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
He cranked up the radio and lost himself in an old rockabilly tune, not trusting his mind to linger on her much longer.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled up to her farmhouse and rang the bell. After waiting a couple of minutes, he pushed the button again, his wave through the side panel window getting only a barking Scooter’s attention. Where was she? Her pickup was still here, so if she wasn’t in the house, she must be out back. Had she fed the cub? He strode around the side of her home and eyed the enclosure. No Vivie. He squatted beside the feeding slot and pushed it open, peering inside. No signs of food, either.
Worry gnawed at him. There had to be a logical reason for her disappearance, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Then he saw it. The distinctive, brown-striped hide of a timber rattlesnake, a rare species reintroduced to the Adirondacks over a decade ago. It was especially uncommon at this high elevation, but clearly not impossible. Not when he could see it coiling right outside of Button’s shelter.
Had Vivie seen it and run? Would Button know enough to stay inside? He sprinted to his SUV, grabbed a lidded bucket and a pinning hook, and raced back. When he unlocked the first door of the double-entry opening, he froze, watching in horror as Vivie appeared at the small shelter’s entrance. If her descending foot didn’t stop, she’d step square on the poisonous snake.
He dropped his gear and waved his arms, not wanting to startle the snake with a loud noise, but needing her attention. What the heck was she doing in the enclosure in the first place?
Luckily, she heard him jangle the second padlock and stopped moving at his frantic gesture. Her wide eyes followed his pointing finger down to the snake beneath her foot.
She recoiled, her face stiff and pale. He breathed easier when she disappeared inside again. A few slow steps got him closer to the sunning snake. He’d wrangled a few snakes from garages and beneath back porches. But this was his first deadly reptile, one whose poison could bring down an adult deer.
Another couple of strides nearly had him in striking distance when he heard the distinctive rattle. The snake’s angular face lifted and its lidded eyes focused on him. They were staring each other down when Button appeared. His pulse jumped for the innocent animal. Before he could react, a burlap bag flew from the building, smothering the snake. Vivie hurtled after it.
The fool! Did she think her actions would stop such a vicious predator? Taking advantage of the snake’s disorientation, he sprang into action, grabbing it with the U-shaped end of his metal rod before it slithered free. It hissed as he held it at arm’s length, its body and head whipping from side to side.
“Go inside. Keep Button away,” he ordered Vivie. She shook her head and grabbed the bag, approaching him.
“I mean it, Vivie. Back off.”
“You’ll never get it in the bag without my help.”
He had to admit he’d grabbed the snake at a bad spot, far enough down that it could bite if he came at it straight on. Worse, in his hurry, he’d left the bucket on the other side of the gate. If he let go, however, it would slither off the grip. Still, he wouldn’t endanger Vivie.
“I’ll manage,” he ground out, his arm straining to keep the snake steady as it lashed and back and forth.
“Not without me,” exclaimed Vivie who tiptoed behind the snake and slid the bag beneath its tail.
“Let it go,” she said, a quake in her voice.
“No. You won’t be able to keep it in that. It’s too flimsy. You could get bitten.”
“So could you.” When she brought the bag over the snake’s midsection, it twisted her way, assessing this new threat. If it managed to turn and face Vivie, she could well and truly be attacked.
Nothing for it.
“Drop the bag!” She let it fall, and Liam released his grip on the rod then pounced on the writhing burlap, unable to tell where the head was. He grabbed the top, hoping he’d guessed right.
“Get that bucket back there. Quick,” he directed. But Vivie had already anticipated him and returned with it.
“Slide it under the burlap, but be careful not to touch the sack. Got it?”
She nodded, appearing composed despite the tremble in her fingers. Brave woman. An overconfident risk taker, too, he reminded himself. One who had defied his direction to leave the bear alone.
In a moment too short to process, they had the snake secured and the lid snapped over the top of the bucket. He wiped his damp brow and peered at her.
“What were you doing in here?”
Her small chin lifted. “Making sure Button’s first night was safe.” She pointed to the bucket. “Looks like I made the right call.”
Left over adrenaline flowed through him. “We both know you broke the rules.”
“And if I hadn’t, then Button might be dead. But I guess you wouldn’t mind that, would you? Since you don’t think she’s going to make it, anyway.”
He recoiled. Sure he had his doubts. But he hoped the bear would survive. Thrive, even. He’d worked all week to give her this chance.
“If you don’t follow procedure, there’s a good chance she won’t be rehabilitated.”
