Dani has spent her life enamored by the beauty of her local national park, and now she combines her life-long passion for the area with her work as a park ranger.
Steven is a professional photographer, and through the vision of his lens he captures the beauty of Dani’s world in such a way that she can no longer imagine it without him, until a wave of petty vandalism breaks out in her beloved park.
The troubling incidents escalate at a dangerous pace and Dani finds herself drawn into Steven’s life and his passion.
|Publisher:||Final Sword Productions|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.51(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The wind tugged through her hair, pulling it behind her in a living banner. Ahead the path narrowed, leading her further into the park, growing steep and difficult to walk along, following the route upwards towards the cliff. She knew the area well--all its raw beauty, the hope and danger the view over the river offered--but the reason she took this path right now eluded her grasp.
Further she climbed along the increasingly narrowing trail, the trees thinning out, permitting her a better view of the vivid blue sky overhead. A playful wind tossed the small, scattered clouds across an azure expanse.
A familiar cry broke through the soft background noises of the park, one that turned her gaze towards the sky above the river. There, dancing on the air currents with outspread wings above the snaking river, flew a bald eagle. How many years had it been since a bald eagle had flown over the park; twenty, thirty? Long enough that she had only heard tales of their building nests here.
Why had they returned now?
The bird circled, wings majestically spread, his call filled with a deep-seated loneliness as it echoed over the park. Where was his mate? His long, slow circles widened over the span of the river, widening his search; his cry resounded in her heart, tearing at the emptiness within her and calling back to the eagle.
With a piercing screech, the eagle dived towards the water, far faster than she had imagined the bird would be able to move with any degree of safety. Pull up, she wanted to cry, but her throat locked, breath trapped in her lungs, a knot tying in the pit of her stomach. Pull up, please!
Perspiration beaded acrossher brow, her fingers tangling in cloth as her gaze followed the steep path of the bird. Fear, excitement and disbelief mingled at the spectacle, her heart missing a beat when the eagle soared back upwards only a breath away from the surface of the river.
And she saw a figure by the edge of the river, a human looking up to the sky, then towards her own form on the ridge. The distance between them vanished, the impossible happening as she met his gaze, locking with a pair of eyes as blue as the very sky the eagle soared through so effortlessly....
Her grip tightened into the cloth she had thought to be her uniform at first as the images shifted, fading into a haze of colors. The dream eagle became a blur, and then a moment passed in darkness before her eyes opened. A dream; it had been nothing more than a dream, but it had been years since one had affected her so deeply. Even as the images slipped from her memory, her body still remained tense. The haunting call of the eagle, alone in the clear sky above the park, had torn at her.
Had it been a dream or a vision? It could have been either or both. Eagles, like so many other creatures, had mixed meanings according to what her Gramps had taught her. She tried to sort through the images, searching for the clues before the memory retreated to the back of her mind. The eagle searching, the unknown man--it could have all been nothing more than her desire to see the park once again become home to that majestic bird. Some still hunted the eggs and, within the parks, the birds and their nests could be protected. However, that still did not explain why the man had been a part of the dream.
Blue eyes; whom did she know with eyes of such an intense color? Dani's breath caught in her throat. Her entire body tingled at the memory of that powerful gaze, and despite the sense of sorrow that had marked the dream, she still felt alive in a way she could not explain. Never before had someone's gaze affected her like this.
Her heart pounded within her chest, and a near static electricity traveled across her skin, leaving her nipples hard under the thin nightshirt and her thighs pressed tightly together. Not in the year since Bear had left for the city had she felt this aroused; no, it had been longer than that. Even in the last six months they had been together, nothing had stirred her that deeply.
The "why" slipped from her mind with the first touch of her fingers across her body, seeking what pleasure her sensitive skin now offered. A low moan escaped from parted lips, heat building from the lips of her already slick vulva long before her first touch against her clit. Beneath the light covers, her thighs parted to welcome her self-caress, arching up against her fingers, her light rub becoming harder, the need building with a speed that left her breathless. Her nipples throbbed under the light nightshirt, catching the soft material with each new rock of her hips, her body arching beneath the covers. Her fingers cupped at her covered breast, squeezing lightly into the small mound, feeling the press of the tight bud against the palm of her hand, each throb matching the now rapid beat of her heart.
