Arctos smelled her before he saw her. He’d been watching the polar bears play when the soft flowery, feminine scent reached his sensitive nose. The aroma had been so fleeting that he’d almost ignored it like the bears had, but something inside him had urged him to investigate.
He found the girl hiding in the snow a quarter mile away. She had small hands and equally small feet. Standing, she’d barely reach his chest. She was a tiny speck of a thing barely noticeable against the sea of white. He glanced at the bears in the distance.
What was a child doing so far from the nearest town and so close to danger?
Protective instincts spurred by bone-deep honor prompted him to act. Arctos took a step in her direction to find out, when the child shifted to the side. The small, seemingly insignificant movement revealed lush round curves. The kind of curves that could only be found on a woman in her prime. He stumbled in surprise. Her scent came again, this time stronger. The delicious aroma filled his lungs, leaving Arctos breathless and achingly hard. How could he have made such a mistake?
Arctos watched as the woman wiggled her butt and burrowed into the high snowdrift. He’d yet to see her face, but she now had his undivided attention. He couldn’t seem to pull his gaze away from the round little globes as they twitched from side to side. His hands itched to touch them, taste them, stroke them, and squeeze them. He clenched his fists, fighting the sudden urge. The beast snarled inside of him, demanding to be let out. It wanted to see this woman for itself. Scent her. Mark her. But Arctos forced the beast down to keep his presence cloaked and continued to observe.
What was she doing out here all alone? Didn’t the woman understand the danger she’d put herself in? Arctos did and he didn’t like it. Anything could sneak up on her like he had. Wolves, bears…other men. His muscles tightened and his jaw clenched as anger washed through him. She should take better care.
The woman reached into the bag tucked at her side and pulled out what looked to be a weapon. Arctos stared in disbelief as she pointed the device at the white bears in the distance. Surely she wouldn’t…
She pressed the trigger and a rapid-fire sound filled the air. Arctos’ hearts clenched and his ardor quickly cooled. This was not the type of female he wanted as a mate, no matter how intoxicating she smelled. If he wanted a bloodthirsty mate, he would’ve found a nice Phantom female from the Blood Clan to settle down with. It mattered not that the women on his planet were few in number.
Arctos glanced at the bears and waited for their large bodies to drop into the snow, but nothing happened. He looked back at the woman and frowned in confusion. Had she missed the shot? It seemed unlikely given the range and the lack of obstructions, but it was always possible. She raised the weapon again.
He growled, a deep rumbling sound that seemed to come from the depths of his bowels. No way would he give her a second chance to make a kill.
* * * * *
Caitlin Kelly hunkered down lower in the snow-bank to ward off Northern Alaska’s biting wind. She raised her equipment and gazed through the scope, focusing before taking careful aim. Two polar bears wrestled in the fresh powder, flashing deadly claws and powerful teeth as they vied for dominance and the mating privileges of a nearby female. Funny, she could’ve sworn there’d been four of them earlier.
She set the scope down and replaced it with an even longer lens, then fired. The click, click, click rattled out in quick succession as she captured the bears’ every move. “Big payday, here I come,” she murmured.
Caitlin had made sure to stay down wind, since polar bears weren’t exactly known for their sunny dispositions.
Unlike most bears, polar bears loved sneak attacks. It wasn’t uncommon for them to come up behind their prey and be on them before the prey even knew they were there. It helped that they blended seamlessly in with their environment. There’d only been one fatal polar bear attack in decades, but Caitlin had no plans to become number two.
She focused on her prey and continued to shoot. “That’s right, smile pretty.”
Caitlin kept her attention glued to her subjects, watching for any sudden changes in behavior that would indicate that they’d detected her presence. Risk wasn’t a job requirement for a nature photographer, but it was certainly an occupational hazard.
She switched out lenses on her camera and fired off a few more shots. “Come on baby, show me some claws.” With any luck, she’d make enough on these photos to pay for this unexpected trip to Alaska. Caitlin had only planned to stay for a few days, but four weeks had past in a blink. She’d somehow missed her last rent payment and what little savings she’d had, had now dwindled to dust.
