Gum. Just my luck. I found the one spot in an empty parking lot where somebody spit out a piece of gum and I stepped right into it. The sticky pink glob spread beneath my heel and I grimaced in disgust. I leaned against the car to scrape it off, but lost my balance and stepped in it again with my other heel. Not just any heels, but my Jimmy Choos.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked no one. Both shoes were covered with tiny strings of gum and I was almost late to my meeting with my boss, Erin Waters. I shuffled over the asphalt to scuff more off on my way into the building. Not a great way to start my morning. I already knew shit was going to hit the fan because Erin rarely asked for a meeting. I gave up on the gum knowing I’d much rather deal with it later than worry about a disgruntled boss. I pulled at the front door a few times before I remembered it was a push through door. Lynn, the receptionist at Mainstream, saw me and laughed. As I’m sure she did everyone who fell victim to the backward door.
“Good morning, Kennedy. Nice to see you again.” Waters Publishing did a great thing when they hired her. She was the friendliest, and most helpful, receptionist.
“Lynn, please tell me you didn’t see me out there in the parking lot.”
“No. I did not see you zombie walk in the parking lot and wonder why. Not at all.” She winked at me. I groaned.
“Hopefully you’re the only one who did.” I wanted to sit and chat with her, but I was expected upstairs. “Wish me luck.” I caught the elevator to the fifth floor and quickened my step the closer I got to Erin’s office. The door was slightly ajar so I busted in. She was expecting me.
“Good morning, Kennedy. Have a seat. Would you like some coffee or a doughnut?” Her nicety threw me off. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. Something was up.
“Why are you being nice to me?” The wolf-like grin on my boss’s face wasn’t the endearing kind of smile. My stomach sank. “Oh, hell. What do you want me to do?”
“It’s not that bad. I need you to cover a story for A&A’sAugust issue. You know I have to hold my brother’s hand during the transition, so I need to make sure he succeeds. His success starts with me and ends with you.” Travis had just graduated with his Master’s degree and their family was grooming him to take over Antlers & Anglers, Waters Publishing’s magazine focused on anything to do with the great outdoors.
I stared at Erin for a long time. She broke eye contact first. “You’re not serious, are you? Look at me. I’m cut out for city life. Besides, I’m almost certain I’m allergic to nature and bugs.” Erin pretended to ignore me and scribbled something on her notepad. The silence dragged. “Come on, Erin. I’ve paid my dues.”
We didn’t talk about what happened six months ago when Nikki Toles, soccer player extraordinaire, ruined my professional life. At least, we didn’t talk about it anymore.
It was supposed to be a simple interview. Mainstreamhad several journalists on staff who specialized in celebrity interviews, but I was the best and Erin wanted Nikki on the cover. After Nikki’s team won the national championship title, I scheduled an interview with the Most Valuable Player. It started off innocently enough. Dinner, laughter, a few drinks at the hotel bar. We took the interview to her room because we were constantly getting interrupted by her fans downstairs.
The interview stopped the minute Nikki stripped down and straddled my lap. The sex was intense, furious, and the things she did to me would still be delightful if the nasty lawsuit her husband slapped on Waters Publishing didn’t prevent me from enjoying the memories. I hadn’t realized their marriage was still a thing. She had assured me it was over, but he thought differently. I cooperated and supplied our lawyers with the text messages and emails Nikki sent me. Through the grapevine, I found out I was not her first indiscretion and I doubted I’d be the last. I hadn’t heard from her since the lawsuit.
Erin yanked me from my dream job of hanging out and interviewing the rich and famous as a form of punishment for not being professional. For the last six months, I’d written boring articles on old celebrities that people had forgotten about, and written several where-are-they-now pieces about fifteen minutes of fame internet stars. I missed my old life and felt it slipping away more and more with every ridiculous story I reported. But this was the first time she threw me the nature curve.
“I understand this isn’t something you normally cover, but you are one of my best writers and you can make it sound sexy and appealing. Plus, it will put a new spin on an otherwise boring story to tell it through the eyes of someone who never goes fishing.”
“That’s not enough of a reason to send me on an A&Astory. It doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
Erin nodded. “Here’s the kicker. I’m glad you’re sitting down. Dustin Collings agreed to do an interview. He somehow managed to get a reality show about deep-sea fishing.”
“Oh, fuck. Not him.” Dustin was the biggest asshole on reality television. He got kicked off of the show Survive This and somehow managed to stay afloat by bouncing from low budget reality shows to creepy late night commercials. I thought long and hard before I answered Erin. “No.” I couldn’t believe I told her no after everything we’d been through. The look on her face informed me that wasn’t an option. “I mean, there has to be someone better qualified. I’m sure Jacob or Brian would love to go fishing and write about this dude. Why don’t you pick either one of them?”
