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The Shifter Protector's Virgin (Stonybrooke Shifters) by Ash, Leela (1)

The Shifter Protector’s Virgin

STONYBROOKE SHIFTERS

Leela Ash

Copyright ©2017 by Leela Ash. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Introduction

Thank you so much for purchasing my Novellete. All of my stories also contain bonus stories, so please take a look at the other stories I offer here.

And we would also love it if you would

STONYBROOKE SHIFTERS

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Also from Totally Romance…

LOST CREEK SHIFTERS


Table of Contents


“Rhett, you already know that we don’t want you here. You’ve fucked up enough, man. We’re not taking any more chances on you.”

Rhett’s chest tightened. He was never going to escape his past. If his parents hadn’t been killed when he was at such a young age, he probably wouldn’t have gotten mixed up with the gang of ruffians that loved to terrorize Stonybrooke. They were a band of misfit kids really, but Rhett had taken the lead, easily becoming the alpha of the group. He had gone too far on more than one occasion, leading the rest of the wolf-shifters living in Stonybrooke to shun him.

But nothing was quite so bad as the moment he had fallen from grace, and Rhett cringed, not wanting to remember that horrible night.

“Look, I know I’m not welcome here but I really need to get some yesha root. It’s important.”

“You’re going to have to find a supplier somewhere else. That stuff doesn’t come cheap, even here.”

“You grow it here!” Rhett exclaimed. “Where else am I supposed to find it on such short notice?”

“You should have thought of that before you pulled the shit you did.”

Rhett gaped at the group of wolf-shifters standing shoulder to shoulder to block his way into Stonybrooke. He had gone to school with the youngest of them, a beta named Tom. The other two were middle-aged, people who had hoped that Rhett might be able to be reformed and sent back into the wolf-shifter society without any qualms.

“Yeah. I guess you guys are right,” Rhett mumbled. “I’ll get out of here now.”

“You do that.”

Rhett turned away, doing his best to keep the concern and hurt from showing on his face. Sure, he had brought all this on himself; he shouldn’t have turned his back on the only pack he had ever known. But at the same time you would think that the wolf-shifters would be better than this. It was true, he had made plenty of mistakes in his day, but that didn’t mean that he was a bad person. He just needed a second chance.

“Yo, Rhett, what did they say?” Sammy asked once Rhett returned to the little bear-shifter village that had taken him in after he had been exiled. The place was called Tanka and he had a few friends there, but nobody too close. He had always been a little wary of the bear-shifters as a kid, and they were wary of him. Now, though, it seemed they were a pack just as much as he had been a pack with anybody else. At the very least, they would never kick him out just for being himself.

“They aren’t going to let me in. I don’t get it.”

“Well shit,” Sammy said frowning. “That sounds pretty much like what we thought though. They don’t like you too much out there, you know. I just wish we didn’t need the root so bad. The elders are going to be super disappointed.”

“Yeah, the ceremony is getting close,” Rhett agreed.

The entire village of Tanka was in a bustle about the upcoming Summer Solstice Celebration. It was extra special that yea because it happened to align with the planet Raes aligning with Earth. This only happened once every seventy years, and the bear-shifters were busy putting together a celebration unlike anything Rhett had ever seen before. The whole process was mystical, and there seemed to be a role for everybody to play.

Rhett couldn’t help but feel left out. They’d sent him on a mission to contribute to the ceremony. He needed the root, because it was supposed to play a very important part in welcoming in the dawning of the new age. But he had failed. And not only had he failed, he was also the only wolf-shifter in the village who didn’t have a role in the ceremony yet. There were only a couple of other wolf-shifters in Tanka, but they stuck together and had not welcomed Rhett among their ranks. It was lonely there, and he was desperate to redeem himself for his miserable misdeeds. Even though they didn’t know why he had been exiled, they still treated Stonybrooke as their home and looked down on him for being driven away. However, they didn’t know the whole story, Still, they tried to keep their disdain toward him to themselves.

“What do you think they’re going to do now?” Tommy asked, walking with Rhett toward the bar. “Do you think we’re going to be able to get our hands on the yesha root? What if we can’t do the ceremony?”

“They wouldn’t just call off the ceremony,” Rhett said with a laugh. “They’ve been having a festival for every solstice since I moved here. There’s nothing so different about this one except the whole Sacred Maiden thing.”

“Well, the Sacred Maiden thing is a pretty big deal to our kind, you know,” Tommy said. “This could be big for the bears. You may not know it yet, but there is some real power shifting happening and it’s up to us to make sure that it goes off without a hitch. You’re going to have to tell the elders about what happened with the yesha root. They can probably send one of the other wolf-shifters to get it. Just be honest with them about it because this is important.”

“Yeah,” Rhett said, prickling. The last thing he wanted to do was give away his only true job in regard to the upcoming ceremony to the asshole wolf-shifters who had alienated him from their group, but he supposed it was the only way. The elders needed to know what was going on and if he couldn’t get the yesha root, then somebody had to.

“Go on, man, it’s important.”

“I’m going,” Rhett exclaimed. “I mean, I thought we were going to have a drink or something first, but you know, I guess I can just come back later.”

“Damn right you can,” Tommy said with a grin.

Tommy disappeared into the tavern and Rhett sighed. So much for comradery.

He trudged along the idle streets of Tanka and headed toward the elder’s encampment. They refused to be confined to the human-like dwellings most of the other shifters had resorted to during the past few hundred years, and in a way Rhett found that dedication to the old ways very admirable. However, there were times when the elders struck him as a little bit too traditional. The dogma could be a little bit stifling, but who was he to judge? They had accepted him and taken him in when nobody else would. He basically owed them his life and he would gladly put it on the line to appease them.

“There he is!”

Rhett was surprised by Shenar, the beta of the elders in the encampment. He ran up to Rhett as quickly as his knobbly old legs would allow him to and beamed at him, putting both of his hands on Rhett’s shoulder. “We’ve been awaiting your return. Come, there is much to discuss.”

“But I—”

“No, no, we will speak once we are inside under the marquis. We must have everybody gathered to make the big announcement.”

“But Shenar, the root… I couldn’t—”

“Hush, boy, and come!”

Rhett pursed his lips and followed Shenar under the canopy, where the five elders were seated at the long table, a bounty of food placed before them. They were eating lazily, their eyes focused on different points of the encampment until Shenar came in waving his silk-clad arms.

“Everybody, the youngest wolf-shifter has arrived. The one with the gift.”

“I told you, Shenar, or I was trying to anyway… that they wouldn’t let me enter into Stonybrooke. I couldn’t get the yecha root. We’re going to have to get it some other way. I don’t have any gifts for you.”

Shenar grinned. “Come Aranth.,speak to him about the decision.”

Aranth, the alpha bear shifter of Tanka stepped forward and Rhett shrank back. The bear-shifters were generally very broad, well-muscled people. However, the more they aged, the slenderer they became. Yet somehow Aranth still seemed to have maintained most of his youthful vigor and vitality and still towered over Rhett, who had been the biggest and the baddest of the boys in his gang. Even at thirty years old, Rhett was a force to be reckoned with, yet Aranth could probably smite him right where he stood.

“Young man, we are aware you were not given an assigned task for the Maiden’s Harvest festival. That is because we were in debate about the best job for you. Please, have a seat.”

Aranth led Rhett to an empty chair at the table and Shenar remained standing, looking over the festivities with his hands clasped and a pleased smile spread across his face.

Rhett stared over at the other members of the elder’s council who were gazing at him lazily from over their meal. Rhett personally couldn’t fathom what the bear-shifters saw in such food; it was bland and had a tendency to feel heavy in his stomach. Still, it was food that had nourished him when nobody else would give him even a scrap of bread. It was food he had always been grateful for.

“Do you want to be a part of the Maiden’s Harvest ceremony, Rhett?”

Rhett nodded dully. Of course he did. At that point, he would’ve been happy just to be told he would be sweeping the confetti off the ground after the parade.

“We’ve thought long and hard about the position best suited to you and although you may not have succeeded in your task to retrieve the yesha root, there’s something far more important at stake. Would you be willing to take on a great responsibility and see to it this ceremony is a success?”

Rhett shifted. These guys were treating their little festival like it was some kind of sacred rite. They had a little shindig every year that wasn’t much different than this, besides the maiden of course. And yet, there was always a chosen couple for such ceremonies to perform ceremonial rites that had become watered down over the centuries. Sure, they might’ve had a lot of meaning at one point, but they were never really quite as meaningful these days as the originals had been. It was mostly an excuse to get drunk and have a good time with the rest of the group. Still, it was a big deal to the bear shifters of Tanka, and Rhett’s mouth grew dry at the thought of playing a pivotal role in the ceremony.

“I would be honored to contribute in whatever way you see fit.”

“Rhett, you are a tremendous warrior. You have taken on the strongest of the bear-shifters in our clan, and have won. That is really saying something. You aren’t a bear-shifter, but we accept you as one of our own. To prove it, we would like you to put your strength and prowess to good use. Rhett Marshall, would you please do us the honor of acting as the primary Guardian for the Maiden?”

Rhett was floored. The Guardian was one of the most pivotal roles in the entire ceremony. Everybody had been whispering about who might be the one to protect the Maiden’s theoretical virginity. Of course, nobody really expected her to be a virgin, but in order to act the ceremony out as planned in the most traditional sense, whomever was chosen to play the Maiden would have to be protected for the duration of the month as the ceremony was prepared.

“I will accept this honor,” Rhett said, standing up to bow at the elders. “Thank you so much for this opportunity. I won’t let you down.”

“Oh, we know you won’t,” Aranth said with a sparkle in his eye. He held Rhett’s gaze until he almost felt uneasy and then turned to Shenar.

“Shenar, go take this fine, young Guardian to the Circle. It is there that the rules and responsibilities should be explained to him. It will ensure he does his sacred duty and is bound to his vow.”

“Of course, Aranth,” Shenar said, coming over to Rhett and waiting expectantly for him to rise from his seat. “Right this way, young man. There is much to discuss…”


“Come Gael. We have good news.”

At the sound of her father’s voice, Gael’s heart pounded hard in her chest. Usually, he only summoned her if something was wrong. The idea that there was any good news to come from her father’s lips was startling, but compelling nonetheless.

“What is it, father?” Gael asked, stepping into his study. Things had been strange since her mother had died and now that she was getting a little bit older, she was curious about what else the world might offer her.

“Sit down and read this letter, child. Do it quickly, because you must be off soon.”

Gael frowned and took the letter her father offered at her. She read it over quickly, a small twinge of excitement fluttering in her stomach.

“Is it really true, father? About the General?”

“It is, it is,” her father said with a quick nod. “He was a great man; your ancestor on your mother’s side. She would be able to tell you more about him than I would were she still here with us but as it stands, there is a lot to be learned from the real bear-shifters. Their records are immaculate.”

“Yes, I’m sure they would know a lot about what the General was truly like. Am I really going to meet them, father? This seems so sudden, and what if this isn’t true?”

“Oh, darling, it’s true enough… there is the seal on the envelope to prove it. You are going to prepare and leave at once. I am already working on the arrangements.”

Gael swallowed hard. “Are you sure you’ll be all right alone here, father? I’ve been tending to so much, you would probably need somebody to come by and—”

“I’ll be fine!” he exclaimed. Gael felt a small surge of pain. He meant it. He did not want her here. She had always known it in some, small way. Her father was an independent man who resented feeling as if he owed any of his time or resources to anybody else. It was impossible for him to show affection to anybody except her mother, and ever since her mother had died, he’d become insufferable.

Now though, the fact that Gael’s lineage made her special seemed to give him a joy that she had never been able to produce in him. She was special. Her family’s lineage had once traced back to highly reputable bear-shifters. Royalty, really. And Gael’s father had always been in awe of the history of the bear-shifters.

She knew her father knew the General’s story backward and forward as he was now linked to someone great that gave him a sense of bustling importance. After her mother had passed away he had needed that more than ever; she was all that had ever made them great and their estate was crumbling without her there. He was barely holding on to what he had and he resented Gael because of her inheritance. She hadn’t received it yet, but upon marrying she would be a very wealthy woman indeed, Despite the royalty in her blood waning over the years of cross-contamination with humans, the lineage and inheritance still remained, and could only be passed down to the eldest child, no matter what the other parent had to say about it.

“Are you ready to go?” her father asked once she had finished packing.

“I suppose. But where am I going to stay?”

“There will be accommodations made for you at Tanka. This is an incredibly important event so you had better listen to all the rules and follow them to the letter. Do you understand?”

“I know, father. Many times we’ve gone over what might happen should they choose me as Maiden, we just didn’t know it would really happen.”

“We didn’t know for sure, but it was a possibility. Are you excited?”

Gael let herself smile for the first time. She was excited. Very excited. She had never been selected for anything special in her life and the prospect of getting out of the gloomy estate where her mother had spent her final days and going out and seeing the world without anybody treating her like she was just some snobby heiress was extremely exciting.

“I am. Please make sure you write and let me know that you are being well cared for. All right, father?”

“Same to you, my dear. Let me know everything. I want to know whatever I possibly can about the ceremony and what the town is like. Tanka is not open to most humans, but there is a council of ancient shifter-elders there who truly understand the depth behind ceremonies such as these. You will surely learn a lot from them, my dear. And please, you mustn’t withhold any information from me!”

“I won’t,” Gael said, hugging him goodbye. There was already a carriage waiting. Her mother had always insisted upon using horses as transportation. She had been taught a very civilized and simple way of life that had been passed down from her family for centuries, and she had always been horrified by the advent of the modern vehicle. It was awful for everybody, she would say, for the environment as well as the people.

“Have a safe trip!” he said with a wave.

It was the most emotive she had ever seen him and she had to allow herself to wonder if maybe her father did truly care about her after all. It would be impossible to say, especially now that she was well on her way to living with the bear-shifters in Tanka. Life as she knew it had never been more exciting.


“Rhett, it’s time for you to go to the elder’s encampment. They sure have been working you hard lately, haven’t they?”

Rhett nodded at Tommy, who had been barely able to conceal his envy. Every man in Tanka had been convinced that he was the one who was going to be chosen as the Guardian for the ceremony. It was a position of honor that was only held once every seventy years, and nobody would probably even be alive for the next one as far as the rest of the town was concerned.

“There are a lot of rules and specific things that go into it,” Rhett said, doing his best to make his position seem unenviable. “It’s taking a while to get it all quite right.”

Tommy nodded, his face hard. None of the bear-shifters liked that a wolf shifter had been chosen to play such an important role; not even the other wolf-shifters liked it. They all sided with the bitter men who had been counting on their own position of importance playing out during the ceremony.

“I’m sure it’s just sooo tough for you,” Tommy said bitterly.

Rhett sighed and left the bar. He was getting sick of everybody treating him differently, but the elders had assured him the bears were just a very competitive breed and he was going to have to ride it out. By the same time next week, everybody would have moved on from the supposed unfairness of the selection and things would go back to normal.

“Rhett, there you are,” Shenar said, smiling broadly at Rhett and taking his arm. “We have somebody very special we would like to introduce you to. Please, follow me and keep your eyes forward. The guest will be out momentarily. You must heed all instructions carefully. You were chosen for just such a specific purpose, you understand.”

The way that Shenar spoke almost made it sound like he had only been chosen because he was good at blindly following orders. He prickled a little about it, but he quickly forgot his strange thought process when a young woman suddenly appeared before him. She was startlingly attractive; the only human he had seen since being banished from Stonybrooke. Her hair was long and blonde and fell down over her shoulders, providing her beautiful face with a frame of gold. Her eyes were bright and inquisitive, and she wore an easy smile and a long, intricately woven white gown.

Rhett swallowed hard, confused by the way the wolf within him was stirring, prompting him to move forward and stake his claim. He wanted her immediately; right then and there. But that was ridiculous. He had never even met her before, and if his intuition was correct, this woman was not to be claimed by anyone at all. Least of all the man who had been appointed to protect her.

“Rhett, this is Gael. She came early today from her estate out East. Her father is thrilled with the arrangement and sincerely hopes for your cooperation in guarding his daughter’s virginity before the big ceremony.”

Gael seemed mildly surprised by the news, but kept her composure, her beautiful smile faltering for only a second as Shenar spoke.

“I will serve my duty. I am honor bound to protect the Maiden,” Rhett said automatically, wondering to himself just how much of this the elders were buying into. It was all just an act for the sake of ceremony… Shenar had told him as much during his orientation into the role of the Guardian. They all had little roles to play and duties to serve and protect, and no matter how trivial they may have seemed, they were to be honored at all costs.

“And you, fair Maiden, before the Harvest ceremony, do agree to take Rhett as your Guardian? It is this man you will trust more than anyone else to help you to guard your purity, as this is the most important aspect of the ceremony.”

Gael’s cheeks flushed an attractive red and she glanced down at the ground for a moment, avoiding eye contact with the men surrounding her and composing herself as privately as she could before responding.

“Yes. I agree to allow Rhett the honor of preserving my maidenhood.”

“Then it is agreed upon. The two of you will be inseparable from this moment forward. Rhett, you must escort Gael to your new lodgings. If you take your eyes off of her for even a single moment you will be disqualified, and you will no longer be allowed to perform your duties to the council. However, should you serve your duties through to term, you will be vastly rewarded.”

Gael’s eyes settled upon Rhett and her cheerful smile made his chest tighten. It seemed what they were telling him was it was his job to make sure that this ridiculously attractive young girl was not able to have any male attention for the duration of the month as the ceremony’s preparations took place.

At first the job had seemed easy, but now, with the wolf already awakened and fixating its keen eyes upon her, Rhett was suddenly nervous. This may be a little bit harder than he thought.

“I trust you are going to do a good job,” Gael said to him, her voice likened to a gentle, soft breeze that made Rhett’s entire body ache to believe her. She sounded so sweet, so innocent. Was she actually a virgin?

He couldn’t let himself think that way. This was all a farce; just a charade they were putting on to keep the bear-shifters entertained during one of the most rare of special occasions they were able to celebrate together. Of course she wasn’t actually a virgin, and of course he wasn’t actually supposed to keep her from messing around with random men. And yet, suddenly the duty to protect her from unwanted male attention seemed to consume him. He would do anything to keep that purity in her voice just as pure as it was right that moment.

