Cinnamon Bear stood lurking in a stand of bushes. The bear’s snout sniffed away. He must have caught the scent of their food. “I guess… he’s… uh… wants to have a final chow down before he hibernates?”
“Quit joking around. Get up. Now. Go to the truck.”
The order should prick Billy’s temper, but screw mouthing off. Becoming a snack for a big bear wasn’t funny. He rose.
“Move slowly.” René’s tone carried the same hint of authority as Chrome Dome’s. He backed up in front of Billy, shielding him from Cinnamon Bear.
The bear lumbered from the bushes, his big snout still sniffing.
“Keep moving,” René whispered. “Stay behind me.”
The moisture reappeared in Billy’s throat. René offered protection. If this was Hoyt, he would’ve thrown Billy in front of the bear as bait before hightailing it.
They kept inching backward. Billy slid his hands on René’s waist and glanced around him. Cinnamon Bear clomped forward, his big rump wiggling while he waddled to the picnic table.
“Are we near the truck?” René kept his voice hushed.
Billy peeked behind him. “A bit more.”
The bear stopped at the picnic table.
“I guess he’s got the munchies, too.” A chuckle climbed up Billy’s throat. Too bad he’d left his sketchpad inside the truck. He wouldn’t mind drawing the bear now that they stood at a safer distance.
“Really funny.” René’s hiss resembled a teed-off garter snake. “How much farther?”
“We’re almost there. But he ain’t interested in us. He wants the food. He’s hungry.”
“If he keeps this up, the MNR are gonna relocate him, or some asshole hunter’ll shoot him. Menace bears always get the boot.”
“No way.” Flaming coals surfaced in Billy. “This is his mountain.”
“Not when he’s stealing food from visitors, it isn’t.” René eased his keys from his jacket pocket. “I gotta tell Dad. It’s not safe for people to come up here if he’s hanging around.”
“What d’you mean? It’s his mountain. Not ours.” The heat of the coals searing Billy intensified. “He belongs here.”
“Yeah, I get what you’re saying, but he came in and ate our food. Look.” René pointed.
Cinnamon Bear’s massive paw knocked around the pop cans, the big furry guy having already wolfed down the smokies and nachos.
“I get that bears roam around up here. I’ve seen a few. But none are this bold.”
Billy jostled against the truck’s bumper. “We’re here.”
With his hands still on René’s waist, Billy gazed upward into the same Hershey eyes that had melted all over him this morning. The clean, crisp scent surrounding him skittered along his flesh. Warmth from René’s firm body dusted away the chill on Billy’s spine.
“You… You protected me. No-nobody’s done that before.” The words stumbled from Billy’s mouth before he could take them back, because the geeky declaration resembled something in a lame romance movie. But it was true. René had stood between Billy and Cinnamon Bear.
Steamy breaths from René’s lips grazed Billy’s face. Never had he been so aware of color—the lush rose hue to René’s lips and his lightly tanned skin. The glossy tint to his almost-black hair taunted Billy to tangle his fingers around the straight strands that flipped ever-so-slightly at the ends and brushed the collar of René’s leather jacket.
An ache appeared, imploring Billy to lean into René and let a sweet embrace claim him.
They kept staring, their gazes touching, caressing, stroking. Slowly, a sheet of ice froze over René’s eyes. He stiffened.
“We’d better split. Let’s go.” With a shove from his hip, René bumped Billy against the truck. He swiveled on his boot heel and huffed to the driver’s-side door.
Billy clutched the tailgate and his fading expectations. One minute he’d been wrapped in cashmere as plush as the bear’s fur coat, the next pushed into a bushel of thistles.