Her bottom lip caught between her teeth, hips rocking upwards against the deepening touch of her fingers over her heated pussy lips. Blue eyes, even now she could see the blue eyes from her vision, watching her on her bed, never leaving her form though her finger circled her clit. He wasn't there--she knew that. Whomever he was, he couldn't see what she was doing. Yet heat rose in her cheeks at the very idea that he could somehow view her moment of wanton play.
She groaned, the torment growing, a swift kick sending the covers from her bed as her thighs parted wider on the soft cotton. Two fingers eased within the tightening confines of her eager cunt, her thumb playing circles over her clit, hips rocking upwards to meet her deep thrusts.
She wanted this, needed the release it would bring, that moment of bliss she could remember. It had been too long since she had permitted herself even this self-love, this delicious time of exploration of her own body. She couldn't even remember why she had stopped playing--only that sometime after Bear had left she had stopped, the habit dying. Now it returned, her need given fresh life, hips rocking with an increasingly demanding pace.
Her fingers grasped at one tight, ripe nipple, tugging on it, keeping pace with the thrusts within her heated walls. Her breath quickened, ass tightening, rising from the bed, her feet planted on the covers lifting up with each thrust within the tight confines of her willing cunt.
She could feel it building, that desire, the need to let her passion release, a pulsing that throbbed from her nipples down into her clit and into her pussy. Nothing else mattered in this moment--not the work that waited for her or even the dream that had awoken her, only the slippery play of her fingers across her own body.
A low cry escaped her lips, her hips arching from the sheets, heels pushing down into the bed as her thighs clamped shut, trapping her hand between them. Perspiration beaded across her breasts, her breath ragged as she felt her heartbeat repeating in her clit. Lights sparked across her vision as she slowly lowered back to the bed, the tension easing from her thighs, releasing their grip on her trembling hand. Whatever beast had been awoken within her body had been sated--for the time being, at least.
Late. Thanks to the dream, she was going to be late for her breakfast date. With a groan, she dashed for the shower, barely casting a glance towards the open letter on the dresser. The last of the images washed away in a welcoming embrace of warm water and soap. It didn't prevent her thoughts from drifting towards the talk she knew would take place over breakfast in some form or another. Her Gramps would want to talk about what she had done with her life since Bear had left. He would never understand why it hadn't worked between them, why he hadn't stayed; nor did she have any desire to explain it to him in detail.
With a sigh she closed her eyes, wishing the water would wash the memories of his betrayal away with the soap.
"I was beginning to wonder if you had forgotten our breakfast date," Silver Fox commented as she slid into the chair opposite him, his smile crinkling the deep lines across his face.
"I took a longer shower than I had planned and lost track of the time. Sorry, Gramps." She reached for the menu. With any luck, he wouldn't catch the small rush of heat she could feel spreading across her cheeks. "I didn't mean to keep you waiting."
"It's not like you, but even the best of us lose track on occasions." He watched her over his cup of coffee, the local paper folded at the side of his silverware. "You need to eat more, Dani--you're all skin and bones. One stiff breeze and you'll blow off the ridge next time you're up there."
"You still worry too much about me." She smiled, setting the plastic-covered menu down. The town diner had to be one of the most popular places within a ten-mile radius, but they were past the normal breakfast rush, and it was far too early for lunch time. So at least she wouldn't have to wait too long to be served.
"I'm family. I'm supposed to worry about you--it's part of the job. That's something you'll find out for yourself one day, when it's your turn to raise a family.
"And you're still young enough that I get to play the concerned elder every day, if for no other reason than I remember what type of trouble your mom got into at your age."
There it was: the old argument. Her mom had made mistakes--everyone did at some point in his or her life--but the cost of her last one had been fatal. Her mom had walked away when it had become too much, leaving Dani in the hands of her Gramps, which she had long since accepted had been the better path. It didn't stop her from feeling angry when her Gramps spoke this way, though. "I'm not my mom."
"Blood runs true--your mom and I had our fallings out, but even she admitted that the call in her heart got her into more trouble than anything else. Sooner or later it will pull you, just as it did her, and her mom before her." He folded his hands on the table, looking calmly at her. "No point denying how things work. If she had accepted it, then maybe we could have resolved matters between us before she passed away."