“Because I want you to go. Celebrity interviews sell magazines and you’re the best at celebrity interviews. This is huge for A&A.” I sighed and opened my mouth to protest again, but she cut me off before I squeaked out another word. “Plus, Travis is doing an overhaul of his staff. He doesn’t have anyone capable of doing a feature.” I tried to cut in, but Erin kept talking. “I’ll tell you what. You do this one thing, and I’ll put you back on A-list interviews with Mainstreamfull-time. You get to go back to the cream of the crop and the lifestyle you love. Do we have a deal?”
“I want that in writing this time,” I said. She smiled and started typing on her computer. In a minute, she had a simple two sentence agreement. She signed, then handed it to me. I added my signature, and handed it back. She buzzed her assistant, Gabrielle, to make a copy of it for me. It wasn’t legally binding, but I knew it was enough to get Erin to keep her word. I smiled for the first time all morning. “Where am I going? Channel Islands? San Diego? Baja?” I wracked my brain and listed off all of the ocean fishing near LA.
“Anchorage, Alaska,” Erin said.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” It was the second time I’d asked that question in ten minutes. “I’m not prepared to go someplace so rustic.” My mind automatically raced through my closet. I had heels, dresses, and skirts. My sweaters were cashmere and definitely more fashionable than practical.
“Go to Accounting and grab a per diem check. Spend some of that on a pair of boots and a few thick soccer mom sweatshirts. I doubt Alaska at the end of April is parka weather. And take a camera. I’ll need photos, too.” It was almost as if Erin read my mind. My panic was evident.
“How long am I supposed to be there?”
“Until you get the story. It’s the feature. We need to have it written, edited, and sent to press in six weeks. Four would be better. Go there and figure out the angle.” She pretended to cast a line and then laughed at her fishing pun. I rolled my eyes. “Seriously, find something new and exciting with this guy and deep-sea fishing. So much has been written about it already. I’m hoping that somebody who doesn’t have the experience can find a refreshing side. Travis scored a ton of Alaskan adventure advertisements for the August release, so I thought it would be a good idea to make Alaska the magazine’s feature story. We trust you. Just get it done and do it well.” She dismissed me and I sulked all the way to her office door.
“When do you want me to leave?”
“Are you still here?”
Right away I noticed two things about Anchorage. First, the airport was ridiculously tiny compared to LAX, and second, the Alaskan mountains were the most majestic I’d ever seen. Giant, massive white peaks that stopped me in my tracks when I stepped off of the plane. The mountains in California were gorgeous, but I was more of a coastal girl and spent my vacations at the beach. The last time I was on a snowcapped mountaintop was fifteen years ago on a high school ski trip to Big Bear.
Since I slept on the plane and had to be poked awake by a flight attendant, I missed our descent and the view from above. I wanted to take pictures of my first introduction to the ranges, but I refrained. I had at least three weeks to get better pictures than what I could standing on an airport tarmac. My main focus was learning all I could about fishing before I had my interview with Dustin Collings. If I didn’t have at least the basics down, he was the kind of man who would viciously tear me apart if I said the wrong word.
I secured a luxury sedan at the car rental place that was about two steps away from the ticket counter. How was this place so small? They offered me an SUV, but I hadn’t driven anything bigger than my convertible Volkswagen Beetle in years so I stuck with simple and practical. And expensive. I was amazed they had a Lexus as a rental option in the middle of nowhere.
Feeling refreshed after my five-hour nap, I decided to drive around before finding a place to land. How busy could Anchorage be this time of year? It was what they considered ‘off season’ so I expected I could grab a room just about anywhere. Besides, I wanted to check out the hotels before I gave them my credit card information.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since the night before. I needed to find some food and fast. I recognized a few chain restaurants, none of which offered a decent salad. Most restaurants were local so I picked the nicest looking one and parked. I shivered as I stepped out of the car. The weather was chillier than I expected. Since my warm clothes were limited, I’d traveled wearing a pair of slacks, a blouse, a thin, yet fashionable sweater that brought out the copper color in my brown eyes, and sensible heels. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to wear the clothes I’d bought with my per diem check. The two thick sweaters, two sweatshirts, two pairs of fashionable jeans, jacket, and hiking boots were packed in my suitcase. It had been hard to find warm clothes in Los Angeles, especially with only a day’s notice. All of the stores were racks of summer clothes only. As a result, none of my purchases were up to my usual standard.
A tiny bell dinged above me when I pushed through the diner’s door. The announcing bell was unnecessary as every single person in the joint stopped eating and stared at me. Either Anchorage didn’t get a lot of tourists, or I looked like a mess. I subconsciously patted down my hair and smoothed out my sweater. Did I have sleep lines on my face? Was something stuck in my hair? A fast moving waitress pointed to a booth near the back of the restaurant.
