Love, romance, secrets and danger.
Dominic Novak left more than a legacy for conservation and an instinctive love for animals behind when he died.
He left a son, Aiden, who craved the instinct with animals that his father had … and a pupil, Mitchell, whose life changed after hearing Dominic lecture on conservationism at college.
Aiden is hiding, scared of people finding the real him, hiding his identity from the world, and keeping a lid on his grief.
Could working together at a placement in Khutzeymateen, a grizzly bear sanctuary in British Columbia be the making of them, or will it end up destroying Aiden?
“…The characters in this story are incredibly written. Both Aiden and
Mitchell are well-developed, bringing this story to life. We join them
on a journey that takes us into the heart of a bear sanctuary with
beautiful details and a burgeoning love….”
Hearts on Fire Reviews – 5/5 – “…I have read most of Ms Scott’s books and this story is her third best book behind Oracle and A Christmas Throwaway … This book has been a long time in coming but it was more than worth the wait. Don’t miss out on this terrific story…”
Mrs Condit Reads Books – 5/5 – “…The characters of Aiden and Mitchell were perfectly drawn and complimented each other like ying and yang. Aiden so very sweet, clumsy, full of complex insecurities and hiding from who he really was, needed Mitchell, a man who was confident as a ranger and a teacher but was actually quite shy in his initial attraction for Aiden. I loved how the relationship built up, the way they took things one at a time, becoming friends as well as lovers, and that speech Mitchell gave to Aiden about why he wanted to kiss him, my favourite words of the book, just melted me.“So let me tick this off: eyes to your soul, height and a slim build that just freaking turns me on, hair that is so soft, kisses that shoot straight to my cock, and to top it all, you know all the shit there is to know about the bears. What more could I want?”…”
MM Good Book Reviews – 4/5 – “…The characters in this story are incredibly written. Both Aiden and Mitchell are well-developed, bringing this story to life. We join them on a journey that takes us into the heart of a bear sanctuary with beautiful details and a burgeoning love. There is much to say about this story, but no way to really explain the incredible relationship that evolves between Mitchell and Aiden, or the emotional pressure that still plagues Aiden, or the ghosts that haunt him. It’s a story that you have to read for yourself.
I recommend that everyone who loves a great story, brilliant characters, emotional pressure, low self-esteem, finding the man who can bring out the best in you and an ending that makes you smile, read this story and enjoy…”
Excerpt (Chapter 1 & 2)
“No. Just no,” Edward Brandon said in a horrified voice.
Anthony Novak sat back in the chair, shocked by the vehemence in his guardian’s voice.
“But I don’t see why not,” he said softly. Edward was his dad’s oldest friend and, more often than not, indulged Anthony in most everything he had wanted after his dad had died ten years ago. Since Edward had been the closest thing he had to family for so long, it was hard for Anthony to hear the ‘no’.
Edward sighed heavily and scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked tired and Anthony knew he’d been up all night with the lemurs. “Because it’s the most stupid idea in the long list of all the really stupid ideas that you have ever had,” he said.
Anthony exhaled noisily and wished he didn’t feel like a ten-year-old at the moment. He was twenty-four and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. His friend and mentor would come round to his way of thinking eventually.
“No one actually knows my real name at the moment,” Anthony began. “It’s been five years since I last hit the papers. I just want to stay under the pseudonym for a few weeks more. I don’t understand why that is so difficult for you to understand.”
“Because now you’re coming here to the Park full time. You should be coming on as full partner as a Novak, not as Aiden Samuels. You have a responsibility to your father’s name.”
Something twisted in Aiden’s chest at the mention of that huge weight pressing him down.
“I promise you,” he said. “Whether I join the Park as partner or ranger, I’ll be Anthony Novak. But just for three more weeks, let me be anonymous. I’ve lived five years as Aiden Samuels, twenty-one more days isn’t going to hurt.”
Edward contemplated him over steepled fingers. “So let me get this straight. You want to be part of the annual bear census at the Khutzeymateen reserve but you want to go under your assumed name. All in the hope that the bear census organizers won’t realize who you are.”
