Riley tucked the stuffed teddy into her backpack, situating him securely in a side pocket that she left partly open so as not to obscure his view of the world. She was twenty-one years old now, but Fuzz had been her companion since birth, and he was coming with her to explore the world of real bears. He was going to be her only companion on the journey, even with his threadbare tummy and one eye, which was actually just a button her grandmother had sewn on his face after the glue had cracked and made his original eye fall off. She frowned to herself, adjusting him so that his good eye was facing the rear. Fuzz would have her back.
The ritual was a little silly, she knew that, but it made her feel better. Both she and Fuzz were a long way from home back in New York City and having him close was some comfort. A passion for the environment and a keen interest in ursine behavior had brought her to bear country, deep in rural Wyoming. All her friends were still in college, but after a less than stellar couple of years bouncing around from course to course, Riley was taking a year off from her studies to head into the wild.
The little cabin her parents had rented for her was adorable. It was on the very border of a national park and technically right in the middle of wild bear country. Her mother had fretted a little before sending her away, but as their only daughter, Riley had always gotten what she wanted. Her friends’ parents had sent them to Europe for graduation presents. Compared to that, her asking for a little holiday cabin was like asking for nothing at all. Her mother had made sure she was well provided for in the form of not one, but two credit cards, which Riley had already made liberal use of to stock up on everything she needed and a bunch of stuff she probably didn’t. She had stacks of stuff around the place, wilderness products of all kinds. She didn’t know what some of it did, but she was pretty sure it was probably going to be useful.
Straightening from her pack, Riley turned her attention to putting herself together. She tied her glossy caramel brown hair back into a high ponytail and looked at herself in the mirror. Her outfit was perfect for the environment: a checked shirt knotted above her midriff, covered by her white undershirt that she tugged down, making her cleavage visible. Even in the middle of nowhere, there was no harm in looking cute. She was wearing thick denim jeans and hiking boots, which would serve her well in the wilds. She pivoted her hips to see how her generous rear looked in the tight fabric and nodded, satisfied with the result. Riley wasn’t slim, but she was shapely. Her ass was her best asset, generously proportioned but nicely toned.
Turning back to face the mirror, Riley applied a little lipstick to her full lips and pouted at herself in the mirror. She had brown eyes and brown hair and for a long time growing up she’d thought she was plain, but adulthood had given her a little more definition around her cheekbones and eyes and with a touch of mascara and liner and a bit of shadow they looked almost exotic, smoky tones around her almond gaze. It was probably a little too much makeup for the wilds, but Riley was a city girl at heart. As much as she was already enjoying the simple life, she didn’t want to look simple. There was no reason she couldn’t look good while also saving the planet.
She was staying in the neighborhood of a town called Black Falls, so named after the basalt waterfall nearby. It was nestled in the mountains, a picturesque little place isolated by a several hour drive from the rest of the modern world. Riley loved it. There was something eternally quaint about it, but it still had running water, electricity, and most important, Internet. Well, one Internet café anyway. It also had a general store where they sold everything from fishing tackle to undergarments.
Her cabin was about a five-minute drive from town, along an old track that ran off the main road and through dense trees. She was quite isolated, but she didn’t mind that. After the busyness of New York it was almost transcendent to step outside and hear nothing but the singing of insects and frogs. She couldn’t wait to be swallowed up by the forest and become part of the natural world that seemed to have eluded her for so long.
“Time to go into town and get some supplies, Fuzz,” she announced. “We’re low on things like food, and that’s never good.”
With her pack in hand, Riley got into her little rented hatchback and drove into town. She didn’t really need the pack. She was taking it largely because it had Fuzz in it and she never liked to be far from the threadbare bear. Her girlfriends would probably have made fun of her if they knew, but over the years she had gotten pretty good at hiding him in all sorts of places. Fuzz was her faithful friend and friends didn’t leave one another behind.
Having parked outside the general store, Riley went in and started poking around among the shelves. The selection was fairly limited and aside from a few bins of fruit by the door the offerings were mostly canned goods and boxed meals but she was okay with that. She’d never been much of a cook and food was food whether it came in a rectangle or a cylinder. The cabin had a microwave, which was all she needed to keep herself well fed.
Having made her purchases and a little small talk with the cashier, Riley carried her big paper bag of groceries out to the car. Lost in her thoughts, and somewhat blinded by the rise of the bag, she didn’t pay much attention to where she was going. As she stepped through the door, she ran face first into a uniform, a rich brown coat with bronze buttons with stars on the epaulettes and a tell-tale badge on the chest. It was a garment of pure authority, under which a hard, broad body resided. A hand much larger than her head wrapped around her upper arm, steadying her.
The uniform spoke with a Wyoming drawl. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
Riley had to take three steps back just to fit the whole man into her view without craning her head at an uncomfortable angle. He was very tall; she would have guessed almost seven foot tall. Riley wasn’t exactly short at 5′7, but he made her look and feel tiny in comparison.