“Thank you,” was all he said.

The elders were eerily quiet after he spoke. None of that had been in their script. Finally, Shenar clapped his hands together and smiled at them.

“It is time to make your first journey together, bonded by the terms of your agreement! Come, we will walk you to the edge of camp. Rhett, I presume you already know how to perform your duties from here?”

Rhett nodded. They had spent the entire past three days drilling this routine into his head and telling him the things it was okay to speak to the Maiden about, and what he was absolutely not allowed to discuss.

“Maiden,” he said, suddenly remembering his lines. “It is time to make our journey home.”


Gael gasped in astonishment as Rhett led her to the door of the beautifully designed rustic cabin. She had seen many photos of ancient bear architecture in the books her father had collected, and this house stirred something deep within her heritage. Although she was human, she had ancient and important distant ancestors, and something of them was still alive and well within her.

“This is beautiful,” Gael said, running her hand along the post of the wide, sweeping porch. “Are we really supposed to live here together?”

“Yes,” Rhett said. “This home was built specifically for ceremonial purposes. It’s rarely used, though, and I’m going to have to stock the kitchen tomorrow. There’s enough for our first meal together, though. Are you hungry now, Maiden?”

“No… and you can just call me Gael, if you don’t mind. I mean, this is really neat and everything, but you don’t have to go overboard.”

Rhett relaxed visibly and she smiled to herself. He was rather cute in his own right behind that intimidating, masculine air of his. There was something about him that just put her at ease, and she was happy that of all the shifters in the town, she was there with him. Only there was something strange about him. His face was narrower than the features of the other bear-shifters she had seen in the town.

“You’re not a bear-shifter at all, are you?” she asked, astonished by the sudden realization.

“No, Maiden. Actually, I was born in Stonybrooke.”

“The wolf-shifters? My father calls that place the land of the sellouts.”

Rhett grinned. It was kind of nice to hear someone speak ill about the place that had rejected him. All he’d ever wanted was to go back to his pack, but he had done the worst thing imaginable.

“Isn’t your father a little bit too… human to make that call?” Rhett asked.

“Actually yes, you would be right about that,” Gael said with a soft laugh. She studied Rhett, the way his pensive brown eyes bore into hers, lightening a little when she smiled. It was nice. He seemed kind.

“It’s all right, though,” Rhett said. “In a way, he’s right. He probably reads a lot of the great shifter philosophers, about how any clan that’s able to adapt to human conventions is wise, but those who adopt them are not worthy of the ancient power that dwells within us all. Even you, Maiden.”

“Oh, I don’t have any ancient power,” Gael said, her face growing hot. “My ancestor was very distant. There haven’t been any actual shifters in my family for many generations. I’m as human as they come.”

“Well, not quite,” Rhett said, his serious eyes still lingering on her, “but if you insist.”

Gael swallowed hard. It was strange to be acknowledged by someone else for a small part of her ancestry that most people would say was less than nothing. She was human, sure, but there were some strange times when she would dream at night of the immensely powerful feeling of shape-shifting into a creature more powerful than she could even begin to fathom. When she woke up from these dreams, she would feel as if she’d lost something. But that was all right. She was used to being human.

“Well anyway, I’m not hungry yet,” she said quietly.

Rhett nodded and made his way to the front door. He unlocked it and once open waited for her to move inside.

He followed her as she made her way through every room, making little exclamations of wonder and appreciation as she went. It was an incredibly beautiful house. Her father would have loved it were he able to see it.

“Do you have a camera?” Gael asked, turning to Rhett.

He furrowed his brow. “No, we don’t take photos here. The elders believe they take away the life force of a vital object. It’s best to be safe.”

Gael nodded. Her father was just going to have to deal with a description in a letter.

“All right,” she said, heading up the stairs. “Well, I would really like to wash up and change out of this ceremonial gown. It’s really heavy. I feel pretty overdressed for the situation, you know?”

Rhett grinned at her, a sight that made her heart surge with excitement. Yes, he was very cute, indeed.

But she couldn’t let herself get caught up in this. It was a silly child-like crush, after all. What good would it do her to get caught up in something like that? She was a twenty-three-year old woman who’d gone without a boyfriend for quite some time… she could live another month without one.

Besides, the whole point of her being a maiden was because she was a virgin. Even if it was just a silly tradition, it would be kind of a sad irony to let anything change that just when it seemed to matter the most.

With that thought in mind, she smiled and shook her head. She was just going to shower and get herself comfortable. There was no reason anything had to be any more complicated. She could just leave it at that.

Rhett paced in front of the steps of the chosen home, his mind full of the different types of commands he was meant to fulfill as the Guardian of the Maiden of the Harvest. He was not supposed to leave her alone, even for a second. Did that mean she should allow him in with her, even during the most private of moments?

Rhett shook his head. No, he was taking his duty far too seriously. It’d been a long time since he’d been trusted in a position of power. The last time he had, he had failed miserably and completely betrayed his pack. It was a memory he did his best not to indulge, but there were times when he couldn’t help but wish that everything had played out differently. He couldn’t help the being person he was at the time, and that meant he was simply going to have to accept the fact he would never be a part of a pack of wolf-shifters again, no matter how devastating that might be for him to accept.

He couldn’t help just how seriously he was taking this duty. He didn’t want to fail and the elders had told him if he did his job well, then there would be a great reward for him. That could mean anything, but Rhett was optimistic. He wanted to be part of a pack again. He wanted to be able to say that he had done something special that gave him a place somewhere, and maybe, this job was going to be it. He might have messed up with the yecha root, but he could be a good Guardian to the Maiden.

He headed up the steps. He would just have to discuss what it was Gael was comfortable with and what she expected of him when it came to his duty, and how he would fulfil his role.

“Gael, I—”

Rhett froze. The bathroom door was wide open and standing naked inside, brushing her long golden hair, was the Maiden.

She turned to look at him, as if unashamed by her beauty and quietly, slowly, shut the door.

Rhett stood outside agape, the image of her flawless body burned into his mind. She was absolutely perfect in every way, a delicate combination of curves and definition. Her gentle, beautiful face had looked at him in quiet acceptance. She hadn’t intended for him to see her like that. She had perhaps not realized the door was still open enough that she could be seen. These older bear shifter designs left a lot to be wanted when it came to privacy.

The wolf was entranced and captivated by her perfection and beauty. Although he had seen women who were more conventionally attractive, there was something extremely special about this girl, though he could not put his finger on it. He would’ve done anything for another glance, but instead, he stayed frozen in place outside the door, doing his best to fight the deep burning within him that had been awakened by the sight of Gael’s body.

He heard her voice, clear and pure from the other side of the bathroom door and he looked down at the ground, ashamed and embarrassed about what he had seen.

“You can come in now. Is there something that you wanted?”

Actually, all he wanted now was to melt and disappeared into the floorboards, but he supposed now was as good a time as any to discuss the limitations of his duty with her. He didn’t want anything like this happening again. It was far too embarrassing already.

He shrugged his discomfort away and pushed into the bathroom. Gael had slipped on a clean dress, a modest little outfit that covered her body in a way that was both a huge relief and a major disappointment.

“Erm, I just wanted to see what you were thinking when it came to the terms of privacy. The rules are strict. I’m not to let you out of my sight, but that seems to violate your right to privacy, so, I doubt in this day and age it would really be that important…?”

Gael seemed to consider this. “Yes, most of the time these things seem to be more about honoring the past than actually accomplishing anything with the ceremony itself. I mean, most of that ancient shifter magic was lost a long time ago. My dad is obsessed with that stuff, and he’s completely human.”

Rhett grinned. “Well that makes sense, I guess. A lot of people think that the shifter culture is fascinating even though they will never fully understand its significance.”

“To be honest, it makes me a little uncomfortable” Gael said, sitting on the ledge of the bathtub and looking at Rhett with her dazzling blue eyes. He swallowed hard. She was doing a number on him, inviting him in there as if he hadn’t just seen every sensual dip and curve of her body.

“What makes you uncomfortable?” Rhett asked, swallowing hard. He couldn’t let her know he was so lustered… that would just make everything even weirder.

“The fact you’re a shifter yourself might help you understand. It’s strange when people take pride or an obsessive interest in something that isn’t theirs they don’t understand like the culture, the shifter, and history of the bear-shifters. My father is human, but he seems to feel like it makes him a little more special to be able to relate to the shifter lore he’s obsessed with without ever doing anything to contribute to the shifters being accepted more in mainstream human society. It just doesn’t seem fair, I guess. People would take him more seriously if he wrote a book about shifter customs than they would from a bear-shifter, just because he’s a human.”

“Well, it’s not all that surprising,” Rhett said with a shrug. “We’re living in a human world, after all. Our own world is far away.”

“That’s true,” Gael said quietly. “But does that mean we should allow humans to take shifter culture and run with it as if it was their own invention?”

Rhett chuckled. “Actually, I think that most humans out there would rather pretend that we don’t exist at all. The ones who are interested are rare and welcome, so long as they’re not overstepping their boundaries and encroaching on our territory. Try not to worry about that too much.”

Gael smiled, a gesture that lit up her entire, beautiful face. “I love that point of view. I’ve never been exposed to much outside the estate where I was raised. It was kind of hard to make friends with anyone, especially bear-shifters. My family has royal blood in our ancestry, but technically we are nothing special.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t put yourself down like that,” Rhett said, stretching. The little bathroom was starting to make him a little anxious and the wolf within him had been entirely awakened from the experience of seeing her naked. Instead of running off ,though, his instinct told him to stay, to see what more this conversation may have to offer. She was such a beautiful girl with a fresh, kind perspective. How could he determine what was “too much” when it came to his ability to connect to her? The wolf was enamored, and he found himself helpless to her whims of conversation.

“Thanks,” she said, standing from where she had seated herself and fixing a dazzling smile upon him. “Now then, I guess we should get downstairs. There’s a meal to prepare, right?”

Rhett nodded. “Right.”

Gael smiled and he followed her helplessly down the stairs without another word.


“What do you think?”

Rhett was staring at her, shifting nervously and Gael couldn’t help but study the way his strong, muscular arms pushed the confines of the shirt he was wearing.

“I can’t believe how good this is,” Gael said, looking down at her plate.

Rhett grinned. “I’m glad you like it. It was a recipe I remembered my mother making.”

“It’s really good,” Gael said, taking another bite. “I haven’t ever had anyhing like this before. A lot of the foods we’ve tried the bear-shifters eat I think are kind of…”

“Bland?” Rhett suggested, a teasing smile on his lips. It made him look kind of sexy in a way. But just the sheer thought made Gael’s cheeks burn hot. What would she know about sex anyway? She had never had it before. That’s why she was the Virgin Maiden for the ceremony, right?

“Exactly! It’s bland. Please don’t tell anybody here I said that. I would be so embarrassed.”

“No, don’t worry,” Rhett said, his dark eyes sparkling. “Your secret is safe with me.”

Gael smiled down at her plate relieved that Rhett understood without being offended. She had already gathered that he wasn’t a bear-shifter. However, she hadn’t realized just how different the wolf-shifters could be. Their bodies were even different; leaner muscle and more narrow features, whereas most of the bear-shifters she’d seen were broad and densely muscled.

It was shocking how attracted she was to him, but it was something she couldn’t let herself think too much into. How ironic would it be to allow herself to be carried away by a crush, when it was her purity that was the most important aspect of being where she was?

She caught his eye from across the table. The way he looked at her was always so captivating, as if they were both a moment away from saying something they weren’t sure the other person wanted to hear. In a way tt was funny.

“It’s very different from the estate I was raised on but I think that’s a good thing,” Gael said. The truth was, she was kind of intimidated by the place. It made her a little bit uneasy, mainly because she wasn’t used to the people there, or the strange way all of the bear shifters looked at her. She felt almost like a celebrity in a place where she had never even been before. It was an odd feeling; she had never done well with too much attention on herself.

And yet, when it was Rhett looking at her, she couldn’t help but feel as if everything was going to be okay. She wasn’t sure whether it was because of the roles they had been appointed to play or that he just seemed like a genuinely trustworthy man, but something about him mad her feel safe. It was probably just a silly childish fancy, but she was enjoying it nonetheless.

They finished eating in relative silence, making a little bit of chit-chat now and then about little things that didn’t seem to be important. When she was finished, Gael realized suddenly just how tired she was.

“I think I need to lay down,” she said softly. “It’s been a long day. I had to take two airplanes to get here.”

“What did they think when you arrived at the airport and had to leave on a horse-drawn carriage?” Rhett asked, his eyes dancing with unexpressed laughter. “That’s a little bit unconventional, even for these parts.”

Gael laughed softly, half-embarrassed but more than anything, glad someone else could see the absurdity of refusing to align with the twenty-first century. Still, it was better for the environment, though she couldn’t say as much for the horses themselves. It seemed a strenuous job and she hated to be the cause of suffering for any living thing.

“I got a lot of looks in Stonybrooke, just like I got a lot of looks going into the airport from the estate. It’s a little bit unorthodox, but I guess it’s as safe a way to travel as any.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Rhett said, the grin that was playing on his lips finally spreading. “It’s good that you got here safely, though. I know the elders were very worried about you.”

“Yes, they fussed over me for the better part of an hour before they even started to fill me in on what the heck I’m supposed to be doing here.”

Rhett nodded. “They kind of tend to beat around the bush sometimes, don’t they? It’s a little annoying.”

Gael nodded, letting go of the small peal of laughter that had been bubbling in her chest. “It was cute, in a way. They’re taking this whole thing so seriously, They even asked me if I’m really a virgin.”

Rhett furrowed his brow almost imperceptibly and looked at her.

“Are you?” he asked, his voice strained.

“Yes,” Gael said, looking him firmly in the eye. She wasn’t ashamed of who she was. “But that doesn’t mean they only chose me for the ceremony because of it. I was in line to do it next whether I was a virgin or not. It’s just some silly celebration. They want to make sure their festival is fun for everybody, purists and laid-back Samaritans alike, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I suppose…”

Rhett looked troubled for a moment and then looked at her, a grin spreading across his face.

“So, I guess it’s time for us to figure out sleeping arrangements. I’m not supposed to let you leave my sight. What do you think we should do about that?”

“Well, my luggage is already in the room they want me to sleep in,” Gael said. “I found it after my shower. Yours is in there too. But that doesn’t mean we have to sleep in the same room, do we?”

Rhett shifted uncomfortably.

“Are there two beds?”

Gael nodded. “A king and a little cot shoved up against the corner.”

Rhett sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“I’m so sorry…” he mumbled. “This wasn’t my idea, but I think it means we have to try to make this work somehow.”

Gael laughed, trying not to let her discomfort show up in her voice. “It’s all right.”

“You don’t have to lie,” Rhett said, a sudden intensity in his eyes. Gael’s voice was taken away as her mouth dried up, the energy between them changing drastically. “I don’t want you to lie just so you can feel you aren’t hurting my feelings. It doesn’t hurt me you would rather have privacy like any other normal human being on this planet. I would rather have my own room too.”

“Are you sure this is really what needs to be done?” Gael asked, her voice hiding a sort of quiet desperation within it. She didn’t want to be stuck sleeping with someone she didn’t even really know , and that cot looked so uncomfortable.

“We’ll make it work,” Rhett said as cheerfully as he could, though Gael could tell he was feeling rather dubious himself about it. “The elders would know if we weren’t following their rules to the letter and honestly, it won’t be so bad. We can put up a curtain or something and pretend we’re sleeping somewhere private.”

“The room is way too small for that,” Gael said. “But it’s a nice thought. Thank you for trying to make me feel a little bit better about it.”

“Yeah… of course it is.” Rhett mumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose again. It was kind of funny how he did that whenever he was feeling frustrated. She had never seen somebody do that before.

“Well, we can just make the best of it,” Gael decided. “Whether we like it or not, this is going to be our lives for the next month. Neither of us had much of a choice in that, but at the very least we can make sure it goes off without a hitch, right?”

“Right,” Rhett agreed, taking a deep breath inward and grinning broadly before he let it out through his teeth. “Let’s make the most of it.”


“I swear I packed it… oh, here it is!”

Gael turned to Rhett, waving her toothbrush in the air victoriously with a bright smile on her face. There was something so damn innocent about this girl, and it wasn’t even just the fact she really was a virgin.

Holy shit. He was being set up to guard the real Virgin Maiden after having his wolf side stake a very intense claim upon her. What the hell was he supposed to do now?

“Glad you found it,” he said, attempting to keep the strain out of his voice. He was perched on his cot, looking out over the chaos of the bedroom. There was luggage everywhere; he had mistakenly pinned her as a practical, down to earth kind of person who would pack light to travel. Now he knew better.

The girl had probably packed every single article of clothing she owned and at least two pairs of shoes for each of those outfits. And besides that, she had apparently thought that Tanka wouldn’t have a library or books, because there was a trunk loaded to the brim with them of every shape and size, on all topics one could imagine.

“Me too,” she said, bounding out of the bedroom. Rhett sighed and stood up to go out after her. He followed her out of the room, standing guard at the bathroom door dutifully as she brushed her teeth and got ready for bed. When she finally emerged, she was wearing a silken nightgown and had brushed her hair before putting it into a long, loose braid.

“Okay,” she said cheerfully. “Your turn.”

Rhett froze. He hadn’t considered what he was supposed to do when it was his turn for privacy. He couldn’t just force her to go in there with him. But he felt that something had to be done to maintain the order.

“Can you wait outside for me?” he asked finally. “Just call if you need anything or you’re in danger.”

A beautiful laugh escaped the girl’s lips and Rhett’s heart constricted tightly. “There isn’t anybody out there who would really want to hurt me. This is just for a big party. It’s no different than a festival. Nobody kills anybody over a festival.”

Rhett pursed his lips and sighed. “Maybe not, but this is my job.”

“You’re taking this just as seriously as the elders are,” Gael chided. “It’s kind of adorable.”

Rhett’s face turned hot and he turned away before she could see the deep flush in his cheeks, but it was already too late. He disappeared back into the bathroom and shut the door, cutting off Gael’s soft but incessant giggles. As embarrassing as it was, he couldn’t help but smile to himself once he was in the privacy of the bathroom. There was something about this girl he just couldn’t help but like. It went far beyond her physical beauty and into a part of her that just seemed to resonate within some deep part of himself, and the wolf knew it. The wolf wanted her… and it wanted her badly.

