Read an Excerpt
There it was. Again.
A skittering sound followed by a jolting thump. Vivienne Harris huddled beneath her quilt, her mind racing as fast as her heart. Someoneor somethingprowled downstairs. She eyed her window and the black night beyond it, pine branches tracing the panes like fingers. If she opened the sash and screamed, who would help?
Her nearest neighbors lived fifteen miles down her Adirondack Mountains road and were on vacation to boot. Emergency services? She'd be a headline before they fired up their engines. Besides, the only phone in her two-hundred-year-old farmhouse was downstairs, and cell service didn't exist this far off the grid. Why hadn't the intruder tripped her home alarm?
Was her mind playing tricks? Mistaking her old dog's after-hours trip to the water bowl for something more ominous? He usually slept like the dead, though, so it seemed unlikely
There was only one way to find out. She wouldn't cower in fear that her life might be in danger. Not again.
With a clattering bang, she swung her feet over the side of her bed where they dangled, frozen. She had to move. Do something. Stop whatever darkness crawled her way. Her eyes slid to her nightstand drawer. Pepper spray. Maggie, her business partner, had gifted it to her at her housewarming party three years ago. She sent her friend a silent thank-you as she snatched the canister.
On quaking legs, she crept down her staircase. Careful, she warned herself and skipped over the creaky fifth step. Surprise. Her best weapon and only defense. She forced herself off the last tread and peered at the canister rattling in her hand. How much help would it be? Nightmarish scenarios looped through her mind. She'd never forget that long-ago night and the attack that haunted her still.
A snuffling noise whispered to her left. The kitchen. She inhaled the cinnamon-scented air, picturing the ten pies she'd baked tonight for The Homestead, her diner. They were up high, cooling on open cabinet shelves beyond her yellow Lab's reach. No. Scooter wouldn't be after those. Thenwhat?
Courage starched her spine. She needed those desserts. Loggers returned from their runs tomorrow. Hungry for a taste of home, they'd want pie. Hers.
But the phone rested on a distant end table in her living room
Where to go first?
A hard thunk convinced her, as did the spring breeze that fluttered her kitchen curtains and curled around her throat like an accusation. Fatigue had made her sloppy. She should have closed the window before bed. She squared her shoulders, leaped through the archway and flicked on the light, her pepper spray extended on a shaking arm.
Her eyes darted around the space, frustration washing through her when she surveyed her mostly decimated pies. Many were overturned, nearly empty or dumped on the floor, oozing into the cracked boards. Pie crust bits coated surfaces like dust.
"Darn it!" she exclaimed and advanced into the room, agitation temporarily overriding her fear. Hours of work down the drain. She eyed her half-open window. Whoever or whatever it was had to have squeezed through that.
She reached up and unhooked a skillet from her pot rack. There was no prowler in sight but the pantry door was ajar. Maybe her trespasser lurked there. Hiding. Sweat beaded her forehead; cold shuddered through her. She forced herself onward. No backing down. The pan handle slipped in her sweating palm, and she grabbed it before jumping into the dim entranceway.
"Stay where you are!"
She stepped forward, then remembered the dangling chain in the middle of the deep, dim pantry. Nerves vacuumed her mouth dry. She slashed the air with her pot, her unsteady legs carrying her forward. Just as her fingertips brushed the metal links, a furry body swept by her calves and jetted into the kitchen, snorting.
"What the?" A wild animal!
She pivoted, heart thumping. Where was Scooter when she needed him? She peered through the archway into the living room and glimpsed her ancient, snoozing Labrador. He was too far away to assist in her catch and release, especially now that he'd lost his hearing and slept heavily.
Shivers danced along her spine. What if it was a skunk? Or a porcupine? If Scooter woke and went after it, he'd take a mouthful of quills.
As for the creature, it skittered beneath her table, a dark thing the size of a microwave. What was it? A raccoon? Fisher? Wood-chuck? Living in the wilderness made for a long list of suspects.
She crouched and slid back a seat. With her skillet shielding her face, she braced herself for an odorous spray. A high-pitched yip sounded instead.
The pan dipped and a pair of fearful, velvety-black eyes met hers. Dark fur puffed around a tiny triangular face, the petite snout ending in a quivering black nose.
A bear cub.
Her muscles loosened, her insides melting. Oh. Adorable. And frightened, despite the "terrifying" noises it emitted to scare her off. Poor thing. After eating half a pound of sweets, it should be in a sugar coma by now.
Instead, the bear cowered against the chair legs, pawing at the air. Where was its mother? The thought cooled her warm rush of affection. An angry black bear could be roaming her property. An adultworse, a mother searching for her child. Reuniting them personally, in the dead of night, would be suicide. But other threats skulked in the surrounding forest. If she simply tossed the cub out, it might get killed before finding its mom.
She gnawed a cuticle, vacillating.
