Russell “Russ” Tadzea stood on the tiny, makeshift runway beside his two-seater airplane and stared in disbelief at the woman before him. Woman is the wrong word. She's a girl. A young girl. She can't be the teacher. In his mind, Russ recalled the kindergarten teachers he'd seen on television. She'd be middle aged and plump, on the line between favorite aunt and kind, story-reading grandmother. She'd smell of cinnamon and peppermint paste. This… creature looked like a stiff breeze would blow her away. Hair the color of brown sugar swirled around her shoulders, tangling in the white faux fur lining the hood of her coat. Thin black gloves protected her fingers from the September cold. To Russ, it felt quite pleasant, with temperatures in the low 50s, so he knew she was not Alaskan. The girl met his eyes. Dark amber pools snared his attention, shining in the sun.
“Riley Jenkins?” he asked, and she flinched as she nodded. “You're the teacher?” he insisted.
She dipped her chin again, but not a single sound emerged.
“You need some sunglasses,” he snapped. “Just because it's cold doesn't mean it's always dark. And I hope you have better gloves than that.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied. “I know a bit about cold. They're in my suitcase. It's not that bad right now.” Her softly modulated voice, at least, sounded right. Children will gather around her for Goldilocks and Rumpelstiltskin. I wish I could hear it.
Shaking off foolish thoughts, Russ realized maybe he'd sounded a bit curt. Though the girl had responded without an overt show of emotion, her eyes had a suspicious glimmer and her lip seemed to want to tremble. She'll have to toughen up if she wants to survive this remote wasteland. But he still felt a twinge of guilt over his harshness. “Come on, girl,” he rumbled, indicating the airplane.
She eyed it doubtfully and then turned toward him, one eyebrow cocked.
“Yeah, it's safe,” he growled. “I've been a pilot since… since I was old enough to drive a car, and I know this little plane like the back of my hand. You'll be fine.”
She sighed and trudged toward the tiny, winged vehicle. He opened the door for her and handed her up into the passenger seat. Closing it behind her, he scanned Golden, Alaska, the town that would be her home until… well, she didn't seem likely to last long here. Houses and cabins clustered around a grocery store, a café and a small church. Further back, out of sight, a few shops, a small movie theater, and various other local businesses interspersed among more homes. The K-12 school complex stood off to the right in a clearing in the dense evergreen forest. To the left, trees crowded shoulder to shoulder in a dense green wall. Doesn't look like much to an outsider, I warrant, he thought, even though the small city made him a bit edgy all by itself. He circled the plane and hopped into the driver's seat, quickly firing the engine.
“Have you flown in a small plane before?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she replied. “One time my dad and I traveled in a plane so small it only had one flight attendant.”
He opened his mouth and then closed it again, but a quick glance her direction revealed a smug look on her face.
“Tease me, will you?” he said with a rumbling laugh. “I may just have to hit a few air pockets along the way.”
She giggled. “I hope you have good vomit cleaning tools… or a large barf bag. But seriously, no, I've never been in one this small. You sure it's safe? Wait, scratch that. Sorry. I didn't mean to doubt you.” Her strange, whiskey colored eyes dropped to her lap, where her hands twisted nervously, mangling the fingers of her gloves.
Damn, she stopped smiling. For a moment there… he didn't dare put a voice to the entrancing image of Riley's smile. Riley… such a modern name. It doesn't suit her at all. She should be called Grace or Elizabeth. Maybe Charlotte. Something with a lot of history and class. “Don't worry, Miss Jenkins,” he assured her. “A lot of people, even people who don't mind bigger planes, don't feel secure in a two-seater. I don't take it personally. And I won't lie, you can feel a lot more than in a commercial jet, but that doesn't mean you're in danger.”