He readied himself for bed as quickly as he could, then emerged from the bathroom freshly shaven and with a new determination to treat the next month as nothing but a sacred duty he had to fulfill. If he didn’t and he let himself slip up, even just one time, it could be enough that the elders would no longer trust him to do anything in Tanka. He couldn’t fathom the miserable existence that type of rejection would give to him.

And so, Rhett followed Gael down the hall, sucking in a deep breath. He was resigned to protecting her at all costs, even though knowing that she was right, and it was nothing but a festival that a handful of old men were taking far too seriously.

Still, there was no way of telling what kinds of dangers might be lurking in the midst. Rhett hadn’t expected the strange shift that had happened when he had been appointed the Guardian. The bear-shifters had begun to treat him like he was an entirely different species, and even though it was true, it had hurt. He had been working so hard to find a way to belong here. It was his mission to seek a home that truly accepted him and to make himself a valuable member of shifter society, whether it was in his own wolf shifter society or not.

“Well, good night then!” Gael said cheerfully, bounding past him and leaping onto the huge bed that had been elaborately lavished with beautiful pillows and blankets that looked fit for a king.

“Good night,” Rhett said quietly. He shut out the light and went over to his cot and sighed. It was going to be a long night.


“No!”

Gael’s heart thudded hard in her chest as she was awakened by yet another night terror. Suddenly, her body was enveloped by strong arms and she could feel herself being pulled into the broad, muscular chest of a good-smelling man.

“It’s all right,” Rhett whispered, his voice deep and rumbling in his chest. “It’s all right. You were having a bad dream, but you’re safe now. I’ll protect you.”

Gael’s heart rate began to slow as she was rocked gently in Rhett’s arms and a hot flush of embarrassment crept across her cheeks once she finally calmed down.

“Thank you for that,” she whispered, pulling away from him and distancing herself from Rhett’s broad, muscular body. “I sometimes dream of the night I lost my mother.”

Rhett’s face darkened. “I understand. I often dream of when I lost my parents as well.”

Gael gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. He was an orphan?

“You lost both of your parents? At the same time?”

She didn’t feel right bombarding him with probing questions like that, but they flew rapidly into her mind. How old had he been? How old had his parents been? Had they died together? And how? What had happened? And what was his life like once he’d become an orphan? What a poor, sad and lonely child he must have been!

“My parents died together, during a battle that I knew nothing about until I was told about it in the newspapers. There is a war going on, one that has been going on in secret from the humans for centuries between the wolf-shifters and the bears. There’s something very special nestled in the land upon which Stonybrooke resides and it’s something that the bears believe might help them to return to their world. But being a wolf-shifter, I know it’s secure and there is no way for them to steal such a treasure. There is no telling what might happen should it fall into the wrong hands anyway. In fact, most people believe it isn’t even something real, just a myth.”

“What do you believe?” Gael asked, shifting on the bed under Rhett’s gaze. She was so sorry to hear about his parents, and she wanted to know more about the war. Even her father had never heard of such a rivalry. Wouldn’t it be hard to conduct a war in secret? Especially one that apparently resulted in so many casualties.

“I believe that it was real, but there’s a lot of magic that will work in favor of its protection, but that’s not really a big deal. I’m not too concerned with that kind of thing, and I don’t care either way what happens. The wolf-shifters aren’t my pack anymore.”

“They’re not?” Gal asked, confused. She had been under the impression that once you were part of a wolf-shifter’s pack, you were family for life—maybe even beyond. What could he mean by that?

“They’re not. I was driven out when I was a child. It’s kind of a long story.”

Gael frowned, and reached out to grab his hand. He allowed her to, and both avoided each other’s eyes for a moment as a surge of powerful heat seemed to pulse between them when their bodies touched.

“Who would drive away a child?” she whispered.

“Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that,” Rhett said. “It started when I was a child, and ended when I was coming of age. It can be hard for shifters to express emotions the same way that humans can, or you may understand this is a painful subject that I don’t actually want to talk about with you.”

Gael withdrew her hand, feeling suddenly very hurt by the statement. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Rhett looked down at the bed, and then pierced her with his firm gaze. “It isn’t your fault. I just know my own limitations and if you kept expecting me to speak to you, I would. But I’m not comfortable with that right now. It’s already been a very long day. We can maybe talk more about this later.”

“Maybe,” Gael said, sighing softly. Rhett smiled sadly at her and gave her a nod.

“You’re feeling better now, right?” he asked, getting off the bed and stretching his arms over his head. “It’s late. You should try to get some sleep. I have a feeling the elders will be summoning us at some point to see how we’re getting along.”

“Yeah, I’m feeling better,” Gael lied. However, the truth was she was starting to feel worse. It was hard to be snapped at without feeling a little bit of sadness, especially when all she wanted to do was to help. But then again, maybe it was silly of her to think there was anything she could do to help him. This kind of pain was impossible to relieve. The more someone else tried to talk to you about the worst time in your life, the harder it became to feel better about it, at least in her own experience. She would rather never speak again than to do that to somebody else, so she watched in silence as Rhett crossed the room and sat back down on his cot.

They both sat up in their own beds, kind of staring across the room at each other before Rhett sighed.

“I’m not mad at you. Get some sleep.”

Gael felt a surge of relief sweep over her and she laid down, curling into one of the throw pillows the elders had placed on the bed for her. She closed her eyes, trying not to let her thoughts linger on the way that Rhett’s strong, good-smelling body had pulled her into him; the way it had felt so natural and comfortable for him to be comforting her like he did. A small stirring of heat began to make itself known in her loins and she swallowed hard. She had to stop thinking about it. Nothing had ever made her feel that way before and she didn’t want to explore that feeling like this, in the room with Rhett. It just wasn’t appropriate.

Gael thought she heard a growl coming from across the room, but she was probably just imagining things. That, or it had come from outside. There were all kinds of different sights and smells to experience in a town that was full of bear-shifters. Part of her felt right at home among them, and a different pat felt woefully out of place. Thankfully, she was there with Rhett. Even though he gave her strange mixed feelings she was certain that he would protect her, even from himself.


“So how was it?” Tommy asked when Rhett emerged from the house to retrieve the newspaper. He cringed. He had forgotten that Tommy was the man who delivered the packages to this area of Tanka and swallowed hard before answering.

“How was what?” he asked as evenly as he could. He was restricted from speaking to any of the outsiders about the Maiden’s well-being. Even if this was just a silly celebration, there was an ancient and important ceremonial element to it they had to respect, and the rules he had to abide by were clearly stated: Answer no questions about the Maiden. Answer only to the Maiden. Protect the Maiden.

“Your first night with the little princess girl,” Tommy said.

Things had shifted between Rhett and Tommy ever since he had been awarded the role of Guardian. He didn’t know how to feel about that, and hated he had apparently lost the only friend he had made in Tanka over something as superficial as receiving a role in what essentially boiled down to being a holiday parade.

“I’m under strict orders not to reveal anything about my relationship with the Maiden of the Harvest,” Rhett said stiffly.

Tommy’s face hardened and the fake joy that he had been displaying turned to genuine contempt.

“Dude, it’s not even that big of a deal. I just want to know what it’s like to be stuck sleeping with some pretty virgin in the house with you.”

This made Rhett’s anger boil over and he nearly made a start toward Tommy, but he held himself back. If he got into needless fights over the Maiden on his second day as Guardian, there would be no second chances. He wasn’t going to risk everything just to go off on Tommy. It wasn’t that important.

“I’m just doing what the elders told me to do. This is what I must do; protect the Maiden and preserve her purity until the ceremony is over. It’s not that big of a deal.”

Tommy sneered and turned away. “Yeah, whatever. You looked about ready to take me down.”

Rhett shrugged. “I take my duties seriously, no matter what they are. It’s a loyalty thing. Maybe the bear-shifters don’t understand that as well as the wolves.”

Now it was Tommy’s turn to face him, his eyes cold and full of rage. “You’re going to regret you said that,” he growled.

Rhett’s blood turned to ice. Apparently, he had just made an enemy of the one man he’d hoped he could rely on through this whole bizarre ordeal, but now it was just back to Rhett and Rhett alone.

Before they could exchange any more words, Tommy turned away and headed back to the road, slinging the huge bag full of packages over his shoulder.

On the ground, he’d left a small rectangular package for Gael, addressed mysteriously as from “S.”

Rhett pursed his lips. He was supposed to protect the Maiden at all costs. If there was something in the package that could be considered a threat, it would be his fault if it were given to her and caused her any harm.

He made his way back inside, where Gael was sitting in the living room, rocking gently in a rocking chair and reading a book. She seemed to be in her own little world, so he left her there and went to the kitchen to examine the package.

Rhett sighed, sitting down at the kitchen table and turning the package over and over in his hands. It felt wrong to be intercepting somebody else’s mail. It wasn’t really his place to do things like that, was it? Well, it would never have been were it not for his demanding role as the Guardian to the Maiden. If she wasn’t going to be able to trust the things that were coming in for her, then he would have to be diligent. Back in the old times, a Guardian would have no qualms about keeping her safe. A mysterious gift might be from a suitor, somebody who was going to try to rob her of her purity. In matters concerning the terms of ancient tradition, it was up to him to prevent that by making sure everything that reached Gael was pure and would not tempt her to go against her roles as the virgin Maiden of the Harvest.

With a deep, regretful breath, Rhett tore the thin brown paper of the package open and looked inside. It was a small box, one that was pretty and overlain with ancient symbols. He barely recognized them, though a few were shared between shifter races.

He opened the box cautiously and took in the sight of the beautiful golden locket that was inside. Beneath it was a note; something from Gael’s father. Rhett sighed. He didn’t sense any magic in the locket. Maybe it was going to be all right, after all.

“Gael, something came from your father,” Rhett said, crossing the house to the living room where Gael looked up from her book, her face the picture of surprise. It was kind of cute in a way, as if he had just told her she’d received an unexpected Christmas gift from her favorite person.

“Are you sure? My father doesn’t normally do that sort of thing.”

“I’m sure. It smells like you.”

They both looked at each other, their cheeks growing hot from the words. There was something oddly intimate about them, even though he was a wolf-shifter and that sort of thing was natural enough for him to take into consideration. For the most part, she was still a human, whether she had ancient shifter blood running through her veins or not. She would have no idea what it was like to live in a world of heightened senses like those he shared with all shifters.

“May I see it?” Gael finally asked.

“Of course,” Rhett said, thrusting the locket out at her. “It came with a note, too, but I left it on the kitchen table for you in the packaging.”

Gael’s brow furrowed. “You opened my package?”

Rhett gritted his teeth. “The elders here are pretty adamant about making sure things go by the letter on this thing. They have a whole idea about what should happen and how we need to behave until it’s over. It’s kind of silly, I guess, but I’m going to take it seriously. You never know.”

“Well, I’m pretty new here so I guess you should just do what feels best to you,” Gael said, though there was some reservation in her voice, as if she didn’t like or trust what was happening.

Then again, Rhett wouldn’t have liked it either. Someone else opening your mail was a pretty big invasion of privacy. She was reacting a lot better than he would have been under the same circumstances—that was something to be grateful about.

“I know this is all taking some getting used to,” Rhett said, looking down at his hands. “the whole thing is weird to me too. I didn’t want to open it, but they told me this is what I have to do to protect you, so whether we like it or not, that’s just the way it has to be for now.”

Gael nodded, her mouth set grimly.

“It’s a pretty locket,” she said quietly, turning it over in her hands thoughtfully. “He never really shows a lot of affection for me until I’m not there, and when it happens it’s always in such strange little ways.”

Rhett smiled. “I’m sure your father loves you.”

“Sometimes, I’m not so sure,” Gael said, though she said it so matter-of-factly it was almost as if she was already resigned to the fact and had made her peace with it. From what Rhett could tell, she wasn’t just seeking attention the way some humans did when they wanted to blow a problem out of proportion for the energy they received from other people’s sympathy.

“Everybody shows their own affection differently,” Rhett said, wishing there was something he could do or say to make her beautiful face light up cheerfully; the way it had before she’d realized she was in a place where her mail could be opened before she ever saw it, and the world she lived in included an oblivious and emotionally unavailable father.

“That is true. Now that my mother has passed away, though, it feels almost like I don’t even have parents anymore,” Gael admitted, a sad smile creasing her features. It nearly broke Rhett’s heart. She was strong in her own quiet way. She had dealt with a lot she probably was never going to talk to anybody about.

“Well, you do still have your father, whether he knows how to show he cares for you properly or not,” Rhett said, tempted to tell her about his own tragic tale. He had lost both parents so young. He might be able to relate to her better than he thought. Still, he hardly knew her and it was hardly the time, so instead he smiled broadly. “It’s better than not having any parents at all.”

“I suppose you’re right about that,” Gael said, smiling brightly. “Come, could you please help me put this on? I would like to feel as if my father is near, even if he never will be able to love me the way I love him.”

Rhett smiled gently at her. “Of course, Maiden.”

She beamed and moved her silky golden hair off her shoulders. He swallowed hard when the soft strands brushed against the back of his hand. The wolf was telling him to make his move, to touch the gentle slope of her pale neck and taste the sweet flesh of it with his tongue. But there was no way he would allow that to happen. He was going to have to be patient and good about all of this. It was ridiculous how the wolf was treating her, as if she were the first woman he had ever laid eyes on.

There you go, Maiden. You’re all set,” Rhett said, gritting his teeth when he was finished with his task. She turned to him, her face bright with pleasure.

“Thank you,” she said. “Come, let’s take a walk. I want to see more of Tanka. My welcome here took up so much time, and I’ll only be here a short while. I want to see everything. Do you mind?”

“Oh… of course not,” Rhett stammered as she laced her arm through his. The wolf gave him another nudge to pull her close, to breathe in the alluring and sensuous scent that defined her, but he would never give in. Even if it was all just for tradition’s sake, he had a role to play, and this time he wasn’t going to fuck it up. No matter what the cost.


Tanka was much bigger than Gael had expected for it to be and everywhere they went, she found something new to marvel at. Whether it was the way the paths along the way were lined with stumps, or trees buried in the ground to mark the pathway, or the smell of the food wafting from the diners, she was enamored with the settlement. The people left a lot to be desired, though. The shifters were surly and reserved and looked at Gael and Rhett with an air of caution.

That was fine by her. She wasn’t so sure about them either. Maybe it was the tiny dabble of bear-blood within her, but she had always preferred to keep to herself and rely on her own prowess in most matters. The truth was it was kind of strange to have somebody following her around all the time to protect her. She wanted nothing to do with that sort of special treatment. Even being the only daughter of the last house of the General’s family members had been a little bit too much for her at times. She could expect to receive gifts and elaborate greetings from people she had never even met who were fans of the General, or who had similar bear-blood running through their veins.

“Why does everybody here look at me like we’re aliens or something?” Gael finally asked once they had stopped at a small secluded bench to enjoy a soothing ice cream cone together. “I don’t think we stand out that much, do you?”

“Well, they know the elders chose us for the ceremony,” Rhett said with a noncommittal shrug. “They usually resent anyone who is outranking them in any way. I guess it’s just how they are sometimes. The elders said they would get over it in time, so we shouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“I know they said that, but I don’t think I like it,” Gael said, frowning down at her hands. “I don’t really feel safe here. I like it and all, but there’s something that’s making me feel a little—”

“Rhett! Well, well, look who it is!”

Rhett cringed at the sound of the man’s taunting voice, and Gael looked up in confusion.

“Hello,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Tommy, little darlin’, but you can call me whatever you want.”

Tommy waggled his eyebrows lewdly at her and Rhett stood suddenly, stepping between the two of them and glaring into Tommy’s eyes.

“That’s enough, Tommy. If the elders knew you were harassing the Maiden, they would lock your ass up and throw the key away.”

“I don’t know about all that,” Tommy said, peeking over Rhett’s shoulder to grin at Gael. She felt a twinge of nausea and looked away, causing the man to laugh harshly. Gael flinched at the sound. She hated this sort of attention. Then again, what self-respecting woman actually enjoyed it? None she’d ever heard of, that was for sure.

“Well, I know if you don’t leave her alone right the hell now, you’re going to regret it,” Rhett said, his voice deep and serious. Gael was actually little bit startled by the change, but Rhett was holding his ground. He wanted to make sure she was safe.

“Like hell,” Tommy sneered. “You wouldn’t beat up your old pal Tommy over some little piece of ass now, would ya?”

Gael cringed as Tommy lunged toward her, as if to attack, but he was just psyching her out and Rhett growled deeply from the back of his throat, gripping Tommy’s shoulder tightly in one hand.

“I think the elders chose me because that’s exactly what I’m going to do if you don’t back up and leave this girl alone. You get me?”

“You’re such a pansy, man. No wonder nobody likes you. Not even your own pack.” Tommy shrugged his shoulder violently away from Rhett’s grip and took a few steps away from Rhett and Gael. “Once you shake this loser sweetheart, you give me a call. They don’t make them like you around here. No they don’t.”

Tommy shook his head and turned away from them, muttering to himself as he headed down the opposite direction from Rhett.

“I’m so sorry about that,” Rhett sighed, kneeling to examine Gael’s face. “He was never like this around me, not until the elders gave me this job for their stupid celebration.”

Gael laughed lightly. “It isn’t your fault he’s acting like an immature pig. You did your best to protect me, and you did. Thank you for that. It was really nice of you.”

Their eyes met and suddenly the nearness of their bodies became apparent. She nearly grew dizzy as a sweeping wave of arousal washed over her body. She had to swallow hard, hoping that maybe it would go away.

Rhett grew rigid and then stood up straight, looking down at her with an expression on his face that was hard to describe. It was almost as if he had known exactly what it was she was feeling and a deep sense of shame caused Gael to tear her eyes away from the man, worried that somehow she had perhaps broken his trust and made things between them irreparably strained.

“I’m just doing my duty to protect you,” Rhett said, clearing his throat. “Come on. Let’s get out of here before Tommy decides to come back. There’s still a lot to see.”

