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A Bear's Journey (Shifter Country Bears Book 4) by Dakota West (1)

Chapter One

Olivia

Olivia stepped out of the library and into the cool fall air. She stood there for a moment, her eyes closed, she inhaled the perfect scents of autumn: the dead leaves that scattered every yard and pathway in town, the earthy smell of yesterday’s rain, the sharp snap of evergreen that was present year-round but seemed especially pungent this time of year.

Fall always sent a bolt of panic through her. Winter’s coming, the cold air always said to her. You need to eat more, you need to find a den that’s safe.

Cascadia was far enough south, in what had once been northern California, that the bears there didn’t so much hibernate as merely sleep more, but even that took preparation. Olivia had a strong yet hazy memory of it: constantly eating, constantly feeling hungry, sleeping fourteen hours a night only for it to still be chilly when she woke, hours past sunrise.

The door behind her swung open, nearly hitting her , and Olivia moved out of the way, almost tripping over her own feet. A woman walked out and gave Olivia a sour look, her mouth narrowing in disapproval at Olivia’s mere act of standing on the steps of the library.

“Excuse me,” she said, fixing her eyes straight ahead again.

“Sorry,” muttered Olivia.

The woman was the head research librarian, and Olivia watched as she stomped off into the garden behind the library.

Cranky old bat, she thought. The woman had hair like a dark brown helmet, all dyed so uniformly that there was no doubt it wasn’t her real color. She had watery pale blue eyes behind frameless glasses, and even though Olivia was at least eight inches taller than the older woman, she had a way of looking down her nose at Olivia even as she physically looked up.

Finally, the sound of her sensible shoes faded away, and Olivia was alone again.

It was her favorite way to be.

She slid her sunglasses onto her face, since the day sunny despite the chill in the air, and went off to her favorite bench, lunch in hand. It was hidden in the back of the garden, on a short dead-end path. The rosebushes that usually abutted it had gone dormant already, but the cedar trees that hid it from the main path were evergreens, still lush.

Olivia sat on the bench, putting her book next to her and her bag lunch on her lap, taking out her first peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Her stomach growled in approval, and she bit into it.

Ten years of eating berries, roots, squirrels, and deer really did wonders for a girl’s appreciation of peanut butter.

Add it to the list, she thought, and made a mental note. Back in her tiny cubicle in the library, she had a very small notebook with one purpose only: so she could write down the things she liked about being human, and access to peanut butter was definitely on that list, along with time with family, indoor plumbing, and marshmallows.

She finished the first and started on the second sandwich, letting the quiet of the garden settle in around her. Even though her part-time job was to shelve books in a library, a job that involved very little human interaction, sometimes it felt like too much. Time and lots of therapy meant that her first inclination, when annoyed with someone, was no longer to rip their face off, but that didn’t mean she had to like being bothered.

Olivia finished the second sandwich and took a tart Granny Smith apple from her bag. A week ago, she’d mentioned how much she liked them to her mom, and in response, her mom had called up the nearest apple orchard and gotten them to bring over two bushels of them. Normally they didn’t deliver, but Olivia’s mother knew someone there.

Mrs. Lessing always knew someone.

The apple crunched between her teeth, its tartness perfectly complimenting the fall scents in the air surrounding her.

I should add apple pie to the list, Olivia thought. Though the list is getting a little food-heavy.

She took another bite. The list was food heavy because it was fall, she knew, her first fall as a human in ten years, and her body still thought it was going to hibernate in a couple of weeks. She’d gained fifteen pounds in the three months since she’d managed to shift back, but to be honest, the weight gain was the last thing on her mind.

Besides, she didn’t mind the way she looked with some curves.

She finished the apple and put the core in the plastic baggie that still had a smear of peanut butter on the inside from her sandwich, then pulled out two chocolate chip cookies. Olivia packed her own lunch every morning that she worked — she was twenty-seven, after all — but her mom always managed to sneak in some cookies.

At least she doesn’t get teary-eyed with relief every time I come home from work anymore, Olivia thought.

Then she heard voices on the main walkway: two women and a man, murmuring about something or other.

“And,” one of the women’s voices said, “Pierce wants me to help with the fundraiser for his cat sanctuary. He really said that to me, Lois.”

The other woman’s voice, who Olivia assumed was Lois, scoffed. “He’s got more than enough money to feed and house every feral housecat from here to Oregon,” she said. “And he wants you to help him? I swear, lions have some nerve.