The Spirit Bear Park, an animal reserve just outside of Seattle, was named for the elusive pale-furred black bears that could sometimes be seen in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Dominic Novak had spent a year studying them as a young man and he’d always said they were part of his soul.
“Dad was such a big part of the bear studies. If they knew I was there, his son, then yes, I wouldn’t be just another ranger on his first educational placement, but someone they would expect more from.”
“More?” Edward appeared puzzled and Anthony knew he hadn’t explained all this enough to make it clear to his dad’s closest friend. He opened his mouth to explain but Edward got there first. “I know how difficult it is to live in the shadow of your dad.” Edward was sincere in what he said. “He was a larger-than-life character, but you are his son and one day everyone will know that.”
“But why does it need to be today? Can I not just have another three weeks of being anonymous?”
Edward was quiet. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m not my dad. I don’t have his instinct with animals. All the books I’ve read don’t mean I can share what I learned with others and show the level of passion he had.”
“Your dad was a showman. You don’t have to be just like him,” Edward protested.
“But if I could have half of the success that Dad had in furthering conservation—or even a quarter—I would be happy. I know it’s time for me to use my expensive education and work here at Spirit Bear.” Anthony pushed away the edge of impatience in his voice. He wanted to work at the reserve, but he knew as soon as people knew who he was they would look at him with pity or stare with dollar signs in their eyes. Working on the annual bear census would be one way of getting into the thick of things without everyone’s expectations hanging around his neck.
“Work here as the joint owner, with me.” Edward said.
“I can’t just walk into that. I want to learn from the ground up. I want to see it all, and just for a while longer I want to be Aiden Samuels, not Anthony Novak.”
Anthony crossed his arms over his chest and eyed Edward, looking for a chink in his impenetrable armor, but he could see nothing. Okay, so working and living under his assumed name for a little longer was probably a bad idea, but hell, he just wanted to enjoy his time with the bears. If just for that short time longer he could be Aiden Samuels, new guy, then maybe he could find what that passion inside him without all the extra crap he would have to deal with otherwise.
Edward nodded slowly. “You were such a tiny baby when your mom died, and then losing your dad… I know it’s hard. But to hide who you are now, I don’t get that. Whatever the newspapers throw at you, we can handle it.”
“I’m not sure I can. Just the three weeks where I can think about what I do and get a handle on it all. Please?”
“What about the ranger you would be going to Canada with? What will you tell him?”
“Nothing at first. I’ll be Aiden for three weeks, then on the flight back I’ll tell him who I really am.” That much was clear in his head.
“That there is a recipe for disaster and could go all kinds of wrong. He’ll feel like you lied to him.”
“That’s a chance I’ll have to take. You’re looking for a new ranger—look at the application I filled in.”
Edward rifled papers, his lips tight, his eyes dark with indecision and questions, before finally sighing and moving the pen down the application form. “Aiden Samuels, twenty-four, degree in Zoology and college work placements, on paper the perfect candidate for a position here.”
“But no real-life field experience, apart from the month in the Sudan. That is what I feel is missing, what I need to be comfortable in my new role,” Anthony insisted. “How can I manage rangers who have more instinct with their animals than I do?”
Anthony knew he was right. He may well have had field experience as a child because he’d been a constant companion to his dad for the years leading up to Dominic Novak’s death. But at the end of it all, he needed adult experience.
“Okay,” Edward said thoughtfully. “Go to the placement with the bears, do the three weeks.” He held up a hand to forestall what Anthony wanted to say. “Let me finish. Complete the three more weeks as Aiden Samuels and think about what you want to do when you come back. What I really want, and what you deserve, is for you to take your place as equal partner. Not as another ranger.”
“Okay.” That wasn’t such a hardship. “Should I consider myself added to the bear count team?” Anthony asked softly. He could see the battle in Edward’s eyes, knowing how hard it must be to see his friend’s son, half-owner of the Park, sitting so hopefully for a decision on a placement that he could just add himself to anyway. But he needed to do this to get the missing passion and instinct in himself that he so desperately wanted to find.