“Grab a seat there. I’ll be with you in a moment.” I walked past everybody in the restaurant with confidence I lacked and slid into the back booth. The bustling waitress threw a cup of coffee in front of me and handed me a menu.
“I just want water to drink, thanks,” I said. I picked up the menu and hoped for something healthy. The waitress didn’t leave, apparently wanting my decision right then. I ordered a garden salad with oil and vinegar on the side. She rolled her eyes at me.
“Are you sure you don’t want some chicken or mashed potatoes? Our meatloaf special’s very popular.” I shook my head and handed her back the menu. She nodded at me and zipped away, leaving the cup of coffee.
I pulled out my phone, checked my emails, and informed Erin I’d made it to Alaska without a hitch. As much as I wanted a copy of the daily newspaper located just to the left of the cash register, I wasn’t going to parade myself in front of these people again. One look over was enough for me. I was used to a certain type of attention and this wasn’t the kind I liked. I immediately felt like an outsider. I should’ve changed my clothes right away. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Most people were in sweatshirts, jeans, and boots.
My waitress returned and slid a glass of water with only a few tiny ice cubes floating on top in front of me. No lemon. I wasn’t about to ask her for it either. I tried connecting with her by flashing her my award winning smile, but she ignored me and hurried back to the kitchen. The coffee was still on the table. She returned a moment later. Her name tag said Nita. I wondered if it was short for anything, but I didn’t dare ask.
“One garden salad, dressing on the side.” The wooden bowl it was served in rattled and clanked as she all but dropped it in front of me. I was almost afraid to ask for silverware, but she pulled out a set from her apron pocket and slid it my way. “Do you need anything else?”
Nope. I shook my head and she buzzed off to grab another pot of coffee from the burner. Coffee was obviously a thing here.
I spent my lunch people watching and nibbling on lettuce. Even though it was noon, the environment was laid back. Nobody was in a hurry, so unlike Los Angeles. I waved off the offer for pie. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate a pastry. I counted every calorie and every gram of sugar. I hadn’t cheated on my diet in years. I’d convinced myself that smelling baked goods was just as satisfying as eating them. I was too thin, but my environment was a competitive one and I had to stay in shape and thin to fit in.
Nita picked up my empty bowl. “Wow. Where did you put all of that greenery?” She was either trying to be funny, or rude. I honestly couldn’t tell. She slapped the bill on my table and left before I responded. The salad was eight ninety-five, the water was free, and the coffee I didn’t touch was a dollar ninety-nine. I sighed. It wasn’t worth the fight. I slid a three-dollar tip under the saltshaker and made my way to the cash register.
“Where are you from?” The cashier didn’t even try to be subtle. At least she smiled at me.
“California. I’m here doing a story on fishing.” She snorted and covered it up with a cough. Apparently I wasn’t the first one to ever write a story on it. “I need to do some research before I start my interview. Any advice on who to talk to around here?” She handed me several different brochures from underneath the counter.
“This should get you started. There are several different kinds of fishing. Obviously salmon’s the most popular around here. If you head south on AK-1, you’ll hit Homer. That’s the place for halibut. I guess it all depends on what type of fishing you are looking to cover.” I grabbed my receipt and thanked her for her help. I got more out of her in thirty seconds than I did out of Nita in forty minutes. According to one of the tiny maps, there were only five major highways in Alaska. I couldn’t get lost.
With a full stomach and renewed ambition, I decided to go on an adventure. I was anxious to get out of town and get closer to the mountains. People fished straight off of the highways and were clearly visible from the road. At least that’s what the brochure showed. I was sure to find somebody who was willing to talk to me. Not everybody was going to be like Nita. I had faith. I was going to know so much about fishing, Dustin Collings wasn’t going to know what hit him.
I was completely lost. I stopped at a T in the road and waited. It had been almost twenty minutes since I saw another car on this stretch of highway. I was positive that as long as I stuck to one of the five main highways, I couldn’t get lost. At least the scenery was breathtaking. Grandiose didn’t even begin to describe the different ranges. I rolled down my window and breathed in the clean, crisp afternoon air. A thin fog grazed the tips of the firs and created a quiet, eerie ambiance that upon further thought, didn’t make me entirely comfortable. It was too quiet. Suddenly, I felt alone and scared for the first time in a long time. I’d been driving a few hours and made the mistake of daringly turning on a road to reach a lake I could see off in the distance. At least my gas tank was half-full. I checked my maps app. Even it didn’t know where I was.
I heard a noise from across the street. Naturally, my mind conjured up several horrible possible scenarios. An axe murderer swinging his axe through the underbrush to clear a path to me. Or maybe it was a mountain man who hadn’t seen a woman in years. I quickly rolled up my windows and locked my doors several times as if the first click didn’t actually lock them. I laughed and sighed with relief when the mysterious noisemaker was a moose with her calf pressed closely to her side. I turned in my seat to reach into my luggage for the camera. When I twisted back around, I was not prepared to be eye to eye with the big moose. I yelped and accidentally honked my horn.