Button’s small black face appeared. Beside her, to his dismay, stood Vivie’s cat.
“And your animals can’t come in here, either.”
Vivie sat in the building’s entranceway and put an arm around both creatures. “What if I don’t agree with your rules?”
He snatched up the bucket handle, incensed by her close call and Button’s brush with death.
“Then you’ll need to deal with the consequences,” he snapped, instantly regretting the words at her harsh intake of breath.
But what did she expect? Policies were in place to protect, not hurt. He eyed the container as he shoved it inside the back of his SUV.
So why was he starting to doubt that now himself? If not for Vivie, Button would have been bitten or dead by the time they’d discovered her. He probably wouldn’t have peeked into the enclosure and seen the snake if Vivie had been in the house. Was it possible some rules needed to be broken?
And was the professional distance he’d tried keeping from Vivie one of them?
The kitchen bell dinged again and Vivie turned, meeting Rowdy’s stern gaze, or—as Maggie dubbed it—the “hairy eyeball.” Vivie hustled to the pass-through window and grabbed a meat loaf platter and a casserole of macaroni and cheese.
“Sorry, Rowdy. Preoccupied I guess.”
“I guess,” grumped her taciturn cook. He whipped back to the hissing grills, his pinky swathed in a massive amount of gauze.
Vivie wove through the diner’s packed tables, her mind returning to Button. It stung that she hadn’t gotten more than a glimpse of the cub in over a week. Shoving food through a slot, listening to the bear scrabble against the spot, made her heart ache. Vivie wanted to be in there, spending time with Button, but how could she do it without incurring Liam’s “consequences”? She’d hoped to save a life. Was she ruining it instead? Button must be lonely and miserable.
It should comfort her that at least Button was safer now that Liam had attached boards to the lower part of the chain-link. No more snake visits. But still, Vivie was beginning to wonder if safe was enough, despite Liam’s assurances.
An involuntary smile crossed her face as she pictured him hauling lumber and nailing boards within an hour of catching the snake. He was a man who took care of things. Looked after his charges. Despite his stubborn insistence on following the letter of the law when it came to Button, she liked that Liam took his responsibilities seriously. He had good intentions. Just wrong instincts.
She wove through the crowded restaurant and overheard snatches of excited conversation about this weekend’s Woodsman Lumberjack Festival. Sam and Randy Trudeau, the area’s most renowned trackers and hunters, would be giving workshops alongside a famous outdoor skillet cook and an author autographing his bestselling travel memoir.
Most anticipated of all were the wood-carving and lumberjack competitions.
“I hope they have one of those big wooden bears,” said a young boy. He reached his hands overhead and clawed at the air, roaring. At his father’s raised eyebrow, the kid subsided and nodded his thanks as Vivie set his food on the table. “I want to learn to carve one someday. Can I have a chain saw?”
His father returned Vivie’s smile, then picked up his fork when she set down his meat loaf. “Better leave that to the experts, champ.” The dad ruffled his son’s hair then squirted ketchup on the boy’s plate.
“Is this your first time going to the festival?” Vivie asked as she grabbed their bread basket.
The boy’s head bobbed. When he set down his milk, a white film coated his upper lip. “Mom never liked to go camping. But now we’re divorced, so Dad says we can come whenever we want.”
Vivie’s gaze flicked to the man, then dropped. She wished she hadn’t glimpsed the pain in his eyes.
“The lumberjacks will be competing in greased pole-climbing and log-throwing competitions,” Vivie babbled to fill up the awkward silence. “Plus, fly fishermen will take you out on Tupper Lake and teach you their tricks if you’re interested.”
The kid bounced in his seat. “Cool. I wish it started today.”
“I don’t like waiting, either. Have fun, you two.” She left the pair, reminded, in a way, of her own childhood. How often had she and her mother eaten in diners when they’d moved? Too many times to count. In some ways, it’d come to feel like a refuge. A temporary haven they’d fled to when another of her mother’s disastrous marriages fell apart.
Fingers snapped in front of her nose. “Yoo-hoo. Orders to take, water glasses to fill.” Maggie’s uptilted nose wrinkled as she studied Vivie. “Sorry I had to call you in today.”
Vivie shook her head. “Margaret’s still on maternity and Lauren called in sick. Goes with the territory of owning a diner.” She spotted another group at the front door and hustled over to seat them.