Gael stood, nodding at him as she did so. As much as she liked being able to look around the interesting little community of bear-shifters, the more she saw, the less impressed she was with it. The people here were harsh and unkind; everybody except for Rhett, who was distant and strange in his own way… and whatever had just happened between them had made them both feel incredibly awkward. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she knew that there was some part of her that was deeply attracted to this man. He was strong and handsome in all the right ways, and if she could feel safe with anybody in this frightening town, it was with Rhett. Pure and simple, he was the one that made her feel safe, whether that was something that could make sense to her or not.

“So where to next, do you think?” she asked, trudging along after him. He was taking long strides away from the little bench now, seemingly unable to wait to get the place behind him and forget the altercation with Tommy had ever happened.

“I think we should probably go back to the house if there isn’t anything else you would like to see.”

“Actually…“

One of the elders suddenly emerged in front of them and Rhett halted in surprise.

“Rhett, might I trouble you to allow me a few moments of your time? It is important that we bring the Maiden to the encampment. There are a few more ceremonial rites that we must inform her of. This way, when the time comes the ritual goes off without a hitch.”

Ritual? She hadn’t realized that there would be an actual ritual involved.

“That’s just for entertainment value, right?” Rhett asked, as if reading her mind and sharing similar concerns.

The elder laughed brightly. “Why yes, of course! There are some things of utmost importance, things to tend to such as the guardianship and whatnot. But during the festivities, there is also a certain level of mysticism that the bear-shifters present will be expecting. Far be it from us to disappoint.”

“I understand,” Rhett said quietly, stepping aside to allow the elder to pass by.

“Hello there, dear,” he said, his eyes cold as he smiled emotionlessly at her. “It is time for us to go now. We will see your Guardian shortly. Rhett, be ready to escort her back to the house in about three hours. It’s always good to give the Guardian a little break here and there. We all have our own needs and matters to attend to, now don’t we?”

The elder winked at Rhett from above Gael’s head and she caught it, causing her anger to rise. She hated being in the elder’s camp. The men all looked at her as if she were the last morsel on a banquet table and each of them wanted it for themselves. There was something off-putting about being in their presence she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but her father had promised her she would be safe here in Tanka with the bear-shifters. She had heard so much about them that coming had been quite an exciting thing, and it was an honor to be placed as the Maiden of the festival. Yet there were times she was beginning to second guess whether or not she was lucky, or that she’d placed herself in a situation she would just as soon get herself out of.

“Come now, my child.”

Gael cast one last forlorn look back at Rhett who seemed as reluctant to part with her as she was taken from him, but that had nothing to do with the strange, sensual feeling that seemed always to spark within her, and they had only just met. The thought it would be anything more than a fleeting whim was ridiculous.

Still, the further away from Rhett she got, the more uneasy she became. All she could do was hope it would be over soon.


Once the elder had disappeared with the girl, Rhett sighed. What was he supposed to do with himself now? he had really gotten into the role of taking care of Gael. It was strange not to have her at his side. He was a loyal man and the thought of her being without him, even under the protection of the powerful bear-shifter elders, was something that made him uneasy.

He paced around the park for a few minutes trying to figure out what he should do with himself for the next few hours. Sure, it had felt like kind of a prison sentence to be stuck with this girl for so long. Every moment of every day had to be consumed with seeing to it she was taken care of, as well as making sure they weren’t breaking some kind of rule that would make them both ineligible for the ceremony.

And yet, there was a kind of comfort in the routine. A happiness and a sense of purpose he hadn’t had since he had belonged in Stonybrooke, before he had been ostracized and exiled because of his final mistake…

He shook the thought away. The memories would only serve to make him miserable. No, he would focus on the present.

He headed toward the tavern and hesitated. There was nothing that he wanted or needed there. The elders still hadn’t found anybody to get the yecha root from the wolf-shifters in Stonybrooke so the job still fell on him. Maybe they were testing his mettle, giving him a task that only he could perform and enough time to do it. He would have to do his best.

With a resigned sigh, Rhett shifted into his wolf form and bounded off down the road that led to Stonybrooke. It hadn’t been very long since he’d been unceremoniously rejected and reminded of his shameful exile from his pack. Now that the bear shifters were treating him so differently after being chosen to be Gael’s guardian, he had no idea what he was supposed to do with himself now. The pack he had hoped to form by coming to live with the bear-shifters was beginning to dissolve around him. He wanted so badly to be able to provide himself with the same security he’d had when he was able to live in Stonybrooke among his own kind. There had been a comfort and security there he was probably going to lack forever.

When he approached the town, he slowed his gait and sighed. There was a lot of angst he’d built up in regards to this place. Even if he was accepted again, would he even want to live there anymore? They could have treated him better after he had lost his parents to the war.

Instead, they’d left him to his own devices and he had ended up a nervous wreck; an alpha with nobody to give him guidance or show him love except for the group of boys who were just as lost and scared as he was. He resented the hell out of the Stonybrooke wolf-shifters, yet he was one of them, intimately and in a way he would never be able to escape.

“Rhett!”

Rhett froze at the sound of his name. The voice that called to him was unmistakably wolfish.

“We’re over here, man. Come here. We need to talk.”

Rhett furrowed his brow and caught the eye of a shifter he had known once, during his stay in his first and last foster home. The man’s name was Axel, and he was an upstanding shifter in his own right. He had a group of people he led who did a lot of community outreach programs. Rhett had thought that was quite a laugh, considering Axel had been his foster brother once and hadn’t given two shits about the community or helping those in need when Rhett had known him.

Then again, he’d also trashed Axel’s bedroom the first day he’d been welcomed into their home and gave him hell every chance he got. They were both alphas, but Rhett was an alpha with no place to turn, and with nothing to lose. That had made them fundamentally different, diametrically opposed, and that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. He had run away from that home, feeling that everybody there would have been better off without him. The adjustment period just took far too long for a young boy as angry and troubled as Rhett had been.

“Axel,” Rhett said, shifting back into his human form. He was wary, but he knew that Axel had always had a soft spot for him, no matter how much of his stuff Rhett broke. “What do you want?”

“Look, we wanted to talk to you about that ceremony.”

“The Maiden’s Harvest?” Rhett asked, frowning.

“Yeah,” Axel said.

“Why do they even call it that when it’s the frikkin summer solstice anyway?” another shifter whom Rhett had never met said.

“Shut up, Eric,” Axel said without looking at the man. He clamped his mouth and Rhett turned his attention back to Axel.

“What do you need to talk about?” Rhett asked, his stomach churning. This was the most civilized conversation he’d had with another man, not counting the elders in quite a while, and definitely the most civilized it had been with another wolf-shifter. He felt a deep longing to be reconnected with his kind, but he knew that would be impossible, not after what had happened. They would never trust him again.

“Look, we probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but we overheard the Council speaking about a really messed up tradition the bear-shifters used to do. It’s really twisted and dark. They brought it up because the solstice is coming, along with the planet the bear-shifters originate from coming into alignment, or something like that. I don’t know. There were a lot of details and I didn’t catch all that stuff. It’s not the important part anyway.”

“What about it?” Rhett asked impatiently. Maybe if he answered their questions, they would help him out and get the yesha root the elders needed for their preparations. Then he would be able to go back to Tanka and enjoy the taste of triumph.

“The elders, man. They’re messed up. The really crafty ones, you know? Who are super traditional and dogmatic? They might want to resurrect the old ceremony to direct power toward one of the portals on Oak Mountain. If that portal opens up then they would have a direct link back to the planet and it could get them all home.”

“That would be great,” Rhett said. “Why is that a bad thing? We all want to get back to where we belong. The human world is not what makes us happy.”

“Well, that’s true,” Axel said, pursing his lips. “But the ceremony is called the Maiden’s Harvest for a good reason. Thank you for bringing the point to our attention, Eric.”

Eric grinned, and Axel continued.

“They’re going to use her to open the portal. There’s a lot of power the practitioners of black magic can utilize when it comes to a woman’s purity. They plan to rob that from her. Each elder will play his role, and—”

“Stop!” Rhett shouted. “You don’t know anything about this! I the first place, it’s just for fun and in the second place, you’ve never met Tanka’s elders. They are righteous, respectful men who only want to make sure that everybody is taken care of and enjoying the festivities. Maybe it used to be about that freaky shit, but you know that nobody in their right mind would ever dream of doing something like that! What the hell is wrong with you people? If you’re just trying to fuck with me then you’re going to need to get the hell away before I tear your throats out.”

“We aren’t fucking with you,” Axel said.

But Axel had always rubbed Rhett the wrong way. There was no way that his phony smiles and obnoxiously optimistic attitude toward him were genuine. It was probably some kind of set up so that they could all laugh and watch as Rhett fell from grace yet again.

“You guys are full of shit. What are you thinking, bringing me rumors? If it was that important, wouldn’t the Council be rounding up all kinds of soldiers to raid the place? Step off it man, that’s ridiculous.”

Rhett glowered at Axel, who stared him down, his eyes cold and serious.

“You don’t have to believe what we’re telling you, but for everybody’s sake, I hope you realize the council may not be as grounded as you think they are.”

“Whatever, man,” Rhett growled, turning away from them to begin his transformation back into his wolf form. “You can think whatever the hell you want to think. Just leave me out of it. You got it?”

Axel said nothing, and Rhett completed his transformation.

He took off back on the road toward Tanka, growing more furious after speaking with the group of wolf-shifters. So they thought they knew everything about everything, did they? That was the last time he would ever go back to Stonybrooke again. Nothing good ever came of it. He always came back angry and upset.

The bear-shifters in Tanka may have been a little bit competitive when it came to the role of the Guardian, but at least they weren’t liars and frauds who would turn their back on their own kind in a time of need. They hadn’t even turned their back on someone who wasn’t their kind. He and even Gael had been accepted within the town of Tanka, whether they were viewed with resentment and suspicion or not. It was still a home when he hadn’t had one, and he was going to defend that home with everything he had. No questions asked.


“Do you understand all of your duties and obligations then, my dear?”

Gael nodded. She hated the way the elder kept referring to her as his dear. She had been at the encampment for hours now, memorizing strange feeling words that somehow managed to roll off her tongue with ease. It was probably due to the bear-shifter blood that was such an over-inflated part of her lineage, but something about the things that she was saying felt sinister rather than wholesome, the way the ancient texts her father sometimes shared with her were.

Being an avid book reader, Gael had come to the conclusion long ago that words were alive. They were imbued deeply with meaning and brought to light, they could change the course of things with their power. And although the ceremony was all in good fun, there was something about the whole process of preparation that was making her wonder what was so important about the things that they were having her say and do. Shouldn’t she be able to have at least a basic understanding of her role in all of this?

“I have a question,” Gael said, eyeing Shenar firmly.

“A question?” he asked, his face contorting in an expression that gave her the impression that any questions she might have were preposterous. She supposed the elders were probably used to being obeyed without question in this place. But she was more human than bear, and they were not her council of elders. Not technically. Every clan was supposed to have one, and she answered only to her own, back near the estate that had been in her family for so much longer than she could even count.

“Yes. What am I saying?”

Shenar laughed, a harsh, unpleasant sound and glanced over his shoulder as if he were afraid the other elders might have heard her inquiry.

“You are giving the sacred rites to initiate the ceremony. The powers do not work without the consent of the vessel you see. It is basically you saying you agree to be the Maiden of the Harvest, that’s all.”

“That’s all,” Gael repeated.

Shenar nodded enthusiastically, his lips tight. Why did she get the feeling that he was hiding something?

“Well, there he is! Right on time.”

Gael followed Shenar’s line of sight to Rhett who was walking through the camp, his face drawn and serious. Something was wrong.

“Hello, my boy. Welcome back. How did you enjoy your afternoon, Maiden free?”

Gael felt his anger start to rise and hid it from his face. They didn’t have to speak as if she were the world’s biggest burden. It hadn’t been her choice to go there, or even Rhett’s choice to guard her. Really, it was their own fault for taking all these silly rules so seriously. She got that there was a rich tapestry of history woven into the upcoming celebration, but how far did they really have to go with this?

“It was all right,” Rhett said, though Gael could tell that his face was telling a different story.

Shenar didn’t seem to notice, and if he did, he didn’t care and simply took Rhett at his word.

“That’s good. It is time for you to return back to the house with the Maiden. There are some preparations we must make that she cannot be here for. It is important that the two of you stay in tonight.”

“Why?” Gael asked before Rhett had a chance to accept Shenar at his word. She knew he was just as traditional as the other shifters here, even if he was a wolf-shifter and not a bear-shifter. He would probably never ask the question himself.

“Oh, dear Maiden. We must have some of our secrets,” Shenar said, chuckling. “She’s quite inquisitive. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a human in our midst, wouldn’t you say?”

Rhett nodded silently and Shenar guided them toward the edge of the camp.

“You two, please enjoy your night. There is much pleasantry to be had in a cozy home.”

“All right,” Gael said, still kind of put off by the whole situation. The elders sure could act strange sometimes. Why would it matter where she was for the night? She had half a mind to refuse, but that would cost her the honor of being the Maiden of the Harvest. That meant that her father would be sorely disappointed to find that she wasn’t living up to the one thing that she had ever done to make him happy. She couldn’t let that happen. It was too much.

“Let’s go,” Rhett grumbled, walking ahead of Gael and heading toward the house.

Once they were out of hearing range of the elder’s camp, Gael touched Rhett’s arm. He tensed up, but didn’t shrug off her touch the way she had expected him to.

“What’s wrong?” she asked quietly.

Rhett hesitated before looking down at her, his dark eyes tormented.

‘It’s kind of a long story,” he said. “I don’t know if you’d even be able to understand.”

“Maybe not, but I can listen,” Gael said.

He cast a dubious look at her and shrugged.

“Wow, I just keep running into you assholes today!”

Rhett’s throat vibrated in a deep growl and Gael sighed as Tommy approached them, this time with two of his buddies.

“What do you want now, Tommy?” he asked. “I;m under orders from the elders to get the Maiden back home. You don’t want to get in my way. I’m warning you.”

“Oh, don’t I?” Tommy asked, grinning at Rhett.

Tommy turned his eyes onto Gael and made a kissing face, and suddenly Tommy was on the ground. Rhett was unbelievably fast, his powerful blows striking Tommy’s face repeatedly. Gael watched in awe, her body frozen as she took in the horrific and violent display. The man was incredibly strong and talented, and yet the violence made her sick to her stomach. She had to turn away so she didn’t have to watch as Rhett finished with Tommy and stood up, the growl in his throat louder now than it had been before he’d even attacked.

“Who else wants to try it?” Rhett demanded. “Who else!”

The other two men helped Tommy to his feet and shook their heads at Rhett who was bellowing at them to get the hell out of here. Gael was trembling by the time Rhett turned back to her, his handsome face contorted in fury. When he saw her though, something in his expression changed instantly and he went to her, his face softer than it had been when he had been dealing with the bear-shifters.

“Are you all right?” he asked. He looked as if he wanted to reach out to touch her, but seemed pained by the idea and chose against it.

Although she was disappointed, in a way she was relieved. The force of the violence was more than a little bit intimidating and she just wanted to go somewhere she felt safe.

“I’m going to be fine,” she said, still unable to control her shaking hands. “Let’s just get out of here before anything else happens.”

“All right.”

They headed back to the house, Rhett walking beside her, strong, silent, and withdrawn. Gael was lost in thought, wondering just how long it would be before her life returned to normal.


When Gael finally emerged from the bathroom, Rhett couldn’t help but feel a little bit relieved. She had been in there for the better part of an hour. She had run a bath as soon as they had walked through the door, and he stood guard, worried the entire time about what she must think of him for losing his temper on Tommy like that.

Tommy had been his friend once. At least he thought he had been,yet Rhett hadn’t been able to control his temper when it came to Tommy’s attitude toward Gael. Maybe everybody was right, and he was taking his duties toward her too seriously. Still, there seemed to be an urgent sense within him—an instinct of some sort. She needed his protection and he was going to give it to her. He wasn’t going to fail this time. He was going to provide her with the security that his job required to provide to her. Not just because the elders had told him to do it, but because he legitimately cared about this woman. Who knew why, but the wolf had chosen her. she had been claimed right from the get-go. While she was in the bathroom, he could only imagine what she could be doing in there. Beyond her supple, beautiful body covered in warm water and lounging in a tub of bubbles, that is.

The wolf urged him to follow that train of thought, maybe even to poke his head in to try to see what he might get away with, but he was disgusted by the vulgar carnal impulse. The woman had been through a lot that day. The last thing he needed to do was go and prove to her that all men were nothing but horny animals. He wasn’t going to give her any trouble, whether the wolf liked it or not.

And yet, that resolve was very hard to back up when she looked at him like that, her gorgeous body hidden away in a silky robe, her sparkling blue eyes gazing at him innocently as she let the door swing open just wide enough that he could watch her as she began to blow-dry her hair. She was acting as if nothing at all about the situation was strange, and he couldn’t help but feel the fiery surge of longing that awoke the sleeping beast within. The wolf was on high alert, pointing out every little detail about the girl’s radiant body, recalling the incredible details of her body. He had half a mind to take her right then and there and say fuck it all to their roles as Maiden and Guardian. It was all just a show anyway. Nobody really gave that much of a shit. It wouldn’t be like it was really a matter of life or death here. Nobody cared if she actually was a virgin or not.

But he knew that she was. Rhett couldn’t let himself betray her trust. Just because they were stuck there together didn’t mean that he could let himself get consumed by his own selfish desires.

Still, recalling the scent of arousal that afternoon when he had knelt to check on her and their bodies had touched, he had never smelled anything sweeter than the scent of her longing, and his entire body ached for her.

“Are you feeling better?” Gael asked, turning off her hair dryer and turning her stunning, inquisitive gaze onto him.

For a moment his mouth was too dry to answer. He had so many thoughts running through his head. How was he supposed to allow them to jump from his lips and desecrate what little trust they had been able to build for each other? It had only been a couple of days since they had met for God’s sake. He couldn’t just let the wolf have its way. They were meant to be in it together for the next month; an entire month of this painful longing. How the hell was he going to do it?

“Rhett? I asked if you were feeling better. Where did your mind go?”

Rhett looked at the girl and smiled in spite of himself. She spoke to him so familiarly, as if they had known each other for years and years already.

