Read Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance) Online

Authors: Karen Rock

Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Domestic Life, #Family Life, #Military, #Adirondack Woods, #Safety, #Dark Memories, #Bronx, #Danger, #Orphaned Bear Cub, #Conservation Officer, #Poachers, #Peaceful World, #Rehabilitating, #Support, #Courage, #Tragic Past Events, #Compassion, #Clean Romance, #Heartwarming

Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance) (7 page)

BOOK: Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance)
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She shook her head then said, “Yes.”

Another click brought up a list of names. They scrolled to hers and he read off a number that made her leap to her feet and got Scooter barking.

“I did it!”

He logged himself out and set the laptop on the couch before standing.

“I knew you would.”

Her mouth twisted. “Then why did you stay here until 3:00 a.m. the other night?”

He felt his mouth turn upward in return. “That’s how I knew you’d pass.”

She laughed, the sound reminding him of a spring-fed brook. “At least you’re honest.”

“Ah. Something nice to say about me for a change.” It bothered him, more than he dared admit, that she distrusted him. He wanted her to like him. Plain and simple. Only it was much more complicated than that.

“My mother always taught me, if you can’t say something nice—”

“Change the subject,” he finished for her and they cracked up.

“When can I get my bear?”

Her wide eyes reminded him of late Adirondack autumn, all golds and browns. “She’s not yours, Vivie. You can’t think that way.”

“Technically, she is my bear. For now.” She pointed to the laptop. “That said so. Can we go now?”

He peered at his watch. It was nine o’clock. Getting late, but he could see the urgency in her face. That need to please her, to help, rose up inside. Again.

“Let me get ahold of the Reeds.”

Her foot tapped as he picked up her the receiver of her ancient phone, dialed the number and spoke with the rehabilitators.

When he hung up, she studied him eagerly. “Sounds like a yes to me. Should we take my truck?”

“No. The bear will be more secure in the SUV.”

Outside, she hesitated before getting into the SUV. “Never thought I’d ride in a DEC vehicle. Throw eggs at it maybe...”

“Yeah. Especially mine.”

Her delicate profile scrunched as she slid in beside him and he started the engine. “Not if you were in it...maybe. You shouldn’t have stopped me from feeding the starving animals. Many probably died because of that.”

His grip tightened on the wheel. “They couldn’t get reliant on humans or be protected when that wasn’t nature’s way. We can’t control the world. Keep everything safe.”

She moved restlessly beside him. “You believe everything is fated—even horrible things? That when terrible stuff happens we have to just—just accept it.”

He nodded slowly. Her voice wobbled a bit on the edges and he sensed a deeper issue at work than a simple philosophical debate. Towering pines whizzed by as they cruised the back road.

“You can’t stop the bad in the world.” He thought of his long, tense nights at his besieged outpost in Afghanistan. How he’d been powerless to leave, to prevent the insurgents from killing his friends the moment they ventured beyond its walls...or patrolled them.

“But you can try to prevent it!” Her voice rose and she gnawed the sides of her nails.

He thought of that terrible, hopeless feeling he’d had during the war. The waiting and wondering when it would be his turn to die. Since the insurgents had outnumbered them, and their inexperienced commander had refused to call for help, it’d felt like waiting in line, cuing up for death. How he’d dreaded it. Hated feeling trapped. No matter how guarded they’d remained, they hadn’t been able to stanch the bloodbath.

“No. You can’t,” he said as evenly as he could manage around his clenched jaw.

“Only a fool would think that way.”

“Could you stop the cub’s mother from being shot?” He knew it was a low blow, but he needed Vivie to see that life wasn’t some fairy tale and that Button might not have a happily-ever-after...or
any
after if things didn’t work out.

She subsided against the seat and sucked in a harsh breath. “I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

“Even when you do, you can’t always stop it,” he muttered under his breath and turned on the radio. They drove in tense silence until the familiar sign for the Adirondack Wildlife Rehabilitation Center appeared. He turned onto the long dirt drive, bumping along it until a rambling, cedar-sided ranch house appeared.