“Okay,” she said. “I believe you.” She looked up at him and her eyes had regained their sparkle, though her lips remained still. No hint of a smile moved them. Usually when Russ growled at someone, he didn't think twice about the result. It was his nature after all, and besides, Alaskans were bred tough. It took more than a low-pitched voice to upset them. Riley, it appeared, was of a different sort altogether. Fragile, and by the look of her, quite sensitive. He wanted to be frustrated with that, to think of her going home – wherever that was – because she clearly didn't belong in Alaska, let alone in an area so remote that the kindergarten teacher had to work two days in one building and then be flown an hour away for her other two days. But you don't really want to think that, do you, Tadzea? He didn't, but he wasn't sure quite why. That is, until the scent of her washed over him, filling his senses with something undefinable. She smelled sweet and tangy and spicy, like every good thing in nature. That's not perfume. It's just her.
Russ sighed. Fragile, haunted-looking women were far from his norm, but Riley's scent touched a place in his heart he hadn't known existed. I want her to stay. There was no rational explanation for it, but the animal inside him trusted instinct more than reason. Instinct said Riley was special, and Russ accepted it without question. Only time would tell if his intuition had proven itself again, but since he'd be flying her from town to town twice a week, that time would be easy to find.
* * *
“Well, how did it go?” Russ asked as Riley emerged from the school building. She looked a bit shaken… Well, a bit more shaken, he amended silently. She looked shaken right from the start. She eyed him through the chain link fence that separated the playground of the Lakeville school building and the miniature airfield beside it. He indicated the open door of the plane.
Sighing, Riley tugged her bag up higher on her shoulder, zipped her jacket, and exited through the front gate, circling to him and scrambling into her seat.
“That well, eh?” he asked as he shut the passenger door.
Once he was situated in his own seat and had started up the miniature plane, she finally answered. “It was fine. How bad can half a day setting up a classroom be?”
“I'm sure I would be surprised,” he said.
“Well,” she admitted, “I'm pretty certain I saw the mom, dad, grandma and best friend's cousin's aunt of every kid in my class. I have eight on my roster and I think I burned myself with the hot glue gun more times than that because people kept popping in and startling me.” She stared ruefully at the red spots marring her fingers.
The sight forced Russ to squash down an inappropriate urge to soothe her burns the old-fashioned way. “Well, it's a small town. Only eight kids in the entire kindergarten? No wonder they all wanted to be sure their little darlings are in good – though slightly scorched – hands. Was anyone able to tell you what days you'll be needing me? They said you'd be here two days per week, but which days? And how does that work when you're teaching kindergarten?”
Riley sighed again. “How it seems to work is, I'll need you to bring me here Tuesday evenings and pick me up Thursday evenings. I'm working here Wednesdays and Thursdays, so I'll stay over those two nights. This is technically a half day kindergarten, only they meet two full days instead of four mornings or four afternoons. I'll be doing the same thing in Golden on Mondays and Tuesdays.”
“Do you have a place to stay in Lakeville? I can't imagine there are rental properties there. Hell, there are barely houses. I suppose you found something in Golden, being as it's a bit bigger.”
She tilted her head downward in a gesture of agreement. “I have an efficiency in Golden. It's kind of cute, and it has a day bed, so if I had anyone over, they wouldn't have to look at my worn-out sheets. But the kitchen is pretty good. It has an oven and four burners – well three that work, which is better than just a hot plate. They even threw in an old TV.”
“That does sound pretty good,” he said, knowing she was unlikely to have found better and could have done much worse. Not that the pay was bad, just that rental properties weren't much needed in a town with less than 10,000 people. “And Lakeville?” What will you do in a town of only 750 people? “Is someone letting you use a spare room or what?”
“Yeah,” she admitted with a sigh, her eyes glued to the window. Below, the tops of spruce and pine trees seemed to reach for them, interspersed with sullen boulders with faces like trolls and the occasional sparkling lake. “The Carrolls have a son off in college in Anchorage, so they're letting me stay there when school is in session.”
Russell made a face. “Did you meet Grandmother Carroll?”
One corner of her mouth quirked. “Yes.”
“She asked me if I was a werewolf, warned me to watch out for moose and bears and said I'd better not be a floozy.”
Russ laughed. “Sounds about right. She accused me of being a werewolf once.”
Again with the unexpected jokes. When Riley let her guard down, her sense of humor sparkled like sunlight on clean water.
