Curl up with a quirky small-town Alaskan rom-com that’ll leave you laughing over:
* A grumpy local and the sunny tourist who turns his world upside down
* A rogue moose who threatens to steal every scene
* A vacation you’ll never forget
* And a sweet romance that doesn’t need to scald the pages to burn its way into your heart
He had a strict “no tourists” policy…until she broke all of his rules.
When Graham Barnett named his diner The Tourist Trap, he meant it as a joke. Now he’s stuck slinging reindeer dogs to an endless parade of resort visitors who couldn’t interest him less. Not even the sweet, enthusiastic tourist in the corner who blushes every time he looks her way…
Two weeks in Alaska isn’t just the top item on Zoey Caldwell’s bucket list. It’s the whole bucket. One look at the mountain town of Moose Springs and she’s smitten. But when an act of kindness brings Zoey into Graham’s world, she may just find there’s more to the grumpy local than meets the eye…and more to love in Moose Springs than just the Alaskan wilderness.
The bald eagle soared overhead, turning lazy circles against a backdrop of rich forested Alaskan mountainside.
As luck would have it, Graham Barnett had seen this same eagle on the way to work that morning. High above them both, the sun-kissed peaks of the Chugach Mountains glittered with their snowy caps, tree lines receding into grays and browns of weathered boulders.
Graham couldn’t have asked for a more peaceful moment to enjoy his hometown of Moose Springs. A moment to sit on the back steps of his diner, take a break, and sip a root beer.
If it just weren’t for the moose trying to make love to his pickup truck fifteen feet away.
“Ulysses, we do this every day, buddy.” Resting his arms on his thighs, he watched the fifteen-hundred-pound bull moose press his nostrils to the window of Graham’s abused Dodge, snuffing along the seal. Long, wet streaks of moose goo smeared on glass still crusty from the previous day’s love affair.
“The truck just isn’t into you. You’ve got to let this go, man. Move on to something better.”
This was all about Graham’s buns. Which was understandable—Graham liked them too—but Ulysses was taking this to a whole other level.
For whatever reason, the moose was obsessed with the smell of the fresh baked bread he picked up from the local bakery every day. Graham didn’t have the storage space in his diner’s freezer to make this a weekly supply run, and bread was far too expensive to ship into town when he could buy it locally. So Graham’s truck always smelled like buns.
And the moose loved it.
Ulysses rubbed his heavy body against the passenger side door, scratching his shoulder and making deep, guttural huffing noises of appreciation. The truck had lost two door handles this way, and Graham had long since given up replacing the passenger side mirror.
“You and I are going to have a talk one of these days. You know this is weird, right?”
Draining his root beer, Graham listened to the volume inside the diner grow louder. Whose great idea had it been to install a jukebox? That was just asking the customers to stay even longer.
When Graham rose to his feet, the bull moose swung his massive head in his direction. Graham went still, partially out of habit but also from respect for the six-foot span of antlers crowning the animal’s head. Ulysses considered him for a moment, then went back to wooing the Dodge. If the paint job hadn’t already been trashed from this very ritual, Graham would have winced at the sound of antler scraping along the quarter panel.
Movement caught the corner of his eye. A couple were edging toward Graham’s truck, phones out as they shared excited whispers. Graham groaned.
Somehow it had gotten around to the tourists up at the Moose Springs Resort that if anyone wanted to see a moose in the wild, they should park out in his tiny diner’s even tinier parking lot. Which was why Graham started leaving his truck behind the building. Still, the more determined tourists always seemed to find the moose when Ulysses came by.
“Hey. Stay back.” Graham jerked his head in a curt no as the tourists inched closer, clicking pictures.
At least they didn’t have a kid with them. Too many times, Graham had been forced to intervene when someone tried to shove their child on the back of a wild animal. Not a lot of things made him angry, but that always managed to send his blood pressure sky-high.
“He’s either going to kill you or date you,” Graham warned. “He’s got emotional problems.”