I regretted it immediately. Instead of scaring the moose away, the mama moose went into wild beast mode and leaned her giant, furry body against the Lexus, jarring it. I screamed as true panic set in. I couldn’t even put the car in reverse because the baby, who was actually the size of a small horse, was behind me. Even though I feared for my life, I didn’t want to go down in history as the tourist who purposely killed a baby moose. The mother slid her body up the front of the car and plopped her rear end down on the left side of the hood. I watched in horror as the hood crushed the engine. I didn’t know what was worse—the deep, gurgling sounds of the pissed off moose, or the expensive metal twisting into itself. It was a car wreck in super slow motion. I furiously scrambled from the front seat to the middle of the back seat. I didn’t want to die this way.
“Go away! Get out of here.” I didn’t sound brave even to myself. The moose was half sitting on my car and didn’t show any signs of moving. I grabbed my phone from the cup holder and called 9-1-1. The signal was sketchy and weak, but I got an operator. “Hello? Yes. Hello? There’s a moose on my car.”
“What happened exactly? How did you agitate the moose to prompt it to sit on your car?” The operator did not sound concerned about my well-being, which pissed me off.
“I didn’t agitate it at all. I was parked on the road and it just came up to me,” I said.
“Moose don’t just sit on cars, ma’am.”
I shook my head and listened to the operator blame me for the attack. “Well, this one did. Does it matter why? I need help.”
He sighed. “All right. We will send someone to your location. Where are you?”
“I have no idea. I don’t know the street I’m on, but I think I made it back to Highway 1. Some idiot took the sign off of the post. The last town I remember was Alyeska or something like that, I think. Okay, now the baby’s circling the car.”
“There’s also a baby?” he asked.
“Yes, there’s a baby moose here, too.”
“Why didn’t you mention that previously? That’s a problem.”
“What do you mean ‘that’s a problem’?” I clutched the phone closer to my ear and sank lower in the back seat. Up close and personal, the calf I thought was adorable was actually foaming at the mouth. Did moose have rabies? A Jeep approached from down the road. “Wait. I see a car. And it’s slowing down.” I waved my hands as if a moose sitting on my car wasn’t going to attract enough attention for somebody to at least stop and hopefully help. “I’ll call you back.” I placed all of my faith in a sandy brown Jeep Grand Cherokee. I almost wept when I read Alaskan Wildlife Rescue on the side. The person parked in the middle of the road, in front of my car. There was enough of a gap, though, between it and the moose. A woman leaned out and waved her arms at the moose on my car.
“Let’s go, Martha. You and Tuffy go home.” She turned on her red and blue lights to distract the moose, but perturbed, destructive Martha didn’t budge. When the woman shrilled a siren in three short bursts, Martha begrudgingly stood up, groaned at either me or Tuffy, and moseyed down the street as if the last ten minutes didn’t just happen.
I didn’t move until the moose were no longer visible. I closed my eyes and willed my heart to slow down. A knock on my window startled me and I opened my eyes to see a very tall and very attractive woman looking at me. Concern was etched on her face and her big, gray eyes seemed trustworthy. I felt safe.
“Are you all right?” She pointed to the handle. “Unlock your door.”
I was squished down in the seat and had to reach to unlock it. I took a deep breath before I responded. The woman squatted so that we were eye to eye. Her forest green uniform fit her perfectly and it was hard not to stare. The name Coleman was patched right above her right breast. She was butch all the way down to her shiny black boots. My rapid heartbeat switched from fear to excitement when our eyes met again. Her jet-black hair, short on the sides, long on top, fell forward across her forehead. She ran her fingers through it and brushed it back out of her face.
“Thank you.” That’s all I said. She was gorgeous and tall. Two of my favorite traits. Due to recent harrowing events, my game was off so I gave up on flirting. For the moment.
“You’re welcome. I’m Brynn. Brynn Coleman.” Her smile was endearing and I found myself returning the smile even though I’d just experienced a pretty shitty encounter with nature.
“I’m Kennedy Wells. I’m completely lost and did absolutely nothing to provoke that moose. I honestly don’t even know what just happened.”
“I believe you,” she said.
I snorted, recalling how the 9-1-1 operator had a different opinion.
“Moose are temperamental, especially where babies are concerned. How are you? Are you hurt anywhere?” I shook my head and inched my way, not very gracefully, over to the door. I grabbed my heels that fell off during the struggle to get from the front seat to the back and tossed them on the ground before I stepped out of the car. Brynn hitched her eyebrow when she looked at my shoes. “You aren’t from around here, are you?”