From the living room, Scooter's breathing deepened into a full-on snore. No threat to the baby animal there. She could chase it back to the pantry, lock it in, then put it outside in the morning once she called 911 and got an officer's approval. Watch for a parent to lumber along and claim it
Yes. The best compromise. Now, to grab the cub.
"Stay still little guy. I won't hurt you," she crooned.
When she stretched for it, her fingers grazed its silky pelt before the bear raced across the room. It wriggled behind her recycling bin and got stuck, its protruding rump shaking. She grinned. Despite her ruined desserts, who could stay mad at such a cute little bum?
She stole across the sticky floor. When she pulled back the plastic bin, the cub barked, then bolted for a towel-drying rack in an opposite corner, squirming on its belly to hide. A whimper rose from behind the straw and her heart broke.
How scared it must be. Motherless, hungry and now chased by a human. No living thing should feel such terror. She fingered the scar that snaked across her throat.
Maybe if she stayed still, lay down and left out one of the demolished pies, it might come out. Either way, hounding it didn't work. She'd only terrify it more and risk waking Scooter. A yawn escaped her. First she'd clean up the mess, late as it was. She sighed. Would her ant crusade ever end?
She kept an eye on the black snout poking from behind her laden towel rack while she wiped the table, mopped her floor and rinsed out the pans. At least five pies had escaped the little marauder, including her diner's specialtyraisin. She shot a glare in the cub's direction, then softened at the sight of its nose, now resting on the floor, flanked by two paws. How had one minuscule creature created such havoc?
At least she had enough pie for the morning and lunch rushes. The rest she'd make at the diner while Maggie ran the front counter alongside the waitresses. Inconvenient, but doable. Once she got her little fur ball squared away, life would return to normalrelatively speaking. For a restaurant owner, that meant controlled chaos. She draped a wet dishrag over her faucet, closed her window and pulled off her rooster-patterned apron.
After untying a couple of seat covers, she made them into a makeshift pillow and stretched against the wall. She thought of Jinx outside on her cat prowl. Hopefully she knew enough to steer clear of a mother bear circling the property.
Vivie listened to the scratch of claws against the floor. A round eye, shiny as a brown button, peeked around a towel on the bottom rack. Holding still, she watched it roam around the room then alight on her. Her breath hitched. Friend or foe? She willed it to know she was the former.
"Come on, little one. Come out," she crooned. A frustrated breath escaped her when the cub ducked back behind the rack, grunting low. It'd be a long night
for both of them. Protectiveness seized her.
If only she could comfort it, but that would stress it more. No. Instead, she'd stay up. Wait for the half-finished pie she'd left out to tempt the cub from its hiding spot. If it emerged, she'd corral it into the pantry and get some real sleep.
Her eyes drifted closed, her lids heavy. She wouldn't fall asleep. Not a chance
Twittering birds announced the dawn. The scrape of tin proclaimed the bear had emerged for breakfastaka her pie. Vivie leaped to her feet and, through the kitchen archway, saw Scooter lurch awake. Her dog scampered after the squealing cub, which fortunately raced for the pantry. She slammed the door shut just as Scooter bashed into its frame, unable to stop his momentum or his relentless barking.
"No, Scoots. Down."
Vivie yanked on his collar, then jammed her way inside the pantry.
"I'm so sorry!"
She met the bear's wide eyes and her heart squeezed as it scuttled backward. Its pink tongue appeared when it cried out, its head weaving, searching out another hiding spot. Luckily, most of her food was in industrial metal bins or cans. It wouldn't get into too much trouble here.
For the first time, she had a good look at it and noticed something wrong with its jaw. The lower half seemed off-kilter, swelling making it bulge sideways. Was it injured? She had to get help for this button-eyed cutie.
"I'll be right back. Umph!"
She banged into a hovering, woofing Scooter when she shimmied back through the pantry door. "Hush, boy. Outside."
At her point and shove, his tail lowered and he headed through the porch door she opened. In a flash of ebony fur, Jinx flew through the entrance. She jumped onto the table and meowed loudly, her good yellow eye narrow and accusing. The other, blinded before she'd shown up on Vivie's door, was milky white and half-closed.
"Off, Jinx. You know the rules!" Vivie's shooing had no effect. She picked up her bristling kitty and set her beside her food bowl.
Jinx whipped away and presented her long tail. She sniffed at the empty trays disdainfully.
"So it's like that, then," Vivie sighed, pouring cat food and replenishing the water. At her ear scratch, Jinx jerked her head away.
"Jinx, I'm sorry you were stuck outside." She grabbed a couple of cat treats and set them on the floor. "I couldn't let you in because of"
A scratch sounded on the pantry door and Jinx's back arched, her tail puffing.
"Don't even think about going near there," Vivie warned. At Scooter's bark, she let him in, then went for the phone. Despite the early hour, someone had to be on emergency call.
Vivie flopped on her vintage sofa and heard a squeak. Reaching behind a fringed pillow, she pulled out a hamburger chew toy, a smile beating the frown to her face. Scooter. Would her pets ever learn to stay off her furniture?