They were utterly oblivious, which was exactly why Moose Springs had one of the highest rates of human injuries by moose encounter in the entire state of Alaska. Not the animals’ fault, either. Still, if one of these days the bull moose with a crush on Graham’s truck ended up hurting someone, a Fish and Game warden would have to come and either relocate Ulysses or put him down.
Neither of which the moose deserved.
“Take a picture of us with him.” The woman’s eyes widened with excitement as her companion continued an endless series of selfies with the oblivious Ulysses in the background.
“Hard pass on that. Okay, Ulysses, take a hike, lover boy. You’ll have to come back another day.”
Graham clapped his hands in warning. He and this moose had known each other for a while, and they’d come to an understanding. Graham wouldn’t use rock salt pellets to drive him away if Ulysses didn’t trample his customers. The moose stared at Graham in disappointment, glared at the strangers, then grudgingly moved along.
The couple muttered in equal disappointment, but Graham’s sympathy was with the moose. The unending influx of tourists tended to ruin Graham’s days too.
Behind him, the music grew louder. Someone must have discovered the volume button on the back of the jukebox.
“I’m going in there.” Graham said cheerfully at the couple as he turned to head back into the diner. “Try to make good choices.”
Visitors to town rarely did. Walking into the unmanned and packed diner only proved Graham’s theory.
When Graham opened the Tourist Trap, he’d meant the whole thing as a joke. He’d never wanted to sling burgers for a living, much less own his own place. All he wanted was to eat free cheeseburgers behind the counter and choose whatever he wanted to watch on the television in the corner. That and a way to pay his bills while not having to answer to anyone.
For some reason, being a yes-man just wasn’t in Graham’s genetic makeup.
Unfortunately, yes was the word he said most often these days, followed by asking if someone wanted fries with that. When Graham turned the tiny, run-down pizza joint down the road from Moose Springs Resort into an equally run-down, one-man diner, he assumed it would be the type of place where only locals would eat. The last thing he’d expected was for any of the wealthy, entitled tourists to actually go there.
With three things on the menu, it barely counted as serving food. Graham had a beer and liquor license, but he refused to make anything that required a blender or a master’s degree to remember the ingredients. There wasn’t even a sign above the door, just the shadow of wood paneling once covered by plastic letters spelling pizza.
And yet there they were, filling the Tourist Trap to the stuffing point and waiting in line because Graham refused to hire anyone. Which meant working his tail off on any given Tuesday.
For the record, Graham hated Tuesdays. They always ended up more trouble than they were worth.
In his defense, there had only been a couple of people in line when he’d gone outside for his break. Graham hadn’t planned on having to shoo away a perfectly innocent moose from his romantic aspirations. Now there were three times as many customers, with the line running all the way to the front door. With a deep sigh of disappointment in his establishment, Graham scrubbed his hands clean and took his place behind the counter. Purgatory was located somewhere between the flat top grill to his right and the fryer behind him.
“You abandoned ship.”
From his spot of dubious safety behind his counter, Graham looked up at the familiar voice.
“Even prisoners get time in the yard, L.” Graham winked at the woman sauntering toward him. “I almost stayed out there.”
Wrapped in a dress that could make one’s mouth water, Lana Montgomery didn’t just stand out in a crowd. She was the center of every room she walked into. Lana was almost a regular, coming to Moose Springs at least twice a year, sometimes more. Skiing in the winter and as a spectator for the Fourth of July festivities in the summer.
She was also Graham’s favorite.
Of all the tourists he didn’t want in his diner, he didn’t want her there less than the others. And Lana used his dubious affection for her shamelessly.
Slipping to the front of the line despite the others still waiting, Lana leaned her arm on the counter next to a few too many soggy napkins and scattered bun crumbs.
It’d been a busy night.
“Graham, I need a Growly Bear.”
“You want another Growly Bear?” Graham raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, and make it extra growly.” Lana clawed at the air playfully. “Rawr.”
Chuckling, Graham took one look at the beautiful woman in her sky-high heels and shook his head in bemusement.
