Authors: Jannine Gallant
“Sure. I’m on my way to breakfast, anyway.”
Jed cleared his throat and stuck out his hand. “Order the pancakes. You won’t regret it.”
“Thanks for the tip.” The man grasped Jed’s palm in a firm shake then dipped his head in a nod. “See you around, Claire.”
After he walked away, Jed headed toward his SUV. “You’re right.”
She skipped a couple of steps to catch up. “I am?”
“I do like him. He seems like a nice guy. A little down on his luck, but determined to make something happen for himself. I’ve been in his shoes a few times.”
Claire glanced over her shoulder with a sigh. “Haven’t we all? Preston deserves a break, and I hope this is it.” Her pensive expression dissolved in a grin. “If there’s a Bigfoot or two lurking in those woods, however unlikely, I hope we
get the pictures to prove it.”
* * * *
With a few deft movements, he worked the lock, smiling in satisfaction when the mechanism clicked. Humming, he pulled open the motor home’s door and stepped inside. Chances were he had an hour or two before Claire returned. She’d taken the dog and her camera when she left with the two-bit bum who’d been attached to her like a friggin’ limpet since she had arrived in Shady Bend.
Except at night. Crouching in the trees, damp cold chilling his bones, relief had flooded through him when Claire retired to her motor home. Alone. Whatever the man was to her, she wasn’t sleeping with him.
Hopefully another reminder of her promise would prevent her from even considering it.
He hadn’t waited and watched, kept tabs on her for all these years only to lose her now. He’d see she honored her vow…one way or the other. He’d accept nothing less than her willing cooperation. Surely with a few more jogs to her memory, she’d come around and see they were a perfect match.
Making his way through the tiny RV, he stopped beside the bed. Careful to keep his dirty boots off the spread, he lay down and turned his face into her pillow. Breathing deeply of the floral scent lingering there, his lips brushed over the fabric. His jeans tightened at the crotch. With a moan he sat upright. No time to waste. He couldn’t risk being caught.
Standing, he reached in his pocket for the package wrapped in silver tissue and tied with a gold bow. A small card dangled from the ribbon. Oh, how he’d labored over this message, wanting to get it just right. With a quick glance around, he pulled open a drawer opposite the bed. Sweaters filled it, packed in tight, leaving little space for his gift. Pushing it shut, he opened the drawer beside it. Silk and lace underwear and bras in every color imaginable tempted him. After lifting out a tiny pair of bikini panties, he pressed them to his cheek. Pulse pounding, he licked the strip of cotton lining before dropping them back in the drawer. His hand slid down the front of his pants for a few swift strokes. Perspiration broke across his upper lip.
Burying the package under a layer of underwear at the back, he closed the drawer and walked toward the front of the motor home. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door a crack and peered out. Not even a squirrel was around to witness his departure. Making sure to relock the door behind him, he hurried out of the campsite.
Sometime soon, Claire would find his gift and remember her promise. Once she did, he’d have all the time in the world to make love to her.
Scoop leaped out of the SUV to tour the unfamiliar surroundings, nose to the ground working overtime, tail trying to keep up. Claire followed with a lot less enthusiasm, wondering if Ian always wore the scowl he had on now or if he donned the glower especially for her. As her ex approached at a fast clip, his gaze darted between the dog and Jed with ill-concealed annoyance.
“I thought you were bringing your
with you. Uh, Theresa wasn’t it?”
“Jed’s an even older friend—from my grade school years. We bumped into each other a couple of days ago.”
rounded the front of the vehicle and stuck out his hand. After a moment, Ian shook it.
“How’re you doing? Hope you don’t mind I tagged along. I’m fascinated by your Bigfoot research. Claire tells me you document each step so there’ll be no doubt about the authenticity of your findings.”
Some of the tension around the other man’s mouth eased. “Sorry if I seemed unwelcoming. I was just a little surprised. Nice to meet a fellow enthusiast.”
Claire turned away, pressing her lips together to hide a grin. Jed’s wide-eyed innocent act was perfect for gaining Ian’s approval. He’d always loved having adoring disciples hanging on his every word.