Edward sighed. “Consider yourself hired.”
* * * * *
The Spirit Bear Park Education Center wasn’t new and it certainly lacked the sparkle of a new paint job. But it was lived-in and it was home for Mitchell in ways his own had never been. This collection of buildings with rooms to teach was a legacy from Professor Novak, and Mitchell was the assistant manager and lead teacher. Every day a new slew of students from schools tagged alongside students from universities on placements, and the mismatch and jumble of resources and knowledge was passed on to spread the word.
Spirit Bear Park had been established some time ago and large open spaces made it an award-winning attraction, but it wasn’t just a place for people to visit on their downtime. The Park made a valuable contribution to conservation. It was a place where families could see animals roaming freely and learn more about the various endangered species that Dominic Novak had begun to re-home twenty years before.
It was Mitchell’s first job and he was convinced it would be his only one, alternating with the rangers to experience the animals firsthand and then creating vibrant programs for learning at all levels. It excited him, it moved him, and it was his life. And he had friends here, including Scot, who had slumped into the chair in Mitchell’s small office with disappointment carved into his face.
“I can’t go to Khutzeymateen,” Scot said softly, disappointment in his gravelly voice. “The wedding of the century is slap bang in the middle.”
“How is that going by the way?” Mitchell smirked, knowing exactly how to get the rise out of his friend. Scot muttered a few choice words, which included the word lilac if Mitchell heard right. Scot’s sister had met Alan, fallen in love with the guy, and then planned a wedding in the space of two months. Scot had been planning his rotation on the bear audit for two years. Mitchell knew family came first but it didn’t seem entirely fair. “Couldn’t you attend the wedding and then go on to the placement?”
Scot frowned. “Thought of that, but you know the whole grizzly thing is like a full-immersion experience; I can’t exactly turn up halfway through for a week.”
Mitchell nodded, that was the point of these occasional placements in areas of specialty—full immersion to experience and learn. He was gutted for his friend; Scot had been so hyped to get the placement at Khutzeymateen. His sister booking the middle week for her wedding was just really bad timing.
“So I was thinking… you should go instead,” Scot suggested.
Mitchell hated snap decisions, hated amending his educational programs around forced change, grumped and groaned for weeks at any kind of disruption.
“They didn’t offer the place to me,” Mitchell said. Problem solved.
“They did, it was an open offer, two places for qualified rangers, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t go.”
“Do we know who else is going with you—sorry, was going with you—oh, you know what I mean.”
“Some new guy, Aiden something. I heard he just finished at some foreign college, doing the placement before he starts at the Park. I don’t know much about him, but he was the only other one qualified enough and who had expressed an interest other than you.”
“I never expressed an interest,” Mitchell defended quickly. “All I said was that it sounded cool to work with the conservation guys and the bears.” Mitchell knew he was losing this discussion.
“Your last course finishes a few days before you would need to leave, I checked. Take the sabbatical, take the time off to do the practical stuff, Mitch. Get out of the classroom, it would do you good.”
Mitchell had been sitting in the small plane for a good ten minutes before the guy who was going to be his teammate slid into the seat next to him, pulling the belt across himself and fumbling to close it, all the while muttering under his breath. Mitchell waited until five-ten of dark-haired guy stopped with the muttering and then he extended his hand in welcome.
“Mitchell Steward,” he introduced himself. Blue eyes focused on him, and then his companion held out a hand to shake.
“I know,” he said. “I’m Aiden.” A Southerner by the sound of his drawl, Mitchell thought. He filed that away for future discussion; after all, he didn’t want to use up all his conversation starters at once.
“So three weeks then,” Mitchell pointed out quickly, aware he probably needed to say something. All Aiden did was send a confused look his way and slide iPod buds in his ears.
“Sorry,” he said, turning the dial and closing his eyes, the tinny thump of music echoing in Mitchell’s ears.
“Great start to a four-hour trip,” Mitchell grumbled to himself, opening his collected research at the last page he was on and trying to get back into the detail. So much for getting to know this Aiden guy.
