Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1) (3 page)

BOOK: Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)
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I felt the bear roar to life and I tensed every muscle in my body to
keep him back. One word filled my head, playing over and over like a drumbeat
as I gently squeezed Nora’s hand and my flesh warmed hers.

Mine.

 

Chapter Three

Nora

It took everything in me not to scream and run. That scared little girl
inside of me warred with the strong woman I tried to project. Jaxon Lord. Jax.
His name felt familiar to my ears. Everything about him felt at once familiar
but also strange and compelling. At six feet, I’m used to looking at men
straight in the eye. With Jax, I still had to crane my neck to meet his gaze.

His dark eyes swirled with the intensity of his stare. He swallowed
hard, working the muscles of his jaw as if he needed to steel himself against
something as I took his hand. And when I did, heat coursed through me as if I’d
just taken a drink of strong whiskey. Touching him warmed me from the inside
out. But, there I was, taking the hand of a dark, brooding stranger. I resisted
the urge to reach up and run my thumb along the rough, black stubble at his
jawline. His arms seemed big as tree trunks; veins popped out along each of his
biceps as he took a step back and pointed toward a gap in the tree line.

“I’m going to have to ask you to trust me,” he said, his voice a rich
baritone that seemed to vibrate along the tiny hairs on my arms. “It gets dark
faster than you think out here. And you can get turned around pretty easily
once the sun goes down. I know the way.”

Everything in me wanted to follow him, to keep my hand in his and trust
every word he said. I couldn’t though. This wasn’t some fairy tale, and I
wasn’t naïve enough to think there’s such a thing as knights in shining armor.
I was out in the middle of nowhere, with no phone, no help, and a guy big
enough to do me harm had just offered to take me back into the woods where no one
could hear me scream. I looked around. No cars. No road. Nothing but the woods
in front of us, the high cliffs of Wild Ridge behind us, and the churning
waters of Lake Superior below us.

I was an idiot. What could I have possibly been thinking letting Damon
convince me to come out here on this ridiculous assignment all alone? I’d
wanted to prove myself and get a professional photo credit on my resume. I saw
the headlines and social media postings now. Missing college student. Last seen
hiking all by her stupid self in Wild Ridge Forest. I dug my heels in and
pulled my hand out of Jax’s. He froze and turned toward me, his eyes widening
with concern.

“There’s a bear,” I said. “That’s why I’m out this far. A big one. A
grizzly, I think.”

Jax’s eyes twinkled as he smiled. Not a mocking smile, but one of
kindness. “A grizzly? I doubt it. You’ll see the occasional black bear up this
far, but they’re more of a nuisance than anything. Campers who leave food out
usually have the worst trouble with them. Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”

I crossed my arms in front of me. “I’m telling you, that was no black
bear. It was huge. Like, twice the size of any bear I’ve ever seen. Three times,
even. It was sleeping. I woke it up and he wasn’t happy about it.”

Jax let out a sigh. He tore his hand through his hair and ran his
fingers over that dark stubble along his chin. He stood so easy, relaxed with
one leg slightly in front of the other, his jeans pulling tight over the hard
muscles of his thighs. I looked away quickly.

“Well, whatever it was, I’m sure it’s long gone by now. Trust me. I
know these woods. Any bear between here and your car is going to be a hell of a
lot more afraid of you than you are of it. Let me take you down.”

God, I wanted to follow him. But, I had twin instincts warring inside
of me. Part of me believed every word he said and damn near wanted to let him
sweep me off my feet. I was scared. Straight up. Even though I hated admitting
that even to myself. Jax was strong, handsome, and self-assured. How easy it
would have been to just follow where he led? But then there was the other part
of me. Something wasn’t right about any of this. Where had he come from? He had
no hiking gear except for a small canteen over his shoulder. He had no car or
bike that I could see. We were literally out in the middle of nowhere and he’d
just appeared out of seemingly thin air.

