“Nothing else?” the coroner asked, like he appreciated the fact that there was so little to transport back to the medical examiner.
Alexis shook her head. “No. As of this time, these are the only remains we’ve managed to locate.”
“We need to get a full canvass on the area.” The coroner stepped out of the timber and motioned toward the helicopter.
Two rangers stepped out of the chopper and rushed toward them. From the puckered look on Alexis’s face she must have known the men. She gave a begrudging grunt as the guys made their way over and stopped next to them. The dark-haired ranger kept looking over at her like he was trying to get her attention, but she gave him the cold shoulder.
“Where do you want us to start, Hal?” the dark-haired ranger asked.
Alexis turned to the man. “I have a place you can go, Travis—”
“Travis, you take the northern trail,” the coroner interrupted, giving them both a disapproving glance. He turned to the other ranger, a blond. “John, you take the south. We only have a couple of hours before nightfall. The pilot needs us out before he’s flying in the dark. Make it count.”
Though he couldn’t say the same of the two rangers, he liked the coroner. He’d always appreciated the type of people who cut the small talk—all business and no bull. Life would be so much easier if everything worked that way; no politics, no favorites, no strings.
“Alexis, you go east and Agent—”
“Lawrence,” Casper answered.
“Agent Lawrence, you go west,” Hal said, motioning to each of them in the respective directions. He pointed to his radio clipped to his waist. “If any of you find something, I’m on four.” He turned away and went to work, going over Alexis’s pictures and her notes about the scene and its presentation.
Travis and John moved away through the timber.
Casper started to move west. He didn’t make it far before Alexis grabbed his arm and pulled him to a stop. “Let’s work together.”
Her face was neutral, but he couldn’t help getting the feeling that she was frightened.
He looked in the direction of the coroner, but the man was busy with his work and didn’t seem to notice the break in his ranks. “Hal doesn’t seem like the type who likes rule breakers.” He nudged his chin in the man’s direction.
“First of all, this is my investigation. He had no business taking control of how I’m running this scene,” Alexis said, her voice flecked with anger. “Besides, he’ll be happy if we find something, and there’s a better chance to find something if we actually work together in canvassing the area.”
“You’re the boss,” Casper said, but in truth he was more than happy to be working with her. He liked being alone—he’d grown accustomed to it over the last year of working at the border crossing—but she made the constant hum inside him grow still and calm.
They walked a few arm lengths apart, moving through the timber and skirting around the lake. Every time she crawled over a bit of deadfall she would sigh, and after what must have been the hundredth tree he was certain that soft moan would be ingrained in his memory forever.
She sighed again and his thoughts moved toward the other moments she would make that noise... How her body moved... How she would look without those green pants and that khaki shirt. Maybe she was the kind of woman who liked lingerie, or maybe not. A girl like her was probably more of the comfort type, real.
She glanced over her shoulder as she was stepping over a downed log, and the leg of her pants caught on a sharp branch. She stumbled, her body moved slowly through the air as she tried to pull her leg from the gnarled grip of the broken bit of deadfall. Yet as she struggled, she lost her balance.
He rushed to her side. “Are you okay?”
He released her pant leg from the stabbing bit of wood. It had torn through her pants, making an L-shaped hole.
“I’m fine,” she said, trying to move but her body was wedged between two logs.
“I thought you were the expert in the woods, Ms. Ranger,” he teased, trying in vain to make the embarrassed look on her face disappear. He held out his hand, waiting for her to take his peace offering.
She stared at his hand for a second. “Even experts make mistakes.” She struggled to push herself up.
He reached down and took her hand, not waiting for the beautiful, stubborn woman to accept his help.
There was a surge of energy between them and her eyes grew wide, her mouth dropping open almost as if she felt it, as well. He pulled her to her feet and quickly let her go. She was gorgeous standing there, her mouth slightly agape as she flexed her fingers.
“Thanks for the hand. I guess it’s been a long day.” She glanced in the direction they’d come, almost as if she was expecting to catch a glimpse of someone. “I’m off my game.”
“Don’t worry, I got your back.” He felt stupid as the words left his mouth. He wanted to say so much more, ask her so much more. Yet it wasn’t the time or the place. The spark he’d felt was probably nothing more than residual adrenaline leftover from their hike, or some misplaced stress from their findings.
She opened her mouth to say something, stopped, and turned away. He moved ahead of her, taking the lead so he could help her through the deadfall. This time her movements were slow, deliberate.
He stopped when he spotted a patch of animal hair on the trail in front of him. It looked like fresh fur, its golden tips still sparkling in the little bit of sunshine that managed to break through the trees. “I think we got something here.”
She moved closer. “Look at those tracks,” she said, pointing toward the gouges in the earth beside the tuft of fur. The holes were deep and massive, and they littered the ground in the shape of a nearly perfect circle. “There must have been some kind of fight.” Bending down, she picked up a piece of the dirt and inspected it, like she could read something from the way the dust felt in her fingers.
The woman was amazing. There was no way she would ever be interested in a man like him—nothing to offer, no place to call home and one screw up away from being unemployed. More than that, she seemed like the kind of woman who liked being on her own—except when she’d seen the other rangers.
She looked up at him, her green eyes nearly the same color as the moss growing on the trees that littered the ground. “These are griz tracks. More than one—the scent of death must have brought them in. I’m guessing it was probably from sometime in the last twenty-four hours.”
That’s exactly what they needed. Not one, but two hungry grizzlies in the woods near them. In the deep underbrush, it was more than possible that they could run into one. Hopefully it wasn’t a sow with cubs. They’d never make it out alive.
Maybe that was what had happened to the hiker—one misstep in the woods; a hike that had started out as some kind of goal or dream and then ended in tragedy.
“Be careful,” he said, moving closer to her.
Her mouth quirked into a sexy smirk, but she instinctively reached down and touched the plastic trigger of the bear spray at her waist. “If I go out by bear, at least I’ll go out fighting.”
He didn’t doubt her, but he could have sworn he saw a flicker of fear in her eyes. Then again, anyone who came into these woods and didn’t pay heed to the place’s ability to take them out at the knees was a fool. And maybe it was just that type of fool whose body they were trying to locate.
A branch snapped and his attention jerked toward the unnerving noise. The sound came from higher up the mountain, as if something was moving through the dense forest in a hurry. He could only hope whatever had made the sound was moving away.
Alexis was motionless, but her body was tense as though she had kicked into fight or flight.
“It’s okay,” he said, trying to calm