Before he could turn off the engine, Wendy and Steve Reed appeared, giving them a cheery wave from their small porch.

“We’ve got Button crated for you. She’s a darling and we’re going to miss her.” Wendy’s eyes shone in the dimming light.

Steve put an arm around his wife and pulled her close. “Always gets a little emotional when it’s time to say goodbye.”

Liam felt a sharp nudge in his ribs and glanced away from Vivie’s knowing look. “Thanks so much for fitting her in this week.”

Steve nodded. “We’re just glad it worked out.” He turned to Vivie and held out a hand. “Congratulations on passing your test, Vivie. There’s nothing in life more rewarding then helping an animal rehabilitate. It’s not easy and will take an emotional toll. You’ll have to work hard not to get attached.”

Vivie shook her head. “How do you do that?”

Wendy stopped blotting her nose. “It’s tough. Keep telling yourself you’re doing this for their good. Not yours. Your needs don’t count. Neither do your feelings, so best to try to keep them out of it.”

Steve gestured to the scaly Scotch pines swaying at the edge of the compound. “That’s their world. We aren’t supposed to take them from it.”

“But if we’re keeping them safe...”

“Safe isn’t the same as living,” Liam interjected. He’d been safe inside that outpost, relatively, but he’d felt as dead as those who’d tried escaping.

“It’s better than the alternative,” she snapped.

He rubbed his jaw. She didn’t have a clue. Someday she’d have to face reality and stop seeing life as some sort of fairy tale.

“Where’s the bear, Steve?”

He followed the man past a raptor enclosure, stopping to admire a clutch of young snowy owls, before reaching the crate.

A snort sounded from its depths and he squatted in front of the caged front, surprised to see how much the cub had bulked up in a week.

“She’s put on some weight since you last saw her,” Steve said, sounding proud. “Can’t take all the credit, though, since Vivie came out here a couple, sometimes three times a day to feed and check in on her.”

Liam shook his head. Was that dedication or desperation? It was hard to tell with Vivie. No doubt she had attachment issues. Still, more and more, he found it charming. Her big heart drew him. He sometimes wondered what it’d be like if he were in it. Most important, he hoped it never got broken.

He squinted at the long-time rehabilitator.

“Do you think Vivie will be okay with letting the bear go in September?”

They turned when bats emerged from a barn, their dark wings flapping against the purple sky.

“Let’s just say, I’m glad I’m not a betting man.”

Liam hefted the crate and headed back. “Fair enough.”

He wasn’t a betting man, either, but he could read the odds. They were not in favor of this working out.

How could he protect Vivie and Button? On top of that, how could he keep from becoming even more embroiled in this whole thing?

CHAPTER SIX

L
ATER
THAT
NIGHT
, Vivie tossed and turned in bed, thinking of Button in her new enclosure. The little bear had cowered against one of the boarded-up walls after going inside. Since Liam insisted Vivie leave the rear entrance, she didn’t know if the cub got braver. Wandered around a little bit. Maybe played with the toy turtle Vivie’d gotten her.

Vivie rolled over and stared out her window at the wisps of cloud floating across the full moon. Did Button watch the same scene? Wonder about her safety? Or was she asleep, plagued with nightmares of her attack? It was a fanciful thought, but Vivie believed that animals dreamed. Scooter’s sleep woofing and leg scrambling suggested he’d chased many a rabbit while unconscious. While napping, Jinx sometimes sprang into the air without warning, sprinting nowhere in particular.

And what did Liam dream about? Practical things like paperwork or clearing trails, she supposed. Nothing romantic, especially not about a woman who opposed and challenged him at every turn. And why was she thinking about the handsome officer again, anyway? She flopped onto her stomach and buried her face in her pillow.

