed the block up the dome.
“Here it comes,” he called. “Don’t stand right under it.”
She backed up a pace. As the block appeared at the lip of the hole, it teetered and then dropped. She pressed the shutter down and snapped a series of pictures. Like the last piece of a puzzle, it fell into place with a grinding thunk.
“Perfect,” she yelled.
She lowered the camera and looked around. Were it not for the lowered floor, she’d have to duck. He had excavated that first. Then he’d moved their backpacks and the animal skin rugs to the interior as well.
“In a storm,” he’d explained. “We could still take shelter behind the walls, even if the dome wasn’t complete.”
Even at his age, he was an expert at ice survival. Half Inuit, he’d both learned and lived the old ways. Condé Nast had given her the whale hunt assignment and selected him as her point of contact in the small village up the coast. It was obvious from his knowledge why. He would also be part of the hunt in a few days, so there’d be continuity and a story in the photos.
She heard a noise at the entrance and watched him crawl through. He’d put the sealskin back on. At her suggestion, he’d dressed in traditional gear for most of the igloo building but he’d brought regular clothes as well. He stood and brushed off his hands. Even stooped, his head touched the dome, the dark black hair in stark contrast to the ice. She realized he had a small saw in his hand, which he now inserted in a seam next to the last block. She raised the camera and started shooting.
The ice block had stopped a few inches short of being flush with its neighbors and, as he worked on its edges, it finally sank into its slot. He surveyed his work, touching it and pushing on it. He seemed satisfied.
The construction of an igloo was something she’d always wanted to see in person. As often as she’d done cold environment shooting, it’d always been a high tech affair. The indigenous survival angle was a new one for her. The beauty of it was something she hadn’t expected.
The sunlight that managed to penetrate the dome, mostly at the edges of the blocks, was the purest light blue. It wasn’t the color of the sky, though, which she could see through the air hole. The light was the color of ice. Her photographer’s eye said it was a blue with very little green. It was like being underwater or maybe in a bubble. Even the centers of each block passed a little light—a translucent milky white that glowed. She took a moment to frame a few shots.
“I’ll light the kudlik,” he said, as he bent and zipped open a canvas sack. “That way, after we look at the river, you can see how warm the interior of one of these can be.”
“The kudlik?” she said, as she knelt down in place and raised the camera.
“The oil lamp,” he said. “Lamp and heater, really.” He took out a shallow, crescent-shaped trough that was made of a smooth dark stone. Then he removed a sealskin pouch and squeezed something that looked like pale raw meat into the trough.
“Mashed seal blubber,” he said, as she snapped a few photos. “You get used to the smell.”
There was a definite fish odor but luckily, Emily liked fish.
He lined the entire tray with the blubber, about two feet in length, tucking it into the corners at the ends and gently teasing some onto the front lip of the trough.
He fetched a small leather pouch and untied the drawstring at the top. He held it out to her so she could look inside.
“This is what I’ll use for the wicks,” he said. “We call it Arctic cotton but really it’s sea moss.”
It looked amazingly like cotton and the tips of his fingers delicately pinched small tufts of it into flat pieces that he pushed gently into the blubber all along the lip of the trough.
“You can’t make it too wet with oil or it’s hard to light,” he said. “We just want to get the flame started.”
He removed a plastic lighter from his chest pocket.
“I’ll skip the traditional fire-starting so we can get going.”
As he lit each of the wicks, the kudlik slowly blazed to life with bright yellow flames that danced along its entire length.
He pocketed the lighter and went over to the pile of animal skins. He unfolded one and threw it on the floor, as though he were casting a net. The shutter quietly snapped at a furious rate.
“Caribou skin,” he said.
He did the same with a few more, covering the entire interior, except for where the kudlik lay. Then, with some amount of ceremony, he unfolded an animal skin that Emily finally recognized.
“Polar bear?” she said, still looking through the lens.
“Yep,” he said, holding it up for her to see. “They’ve been in my family for generations.”
She snapped a few more shots and then he unfolded two more, as she lowered the camera. If they were going to see the frozen river and then come back, the change in light might reveal something interesting. She’d shoot the interior and exterior again when they returned.
He stood with hands on hips and nodded to himself, with a small smile.