“You’ve already had a Growly Bear, Lana. Besides, we’re sold out.” Even as he talked, Graham worked rapidly, dropping baskets of frozen fries in the fryer and slapping fresh burgers and dogs on the grill. He’d done this for so long, he didn’t have to think about the actions. Getting customers through the line quickly wasn’t a problem. Getting them to leave when they were done eating was the hard part.
“Nope. Growly Bears are a pain in the ass to make one at a time, and I’m not serving any more tonight. And nobody gets them extra growly. I like having my diner still standing. No more fires.”
“That was an accident, love.” With a dismissive wave of her manicured fingernails, Lana shrugged off one of the more terrifying incidents of Graham’s life. “Just a little spark, no harm done.”
“Not a chance, L.”
Graham softened his refusal with a toss of a broken French fry her way. She caught it with the practice of a woman who had spent two months a year for the last four years doing that exact same thing every time they saw each other.
“It’s not for me, I promise.” Swallowing her fry, Lana leaned her hip against the counter and hit Graham with the full impact of her smoky eyes. “It’s for my friend Zoey. She’s never had the pleasure.”
Lana pointed toward a small table near the counter, causing him to glance over at the person occupying it, but Graham didn’t bother to look closely.
“Then your Zoey needs to order it.”
Why did they always order the Growly Bears? The name was dumb, they tasted terrible, and Graham had the distinct feeling they should be illegal. He’d have thought the tourists flocking to his tiny Alaskan town would have learned by now.
Never try to drink a local under the table.
The Growly Bear was Graham’s special concoction, crafted the first time someone asked him to make them a drink the locals have. The request left him annoyed and determined to put together the worst tasting thing he could think of drinking.
Leave it to him to start a viral foodie trend when he just wanted to be left alone.
“Zoey’s a Tourist Trap virgin.” Lana’s voice was husky from her first drink, the flush in her cheeks bringing out color in her neck and cleavage. She leaned in further. A little too far.
Graham waved her back. “Your breasts are in my buns, L,” he said, loud enough so the customers around them would hear.
“Then charge them extra,” she said playfully, glancing at the people behind her.
The man seated at the counter next to them choked on his burger, unable to stop staring. Without asking, Graham reached over and topped off his soda. Being in close proximity to Lana was stressful for all of them.
“Graham, Zoey needs to have a Growly Bear and a Sloppy Dog. This is her first day here, and she has to have the true Moose Springs experience.”
Really? The true experience? What had his little dive come to?
“The Tourist Trap is everyone’s first pit stop,” she continued. “Having a Growly Bear is a rite of passage.”
Didn’t that just run a cold chill up his spine?
Realizing Lana was beaming impishly at him, Graham tossed another fry at her, this time aiming for her forehead. “You’re mean, L.”
“And you’re terribly predictable, love.” Dang, she’d caught it, just like the first.
“Fine, you win.” Lana was relentless when she wanted something, and Graham was too busy to invest the kind of effort it would take to drive her away.
“This Zoey needs to ask for herself.”
Lana had a lot of friends, and sometimes one or two never materialized, leaving the extra drinks for her. Since he liked Lana, he let her get away with it, but two Growly Bears was one Growly Bear too many.
Heck, one Growly Bear was one too many, but try telling the masses of resort guests that. A solid third of the night’s clientele were drinking Growlies without the decency to feel ashamed of themselves.
“Poor Zoey flew coach,” Lana continued. “No wonder she’s not feeling well. I told her to join me last week, but no. It’s all work all the time with her.”
“Yes, us selfish plebeians with our jobs.”
Graham handed two burgers and a basket of fries to the customer waiting behind her. He didn’t bother asking how they wanted them. He’d learned quickly that if he gave a Moose Springs Resort tourist options, they’d still be making him read ingredient labels an hour later.
At first, Graham had exclusively taken cash payment, but there were only so many times he could be stared at with confusion by the ultra-rich before he broke down and bought a tablet for credit card swipes.
Lana leaned further over the counter. Yep. Those were a pair of breasts in his buns. As he added grilled onions to the next order of dogs, he put his palm on Lana’s shoulder with the other, gently straightening her. He personally didn’t mind, but Graham doubted the next table would like the smell of Chanel in their meal.