“Nora,” he said, lowering his voice. He stepped toward me, getting
close enough that I had to crane my neck to keep his gaze. “If I’d wanted to
hurt you, I’d have done it by now. I’ll walk ten paces ahead of you all the
time if you want. But, the simple fact is, you’re stuck out here and you need
me. The longer we wait, the darker it’s going to get. You want to take your
chances alone in those woods?”

“Fuck.” I blurted it. Jax cocked his head to the side and smiled. I
think he had some joke on his mind, but he left it there. “Fine,” I said. “Yes.
And thank you. I’m not trying to be difficult, it’s just been a really long
day.”

Jax nodded. “You don’t know the half of it. So let’s get going.”

He took a few steps backward, holding his hands out, palms up in a
non-threatening gesture. I hadn’t quite taken him seriously about the ten paces
thing, but he certainly did. When he got back to the tree line, he turned his
back to me and disappeared into the shadows.

I hesitated. Was I really going to follow him into the woods? A million
horrible outcomes flashed in my mind. But, no matter what, if I stayed here on
this ridge with my dead cell phone the outcome might be equally bad.

“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. Then, I let out a breath and
started to follow. Branches clung to my hair as I tried to see where Jax went.
It was as if the woods swallowed him whole. Icy fingers of panic snaked their
way up my spine. I wasn’t sure if I was more scared to lose him or find him
again.

“This way,” his booming voice came from straight ahead. My heart
dropped with relief. Instinct told me to trust him, and it looked like I had no
choice.

“Coming,” I called out then picked up my pace. Jax waited for me at the
foot of a small hill. He’d turned to face me again and stood there with his
hands out just like before. When I got close, he gave me a wide, heart-melting
smile, then he turned and walked ahead, keeping the space between us that he’d
promised.

We went on like that for a while. I don’t know how long, but with each
step I took, I felt more and more foolish. Jax was right. If he’d wanted to do
me harm, he’d had plenty of chances before this. Plus, I had at least a rough idea
that we were headed in the right direction. I broke into a light jog to catch
up with him.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s okay. You don’t have to stay ahead of me. In fact,
I’d rather you didn’t if you don’t mind.”

Jax smiled down at me and stopped walking so I could catch up. I put a
hand on his arm when I got there. His skin felt so hot. Feverish almost. But,
he hadn’t even broken a sweat. He flinched where my hand rested on his taut
bicep and his posture stiffened. But, he kept a neutral smile on his face and
put his hand over mine.

“It’s not that much farther,” he assured me. “And the trail is mostly
downhill. I’m just surprised you made it this far out here all by yourself.
Bear notwithstanding, why?”

“What do you mean?” I don’t know why, but something made me want to
guard some of the details of why I was out here. One of the more obvious
reasons for Jax’s knowledge of these woods dawned on me. He might very well
work for the Wild Ridge Mining Company. It wouldn’t do me a lot of good to
admit part of my job here was to spy.

His low laughter gave me goosebumps. “You’re not hiking for sport,
Nora. That’s a hell of a clunky camera you’ve got hanging around your neck.”

“Oh.” I clutched the lens and pulled the camera into my chest. “Well,
actually, I work for the Vista Foundation. I’m out here taking pictures for a
calendar we want to sell. In fact, I’d just managed to send a bunch of them to
my boss right before my phone died.”

The last part was a fib, but it occurred to me if there was that
outside chance Jax still planned to do me harm, that information might make him
think twice.

“Get any good ones?”

I nodded. The terrain got steeper, and I struggled to keep my footing.
It didn’t seem to bother Jax at all. If anything, he had the agility of a cat
as he bounded over branches and dips in the forest floor. When I finally
stumbled, he managed to get to me in an instant, cupping a strong hand beneath
my elbow and helped me along.

“Some,” I answered. Then my heart fluttered as the real reason I’d
ended up lost occurred to me. “In fact, do you know anything about that pioneer
cabin back that way?”

Jax’s stride slowed for an instant, enough to tell me he knew exactly
what I was talking about. “I do,” he said.

“It’s something else. It’s got to be at least a hundred and fifty years
old.”

“Could be,” he answered.

