Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island, Alaska
May 10, 1955
If there was anything more exhilarating for Rexanna Brennan than wild game hunting in Wyoming or an exotic safari in Africa, it was bear hunting in Alaska. On a luxury yacht, no less. With her redbone coonhound, Mack, snoozing at her feet and her trusted friend and fellow guide, Damien LeNoir, to assist, and well, a hunting expedition didn’t get much better than that.
But this was the thirteenth day of their trip. Tomorrow, they’d have to pack up, disembark the St. Brendan, and return to California. Two days after that, Rexanna would start all over again with a new group of clients in a whole new location, as eager to shoot wild game as her current clients, wealthy airline executive Stuart Langford, and his wife, Patrice, from Los Angeles.
Rexanna needed to find one more bear. Just one that their college-age daughter, Annie, who had accompanied them, could claim as a trophy. For her, for everyone, then the expedition would be a success.
Seated in her folding chair next to the main deck’s wood-burning stove, Rexanna lifted the binoculars again to scan the forested mountains of Kodiak Island. As the owner of her own outfitting company, she understood the need for patience in scouting for game. Cruising the shoreline of the bay with its breathtaking vistas would be relaxing on any other day, but time was ticking.
Then, in a blink, something moved among the trees. A dark shape little more than a blob this far off the beach, and had she imagined it?
She ignored Damien. The more she stared through the lenses, though, the more convinced she became she’d mistaken the dark shape. Probably just wishful thinking and more likely a shadow among countless others on those hills. The sun, the beautiful blue sky, the clouds, all combined to play tricks on her hopes to find Annie her Alaskan Kodiak bear.
Whatever Rexanna saw, it was gone, and she lowered the binoculars. Damien held out a porcelain mug, steaming from strong coffee, sweetened with sugar and cream. Smiling her thanks, she took the mug and sipped. The warm liquid, just shy of hot, caressed her throat going down.
“St. Brendan is ignoring us today, eh?” Damien said in his faint French accent, crinkling his dark eyes over the beach and hills, and searching, too.
Rexanna set her binoculars in her lap and curled her fingers around the mug. “St. Brendan is the patron saint of boatmen. St. Hubert is the guy we need right now.”
Damien grinned. “Ah. The patron saint of hunters. We could use his help today, yes.”
Rexanna sobered. “It’ll be dusk in a few hours.”
“Then too dark to hunt. She will be disappointed.”
In somber unison, their gazes slid toward the young woman, seated on a vinyl-covered bench with her pants-clad legs tucked under her, a magazine in one hand. With her stylish pixie haircut, brown tweed hunting jacket, and pricey boots, Annie Langford reflected the affluent upbringing her parents gave her. She was a decent hunter with enough experience to want bragging rights and the proof of a bearskin rug to show off to her friends.
Rexanna understood what being twenty-one meant. She was only six years older, but she’d made her own way in the world without parents to pave her way. Counting pennies and earning her stripes in the hunting world garnered her a stellar reputation. Pride in her outfitting company produced plenty of sympathy for the young woman. What guide and outfitter wouldn’t want the perfect hunting experience for their clients?
Perfection led to success, and Rexanna wasn’t giving up on that bear just yet.
“Keep watch, will you?” she asked Damien, handing him the binoculars. “I’m going to talk to Annie for a minute.”
She leaned down to scratch Mack behind his floppy, rusty-red colored ears; she rose and stepped around him to approach Annie. Stuart and Patrice, wearing matching wool buffalo-checked jackets, leaned their chubby bodies against the yacht’s railing and marveled at the scenery. Both were tolerant of their daughter’s need to shoot her own bear; but then, they’d both shot their own and had the bearskins to prove it. For them, the pressure was off.
“Mind if I join you?” Rexanna asked, easing onto the cushion before the young woman even looked up from her reading.
“Nothing else to do, is there?” Annie sounded petulant, but she swung her legs to the deck floor, giving Rexanna more room.