He was alternatively amused and annoyed seeing the white-knuckled fear as his companion’s nails dug into cloth-covered armrests and then having to listen to off-tune humming that grew louder every time the plane hit any kind of turbulence. He felt like poking the sprawled guy in the shoulder at least a hundred times, especially as his companion had a decidedly loose definition of personal space. Mitchell spent some time pushing him back and the rest of the time staring at the guy’s hands, his large hands, curled and strong, wishing he could concentrate on his freaking information sheets.
In the end he gave up on reading. He closed the sheets and pushed them into his carry-on. Leaning back in his seat and closing his own eyes, he leaned away from the heat from his fellow passenger’s arm and the intriguing scent of his aftershave or deodorant or whatever he was wearing. Catching himself sniffing the air, he mentally chastised himself. His companion waking up and spotting what he was doing wouldn’t bode well for them spending the next three weeks together. He briefly wondered what Aiden would do if the iPod charge ran out and was amused to be treated to the spectacle, halfway through the flight, of a panicking Aiden switching his purple iPod for a blue one before screwing his eyes tight and leaning back in his seat.
The captain made an announcement about descending into Vancouver Airport, where they had their first stopover and a connecting flight. The plane came to a complete halt before Aiden pulled out his ear buds and finally looked Mitchell straight in the eye.
“Hey,” Aiden said.
“Hello,” Mitchell said quietly. Blue eyes regarded him intently.
“Sorry,” Aiden added. He indicated the iPod, now laying quietly in his lap, and then waved his hand in front of his face in a whatever kind of gesture. “I’m not a good flyer.”
Mitchell nodded his understanding and unbuckled. He was way beyond tired and probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be commenting on how Aiden had been on the flight. He just wanted off the Air Canada flight and out into the fresh air. Pointedly he waited as Aiden untwisted his legs from the small space and stood, his head connecting with the overhead lighting and a muttered curse on his lips.
He appeared to be disoriented if the way he tripped and clambered with his carry-on was any indication. Finally he managed to make it to the exit, looking back at Mitchell with a very definite well are you coming then? kind of look. He backed it up with a grin, his ashen face getting more color into it even as he waited for Mitchell.
They had just over an hour and a half to connect to the next flight, and once they left the plane Aiden wanted to get coffee.
“Are you excited about this?” Mitchell asked when Aiden didn’t seem to want to start a conversation. If anything, he appeared to find more interest in the sheafs of notes he had in front of him. They were brightly notated in purple and green. Evidently Aiden was more prepared than he was.
“I so am,” Aiden said excitedly. He wiped a foamy moustache from his top lip with a napkin and looked back down at his paperwork. At this point Mitchell expected him to ask the same question back to Mitchell. Instead he tapped the papers on the table and launched into conversation.
“I think it is the grizzly bear’s survival that will be the greatest testimony to our environmental commitment in the end,” he said firmly. He was looking at Mitchell directly and his unwavering blue stare was curiously hot. Great, now he was crushing on the guy he was going to be in close quarters with for three weeks. Not good Mitchell. Not good at all.
“I agree,” Mitchell said somewhat lamely.
“If we can get this right then maybe we can solve some of the other ecological and environmental messes we have made.”
Mitchell remembered reading something along those lines in his online research. He considered if Aiden had read the same thing and was just adopting known comments or whether he’d actually came up with it himself. The British Columbia Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy had been developed by the government of BC with the tenet It will leave a permanent legacy for our children. Just those few words had made Mitchell think almost as much as they apparently made Aiden talk.
“So, yeah, I’m excited. Recovery planning for grizzly bear populations that are at risk is kind of a critical element, y’know, in the whole conservation strategy,” Aiden said.
“Critical,” Mitchell parroted. Those eyes are really blue and does his hair have red streaks in it and how long does he spend making it look so effortlessly tousled and cute?
“So being involved in the rolling program to quantify population and habitat is kind of cool. Don’t you think?” He’s talking. Listen to his soft, drawled words and for God’s sake, say something clever.