Lana snagged a beer from the tray he was preparing. Before he could stop her, she downed it without blinking.
“Hello, Moose Springs,” she cried out. “Beers for all my new friends, Graham. Let’s get this night started!”
The crowd cheered. Graham groaned.
With a look over her shoulder that could have brought a better man to his knees, Lana sauntered away, beer bottle at her hip as she mouthed “Growly Bear” to him.
With close to forty people in his twenty-five-maximum diner, he’d likely have to bust out the cases of Midnight Sun IPA that had just come in. When Lana said beer, she didn’t mean the cheap stuff. It wouldn’t be the first time that his repeat patroness walked away with a tab well into four digits. When someone had that kind of money…
“You’d never see me again,” Graham murmured as he started making tick marks on a piece of scratch paper to keep track of bottles, adding them as free drinks to the tables of those who claimed their freebies.
Three drinks per customer. That was his rule. One Growly Bear a night. Graham learned the hard way to keep that rule, no matter how ticked off the customers got. They could eat themselves into a coma, but Graham wasn’t going to hose any more vomit off his front walk or be responsible for someone wrecking a Ferrari on the winding mountain road back to the resort.
And if anyone got too angry? Well, Graham always enjoyed tossing crappy customers out of his establishment.
When a momentary hush fell over the crowd, accompanied by heavy boots stomping across the wood flooring, Graham’s lips curved. And as a body took the seat next to Graham’s line of impatient customers, he paused in his work to hand the newcomer a soda and a cheeseburger. No one said a word in protest.
“Thanks.” Easton Lockett’s deep rumble sounded like a freight train with a smoking habit, even though the owner of the voice would never even consider touching a cigarette.
Some people were tall. Some people were built like tanks, muscular and wide. And some looked like they could sneeze and take down a brick building.
Easton was bigger than all that.
Having to duck when he came through the diner’s very normal sized doorway, Easton was beard and man bun above every person in the room. Climbing through the mountains as a wilderness guide his entire adult life had only put muscle on Easton’s massive frame, shrinking the rest of the world down a few notches or two. Graham wasn’t a little guy, but there was something about being near his friend that made him feel itty-bitty.
Itty-bitty never had been a descriptor Graham enjoyed for himself, but when Easton handed him a ham and cheese hoagie, he decided that he’d let it go for the moment.
“Took your time,” Graham told him. “I’ve been waiting on you.”
Glancing at who wasn’t accompanying him, Graham raised an eyebrow. “Should I bother asking where my dog is?”
“Where do you think?” Easton grunted in response. “Curled up in my sister’s lap on the couch.”
“You know, most fur aunts and uncles bring their fur nephews back when the day is done.”
“She likes him better than the rest of us.”
Easton sipped his soda, ignoring Graham’s chastisement as successfully as Graham was ignoring his line of customers. People were used to this sort of treatment at the Tourist Trap. From what the reviews online said, apparently Graham’s lack of customer service was part of the appeal. Since Graham was all for giving the customers what they wanted, he ripped off a third of the hoagie, stuffing it into his mouth.
“Oh man, that’s good. Ash?”
“Yeah. She knows you’re sick of burgers.” Easton shrugged his shoulders. “And it’s not my job to help you with yours.”
“Shame on you. What kind of friend do you call yourself?”
“The kind that thinks you should hire an extra cook.”
Grabbing his air horn from beneath the counter, Graham smirked at his childhood friend. “Naw. There are plenty of bodies in here to help with the work. Push that trash bin into the middle of the room, will you?”
There was nothing like the piercing violence of an air horn screeching through an enclosed space to make everyone wince. With a sigh, Easton stood up and went to the end of the counter, where a fifty-five-gallon trash can with a construction-grade liner waited. Aiming a look of long suffering at Graham, Easton dragged it to the center of the room. The song on the jukebox ended, and everyone was too busy staring at Graham in surprise to put on another one.
This was just how Graham wanted it.
