Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1) (8 page)

BOOK: Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)
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Then, I came to the pictures of the pioneer cabin. It stood in stark
contrast to the surrounding greenery. Lonely and sturdy, it stood as a
testament to survival both of the long dead settlers who’d built it and against
the elements threatening to tear it down now. I wished I’d had more time to
capture it and do it justice. Small details stood out like the solid, stacked
logs of its simple yet ingenious construction. I clicked through, wishing I’d
had the time to get more angles of the structure and close ups on the warped,
weathered door.

The next pictures startled me. I hadn’t remembered taking these. I’d
gotten one of part of the bear. At the time, I didn’t know what I was looking
at. The hollowed out tree had caught my eye, and I’d been focused on the
snakelike shape of its roots tearing out of the ground. But, there he was, just
his enormous rump tucked into the dirt. The next few frames I’d snapped on
accident. When the bear woke, I must have still had my finger on the shutter.
I’d taken several bursts of pictures.

“Holy shit!” I whispered. There were dozens of them. I hadn’t realized
what I had until just now. Most of them were blurry nonsense. I got a few of
the tops of my shoes and tree trunks. But, as I’d stumbled through the woods,
I’d captured something else. One picture made me rear back, nearly dropping my
laptop to the floor. I got the bear in full frame. He lunged forward; his great
shoulders rippled as he stretched his neck mid-roar. His great teeth dripped
with saliva and his black lips curled back. God, he was fierce and magnificent.
Adrenaline shot through me as the scene played out in my head all over again.
What if I hadn’t gotten away?

The next few frames clicked by, showing him in motion, one after the
other as he lifted his great paws and started to chase me. These had to be
unique. God, I wondered if I were among a select few who’d ever taken wildlife
photos this close before. No wonder Damon wanted them so badly. These could be Pulitzer
material. I kept clicking. A few of the frames were pitch black and my heart
sank. I clicked one more.

This time, I did drop the laptop to the floor.

I broke into a cold sweat. I stood up and paced, trying to get my heartrate
down and my head to stop spinning. My fingers trembled as I reached down for my
laptop. Thankfully, it had only hit the soft carpeting. I sat back down and
tilted the monitor to cut down on the glare. A rush of heat went through me,
and my mouth went dry. This couldn’t be. It wasn’t real. This was some trick of
the light, perhaps. But, even as my mind tried to explain away what my eyes saw,
I knew in my heart it was true.

In one frame, there was the bear, bold and mighty, his massive paws
reaching forward. In the next frame, his claws receded. In their place a human
hand. I clicked the next frame and covered my mouth with my hand.

The bear was gone. In its place the rippled muscles of a human chest
and corded veins and flesh where fur had been. I clicked to the last frame. It
was blurry, like most of the others, but there could be no mistake. He stood in
profile, motionless, but the camera had captured the raw power of his stare.
Two dark brown bear eyes staring after me from a human face.

Jax.

 

Chapter Eight

Jax

A few uneventful and productive days at the mine did wonders for my
mental health. Nora was still very much on my mind, but it felt good to get
back to normal. While Simon had poached about a dozen good men from me, the
best of my crew had stayed behind. Hard workers, solid men. Loyal. That meant
everything to me, and I wasn’t afraid to say so. They were glad to have me back,
and I knew I could never really repay them for keeping this claim afloat while
I’d been away.

I could almost pretend the last year had never happened. We got into a
rhythm of long days, hard work, and no drama. It was exactly what I needed to
put Nora behind me. I knew the other crews were watching. It wasn’t just Simon
and the Marshalls. Everyone was looking to me to make sure I still had my head
in the game. Though I hated the scrutiny, I understood it. It was nothing less
than I would have done if the tables were turned.

At the end of the workday, I headed up to the company store. My crew
had hit a minor snag clearing a new shaft. We were short on lumber and men, so
I was hoping Cullen’s crew might be willing to help me out until I had it
sorted. He was waiting for me at the back of the store with a cold beer in
hand.

“I knew there was I reason I liked you best,” I said as he slid a
bottle toward me. It tasted like heaven going down, and I grabbed a spot on the
bench beside him.

“Seems like you’re settling back in all right,” he said, hissing as he
took a long draught of his own beer.

“No small thanks to you. I mean it, man. You saved my ass keeping my
crew together while I was gone.”

Cullen brushed me off. “And you’ll do the same for me if and when the
time ever comes. Every one of us is going to need it, and you know it.”

“Yeah. When’s the last time you went off for a big sleep?”

Cullen shrugged. We didn’t need to go to ground very often. Some men
went their entire lives without it. But, if we were hurt or sick, or dealing
with grief, sometimes going off alone like I had was the only way to heal. I clinked
the neck of my bottle to his. Nobody ever went into hibernation when things
were going well.

“It’s going to be a good season. I can smell it. Can’t you?”