He was handsome. His eyes were a very light brown, rimmed by dark lashes. His hair was black and straight with the sort of natural high gloss to it that denoted some native blood. It was cut just long enough to hang below his ears. He had the most masculine bone structure she had seen on a man in person. His hard jaw was covered in dark stubble, the hard planes of his cheeks likewise. Riley found herself stunned and staring at him. They didn’t make men like this in New York. He was strong and he was broad with a barrel-shaped chest, powerful torso, and long limbs. He was so much larger than Riley that she felt momentarily dwarfed by him. His uniform and sheriff’s badge made him that much more intimidating, though he would have been intimidating wearing nothing at all… why was she thinking about him wearing nothing at all?
Riley realized that although she’d opened her mouth, she hadn’t actually answered his question.
“Oh, uh, I’m… okay, thanks,” she said, flashing what she hoped was a winning and most of all innocent smile. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, but police officers always made Riley pat the pockets of her psyche down for residual guilt anyway, and the demeanor of this one was particularly authoritarian. The uniform was terribly old-fashioned, but it suited him well, even though he wasn’t all that old, maybe mid-thirties.
“You’re new in town,” he observed, moving his hand from her arm to enclose her much smaller one in his with a brief shake. “I’m Sheriff Ethan Stone.”
“I’m… uh… I’m Riley. Riley Reynolds. I rented the cabin out by the lake,” she said. “For a few months.” She didn’t know why she was volunteering the information, somehow it had just been drawn out from her. The sheriff reached out and eased her away from the door where she was blocking the flow of people. He put just the lightest pressure on her elbow and she gave in to it without hesitation or question. They ended up standing to the side of the door, closer to one another than before. Riley found herself craning her head to look up at him as if he were some kind of local monument.
“Is that right? And what’s a young lady like you renting a cabin all on her own for?”
There was something paternalistic in his tone that made her hackles rise. He wasn’t all that much older than her; why the heck couldn’t she rent a damn cabin without being questioned?
“Even young ladies have to live somewhere,” she pointed out, shifting the weight of her bag of groceries.
He looked at her steadily with an unchanging expression, his eyes expecting a better answer than that, a less smart-ass answer probably.
“I’m here to study bears,” she said, trying to sound knowledgeable and professional.
“Bears.” He said the word somewhat incredulously, as if the concept of the animals were somehow outlandish and bizarre.
“Yes,” she said. “Grizzly bears. Big fuzzy things. Long claws. Rawr.” She made a pawing motion with her free hand, then wished she hadn’t. His expression had not improved in the least bit. For reasons Riley couldn’t begin to explain, she was starting to feel as though she was in trouble. “I’m not breaking any laws, am I?”
“No,” he said in gravelly tones. “You’re not breaking any laws. But. Bear country isn’t safe for little girls.”
Riley’s jaw dropped. “I am a woman,” she asserted. “And you’re a sexist, misogynistic…”
“Easy.” The sheriff held up his hand. “Don’t get your girdle twisted. The bears have just come out of hibernation, a lot of the females have had cubs over the winter and they’re hungry. Any time of year is dangerous, but this is the time where you’ve got starving cubs and hungry mothers roaming the woods and you’ve got males trying to mate with the females, mothers or not. If you’re not experienced, you could very easily end up in pieces.”
“Don’t get my girdle twisted?” Riley snorted. “Just because your views on women come out of the 1950s doesn’t mean my underwear does.”
“I’ve had no notifications from the Wildlife Federation or the park rangers that there would be anyone coming to study the bears this spring,” he said, ignoring her sass. “You’re not affiliated with any group or university?”
“I was at NYU.”
“So you’re a city girl,” he said, as if that explained everything.
“Hey,” she said. “I can look after myself. I’m not stupid. I’m not going to try to pet the bears or anything.”
“And how are you funding this little trip of yours?”
He was incredibly nosy. Standing on the main street, Riley may as well have been cuffed to an interrogation table for the intensity of his questioning. “Not that it’s any of your business, but my parents are paying for it. They believe in me.”
“And what other qualifications do you have to do this, aside from mommy and daddy’s belief?”
“None of your business,” Riley scowled. “You’re very rude, you know that?”
“It’s my job to make sure the people in this town keep their limbs where that’s an option,” Ethan said. “I’m just making sure you’re not going to get yourself into trouble. A large male grizzly can weigh a thousand pounds and has claws as long as your hand. If you start poking around territory with animals like that…”
“Actually, males average six hundred pounds, females are only around four hundred fifty,” Riley said. She could spout bear facts too, probably more than he could. “They’re omnivores with a preference for plant material, which is indicated in their behavior and in the structure of their teeth. They have molars for grinding plant matter just like we do. This series of national parks is home to one of the main population centers for grizzlies in the US, of which there are five. In total, there are less than two thousand left in the wild. I know about grizzlies, sheriff.”
She gave him a smug look, expecting him to be impressed. He wasn’t.
“Maybe you watched a nature documentary, but that doesn’t make you an expert. Grizzlies are perpetual hunters. They eat everything and anything. And they know when something is easy prey. You, little girl, are easy prey. Do you have anyone with you? A boyfriend?”