She almost brought up the camera to focus on his lips but caught herself in time.
He looked at her.
• • • • •
The ride on the snowmobile had been quick.
Too quick, Austin thought.
The feel of Emily’s arms wrapped around his waist was something he could get used to. Even though they both wore parkas, he thought he could feel her outline against his back. Or maybe it was his imagination, since that had been in overdrive today.
Before they’d left the igloo, he used the shovel to pack the exterior with loose snow. She was going to be amazed at how warm it was when they got back.
As they walked along the edge of the river, he kept a half-pace behind so he could watch her. Even in the cold weather gear, her hourglass shape was obvious. In the village, when she’d only worn a fleece layer, he thought his mouth might be hanging open. Heads turned all along the main street to follow her as they’d walked to the snowmobile. The blonde hair was a rarity up here but if they could have seen what he saw up close, he knew the men in town would have been following them.
She looked like she ought to be in front of the camera instead of behind it—the perfect face and the body to match. She was completely out of his class and yet she didn’t act like it. She laughed lightly at his little jokes and tended to smile–when she wasn’t taking pictures, which was most of the time.
She stopped now and raised the camera, seeing something about the frozen river worth photographing. He backed up a pace to watch from behind.
Suddenly, though she started forward, with the camera still held to her face, shooting without seeing where she was going.
“No, Emily, not that way!” Austin yelled but it was too late.
Suddenly, there was a loud crack from beneath her.
“Emily!” he screamed.
She had started to turn toward him but then dropped straight down, as though she were on an elevator.
“Aust–,” she screamed as she submerged.
• • • • •
Austin dove forward onto his stomach and slid. Her camera was still on the ice, snagged on its jagged edge. He frantically made a grab for it as it swiveled in place, trying to break free. He splayed his legs out behind him to stop his forward motion. His hand landed on the giant lens and then his other hand grabbed the strap. It was taut.
Still laying on the ice, he pulled upward, as if he were doing a bicep curl. The weight of the water made it heavy. He heard small clinking noises from the ice below him. The spring thaw had come early, ridiculously early. How could he not have seen that?
He knew why. Because he’d been watching her.
He kept curling as the muscles in his arm burned. He let go of the lens and grabbed the strap with his other hand and pulled upward. He peered down at the water.
Where is she?
She’d worn the heavy camera over her shoulder and across her chest all day. She had to be close. She had to be–
Her head broke the surface.
“Emily!” he screamed but her eyes were closed and she wasn’t moving.
He grabbed the front of her jacket and heaved. Tiny crinkles all around him let him know he’d better hurry—no problem there.
Even with the heaviness of the water, her weight was no match for his strength. She was halfway out and jackknifed at the hips when a loud crack sounded. In one movement, Austin got to his knees and pulled. Her weight hit him in the chest, knocking him back onto the thicker ice behind him, as the shelf in front of him gave way. He watched the existing hole widen as he jammed his heels into the ice and pushed backward. He hugged her to his chest and didn’t stop until he was nearly at the snowmobile. Finally, satisfied they were safe, he let her go and rolled her onto her back.
She wasn’t breathing.
Although he’d expected that, he still had to fight the panic that was starting to build.
He jerked so hard on the little metal pull of the jacket’s zipper that it came off in his hand. Then, he grabbed both sides of the jacket and simply ripped it wide open. He put his ear to her chest, squishing the wet fleece. Her heart was beating.
He knelt next to her head, reached under her neck, and tilted her chin up. As he opened her mouth, he covered it completely with his. Then he pinched her nose and exhaled. He glanced sideways to see if her chest rose and it did.
He let his lips leave hers and saw her chest fall. Again, he enclosed her mouth and blew. Again, her chest rose and he separated from her.
“Emily!” he yelled. “Come on!”
He breathed for her again and then again.
He quickly listened to her heart—still beating.
Emily, please, he thought. Don’t do this.
He covered her mouth again and blew and then let her release it.
But as he took in another lungful of air, she coughed.
He let her nose go.
There was a gurgling noise and clear water started to run from her lips. He quickly rolled her to her side so she wouldn’t choke and she coughed again. She heaved in a gulp of air and then coughed some more. Finally, the coughing began to subside and he rolled her onto her back.
“Emily, can you hear me?”
Her eyes opened.