“The day isn’t over yet. We’re not giving up.” She gestured toward Damien surveilling the hills with a skill honed over the years. “If there’s a bear, we’ll see him and hustle ourselves right off the boat. This is the time of year they come out to feed. They’re out there.”
“I know.” She angled her head toward the lush green mountain. A slight 40-something-degree breeze ruffled her wispy bangs.
Her disappointment pulled at Rexanna. If she could produce a ten-foot brown bear out of thin air and give Annie the thrill of the shot, she would in a heartbeat.
“What are you reading?” Hoping to keep her from dwelling on her disappointment, Rexanna indicated the magazine.
Annie closed the pages to reveal the cover and the red logo for the popular entertainment magazine, Film Star Scoop. “Oh, just some article about Roan Bertoletti. Ever hear of him?”
“Sure.” Rexanna nodded with a small shrug. She didn’t often have time to go to the movies, but Roan had a face most women couldn’t forget. “What about him?”
“Well, he was having an affair with Doreen Adams. You know, one of the actresses in his latest western? She says when she wanted to break up the relationship to save her marriage, he got mad and pushed her down the stairs.”
“Really?” Rexanna’s eyes widened in shock.
“Really. Here’s proof.” Annie opened the magazine again, found the page she was looking for, and thrust it at Rexanna. “The article with a photo of her injuries.”
Rexanna gaped at the black-and-white image of the young actress with her beauty marred by a swollen eye and puffy lip. “That’s terrible.”
“I feel so sorry for her. The rat.”
“Well.” Rexanna straightened with a disgusted cluck of her tongue. “I’m done with him and his movies. He doesn’t deserve my time or money.”
“Mine, either.” Annie closed the magazine and tossed it aside, turning her pleading expression full force onto Rexanna. “Can we at least go ashore and scout the hills? Just because we can’t see any Kodiaks from here doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.”
There they were. Back to the bears, and Rexanna couldn’t blame Annie for persisting. Rexanna had been much the same when she was Annie’s age—impatient to experience the most life could offer. When again would she get a chance to go on an Alaskan hunting expedition, with or without her parents?
Rexanna smiled and stood. “Of course. Why not? Let’s go break some sticks, shall we?”
Annie brightened at the suggestion, used by hunters to make some noise in hopes of spooking game into the open. She stood, too. “Oh, hurry, Rexanna! It won’t take me long to get ready.”
“I’ll just grab my coat and hat from my cabin. Don’t forget your rifle, and make sure you’re dressed warm enough.”
But Annie was already headed to the bench where a pile of guns were kept, sheathed in their carrying cases. Rexanna headed across the main deck, pausing only long enough to let Damien know the plan and to take her binoculars back. She kept her stride swift as she entered the galley and left her coffee mug in the sink, then kept going through the saloon to her cabin at the back.
Briskly, she donned her hunting coat and billed cap, then unsheathed her custom .416 Rigby big game rifle, strapping it over her shoulder. Dropping her binoculars into a roomy front pocket, Rexanna headed out of the cabin and met Damien rushing through the saloon.
“She left already. Better hurry, Rexanna.”
Her step faltered. “Annie left? By herself?”
His mouth thinned. “She took Mack with her.”
Rexanna’s teeth clenched. It was bad enough Annie disobeyed Rexanna’s orders to wait, but to leave the St. Brendan unaccompanied and to take Mack was enough to warrant some strong scolding.
Her dog had a lot of spirit and speed, and once he caught scent of game, big or small, he’d be off on his own on the mountain. Annie would never be able to stop him. A tendril of fear, of simmering anger, burned through Rexanna’s chest, and she broke into a sprint toward the deck.
“Where were Stuart and Patrice? They just let her go?” she grated.
“They told her to wait for you, but once they lowered the boat and she climbed in, she just took off.” His booted steps clamored behind her. “Sorry, Rexanna. Wish I could go, too.”