Heat blossomed over my cheeks. I should’ve changed my clothes when I first landed, but I planned on an easy first day. The goal was to drive around and get to know a few popular fishing holes or streams, then set up shop at a hotel in town. It didn’t go as planned. Worst first day on assignment ever.
“No. I’m from Los Angeles. I’m lost and my rental car’s completely destroyed. I just got here. My boss is going to kill me.” I shook as the adrenaline left my body.
“Do you have a jacket you can put on?”
“I’m not cold. I just think this is me coming down from a brush with death.”
“Well, the weather changes quickly this time of year and a jacket might make you feel better,” she said.
I unzipped one of my bags and pulled out a fleece jacket that didn’t match my outfit, but warmed me nicely. Brynn looked me up and down. Her stare landed at my footwear. “I know, I know. I’m completely ill prepared for Alaska.” I tilted my head back to look at her. God, she was so tall and I felt the butterflies stir as my attraction grew. She was at least six feet in those boots. “Is there anyone you can suggest to get my car towed? I can’t imagine it’s drivable.” Brynn walked over to the side of my car to investigate. I followed her because I didn’t want to be alone and her presence made me safe. She pulled on the fender scrunched into the tire. It didn’t budge. The dent in the hood was so deep that the sides bent upward like a bird in flight. “Does this happen a lot in Alaska? Innocent people getting attacked by moose?”
She turned to face me and rested her hip against the beat up fender. “Like most animals, they are pretty protective of their young. Martha felt threatened by you. Did you do anything to provoke her?” Her, too? She sounded just like the 9-1-1 operator. I rolled my eyes, but before I spouted out a sarcastic response, she gave me a list of possibilities. “Did you get out of the car to take pictures of them? Did you rev the engine by mistake or honk the horn?” Guilty. I backed down immediately.
“I did honk the horn, but that was an accident because she scared me. I was parked right here. I didn’t move the car or anything.” I sounded whiny.
“They don’t like loud noises. Moose will charge, whereas other animals like brown bears will usually leave if you make a lot of noise. You just had a run in with the wrong animal.”
“So you are telling me it’s better to cross paths with a bear than a moose?”
“It’s just better to not have a run in with any wildlife.” She folded her arms across her chest and stared at me. I shivered at her intensity. “If you’re going to be here in Alaska a while, I suggest you stick to the towns and main roads. Well, when you get your new rental car.” There was a hint of a smile on her face, which angered me because while I found it annoying, it also heightened her attractiveness. “I can call one of our rangers to come and tow your car back to town. Where are you staying?”
“I don’t have any place yet. I was just driving around, getting a feel for Alaska before I searched out a hotel. I think I’m going to stick with Anchorage. More people, fewer animals.”
“Right now we’re about thirty miles from Anchorage.” She walked confidently back to her Jeep and leaned into the window to reach her radio. I got a great view of her tight uniform and even though it wasn’t polite to look, I stole a few extra seconds to appreciate her form. I took a step back when she approached me again. “If you feel comfortable, you can stay here, inside the car, and wait for Rick. He’ll be here in thirty minutes. Or, if you prefer, I’m on my way to a rescue and after I’m done, I can drop you off wherever you want. You can spend the time calling the rental place, or your boss, or husband.”
I didn’t hesitate. “I’ll go with you. I don’t want to stay out here any longer than necessary. Can I bring my stuff or should I leave it?”
She leaned down to look into the back seat. Even though I knew what I had back there, I looked, too. Two suitcases, a camera bag, and a small carry-on that included my laptop and some essential items. When she turned to give me her answer, her lips barely brushed my ear. I felt her warm breath on the side of my neck and chills raced along my arms. Surprise registered in her eyes. I watched as they darted down to my mouth, then back to my eyes. Her tongue shot out to quickly lick her lips. She didn’t move. Neither did I. Well, well, well. I was even more interested in Brynn Coleman after she unknowingly gave me the information I wanted.
“Um. Sure. They’ll fit. Let me pull the Jeep around and we can transfer your luggage.” She stepped away from me quickly and turned on her heel.
“Should I push my car over onto the shoulder more?”
Her laugh echoed around us. “No. You won’t have to worry about causing a traffic jam here. Ranger Rick will probably be the next person on this road.” She whipped the Jeep around and parked next to me.
I stood back as she scooped my luggage and arranged them in her back seat. “Thank you for coming to my rescue. I do appreciate it.” I placed my keys on the top of the back tire for Rick, per her request.
A blush crept across her face. “It’s no problem. I’m just glad you’re okay. I’m sorry about your car though.” She climbed in the Jeep and waited until I buckled up. “Feel free to make all the calls you need to. We have a twenty minute drive ahead of us.” I watched her out of the corner of my eye. How old was she? She looked younger than me, but her confidence made me think she was around my age, early thirties. No ring, no jewelry at all, not even earrings. I had so many bracelets on that the animals heard me coming a mile away. Her skin looked soft and touchable. And that hair. It was sexy and messy. She was the kind of woman who woke up looking that good. What was she doing all the way up here in Alaska?