“Statistical analysis with multiple regression models and practical visual analysis is always cool,” Mitchell finally said.
Aiden’s eyes widened and then he grinned broadly. “Totally.”
Spirit Bear Park sent two people each year to work here. He and Aiden would be looking at habitat, population, and any other factors that could affect the work that was being undertaken with the grizzly population they were to study. Canada and the US were encouraging international cooperation for management of the bear populations, some of which were in danger of extirpation, or as Mitchell’s old species lecturer explained, as close to extinct as virginity at a frat party.
It wasn’t only people like them, with their degrees and their experience, who saw how species were dying one by one. Extinction of species was at the top of most nations’ to-do lists. Khutzeymateen was one of the most well-managed conservation areas, an ideal that other parks where grizzly populations were threatened aspired to.
“Extirpation of a species is a tragedy and if this work revitalizes the indigenous bear population in BC and across the border then it’s a win-win.” Aiden caught himself as he chattered and looked down at the papers in front of him. Mitchell saw the flush of embarrassment on Aiden’s face as he tucked his hair behind his ear. Hella cute and—oh hell, I didn’t just think that. “Sorry. I can go on and on if you let me,” Aiden added. Mitchell instantly wanted to reassure the other man and chuckled. He jumped in to save Aiden with a conversation extension.
“I know the population of grizzlies at Khutzeymateen is considered viable and that it’s a stable population that needs assessing. I just wish I’d had more time to read up on all this.” Aiden looked up and Mitchell indicated the paperwork spread out in front of him. “I only got everything last night. I was a last minute change replacing a friend.”
Aiden frowned. “You wanted to come though?”
“Yes, but the last project I was on was Kenya, it’s been a while.” He didn’t have to try hard to put enthusiasm into his speech. “I work in the Education Center at the Park,” he offered, because Aiden hadn’t actually asked. “So I know all the facts, I just didn’t have a chance to analyze the charts and statistical data we have so far from previous teams.”
Aiden tapped a finger against his temple. “We’ll be okay; I have it all in here. We can work on that when we get to the first night’s stop.”
Aiden pushed his hair behind his ears again. The reddish brown mess of flicks and layers fell around his face and he was evidently irritable with it. When Aiden mumbled something while looking back down at the table, Mitchell realized he had just found Aiden’s tell. It appeared he was nervous and when he got like that he touched his hair and lowered his gaze.
He didn’t mean to make Aiden anxious. Maybe he was staring a bit too much. Deliberately he concentrated on the caramel macchiato he had in his paper cup. A lot of time in the rainforest would pass before he got more coffee like this and he needed to remember it.
The second flight was as quiet at the first. Another color iPod and yet more tinny music meant Mitchell had time to think about Aiden. The younger man appeared wary of Mitchell, even though Mitchell had generally been on his best behavior. He could hear Scot’s voice in his head, Angsting much, gay boy? Just… there was a vulnerability about Aiden that intrigued Mitchell. A combination of clumsiness, shyness, enthusiasm, and the finest ass on either side of the border had Mitchell wondering if there was any chance Aiden was gay, or even just a little bit bi. That would make the three weeks fly by when, instead of cold nights in individual sleeping bags, there could be hot sex in bags zipped together. He chastised himself and willed his sudden erection to fuck off. Not only was Aiden a new member of staff at the Spirit Bear Park, but he was too young for Mitchell. Hell, he couldn’t be much more than twenty-three or -four. Aiden was at least seven years younger than him, and Mitchell was really feeling that difference.
As the plane banked and dipped through the clouds, Mitchell got his first look at this beautiful part of Canada and its distant snow-tipped mountains. Finally, after a long couple of hours they descended from high wispy clouds and landed at Prince Rupert Airport. The plane continued taxiing, rolling to a stop at the end of the middle-of-nowhere runway. Mitchell moved to look out the window at the flat space beyond. Excitement curled in his stomach like a kid before Christmas, the unknown beckoning to him beyond the thick glass, and he shifted in his seat, a now-blinking Aiden looking out the same window.