I couldn’t help myself. I leaned back against the wall, closed my eyes
and took in a great, cleansing breath. Cullen was right. There was copper in
the air, and every one of us could practically taste it. When I left last year,
we were on the verge of hitting a new, potentially mammoth vein. The men had
taken a few detours, but we were on the hunt.

“Man, it’s good to be back,” I said. “And I’m proud of you. When I left
your father was still riding your ass pretty hard. How’d you get him to finally
take a back seat and enjoy his retirement?”

Cullen’s father, Hank James, had only recently let Cullen take over,
just like my father. But, unlike my father, Hank had wanted to hold on for as
long as possible. Since I’d been back, I’d seen him around a few times, but he
seemed content to finally let Cullen run the day to day operations. But there
was no doubt Hank was still very much on the family throne.

Cullen choked on a swig of beer then wiped his mouth with the back of
his hand. “Yeah. Well, it just depends on what day it is. Hank’s still in the
ass riding business, I’m afraid. He just tends to save it for around the house
instead of in front of my crew.”

“Well, then I’d say that’s real progress.”

“What about Caleb?” Cullen asked. “I thought he’d end up sticking
around when you went off. And really,
nobody
believed he’d step off to
make way for you after your sister disobeyed him.”

I picked at the label on my beer bottle. “You know, my dad can be as
stubborn as they come, but he just wants Olivia and me to be happy. He finally
figured out life’s too short to work yourself into the ground if you don’t have
to. So, he wanted to reconnect with some of our Yukon distant cousins.”

Cullen laughed. “Yeah. That sounds good, but you’re full of shit. Caleb
was just sick of justifying every damn decision he made. And don’t get me
wrong, I don’t blame him a bit. But anyway, it’s good. I’m happy for you.
You’re gonna do great things once you get your crew built back up, and that’s
only a matter of time. Doesn’t mean my crew still won’t kick your ass.”

I shook my head and downed the last of my beer. Reaching back into the
cooler, I grabbed two more and set one in front of Cullen. He thanked me and
leaned back hard in his chair. We were alone. The crews had gone home for the
day, and it felt like he and I had the world to ourselves. When we were kids we
used to pretend we did. Some of our hunting excursions had been legendary and
landed us in serious trouble with our dads. Once we’d hiked all the way to the
Yukon and back.

“So, are you going to just sit there and pretend I don’t have you
figured out?”

I snapped my eyes open. I twisted the cap of my beer and took another
swig before answering him. “Why don’t you just come out and ask?”

“All right, I will. What about this girl?”

My heart flipped in my chest. I’d been foolish to think I could hide
Nora’s scent on me a second time. It had been a couple of days since I last saw
her, but I’d kissed her then. Again. I might have been able to hide that fact
from the others, but not Cullen. He knew me too well.

“She’s nobody,” I said, not sure why. “It’s like I told Simon. She was
just lost and I helped her find her car.”

Cullen leaned forward and rested his weight on his forearms across the
table. He cocked his head to the side to meet my gaze. “Come on, man. This is
me you’re talking to. At first I figured you were just kind of distant from
being asleep for so long. It’s to be expected. Hell, we all remember how Caleb
was after your mom died. Half of us didn’t think he’d wake up again. None of us
would have blamed him. But even
he
wasn’t so damn guarded when he came
out of it. You’ve been avoiding really talking to anyone, and this is the first
time
we’ve
talked one on one since you came back. So what’s going on?
You know I can still smell her on you.”

Shrugging, I put my beer down. It was in me to give him some other
excuse to leave. But, that would have been a chickenshit move. Cullen wasn’t
saying it, but I knew what was on his mind. Sure, taking care of my place and
my crew was no less than I would have one for him, but it didn’t mean I didn’t
still owe him. For now, he was just asking for the truth.

“I don’t know,” I said, and it was as close to the truth as I could
come up with. “She could be someone, she could be no one. But yeah, she’s been
on my mind.”

“So why haven’t you told me or any of the others about it? You know how
on edge everybody is since the clans had to tangle with wolves on your behalf.
They’ve closed ranks. Having a stranger out here now is just about the worst
thing you need right now. So what gives? Why aren’t you talking?”

I shook my head. “Because it really isn’t any of your business.”

Cullen slammed the front legs of his chair down. “Come on, man. You
know it is. You start bringing a girl onto the ridge, you know it doesn’t just
impact you. It would be one thing if she really
was
just some girl.
Maybe she is, but you’re not acting like it. You’re acting…well…secretive. And
I wouldn’t say anything, but your sister ran off with a damn wolf, Jax. People
around here talk, you know?”

“Nora’s not a wolf, dammit. She’s just a girl. That’s all. And I didn’t
bring
her out here. So what are you really asking me? Are you
questioning my loyalty? You think I’d do
anything
that would put our
operation at risk if I could help it?”