“Wait a minute. Do you really have a Ranger Rick?” We’d been driving in silence for a few minutes and I couldn’t stand the quiet any longer.
Brynn laughed. “He hates it when we call him that, so naturally, the whole office does.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a park ranger and the director of the Alaskan Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary outside of Anchorage. We answer calls about animals in distress or in difficult situations and try to help them out the best we can. I’m on my way to assess an owl that a local, Mrs. Wright, called about. She thinks some coyotes got ahold of it and it can’t fly.” Brynn was quick to explain further when she saw the horrified look on my face. “If he can’t fly, I’ll bring him back to the shelter and one of our veterinarians will take a look at him. We’re good about patching animals up and setting them free. If we don’t think they will make it out there, we keep them at Spa Sanctuary.”
I felt a little bit better. I took the remaining time to call the rental place and let them know what happened and what to expect when Rick arrived with the car. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief because I agreed to their additional insurance. They promised me everything was fine, but were obviously annoyed. They guaranteed me an SUV when they got the car back. Of course, I’d have to fill out a ton of paperwork first.
Brynn slowed the Jeep and turned right onto a dirt road that wasn’t visible from the highway. I was positive she didn’t just kidnap me. Almost positive. We drove through mounds of tall dead brown weeds that bowed from recent snow until we saw an opening ahead. As we drove up the hill, a log cabin appeared. It leaned a bit too far to the left and had a roof that should have been replaced years ago. Mrs. Wright, I presumed, was standing outside with a gun on her hip and a cigarette clasped between her forefinger and middle finger. She pointed her cigarette over at the barn.
“Brynn. He’s over there somewhere. The coyotes are getting braver.” Brynn directed the Jeep over to the barn and slowed her speed.
“We don’t want to scare him any more than he already is.” Brynn spotted him by the barn and parked the car. “He’s not full grown yet. He’s panicked and doesn’t know what to do. I’ll have to be discreet and slow.” She put her finger to her lips signaling me to be quiet.
I looked at her full, red lips and wondered if they were as soft as they looked. When my eyes met hers again, they widened in surprise. Perhaps I wasn’t as inconspicuous with my lustful look as I thought. I nodded that I understood. She carefully opened the back of the Jeep and unlatched the door to a cage that filled the entire cargo area.
“It’s okay, baby. I’m not going to hurt you.” Even though she was talking to an injured animal, her soothing voice was quite sexy.
The white and dark spotted owl panted heavily, but finally stopped squawking. I was nervous because Mrs. Wright mentioned coyotes and I didn’t know where they were. My overactive imagination had them tearing through the dead weeds right for Brynn and the crippled owl. Crawling on her hands and knees, she swiftly closed the distance and carefully tossed a piece of material over it.
“Is he going to be okay?” I asked after she had him secured in the cage. “That was amazing, by the way.” Why I didn’t think to take pictures of the rescue was beyond me.
“I don’t think his wing’s broken. I didn’t feel anything out of place and he bent it back okay for a few seconds. It might just be sprained. Maybe he hit the side of the barn and knocked himself out. If he were full grown, it would have turned out differently.”
“That’s a baby? He’s huge.” I turned around to look past my luggage to see him, but I could only see the top of his bobbing head and a few white fuzzy feathers of his outstretched wing. Brynn called the sanctuary to let them know we would be there in about fifteen minutes.
“He’s more of a teenager. Once he gets to be an adult, he will be completely white and his wing span will be somewhere between four and five feet.”
“I’m amazed he’s out today. Aren’t owls usually nocturnal?”
“The snow owl hunts twenty four hours a day. They don’t care if it’s light or dark out. Most of the snow owls are in northern Alaska so this guy’s quite a treat.”
“You learn something new every day. How long have you been doing this? Helping animals out, I mean. Was it always your dream job? Am I asking too many questions?” I got into journalism to satisfy my over-the-top curiosity.
“It’s my dream job now,” she said. She offered no other explanation and I didn’t push her.
“I’m working my way back to my dream job,” I said.
“What is it you do exactly?” She turned to look at me and again she looked at my lips.
“I’m a writer for Mainstreammagazine.” I waited for that to sink in. Brynn couldn’t have cared less. I’d have to impress her a different way.
“But you’re here for work, right?” The question in her voice was more accusatory than I would have liked.
“I’m writing a story about a reality star who scored a fishing show here.”
Brynn rolled her eyes. Apparently she knew about Dustin. “Yeah, Anchorage has seen more visitors than normal before fishing season this year. I heard rumors about a new show stationed from here.”