Animals. A much safer topic for her peace of mind. They had more in common with humans than many imagined. The orphan outside, alone on a dark night, tugged at Vivie’s heart.

At a howling gust of wind, she sat up. Her covers pooled in her lap and the draft blew across her bare shoulders. Was the gust unsettling Button? Would she be even more afraid?

Vivie had to go check on her. It was that simple.

And that complicated.

Liam would never sanction it. As much as she wanted to see the cub, a part of her rebelled against letting Liam down. He’d gone out on a limb for her. Wasn’t it only fair she follow his rules?

He’d given many warnings before leaving. According to him, Button could rarely see Vivie...a glimpse at best during the weekly enclosure cleaning. Interactions of any kind were a definite no. As for feeding, a critical point in Vivie’s mind, that had to be done by shoving food—even leftovers from the diner, according to the DEC—through the feeding slot.

She trudged to the bathroom for a drink and ran the tap, waiting for the water to turn cold. Ironic that the bear was not allowed to become used to humans, but could eat people food.

The DEC’s logic didn’t make sense. How could a bear survive in the wild if it never saw another living creature? Didn’t interact with its future habitat? Wouldn’t recognize or know how to forage for the food it’d need?

Of course, given Button’s off-kilter jaw, there was a chance she wouldn’t return to the wild and would stay here. Vivie understood that releasing her when the time was right would be best, but a part of her longed to keep the cub safe. To guarantee that no harm would come to Button ever again.

A faint cry from outside made Vivie jump to the small window facing the back of the property. Was Button okay?

She tossed her hair into a ponytail and slid on sandals. The heck with DEC policies; she had to check on Button. As long as Liam didn’t find out, she’d keep her certification. She didn’t want to lie to him, so she wouldn’t. She’d simply leave out certain details. A part of her suspected that even if Liam knew, deep down his kindness might let him understand that she only did what was best for Button. At least, she hoped so.

She shrugged on a robe and ran downstairs. At the back door, inspiration struck and she doubled back for honey. Maybe it’d soothe Button. Who didn’t need comfort food when stressed?

Outside, she tightened her belt against the crisp early-summer air. Sycamore trees put on a puppet show across her back lawn, the moon behind them acting as flashlight. An owl called to her right and a flurry of wings sounded as it flew from her spruce tree for the deeper forest beyond. Moths and june bugs still stirred and they circled her flashlight the moment she flicked it on.

The enclosure’s wooden sides came into view and she skirted them, heading for the back of the pen. She listened for more distress cries and blew out a relieved breath in the quiet. At the open chain-link section, she flicked her light around the enclosure searching for Button. At last she saw a small black ball in the same spot they’d left her hours ago. Vivie’s heart broke. Poor baby.

Vivie unlocked the heavy padlock and clicked it closed behind her, repeating the process on the second door before slipping inside. A light wind rose and tossed her ponytail in front of her face. Button lifted her nose, a snort escaping her when she caught sight of Vivie.

“Hi, Button. How are you doing, sweetie?” she called, approaching carefully. The cub had been spooked on the ride home. Vivie didn’t want to cause her any more distress. Before closing the distance between them, Vivie scooped up the plastic turtle. Button rose to her feet and butted her head into Vivie’s calves.

She squatted down and stroked the young bear’s trembling back. “It’s okay. This is your new home now. You’re safe here.” But she listened to the sounds of the forest and wondered if they only brought back bad memories for Button, the way the bustle of city life had done to her.

Button placed her front paws on Vivie’s shoulders and snuffled her neck. The ticklish feeling made Vivie laugh. She wrapped her arms around the cub, resting her cheek on top of the bear’s soft head. “See. All’s well here. And you’re not alone. I’m sorry you don’t have your real mom anymore, but I’m going to do everything I can to be the next best thing.”

She sat back and Button rested her head in Vivie’s lap, her large eyes on Vivie’s face. She pulled the jar of honey from her pocket, unscrewed the cap, and held it out to the cub. It wasn’t exactly a honeycomb, but Button could figure it out.