“Sorry,” he said. “I guess I got distracted. And you know, I have had better days. I ran into some people from Stonybrooke, that’s all. I have a bad history there…”

Gael nodded sagely, as if she understood without him having to explain anymore. He was deeply grateful for the little gesture and sighed heavily as she came out from the bathroom to allow him to prepare for bed.

“You know, I think you’re going to find what you’re looking for one day,” Gael said, her deep blue eyes sparking mysteriously at him before he closed the bathroom door, shutting him in with only himself and his thoughts before bedtime.

He was surprised to find her sitting in the hallway when he finished, slumped against the wall with her nose in a book. She had on oversized reading glasses and she looked up at him, her beautiful face shining even behind the bulky black frames of her glasses. The wolf stirred. She was the perfect woman.

He shook the thought away and smiled at her.

“Let’s get to bed,” he said, surprised by how natural it felt to him to speak to her so candidly. As they walked down the hallway, he could almost imagine they would climb into the same bed together and Gael would turn on the bedside table to finish the last chapter of her book while he kissed her on the forehead and fell asleep beside her…

He forced the thoughts away, watching her carefully as she climbed into bed and, just as in his unwanted fantasy, turned on the bedside light and covered her long, smooth legs up with the quilt.

Rhett sighed and walked over to his cot, turning to face the wall. He knew if he let himself gaze at her, there would be no rest for him that night. There were just some things that a man knew, and Rhett knew that with Gael in his life, nothing was ever going to be the same.


The next week of the ceremony’s preparations went quickly and Gael found herself being whisked back and forth from the house to the encampment, where the elders spent an inordinate amount of time fitting her for gowns and feeding her strange foods that sometimes tasted delicious, and other times made her stomach churn.

By the time they were satisfied that her gown was just right, she had nearly believed she would lose her mind. They had her stand up on a large wooden crate, while the man who appeared to be the oldest among them squinted at her and took invasive measurements, pinning material here and poking her with a pin there, until the dress was complete.

It seemed to emerge out of thin air, because Gael never saw anybody there working on it. When she tried it on for the first time, Rhett was present, and when she caught his eye, he looked startled, almost as if he had seen something he shouldn’t have. There was a heat in his gaze and suddenly, her entire body felt as if it knew exactly what it was he was thinking of… and she realized she was thinking of it too. It was terrifying and exciting at the same time.

“Are you ready for the rehearsal?” Rhett asked her one morning after they had shared another incredible breakfast together. She was really going to miss this man’s cooking in the morning. There was nothing quite like enjoying the blend of flavors that Rhett’s wolf-shifter senses managed to make with ease. She would probably dream of his cooking for years after they parted.

“I suppose,” she said quietly. The thought of parting from him, even for a short time, suddenly, and deeply devastating her.

Rhett looked at her strangely. “Is something the matter?”

When she looked up at him, her eyes were filled with hot tears. It wasn’t just the thought of leaving him though, she was overwhelmed. Everything with the ceremony had been a lot more demanding than she had thought it would be, and now that they were together and alone, she felt safe enough to let that stress out. And yet it was embarrassing. She wanted to be as strong as the other shifters were and keep her pain to herself. Wolf-shifters were especially stoic, never letting on they were in pain until it was nearly too late to do anything to help them.

“I don’t know. Nothing in particular. I think I’m just kind of stressed out.”

“I understand,” Rhett said softly, coming to her and helping her to her feet.

She felt her body ignite in flames as he wrapped his strong arms around her, and she knew this was what she wanted. No matter how bad the timing was, no matter how little she knew him, there was something in her that wanted him more than she could ever describe.

“I don’t know if you can,” she whispered, looking up to peer into Rhett’s eyes. They flashed menacingly and suddenly she was in the air, her body engulfed in a wildfire of hot longing as Rhett’s lips covered hers. He lifted her onto the table passionately, pinning her. The friction of their middles nearly brought tears of excitement to her eyes and she gasped at the unexpected pleasure of his touch. She wanted him. She wanted him there and now, more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.

Rhett’s stubbled mouth found its way to the nape of her neck and sucked and kissed it endlessly, sending another wave of pleasure crashing down around her. Gael was lost in the passion of this man’s touch, and reached out to undress him, her hands trembling.

“No,” he breathed suddenly, pulling away from her.

Gael was left panting on the kitchen table as he walked out of the room, running his hands through his hair and cursing under his breath. “I’m sorry. We just can’t do this. Not like this. Not now.”

“The ceremony?” Gael exclaimed, getting off the table. When she stood, her legs felt like jelly and she nearly fell over. “We don’t actually have to…”

But there was no convincing him. Rhett shook his head and kept his back turned to her, as if he were afraid to look at her again lest his passion take over once again.

“I can’t… and it’s not only the ceremony. You told me you’re a virgin, and I just don’t think that here... now… like that? I don’t even know if you love me. A virgin should love the first person she is ever with, and how could you possibly love me?” He turned to her now, his dark eyes flashing and tortured. “You don’t know anything about me.”

Gael watched helplessly as Rhett moved swiftly up the stairs and locked himself in the bathroom. She slumped down on the steps, put her head in her hands and let the hot, silent tears fall in earnest this time.


As much as he tried not to, Rhett couldn’t help but begin to treat Gael differently after the encounter in the kitchen. He had wanted her so badly, and every time he looked at her the wolf within him stirred, anxious to take her for his own. Not only was that going against his job description, but he had a moral opposition now. He would never take the virginity of a girl who didn’t know for sure whether she was ready or not.

Gael seemed to be able to sense his change in attitude because she began to treat him more coolly. The atmosphere in the once pleasant house had grown aloof and distant and as much as he hated it, in a way he welcomed the change, fearing without it there would be no way for him to be able to focus on doing his job.

“Were you ever in love?” Gael asked him randomly one morning about a week after their tryst. Rhett paused, his mind considering all the female shifters he had encountered in his lifetime. He had been attracted to more than a few of them, but that didn’t mean that he had been in love. Nobody had awoken the wolf within him the way Gael had, but he couldn’t possibly tell her that. She would either think he was being facetious, or maybe that he was trying to get her into bed. Either way, he wouldn’t be able to trust his reality would be taken seriously and treated with the gravity he felt it deserved.

“No,” he said instead. “I guess I just never found the right person.”

Gael seemed to accept this, nodding slowly and turning back to her book.

He wanted to ask her why such a question was brought up so abruptly and deliberately when they had barely spoken to each other all week long. He supposed there were just some mysteries that a woman wanted to keep to herself, and even if she told him, he wasn’t sure that he would want to hear the answer.

They fell back into an excruciating silence, one that was finally interrupted by the shrill ring of the rotary phone sitting on the end table beside the couch where Rhett had begun to claim for himself as Gael had claimed the rocking chair. She looked so beautiful when she read. He had to tear his eyes away from her to keep the wolf at bay.

“Hello?” he answered, managing to keep his voice level despite the wolf’s agitation. Talking to Gael about his past love encounters had stirred the beast inside him, who never let a moment go by that would drive the point home just how much his claim on the girl meant to it. But he couldn’t let himself fixate on that. There were more important things to worry about and besides, if he didn’t take his role of Guardian seriously, who knew what might happen. The bear-shifters were very anti-technology for the most part, but if they weren’t he would have guessed they might even have cameras around the place just to make sure everybody was doing their duty properly and to the best of their abilities. The elders were a serious bunch, and he knew it was important to make sure everything was done by the book.

“Rhett, it is time for you to bring the Maiden to the colosseum.”

Rhett sighed inwardly. It was Shenar.

“There are a few key matters to discuss and a small ceremony we need both of you to participate in before the actual event. The time is coming near, you know.”

“All right,” Rhett said. “When do you need us to be there? The colosseum is kind of out of the way and the human can’t shapeshift.”

“Oh, we will give you the afternoon for safe travel. Just make sure she stays clean; the colosseum is a sacred space. It would be best if she did not have to touch the ground at all.”

Rhett gritted his teeth. What did they want him to do? Carry her on his back? The wolf seemed to perk up at the suggestion and Rhett tried to push it away. He would love to carry the Maiden through the forest, but she would never allow him to do so.

“I’ll just have her change her shoes or something,” Rhett said, unintentionally letting his agitation slip into his voice. “The terrain isn’t that hard. She should be fine.”

“As you wish,” Shenar said, though his tone was oddly menacing. “Though it would be truer to the texts if she were escorted properly. The Maiden is meant to be seen as pure. Although there will be some sacred cleansing, it is best if she is treated with the utmost honor and respect.”

“You mean practically carried to the colosseum, right?” Rhett said. Gael glanced at him, the edge in his voice apparently attracting her attention. He sighed. Couldn’t there be an easier way to go about this?

“Practically,” Shena agreed, his voice a little more jolly now. “But of course, that is all just from an old book that is not entirely relevant today. It is just for the sake of the Maidenhood. Although we do not use these ceremonies for the same reasons as the ancients did, the Maiden’s purpose is a symbolic one. She represents the purity of unconditional love and the innocence of true faith and optimism. Just think what it might mean to the girl to be treated with such an honor!”

Rhett had to admit, it would be nice for any girl to be treated like a princess. He supposed it wouldn’t hurt anything much to give in, even if it was a ridiculous demand. It was just the once. He wouldn’t have to be carrying her to the festival itself or anything. He would have to shift into his wolf form and walk beside her though, so that everybody knew that he was her guardian, and he would protect her to the death.

When he hung up the phone with Shenar, he looked at Gael who had torn her gaze away from her book and was watching him suspiciously.

“What happened? What do they want me to do?” she asked.

“They want me to escort you to the colosseum for some ritual thing about the Maiden and the Guardian.”

“Why were you so upset about that?” she asked, not letting Rhett’s eyes drop away from hers. She was intent upon getting her answers.

“They want me to carry you,” he said. “It just seemed a little bit extreme, that’s all.”

“Carry me? Like I’m some kind of an infant or something?” Gael asked, raising her eyebrow at him. She was kind of sexy when she was indignant.

“No,” Rhett said. “They wanted you to ride on my back. The Maidens in the past probably rode on their Guardian’s backs when they were in their bear forms as a way to keep them safe.”

“But you’re not a bear-shifter,” Gael said, frowning. “You’re a wolf-shifter.”

Rhett raised his bow at her now. “I know that.”

“Isn’t that a little more dangerous for you? Wolves are a little bit…smaller than bears.”

Now the wolf was livid and Rhett couldn’t have kept the next words in his mouth if he had the most self-control of anybody in his pack. “That doesn’t make any difference at all. You watch me. I can carry you the entire way and it wouldn’t be any different for either of us than it would be if you were riding a bear-shifter!”

Gael’s eyes flashed and the wolf suddenly seemed content that it had made its point and disappeared back within Rhett, who was left to fend for himself after the beast’s outburst.

“All I’m saying is, they want us to play by the book and it wouldn’t bother me any to take you the way they want me to take you. I can handle it, really You should probably get ready. Thy want us to get there sooner rather than later.”

Gael looked at him for a moment, her face resigned. At first he didn’t think she was going to agree to it but she surprised him by letting out a small, sad sigh.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”


It was strange to bear witness to her first shape-shifting, especially knowing the man who was doing it expected her to mount his back so she could be carried off into the forest as if she were some sort of virgin prize. And yet there was something secretly thrilling about it; she had never thought in all her years she would be able to be so near such a powerful, primal event. Stepping into the private back yard of the house that had been designated for the Maiden and her Guardian, Rhett looked at her with his eyes cast dark and she felt a deep thrill surge through her body. The transformation was about to begin.

Gael’s heart tremored as Rhett turned his eyes away from her and his face was clouded over by a faraway look. She could sense the power within him as it grew more and more intense, awakening from its deep slumber within his human form and beginning to course through his body as if it had always been there all along, if only he would ask for it.

His body began to grow, not shrink as she imagined it would, and tufts of deep black fur began to sprout all over his body as the powerful wolf began to take its form. Rhett’s limbs stretched and expanded and then hunkered down toward the ground as he became more canine in appearance than human.

Gael had never seen anything like it. On the estate, she had only heard and seen the things that had to do with bears; her father had been obsessed. She even wondered if he had only married her mother because it would bring him closer to his obsession. But now she was actually in front of a man as he tapped into the strange beauty of his truest form, she was awe-stricken.

Finally, the wolf let out a small growl and stretched before turning its deep brown eyes upon Gael. He walked to her and then stopped, as if to show her that it was okay.

He was much larger than she had thought he would be. Most wolves she had seen in captivity were about the size of normal house dogs. This wolf was about triple the size of that. He knelt before her, bowing his head to allow her to climb on his back.

Gael’s mouth became dry very suddenly and a nervous apprehension kept her in place. She had to try to calm herself down before coming anywhere closer to him. The experience had just been too overwhelming.

The wolf seemed to understand and waited there patiently, allowing her time to collect her thoughts and regain mastery over her body. By the time she finally did move toward him, the only thought in her mind was how silly it was to imply that she might crush such a creature. The only person in danger here was her.

With trembling hands, she climbed onto Rhett’s back and held tightly to the thick black fur around his neck. When he was sure she was secure, he stood slowly and took off at a trot. It reminded her of when she was a child and she had gotten a pony ride, though it was really nothing like it at all. Soon, Rhett was running quickly through the forest, testing her ability to grip onto him without losing her balance.

Once she was comfortable on his back, she was surprised by how enjoyable it was. She felt as if she were flying through the air with nothing between herself and the rest of the earth except Rhett. She could have ridden the wolf for hours and couldn’t help but feel disappointed when it came time for her to dismount in front of the intimidating colosseum.

Gael felt a sharp burst of surprise and arousal when she turned back to Rhett after climbing off his back and found him standing before her, fully nude. He didn’t seem too embarrassed about it, he simply turned away from her and walked into the colosseum. By the time she managed to make her way inside behind him, he had already slipped on a pair of pants that had apparently been waiting for him.

“Welcome, Maiden,” Shenar said, bowing deeply at Gael when she stepped inside. Rhett stayed off to the side watching them both with dark, pensive eyes. “Please come to the center. We ae ready for you now.”

Gael’s stomach sank when she looked out toward the center of the arena. There were about twelve of the elders standing in a circle. Waiting for Shenar and Gael to join them. In the seats surrounding them sat a handful of hooded figures, none of which were showing any identifying features whatsoever. They all looked vaguely terrifying, and when she stepped into the field on her way toward the elders, a chilling wave of fear swept over her.

Somehow, Rhett seemed to sense this because he was suddenly between her and the elders, a deep growl in his throat. Shenar laughed.

“This is not surprising,” he said. “The wolf-shifters are diametrically opposed to bear-shifter magic.”

Something about it made Gael uneasy, but Rhett nodded.

“Yes. Anything this unfamiliar is considered dangerous. I have had this reaction before. You are safe, human.”

Gael swallowed, unsure of what to make of the whole situation. Although she had been starting to trust Rhett, she couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there wasn’t something strange about the whole situation.

Before she could think too deeply about it though, Shenar and another elder named Geven were tugging her forward, one on each side of her, toward a small pool of water behind the circle of elders.

“Come, human, you must go inside to be cleansed of all the sins of this world so that your soul is to be considered as pure as your body before the celebration can begin.”

Rhett was watching closely, and she tried to hold his gaze, but he was focused more on Shenar, whose face seemed sinister to her now just as it always did, no matter how kind he tried to make himself appear. The elders made her deeply uncomfortable, but that was the price of magic. Her father had already told her before that those who were able to walk in the ways of the ancient arts may have a severe quality about them; a sort of heaviness or darkness that most people were not accustomed to. She tried to brush her concern away, knowing that magic could simply change a person’s energy and approach to life, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not feel at ease.

Her comfort didn’t seem to matter though, and soon she found herself neck-deep in a cold pool of water. The elders stood around it and began chanting suddenly, a brief blessing that made her skin crawl. Or maybe it was just the coolness of the water soaking through her clothing; whatever it was though all she knew was that she couldn’t wait for the ritual to be done.

“All right, you may exit the pool now, human.”

Gael’s face blushed a furious red. Her gown was clinging to her body and all eyes turned to her as she climbed out of the water feeling very exposed. However, the elders were not looking at her for long. They headed back toward the center of the colosseum as Shenar and Geven led her along with them. She searched for Rhett in the crowd, for it was only he that made her feel safe. If anything strange happened she knew instinctively he would be there to protect her, no matter how strained their relationship might be.

When she caught Rhett’s eye, there was something intense about the way he was staring at her, as if he was doing his best to hold himself back from doing something she wasn’t sure she would want. It made her afraid in a way, but not in the same way that the elders made her afraid. This fear had more to do with the fact that when it came to Rhett, it wasn’t Rhett that she didn’t trust. It was herself.

The realization left her feeling utterly confused and alone, but soon those feelings were replaced by another wave of discomfort as the elders surrounded her and began to chant. Shenar disappeared from the circle and led Rhett just outside her reach and together, they were touched by each elder as the ceremony came to a close.

When it was over, Gael shivered and Rhett frowned.

“Aren’t you going to give her something to dry herself off with?”

Shenar looked startled, as if he hadn’t even considered doing such a thing and Gael’s stomach dropped. She was going to be freezing all the way home. Just her luck.

“We presumed it would be the Guardian’s job to see to the Maiden’s comfort.”

“That’s bullshit!” Rhett growled. Gael turned to him, her eyes wide. She had always heard the shifters were more aggressive just after a transformation, but she had never seen it for herself. Normally, Rhett would have just done anything the elders told him to do without any question. “You should have told me you were going to dunk her in a pit of water then! Especially if you weren’t going to hold yourselves accountable for her safety.”

“This is not a matter of safety as much as the human’s comfort,” Shenar said dismissively. “The Maiden will be fine.”

“Like hell,” Rhett snarled, tearing the white shawl off of Shenar and wrapping it around Gael. Her heart melted at the act, though she was too horrified by the brutish way it had happened for her to speak.

“Next time you want to do something so reckless, think of the human. She could get sick! Then you wouldn’t have a Maiden for the Harvest.”

Shenar didn’t speak, though the atmosphere in the colosseum turned dark and grim as the elders all turned their attention to Rhett and his outburst. Gael almost felt bad for having not had the willpower to keep herself from shivering. Maybe if she had been more stoic like Rhett was, none of this would be happening.