My question kind of hung in the air between us. I knew what Cullen’s
answer could and should be. My family
had
just come off putting the
entire Wild Ridge clan at risk and let an outsider in. My sister had done it; of
course they might not trust me now.

“She’s nothing,” I said again, lowering my voice to almost a whisper.
“I swear, man.”

“Fine. If you say she’s nobody and no threat, then I believe you. But
you already know some of the others are going to be extra suspicious where
Lords are concerned. They don’t let shit go. Caleb is Caleb. People still
respect him, but that doesn’t mean they won’t take their bullshit out on you
until you’ve been back for a while and have re-earned their trust. You don’t
have to worry about me. You know I’ll always have your back. But part of
having
your back is warning you about what to watch out for. And I’m telling you,
Simon is someone to watch out for. When you went to sleep and Caleb took off
for the Yukon, he made a strong case for absorbing your claim among the rest of
the families. It never went to an official vote, but I think some of the others
were at least thinking about it, you know?”

“Fuck Simon. You know, if his old man were still alive he never would
have stood for that. Simon Sr. and my father would have died for each other.
They were as tight as you and I are now.”

“Well, Simon Jr. didn’t inherit the good parts. Just watch out for him,
that’s all I’m saying.”

“I appreciate that. I really do. And if and when there’s something to
tell you about this girl, I will. All right? For now, I’d really just like to
focus on getting copper out of the ground and finding good men to replace the
ones Simon poached.”

Cullen ran a hand through his hair and finished the last of his beer.
“Yeah. That right there will go a long way toward putting everyone’s mind at
ease. And you know if you need help, I’ll give it if I can.”

“I know, brother. I know.”

“The girl though,” Cullen said, raising a skeptical brow. “I gotta ask.
Is she…an
Anam Cara
? ‘Cause the way you’re acting, that would explain a
lot.”

The word cut through me like acid. I hadn’t allowed myself to let it
fully form in my own head.

“No,” I said, more forcefully than I meant. “She’s just a girl. And one
I don’t want to talk about anymore. I told you. I just want to focus on getting
to that copper vein in the north corridor. That’s all.”

The floorboards shook as the front door of the store slammed open.
Heavy boots stomped toward the back room where we sat. Cullen and I exchanged a
look, and I steeled myself against what my bear already scented.

Simon was here, and he wasn’t alone. Hank James, Cullen’s father, stood
at his right shoulder. Trevor Scott stood at his left. Bo Calvin and Rafe
McCormack stood behind him, and a few members of each of their crews crowded in
where they could. Bo and Rafe looked miserable; so did Hank. But, Simon and Trevor’s
eyes flashed dark as they stood shoulder to shoulder and glared straight at me.

Simon reached into the back pocket of his jeans and threw down a fat,
crumpled white envelope. “You want to explain how the hell that happened, Jax?”

I bit my lip past a sarcastic answer. If it had just been Simon
charging in here, I wouldn’t have held back. But, he’d brought the heads of
almost all the seven clans with him. Whatever the hell was going on, it could
be serious.

I wouldn’t give Simon the satisfaction of looking worried. As casually
as I could, I reached across the table and grabbed the envelope. I tore away
the paper and a series of color photographs spilled out. My heart stuck in my
throat.

“What do you know about that, son?” Hank asked, though he directed the
question toward me, not Cullen. A little patronizing maybe, but I appreciated
the sentiment. Hank was from the old school, and my father was still alive even
though he’d turned his interest in the mine and my claim to me.

I spread the photos out on the table so Cullen and the others could
see. They were taken in the woods around the pioneer cabin, and I already knew
by whom. Where Simon got a hold of these was the real issue that made my heart
turn to stone. The last few were of the cabin itself.

“I don’t really know anything,” I said. The urge to protect Nora flared
strong within me. So much so that if I wasn’t careful, Cullen at least would be
able to sense it. Already, he’d cocked his head to the side and narrowed his
eyes. I’d just gotten done swearing up and down that Nora was nobody, just a
girl. If I admitted she was behind these pictures, I risked losing credibility
with the one person I knew was on my side.

“Someone has been on Wild Ridge lands snooping around and taking
pictures, Jax. On
your
watch. These were taken on
your
piece of
it. If we can’t trust you to deal with it, then we’ve got another conversation
coming.”

“Where did you get these?” I asked, trying to keep the rage from flashing
behind my own eyes. It wouldn’t do me a damn bit of good much longer.

“They were brought to my attention along with an interesting fucking
letter,” Simon said. He pulled another folded piece of paper out of his pocket
and laid that out on the table. My eyes flicked to the letterhead on it, and I
clenched my jaw. It was from the Vista Foundation.

“They want to send surveyors out,” Hank said, putting a hand on Simon’s
shoulder. The tension in the room cut through everyone. Every damn bear in the
room simmered just below the surface. This was starting to feel like a full-on
clan meeting.

BOOK: Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)
2.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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