Russ affected a wounded expression. “Me? A wolf? God forbid. I'll never be anyone's dog.”
His quip made her giggle, and the sound had just the entrancing quality he'd anticipated. She spoke again. “So what else do you do, Russell? Do you wait around all week for me to need hauling from one place to another?”
He chuckled. “It depends on the season. In the summer I fly tourists over the wilderness, or lead camping trips. I have some extra rooms in my house where overnight guests can stay. In the winter I take photos for nature magazines and travel web sites. I also manage the website for one of the local Native communities.”
“A jack of all trades?” she asked.
“But a master of none,” he replied, finishing the quote. It wasn't true, but it sounded good. And better yet it made her laugh. She shifted and that enticing Riley-scent took hold of him again. I think I'm going to like flying this girl around… probably a bit too much.
* * *
A shard of silver moon slid to its zenith as Russ stepped naked from his cabin into the woods. The chill had not yet grown so great as to bite at him, though even when it did, he wouldn't stop his nightly ritual. It recharged and energized him. The light filtered through the trees and touched him, awakening his beast, urging him to shed the man and unleash the animal. Russ made no effort to resist. His body stretched and expanded, doubling and then tripling its size. His skin thickened and his muzzle stretched outward, his nose shrinking into a black circle on a white and furry face. He opened powerful, bone-cracking jaws and emitted a hoarse and rasping roar, setting the ends of the fragrant spruce and pine trees quivering. Rising onto hind legs, the massive polar bear extended its claws and scraped away at the bark of his favorite tree, one that already bore many scars from his efforts. Then he dropped back to the black pads of his paws and loped pigeon-toed, into the trees. The night was his to run, hunt and play in.
It took Russ a full two hours romping among the trees in the growing cold that no longer had any power over him before his body tired. As he sank into the snow, his animal mind filled with images of golden brown hair blowing in a gentle autumn breeze, of haunted, whiskey-colored eyes meeting his and then skating nervously away. His man wanted to protect her, to keep her safe from whatever past stalked her mind, but his bear's need was a little more pragmatic. It wanted to mate with her.
The thought of Riley drove his bear right up onto its hind legs and he roared with frustration, knowing a relationship with the young woman would be slow to develop. Then he hunkered down in a pile of pine needles and closed his eyes, drawing his consciousness deep within himself, to the place where man and animal existed together, in a constant battle for supremacy. Here, that tension generated energy to do what neither human nor bear could do alone. Here he could touch the minds of others. In his subconscious, he could see, clearly as he could with his eyes, the very spot on which he sat: a small hollow in the forest where the silver moon bathed him in icy light. In this place, he resembled his human self, though much bigger and bulkier, animal muscles stretching human skin. Reaching out with his consciousness, he performed an action he had not done in decades, one that could get him into a lot of trouble if anyone objected. The stars drew down from the black velvet blanket of the night sky and approached him, pinpricks of light like stationary fireflies. He extended his hand. “Will you come to me?” he asked in a low rumble. “Will you share your dreams with me, Riley Jenkins? The choice is yours.”
A tiny orb drew away from its place and cautiously approached. He grinned. Shy in sleep as she is in wakefulness. “You can refuse,” he informed the orb. “It's your choice. Will you share, Riley?”
The orb quivered and then zipped into his hand, where it rested lightly, warm and pulsing. The forest shifted and dissolved in a streak of green. Now Russ stood inside a small bungalow in a spare bedroom that had been furnished as a den and library. Darkly stained wood warmed the floor and bookshelves in a complimentary tone graced the cream plaster of the walls. Each shelf groaned under the weight of ancient leather-bound tomes whose titles Russ, in his mingled state, was no longer capable of reading, though the scent of the leather made the animal part of him want to nibble on the bindings. In a tufted burgundy armchair, a man with sparse steel-gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses sat with a child on his lap. The girl, who couldn't be more than about nine, wore a pink nightgown. Her light brown hair had been pulled into a ballerina's bun. Her whiskey colored eyes scanned the page of a book propped in front of her.