“Have you been to the cat sanctuary?” the man’s voice asked. “I’ve heard it’s quite nice.”

The three of them came into view, starting down the short dead-end path that ended in Olivia’s bench, and stopped short.

Olivia sat there with her mouth open and one hand on the book she’d brought with her, staring.

The two women were barely there, as far as she was concerned. The only thing she could see was the man towering over them.

He looked like a lumberjack who’d been stuffed into a suit: good, but it was obvious that it wasn’t what he should have been wearing.

He should be wearing nothing, Olivia thought, and then gasped.

Her bear sat up and roared, and she clapped one hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut.

No, no, no no no, she thought desperately. She took a deep breath and thought about marshmallows and indoor plumbing and all the other reasons to control her bear and not go tearing through town.

Olivia started sweating everywhere. She could feel it pouring down her face from her hairline, her underarms and back quickly soaking through the shirt and cardigan she’d bought so she’d look more like a librarian.

Still, all she could see in front of her eyes was him, naked, holding himself up over top of her as she lay on her back, his dark hair flopping in his face, his nearly-gold eyes lighting up. Her legs wrapped around his back.

She crossed her ankles and squeezed her legs together, her bear hardly staying inside.

“Oh,” she heard one of the women say acidly, and Olivia could practically feel the woman’s eyes raking her up and down. “Wrong turn. Let’s go.”

Olivia could barely hear their retreating footsteps over the sound of her own pulse, her blood rushing through her veins at top speed. At last, she opened her eyes again, only to get a final glance at the young man who’d been with them.

He looked straight at her, then smiled, like he was about to say something.

“Jasper, are you coming?” one of the women said, and then he disappeared behind a bush.

“It’s that feral girl,” the voice went on. “Feral for ten whole years, and they’ve let her out into the community. She’s positively a menace...”

Olivia slumped back against the bench for a moment, nearly shaking. By now, she was pretty much used to people talking about her like she was an animal. She was just glad they were gone.

Could you have handled that worse? She asked herself. Her shirt stuck to her with sweat. The most attractive man you’ve ever seen, and your reaction is to close your eyes and cover your mouth?

That’s not how normal people act.

She couldn’t be there anymore. She had to escape. Olivia jumped to her feet, grabbed her empty lunch bag and her trash, and walked out of her formerly-peaceful dead end. Right away, she started planning what she was going to do next: go to her car, pick up the milk and butter her mother had requested, and take the long way home. A nice drive always calmed her down; it was a good way to be alone but also close to nature — and there was less chance she’d shift, since shifting while driving was basically a death sentence.

Just as Olivia began to calm down, the sweat no longer running down the back of her neck, she heard footsteps behind her.

“Hey!” the voice called.

It was him.

Breathe deep, smile, exchange pleasantries, thought Olivia. Come on, you practiced this in therapy.

She turned. Jasper jogged toward her down the path, his eyes locked on hers.

Olivia took a deep breath. She smiled.

“You left this on the bench,” he said, handing her the book.

“Oh,” said Olivia. She reached out her hand and took it back from him.

Exchange pleasantries, she thought.

“Thanks,” she said out loud.

“I loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was kid,” Jasper offered. He had an easy smile that reached his eyes right away, and something in them seemed to light up.

Olivia’s bear growled, and she swallowed.

“Me too,” she said. “I re-read it all the time now. It’s kind of comforting, you know? Like a security blanket. But a book.”

Good job! she told herself.

“I should re-read it,” he said, then stuck his hand out. “I’m Jasper, by the way.”

Olivia stared at his hand for one moment too long, then remembered about shaking hands, and shook it.

“I’m Olivia,” she said, though she had a feeling that he already knew. After all, her face had been on the front page of their small-town newspaper not long after she’d become human again, and people in Granite Valley weren’t shy about expressing their opinions about “that feral girl.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, his gaze still boring into hers, and he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, back toward the library and toward town. “Listen, there’s this new place in town—”

“Jasper, what are you doing,” asked an exasperated woman’s voice, and then the two older women came around a corner, stopping short when they saw Jasper talking to Olivia.

He quickly rolled his eyes at Olivia, then turned for a moment to tell them something.

Olivia bolted. She dropped the book and her lunch bag and sprinted to her car in the library employee parking lot, buckling herself in with shaking hands, before driving away as fast as she could get her ten-year-old Chevy to go.

She forgot the milk and butter, and instead drove around back roads for an hour, until she felt brave enough to go home.

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