“I normally write about celebrities, but I’m kind of on probation and my boss stuck me with this fishing story that unfortunately involves him. That’s why I’m here. She didn’t give me much of a choice. Honestly, I know exactly zero about fishing. Or nature.”
Brynn suppressed a smile. “I’m sure your boss knows you’re good or else why would she send you here? To fail? That’s just money out of her pocket.”
“Um. Thank you? I think.”
Brynn laughed. “You’re welcome and yes, that was a compliment. Sometimes it’s better to have fresh eyes. So your magazine is equivalent to People or Entertainment?”
I gave her a nod mixed with a frown. “Basically, yes. I like to think we focus on more than just the normal celebrity gossip. Sure, we might bring up whatever’s going on with that person, but we try to get the human interest behind their decisions. And we don’t drop it and move on to the next new hot button.”
“It sounds like you take it pretty seriously.”
“I do. People tend to write off celebrity reporting, but I like the contacts I’ve made and I love it when a celebrity trusts me enough to call me with news or give me the big break.”
“Oh, so you are kind of a celebrity, too.” She slowed to make a turn. We were probably getting close to the sanctuary.
“Not at all,” I said. I loved the attention, for sure. My list of contacts in my phone included several actors, musicians, and sports players. It took me years to assemble my list. In a superficial way, I was proud, but I didn’t think Brynn cared so I downplayed my success. “It’s just what I do. I’m one of the lucky ones who loves her job.” Brynn nodded but didn’t say anything. We rounded another corner and once we cleared the trees, I gasped. The sanctuary was set at the base of a mountain range. The visitor center was a massive log cabin with large floor to ceiling windows. Several smaller buildings were visible in the distance, all linked by boardwalks which I assumed protected a delicate ecosystem below. “Wow. This place is huge. And what a fantastic view. Wait a minute. Is that a bear?”
“That’s Yogi. Melissa’s in there, too. We rescued them when they were cubs. Let me get this owl to Tina and then if you want, I can show you around a bit. I mean, if you have time. I know you have a lot going on.”
I smiled at her nervousness. “I’d love that. I think I can spare a few minutes. I mean, this is part of nature. I’m sure to learn something.”
She flashed me a quick smile and headed inside with the cage. I didn’t venture far from the Jeep. I was unsure of the property and didn’t want to end up a punching bag for Yogi or Melissa because I wandered into the wrong area. I saw The Revenantand that movie scared the shit out of me. Now that I knew moose were just as dangerous, I decided I should do most of my reporting from inside city limits. Any city. I headed over to the information sign to read more about the sanctuary and rescue. It was a huge operation with hundreds of acres dedicated to providing the best home for all kinds of animals who could no longer survive out in the wilderness for one reason or another. Injuries were the most common reason. I had a thousand questions for Brynn when she returned. I looked at the time. There was no way I’d be able to ask all my questions that afternoon.
“Sorry about that. I had to help Tina get our little friend out of the cage. He didn’t want to cooperate the minute I put the cage on the table,” Brynn said from behind me.
I turned. Everything about her took my breath away. Maybe it was because she was so different from the women I dated. Most were femme, had long hair, wore tons of make-up, and wore short, summer dresses. Brynn was the polar opposite. Or maybe it was just the sure, authoritative way she carried herself wearing that tight uniform.
“I’ve been thinking. I would like to spend more time here this week, but I’m kind of stressed today. I’m afraid that the car rental place might close soon. Can you please take me into town and once I get settled, I can come back out here?” That sounded self-absorbed, but there wasn’t any other way around it.
“That’s fine. I grabbed a few local maps of streams and lakes and highlighted a few that are popular. It’s not fishing season here in Anchorage yet, but there are several commercial fishermen who work year round that you could talk to.” She handed me the flyers and I smiled at her thoughtfulness.
“Thank you. Are there any good hotels in town that you can recommend?” I felt like I was using her kindness. I should’ve done a better job preparing for this trip, but Erin didn’t give me enough time. “And to thank you for all of your help, I would love to take you to lunch or dinner sometime this week when you have time.” I figured the invitation softened my neediness.
“You don’t need to, Kennedy. I don’t mind helping out. Plus, this makes for a good story I can tell the other rangers during our potluck dinner next week.” She winked at me as she pulled out of the parking lot.
I cringed. “It’s a horrible story. I hate that I have to tell my boss. She loves ammunition on me. That’s what got me into this mess in the first place.” I didn’t elaborate and Brynn didn’t ask. “Not mess, but predicament.” I corrected myself.
“As far as a place to stay for a few weeks, we do have nice hotels, but I think in order for you to really appreciate Alaska, you should rent a cabin. They can be cheaper than a hotel and I could get you a good deal on a nice one. My friend owns several not too far from here. Well-stocked, comfortable, and hopefully inspirational. It’s easy driving distance to the wharf so you won’t have trouble with your interview,” she said.