Rhett turned away, not seeming to care one wit what the elders did or thought of him. She was beginning to realize the wolf-shifters were single-minded and stubborn. It was their nature to speak their mind and do as they pleased, no matter who was in the way. Even the elders.

“Come on, Gael. Let’s get you somewhere warm as soon as possible. Someone here has to consider your well-being.”

And with that, another powerful transformation was occurring, and soon Gael was back on Rhett’s back, clinging to him as he wove his body through the forest and on the way back home.


When they arrived back at the house, Rhett shape-shifted and went inside quickly, trying to ignore the sensual heat that emanated from Gael’s body as she watched his naked form disappear inside. He wrapped a towel around his waist and sought out a thick blanket from the living room, then brought it out to Gael and ushered her inside. He couldn’t believe how careless the elders had been, leaving her to freeze like that. Bear and wolf-shifters may have a hearty constitution, but those who were mostly human were much more fragile. Why hadn’t they taken that into consideration?

“Come on,” Rhett said gruffly, wrapping the blanket around Gael’s shoulders and ushering her inside. “You should get in the shower. Make sure it’s warm but not too hot at first. You can warm it up more once you’re used to the temperature. That might help you to get those bones of yours warmed up.”

He could feel Gael’s slight body wrapped up in his arms as he led her upstairs and the scent of her arousal nearly made him lose his mind. He wanted so badly to claim her officially, but there was no way he could let that happen. Whether the elders were inconsiderate or not, he was the Guardian and it was up to him to make sure she was safe, at all costs.

He stood outside the bathroom door, waiting until he was sure she was safe and comfortable before closing the door and sinking down on the floor against the wall. He wanted to do anything possible to protect her, but maybe he had gone too far with the elders. They might stop wanting him to be the Guardian and strip him from his position. That would mean that his honor would be lost and he would have to leave again, only to be exiled from two places he had tried to make his home.

The thought was disconcerting and he stood now, prowling up and down the hall as he listened to the girl shower. The wolf within him was alert for any sign she might still be feeling the spark of arousal that he had been unable to ignore within her all day long. The wolf was great at sniffing that out, and the thought that she wanted him nearly as much as he wanted her only encouraged the beast within him.

Finally, he heard the water in the shower turn off and Gael emerged, her body glistening and wet, just barely concealed behind a fluffy white towel. She looked more radiant than he had ever seen her and he nearly gripped her right then and there to show her just how serious he was about his claim.

But he had to walk ahead of her, tear his eyes away, and fight the wolf with all his might. She was a virgin, for God’s sake... a virgin who needed to remain a virgin. He had already fucked enough things up today with the elders, the last thing they needed to find was that he had taken her back to the one place she was supposed to be safe and desecrated her right after they had cleansed her of any earthly impurities she might have, though Rhett found it difficult to believe she might have any. In his eyes, she was damn near perfect. A little bossy maybe, and kind of sarcastic, but he wouldn’t have her any other way.

No. he wouldn’t have her at all. Period. She was his to protect, not to desecrate. There would be no fun for the wolf tonight. He would see to it that she made it safely and into some warm pajamas and then her bed, and then they would take it from there.

“Thank you.”

Rhett was startled out of his agonizing thoughts by the gentle, sweet voice of the Maiden and he turned to her, his eyes wild and confused.

“For what?” he asked, his mouth dry. He didn’t deserve any thanks for his thoughts. The wolf was driving him forward toward would could ultimately result in being one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

“For the shawl… for everything,” Gael said softly. “You just actually had my back out there, and I appreciate it. Those guys are taking this whole thing a little far. It’s kind of weird.”

Rhett nodded, but had to turn away again as the wolf paced tirelessly within him. Gael was still naked under that towel. One little movement could bare her totally before him, and then he could show her just what it was she was thanking him for. Chances were high that she would stop being grateful then. His thoughts toward her were impure. And whether she took her role as the maiden seriously or not, the fact was, she was pure, and taking that away from her was something he would never be willing to do. Not unless…

“It’s not a problem. They shouldn’t have done that to you, is all. Don’t mention it.”

He said this without looking at her, eager for her to go into the room and retrieve her pajamas. He wouldn’t be able to hold himself back for much longer. She needed to get herself decent and go to bed. Now.

“Yeah. Well, thank you anyway. I just want you to know it means a lot to me.”

The wolf was pacing restlessly within him. One more second out in that hallway together and he wasn’t sure what might happen. When she finally disappeared into the bedroom he let out a long, low sigh of relief. That had been close.

Rhett could tell when it was safe to enter because the out of control energy, confused and sexual and angsty that the human was emitting started to calm down. He could imagine her gifting her body with warm, luxurious clothes and enveloping herself within the comfort of her sheets and blankets. Although he knew she was feeling a little bit more balanced and in control of herself, he waited for her to let him know she was ready. It had been an odd day, after all, and he didn’t want to intrude. A little time apart would probably do them both some good. He knew the wolf needed it.

But there would be no cold showers for him tonight. No, he was going to stay up with her, because the wolf was hell bent on guarding her. Whether it was from the dangers of men in pursuit of her purity, or from the elders who put her comfort and health at risk by callously dumping her in the water without so much as a towel, he would protect her with his life, if needed.

“You can come in now,” Gael’s gentle voice finally said. Rhett took a deep breath. With any luck, they would soon both be asleep and be able to put this day behind them.

***

“I don’t expect you to do everything by the book, young man. This is, of course, just for show more than anything. While the meanings and traditions are valuable, there is no reason why I would be angry at you for what happened at the ritual.”

Shenar smiled at Rhett, who was baffled by the elder’s seeming acceptance of his misdeeds. He had been livid toward them. Why weren’t they going to punish him?

“I still feel badly about it, so please accept my apologies. It wasn’t my intention to be so out of line.”

“Oh, Rhett. You had just undergone a transformation. If anything, it proved to us that we chose the right man. You are a man who takes his duty as a Guardian very seriously. You are very invested in the safety and comfort of the Maiden. It shows great strength of character.”

“Well, I think it showed great capability to be an asshole,” Rhett said, looking down at the ground. “I appreciate your understanding.”

Shenar beamed, and they sat in silence a few moments, listening to the elders instructing the human with great animation how she was to greet the crowds that were going to watch her ride by on Rhett’s back as they brought her to the colosseum to conduct the ceremony. None of the townspeople were to actually enter the place. They would stand at the side of the road and watch her ride by, along with a brief parade put on by the elders. It was a great to do, and everybody was very excited. The day was quickly approaching.

“We know much about your past, Rhett. We want you to know we believe greatly in second chances. There will be a moment during the ceremony where we will extend our hands to you in the hopes that you may be able to take on a great role of power and leadership in the community here. You have more than earned it. We know how trying it can be to share such an intimate space with quite an attractive female…”

Rhett froze up, trying to suppress the huge surge of emotions that arose within him at the thought of Gael and what he had seen of her body. He was grateful that nothing more had happened than that, and yet the wolf was remaining extremely vexed. Nothing would satisfy it. Nothing but Gael.

“I am duty-bound to protect her,” Rhett said, having a hard time believing his own words with the wolf afoot, “and I am honored to be taking place in the ceremony and considered for such a position of influence. You have my deepest gratitude.”

“We know you won’t let us down,” Shenar said, smiling brightly. “Ah, here comes the Maiden now! Are you all set, my dear?”

Gael sidestepped Shenar’s outstretched hand and Rhett nearly laughed out loud at the displeasure on the old man’s face. Rhett couldn’t blame Gael for not wanting to be touched, especially not after what had happened the night before. If he were a young woman spending all this time with these intimidating old men, he would put his barriers up too.

“Yes, I’m ready to go,” Gael said, stepping behind Rhett and peering out at Shenar from over his shoulder.

“Then we should get out of here,” Rhett said.

“Good,” Gael said quietly. “I’m hungry.”

Shenar laughed a little too forcefully and Rhett could feel her tense up behind him.

“Take care, Shenar. We will see you tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Shenar said. “That you will. Take care.”

Rhett turned away, his mind spinning. Gael didn’t trust the elders after what had happened and in a way, he was starting not to trust them either. Was it possible what Axel had told him about them was true?

He shook the thought away. It couldn’t be possible. No, he had to try to keep the faith. There was no way he was going to betray the elders now, not when he was so close to finally having everything he had always wanted: Stability. Recognition. A pack that truly accepted him for who he was. There was nothing that would stand in his way now, and the wolf would see to that.


“Gael, wake up,” Rhett’s deep voice whispered so close to her ear that her body was immediately on fire. She moaned, more from arousal than from being roused from sleep and opened her eyes, fixing them on Rhett’s darkly handsome form. He was leaning over her, so close she could smell the rugged, outdoorsy aroma of his body. It nearly drove her mad.

“Why?” she whispered, wishing there was a way to sink further into her mattress and avoid this man and these unwanted feelings for him.

“The elders are demanding you go for one more recital. The ceremony is at three AM tomorrow and we have to be prepared.”

“Do I have to?” Gael moaned, sitting up. The mention of the elders was enough to quell any thoughts of arousal that might’ve sprung up in her mind. The last thing she wanted was to hear more of their obnoxious rules and have them poking and prodding and measuring her. It seemed like they took any excuse possible to touch her and it made her uncomfortable. “I really hate this stuff.”

“Well, it will be over soon. Like, tomorrow,” Rhett said with a soft chuckle. Her body was once again awakened by the lilt of his voice and she looked into his brown eyes with a soft sigh.

“I don’t want to be the Maiden anymore,” she said. She was talking both about the ceremony and about real life. Her body was very insistent, telling her exactly what it wanted and with whom and it seemed cruel to rob herself any longer. Even if it ruined the ceremony, wouldn’t it be worth it to be able to be true to herself and her needs?

“That’s too bad,” Rhett said, gripping her by the hand and helping her out of bed, “because you’re stuck with it. After tomorrow, you’re going to wish you could have another chance like this someday. You’ll go back to your normal life with your family and never have to come back and see any of us again.”

The thought was crushing, and she frowned up at Rhett whose eyes flashed at her as if he could sense exactly what she was feeling. But if that were true then she was in big trouble, because nothing she had been feeling for him lately was very innocent.

“I guess,” she mumbled.

“Look, it’s time to get ready. They’re on my ass about this and it’s kind of important to me that we do everything right this last stretch. There’s a lot at stake here for me.”

Rhett stared into her eyes and Gael found herself lost in them, wondering just what might motivate a man like Rhett. What did he care about? What truly drove him onward? She would give anything to know.

However, he seemed more impatient than forthcoming about all his inner workings at the moment, and Gael sighed.

“All right. Give me some space and I’ll get dressed.”

Relief washed over Rhett and he smiled at her, his handsome face seeming lighter now than it had been when she had first opened her eyes to see him kneeling above her.

“Good. I’ll meet you outside.”

***

The trek to the elder’s encampment seemed even longer that day than it usually did. Maybe because they were being very quiet. Gael had been lost in thought, wondering why she had felt so lost and alone at the idea of going back to the state with her father. Sure, she cared about him, but maybe being at home wasn’t as comfortable as she had thought it was.

Now that she had been able to get a taste of what the world outside the estate was like, she was eager to learn more about it. The thought of going back made her feel suffocated, and the idea of leaving Rhett… she couldn’t even begin to process that one yet. It was too much.

“All right,” he said, cutting into her thoughts as they rounded the path to the elder’s camp. “Here we are. I’m supposed to drop you off with Shenar. We’ll see each other again at three AM tomorrow when the ceremony is supposed to begin.”

“Really?” she asked, unable to keep the disappointed whine out of her voice. Ever since they had dunked her in the pool in the middle of the forest, she hadn’t trusted them to be left alone with her. Rhett had seemed to understand this without ever having speaking of it, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter so much this time. She was being dropped off. That meant he was going to leave.

“I’m afraid so, but try not to worry. You’re in good hands. They will not harm the Maiden of the Harvest. That would be counterintuitive.”

“Are you leaving?” she asked, stopping before they entered the camp. “What are you supposed to be doing?”

Rhett sighed. “It’s top secret. Guardian stuff. Don’t worry about me. You just go in there and get this over with. I’ll come back for you. Everything will be fine and then after tomorrow, you’ll never have to deal with this again.”

Gael wished she could be relieved by the news, but somehow it only made her feel worse. It reminded her that Rhett was no longer going to be in her life, and even though all of these comings and goings were overwhelming, they were also kind of exciting in a way. She just wished her trust in the elders hadn’t been broken.

“All right,” she sighed. “Just a few hours.”

Rhett winked at her, a handsome grin on his face and then turned away, leaving her alone at the entrance of the Guardian’s encampment. Gael’s eyes lingered on his broad, muscular back for a few moments before Shenar’s voice broke into her thoughts.

“Come now, Maiden. There is much to be done.”

***

Shenar was being oddly quiet that day. Usually, he was talking quickly, almost like a salesman trying to get her to buy something as they headed through the camp, telling her all about what she should expect. Now, the entire camp felt somber in a way, and it left Gael feeling uneasy. It was already hard to trust these elders, but especially after they had left her freezing in the middle of the woods with only Rhett to help her.

“There are some preparations we must make. You will be in Ankar’s tent this morning where you will be briefed and prepared for what will follow,” Shenar said, stopping suddenly in front of a tent made of black canvas. There was an ancient bear symbol on it above the entry way that somehow frightened her enough to dig her heels in the dirt and look for a way out.

“Are you sure it’s that important? Gael asked, laughing nervously. “It’s just a little parade. What more could there be to it?”

Shenar turned to her, his eyes dull and serious. “You have come this far, human, have you not? It is just this final preparation, and then you will no longer need fret over these details. We understand these are not your customs, so please just have patience for now. All will become clear in time.”

Gael swallowed hard and nodded, following Shenar into Ankar’s tent. Inside, the strong scent of incense nearly made her light-headed and she took a deep breath. Nothing would happen to her. Everything was fine. She would be okay.

“There is another cleansing you must do,” Ankar said once Shenar disappeared from the tent. “Please remove your clothing.”

Gael’s heart thudded hard in her chest. “No way. That’s really not necessary.”

“Actually, it is,” Ankar said. “Your father told us you would abide by all customs in this matter. He knows in detail what is meant to happen and supports our cause completely. He thought you would be the same.”

Gael looked down at her chest, where the locket her father had sent her was resting. If she didn’t do what the elders asked of her, he would never forgive her. It was his one chance to feel like a part of something greater than himself. He resented the fact that it was Gael who inherited the shifter estate, not he, so doing this and showing what a proud, noble family he was a part of seemed to mean everything to him. She could not let him down.

“All right,” Gael said, taking a deep breath. “But please do not touch me.”

Ankar shot her a twisted smile. “Of course not, my dear. All will be well. This is just ceremonial. Nobody will see your body but I.”

With a sharp flick of the wrist, Ankar unleashed a dark bolt of magic that darkened the room and lit all the candles in the tent. It was disconcerting, and a wave of fear washed over Gael. Something was off here, but there was no going back now. She had to do right by her father. Besides, Rhett said he would be there to protect her and that the elders would not harm her. She had to believe in somebody. She just hoped that he was right about this.

“And now,” Ankar said, his voice deep and disembodied. “We will begin. Do not speak, even if you should feel the urge to scream. Everything is going to be all right.”

A shocking wave of energy struck Gael and suddenly her world went black. She slumped onto the ground, her final conscious thought on Rhett and what he was going to do to these old bastards once he saw what they had done.

She slipped into unconsciousness just as she heard the other elders in the camp file into the tent and begin to whisper about what they were going to do with her. But their voices were hushed and she lost consciousness not knowing what was going to happen.

“Now,” Shenar said, beaming at Ankar. “The real fun can begin.”


“Axel. Thank you for meeting me here.”

Rhett had been waiting outside of Stonybrooke nervously ever since he had parted ways with Gael. She had been so upset he almost hadn’t wanted to go but he knew he had to meet with Axel. He had been doing some research after what had happened with Gael at the colosseum, and he wasn’t liking what he found.

“Yeah, man. No problem. So, what’s this about?” Axel asked, his deep blue eyes boring into Rhett’s.

Rhett sighed. “To start with, I wanted to tell you I’m sorry about how I acted before. I know I can be kind of an ass, and that gets me into trouble sometimes. It’s not natural for a wolf to apologize for being a wolf but since I’ve already been exiled and everything, you should know. I regret my actions and even though I’m sure you don’t want to help me, I need to know what you were saying. Finish telling me what you tried to tell me earlier.”

Axel surprised Rhett by smiling.

“All right, but not here. Come on, let’s go somewhere where the bears can’t listen in.”

Rhett was startled. “You mean in Stonybrooke?”

Axel shook his head. “No, but close. On the outskirts. There’s some heavy magic that protects us from the bear magic. You’ve been entrenched in their world for too long to take any chances. Come with me.”

Rhett followed Axel for a few miles, walking quickly until they reached a small grove of trees. The familiar feeling of shifter-magic nearly choked Rhett. He had been away from his own kind far too long and all of the memories he’d had that were involving shifter-magic had to do with his childhood. He tried not to think much about it; the memories of his parents were distant and painful.

But here, he had no choice. He was on his home turf with another wolf-shifter, and they were about to discuss some very serious matters.

“All right,” Axel said, once he was certain that they were safe. “Here’s the thing. Nobody knows for sure whether it will open the portals. The ancients used the sacrifice of the Maiden to try it and a few people disappeared into it but were never heard from again. At least, according to legend. Even if it works, it’s dangerous to the people who go through it and—”

“Wait. Sacrifice?!”

Rhett was stunned. Sure, he had read some horrible things about the ceremony involving the Maiden of the Harvest. Gael had tons of books, most she admitted she hadn’t read yet, and he had stayed up late during the night long after she had fallen asleep to read about the ancient bear-shifter customs.

He hadn’t liked what he’d read about how the Maiden was often burned by the forces of the dark magic as the bear-shifters did their best to pull enough of the power gained from her purity out of her and use her body as a channel for their magic. He knew it was a little dangerous, but he hadn’t heard anything about a sacrifice.

“Yeah. After the elders desecrate the virgin, her body is sacrificed. Her blood will open the portal.”

