He eased back a step as he held the bear’s gaze. Its beady black eyes bore into him, sizing him up.
Not for the first time in his life, he wished he were eight feet tall.
“Good bear,” he said, putting his hands up. “Good bear.” He turned to look over his shoulder, but the man he’d been sent there to meet was gone. “Damn him.”
Without warning, the bear charged. The fur on its shoulders rippled, its gold tips harsh against the white snow. He screamed, the sound echoing through the high mountain valley.
The beast didn’t slow down.
He turned to run, but it was too late. The griz hit him like no force he had ever experienced. Its putrid, hot breath seared the back of his neck as he fell to the ground. Heat and pain spread through his body as the predator’s teeth met bone.
He closed his eyes, pain burning through him as the gunshot rang out.
The world, the pain, the fear—everything stopped.
Alexis Finch forced her body up the steep trail and toward the location the hikers had described. Ravens swooped through the air above her, calling out secrets to their comrades as they flew west. Even though she hiked nearly every day through the backcountry of Glacier National Park, each step was torturous. The altitude made her breath come faster, but she focused her attention on the thick pines that surrounded them, and she ignored the pain that shot up from her tired calves.
“Ranger Finch,” the Customs and Border Protection agent called from behind her.
She was thankful as she stopped and turned back, taking the moment to catch her breath and shift the straps of her backpack, as they had started to cut into her shoulders. “Hmm?”
Casper Lawrence stopped beside her, his cheeks pink and a sheen of sweat covering his tanned face. She found comfort in the fact that after more than three miles of this uphill battle, the handsome agent was hurting just as badly as she was. “According to the GPS, this should be the spot.” He motioned around them.
The hillside was covered with thick, frost-bitten grasses, timber and patches of snow that hid in the shadows. No evidence of a struggle. No blood. No fresh tracks.
“Look,” she said, pointing toward the ravens overhead. “No matter what the GPS says, we follow the birds. Listen to nature. It’ll give us all the information we need.” She cringed as she realized how much she sounded like a bumper sticker, but as she spoke the words she knew they were true, especially when it came to finding a body.
If she’d learned anything in working as a law enforcement park ranger in the park for the last five years, it was that the only thing she could trust was Mother Nature’s fickle attitude. She did as she pleased, and danger could be found in the moments that a person underestimated her power. It was easy to identify the people who had misjudged her; they were usually the ones Alexis and the other rangers were sent into the backcountry to find—or the ones whose bodies they were sent in to recover.
“I like nature, but don’t you get tired of being stuck out here?” Casper looked up, taking off his Stetson and wiping away the thin line of sweat that it had collected. His slightly-too-long chestnut hair hung down over his caramel-colored eyes, obviously blinding him from the beauty that surrounded them.
He gazed toward the birds and slipped the hat back on his head.
“Stuck? Out here?” She laughed. It was hard to imagine being stuck in a place like this, where there was only open sky and rugged earth. “I’d much rather be out here than in some tiny apartment. I had enough of that kind of thing in college.” She glanced over at Casper and his tan-colored hat. The wide brim cast his face in shadows, accentuating his firm, masculine jaw.
“Your girlfriend give you that?” she asked, motioning toward his hat.
He looked at her like he was trying to get a read on her. “I bought it in Kalispell a few years back.” He took it off again, spinning the brim of it in his hands like he was talking about an old friend.
“Cowboy hats are a lost art,” she said as she started to move up the trail.
A lot could be learned about a man by the hat he wore, whether he was a rancher or a weekend cowboy. Each style meant something different, but from the dents, the line of the crown and the sweat marks, it was clear he wanted to look like a cattleman.
“You grow up on a ranch?” she asked, excited that maybe they had some common footing.
He gave her that look again, like he just couldn’t make heads or tails of her, but rather than making her feel uncomfortable, she liked the feeling of keeping him guessing. Maybe she spent too much time alone, but being an enigma to this too-handsome cowboy made heat rise from her core.
“No, my family comes from Butte.”
“Ah,” she said, forcing herself to look away from the agent. “A Butte boy... So you’re Irish?”
He sent her a sexy half grin that made her nearly trip over her own feet. “Yep.”
“You visit a lot?”
“Last time I was there was for my brother’s funeral,” he said, his tone hard.
“I’m so sorry.”
Casper shrugged. “Robert had a lot of problems.”
From his tone she could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, so she dropped it and let the sounds of their footfalls fill the space between them. It made sense that he, the man who seemed to constantly be looking at her as if he was digging for something, came from a family of secrets in the rough and tumble mining town.
They crested the hill that led to Kootenai Lake. The crystal-clear water mirrored the snowcapped, jagged outcrops of Citadel Peak; it was an almost perfect picture, like one of the many postcards they sold at their visitor center. A raven cawed, pulling her attention away from the breathtaking view.
The bird sat in an old snag and picked at a bit of meat that it held in its grip.
“I think we’re in the right place,” she said, motioning toward the feasting bird. “Where did the hikers say they spotted the body?”
“When they stopped at the border crossing to report their findings, they said there wasn’t much of a body to speak of. All they said they found was a boot. Apparently, they marked the area.” As he spoke, an icy breeze blew off the lake. Near the west bank a piece of pink plastic duct tape fluttered on the bough of a tree, catching his attention. “There,” he said, pointing in its direction.
She hurried over to the tape, the weariness she had been feeling suddenly dispelled by a surge of adrenaline.
Hopefully the hikers had been wrong. Hopefully this was nothing more than some tourist’s castoff and not what they had assumed. If it was, she and Casper would have a mess on their hands and that, at the end of the main season, was the last thing that either one of them needed.
She pinched the tape as if it would give her the answers she needed, yet the plastic remained silent.
There was nothing at the base of the tree except needles and pinecones. No doubt that since the hikers had left this morning, the birds and other scavengers had been at work.
Alexis dropped the heavy pack she’d been carrying and started searching the ground around the pine. The grass had been mashed, and there was a faint trail of broken stems that led into the forest. She followed the game trail away from the lake and deeper into the timber.
“Ranger Finch?” Agent Lawrence called out, with a hint of panic in his voice.
She looked up from the nearly invisible game trail and turned. Agent Lawrence was nowhere in sight. “Yep,” she called. “I’m over here.”