“Do you know who owns it? I mean, it’s in such bad shape. One more bad
winter and it’s going to fall in on itself. It should be protected as a
historical site. I mean, it’s really remarkable. That’s exactly the kind of
thing the Vista Foundation would love to take on.”

Jax froze and turned to me. “And that’s the last thing we need out
here. You can tell the Vista Foundation to mind its own business.” His tone
deepened and his eyes flashed. Jax waited for me to catch up to him again, then
turned and kept walking down the hill.

“You’re wrong,” I argued as I caught up to him. “Completely. I can’t
imagine there are too many real pioneer cabins from that era left in Michigan.
Maybe not even the whole country. It should be preserved for study and so
future generations can enjoy it and learn about this area.”

“Is that your plan then? To go running off to your board or whatever
and try to get crews in here to disturb the woods?”

“Excuse me, but I told you what we do. We’re a conservation group. Our
entire existence is aimed at preserving these woods and places like it. We can
help. Really.”

Jax let out a guttural noise of disagreement that didn’t sound human.

“I don’t get why you’re angry with me,” I pressed on. “You’ve seen the
cabin. You know what I’m talking about. That place needs more than a little
T.L.C. Our group has the resources to do something about it and do it the right
way.”

Jax turned on me. We’d made real progress and had reached another
clearing. This one bore a sign with arrows, one pointing toward a nature trail
just ahead of us, the other pointing the way to the road. He’d done exactly as
he said. Even if Jax decided to take off now, I knew my way back.

“Does the right way involve getting teams of surveyors, heavy equipment
and outsiders through here?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course there are steps involved in having the
place declared a historical site…”

“Then no,” he answered. “Not interested.”

“What do you mean?” We kept on walking. “What stake do you have in it?
Do you own the place or something?”

I’d meant it as a throwaway comment, a way to prove my side of the
argument, but when Jax stiffened and turned again, my heart raced.

“Wait a minute,” I stopped. “That’s your cabin? Like…you live there?”

He clenched his jaw, infuriated with me. At the same time, those dark
eyes of his flashed again, sending a wave of heat straight through me.

“I don’t live there,” he muttered.

I advanced on him, my heart racing. There was something about him.
Something just below the surface, teasing the edges of my thoughts. That same
rush of excitement ran through me for the second time today. It was just like
whatever made me foolish enough to approach that sleeping bear. I took another
step forward. Jax stood immobile like a stone statue except for a tiny vein
jumping along his jaw. I laid my palm flat against his chest. His heartbeat
thundered beneath my fingertips, sending an arc of electricity straight through
me.

“But it’s yours,” I whispered. “The cabin belongs to you?”

Jax narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. He was considering something,
and in an instant I understood. At the top of the ridge, I’d done the same
thing. I’d taken a leap of faith, deciding to trust him to lead me out of the
forest. Now, Jax seemed to decide whether to trust me with something equally
important to him.

He took a breath and answered. “Yes,” he said. “That’s my house you
stumbled upon, Goldilocks.” He shot me a smirk that damn near melted me. I
couldn’t help it. I laughed as that electric spark I felt seemed to rush out of
me in a flood of warmth while my fingers played over his chest.

“Well, my, what big teeth you have,” I said.

Jax’s eyes darkened. If I had to guess, he seemed offended by the joke.
“That’s a wolf story.” His voice was deep and clipped. I took my hand away.

“Sorry about that,” I said, clearing my throat. “I’ll have to try and
keep my fairytales straight, Papa Bear.”

The light flickered back in his eyes as he took my hand again, and we
stepped out of the woods once and for all. I nearly stumbled as the ground
beneath my feet became pavement. Just one footfall and it seemed I’d crossed
over into another world. My red Jeep Wrangler sat parked just where I left it
only ten yards from where we stood.

“How did you know?” I asked. “I mean, you brought me exactly where I
needed to go.” Relief flooded through me, making me feel lightheaded. I felt
like I might lift off the ground and fly. Until that exact moment, I hadn’t
realized how truly scared I’d been.

BOOK: Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)
3.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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