Wild by Adrienne Wilder
Snow, black ash, shredded wads of metal.
And bodies: broken, limp, crushed. Still wearing their seat belts. Burst suitcases with their discharged contents, camera equipment for the shoot, clothes for the scenes. Parts of a computer lay in pieces next to a severed hand.
Cold sank into August's bones, melting snow soaked his hair. It had been hot in the cabin, so he'd stripped off his sweater. Where was it now?
The dead stare of one of the cameramen watched him from the right. August turned away. Somehow blood and remnants were easier than a recognizable face. The back end of the plane was gone, most of the nose ahead of August, crushed. The private jet had been a comfortable size for the camera crew, Dan, and their agent.
Pain radiated up August's leg, climbing through his hip, hitting him in the chest. He quit moving and took deep breaths. His heart slowed. Fatigue blanketed him. But the shivering would not let him sleep.
Snow kept falling, falling, melting around the smoldering bits of the plane. The flakes turned red as they mixed with the blood. Several people had been on the plane, but there were only a few intact bodies.
Dan. Where was Dan?
The door to the head hung on twisted hinges. Had he gone in there? Had he returned to his seat?
It was missing now, nothing left but the ruins of a metal frame and a half-melted cushion.
The wind kicked up, shifting the smoke. Tears filled August’s eyes, but he struggled not to cough. Pain threatened to bloom in his leg again where it was pinned under the chair in front of him. A mass of blonde hair lay spread over the head rest. Kathy had been half turned in her seat, babbling about August's schedule, and talking about how they needed to hit Paris to do the clothing ad for Armani.
A hollow wail filled the air. One, then two. More joined in until August couldn't tell how many there were. But wolves traveled in packs. He didn't know much else about Alaska except there was supposedly civilization like the real world.
The cold numbed August's fingers and bit at his cheeks. It wasn't as bitter as he'd expected. The wet was worse. It didn't stop at his skin, it sank into his core, filling him with winter.
Where had the plane gone down? Why? There'd been a sound, a terrible sound, like hell itself had opened up. Then something happened. Whatever it was had torn a vast hole in August’s memory, leaving him with nothing until the moment he opened his eyes.
Now August sat in his seat under the clouds, the light nothing more than a pale glow past the dark outline of pine trees. Patches of fire crackled where it fought against the damp air.
Howling voices rose up. Moving, moving closer.
The first gray body crested the hill. Long legs, head down, eyes burning embers. More joined it and they descended, circling the remnants of the plane. Two stopped to investigate a bundle of body and fabric crumpled by a tree. Then the first fight broke out as the two animals lay claim to the flesh.
There were too many shadows for August to identify who the wolves fed on. But there was enough gold gleaming against the white to suggest it was Kerry. He always liked his jewelry; bright, gaudy. Now it glistened with crimson and firelight.
Growls echoed, and small whines joined in, sniffing, sniffing, sniffing.
August opened his eyes. He didn't remember closing them. The wolves moved through the wreckage, dug through the food cart, then dragged off bits of bodies they could carry.
August didn't want to watch, but looking away meant staring into the eyes of a dead man.
They crept closer until he could smell them. Wet fur, copper tainted breath. They watched him with weariness. Then the dead man beside August moved. For a moment, he thought he wasn't alone, that the shriveled eyes and frozen lashes had been his imagination. But Morton only moved because a big black male yanked on his arm. When the wolf couldn't get the body loose, it tore at the man's shirt, shredding his expensive silk button up, tearing open his flesh. Bones snapped.
August grabbed the first thing he could, a tripod, and threw it. The movement earned him a lightning bolt of agony, but the tripod struck the wolf right between the eyes. Yelping joined the growls.
“Get out of here.” The wilderness drank away August's yell. “You son-of-a-bitch, get the fuck away from him.” He grabbed something else, a doll. A fucking doll. Where the hell had it come from? Then he remembered that Lisa had found it in her suitcase, put there by her daughter.
