Chapter One – Sian
“Everything looks amazing.” Sian twirled across the marble floor of the museum. For one night only, the ornate building was the venue of an auction to raise funds to save the local animal shelter. “I couldn’t resist.”
“You look amazing,” Simon said with admiration as he watched her dancing solo. Dressed in a sleek tux, Simon looked pretty amazing himself, he’d come out of retirement to act as auctioneer this evening. Perhaps his silver fox good looks and winning smile might encourage people to make higher bids.
“Why, thank you.” Sian made a mock curtsy and wished Simon was the man for her. But he was a shifter and she was not his mate. Shame, since he was a gentle giant who would make a great husband and father to her two daughters.
She sighed and forced herself into business mode when all she really wanted was to live out an old-fashioned Christmas fairy tale. What was wrong with dreaming of being swept off your feet and into the arms of a strong, handsome man?
But tonight was not about her, it was about raising funds for the animal shelter where she volunteered. If they failed, Matthew Lewis, a property developer, was waiting to step in and buy the land. An unscrupulous businessman who had posed as someone wanting to adopt an animal from the shelter, just so he could have a poke around the place.
A man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, if his reputation was to be believed. They all knew that if they didn’t raise the money needed to buy the land it stood on, the animals would be homeless.
And no one, except Matthew Lewis, wanted that for the animals. Especially not at Christmas.
Christmas, a time for families to come together, not for tearing them apart. But Sian’s family had been ripped apart by her not-quite-ex-husband, the man who thought he was more important than his wife and two daughters combined.
“You look troubled.” Simon’s smooth, sexy voice pulled her back to the room. The people of Bear Creek didn’t stand a chance, Sian was certain Simon could charm a pot of gold from a leprechaun if he set his mind to it.
“I’m fine. Just a little nervous.” She took a step toward Simon and looked the auctioneer up and down, wanting to divert the conversation away from herself. “You look like a secret agent in that tux.”
Simon’s eyes crinkled at the corners. He sure was a sexy silver fox. Or a silver wolf, since he was a wolf shifter. She was still trying to get her head around shifters being real. People turning from human to animal and back again? That was the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. At least that’s what she would have thought if she didn’t know that the shifters who lived around Bear Creek were a kind, loving and fiercely loyal people.
“Thanks. I haven’t worn it for a while, but it still fits.” He adjusted the waistcoat across his broad chest.
“So how does it feel to come out of retirement?” Sian asked as the first people filtered into the room. It had once been a magnificent ballroom and Sian would love to glide across the floor on the arm of a good honest man. The kind who would stand by her side through thick and thin and not run off with another woman.
She suspected at her age, which was feeling more like the wrong side of middle-aged, that she was never going to find Mr. Right. Not that she was interested in men, not yet and maybe not for a long while. Her husband, Peter, had killed off any desire to be in another relationship.
After walking out on Peter for the sake of her and her daughters’ mental health, she’d pulled herself together, uprooted her children from their schools and moved here to Bear Creek. They’d all blossomed under the watchful gaze of the mountain and loved life in the friendly town. In fact, she was so content, she planned to live a solitary life, at least until the girls graduated.
“I like it.” Simon smiled broadly. “I intend to work this audience until we have enough money for the shelter.”
“I never knew being an auctioneer was such a ruthless career!” Sian exclaimed in mock surprise.
“Not on the surface. But there are always underhanded shenanigans going on. Sellers trying to dupe other people into buying worthless items for hundreds of thousands.” He turned to look at the stage, which was covered in photos of creatures great and small who had found a second chance at life at the animal shelter. “But an auction like this will help restore my faith in people.”
“Yes, I think we’re safe this evening,” Sian told Simon in a conspiratorial tone. “No one here is trying to dupe anyone.”
“Except, perhaps, me.” Simon winked at her and then his attention was grabbed by a tall, elegant woman who entered the museum. “Excuse me.”
Simon left Sian and crossed the room to meet the elegant woman. Perhaps he had a hot date. Did shifters date or did they simply hang around waiting for their mate? That sure sounded like a lonely life.
The kind of lonely life she’d inflicted on herself.
No, there was a difference between her and Simon. She had her children and they meant the world to her.
So why did her insides turn to liquid fire when she caught a tall, broad-chested man staring at her? Two handsome silver foxes in one night. There must be something in the water here in Bear Creek. Or maybe it was the Bear Creek Honey Beer that they all seemed so fond of.
The color in her cheeks deepened. This silver fox was coming her way.
He drew closer, his eyes fixed on her as he leaned in, inhaling her scent. A shiver threaded through her body as her heart rate increased and her eyes were inexplicably drawn to his lips. Whoever he was, he was as sexy as hell.