Settling them in a booth, she passed out menus and filled water glasses. Then she cleared plates off another table, took a dessert order and placed a bill on a fourth table.
She preferred the quiet of baking in her kitchen at home. Being around a lot of people filled her with unease. It unsettled her to feel so many eyes on her, to bump into customers before she saw them, to have her arm tugged unexpectedly. The sensations made her insides curl.
When a hand fell on her shoulder, she jumped.
Maggie’s concerned eyes searched hers. “Hey. You okay?”
“I don’t know.” She thought about confiding in Maggie about her assault. They were close friends. It seemed wrong that Vivie had never shared this with her. But, somehow, talking about it outside of her support group felt dangerous. As if she’d summon her assailants by mentioning them. Moving to this rural area had felt like a clean break and she wanted to keep it that way. Separate lives. No bringing her menacing past with her.
“Maybe I’m just being anxious,” she said, kicking aside the darker reason for her unease. “I haven’t seen Button all week and it’s stressing me out.”
They shuffled aside when a customer asked if they were in line for the restroom.
“So see her, Vivie. She chose you. There’s a reason for that. Don’t forget it.”
“I can’t risk it. I’m lucky Liam didn’t take her after the last time.”
“He’s been fair, Vivie. You have to give him that.”
Vivie nodded, glad that of all the DEC officers, this one had dropped into her life. She no longer saw the heartless officer who’d ordered her to stop feeding winter wildlife. He had been understanding about Button. Given her chances when others wouldn’t. And then there was that special way he made her heart twitch whenever she caught sight of him.
“You like him, don’t you?” Maggie’s small, bow-shaped mouthed curved. “You’re turning red.”
Vivie jerked, stung. “What? No. Not that way. I mean, he’s okay. It’s just that...well—”
Maggie wrapped her in a tight hug. “Hey. Don’t get worked up. You’ve got a lot on your plate right now and no need to add Officer Walsh to it. Speaking of whom...there’s Liam now.”
His tall frame filled the door. The third time this week. Her pulse raced as she took in his angular face and the strong, proud way he stood as his eyes roamed the room.
Had he suddenly developed a liking for pie or was he seeking her out? Not that it should matter. Yet Maggie, who knew her well, had her thinking. Despite their differences, she looked forward to his visits.
Maggie strode off and Vivie watched Liam amble her way. With each step he took she became more self-conscious. If Maggie could read her strange feelings, could Liam, too?
“Hi, Vivie. Thought I’d grab a coffee and some pie before heading back out.”
She struggled to return his lazy smile, not sure if she’d come across as too eager, too happy, or what.
“There’s a spot at the counter. I’ll send Maggie over to take your order.”
His gorgeous eyes studied her. “Are you handling these tables?” He pointed to her station and the man flagging her down with a menu.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Then I’ll take a spot there.” Liam stretched his impressive body, all female eyes swerving his way. “My back’s bothering me and I’d rather have a booth.”
“Suit yourself.” She turned and marched to the red-faced customer.
She took the irritated patron’s order and, as if on autopilot, refilled drinks and delivered meals as her mind turned over her current conundrum. Liam behaved as though their week together had made them friends. As for her, she just needed his cooperation to keep Button safe. But was she lying to herself? Despite her misgivings, she couldn’t deny his effect on her.
“What’s it going to take to get some service over here?” Liam joked when she passed him for the fifth time.
She drew in a deep breath and stopped by his table. “Apple or cherry? It’s all we have left.”
“Cherry. How’s Button?”
At his question, she softened. Maggie’s accusation had gotten under her skin, making Vivie read way too much into Liam’s attention. He was her supervisor and had asked about their charge. Professional responsibility. Nothing more. Weird how, instead of feeling relieved, she felt let down.
She straightened his napkin basket and said brusquely, “Can’t say since I haven’t seen her much. Good, I guess. Safe, thanks to you.”
His smile flashed, making her head swim. “It was a team effort. We make a good pair.”
At that, she backed away and knocked into a kid raising his glass of chocolate milk. Darn that Maggie. Her teasing suggestions had wormed under Vivie’s skin.
“I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed, mopping up the mess. Her cheeks heated as she felt Liam’s eyes on her. She was all elbows and thumbs around him now. Time to get a grip.
No matter how he seemed to affect her, he still stood in the way of getting Button what she needed—companionship and real survival skills. Somehow she had to convince Liam to see her side of things. When she got home tonight, she’d locate other rehabilitators, see what alternatives existed.