This was supposed to be her last time out. She was heading home after this assignment. To be a mother, a wife, a daughter to her aging parents. One of the wolves lunged, and August swung the plastic toy. He had no idea if he struck the animal or not because everything went dark, then the wave of nausea and pain had him screaming. He tried to readjust his leg, but whatever he'd done had set his nerves on fire, and now they burned as sure as the fuel spread over broken trees. He shoved at the seat in front of him. The body bounced back, rigid as the chair. Again, again, again. It wouldn't move. No matter what he did he couldn't get it to shift.
Tears froze to his skin, his fingers cracked and bled, he screamed at the wolves over and over, but there was only open space filled with debris and remnants of torn bodies. The wolves' sudden retreat was an echo of shuffling dead leaves and snapping branches. Had he scared them off? A heavy breath was followed by the creak of metal. Another huff, more shuffling. August turned his head as far as he could without moving his body. Between the spaces of the seat, a mass of brown moved in slow motion. Then it turned. Its large nose twitched as it searched the ground. The bear had to be the size of an SUV. Long claws punched holes in what was left of the fridge. A gallon of milk collapsed in its jaws, then there was the box of jelly. Apple. Dan had insisted they have apple jelly for his toast.
Maybe the cold would kill August first, or he'd bleed out. But he didn't think so. For some reason, he hadn't succumbed to either, despite the wear on his body. The bear lumbered over broken seats, dug through busted suitcases. Camera equipment was flattened under its weight.
“Don't move.” The voice was so low, so soft, August thought he'd imagined it. Then fur brushed his cheek and the scream trying to escape was crushed by a large calloused hand. Some collage of animal with a human face knelt in the aisle. “Quiet.”
August blinked, and kept blinking. The eyes boring into him were obsidian in the twilight, but he was sure they were gray, or hazel. A thick beard covered the man's chin, and where his skin did show, it had weathered.
Human hands, yet animal bodies, he was covered in them. Foxes, rabbit, larger pieces which could have been wolf. A long iron barrel cradled in wood, sprouted from his back. The scent of earth mixed with strong musk. August wrinkled his nose, but with the man so close he had no choice but to breathe him in.
The stranger moved with exaggerated care, his gaze on the bear, while he ran his hand down August's leg.
“Where did you—”
The hand returned. “Shh—” The bear stopped moving. It raised its massive head, nostrils flaring. The man remained stock still, awkwardly squatted between strips of metal and gutted chairs. Blood soaked the leather covering his feet. The bear returned to the overturned food cart. It dug out the cake.
“What did you wish for?” August said.
Dan sat across from August on the lounge, with the table between them. He poked at the icing with one of his elegant fingers.
Dan flicked a look up. “Nothing special.” He pulled the candles free one by one. Twenty-two of them. He was nearing thirty, but he'd never admit it.
August slid his hand into his pocket, and the velvet of the ring box whispered against his skin. He wanted to give it to Dan when they went to Paris, but for some reason, he'd changed his mind. Alaska. Paris. What did it matter as long as he said yes? Besides, Alaska was a whole other world. The kind of place found in novels about magic and warring kingdoms. “I have something—”
“I've been thinking.” Dan pushed back the cake. “After this shoot, when we hit Paris, we should explore the city.”
“I thought you didn't like museums.” August almost smiled, but he couldn’t get past Dan’s expression.
“No, I mean, the clubs. You know. Meet people.”
Dan pushed the cake back a little more as if getting rid of it erased the moment or perhaps would drive home the point.
“What are you saying?”
“I think we should see other people. We've been together five years, and there's so much out there.” His gaze wandered to the flight attendant. She was a red head. Dan had always been a sucker for red heads, male or female. She smiled. He smiled. The glint in her eyes spoke volumes.
“You slept with her?” August had no idea why he said it, but he knew it was true. Even if Dan denied it.