She pointed toward Scoop, tail waving as he thrust his nose into a hole. “Is having my furry pal along going to be a problem? I can always leash him.”
The glower returned as Ian rolled his eyes. “You’re turning what’s supposed to be a routine hike into a freaking circus. We’re here to work, for Christ’s sake.”
“I suppose I can leave him in the car, but he’ll be miserable.” Her shoulders sagged.
With a snort, Ian turned away. “Bring him, but keep him under control.”
“Oh, I will. Where’s the rest of the group?”
“Lee and Margaret left a while ago. I waited for you. Bart is—”
“Right here.” The other scientist hurried out of the trees, smiling as he approached. “I had a few calls to make, and service out here is spotty at best. Good to see you again, Claire.”
“Likewise. This is a friend of mine, Jed Lafferty. Jed, Bart Kelton.”
The men shook hands, eyeing one another up and down like two alpha dogs meeting for the first time. If they’d had fur, it would have bristled. With a whistle to Scoop, she followed Ian, leaving Jed to fend for himself.
“I hope you’re prepared for a fairly long hike. It’ll be close to ten miles, round trip.”
Claire patted her backpack. “I brought water and lunch along with my camera. Thanks for being a good sport about Scoop. I didn’t want to leave him tied up or stuck inside my motor home all day.”
Ian shrugged. “I guess he won’t be a problem.” His glance slid toward her then away as he held back a limb. “How’d you hook up with that Jed guy?”
“We were both at Ralph’s Diner the day I arrived. I almost fell off my seat when I realized he was the daredevil little boy who lived across the street from me when I was a kid, all grown up. We got to talking, and since he was interested in your project, I invited him along.”
“Oh.” The word fell hard and flat into the silence. With their footsteps muffled by a thick layer of needles, tree branches sowing in the breeze high overhead barely ruffled the stillness. Ian let out a breath. “If we don’t discover any new evidence of Bigfoot on our hike, will you leave?”
“I’m not sure. I may give it a couple more days. I took a lot of tree pictures yesterday after the fog lifted, just in case I need to change the focus of my story.”
“Typical Claire. Ready with a backup plan at a moment’s notice.”
She stopped and fisted her hands on her hips. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Just that you’re always prepared. When you didn’t want to be married to me after our ill-fated trip to the Elvis impersonator, you were damn quick to start annulment proceedings.”
father—the lawyer—told me exactly what steps to take.” Her voice rose. “Your parents weren’t any more thrilled about our marriage than mine were.”
“True. But how about us?” He shrugged. “Don’t answer that. It all worked out for the best. Right?”
“Hey, kids, no fighting.”
Claire glanced over her shoulder and met Bart’s curious blue gaze as he and Jed caught up with them. Jed gave her a questioning look but didn’t comment.
Bart cleared his throat. “Everything okay? Ian mentioned you two have a colorful past. Care to share?”
Claire glanced from one man to the other. “I need all my breath for hiking. Anyway, I wouldn’t want to bore you with ancient history.”
Bart’s gaze dropped, skimming down her light jacket and running pants before rising again. “I bet I wouldn’t be bored in the least.” White teeth gleamed. “If you don’t want to rattle Ian’s cage with personal revelations, let’s talk about Bigfoot. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“You bet.” She whipped her notebook out of her pocket. “I’d love to hear your perspective on the project. Ian can keep Jed company while we talk.”
With a shrug, her ex dropped back, and Bart walked at her side. “I was just trying to get a rise out of Ian. He’s a good guy, and we get along well, but with his uptight attitude, he’s an easy target.” He shook his head and smiled. “Guess it’s my fault I take advantage.”
Claire eyed his sun-bleached blond hair and deep tan. “You don’t seem the type to spend your days in a lab analyzing DNA samples the way Ian does. What exactly do you do?”
That smile flashed again. “God forbid. I’m a zoologist. My specialty is primates.”
“You play with monkeys all day?”
He coughed then let out a laugh. “Something like that, but apes, not monkeys.”