"If it is as inevitable as you claim it is, Gramps, there is also no point in discussing it every time we have breakfast together." She tried smiling, but the conversation had grown old long before today. There were times she missed the closeness that others had enjoyed with their mothers, yet at the same time, she welcomed the calm reassurance of her grandfather's guidance. "How are things out at the cabin?"
He shrugged and looked for the waitress. "So so. The pipes need wrapping again before winter, but I got that leak in the roof fixed a couple of days ago."
"Don't tell me you climbed up on that roof on your own again, Gramps." One of these days he was going to kill himself.
"Fine, so I won't tell you," He replied, mirth shining from his eyes.
"Gramps..." she began to protest.
"Wind Dancer." He rarely used her tribal name, and whenever he did, she knew a lecture or some form of reminder wasn't far behind. "If I hadn't gotten up there to do it, just who do you think was going to? Would the Spirits or one of the bears have lumbered his way over with a bucket of pitch? No wait, of course--how foolish of me not to have realized that the roof would have fixed itself."
The piercing gaze he focused on her only added to her growing desire to sink into the floor. How did he always manage to find exactly the right words to turn her back into a squirming child? It never failed--they could be almost equals one moment, the next she might as well have still been eight years old, explaining how she managed to spill paint all over the front porch.
"I could have come out to help," she protested.
"And then you would have had me watching you, worrying about you falling from the roof. No point in giving this old man a heart attack now, is there? I didn't fall, the repair is done and the matter is over with." He finished with a stern nod that made it clear he would not be argued with.
"Coffee?" the fair-haired waitress inquired, the full pot held in her left hand.
"Yes, please." She looked up at the woman, smiling. "I'll have the waffles, bacon, two eggs sunny side up." With the length of day she put in, a good breakfast had become a must, and the look of approval from Gramps helped. If he wanted to believe she was ordering it to please him, then so much the better.
"What about you, Silver Fox? Did you want anything else this morning, or just a refill on the coffee?" The waitress set the silver pot down before she scribbled the information across the small notepad, her pink uniform already stained from a spilt drink.
"I'll just take my normal eggs and hash browns," he replied, lifting up his coffee mug. Like many of the regulars, he had his own larger mug and didn't use the standard white cups reserved for Rangers. "The extra coffee would be welcome--and you still make the best in town, Darcy."
"You only say that so I'll put extra hash browns on your plate." Darcy laughed as she refilled the mug from the coffee pot.
"Maybe so, but it works, doesn't it?" The banter between the two brought a smile to her lips. "It's either that, or you have a secret need to creep out to meet me at my cabin for a night of endless passion."
Darcy chuckled, looking about the small diner. "Well now, you old rogue, maybe I would do just that if I didn't think my Tom would notice."
"I'll just smuggle you in when he's not looking." Silver Fox winked at her.
"Your Gramps is a riot, Dani. Be right back with these orders." Darcy laughed as she sauntered off through the tables with an extra sway in her hips. Whatever else she thought of the older man, he had the ability to bring a smile into the lives of those around him.
"So, what are your plans for the day?" She took a sip of the coffee before speaking. "Have you got anything interesting in mind?"
His hand reached for hers, grasping it gently. "I'm worried about you, Dani."
She bit back the words she wanted to say, seeing little point in snapping at her grandfather. "I'll be fine. I'm eating, taking care of myself and getting on with my work. There's nothing for you to be worried about with me."
"Then answer me this: if everything is fine, then why haven't I heard about you going on a date since Bear left?" His gaze held hers in a long, unwavering stare. "It's been over a year since you and he parted ways. Don't you think that is more than long enough for you to start dating again? It's not normal for a woman of your age to be without a man."
"Isn't that my business, Gramps?" Her jaw tensed as she spoke.
"I'm concerned, that's all." His grip on her hand remained. "You're a good-looking young woman, and I don't believe that keeping yourself like this is healthy for you."
She wanted to ask "like what," but that would have opened the conversation up into realms she didn't want to face with anyone, let alone her Gramps. "Gramps...."