“Last week, while we were in Vegas.” He drank some of his wine.
“August, we need to see other people. Things are stale. It's the same thing every day. I'm bored. Aren't you bored?”
A vise constricted around August’s throat. He swallowed the pain. He would not cry. He never cried. Not when his parents died, or for his best friend when she wrecked her car at the tender age of sixteen. The last time August shed tears he was twelve, and his dog got run over by the neighbor. His father had called him a pussy. Only girls cried. And faggots. After that, the tears dried up.
But sitting there while Dan fiddled with the silverware and ran a finger over the stack of birthday cards, the tears threatened to burn their way out of August's eyes. The pain was the only thing that let him hold back. Not the pain of finding out Dan didn't love him. The pain of finding out he'd already been fucking around. The kind of pain only pure anger could create.
“You're breaking up with me.” August made it a statement. How else could he have said it? Because there was no mistaking what Dan meant.
“Christ, you make it sound like we're in high school.”
“We live together.” They worked together, every moment touching. Even now Dan's knee pressed against August's.
“I'm not saying we move to separate places.”
“You just want to fuck other people.”
“When you say it like that—”
“Oh, excuse me, when you've been fucking other people.” August squeezed the ring box. “How long?”
“You know what. How long have you been going behind my back?”
“I just wanted something different.”
“That doesn't answer the question.”
“It's not like I've been having sex with everyone I run into.”
“How long, Dan? A number, a guess, an estimation. I don't give a shit.”
“What does it matter?”
“Because I trusted you. I thought we were exclusive.”
Dan leaned closer, and the sweetness of wine on his breath pulled at August like honey. “I was safe, okay? I used a condom. I've gotten tested a few times.”
“That's not the point. I thought...I thought...”
“What?” Had Dan always been this cold? This dismissive? No. Maybe. August couldn't be sure.
“We were together,” August said. “It was us. Just us.”
“We are together.”
“Not if you're fucking other people.”
“It's called an open relationship.”
“It's only open if both parties are okay with it. And know about it. Otherwise, it's called cheating.”
“Are you telling me you've never had anyone else since we got together? Never? Not that camera man in Greece, or the waiter? 'Cause they sure as hell wanted you.”
“And I told them I was taken. I was exclusive. I was in love.”
“You think because I slept with a few people I don't love you?”
“Not the way I thought you did, no.”
“What the hell do you care anyhow?” Dan crossed his arms. “It's just sex. It's not like there was anything but sex.”
August took the box out of his pocket. The top was dimpled, but it barely showed on the red velvet. Dan widened his eyes, and he almost reached for it. Of course he would. He was almost as much of a jewelry whore as Kerry. But he stopped. August opened the box. The band of white gold glittered with inlaid lines of platinum. Black diamonds crisscrossed over dark sapphires. Set in the middle, a single white square diamond, flush with the rest. A star among a strip of night sky.
“No,” August said. “Nothing but sex. No reason to care.”
“Shit.” Dan's eyes glittered. Not with tears, not with remorse. With lust for the stupid ring. It was worthy of a prince. Had cost August half his savings. Custom made, engraved, but now the words inside meant nothing, because it had all been a lie.
August pushed the box over to Dan and stood. “Keep it.”
“Are you proposing to me?”
“No. I don't even know who you are.” August went up front, leaving Dan to stare at the box, its contents, and think about what'd been said.
The stewardess had a bottle of wine in her hands when August squeezed past her. “He's all yours, sweetheart.” Her cheeks went red, and August kept walking. He flopped down in his seat, and for some reason buckled himself in. A warm wet drop hit his hand, and he stared at it wondering where it had come from. Because it sure as hell wasn't him.
Kathy turned in her seat. “You okay?”
“Fine.” The word fell dead from his lips.
“August, what's wrong?”
“I said I'm fine.”
Her gaze went up, and murmurs from some of the crew followed Dan down the aisle. Hell, August could tell it was him by the way his clothing swished when he walked.