There had to be another way.
* * *
after scouring the internet for a couple of hours, Vivie finally found what she was looking for—Dr. Phillip Vogel, a wildlife biologist and rehabilitator in Maine. He was an acknowledged expert on reintroducing orphaned bears into the wild and his methods made sense to her in a way the DEC’s instructions didn’t.
She stayed up past three in the morning, reading everything he’d published online, her mind turning over his approach. According to Vogel, young bears needed to be trained in the woods, not left to grow up isolated in an enclosure. Rehabilitators needed to take them on foraging missions where they showed cubs the kinds of things a mother would—most importantly where to find food when it came in season. Otherwise, he argued, the bears wouldn’t have the skills they needed to make it on their own when released. They’d grow used to handouts and would search for easy feeding opportunities, including campsite and dumpster raids, putting them in human contact, anyway.
She clicked through picture after picture of the small, grizzled man in various poses. In one he wore a bee suit and plunged his hand into a tree nest as a cub watched. Another picture showed him with an overturned log, dangling an insect over his mouth while his charge did the same. She shuddered. Maybe she could fake that part.
Before logging off, she sent him an email, asking for advice. Button deserved a real chance at survival if released and Vivie would find a way to give it to her.
If only she could convince Liam to go along with it, or at least not interfere.
* * *
Liam clicked off his phone and caught his smile in the rearview mirror. What was that about? He’d just called Vivie to tell her he’d be stopping by on his day off. Nothing special. Not enough to make him grin like a thirteen-year-old boy at his first school dance. Yet something about her voice, the energy that pulsed through it, made his foot press on the gas harder than it should. He’d grown used to seeing her. That had to be it. Nothing more.
He wouldn’t let it be more.
After slowing his speed, he forced his mind onto practical thoughts. Tomorrow he’d fly to Yellowstone for his interview and he needed to make sure Vivie could hold down the fort on her own. He’d be away for three days. So far, other than that lapse on the bear’s first night, she’d been a model rehabilitator-in-training. He should have nothing to worry about, but her impulsive nature and big heart could lead her down the wrong path without him around.
He paused to let a logging truck pass before turning onto the route to Vivie’s house. Of course this had nothing to do with him wanting to say goodbye. Visit her one more time. Yet somehow the idea of not seeing her for three days left him with an empty feeling he couldn’t shake. It worried him. Was he enjoying his time with her too much?
He suspected he was and it needed to stop. No denying she charmed him more every day. Their fiery debates, her compassion for animals and her courage when facing down a deadly snake intrigued and drew him.
But if things went according to plan, he’d be in Yellowstone soon. He wouldn’t let himself regret leaving anything behind, even these strange new feelings for Vivie, his possible attachment. Attached meant stuck and stuck meant no escape. The thought filled him with dread, the sandy winds of Kunar howling in his ear.
No. He’d make a short stop at Vivie’s house, ace his interview tomorrow and keep a professional distance from now on.
A few minutes later he pulled up to her white-sided farmhouse and parked in front of the detached garage. Scooter bounded out, his bark loud and friendly.
“Hey, boy,” he scratched the dog’s ears, then leaned down to rub Scooter’s belly when he flopped in the dirt and squirmed. “Full of it today, aren’t you?”
The front door squeaked open and Vivie stepped onto the porch. Her caramel-colored hair waved softly around her pretty face and covered the straps of a white lace tank top. Her jean shorts showed off long, tanned legs, and he looked away when he caught himself staring.
“I’m glad you phoned,” she called. “I was just on my way out to the Woodsman Lumberjack Festival.” She hefted a stack of white boxes and tottered down the steps. He hustled to her side and took the containers from her. The fresh-baked smell of apple and cinnamon wafted from them.
“Are you selling pies?”
She headed back up the stairs and grabbed another stack. “No. They’re for the pie-eating contest. Last year, Sister Mary cleaned house, so my money’s on her.”
“You bet at these things?” He slid the boxes inside the back of her truck.
“Haven’t you ever been to one?” The bright sunshine picked up the lighter strands in her hair and the gold flecks in her brown eyes. As she put her stack down, her bare shoulder brushed his arm, making his flesh heat. Overhead, tufts of clouds drifted across the blue sky where wheeling falcons rode air currents.
“No. Heard about it, though. Is it fun?” He usually avoided touristy things like that, but something about the way the subject made her eyes dance and her face relax intrigued him. Charmed him, if he was honest.