“And you’re here to support the animal shelter?” His breath caressed her skin and woke a part of Sian she’d believed was dead and shriveled up, killed by her Peter’s hurt and betrayal. All thoughts of her solitary life disappeared as she locked eyes with the silver-haired man. He mesmerized her, making her feel like a young, carefree woman once more.
“I am. I’m introducing the lots that have been donated. It’s for such a worthwhile cause,” Sian gushed, even as alarm bells rang in her head. She didn’t know this man and yet she was willing to let her guard down and open herself to the chance of romance.
“The animal shelter means a lot to you?” he asked as he looked down at Sian’s ring finger. Damn, he was interested in her. But why? Did he want a one-night stand or was he seeking more?
More than she was perhaps willing to give.
Focus on why you are here tonight, she chastised herself. This was all for the animals and she couldn’t afford to blow it.
“It does.” Sian smiled, her eyes lighting up as she spoke. “I moved to Bear Creek after a difficult breakup…” She nervously tucked her hair behind her ear. Was this what it was like to come face to face with a bear on the mountains? For there was no mistaking he was a predator and she so wanted to be his prey.
No. No, she didn’t. She moved to Bear Creek for a fresh start for her and the girls, not to fall into bed with the first man who paid her any attention.
“I’m sorry.” His words didn’t convey sympathy, but he did seem moved by Sian’s sadness.
“The shelter, along with the people of Bear Creek, helped give me new hope. Seeing the animals get a second chance showed me that I could get a second chance. Maybe. One day.” She shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
“Perhaps because you see a kindred spirit in me.” His eyes searched her face and she wanted to swim in his soft brown eyes. “Perhaps we all deserve a second chance.”
Sian tore her eyes away from his, afraid of the intensity she saw there. Afraid to risk her heart again. Instead, she looked over his shoulder and focused on the crowded room. “I should go.”
“Maybe we could meet later. After the auction…” There was a hint of desperation in his voice.
“I’m not sure. I have to take my daughters home.” Her head said no, but her heart was screaming yes.
He held out his hand to her and Sian placed her hand in his as if he’d put a spell on her. As their hands touched, a shock of emotion passed between them. “I hope you can allow me to buy you a drink after the auction.”
“I suppose one celebratory drink might be okay.” She smiled widely again. “It might help if you tell me your name.”
Matthew… Of course, the expensive suit, the air of a man who thought he could get what he wanted. The smile slid off her face as the truth of who this man was and why he was talking to her struck her like a knife in the heart. “Is this some kind of a joke?” She focused on her breathing as the world swam around her. This man wasn’t interested in her, he was interested in what he could get from her. This man, who her traitorous body had found so alluring, was Matthew Lewis.
“No.” He leaned forward and his hand reached for her, but he didn’t touch her.
“You are the person who wants to buy the land the animal shelter sits on,” Sian’s accusation seemed to hit Matthew in the chest and he staggered back a step, as if she’d struck him a blow.
“I can explain…” he began, but she didn’t need to hear it. She’d heard it all before. Excuse after excuse…
“Explain that you lied about wanting to adopt an animal.” She covered her face with her hands, obviously in shock. “That’s what this is. You bastard.”
She slipped past Matthew, leaving him staring after her. As she strode away, Lucas appeared from the shadows and came toward her. Lucas, who had just found his own mate. Loyal, honest, and dependable. Why couldn’t she find a man like that?
Lucas, whose mate, Ronni, managed the animal shelter, reached out and took hold of her arm as she strode past. “Are you all right?”
She whirled around to face Lucas, unable to cover her anger. “Yes. And more determined than ever to make tonight a success.”
“What happened?” Lucas asked. “I saw you talking to Matthew.”
Guilt swept across her face as she realized how it must have looked. Consorting with the enemy. Or the devil. “I didn’t know who he was.” She took a deep breath. “You know, I thought I was strong, that I could survive on my own, but then the first good-looking guy who talks to me, I go weak at the knees and practically tell him my life story.”
Lucas wrapped his arms around her and she leaned on his shoulder. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with someone.”
“I wish I could meet a man like you, Lucas. A man I knew would always be there for me, no matter wha…” Her head jerked up and she groaned. “As if my life could not get any worse.”
“What is it?” Lucas asked, turning to look into the crowd of people who were filling the museum in a constant stream.
“My almost-ex-husband.” Sian’s face was deathly pale as she looked at Lucas. “What’s he doing here?”
Lucas shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“He must have heard about the auction from a mutual friend.” Sian took a deep breath and straightened her back. Enough. She had made a promise to herself that she would never let a man, any man, get the better of her again. And that was one promise she was not going to break. “I’m sure as hell not going to let him ruin this for me or for anyone else.”
“Are you sure you can do this?” Lucas placed his hands on her upper arms, his eyes searching her face. Did he think she would crumble into pieces? Not this time.
“I can.” She nodded and forced a smile on her face. “I love you guys, all of you. Everyone has been so kind to me and the girls since we moved here. I can do it for me and for them.”