“Just help me with the boat. I can’t let her climb that mountain by herself.”
Damien’s responsibility lay with manning the yacht and staying with Annie’s parents, both looking concerned from their daughter’s disobedience. They worked quickly to lower the outboard into the frigid water.
“I’ll come with you,” Stuart said.
“No.” Rexanna spoke sharply. The past thirteen days convinced her he would only slow her down, his age and lack of athleticism more of a detriment on a mountain than help. “She’s not far ahead. I’ll catch up with her.” She settled on the wooden seat. “We’ll be back soon.”
With the motor revving, she took off, guiding the boat into a wide turn at high speed. They weren’t so far off the shore that she couldn’t see Annie pull up on the rocky beach and cut the power. Energized by the prospect of a hunt, Mack jumped out, ignoring Annie’s call to come back.
Seeing her prized hunting dog lope up the mountain and disappear into the tree line only tightened Rexanna’s belly with more worry. By the time she reached the beach and hopped out, Annie had disappeared, too.
Annie’s determination to brag about her hunting prowess to her friends and her headstrong selfishness compelled her to ignore every rule Rexanna and Damien instilled in her and her parents the past thirteen days. Her bravado had completely overtaken her common sense. If Rexanna couldn’t get to her soon enough…
Rexanna took precious moments to pull her binoculars from the jacket pocket to survey the mountain. Her ears pricked to the baying sound of Mack’s barking, and then the lenses found Annie, stepping into a small clearing. In the shadows, her rifle in one hand, she waved at Rexanna with the other. She pointed into the trees, a sign of the direction she intended. Obviously, Annie had seen something, maybe the bear she wanted so desperately, and she was heading into the same area where Mack was.
If an animal was close enough to incite barking from Mack, then he’d be close to Annie, too. Gripping her .416, Rexanna hurried up the hill with her boots clomping over sand and gravel left behind from age-old glaciers. The higher she climbed, the cooler the air got, and it occurred to her, oddly, that Annie hadn’t even taken the time to grab her coat.
A shot cracked through the mountain, then another, and Rexanna froze in mid-step. The sounds were close, and her brain strove to discern the precise direction, even as a horrible fear burst through her veins that Annie might have made a mistake. A terrible, frightening, amateur mistake, of shooting uphill and not down…
Then, the roar, filled with rage and blood-curdling ferocity, shook the mountain and chilled Rexanna to her bones. Lifting the .416 to her shoulder, she tred stealthily over the rough terrain, around the trees, snapping twigs and pine needles, her ears peeled to the lumbering footsteps she could hear and not quite place. She had no fear for her own safety, only that of a young woman and of Mack, too. If Rexanna could do anything, if she’d gained any skill at all during her years of skillful hunting, she had to get to the bear before he got to Annie.
And then, there he was, crimson staining his chest. Teeth bared, eyes glittering, his growl terrifying. Ten feet tall if he was an inch. One thousand pounds, easy. Trophy worthy. Focused on the young woman he intended as revenge.
Annie stood silent, mouth agape, paralyzed in shock. Rexanna shouted to take another shot to save herself, to run if nothing else, but she did nothing, nothing, and Rexanna braced the .416 against her shoulder…
Hampered by the tangle of trees and branches, she needed precious time to sight the bear in her scope and pull the trigger. Every second counted. She couldn’t miss. Annie’s life depended on it. Mack’s, too. Barely feeling the rifle’s kick, she shot again and again, but the crazed bear, still powerful, lunged for the terrified young woman, the adrenaline firing through him like bullets into the Rigby’s barrel. His mammoth arm swung outward in one savage swipe and flung her through the air like a wet rag. His claws tore her clothes and skin and splattered blood.
Rexanna shot again. Only then, did the bear succumb, falling hard on top of Annie, dulling her scream under his roar… until the terrible sounds ended, and the mountain fell silent.