Dan stopped by August's seat. “Can we talk?”
“Nothing to say.”
“I think we need to talk.”
“Fuck off. There. All done.”
Kerry stared from his seat across the aisle; they all stared. Everyone in the fucking jet watched them. The perfect couple, sex in the flesh, their chemistry had gotten them some high dollar contracts. Did they all feel their careers taking a nosedive?
“Dan, Augey? What's going on?”
“Drop it, Kerry.” August waved a hand.
Kerry almost turned back to the magazine he was reading but stopped. “Wow, Dan, that's one hell of a nice ring.”
August didn't know what pissed him off more. The fact that yeah, it was one hell of a nice ring, or that Dan had the nerve to put it on. Dan tucked his flashy new hardware away in his pocket. “Please, August? I'd really like some privacy so we can...discuss this.”
“Privacy. On this jet? You have to be kidding.” Already the stewardess was gossiping with one of the cameramen. By the end of the flight, everyone would know.
“I'll be in the back.” Dan walked away, and August picked up the nearest magazine. His face stared at him from the cover. He rolled it up and shoved it in the crook of his seat. Damn plane was too hot. He stripped off his sweater and made a wad of cashmere in his lap. It was still too hot. His face burned.
“Not now, Kerry.” Besides, he'd know before they landed. With the speed of social media, the whole world would know.
A hard shake jostled August's leg, shoving him back into the freezing night, where snow soaked his shirt, and black smoke rose in threaded columns. “Hey...”
Again, barely a whisper, but it was so close to August's ear he savored the warmth.
A wad of leather was pushed against his mouth. He turned his head but the man, the animal-man, forced it between August's lips, stuffing him full. He tried to pull it out, but the stranger yanked August's hair. “Bite down. If you attract her attention, she'll kill you. And it won't be quick.”
God, those eyes, hard. Like the wolves, like something not human. But it was a man under all those furs. He jammed a rod under the seat in front of August and the weight crushing his shin lifted, and pain descended. He shoved his fist against his leather-stuffed mouth, biting down on the animal skin while at the same time trying to muffle the sounds leaking out.
The stranger said something, but it made no sense. Nothing made sense. There was only the pain, blinding August, rendering him deaf. Not mute. Oh no, his voice rose up through the layers of leather. Fur surrounded him, blocking his sight, and a hard body pressed against August’s. Another hot breath brushed his ear. “Push with your good leg.”
Good leg. Which one was his good leg? August did, and suddenly he was up. The cold hit him hard, and the air became too thin to breathe. His muscles strained, but they couldn't hold him. He fell forward. A massive arm around his chest kept him from going all the way down. Blood had turned his jeans black, and his shoe was gone, leaving only one sock. It didn't look right. Bent all funny and chewed up. Then the whole thing fell into a pile of snow. For a moment August could only stare horrified at the severed foot and its painted toenails. Then his heel hit a shard of metal. It wasn't his. The foot in the snow wasn't his. Another wave of pain made him wonder if it would be better if it had fallen off.
“Quiet.” A hand came down over August’s mouth, smothering any sound, cutting off his air. Black spots danced in front of his eyes. The bear stood up on its hind legs, head swinging back and forth, back and forth, then the ground shook as it came down.
Damn, it was massive.
Unconsciousness swallowed August whole.
August Vallory had it all. A modeling career, a man he loved, and the extended family he’d acquired in the business. Then the world he knew was torn away when the plane he was on crashed en route to a photo shoot.
Lost in the Alaskan wilderness, August doesn’t stand a chance.
No sane man would choose to live in the Alaskan bush unless he had something to hide. And Keegan Brooks has secrets darker than night, more dangerous than wolves, more brutal than an Alaskan winter.
Every day was a fight for his life until he stumbled upon a downed plane with a lone survivor. Now it’s no longer just Keegan’s life teetering on the edge of survival.
It’s his heart.