Caitlin had her old college roommate, Allie to thank for her current financial crisis. At least partly. Allie had called last month in a panic, leaving a cryptic message. She’d dropped words like ‘severe pain’ and ‘not getting better’ into the voicemail. When Caitlin tried to phone back, she couldn’t reach her.
After replaying the message a dozen times, Caitlin decided there must have been some kind of an accident. That could be the only explanation for the brief message and the lack of further contact. Even though she’d recently lost her job, Caitlin had thrown her things into a bag and rushed to the airport. It had been the longest nine-hour flight of her life—and the most expensive.
Caitlin had arrived in Alaska haggard and beyond worried. She’d been so out of it that she’d walked right by Allie at security. There were no slings, scars, or broken bones visible when her friend stopped her. In fact, Allie appeared to be in perfect health. Caitlin’s anger over the deception had lasted all of five minutes, before quickly being replaced by relief.
It turned out that Allie had phoned because she was heartbroken…
Heartbroken over the fact that despite there being a ton of single men in Alaska, she hadn’t been able to snag a husband yet. She was convinced that if Caitlin came to help that she would somehow succeed.
As if that was ever a goal worth achieving, Caitlin thought, then rolled her eyes.
As the child of multi-divorced parents, who put the capital ‘B’ in bitter, she had learned early on that marriages weren’t worth the paper they were notarized on. Prince Charming didn’t exist. And if he did, she’d tell him to get back on that white steed and move along. This princess didn’t want any part of him and she was way past believing in fairytales.
Caitlin had tried to tell Allie this, but her friend wouldn’t listen to reason. She was convinced the man of her dreams was out there somewhere waiting to be found or worse yet, searching for her. Pathetic! Caitlin shook her head and sighed.
It was more likely that he was somewhere sitting on a couch, scratching his ass, tossing back a few cold ones, while the delightful aroma of beer farts filled the air.
She glanced once more through the camera lens. The bears were still frolicking; two balls of white against a blanket of soft powder, but it no longer mattered since sometime during her musings she’d lost the light. Go figure. If Caitlin didn’t get some cash soon, she’d have to resort to waiting tables.
She shuddered at the thought. Allie had given her a ‘worst waitress ever’ ribbon when they were in college. Caitlin had no plans to repeat the experience if she could help it. Nope, she’d just have to come back tomorrow and try again. She wasn’t looking forward to the long hike back to her snowmobile or the freezing twenty-mile ride into town.
It’s either that or camp here. Your choice.
She stared at the endless sea of white. So not happening. Caitlin lifted the camera and put it in the bag. She’d just zipped it up, when a deep rumbling growl sounded behind her. Her breath locked in her lungs. It couldn’t be. She’d kept them in sight the whole time.
The sound came again. This time louder and closer.
The blonde hair on Caitlin’s neck stood on end and she froze too frightened to move, too scared to blink. Maybe the bear hadn’t seen her yet. Even as the thought crossed her mind, Caitlin knew she’d never be that lucky.
Bears had an exceptional sense of smell. She put her camera bag down and slowly turned to find a thousand pound male polar bear standing twenty-five feet away, panting and watching her.
With her white coat and matching pants and gloves, Caitlin had no doubt he thought she was a chubby oversized baby seal, a delicacy for a polar bear. She knew enough about bears to know there was no way she could outrun him. And the gun she’d brought wasn’t going to do much at this close range, even if she could reach it in time. She’d never been a good shot on the best of days. Panic wouldn’t help her aim.
He took a step forward, his massive paws making soft crunching noises in the snow. He snorted and lowered his head. Crap! This was not how she’d planned to die. I’m never going to make the cover of a national magazine. Never going to get my own Discovery show. Never going to get the chance to…fall in love.
Caitlin whimpered and scooted deeper into the snow bank, praying it would somehow protect her, but knowing in the end that it wouldn’t. She pulled her camera bag close to her chest and hugged it. The bear lunged. Caitlin screamed and threw up her hands in front of her face in a pathetic attempt to ward off the attack.
There was a loud thud followed by a roar of anger. Caitlin’s eyes flew open in time to see a silvery white monstrosity flying through the air toward them. Another bear. Oh God, now there were two.
* * * * *