“Everything okay?” Ronni asked breathlessly as she joined them.
“Fine.” Sian nodded at Lucas. “Your man here was just giving me a pep talk. Last-minute nerves.” She didn’t want Lucas’s mate, Ronni, who ran the animal shelter, to see her distress.
“I’m not surprised. There are so many people here. I didn’t expect so many.” Ronni gulped down her own nerves. “I think you are amazing to get up there and do this for us. I feel like such a letdown not being able to speak on the stage.”
“Don’t worry about it. We all have our fears. Rational or irrational.” Sian kissed Ronni on the cheeks. “This will be a success.”
Ronni pressed her lips together and glanced sideways at Lucas. Were they worried she couldn’t pull this off? She had to prove to them she was strong. More than that, she had to prove to herself that she was stronger now. Strong enough to force herself to put one foot in front of the other and mount the stage as if everything was fine.
Her daughters were here somewhere in the crowd. She would do it for them. Set a good example. But what if they saw their dad? What if he was here for them?
“It’s time,” Ronni whispered, and Sian nodded and turned around to make her way onto the stage. From her vantage point, she would see everything. All she had to do was keep it together.
Sian smiled brightly, said hello and thanked everyone for coming, and introduced Simon. The auctioneer looked comfortable and relaxed, and she absorbed his calming influence as they went through their warm-up speech. She smiled, her eyes roaming the audience, picking out Peter who leaned against a marble pillar to the right of the room. What would happen if her daughters saw him? Was that why he was here? She hated not knowing his plans. And that was exactly his intention. Control was Peter’s game. Well, tonight he was out of luck, she was free of him and she would never give him power over her again.
Sian let out a sigh of relief and settled into her role of introducing and explaining a little about each lot. Everything moved along like a slick machine, and soon the money for the shelter began to roll in. They were going to raise all the money they needed, all she had to do was keep it together and smile.
The biggest cheer of the evening was for Carter Eden, a movie star who lived in Bear Creek and owned Bear Creek Honey Beer Brewery. He walked onto the stage looking relaxed and handsome, and Sian could sense the frisson of electricity in the air as countless women dreamed of being next to him. Carter was a total professional, not letting anything distract him, as he explained that they were bidding on tickets for a tour of his brewery. Ten tickets were available, although the people bidding on the tickets seemed more interested in Carter than the beer. But he took it all in good humor.
Then it was Ronni’s turn, who was offering a personal pet training session. Sian’s friend mounted the stage and smiled despite her obvious nerves. Nerves that transmitted to Sian, since she was the next lot. What if no one bid for her pet pampering afternoon since it was a new venture and she had no real experience?
Too late to back out now. Sian moved to the center of the stage, hoping she didn’t look like a deer caught in headlights.
Inhale, exhale, she reminded herself. But her breathing stopped as Peter moved away from the marble pillar and came to stand right in front of the stage. She would not let him intimidate her. Raising her eyes, she stared into the crowd. And locked eyes with Matthew Lewis instead.
Lifting her eyes, Sian refused to look at either man as Simon began to warm up the crowd, urging them to dig deep and help the sanctuary.
“Our next lot is a pet pampering afternoon with Sian. This will take place at the animal shelter.” Simon looked out into the crowd. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, don’t be shy, this pet pampering afternoon is for all furries large and small. Even those of you who have a bear lurking in your closet.”
A ripple of laughter ran around the room.
“Who wants to start the bidding?” Simon had hardly finished his sentence when a voice called out.
“One.” Peter sneered as he spoke. That was all she was worth, his expression said. Just as his mouth had told her on many occasions as he sought to belittle her and break her spirit.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Simon asked.
Sian closed her eyes and heat crept across her cheeks. But before the paltry amount could be repeated, another voice called out, “Two…”
Matthew. Sian’s shoulders sagged forward.
“Hundred thousand,” the voice added more clearly. “Two hundred thousand.”
Silence fell over the room and all eyes turned to Matthew.
In her peripheral visions, Sian watched Ronni step forward, but Lucas pulled her back.
Sian’s gaze fixed firmly on Matthew, not knowing what to do or say. Everyone had taken a step back and he stood alone in the center of the room, his chin tilted up defiantly.
“Going once, going twice.” Simon hesitated as he locked eyes with Matthew, as if expecting him to laugh and say it was a joke, but Matthew looked deadly serious. “Sold to…”
“Matthew.” His voice rang out clearly as Sian shifted her weight from foot to foot. If only the stage would open up and she could descend into oblivion.
Why had the man who was so keen to get his hands on the sanctuary been the person to save it? Sian could not work out his angle, and that worried her. It worried her a great deal.
Wait. They had saved the sanctuary! The money raised was more than four times what they needed.
How was she ever going to thank Matthew?