“I did more than watch a special. This is my field of study. And no,” she uttered in disgust. “I don’t have a boyfriend. Some women can do things without a man tagging along after them constantly.”
“So you’re utterly alone, planning to walk into bear country, and do what exactly?”
“Observe the bears,” Riley said. “Study them. You know.”
“No.” He said the word flatly, as if he had some authority to tell her what she could and couldn’t do.
“I said no,” he repeated himself. “That is a very bad idea. You’re on your own. That alone is dangerous even if you were planning on giving the bears their due respect. What happens if you go off trail and trip and break a leg? You should not be planning on going into the wild alone. It’s irresponsible, and it will end in you getting yourself into trouble and needing to be rescued, or not being rescued at all. Hundreds of people have died in these parks, young lady. I’d rather you not be one of them.”
“I told you,” she sighed. “I know about bears.”
His expression darkened. “Did you know that if you’re attacked by a bear and it decides to make a meal of you, it won’t kill you first?”
“Bears don’t kill their prey. Not right away,” the sheriff informed her. “They start eating whatever body part is closest to the mouth. If you’re lucky, that part will contain a major artery and you’ll go into shock almost immediately. If you’re not lucky, it can take minutes to die. Long minutes. More often than not, they start in the middle. In the intestines.” He reached out and pressed a finger to her belly, slowly running it from below her ribcage to her belly button. Riley felt a thrill of excitement at his touch, a thrill amplified as she stared into his eyes and was lost in the rumble of his voice. “That won’t kill you. Not right away. You’ll see the bear that kills you start to eat you before you lose consciousness.”
A shiver ran down Riley’s spine. The way he talked conveyed a cold animal brutality she’d never really associated with bears. She knew they were wild of course, and that wild animals were dangerous, but admittedly, she’d never really looked into the way bears killed. With some effort, she shook his words off.
“Hardly anyone dies in bear attacks,” she countered. “Way more people die of dog bites every year.”
“That’s because we live with millions of dogs. The risk of being wounded or worse by a bear is significantly higher among people who go looking for bears and wander around in their territory,” Ethan replied, his expression deadpan as he exposed the flaw in her logic. “Tell me you’ve at least looked into one of the park guides to help you get through your vacation in one piece.”
“I don’t need a guide,” Riley replied. “I have supplies and a radio beacon for if I get into trouble.”
“Supplies. Is that what that sugar cereal counts as?”
Riley scowled and pushed her groceries deeper in the bag. The sheriff was the nosiest, most overbearing, authoritarian man she had ever met.
“I have other food,” she said defensively. She tried to squeeze the bag shut, but he’d already seen inside.
“Sure, you’ve got candy and you’ve got some beef jerky. I guess that counts as your protein.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “I don’t know what kind of small town this is,” she said. “But where I’m from, it’s rude to comment on other people’s dietary habits.”
“And where I’m from, it’s a sheriff’s responsibility to make sure the citizens and visitors to his jurisdiction stay safe,” Ethan replied. “You can eat what you like, but you stay away from those bears, hear me?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I heard you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be getting on with my day. I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do than lecture me.”
He stood there, not moving an inch. She was not sure why she felt as though she should wait to be dismissed, but her feet remained rooted.
“Maybe you could solve some crimes instead of harassing visitors to your town,” she added as something of an afterthought.
“This isn’t harassment, Miss Reynolds. This is a friendly warning. If I catch you anywhere near a bear, or wandering around off-trail looking for them, I’ll take down those jeans of yours and spank your butt so long and so hard you’ll wish you never left the city.”
She stared at him, thinking he must be joking. Surely no man would threaten a woman he didn’t even know with a spanking. The longer she stared however, the more she realized that he was absolutely serious.
“You’re an asshole,” she growled at him. “And it’s still a free country, so suck it.” She made a rude gesture, turned on her heel, and stormed back to her car, hot and squirmy and fuming all the way.
Ethan watched the little brat go, his palms tingling with the desire to whack her shapely rear. In just two minutes, Riley had established herself as a young woman in desperate need of discipline. He’d like to have given her parents a good long talking to as well. Who in their right mind encouraged their daughter to go wandering into the wild looking for dangerous animals?
He’d given his best ‘eat you from the middle out’ speech too. The one he usually saved for wide-eyed youngsters who wanted to hear something gory. It was usually an attention getter, but Riley had barely batted a lash at it. That New York arrogance and the inclination of the young and passionate to think they knew better than anyone else was going to get her in trouble.
She was cute though. The curve of her hips drew his eye all the way back to her car, and the generous swell of her breasts under her shirt wasn’t hard to look at either. Ethan felt something primal stirring in response to the pretty stranger, but he kept it suppressed behind his usual stern exterior. If he’d followed pure instinct, he would have strode after her, put her over the hood of her car, and whacked her backside until she saw sense and found a bit of respect. But they were in the middle of town and there were people around and it wouldn’t do for the sheriff to make a scene like that, especially when no laws had been broken.
“Don’t think we’ve seen the last of one another, Riley Reynolds,” he murmured under his breath. “Not by a long shot.”