Loaded for Bear (Bear Country Grizzlies Book 2)(3)By: Layla Nash & Callista Ball
The borrowed car chugged and struggled up the increasingly steep road, and she regretted not taking the Bear Country Tours owner's offer to meet her at the mysterious town, so he could drive out to the Lodge. She knew four-wheel drive would have been much better suited to the trek up the mountain, but she dreaded the need to make conversation with strangers. Especially with the kind of guys who'd start up a company offering boutique hunting and fishing trips to over-paid yuppies from big cities. She wrinkled her nose and prayed the battered sedan, the most she could afford with what remained of her security deposit from the crappy apartment she'd rented an hour outside Seattle, made it up another switchback.
Kira squinted through the windshield at the trees, hoping each switchback was the last as the sedan's engine revved lower and slower with each passing minute. She debated just parking on the almost-nonexistent shoulder and hiking the rest of the way up the mountain, but that was inviting disaster if anyone decided to drive down the road. Plus, her equipment was kind of heavy for an uphill hike.
She blew out a relieved breath as the car wobbled onto a flat patch of dirt road, and a wide gravel lot spread out in front of her. An enormous log-cabin style mansion loomed over the gravel lot, at least a couple of stories high, with multiple chimneys venting smoke, an enormous wrap-around porch with swings and rocking chairs, and all kinds of hunting and fishing gear spread out in the sun. Kira guided the sedan to the far side of the gravel lot, where her car looked totally out of place next to a pair of shiny new four-wheel drive SUVs, and sighed as the engine finally died.
She chewed the inside of her cheek as she checked the gauges, hoping there was at least enough life in the old beast for a trip down the mountain, and tried not to stare at the pair of lumberjacks standing next to the Lodge. It was the kind of wilderness-chic construction that would appeal to people who liked the idea of camping, but didn't like actually camping. Kira snorted and shook her head, checking the contents of the glove box before kicking open the dented door. She ignored the lumberjacks, engaged in what looked like a heated debate, and leaned down to retrieve the small gear bag that contained the important stuff. She muttered under her breath, "Just a grad student. I'm just a grad student. Just your average, normal, run-of-the-mill, ramen-noodle-eating, one hundred percent human grad student. Just looking for wildlife cameras, gotta reset them. That's it."
That was the story she always used. That was the story they'd told the owner of Bear Country Tours, and that was what Kira had used to get into the wildlife research program she attended. If word got out that she was actually a shifter, the university would boot her out and no one would hire her anywhere. No one trusted wildlife research conducted by actual wildlife, or they assumed her presence alone would disrupt everything. She needed to get her game face on. She couldn't afford any slips, or her degree, her research, her job... It would all disappear faster than the smoke drifting out of the Lodge's chimneys.
She straightened out of the car and blinked as the door to the Lodge opened to eject a bunch of tourists in expensive hiking gear, then she kicked the door shut. Showtime.
The tourists milled around, maps in hand, and tried to orient themselves to the paths leading away from the gravel lot and the massive log building. The lumberjacks watched her, though, and Kira pasted a smile on her face as she kept a tight grip on the gear bag she slung over her shoulder.
The dark-haired lumberjack, a muscle-strapped giant with a short beard and easy smile, strode up and offered a hand to shake. "You must be Kira."
"That's what they say," she said, and gulped a little as his massive paw swallowed her hand and most of her wrist. Holy hell.
"I'm Simon Crawford; we spoke on the phone." He tilted his head at the second lumberjack, who looked much less pleased to see her. He also still carried his axe, which was unsettling. "This is Ethan Roberts, our resident nature expert. He'll be helping you on the trek out to the backcountry."
"Great," Kira said, and shook his hand. Ethan's sandy blonde hair was longer on top and shaved close at the sides, about the same length as the three-day beard on his jaw. Kira managed to meet his steel-blue gaze for a brief moment, then looked away quickly. That guy was dangerous. "Nice to meet you."