Rhett’s hackles rose and the wolf within him nearly came out right then and there. “You don’t think they would go that far, do you?”

“That’s why we approached you, Rhett. We do think they would go that far and you do too, or else you wouldn’t be here.”

“Shit,” Rhett growled to himself. “The ceremony is tonight… well, technically early in the morning tomorrow. I have to make sure nothing happens to her.”

“Do you need any reinforcements?” Axel asked, his eyes serious. “I know you haven’t been able to count much on your pack in the past, but if you need us, we’ll be there. Just tell us where to go.”

Rhett’s eyes darkened. “Are you sure anybody would even care? The Maiden is a human descended from bear-shifter royals, and everybody in Stonybrooke hates me after what I did.”

“Look, even if they did hate you, and they don’t, not really, they would still do the right thing when it comes to the human. What they’re planning for tonight isn’t right, no matter which way you look at it and only you can stop it. If you need us, we’ll be ready just in case things go south. We won’t let the human be hurt if there is anything we can do about it. However, only our own elders can combat the dark magic of the bear shifter-elders and they’re not capable of fighting. That means we’ll have to guard the elders. You will have to take care of the rest.”

“I can do that,” Rhett said, nodding grimly. “Thank you, Axel.”

Axel smiled. “You’ll always be family to me. Now go. The Maiden needs you.”

Rhett nodded, his chest tight. Who knew what kinds of things they were doing to Gael right now in preparation of their dark ceremony? He had to hurry.

Without another word, he shifted into his wolf form and took off down the pathway, back to Tanka. Back to where Gael was waiting for him.

***

When Rhett arrived back in Tanka, he went immediately to the elder’s encampment in search of Gael. What he found there chilled him. The place was completely deserted. He sniffed the ground, following Gael’s scent to the dark tent in the center of the camp. It stopped there. Something terrible was going on. Gael and the elders were gone.

“Back so soon?”

Rhett whipped around, growling at Shenar who was smiling deviously at him. Before he could lunge at the man, Shenar snapped a collar around Rhett’s neck and he felt all his strength melting away. What the hell was going on?

“This is quite a special little device, Rhett. It helps us to keep the circus beasts trained. We had figured you to be the stupid type, not likely to catch on to our little plan, but apparently you have… and so we must conduct the ceremony without your consent. Of course, you will still participate. It is customary to have a wolf sacrificed with the Maiden. How else do you think the portal is able to be opened?”

Rhett did his best to fight against the power of the collar, but it was enchanted. Shenar’s smile widened.

“It is no use fighting this,” he said, snapping a leash onto the collar and chuckling. “It is enchanted. Now, you must come with me. There is much work to be done and so little time in which to do it.”

***

Shenar led Rhett through the camp and into the back woods where they bypassed the main street of the town. At first he thought they were going to the colosseum, but it turned out there was somewhere else that Shenar had in mind. When they halted, Rhett’s stomach dropped.

Gael was lying on a flat slab of stone, her body nude and only barely concealed in white ceremonial gown of gossamer. He could sense that nothing had been done to her yet, but the implication that something would happen was clear. His blood boiled and once again he tried everything within his power to escape the clutches of his collar. The magic on it was strong though, and he was utterly helpless as the bear-shifter elders surrounded the woman he loved and began to chant.

Love?

But he didn’t have time to second guess the thought. His hackles raised as their gaze turned to him and a jolt of energy caused him to lose his balance. He, too, fell on the ground and yelped out in pain. This seemed to amuse them and he sensed a spike of energy from Gael, as if some part of her had heard his pain and wanted to come to him. It fueled his rage and he did everything in his power to get back on his feet. It worked for a moment, but they hit him again with another bolt of energy and he dropped back down to the ground. His legs were shaking on his second attempt, but the last attack left him powerless and panting.

The elders seemed peeved by this development and shook their heads, speaking amongst themselves in disgust before turning their attention back to Gael, whose chest was rising and falling rapidly now as the magic that surrounded her began to become more sinister. Rhett watched helplessly as the magic grew more intense and Gael’s body began to rise in the air. He was horrified, wondering if the sacrifice was going to happen now and he would be powerless to stop it.

However, almost as quickly as it happened, it ended, and Gael was placed back on the stone slab.

“Her body, and the wolf’s, have located the portal. Their vital energies combined created the pathway for the magic to flow. The ceremony may commence!”

With that, Shenar tugged his leash and Rhett was forced to follow along behind him, his tail between his legs as the other elders transported Gael back to the encampment to prepare for the rest of the night’s festivities.

***

Rhett had spent the majority of the day miserable and locked in a cage, with Shenar and his cronies pacing back and forth, consumed by the ceremony’s preparations. Nobody in the town knew that anything was amiss and Rhett couldn’t sense any of the other shifters out in the outskirts of Tanka. He was alone.

Gael was in the same room, though instead of being caged, she was bound to a chair in the middle of the room. She had since regained consciousness and stared at Rhett with crystal clear eyes full of concern and fear. Her mouth was gagged and she was struggling against her confines, certain she would find a way to get out of this mess. Rhett still hadn’t been able to shapeshift back into his human form, and resented the hell out of the elders. They had just been playing him from the start. He should have known. Why had he been so stupid?

“All right, you two,” Shenar said finally, fixing a cool smile on Gael who abruptly stopped struggling against her confines. “It is time for the ceremony to begin. Remember, there is no good to be had in trying to escape. You are vastly outnumbered and anybody who causes a disturbance here is going to face serious consequences. Is that understood?”

Rhett’s stomach sank as Gael was forced to nod to Shenar, who then clapped his hands together and laughed gleefully. “Oh, this is going to be so much fun! We have been waiting for our opportunity to do this for decades!”

Rhett growled deeply and Shenar chuckled again, shaking his head before stepping back from the cage as two young, buff bear-shifters came inside, unlocking the cage and putting the leash onto the collar around Rhett’s neck. Shenar released Gael, who was too afraid to move, and took her to the corner where he draped a gown of white silk upon her. When that was completed, he walked with her to the edge of the camp and Rhett begrudgingly followed along behind her, his hackles raised despite his lack of will. All he could do was follow. It was the angriest he had ever been in his life.

To Rhett’s horror, the entire town was out and the main street was decorated with multicolored lights. Everybody was cheering, even though it was clear that Rhett and Gael were prisoner. It dawned upon him suddenly that the entire town had actually always known just what their purpose for being in the ceremony was. In fact, they had treated him excessively like shit because of the supposed honor, when they had been playing them both all along.

The parade was beginning and Shenar pushed Gael toward him, having her mount him just as she had during their time in the forest on the way to the colosseum. If she could undo the clasp of the collar, maybe they would have half a chance. But there was no way to communicate this to her and even if she tried, it was possible she wouldn’t even be able to get it off.

The weight of Gael’s body on him brought the rage back to Rhett’s chest. He was going to have to find a way out of this, no matter what it took. He wouldn’t let the elders have their way. Not this time.


The eerie feeling of all the bear-shifters watching them as they made their somber descent down Tanka’s main street gave Gael goosebumps. She had no idea what was going to happen, but she had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. She needed to know that everything was going to be okay, but the way things were unfolding, that seemed unlikely. She was in real danger, and Rhett couldn’t help her.

The elders were lined up, half in front of them and half behind, followed by a small wheeled platform that had an old woman on it surrounded by candles and waving incense. The smells wafted to where she was perched on top of Rhett’s back and although it was sweet-smelling, it made her feel sick.

Shenar was heading the parade, being pulled forward by the two burly bear-shifters that had come in to release Rhett from his cage. They had transformed and been hooked to the head float where Shenar was chanting in ancient bear language, as the bear-shifters in the audience cheered and threw acorns and leaves in the air.

Gael’s heart trembled as the parade made its way further and further toward the end of the town line. It didn’t seem to be stopping, and soon they were walking through the forest in the eerie calm, the way lit only by candles that each of the elders were holding. It was a spooky procession, each man in a deep black robe, their faces grim and pale, with long shadows making them each appear even more unnerving than they looked during the day.

“And now, we shall proceed with the ceremony!” Shenar shouted in English. The bear-shifters all the way at the edge of town hadn’t followed, but their distant cheers echoed through the forest, bringing a jolt of fear through Gael’s body. Why was this happening to her? Had her father known this was a possibility?

Gael’s blood ran cold when she saw the silhouette of the colosseum in the distance and she could feel Rhett tense up beneath her. He was clearly livid and he kept trying to crane his neck up at her, but couldn’t quite manage it with the elder in front of them pulling the leash he had in his grip. It was sadistic, and the whole situation was making her feel sick with fear and anger.

When they approached the entrance of the colosseum, Shenar and a few of the elders began singing and the ground started to tremble beneath their feet. A sinister energy filled the air and Shenar let out a sharp burst of laughter. “It is working! Come, bring the Maiden and the Guardian. It is time for the harvest!”

Gael and Rhett lurched forward as one of the strong elders forced them forward and into the colosseum. This time, the bleachers were crowded with bodies all wearing the same dark hoods as the elders were, and they stood up and let out a spooky humming noise when they saw that Rhett and Gael were coming forward.

A sudden burst of static crackled through the air and all the bear-shifters became silent and alert, looking startled as they sought the source of the noise. Gael was confused. She had assumed they had been the ones that had made the strange sound, but when she followed the eyes of the other shifters, she didn’t see what it was they seemed to see. Instead, there was a dark cloud that seemed to cause a commotion and she was soon knocked off Rhett’s back. She got to her feet, confused and startled, and then her eyes widened.

Rhett was standing before her in his human form, as handsome and as powerful as she had ever seen a man in her life. He was looking at Shenar, his face set with angry determination.

“You’re going to regret doing this,” he said darkly. Then as quickly as he had appeared, he was back in his wolf form charging full speed ahead into the chaos.


The dark energy surrounding the colosseum was so powerful and disorienting it was almost like being drunk. He’d been able to sense the other wolf-shifters off in the distance and had worried they might not realize he’d been trapped by the powerful forces of the bear’s magic. Soon he had been able to feel them chipping away at the power, bit by bit, until he had managed to break the rest of it himself through sheer force of will.

He had felt bad about throwing Gael off his back like that, but he had to be sure when he was able to strike he would have his best advantage. If he didn’t protect her now, then there would never be another day with her, and that thought was unacceptable.

It had been a relief to know the other wolf-shifters were nearby. He’d needed an ally and for once in his life, he’d been able to count on Axel to do his part. Soon, the elders were scrambling around, the arena in chaos as Gael tried to weave through the crowd to escape. Shenar managed to grab her and carried her into the darker recesses of the arena as Rhett began to tear into every fleshy humanoid body he could find.

He managed to slaughter about six of the elders and two of the strange men in the bleacher area before he realized that Gael was missing. He set his sights on Shenar, who was dragging her as she flailed and struggled with all her might for freedom.

Rhett froze. He could feel a powerful force that was beginning to collide with the dark energy around the colosseum. A force that was making his own skin tingle. It was the magic of the wolf-shifters working slowly to combat the dark forces that had taken a hold of Rhett and Gael in order to initiate the ceremony. As soon as the wicked pull was gone from his body, Rhett felt empowered with a surge of strength unlike anything he had ever known. The wolf-shifters were helping him somehow, providing him with the power he needed to win this fight on his own.

As the elders continued to fight off the opposing powers, Rhett took off through the crowd after Shenar and Gael. He was intercepted by the two brutish bears who had apparently been appointed as guards to the entrance. Rhett let out a tremendous howl and they hesitated for a moment before baring their teeth and getting ready for the attack.

Rhett dodged the first attack and found himself flying through the air, a disarming blow throwing his body backward with a shocking force. Still, it didn’t hurt the same way it would have if the elders had not imbued him with the fighting spirit of the ancients.

Rhett sprang to his feet and attacked again, sinking his teeth into the meaty flesh of the bear-shifter who had attacked him. The bear let out a howl of agony and Rhett felt himself being clawed by the other bear. He panicked and let go of the first bear’s neck, but only for a moment. He sank his teeth in a different spot as his feet clawed at the second bear’s eyes as it attacked him from behind.

Finally, the first bear began to lose all strength and sank down to the ground, his eyes fluttering closed as a yelp of pain and a heavy sigh ended its life.

Rhett turned to the other bear, who was swinging at him again. This time, the blow struck true and Rhett found himself on the ground in agony. He could hardly move.

“Rhett!”

Gael’s voice brought him back to the urgency of the fight and he struggled to his feet, swaying slightly as he tried to face off with the bear who had attacked him. The bear was furious now after witnessing the death of its partner and another blow came swiftly to knock Rhett back down.

He growled. That was enough of that.

The bear-shifter yelped in pain and surprise when Rhett lunged forward despite having just been on the ground and circled behind him. The bear was too slow to follow, and Rhett took the opportunity to use to his advantage. He tackled the bear-shifter while he was off-balance and knocked him to the ground, biting hard in the tough flesh of its neck and shaking his head viciously, trying to rupture the beast’s jugular. A pained gargling sound filled the air as the bear took its final breaths and Rhett turned away, victorious.

Gael and Shenar were at the end of the colosseum, Shenar holding Gael under the moonlight and chanting viciously. A silver blade glinted in the moonlight as Shenar held it high above his head, ready to plunge it deep within her heart at any moment.

Rhett howled furiously and charged for the man at full force, his head bowed so he could use the lack of wind resistance to his advantage. Gael was frozen by the spell Shenar was uttering and he leapt to the platform where he was standing. Shenar kept speaking, seemingly oblivious to the danger he was in and Rhett attacked. It almost felt too easy after the bear fight, but as an elder, his only true power was magic, and his magic was busy attempting to keep Gael still and compliant as he prepared her to accept the desecration of her body and sacrifice.

Shenar flailed beneath the weight of Rhett’s wolf form and a panicked yell brought the attention of all the elders to the place where Rhett tore into the man’s body. He would regret ever having dared to lay a hand on Gael.

When Shenar’s cries died out, Rhett finally looked away and stood in front of the other elders who were frozen in place after witnessing the spectacle. Rhett knelt, silently inviting Gael to get back on his back. She looked at him for a moment, her beautiful eyes wide and an aura of awe and admiration surrounding her.

She finally nodded slightly and mounted him, holding on tightly as he made his way through the crowd of elders. They would not go after them. They had already lost too many and had seen what he was capable of. Without Shenar to lead the ceremony, and with their own Guardian’s dead, their plan had failed, and everybody there knew it.

Rhett sighed in relief. He had succeeded.

***

“I knew you would make the right choice,” Axel exclaimed, leaping forward from the bushes once Rhett and Gael had made it safely out of the colosseum. Rhett had followed his nose back to his own kind and had found a startling number of wolf-shifters in wait.

“Rhett, my boy, we couldn’t be prouder of you than we are today,” Retik, one of the highest in the council said, stepping forward to bow at Rhett’s wolf form. “I would like to ask you formally if you would like to rejoin the pack. I trust at this point you are reformed from your former ways?”

Rhett knew instinctively just how to answer and bowed his head down to the elder, who anointed it with a sweet-smelling oil and smiled at him.

“Welcome back. Come discuss your new assignment in the morning. We would love to have a new member join the council.”

The elders and their Guardians began to head down the winding pathway back to Stonybrooke and Rhett stared behind them, unsure of what to do.

“Come on,” Axel said, nudging him forward. “You can’t stay here. All the bear-shifters in Tanka would crucify you two!”

Rhett’s heart hammered hard in his chest. He was going to be allowed to return to his true home, and not only that, but he was returning with honor. It was hard to believe and yet he was thrilled. He was finally part of a pack again.

He strode purposefully into the night after his pack with Gael upon him, feeling better about the world than he had in years.


“It’s so different here,” Gael said, stroking the soft linens of the house the elders had assigned for Rhett once they had returned back to Stonybrooke. It was a shockingly beautiful place, almost more luxurious than her estate back home.

“I could get used to it,” Rhett said, beaming at her and sinking into a fancy looking armchair at the end of the bed.

She smiled. “You’re going to have to.”

They were quiet for a few moments, and then Gael looked up at him, a question burning in her mind. It was one she had wondered many times, but now that the issue was resolved, it finally felt okay to ask it.

“Why were you exiled?”

Rhett sighed heavily and stood from the chair as if the burden of the question was something he needed his full strength for.

“The council had been considering training me to join them for a while. I was just a kid, and a stupid kid, really. I thought I had it all figured out. So when I was going to be on trial for my position on the council, they had me guarding something really precious to the shifters, something called the Vesna. It’s thought to be really powerful. But instead of guarding it, I let my buddies talk me into stealing it. They sold it and kept the money, then turned me in about it and I was exiled.”

“Some buddies,” Gael scoffed.

Rhett sighed again and sat down on the bed near her. “Not really.”

Gael chuckled quietly. “Well, I’m glad that it happened.”

Rhett looked at her, puzzled. “Why would you be glad of that?”

“If it hadn’t happened, I would never have met you. In fact, I would probably be dead right now.”

Rhett seemed startled, and then touched her hand, gripping it firmly in his. It sent a wave of heat coursing through her body and she shivered. He seemed to sense what she felt, and his eyes flashed.

“I will never let anything happen to you. Not as long as I live.”

Gael swallowed. “I believe you,” she whispered.

They gazed at each other. A long tender look that made Gael’s entire body melt for him. His handsome face was suddenly near hers, and she hesitated a moment, knowing instinctively somehow that if she kissed him now, it would not stop there… and yet, she was ready. After all they’d been through together, she knew now she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything in her life. She would sell the estate, probably never speak again to her father, who had probably known all along what the bear-shifters had been planning, so that was fine with her.

She met Rhett’s lips gingerly, her mouth pressed against his with a tender urgency that mad a deep growl rise in his throat. He lifted her by the waist and laid her down on the bed, burying his mouth in the nape of her neck and filling her body with sweet ecstasy. They inhaled sharply together as he slowly removed her clothes, relishing in every little bit of skin he uncovered and sending wave after wave of excitement crashing down upon her.

Rhett stared at her, his eyes dark as he removed his clothes and she inhaled sharply at the sight of his body; raw and powerful and hers alone. They hesitated a moment before he was on top of her again, their sexes touching and filling her with a deep fire she had never experienced. Never in her life had she wanted something more than this, and Rhett was so careful as he gifted her with it.