“All right, you dirty people,” Graham called out to his customers. “Time to clean up. No more food until you throw your crap in the trash.”
He lobbed a wet dishrag to a woman in diamond drop earrings, then a second to Lana and a third to an annoyed-looking Easton. Graham gave them all a cheerful wave as he added a stack of clean rags and a little red bucket of sanitized water on the counter between customer plates.
“Wipe your tables, folks, because I’m not the maid. If you don’t like it, the door’s right over there.” Graham pointed toward the entrance, just past a life-size cedar moose bust mounted on the wall. Far more impressive work than any he’d ever successfully carved, the moose’s rack alone was over five feet across. “Don’t knock yourselves out on Frank the Mounted Moose’s magnificence as you leave.”
For some reason, they laughed, as if this was all part of the fun.
While Easton grunted at the customers to throw their crap away, generally terrifying them with his presence, Graham used the rare moment free of expectations to finish his sandwich.
A soft clearing of a woman’s throat was meant to get his attention. Graham ignored her.
“No more drinks until the room is clean.” Graham kept his focus on the hoagie. “Grab a rag, and we’ll get there faster.”
“Actually, I was hoping to just have a glass of water.”
There was a lot of money in this room—and didn’t it disgust him that he could identify an Armani suit on sight—but when Graham glanced up from his sandwich, the woman in front of him looked normal. She was wearing a worn Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and torn jeans, traveling clothes most likely, and her brown hair was twisted up in a messy bun. Actually messy, not those artfully staged messes the stylists got paid to create in the resort’s spa.
Shoving her glasses further up on her slender nose, the woman dug in her pocket. “Extra ice, please.”
In a world of too many Gucci purses, this one used her pockets. Graham liked her already. “Didn’t anyone warn you about the water here?”
His customer tilted her head to the side, a long tendril of grown-out bangs falling into her eyes. “What’s wrong with the water?”
The tendril wasn’t sexy. Lodged in between her glasses and her face, she had to cross her eyes and wrinkle her nose a few times to free it. Amusement curled through him, but Graham didn’t let it come through in his voice.
“Ever seen what a three-quarter-ton moose with a full bladder can do to a fresh spring?”
Suspicion and jet lag weren’t a good look on anyone, but with one eyebrow raised, her glasses couldn’t maintain their perch. If she’d taped them with Scotch tape, it couldn’t have been more adorably dorky.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Behind the counter, where she wouldn’t be able to see, Graham used his soda gun to fill crystal clear water into a glass with ice. Then he added a drop of the yellow food coloring he kept for this exact purpose before giving the water a spin with a spoon. The drink he gave her was tinted faintly yellow, the color of pale urine.
Either she didn’t mind a dash of pee in her water or she was too tired to care, because she took the glass. That eyebrow did climb a little higher.
Easton was still pushing the trash bin around the room, so Graham watched her as she lifted the drink to her lips.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked just before she took a sip.
She paused, lips to the rim of her glass. “You wouldn’t risk the health and safety of all these people serving tainted water.”
Graham chuckled. “Glad to know you have faith in me, Zoey.”
Furrowing her brow, she of the glasses and ice water frowned, the tendril of hair falling back in between her glasses and nose. “How do you know my name?”
Graham cut his head toward the stunning woman holding court in the center of the restaurant.
“I remember my customers, and Lana said you were a Tourist Trap”—pausing at the word virgin, Graham cleared his throat—“newbie. I’m Graham.”
Someone must have said something exciting because a roar of guffaws made Zoey wince. The brief respite from the jukebox ended as they cranked it up again. He blamed Lana. She always loved to blast “9 to 5” every time he made her work. The tourists found it hysterical.
When Zoey glanced around at the cheering crowd and grimaced, Graham rested his forearms on the counter and leaned in toward her. “Yeah, me too. My ears don’t work anymore. Not a Dolly fan?”
“Not after a nine-hour flight. I’m not even sure where I am right now.”
Customers he had already served started lining up again, ready for their free beers, but Graham kept his attention on the woman shifting from one foot to the other, her fingers tugging on the hem of her Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. She took a sip of her water without gagging.