They climbed down steep metal steps, standing uncertainly at the base, both looking for the contact that was supposed to be meeting them. There were people around them—passengers and flight crew—each seemingly moving with purpose towards a shelter to one side. Exchanging inquisitive expressions, both men followed the herd, so to speak, to come in behind a guy with a note board and pen.
“Fowler and Samuels?” he asked officiously. “Do we have a Scot Fowler and an Aiden Samuels?” Aiden spun on his heel, his eyes widening, and he shouted a quick ‘here’. Mitchell added the fact that it was he, Mitchell Steward, and not Scot Fowler that was on the flight. The officious man tutted, but then he crossed the two names off his list.
They followed him to the baggage claim, a wooden table with chairs around it that appeared as if someone had cleared away dinner to use the top for cases. Both men grabbed their bags. Digby Island, where the runway was located, was a bus and ferry ride away from the mainland, and Mitchell hoped like hell that Aiden wasn’t afraid of boats or being driven. He wasn’t sure he could handle another minute of muted tinny Lady Gaga. Instead Aiden chose to inundate Mitchell with a non-stop dialog ranging from his fear of flying, his apologies for appearing rude, his love of animals, and the fact that the grizzly bear was perhaps the greatest symbol of the wilderness.
It fell to Mitchell to facilitate Aiden’s talking with the insertion of a few nods and uhms. To be fair, he did agree with most of what Aiden was saying, sensing a fellow soul in his quest for species survival and conservation. If only he could concentrate on that instead of feeling like a kid with his first crush then all would be fine.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” Aiden said. He was taking photos with a tiny digital camera and moved from one end of the ferry to the other like a kid hyperactive on cola.
“Beautiful.” The water was a sapphire blue and the mist rising amongst the trees was amazing. He couldn’t think of any more words to describe the stunning vista. He leaned against the rail of the boat and breathed in the cold Alaskan air that filtered along the BC coast and then inland to where they were.
The ferry nudged the dock, and Aiden was first off, jumping the space between boat and dock with an agility that seemed to belie his clumsiness on the plane until he caught his leg on the rope and almost fell flat on his face. Mitchell climbed off as the boat was tied, feeling much older than his thirty-one years as Aiden started to babble on in unashamed excitement. It unnerved him to have Aiden near bouncing on his toes. In his mind the movement didn’t come over as particularly professional when their contact from Khutzeymateen crossed to them, looking faintly shocked when Aiden grabbed his hand and shook it with both of his own.
“How long will it be now?” Aiden asked quickly as Mitchell shook the guy’s hand a lot more sedately. They followed the man, who had introduced himself as William Helin, to a black 4×4.
“It’ll be a good four hours,” he answered. He encouraged both Aiden and Mitchell into the back. “Easier to nap.”
“I’m too hyped to sleep,” Aiden replied instantly, at the same time knocking his head on the roof of the 4×4 as he tried to fold himself into the small space.
“Jeez, man, are you trying to kill yourself?” Mitchell commented softly, helping Aiden with the belt and pulling the door shut. Aiden turned to face Mitchell with a flush of scarlet coloring his cheeks.
“Sorry,” he apologized and subsided to look out the side window. Mitchell frowned and was concerned at Aiden’s response. He hadn’t meant anything by his comment. The other guy looked uncomfortable and way past embarrassed. And now he was quiet and that was just plain wrong.
“I didn’t mean anything,” Mitchell started, and Aiden turned to him, an earnest expression on his mobile face.
“It’s okay, I know I can sometimes be a bit—” He shrugged. “—y’know, clumsy, hyperactive, and shit. You just need to say if it gets too much. I always thought I might have ADHD or something ’cause I don’t sit still, when I’m nervous I can’t shut up, and I fall over things all the time.”