After some sniffing and some pawing at the glass Button stopped and stared up at her, a question in the tilt of her triangular face. Why weren’t Button’s instincts kicking in? Maybe she needed to be shown. Steeling herself, Vivie reached in and withdrew sticky fingers, putting them to the bear’s muzzle.

Button’s tongue flashed, lightning quick, over Vivie’s hand again and again as she grunted deep in the back of her throat, a satisfied sound that warmed Vivie. Finally, real bear food for Button. The swelling in her jaw had gone down a fair bit over the past week, and she managed to slurp up the treat without much difficulty.

When the cub finished, she scrutinized Vivie expectantly.

“You can have more,” she urged, holding out the jar, but the bear simply stared, dark eyes reflecting the stars above.

“Do you want me to take a turn?” Vivie dipped her fingers into the jar, brought them to her mouth and licked. This time, when she extended the container, Button grabbed it away, scooping up honey and shoving her paw in her mouth.

Vivie did her best to get the honey off her hands. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a hand wipe? She eyed the small waterfall and pool. It was her best option, but she hated to leave Button. Then again, the orphaned animal was now nosing into the jar and completely oblivious. She’d be okay for a few minutes.

Wandering across the grassy space, she imagined Button growing to love her new home. Would she feel protected? It was essential, she’d learned from her support group in the Bronx, after such a violent incident. She eyed the dark woods beyond the enclosure. Danger lurked there, but in here was security. Hopefully Button would come to learn the difference as Vivie had.

Soft fur brushed against her legs as she lowered herself to the water’s edge. “Hey, Button. Want a drink?” She shoved her hands into the streaming water and rubbed them together.

Button dropped the plastic turtle from her mouth and lowered her muzzle to the pond. Vivie could hear her tongue lapping up water delicately and quickly, like a hummingbird’s wings.

She ran a hand along Button’s curved back, ending on her sweet puff of a tail. The cub was so cute. And so helpless. Suddenly Vivie was fiercely glad she’d made this clandestine visit. The heck with the DEC. She knew what was best for her bear and this was proof. How long would Button have stayed huddled against the wall if Vivie hadn’t come outside?

When Button finished drinking, Vivie walked over to the cedar shelter, inhaling the fresh hay that covered its floor. She crawled inside and Button followed. The cub turned in a circle then nestled in a soft patch of shavings close enough for Vivie to pet her warm body, the rubber turtle squeaking in her mouth. At last the animal’s breathing evened out and her chest rose and fell slowly, filling Vivie with contentment.

Finally, the cub had let down her guard. Relaxed. Vivie would never let her feel afraid again. Vivie’s eyes started to droop when a bell sounded and a cat-sized shadow leaped inside.

“Jinx, no!” Vivie made a scooting motion that her wayward cat pretended not to see, milking that one-eye condition for all it was worth. The little scalawag.

Her cat tiptoed close to the bear and extended her nose to the cub’s nose before twitching away. Button jerked awake and scrambled to her feet, her fur puffing as far out as Jinx’s.

“No fighting, you two,” Vivie warned. She kept a firm hand wrapped around the bear, not wanting her feisty cat to get torn apart. But true to form, Jinx’s retreat was only temporary and she slunk closer, extending her nose again until it touched Button’s. For a moment they stared at each other and no one, including Vivie, breathed.

At last, her cat turned tail and stalked away, stopping briefly to bat at Button’s ball of a tail. Nice.

Button lay down again, but kept an eye on the lingering feline who circled, at one point rubbing her cheek against Button’s side. The bear jerked but otherwise remained still, now fascinated with this small fearless creature.

Jinx stopped her cat-and-bear game, finally, and sidled closer, stretching out to full-body length alongside Button and Vivie. The cub lifted its head to observe the other animal, then lowered it. She fell into the kind of deep, instant sleep only a child managed.