"I know, it's not my concern, but you are my only kin. I have a right to be interested in what you are doing with your life." How could she argue with that without making it seem as though she really did not want him to be an active part of her life? However, any further discussion thankfully came to an end with the sound of a familiar voice.
"Dani, Fox, good to see you both. Is there any room for one more at your table?" Henry Stones smiled, approaching the table quickly, a large brown envelope tucked under his arm.
"Sure, pull up a chair," she replied quickly before her Gramps could say anything else that would only add to the embarrassment she already felt. "I'm just waiting on breakfast. Anything new come into the station overnight?"
Henry sat down, passing the envelope to her. "A lot of work coming in our way. It seems some fashion company want to use the park as a background for a big shoot. All the permits have been filed, just appears that they forgot to forward them on to us. They're due into town tonight, a whole posse full--they're bringing in trailers, lights, teams, and knowing people like this, more than a dozen models. Most of them will be staying up at the motel, as the one permit that they were denied was their mobile home unit, or whatever they call those things. They're far too heavy for our park roads."
She flipped through the paperwork, her frown deepening the further she read. "Are they serious? There have to be at least fifty people coming in according to this, maybe more. Have you seen the list of places they want access to? Just how do they expect to get to them? Do they even know if locations like this exist in the park?"
She looked over the list again, frowning. "Two of these locations are inaccessible except through half-a-day's hike. They can't expect a bunch of models to reach these locations, let alone the gear they will need."
"That, Dani, is where you come in." Henry grinned.
"Oh no, not me. I'm not trailing after a bunch of citified airheads looking for the right location for some dumb picture." She protested, looking up from the papers.
"Yes, you. I can't--I've already got that scout camping group on the other side of the park to look after, and Ben won't be here for at least five days of the shoot," Henry replied calmly, though the grin gave away just how much he seemed to be enjoying dropping this onto her shoulders.
"Blue Skies Photography and the agency they are working with will be here tonight, and by tomorrow, you better be ready to show their lead photographer around or we will never hear the end of it. You know this park better than anyone else, myself included. Well, with the exception of your Gramps. Believe me, if I thought I could enroll him into helping out here, I would."
"Don't even think it." Silver Fox didn't even look up as he spoke. "I have no interest in babysitting. Those days are done, thank you."
"You can't blame me for trying." Henry smiled. "So that means it's up to you, Dani. With your help, maybe we can get these people in and out of the park quickly, with as little disturbance to our lives as possible."
By the time Darcy sat the plate of food in front of her, her appetite had long since vanished. The list of locations covered half the park, stretching out miles, and she had a hard time believing these people would be equipped for the type of traveling involved. Especially the models. The first time a bug came near one of those women, she'd be able to hear the scream across town--and that would be her fault, no doubt, for not showing them to a better location without the bugs, snakes, and dozens of other small residents of the park that city folk called pests.
"They're insane," she declared, shoving the papers back into the envelope.
"Perhaps, but they have their paperwork in place, and we have been told to provide all the help they need, so that is exactly what we will be doing," Henry insisted.
"What about any potential damage to the park?" Gramps inquired, one hand reaching for the papers which Henry quickly picked up.
"Now you know better than to go looking through these." He folded them in half and stuffed them in his coat pocket, smiling as Darcy set a coffee mug in front of him. "Look, it might not be that bad--they will be operating under some very strict rules. Dani will get a copy of the agreement before the end of the day, and any infraction of those rules will have them removed, and fined to cover the damage to the park. They agreed to that right off the bat."
"That's something, at least. It might make them behave so we only have a small mess to clean up, along with a dozen or more sets of wounded prides." Dani shoved the food around her plate, trying to regain her desire to eat; but the more she thought about the arrival of the crew, the less she liked the idea. "Tomorrow ... well, at least I get today to go out to the ridge. Fire points will need looking over as well."
Fire points--those would be the least of her concerns by tomorrow. If Ben hadn't had those days off planned, then maybe she could have avoided the assignment. No, even then she would have ended up doing most of the work with them. Ben wasn't a people person at the best of times, and that was one of the reasons he had chosen to work in the park. Henry worked better with children than she did, which was why he had taken on the task of working with the scout troops--which now left her with the oh-so-pleasant task of babysitting the models.
