Cara Doyle exhaled slowly, allowing her breath to plume in the icy air. She lifted the camera she’d spent a small fortune on and watched the lynx in the viewfinder as it prowled across the powdery snow.
She had been trailing the female huntress for over a week—in between shifts as a barista at a resort hotel in Saariselkä—but today she’d got so many exceptional shots excitement made her heart rate soar. Which was good because, with the temperature plummeting to minus thirty degrees this morning, she couldn’t spend much longer out here before she froze.
A shiver ran through her body as the camera’s shutter purred through its twenty frames per second. Even with six layers of thermal clothing she could feel the cold embalming her. She ignored the discomfort. This moment was the culmination of six months’ work doing crummy jobs in a succession of Lapland hotels and resorts, all through the summer and autumn, to pay for her trip studying the behaviour of the famously elusive wildcats for her breakout portfolio as a wildlife photographer.
The lynx’s head lifted, her silvery gaze locking on Cara’s.
Hello, there, girl, you’re grand, aren’t you? Just a few more shots, I promise. Then I’ll be leaving you in peace.
Cara’s heart rose into her throat. The picture in her viewfinder was so stunning she could hardly breathe—the lynx’s graceful feline form stood stock-still, almost as if posing for the shot. Her tawny white fur blended into the glittering landscape before she ducked beneath the snow-laden branches of the frozen spruce trees and disappeared into the monochromatic beauty of the boreal forest.
Cara waited a few more minutes. But the lynx was gone.
She rolled onto her back, stared up at the pearly sky through the trees. It was almost three o’clock—darkness would be falling soon, with only four hours of daylight at this time of year in Finnish Lapland. She had to get back to the ski-mobile she’d left on the edge of the forest so she didn’t disturb the wildcat’s habitat.
But she took a few precious moments, her lips lifting beneath the layers protecting her face from the freezing air.
It only took a few heartbeats though to realise her body temperature was dropping from lack of movement. It would be no good getting the shots she’d been working on for six months through summer, autumn and finally into the short crisp winter days, if she froze to death before she could sell them.
She levered herself onto her feet and began the trek back to the snowmobile, picking up her pace as twilight edged in around her.
Feck, exactly how long had she been out here?
It had only seemed like minutes but, when she was totally focussed on her work, time tended to dissolve as she hunted for that single perfect shot.
At last, she saw the small ski-mobile where she’d left it, parked near the hide she’d been using for weeks.
She packed the camera away in its insulated box in the saddlebag, aware that her hands were getting clumsy, the piercing cold turning to a numb pain.
The delight and excitement at finally capturing the creature she’d been trailing for months began to turn to dismay though as she switched on the ignition, and nothing happened. Annoyed, she went for option two. Grabbing the start cord, she tugged hard. Again, nothing, not even the clunking sound of the engine turning over.
Don’t panic…you’re grand…you know the protocol.
But even as she tried to calm herself and continued yanking the cord, all the reasons why she shouldn’t have followed the lynx so far into the national forest, why she shouldn’t have stayed out so long, bombarded her tired mind.
Eventually, she was forced to give up on starting the snowmobile. Her arms hurt and she was losing what was left of her strength, plus sweating under the layers of clothing only made her colder. Maybe the engine had frozen—it had been inactive here too long. She should have left it running, but she hadn’t expected to stay out so long and fuel cost a fortune. She fished the satellite phone out of her pack.
There was no phone signal this far north, and no communities nearby. She knew there were rumours of some reclusive US-Finnish billionaire, who lived in the uninhabited frozen wilderness on the far side of the national forest in a stunning glass house few people had ever seen or located… The resort workers whispered about him because apparently there was some tragic story involving the murder of his parents, and the fortune he had inherited as a kid before he disappeared from the public eye. But whatever the details were, they hadn’t reached Ireland, and she couldn’t rely on stumbling across some mythical fortress of solitude in the middle of nowhere—which could be hundreds of miles away. If it even existed at all.
She tuned into the last signal she’d used.
‘Mayday, Mayday. I’m in the n-national forest about f-forty miles north-east of Saariselkä. My vehicle won’t start. Please respond.’
Her eyelids drooped, the strange numbness wrapping around her ribs and slowing her breathing, as the last of the sunlight disappeared. She continued to broadcast as her energy drained.
If she could just sleep for a minute, she’d be fine.
No, don’t sleep, Cara.
Just when it seemed the situation couldn’t possibly get any worse, she felt the first swirl of wind, the prickle of ice on her face.
There had been no suggestion of a snowstorm today in the weather forecast or on the radar. Because she’d checked.
But as the swirl lifted and twisted, and a whistling howl picked up through the canyon of trees, turning the winter silence into a wall of terrifying sound, she could barely hear her own voice, still shouting out the Mayday.
She burrowed into the gathering drift beside the broken snowmobile, to shelter from the wind. No one had responded. No one was coming. The battery light on the phone started to wink, the only thing she could see in the white-out.
Her mother’s voice, practical, and tired, hissed through her consciousness. Bringing back their last frustrating conversation two days ago.
‘You’re a fine one…why would you want to go all the way there when we have more than enough creatures here to photograph on the farm?’
