Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)

By: Kimber White
Chapter One

Nora

I wasn’t technically lost. Just, well, geographically challenged. A little. I swiped my smartphone screen with my thumb to pull up the compass. The little red pin pointed north. Straight ahead. If I headed that way, I’d eventually come out of the woods and find my way back to M-28. That is if I didn’t fall and break my neck or something first.

An owl hooted above me, hidden somewhere in the vast canopy of maple, birch, and red oak trees. If I had to guess, the little fucker was expressing doubt about my abilities to find my way back to civilization. I kept heading west, undaunted. North wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was my car. I had a job to do and I would damn well get it done. A cool, spring breeze kicked up, rustling the leaves all around me. They were the entire reason I came out here. With the midday sun poking through, some of the larger maple leaves shimmered like jade. I slowly raised my camera’s eyepiece into position and snapped another picture.

“God,” I sighed. “It’s glorious.” It really was. I came out here to get pictures for a promotional calendar my boss wanted to put together. I worked for the Vista Foundation, a privately funded conservation group as their Director of Online Marketing. Which was really a fancy way of saying I ran their Facebook and Twitter accounts, at least for now. I had bigger plans. My real passion was photography, but my parents insisted I get a marketable degree first. A fair point, but it didn’t keep me from racking up a mound of student loan debt and working in a job I didn’t always like…until today, that was.

I came to a clearing where a rotted log had fallen over a trickling brook. I crouched low, zooming in on a gray-green pattern of moss over the gnarled wood. Snapping the shutter, I smiled. I could literally point my lens in any direction and come up with something spectacular. The hard part would be deciding which shots to use back at the office.

I checked my phone again. Nearly two o’clock, I’d been due back almost two hours ago. I couldn’t help it though. This part of Wild Ridge Forest seemed untouched. I could imagine mine were the only human footprints ever left here. Maybe they were. A whiff of sassafras filled my nose, intoxicating me. I kept heading west.

Northeast of me, I knew I’d find the ridge that gave this part of the world its name. Towering cliffs overlooked the crystalline waters of Lake Superior. The Vista Foundation was partly responsible for keeping that stretch of coastline free from tourists, unlike other parts of the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was one of their crowning achievements. It was also the other reason I was out here this morning. The last profitable copper mine in the state operated about ten miles west of me. We had reason to believe the Wild Ridge Mine had started secretly harvesting lumber from protected areas. The calendar gave me a good cover story in case I ran into anyone. But, if I could find proof of deforestation where there shouldn’t be, the camera around my neck would provide a weapon. So far, though, I saw no evidence of anything wrong. Just lots and lots of tall, healthy trees.

As I hopped over the fallen log, my phone vibrated in my pocket, jarring me out of the sense that I’d walked back through time. I hadn’t gotten a clear signal for the last hour but must have hit a clear spot. A text came through from my boss, Damon Spence.

“Status? Did you get lost? Aaron’s worried.”

Sighing, I pressed the phone to my forehead before trying to think of a good answer. Aaron was Damon’s son and board Vice President. He’d helped me get the job on account of the fact last year we dated for a while. Everyone told me it would end badly, and it did. But, I liked my job even if I didn’t care for the boss’s son that much anymore. With good reason. Aaron gave a terrific first impression, but once you got to know him, he was nothing more than a spoiled, entitled rich kid. Sometimes he was downright mean. I knew eventually this was going to cause me more problems. For now though, I was hoping I could keep it handled at least until next semester’s tuition came due.

“Great stuff for the calendar,” I texted back. “Taking a bit longer than I hoped, but I should be heading back within the hour.” I hit send, but the progress bar got stuck halfway when the signal dropped again. Sighing, I tucked my phone in the back pocket of my jeans and trudged forward. Just a little bit farther. I could see another clearing about fifty yards ahead. It might even be an old hiking trail. There was supposed to be one around here. Adjusting my camera strap over my shoulder, I quickened my step.

Spruce branches blocked my path. The needles stabbed into my forearms as I pushed through. When I did, the ground shifted beneath me and I tumbled down a short drop over tangled tree roots. I landed hard on my left hip but managed to protect the camera. The cost of doing so was a scratch across my cheek from a low tree branch. My flesh stung hot. I pressed the back of my hand to my face. I was bleeding. Not badly. I was lucky I hadn’t poked out my eye.

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