“No,” Mitchell was quick to apologize, “really, it’s cool.” Mitchell wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to say, but it had the desired effect. Aiden went back to looking out the window, but at least Mitchell saw a small smile on his face before he turned. What Mitchell needed to think about is why that smile and that happiness made him feel so damn pleased. Scot was right when he said that Mitchell’s gay side was getting him all emotional. He leaned back on the headrest, watching as small-town living gave way to Canadian wilderness, an excitement building inside him that not even being tired could stop. They climbed into the snow line, high into the peaks some 6500 feet above a valley of wetlands, old-growth temperate rainforests, and the large estuary. Mitchell imagined the air outside the window was cold and crisp and clean, like this land was new and untouched.
The last part of their journey was off-road; because of the area’s high sensitivity and strict conservation orientation no one was allowed into the conservation area outside those who worked there. No campers, no families, no hunters, just acres of unspoiled wilderness and the bears.
William was talking about the park as they bumped and slid along trails that Mitchell wasn’t even sure actually existed outside of William’s head. “This area is just off the watershed of the Khutzeymateen River.”
“I read that it’s an important hunting and fishing site for First Nations people,” Aiden said. Then he subsided with a murmured sorry.
William nodded. “The Gits’iis, one of the nine tribes making up the Allied Tsimshian Tribes. The park was created in partnership with the Gits’iis people.” Aiden was nodding along, agreeing as William commented; he had obviously done his homework. Although Mitchell knew about the First Nations people, he hadn’t researched that side given the short notice for attendance. “The park is managed jointly with BC Parks and the Tsimshian Tribal Council.”
“What does the name Kitsimdeen mean?” Mitchell asked. He was sure he was butchering the pronunciation of the word.
“You say it K’tsim-a-deen,” Aiden interrupted. “It means ‘valley at the head of the inlet’.” Mitchell wasn’t surprised Aiden knew that. He seemed to know an awful lot about this placement.
“Will we get to have any interaction with the tribes?” Mitchell queried, blinking as Aiden sent him a look of mild amusement.
“I think you’ll find you already have been interacting,” he said softly, laughing along with William. “William‘s surname is Helin.” The next part he directed at William. “I guess you are related to the tribe elders?” Aiden was throwing it out as a question, but William was still laughing, and Mitchell could do nothing other than smile along with them.
Mitchell knew a lot of information important to this placement. He knew bears were as fast as racehorses, whether on the flats, going uphill, or going downhill. They’re strong swimmers with good eyesight, good hearing, and an acute sense of smell. He knew that all black bears and young grizzlies were agile tree climbers; mature grizzlies were poor climbers, but they had a reach up to four meters. He had made it a point to know that if a bear is standing up it is usually trying to identify you and that it wasn’t looking to hurt you. He had worked the bear rotation at Spirit Bear; he knew enough, and really, wasn’t that why he was here? To learn? But so he didn’t know William was related to the elders, sue him. Aiden looked over at Mitchell ruefully and Mitchell realized his inner annoyance must be showing on his face.
“Sorry again,” Aiden said, too low for William to hear. “I didn’t mean to laugh.” Mitchell shrugged it off, suddenly feeling very stupid; he didn’t know why Aiden’s laughter got to him like that. He couldn’t get a handle on this clumsy man who worried about what other people thought of him, who spent his whole time apologizing for what he was or what he knew. The whole package fascinated Mitchell and he thought that maybe he’d like it if he and Aiden could end this three weeks as friends, if only so he could stare at him some more.
“My grandfather,” William said, answering Aiden’s original question. “At least fifty percent of the people tending to the area are locally sourced from the Tsimshian. The rest are people like you: researchers, graduates, and the like. We are a closed community.” Aiden nodded, and Mitchell frowned to himself, he bet Aiden had known that too.
“I know they are more prevalent on the islands, but do you think we’ll see any Spirit Bears?” Aiden asked. By this time he was leaning forward to listen to William and Mitchell realized he could probably stare at the high cheekbones and long dark eyelashes framing those stunning azure eyes all day.
“Moksgm’ol. They are known to the Tsimshian people as Moksgm’ol. And I expect you will,” William answered. He turned the wheel to avoid an obstacle in the road and Aiden slid sideways against the belt until his thigh rested against Mitchell’s. I’m going to hell, Mitchell thought immediately.