‘Because a wildlife photographer photographs creatures in the wild, Mammy, not cows and sheep.’
‘Shouldn’t you be settling already? You’re twenty-one and have barely had a boyfriend. All your brothers are having babies already.’
Because my brothers have no desire to get out of County Wexford, just like you, Mammy.
The answer she’d wanted to say swirled in her head, the icy cold making her eyes water.
Don’t you dare cry, Cara Doyle, or your eyelids will stick to your eyeballs and then where will you be?
Everywhere was starting to hurt now. The six layers of expensive thermal clothing she’d maxed out one of her many credit cards to buy felt like a layer of tissue paper against the frigid wind.
The dying phone, forgotten in her hand, crackled and then barked.
‘Yes… Yes?’ she croaked out on a barely audible sob.
Please let that be someone coming to rescue me.
‘The cat’s lights. Turn them on.’ The furious voice seemed to shoot through the wind and burrow into her brain.
Relief swept through her. She nodded, her throat too raw to reply. She pushed herself into the wind with the last of her strength. Her bones felt so brittle now she was sure they were frozen too. She flicked the switch, then collapsed over the seat.
The single yellow beam shone out into the storm—and made her think of all those stories she’d heard as a child, in Bible study as she prepped for her first holy communion, about the white light of Jesus beckoning you, which you saw before death.
Sister Mary Clodagh had always scared the hell out of them with that tale.
But Cara didn’t feel scared now, she just felt exhausted.
Her sore eyelids drooped.
‘Keep talking.’ The gruff voice on the phone reverberated in her skull.
She pressed the mouthpiece to her lips, mumbled what she could through the layers of her balaclavas.
‘Louder,’ the shout barked back.
‘I’m trying…’ she managed. Her fingers and face didn’t hurt any more, because the embalming warmth pressed against her chest like a hot blanket.
Whoever Mr Angry is, he’d better be getting a move on.
A dark shape appeared in the pearly beam, the outline making her think of the majestic brown bears she’d spent the summer in Lapland observing and photographing… The hum of an engine cut through the howling wind as the bear got closer. It detached from its base, the dark shape looming over her.
Piercing silvery blue eyes locked on hers through the thin strip of skin visible under his helmet and above his face coverings and reminded her of the lynx—who she’d photographed what felt like several lifetimes ago.
Hard hands clasped her arms, lifting her. She tried to struggle free, scared her bones would snap.
‘Don’t fight me,’ the bear shouted. ‘Stay awake, don’t sleep.’
Why was the bear shaking her? Was he attacking her? Shouldn’t he be hibernating?
She tried to reply, but the words got stuck in her throat as his big body shielded her from the ice storm. The slaps were firm, but not painful, glancing off her cheek.
‘Your name, tell me your name. Don’t sleep.’
Why did a bear want to know her name? And how come it could talk?
She couldn’t say anything, it hurt to speak. It hurt to even think.
She just wanted to sleep.
She heard cursing, angry, upset, reminding her of her father when he came home from the pub… So long ago now. Good riddance.
Don’t sleep or he will come back and call you names again…
But as she found herself bundled onto a raft and being whisked through the storm, the icy wind shifting into a magical dance of blue and green light, the twinkle of stars like fairy lights in the canopy of darkness over her head, a comforting rumble seeped into her soul and chased away the old fear of her da.
Then the brutal, beautiful exhaustion claimed her at last.
Logan Arto Coltan III rode the utility snowmobile into the underground garage of his home and slammed the heavy machine into park.
He swore viciously as he jumped from the saddle and raced to the flatbed he’d hooked up to load supplies.
‘Wake up,’ he shouted at the body lying on top of the boxes of canned goods and frozen meat he’d been transporting when he’d picked up the Mayday. Accidentally.
He never monitored the emergency frequencies, but the dial must have slipped after he had called his supply pilot.
Why had he answered the call? He should have ignored it. Why hadn’t he?
The person’s eyelids—the long lashes white with frost—fluttered open. Revealing bright young eyes, coloured a deep emerald green.
He felt the odd jolt of something… And ignored it.
Not unconscious. Yet.
‘Stay with me,’ he said, then repeated it in Finnish—just in case English wasn’t their first language—as he assessed the person’s size under their bulky outdoor wear. Around five six. Probably a woman, he decided, as he stripped off the outer layers of his own clothing. The garage was kept at nineteen degrees, so he didn’t overheat before removing his snowsuit to enter the house. But right now, he needed to be able to move, so he could get this fool inside.
Once he’d got down to his undershirt and track-pants, he headed to the garage’s small utility room and grabbed the first-aid box. Dragging off his last pair of gloves, he found the thermometer, shoved it into his pants’ pocket and returned to the trailer.
If this idiot had managed to give themselves hypothermia, he’d have to call an air ambulance.
He frowned, struggling to focus around the anger—and panic—that had been roiling in his gut ever since he’d answered the call.
Lifting the woman, he placed her as gently as he could over his shoulder. If she was hypothermic sudden movements could trigger a fatal heart arrhythmia. He toted her across the concrete space to climb the steps into the house. His home, ever since his grandfather had died ten years ago. A space no one else had ever entered while he was in residence.