"Somehow, I don't think my granddaughter is overly fond of the work ahead, Henry," Fox commented, a merry sparkle shining from his eyes. "Though she might come around after a few days of working with those visitors?"
Danielle speared a waffle from her plate as she looked directly at her grandfather. "Right. I have everything to look forward to in babysitting a bunch of high-heel wearing, perfumed and makeup coated models. Can't you just tell that I am going to enjoy every complaint they make about the park, the snakes, bugs, toads and the wind blowing in the wrong direction? I can't imagine anything I would rather be spending my time doing over the next few days ... can you?"
Her Gramps had been right. For all that Dani had tried to embrace her independence since Bear had left, it didn't feel right. Self-preservation had been the driving force behind her desire to remain single. After all, if she couldn't trust someone she had grown up with, whom could she trust?
She pulled the letter from her pocket as she walked towards her waiting truck, the temptation to read it one last time all too great. Tears stung her eyes as she opened the letter, her gaze moving over the familiar handwriting.
My Dearest Dani,
I wish I had the courage to tell you this to your face, and I will always regret lying to you over my reasons for leaving. Except I didn't lie to you, not entirely. I had to leave in order to finish my training--but there was more to it than that.
When I sat down to write this letter, I had hoped to just tell you how everything was going out here for me, but that wouldn't have been the right thing to do. Leaving you the way I did was bad enough, waiting a year to be honest with you even worse. I only hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me one day.
I'm getting married to a woman I have known for three years. I don't know any other way of saying this except bluntly: we were seeing each other before I moved out. I'm sorry, I should have been honest, ended things between us sooner, but I was afraid you wouldn't be there for me. Selfish, maybe--but you were always there for me, Dani, and I didn't want to lose that.
I don't expect to hear from you again, not after this. I just couldn't hold onto the lie any longer.
The paper crumbled in her hand. It wouldn't matter how many times she read it; the letter wouldn't change. The lies remained revealed, neatly scribed across watermarked paper. He hadn't chosen the notepaper--it wasn't his style. A note hurriedly scrawled on a piece torn from a yellow legal pad would have been more in keeping with the Bear she thought she had known. The paper was one of the trappings of his new life with the woman he was marrying--or already had married, for all she knew.
He hadn't even mentioned the woman's name; he hadn't needed to. Kelly Markham had left to go to the city only a week before he had. That smug parting look from the woman in a brief encounter the day before she had left should have been a warning. There hadn't been a man in town she couldn't have if she had put her mind to it, not a man who wouldn't have dropped everything he was doing to be with her, and she had known it. So why Bear? Why, out of all of the choices she had laid out before her, had Kelly taken her Bear?
Because she could--because he was the one man everyone thought would never date outside of the tribe, and because he had been the only man in town with a future, a career that could offer her a higher status in life. Kelly could be a doctor's wife, someone who could be looked up to, if Bear went into the type of medicine she believed he would. If he made it and became a surgeon, she would have all that her greedy little heart had ever dreamed of. And he had fallen for it. The Bear she had known had ceased to exist, turned from a good and honest man into a liar. He had been right--he had lost her, but she doubted he even cared now.
It wouldn't have hit her so much if he had not been there through some of the darkest days in her life. He'd been the only one other than her Gramps who hadn't turned away from her or whispered mumbled words of sympathy when her mother had died in the fire, nearly fifteen years ago now. She'd clung to him because of that, and he had stayed with her because he needed her support. It had been the wrong form of dependence--she knew that now.
She shivered, the memory of the fire still burning at the back of her mind. For years it had haunted her dreams, until her Gramps had sat for three nights in the medicine lodge, making a dream catcher with three butterflies woven into the design. Night after night he had held her, stroking her hair, singing in a language she had never taken the time to learn beyond a few words here or there. Chasing the dreams away--until Bear had been old enough to chase them away with another form of touch.
They'd never found out for certain who had started that fire--perhaps the same teenager who had been responsible for later ones, but no name, no blame had ever been placed.
"Goodbye, Bear," she murmured, closing the door one last time on the man she had called both lover and friend. "Goodbye and good luck."