“That sounds like a good plan. Thank you again.” I owed this woman everything. I couldn’t imagine anyone being this nice to me back home without wanting something in return.
“The cabins are on our way. Less than ten minutes. We can swing in, and if you hate them, I can recommend the Crowne Plaza, or the Homewood Suites in the heart of downtown,” she said.
We arrived in eight minutes and I was immediately taken with the view. The front of the cabins faced a crystal clear lake with snowcapped mountains off in the near distance. Behind the cabins sat the city. I felt safe with society only a few miles away. This location was ideal.
“I love this place.”
“Let me go check with Cee and find out availability,” Brynn said. She disappeared into the large cabin that was obviously the office. Two large dogs escaped when she opened the door and galloped straight for me. I took a few steps backward, unsure of their intentions. A sharp whistle pierced the air and both dogs stopped in their tracks. A tiny dachshund came out of nowhere and pushed her way past the two big dogs to jump up against my legs. The welcoming committee was on point. The three faces staring at me made me want to pet them.
Brynn peeked back out the door to make sure I was okay. “Meet Murphy and King. They are sweet. You can pet them.”
I stretched my hand out to let them sniff me. The dachshund danced in front of me on her hind legs, begging me to pet her. I wasn’t about to kneel and rub her belly when she flopped on her back though. I had no idea what the other two dogs would do. They seemed nice, but so did Stephen King’s Cujo. One of the dogs actually looked like him. He was a St. Bernard mix. The other was a chocolate lab with a pink nose. After they confirmed I was not a threat, they headed over to the Jeep to sniff around the back of it. I was sure the injured owl’s scent was still strong.
“Kennedy,” Brynn called. I made my way to the porch, avoiding the little dachshund dancing around my feet. She was bound and determined to be my friend. “I see you’ve met Heidi. She’s kind of a lover.” I was afraid that I would step on her, but she was fast and didn’t get underfoot. “I have keys to a cabin just over there. Want to go check it out?”
I nodded and followed Brynn along the dirt path. “There doesn’t seem to be anybody around.” I noticed most of the cabins were unoccupied.
“Well, you are here before the tourism and fishing seasons officially start. That’s why we’re looking at the big cabin because it’s available and I think you will like it. There’s parking right next to it. There’s a grill out front, but don’t forget to clean it off if you use it. You don’t want another animal problem.” Brynn unlocked the door and flipped on the lights. She stepped back and waited for me to slip past her to take a look around.
“This place is gorgeous. Is the bedroom there?” I pointed to the loft and decided that even if it wasn’t, I was going to sleep there. There were so many windows and I pictured myself falling asleep while staring at the stars.
“Yes. You still might be able to see the northern lights from there. They are usually not visible this late in spring, but they might make an appearance. There’s also a second bedroom over there, a kitchenette, and a fireplace. The only thing you don’t have here is room service. There’s a coffee maker, though. And I believe Cee puts out coffee cake and fruit every morning in the office cabin,” Brynn said. She blew right by the part about the northern lights as if everybody on the planet experienced them all of the time.
I was excited about the cabin and had to refrain from bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet like an eager eight-year-old. “How much does she want a night?”
“Well, she rents it by the week which will work out for you. She can give you a steep discount for the next two weeks, then it will jump to seasonal rates if you stay past that.” Brynn handed me an invoice. My jaw dropped opened at the amount. It was a steal. Brynn was doing me a favor.
“Sold. Or yes. Whatever. Definitely. Where do I sign?”
“Let’s head back to the main cabin and you can meet Cee. We can unload the Jeep so you only have to worry about a new car and not your stuff. Ranger Rick already dropped it off so you shouldn’t have a problem getting one that hasn’t been destroyed. Yet,” she said. She did a great job of not smiling when she delivered that punch.
“The car’s already there? Thank you so much. I think meeting you was the best thing that’s happened to me. I’m definitely taking you to dinner this week. You pick the date and time and I’ll treat,” I said.
She blushed and stammered. Brynn was confident in everything except women. And maybe I read her wrong, but I was sure she played on my team. She was dapper, handsome, and gave me chills. I’d never been wrong about a woman. I stayed clear of the straight ones except for friendship, and enjoyed myself physically with women who liked women. I hadn’t had time for a relationship in years. The occasional hookup was inevitable when self-gratification was boring, but it never led to anything but a quick lay. Nobody in Los Angeles or Hollywood was exclusive it seemed. I wasn’t going to try either.
“Remind me to give you one of my business cards before I drop you off,” Brynn said.
We headed to the main cabin so I could leave my credit card information and meet Cee. Even if Brynn forgot to give me her contact information, I knew I could reach her through Cee. It was an easier way that didn’t involve me lost on a deserted stretch of the Alaskan highway alone with a family of disgruntled moose.