“Emily, can you hear me?”
She looked at his face. Her eyebrows knit together for a second and then she seemed to relax.
“Austin?” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
“Oh thank god!” he said. “I thought you were–”
He realized her eyes were hugely dilated.
“Austin?” she said again but he wasn’t listening.
Instead, he scooped her up from underneath and stood so fast that she gasped. The camera still hung around her torso at a crazy angle but there was no time to think about it. Instead, he ran to the snowmobile. He ignored the sled at the back and jumped into the seat. As he sat down, he cradled her in front of him. He hit the throttle and the engine roared to life.
He glanced down at her and she seemed to be looking at him but he knew better. She was in the early stages of hypothermia.
• • • • •
Austin easily pulled her through the igloo entrance but left her near the opening. The wet clothes had to come off because the blankets needed to stay dry. He peeled off his own parka and flung it aside as he grabbed the hunting knife from the side pocket of his backpack.
“Austin?” he heard from behind him.
“Stay with me, Emily,” he said, and he unsheathed the knife and knelt next to her.
“Why wouldn’t I?” she whispered but her speech was slow.
On the snowmobile her teeth had been chattering but, at this point, she had already stopped shivering.
“You would stay with me,” he said, as he pulled off her boots and socks. “You will.”
He started the knife at the bottom of the ski pants, lifted them away from her and sliced upward toward her hip for about a foot. Then, he did the same with the black tights that were her middle clothing layer. Finally, he came to the thin layer of white thermal underwear and he cut through that as well. He could see her skin now. The razor sharp knife sliced easily through all three layers of clothes, clean through the waistlines. He put tension on the fabric to make it quicker, tearing it as well as cutting it.
“What’s that sound?” she murmured.
“I don’t know,” he said, as he quickly flipped the fabric away from her to reveal lacy white panties. “What does it sound like?” he said, as he stretched them away from her and cut through those as well.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
He cut the clothing from her other leg and moved it aside. Her skin was cool to the touch. He quickly checked her face. Her lips were tinged with blue.
Oh god, hurry, he thought as he grabbed the bottom of her fleece top. She was running out of time.
• • • • •
Austin was a nice guy, Emily thought. A gorgeous man or maybe a boy—or, wait, maybe a man, she couldn’t decide—and sweet. But he must be a little deaf. How could he not hear that sound?
She felt something tug at her waist. Her eyelids were so heavy. She wanted to look but she just couldn’t muster the energy.
There was that sound again.
Hmm. She knew that sound. She frowned. It was something bad.
Oh god. She knew what it was.
It was the sound of tearing clothes.
That wasn’t a bad sound. It was terrifying. A scream built in her throat.
• • • • •
As the last bit of clothing came away from her, Austin quickly found the sheath and stowed the knife. When he turned back to her, the impact of what he was actually seeing hit him. She was naked, lying in front of him, and every bit as amazing as his imagination had made her.
Her long shapely legs led up to wide hips. The triangular mound of curling hair below her flat tummy was blonde. Her impossible waist looked so small he thought he might be able to circle his fingers around it and her breasts…. He subconsciously began to lean toward her. They were like plump, flesh-colored fruit. He caught himself.
What was he doing?
Suddenly, her eyes opened and a low wail came from between her numb lips.
“Stop!” she tried to say.
Her hands pushed at the air above her, batting at something.
“No, please,” she whimpered. “I won’t do it again.”
Won’t do it again?
She tried to cover her face with her arms and shook her head.
“Stop,” she pleaded.
Hallucinations, he thought. The next stage of hypothermia. He stood and quickly stripped off everything but his briefs.
“Please,” she begged. “I promise.”
Quietly, she began to cry. And though she tried to keep them in, desperate little sobs escaped her lips. The whimpering desperation of it wrenched his insides.
He bent down, scooped her up, and brought her away from the wet clothes. In only a step, he set her down on the polar bear skin. She had started to breathe heavily. With her eyes still closed, her hands found him. She tried to push but he gently restrained her and pulled the nearby bearskin over both of them.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly as he lay down against her. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
Her skin was so cold. He gently rolled her away from him—easy, now that she had stopped struggling.
“Promise?” she whispered.
He put his chest against her back.