“Ah, the Bigfoot connection. Lee mentioned you saw something—”
With a grimace, he held up his hand. “I should have kept my big mouth shut. The locals—” On an eye roll, he let out a sigh. “—blew a single comment made over a beer all out of proportion. I caught a glimpse of something large and brown at quite a distance. It could easily have been a bear standing on its hind legs. They’re pretty creative foragers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in an area conducive to gathering prints, and we discovered no collaborating evidence when we searched.”
“Now you sound like a scientist.”
Bart chuckled. “I may look like a beach bum, but I do have a serious side. When it comes to my work, I can be every bit as staid and systematic as Ian.”
“That’s great, but staid doesn’t translate into an exciting article. I want to hear some fun facts about Bigfoot.”
“I have plenty of those. Did you know Bigfoot sightings have been reported all over the world for hundreds of years?”
Stumbling over a protruding root, she jotted notes. “Very cool. What else?”
“Though there’ve been many, many sightings, we still don’t have definitive proof of Bigfoot’s existence. Add to that, idiots who plant fake evidence have given the rest of us a bad reputation. Our intention in establishing this retreat was to provide the world with some indisputable facts and photographs.”
She glanced up from the notepad. “I hope you do. Even if I don’t get a career-changing picture while I’m here, I hope you uncover the evidence you’re looking for.”
“Every indicator tells us this is prime territory to sustain the species. Bigfoot quite likely migrate in search of new food sources and to mate, but we believe there’s a well-established colony in this area. It’s one of the few spots where sightings have been consistent during all four seasons.”
“So it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
“Exactly.” He cast her a sideways glance. “You and Ian aren’t…”
“God, no.” She frowned. “That came out a little stronger than I intended.” She lifted one shoulder. “Ian and I…dated in college. I respect him completely.”
Claire smiled. “No buts. Our romance died years ago. I’m not here to rekindle it.”
“I wondered about that. The guy’s been a bear the last couple of days. How about Lafferty?”
When Scoop leaped into a salmonberry bush, she jammed the notepad into her pack before running forward to grasp his collar and haul him out. “Damn it, Scoop, behave or you’ll get us both in trouble.” Releasing her grip, she turned toward the grinning zoologist. “Hmm, what?”
He angled his head toward the dog. “Who’s the boss, you or him?”
“We both have our moments.”
The sparkle in his eyes gradually dimmed. “Did I detect a hint of uncertainty in your tone when you mentioned your…old friend?”
“Probably. Jed’s like chocolate. Not healthy in the long run, but still tempting. We aren’t involved.” She cleared her throat. “Uh, we seem to be off topic.”
A fallen tree blocked the trail. Grasping her arm, he steadied her as she climbed over it.
“Not at all. You’re an interesting—not to mention beautiful—woman. I’d like to get to know you better. No reason why we can’t enjoy each other’s company while I work and you take your photographs.”
Bracing one hand on the mossy log, she jumped back onto the path. “Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but I probably won’t be around long enough for that.”
“Too bad. What the hell?”
Claire stopped and stared then reached for her camera. Barking furiously, Scoop plunged through the underbrush to plant his paws against a small fir tree. A half grown bear cub scrambled higher through the branches. The tree shook and quivered.
Bart frowned. “That fir doesn’t look very sturdy.”
Zooming in on the bear’s face, she focused and clicked. “Just a couple more shots…”
“Oh, hell!” The scientist gave her a hard push, sending her staggering out of the way.
The tree top bent then snapped, and the cub plummeted to the ground. Scoop’s eyes widened as the bear landed two feet in front of him. With a bellow, the cub bounded into the forest with the dog in noisy pursuit.
A piercing whistle stopped him in his tracks. Turning, Scoop galloped back, a canine grin on his face as he plopped down, tongue hanging, in front of Jed.
Jed reached down to pat his head. “Good boy.”
Claire stared from the man to the dog. “Unbelievable.”
“On our hike the other day, I made certain he knew who was in charge.”
Women probably react the same way when he whistles.
Ian scowled as he stopped beside them. “At least someone has a little control around here. If you’re through terrorizing the wildlife, let’s keep going.”
They hiked for another hour. Claire was beginning to wonder if they were ever going to take a break, when Ian glanced over his shoulder.
“This is the area we decided on for additional surveillance. Lee and Margaret should be somewhere up ahead.”