She grabbed the phone, dialed 911 and was assured of a conservation officer visit. She hung up and dropped her head on top of her sofa. Great. The Department of Environmental Conservation
a department she'd clashed with once before. They'd probably chuck the cub into the woods, whether coyotes skulked or not. Let nature take its course.
The heck with nature. This was about surviving.
She moved restlessly around her living room, debating if she and the cub should leave before the officer arrived. But where would she go? What would she do? No. She'd stand her ground as she'd taught herself to do.
Her eyes roamed the ceiling, noting that her fan needed dusting. And was that a cobweb in the far corner? Her gaze landed on the Steinway piano she'd inherited along with her great-aunt Nancy's farmhouse. After a nomadic childhood with a marriage escapeartist mother, it was her first permanent home. The only place Vivie had stayed, growing up, where she'd felt safe.
Above the piano hung last year's holiday picture: Santa with Scooter and Jinx. Scooter's long tongue lapped the struggling man's ear while Jinx batted his hat's pom-pom. Classic. A true Harris family moment. If not for her aunt's generosity, Vivie would still be in the Bronx, fighting through the anxiety that'd plagued her since her attack. Here in the Adirondacks, however, she'd found peace. Could breathe.
Vivie turned when a loud woof carried from the kitchen. Scooter. She padded across the faded Oriental carpet, through the entrance-way and back into the kitchen. Across the room, Jinx leaped from the table and threw herself against the pantry door. Meanwhile Scooter dug deep grooves into the wood, barking and whining.
"Hey! Knock it off, you two!"
Jinx crashed down, then slunk under the table, her tail lashing. Scooter continued, unhearing, until Vivie tugged his collar. She tempted him away with a bone and eventually he subsided and splayed on the floor, chewing.
Her shoulders sagged. She'd been up for what, thirty minutes? And it was already a long morning.
In the quiet, a small bleat sounded. High and paper-thin. Her chest constricted. Did she dare open the door and risk Jinx snaking between her legs and scaring the cub to death? Or Scooter muscling through? She loved her pets but they were as protective of their home as she was. If she put them outside again, a chance she'd had to take earlier given Scooter's unreliable bladder, would they cross paths with the mother bear? Possibly. She pushed back her hair and sighed. Nothing to do but wait for the officer.
She stiffened. Possibly a man. One who would arrive soon. And she was still wearing her sleep shirt.
The doorbell rang.
She grabbed an apron and hurried to the door. Scooter scrambled after her, reading the familiar signs for "visitor" that roughly translated, for him, into "person I must scare to death." She kind of wished he would.
She unlatched the door and hip checked a baying Scooter out of the way. Jinx's collar bell rang as the cat bolted after them. It seemed the Harris family welcoming party was in full force this morning. She stopped her eye roll before opening the door
and was glad she did.
A powerfully built man, well over six feet, stood on her front porch. His green uniform stretched across broad shoulders and a wide chest that tapered down to a lean waist. Matching pants went on forever, ending in black boots bigger than Jinx. Too bad newly single Maggie wasn't here. Her weakness for men in uniform was legendary and vocalized often.
Reining in her wandering thoughts, Vivie finally glanced up.
A Stetson covered his hair, the brim throwing shadows that pooled beneath high cheekbones and a cleft chin.
He resembled an actor playing an officer. Not the real deal. Not the kind of man she'd meet wearing a faded nightshirt covered by a poultry-patterned apron. She flushed. It shouldn't matter
especially given who he worked for. Who he was
"You" she breathed. Her fingers tightened on the door handle.
"Miss Harris. A pleasure."
She gave herself a shake, determined not to be swayed by his deep voice and twinkling light green eyes. This was anything but a happy reunion, she reminded herself.
Scooter butted her leg and she stumbled forward, banging her head on the door. Smooth. Real smooth.
"May I come in?"
"Do I have a choice?"
His full lips curled at the edges. "Not if you're harboring wildlife again."
She drummed her fingernails on the molding, wishing she still had her skillet in hand.
Infuriating man. The last time she'd seen him, he'd given her a citation for leaving out leftover fresh vegetables and fruits behind her diner during last year's brutal winter.
"Some would call that protecting." She cocked an eyebrow and made to shut the door
only his steel-toed boot kept it from closing.
"That's what I aim to do, ma'am," he drawled, his confident expression making her flush hot.
"Protect what? Your promotion? Christmas bonus? It sure isn't the animals because I've heard what you people do to injured wildlife."
He leaned close, his eye flush with the open space of her door. "Is the bear injured?" he asked, his voice low but insistent.
She pictured the cub's swollen jaw and felt a twinge of guilt. It did need medical attention and help finding its mother. But could she trust him to put the animal'snot "nature's"best interests first? What choice did she have?
"Yes," she muttered at last and slid the chain back. She paused before pulling the door open farther.