Relief swept over Vivie. Jinx had been surprisingly sweet, other than the tail batting. And Button had accepted the cat. It was all she could ask for.

Given her past issues, animals were the only creatures to put her completely at ease. Talking to men, even joking around with them, was one thing. Allowing one close, dating, left her feeling vulnerable—something she’d sworn she’d never be again. Strange that she’d felt so comfortable with Liam all week, though.

She pictured his easy smile, the light in his eyes when he laughed. He’d charmed her rather than scared her...and that frightened her even more. A romantic relationship wasn’t possible. No need to stir up old terrors by taking a risk on love. Better to content herself with all the riches she had: a home, her diner, her pets and friends.

Her fingers smoothed both animals’ fur, a strange longing winding through her. This was all the companionship and love she needed, wasn’t it?

Liam came to mind again.

There wasn’t a chance she might want him in her life, too, was there?

* * *

T
HE
MORNING
SUN
lit the tent like a Chinese paper lantern.

Liam rubbed his eyes and stretched in his sleeping bag, waking to the loamy forest smells of spruce, damp leaves and rich, dark soil. He’d camped last night, wanting to spend his last day of vacation outside. Being indoors made him antsy and brought on nightmares that left him sleepless and shaking. Roughing it gave him a break from the haunting memories that stalked him.

He pulled down the entrance’s zipper and stepped into the cool morning air. A hint of mountain laurel was carried on the breeze, ruffling his tarp.

The Adirondacks.

How often, as a kid growing up in the city, a soldier surrounded by sand, had he wished for green? He eyed the majestic elms filtering the light into a golden web, the lacy boughs of a northern white cedar and the moss-covered rocks strewn about his makeshift campsite.Was there a better color?

Only soon he’d be leaving it for the rocky canyons of Yellowstone National Park. He’d gotten a call to come out for an interview next week. Strange that it didn’t give him the happiness he’d expected. Did Vivie have something to do with that?

Lately he’d been finding excuses to see her every day. Needing to check in. Hear her voice. See her face. If he wasn’t careful, this beautiful, feisty woman would make it hard for him to escape. Go where the wind called him. And after Kunar, he’d vowed never to feel trapped again.

He tossed a couple of logs on last night’s campfire and struck a match to the kindling, his mind turning to Button. If Yellowstone hired him, how soon would he start? When he left, would he find someone to take over Vivie’s supervision? If he couldn’t...

He pulled off his T-shirt and sprinted for the river flowing past his site. Without hesitating, he plunged into the icy water, purposefully keeping his mind blank. Wasn’t that the best part of the wilderness? You could think as much or as little as you wanted. No one to order you around, no responsibilities except for your own survival.

He broke the surface and shook the water from his eyes, fighting the current that tugged at his feet. On the opposite bank a mother and fawn emerged from the trees. When they spotted him, they bolted back into the forest, white tails flashing. He swam in the swift water. Had this been even three weeks ago, when spring runoff was at its peak, he wouldn’t have attempted it. Spots like this pinned down grown men. And if there was one way he wouldn’t go, it’d be getting stuck in one spot again. Ever.

He pulled himself up onto a rocky outcropping and swung his feet in the water, watching minnows dart around his toes. The strengthening sunshine warmed and dried him. From the firm, dark brown earth around him sprang fern fronds, wood vetch and sage. For a moment he longed for his old guitar, wanting to serenade this beauty.

After a hasty cup of campfire coffee, he took down his tent, packed up his SUV, and headed for Vivie’s house. She’d been warned of unexpected visits. And though 7:00 a.m. was early, as a diner owner, she should be up. Plus, he’d like to be there for Button’s first feeding. Not that he didn’t think Vivie capable. The way she’d pitched in this week had impressed him. He’d seen her stubborn, sentimental side before. Been on the bad end of it more than once. But this dogged, determined nature of hers caught him off guard. There was more to Vivie than met the eye.

BOOK: Raising The Stakes (Heartwarming Romance)
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