“Promise,” he whispered in her ear as he brought his knees up behind hers.
He wrapped his arm around her chest and pulled her close. He rubbed his palm down her breastbone, below her ribs, and then back up again, trying to create more heat with the friction.
“You’re going to be okay,” he said. “You’re–”
His hand brushed against her hard nipple.
• • • • •
His voice was so smooth.
How did men do that? Emily wondered.
It was almost velvety. And whose voice was that anyway? She felt a hand cup her breast.
“Oh,” she moaned.
Austin had a wonderful touch.
Yes, that’s right. Austin. Now she remembered. She put a hand over his hand. Yes, this was Austin. Austin with the amazing body. She smiled to herself, eyes still closed, and arched her back, moving her hips into his. She felt him then, his hard arousal, and she gasped.
She moved her hips again.
It had been such a long time since she’d been with someone. In fact, it had been years and, at the moment, she couldn’t think of a single good reason why. She turned toward him.
• • • • •
Austin let her roll over but stopped her as she tried to get on top. Not only did she seem she barely conscious, his chest was a barrier that wasn’t going to move. Instead, he hugged her to him and began rubbing her cold back.
“Austin,” she murmured into the base of his neck. “Make love to me.”
“Ssshh,” he whispered in her ear. “Be quiet.”
As much as he wanted to believe her words, he knew that was the last thing he could do. He had seen this type of hypothermia behavior once before.
When he was twelve, he’d seen an older man on a hunting party fall overboard. Tarqeq had been pulled out almost immediately but the hypothermia had set in before they could get back to shore. After the shivering and hallucinations, the personality flip had come. Normally mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Tarqeq had turned into a foul-mouthed lunatic. Although the other hunters had expected it, no one could explain why it happened—or the hallucinations for that matter.
Emily tried to wrap herself around him and only succeeded with the top arm and leg.
“I want you now,” she said, tilting her chin up and nibbling under his jaw.
“No you don’t,” he said, quietly, as he rubbed the small of her back and then her buttocks.
At that she began a rhythmic movement of her hips.
“I do,” she insisted.
He felt his arousal grow and stretch his briefs as her movement stroked it. He inhaled sharply.
“You want it too,” she murmured and kissed his chest. “I knew it.”
He couldn’t take this. No matter that it was from the hypothermia, he wasn’t going to be able to resist her if she continued. He gently moved her arms and legs from around him and bear hugged her—not tightly, only enough to still her movement.
“Austin?” she said into his chest. He could feel that her skin was warming. “What are you doing?”
“Quiet now,” he said, his chin resting lightly above her head. “You need to rest.”
She struggled a little.
“I need you,” she whispered.
Her lips moved against his chest, his throat.
“I’m right here,” he whispered.
“You are,” she said, barely audible.
He made no reply this time, only held her still.
For several seconds there was silence and he heard his own heart pounding.
She had stopped moving. He felt her breath against his skin. He held her so close that he could feel her heart beat against his. Slowly, he released his hold on her.
She rolled back against his waiting arm and he looked down at her face. She was deeply asleep. He let her head touch the bearskin and gazed down at her parted lips.
They were so close.
His arousal ached now but he withdrew his hands from her back and let her settle into the downy fur. He let one hand trail across her stomach before he laid his head down too and became still.
Make love to her, she had said.
He'd give anything to do that, especially to a woman like her. But, the truth was, he didn’t know how. At the age of nineteen, he was still a virgin.
Though he couldn’t see her body under the top bearskin, he lightly ran his hand down her side and around the outside of her hip as he remembered her movements.
He felt his own hips want to move so he let them. His breathing came in shudders and, as he stared at her face, he touched himself. The quick peak of the arousal surprised him and he stifled a groan.
• • • • •
The mattress was firm but the sheets were so soft. Emily couldn’t remember anything that felt quite so satiny. She lay on her back in a white world that seemed like a snow globe. She looked all around but nothing distinct stood out, just the milky white light, tinged with blue.
She remembered Austin and suddenly he popped into existence next to her, naked.
“I’m right here,” he said in that velvety voice.
His chest was bare and, without touching it, she knew it was warm and completely hairless, the skin smooth and sleek over the large, sculpted pecs.
Before he popped out of existence, it was time to find out what the rest of him was like.