“We’re in Moose Springs, Alaska. An hour and fifteen minutes outside Anchorage and a thousand miles away from everything awful except your hotel. That place is a dump.”
When Zoey choked on her water, Graham admitted, “Okay, it’s not too terrible up there. Lana said you wanted a Growly Bear?”
“Umm…I’m worried what that means.” She must have noticed what they were doing to the statue near the jukebox. Barley—the life-size carved grizzly bear guarding the far corner—had been groped more times than Graham ever had, lucky son of a gun.
“You should be.” Gesturing toward Barley with his chin, Graham added, “Look at that. It’s not right.”
Zoey swirled her glass of moose pee in her hand, ice cubes clinking. “Do you think the artist meant for that…part…to look like that?”
“True artistic expression should never be qualified or quantified.” Graham swallowed the last bite of his hoagie. “Besides, got to let the guy keep his dignity.”
“Yes, but why is the grizzly wearing chaps?”
“It’s a biker bear.”
“Oh. Huh. I guess I can see that.” Zoey started to turn, then she hesitated. Curling her finger at Graham to lean in closer, she lowered her voice.
“Watch that guy at the end of the counter. The one in the blue shirt.”
Blue shirt, khaki pants, third to enter the diner in a group of six. They’d been working their way through Graham’s selection of Alaskan brews, vocalizing their thoughts on each loudly enough to impress the poor schmucks stuck sitting nearby.
“Don’t worry. I keep count of how many drinks they’re having,” Graham promised her in reassurance. “Counting to three is one of my many skills.”
“I think you might have lost count on Lana already.” Zoey’s lip quirked up a little. “And he just took a twenty from your tip jar. Thanks for the drink.”
Graham’s head snapped around, but all he saw was blue shirt and his buddies lifting their beers and simultaneously chugging, frat boys grown up to be no more refined than they’d started.
When he turned back, Zoey had reseated herself at her small table, book in hand and glasses slipping down her nose.
She was reading a book. In the loudest restaurant ever. Fascinating.
To be exact, she was reading Luffet and Mash’s How to Do Alaska. There wasn’t actually a Luffet, and Mash was a guy named Jerry who had passed out on Graham’s floor last year after an ill-conceived notion the entire resort needed burgers after their Christmas celebration. Sobering him up in a snowbank had been fun, but Jerry’s idea of how to do Alaska was nowhere close to the real—or right—way.
When blue shirt came up and asked for another round, Graham kept close watch out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, his elbow was right next to the tip jar.
“Watch out,” Graham said in gruff warning as he scooped out a massive order of fries and grabbed their last beers. “I keep a trap in there.”
“The tip jar. Be careful. There’s a live fox trap in the bottom of the jar beneath the bills. It will shatter your wrist.”
Blue shirt looked at him like he was crazy, but he didn’t stick his hand inside the tip jar this time when he dropped in a couple dollars. Idiot. Graham wasn’t a hunter. Killing defenseless wildlife had never appealed to him, but even he knew enough about hunting to know traps were rarely smaller than seven to eight inches across when set. At most, the tip jar was five.
Maybe he would get a larger jar and actually keep a trap in there. Would serve anyone with sticky fingers right. Speaking of serving…
Zoey and her book were still at the table near him. She should have stuck out like a sore thumb in this crowd, but Zoey blended in to near transparency.
For some reason, he found that refreshing.
Since she had saved his tip jar, Graham stopped what he was doing, ignored the yowls for more food, and leaned over the counter. Easton was still waiting for the last of the tables to finish clearing their trash, much to his friend’s obvious annoyance. Graham could have helped him, but talking to her seemed a lot more interesting.
“Hey, Zoey. You want that Growly Bear? Last one of the night.”
“Yes or no, darlin’. If you’re going Growly, you’re going all in. If you have doubts, step away from the bear.”
When she lifted her chin and pushed her glasses higher on her nose with the tip of her pinkie, Graham couldn’t help the wide grin stretching across his face. Damn, she was cute.