“It might hurt at first,” he whispered, his voice deep in her ear. It sent a thrill through her as he dropped tender kissed down her clavicle and all the way to her breast. He dropped his lips over her nipple and his hot tongue sent electricity charging down, down, to her middle where her hips bucked against Rhett’s hard member.

They both moaned at the contact, and he ran the length of himself along her, sending a shiver down her spine. She gasped quietly as he began to push gently against her, dipping himself in slowly, until he was partly enveloped by her heat.

She hissed. It both hurt and felt unbearably good at the same time and he stopped, his eyes wide with concern.

“It’s okay,” she breathed. “Don’t stop.”

A deep growl resonated in his throat as he heeded her words and suddenly, the fullness of his body was inside of her and she found herself closer to the ceiling of her desire than she had ever been before.

Rhett rocked his hips slowly, showering her in kisses as the pleasure crashed over her in waves. He knew exactly what to do with his body to please her, almost as if he could sense exactly what worked and what didn’t. She lost herself in the movement of their bodies becoming one, tides of pleasure sweeping over her and keeping her enrapt by the rapture of his body.

Soon, she couldn’t keep herself from fighting a sweeping, tingling burst of pleasure that nearly caused her to cry out loud in passion. Her climax was coming, and it was coming fiercely.

Rhett seemed to sense this and picked up his pace, working carefully but assertively, his face contorted in pleasure as the contractions of her body began to squeeze his member sweetly. He growled, his eyes flashing, and for a moment, she could have sworn she saw the wolf lurking out at her from behind Rhett’s eyes.

But it was gone in a flash and soon the power of her orgasm was sweeping over her and she was lost in a shout of utter ecstasy. Rhett hissed in pleasure, his body finally unleashing its full power within her, and soon her bliss was enhanced by an explosion of heat that sprang from Rhett’s hips. His climax was powerful and sensual, and they held each other until every last drop was spent.

Rhett laid back on the bed beside her, gathering her up into his arms and smiling down at her.

“I love you,” he said. “You know that, right?”

“I do,” Gael said, facing him and placing a tender kiss on his lips. “And I am going to love you for a very, very long time. Probably for the rest of our lives.

Rhett grinned and she laid down against him. They fell asleep, each of them relieved that it was finally out in the open, and knowing that from now on, neither would ever be alone again.

THE END


Her Billionaire Shifter Boss

Leela Ash

Copyright ©2017 by Leela Ash. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Thank you so much for your interest in my work!


“Come on, Blaine, this isn’t a competition.”

Blaine glared hard at Harris, who shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny of his boss. Blaine was thirty-nine years old, and starting to look it, but his body and mind were still impressive enough to command the attention of anybody near him.

“You do realize that we have shit to do and a limited amount of time to do it in, right? So, maybe next time, when I tell you you’re behind, you’re going to make it a priority not to be so fuckin’ behind anymore, right?”

“Whatever, man,” Harris mumbled.

“That’s more like it,” Blaine said. “It doesn’t matter how much better other people are doing. What matters is that you’re fuckin’ around and not doing as much as you’re supposed to. If you don’t like the work I’m giving you here, there’s always bathroom duty.”

“I said I was sorry!” Harris exclaimed.

“Actually, you didn’t,” Blaine said, shaking his head. He was getting sick of Harris anyway. He was the kind of immature man who could never take responsibility for his actions and always had to blame someone else when he dropped the ball. But the bear shifters were counting on Blaine and his team to dig through Oak Mountain and find the portals that had been missing for far too long. Harris understood how important it was, but he still managed to slack off. He was fed up.

“Well, I’m sorry, boss. I’ll do better.”

Harris and Blaine glared at each other for a moment, and Blaine sighed.

“If you don’t, you know what’s going to happen. Get the fuck out of my office.”

Harris’ face darkened but he obeyed, and Blaine was left alone in his office. He stared at the map on the wall, marked in red where the mines were being dug. He needed all the help he could get. It was hard enough organizing all this shit without anybody else’s help, let alone keeping everybody motivated to succeed before the dragon shifters found their way to the portals. This was bear turf, and he was going to keep it that way.

“Blaine!”

Blaine rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “Just what I need.”

“What’s this I hear about putting Harris on toilet duty?” Jack Pearson demanded, slamming his fist on Blaine’s desk. He had been the mechanic heading operations since Blaine was just a teenager. “That man works himself to the bone every day! Maybe if you came to his mine you’d know that instead of just taking whatever it is that crawled up your ass a few years back out on everyone who takes your shit.”

“You’re walking a fine line, Jack,” Blaine growled. But Jack’s eyes flashed. They had known each other for years at this point, had always been pretty close. Jack knew Blaine wouldn’t take his temper out on him, and so he felt comfortable telling him whatever he felt like. Blaine respected him for it. He was the only straight shooter of the whole lowly bunch of misfits he had on the team.

“You need to lay off these guys,” Jack said. “Seriously. We’re all tired as hell and still showing up every morning to work sixteen-hour days. So what if Harris didn’t meet the quota! This isn’t even about the quartz!”

“You know how powerful quartz is,” Blaine growled, lowering his voice. He could never tell who might be around the corner to overhear. “And you best close that door before you start shooting your mouth off about that. We’re not just employing bear shifters anymore, you know.”

Jack glared at him, but he closed the door.

“That’s the whole point, man. We’re not just employing bear shifters anymore. That means there are people out there who are desecrating the sacred sites of the portals.”

“Nobody is going to desecrate the portals,” Blaine said. “And anyway, we’d have to find them first.”

“We didn’t come all the way back here from the arctic just to have the portals tainted before they were even able to be activated again,” Jack said. He was angry. Really angry. But Blaine didn’t care. He knew what needed to be done, and having anybody there preaching at him about how to do his job was just a waste of precious time.

“Well, no shit,” Blaine said. “But you need to start paying attention. There’s something you don’t know, believe it or not, and if you don’t trust me then you’re welcome to leave. But I hope you realize that it means you’re not going to be joining us when we make it back to our own world.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Jack said, sighing. “It’s that you’ve changed, man. When we first met, you were so down to earth and, I dunno, man. Maybe more patient? But it’s like something happened to you that just changed you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Blaine snapped, standing up and staring hard at Jack. “What I do know is, I’ve been seeing more and more dragons where they probably shouldn’t be. You and I both know the agreement is that they don’t bother us and we don’t bother them, but you know we’re not exactly allies.”

“I get it. Trust me. But you know what? The bear shifters who are out here every day busting our asses? They are your allies. And you’d better start fuckin’ treating them like they are. Because you’re not irreplaceable.”

Blaine lost control at this point, and the bear inside him roared at Jack, who flinched and backed away toward the door.

“Keep it in mind, man. You can’t bully us forever. We trust and respect you, but if you’re going to take your own shit out on people who don’t deserve it, then you might just end up regretting it. There are more of us than there are of you.”

“Get out of my office and get to work,” Blaine said, doing his best to keep his temper under control. Jack didn’t deserve it. He was just telling the truth. Still, Blaine wasn’t in the mood to hear it.

“All right, man,” Jack said, turning away and opening the door. “Just remember what I said. And think about Harris. He does his best for the cause and you’re going to regret it if you send him on some shitty task when he could be getting something done.”

Jack disappeared out the door and Blaine sat back down in his chair heavily. There was nothing he wanted more than to go easier on his men, but if they weren’t going to get done what needed done, then he didn’t see any alternative. Besides, maybe Jack was right. Maybe he had changed after…

But Blaine shook the thought away. If he was going to get anything done today, he would have to stay focused, not think about things that happened years ago that shouldn’t even be relevant right now. What he had to do was get focused.

The door slammed behind Blaine as he walked outside and headed to the peak of the mountains. Headquarters was right in the center of the mountain, making it more easily accessible for people who weren’t used to the conditions of living and driving in high altitudes. But the bear shifters had created their own settlement right at the peak of Oak Mountain, where they had continued to mine faithfully for the past six years.

They were closer than ever before, Blaine knew. The quartz was an incredible omen. Quartz was one of the most powerful stones, and tended to harness energy very easily. If quartz was growing in droves, that probably meant there was something very powerful nearby. Something like a portal.

“What are you doing here?”

Blaine froze for a moment, ready to fight, but when Geron emerged from the trees, he relaxed a little bit. Geron was the advocate for the dragon shifters who lived further down the valley, on a mountain they liked to call Mount Argon.

“Geron,” Blaine said to the aged but rugged man. “I just thought I’d get out for a while. How can I help you?”

Geron didn’t look very happy, and Blaine could hardly blame him. The dragon shifters were constantly hanging around Oak Mountain, and although the bear shifters had officially been at peace with the dragon shifters for the past fifty years, the miners had a tendency to haze them whenever they had the chance.

“Do you think you could ask your boys to lay off?” Geron asked. “I was just on my way up the mountain to talk to you about it.”

“I would but, you know, they’re not really supposed to be out this way.”

“It’s not really something that can be helped. The ancient caves are all interconnected. You know that as well as I do. Mount Argon has tunnels that lead right to the tip of this mountain. And we can’t fully explore them with you guys treating the place like it’s your property.”

“It is my property,” Blaine growled.

Geron sighed. “What belonged to the ancient dragon shifters belongs to us.”

“You want me to go up there and put a little marker so they don’t make that mistake again? I can’t promise anything on behalf of anyone else. The only person I can be accountable for is myself,” Blaine said stubbornly. He wasn’t in the mood for this shit. Not right now.

“But you’re their boss, Blaine. Everybody within a thousand miles knows you’re the one in charge of these shifters. This mountain practically belongs to you. You can’t tell me you don’t have some say in what they do.”

“I have some say, sure. But I’m not going to tell them to lay off your guys if they’re violating our agreement,” Blaine exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. “Fuck it, man, what do you want me to say?”

Geron stared warily at Blaine, and then nodded slowly. “I see. So that’s the way you want to do things.”

He turned away and, as if on second thought, Geron paused.

“You do know that we’re allowed in the valley. That space between Oak Mountain and Mount Argon has just as much significance to the dragon shifters as it does to the bears. And we’re willing to fight for it, even if that fighting doesn’t involve bloodshed. Do you get me?”

“I get you, I get you,” Blaine said, waving his hand dismissively. “You just take care of you and yours. If something happens, we’re just going to have to play it by ear. You know, there are humans up in the mountains too these days. They’re not really interested in the shifter lore. In fact, most of them are downright ignorant. I’ll make sure the bear shifters don’t shed blood, but we’re prepared to fight for the valley too, if it comes down to it. It’s part of my grandfather’s deed. So, technically, it’s mine as much as the rest of this place is, whether you and your scaly friends like it or not.”

Geron nodded and said nothing more as he began to walk slowly away, making his way down the mountain. Blaine watched him silently and then continued on his way up. There was a mine heading down right into the center of the mountain; one he had only bear shifters working on. The humans just couldn’t grasp the significance of the task; it was something he felt safer taking care of on his own.

“Blaine!”

Greg Barnes ran toward Blain, his body coated in dirt. “You came just in time. There’s something you’ve got to see!”

Blaine frowned and followed Greg as he ran toward the mouth of the mine.

“Come on, it’s inside.”

Blaine put on his equipment and headed into the hollow, following Greg down the dark, winding corridors. When Greg stopped, Blaine did the same and stared up in awe at the high ceiling.

“We’ve got something here,” Greg whispered. “Gold.”

Greg lit his flashlight and a strong beam of light made the entire cavern glitter.

“Holy shit,” Blaine breathed. “This is big.”

Greg grinned and nodded his head as Blaine walked toward the wall and pressed his hand against the cool minerals. There was power there. He could feel it. But this wasn’t the heart of the mountain. It was only just beginning.

“Send out an advertisement in the newspaper for me, Greg. We’re going to need some help.”


“Estelle! Have you seen the newspaper yet? It’s perfect for you!”

“What is, Helen?”

Helen beamed, her brown eyes dancing in excitement.

“An internship for a person with your credentials. Right up in the mountains! It’s the perfect way to get the last credits you need for the class!”

“Are you sure? Let me see,” Estelle said, grabbing the newspaper from Helen. Helen was what she liked to call her “skinny” friend; the thin, stunning beauty who walked around campus with people falling all over themselves just to look at her. Meanwhile, Estelle and other women on the heavy side, like she happened to be, were often overlooked, uncared for by the more superficial masses. They wanted to be around people like Helen, and people like Estelle were left behind.

Not that she minded very much. Estelle was granted an incredible opportunity, and had taken to her books and to nature. She had also learned just how to stand her ground, so that when people were being unfair to her, she didn’t give a damn if she made a scene about it. She knew how to hold her own, while people like Helen, who were so used to being admired and petted, were terrified of being on the receiving end of criticism. And Estelle wouldn’t trade her iron will for the world. It was one of her best assets.

“It’s for office help,” Estelle said, devouring the newspaper article hungrily. She had been hoping for an opportunity to intern in the mountains over the summer. She had come a long way to attend Stonybrooke University, and still hadn’t managed to get out of her comfort zone now that she had made herself comfortable out west. She was twenty-three years old, for crying out loud. Wasn’t it about time for her to start making her mark on the world? But to do that, she would need to get out there more. Experience new things.

“Would you actually have to be doing any mining?” Helen asked, looking over Estelle’s shoulder as she read the ad over and over again, her mind attempting to read between the lines. It was better to be safe than sorry.

“It doesn’t really say,” Estelle said. To be honest, she had the feeling that the ad had been hastily put together, and that the demand for the position was probably pretty urgent. If she didn’t get out there for an interview, she might miss her chance completely.

“Wait, where are you going?” Helen cried as Estelle began to make her way to her car.

“To the mountains!” Estelle shouted.

Helen whooped and Estelle grinned. Sure, it was a little bit impulsive, but she needed the experience in order to graduate. What else was she going to do?

Estelle programmed the directions for Oak Mountain into her GPS and took off right out of the parking lot of SU so that she could try to beat out anybody who replied to the ad. She gave the office a call the second she was stuck in traffic and told the tired-sounding woman who answered that she was on her way to help.

“I’m sure we’ll be able to find something for you to do,” the worn-out woman said. “Come into the office whenever you arrive. Somebody will be here to see you, no matter what time it is. We uh…we work odd hours.”

“That sounds great!” Estelle exclaimed.

“Sure,” the woman said, and Estelle tried not to be dampened by the woman’s lack of spirit. She had probably worked a long, hard day. It was hard to keep up a positive attitude when you were that tired. Estelle knew that much. She had always been a hard worker.

“Thank you,” Estelle said. “I hope you have a good day.”

And she meant it, even if the woman was too tired to care.

Estelle made it to the base of Oak Mountain about three hours later, and parked at the side of the road to check it out. It was huge, and there was something distinctly different about the energy here.

In Stonybrooke, things always felt safe, in a way. Like, for example, if you had one friend who was a wolf shifter, you would be protected. But out here, there were rumors of bear shifters who dealt in the mystical, and dragon shifters who flew over the mountains at night, looking down on the humans who populated the earth as they sought a way back home.

Estelle herself wasn’t a shifter at all. In fact, she came from a long line of humans who hated shifters. But she was always a little bit different than her family, who often bullied her about her weight and made fun of her for dressing well, saying she should just stop trying to look good and accept the fact that she would never be beautiful. Fat girls could never be beautiful.

But Estelle wasn’t some pathetic little girl who didn’t know her worth. She knew they were wrong, and had managed to dredge up a strong sense of self-worth despite their bullying. No matter what anybody said, she was going to take care of herself and dress however the hell she wanted. So what if her family didn’t like it? She was smart, and there were people in this world who could care about her even if her family couldn’t. The first chance she had gotten, she took off from her east coast home and began attending Stonybrooke University, where she discovered that she related even more to the wolf shifters than she did to the hateful people she had originated from.

She had faced her fears and was now living life the way she wanted to and couldn’t be happier. Now if only she could get past the steep mountain roads that seemed to be promising her trouble…

“It’s not as dangerous as it looks.”

Estelle froze at the masculine voice coming from behind her and turned around slowly. Her eyes met the dazzling brown eyes of a much older man, who was leaning against a tree and studying her, his thick, muscular arms crossed in front of his barreling chest.

“I’ve just never been up a mountain before,” she admitted with a sheepish laugh. “I’m from the east coast.”

“Well, what the hell are you doing all the way out here then?” the man asked, his eyes intense upon her. He was handsome, she realized, squinting at him to get a better look. Really handsome. “You’re a little far from home.”

“I don’t consider it my home,” Estelle said firmly. “Home is where you make it.”

“Well then…” the man said, standing tall and walking toward her with his hand outstretched. She took it, and the contact of his fingers sent a wave of heat coursing through her body. She pulled away, embarrassed and a little confused, and the man set his jaw, almost as if he could tell exactly why she had reacted the way she did. It was unsettling.

“I’m Estelle Sanders,” she said, desperate to take away from the awkwardness of the moment.

“Blaine,” was all he said, squeezing her hand and then letting it drop.

But his eyes seemed to be speaking volumes. He was a tall man, with dark, crisp features. His chiseled jaw and square chin were covered in neat brown hair, his beard carefully groomed and the same color as the hair on top of his head, speckled with the odd few grey hairs. Except for his trimmed beard, Blaine’s hair was wild and wavy, reaching just above his broad shoulders. She had only seen men this handsome in movies, and normally, she wasn’t even interested in men wearing red flannel.

“Do you live around here, Blaine?” Estelle asked, doing everything she could to distract herself from the inappropriate thoughts that continued to plague her mind. The man was beastly in a way; but completely different than the wolf shifters. More rugged, perhaps.

“I’ve lived on this mountain all my life,” Blaine said. “And I know what you’re thinking about Oak Mountain here, but really, once you start going up, it isn’t so bad. Just stay away from the edges.”

“Actually, I’m glad we’re talking. I found this ad…”

Estelle rustled through her purse and pulled out the newspaper ad, handing it to Blaine. “I’m looking for the BBT Mining company.”

“Really?” he asked, his eyes flashing as he snatched the ad away from her. He read it quickly. “This is the first time I’m seeing the ad myself. I was heading down to the silver city to go make sure Greg did it right.”

“Greg? Do you know the man who placed this ad?” Estelle asked, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. How was she going to get any position with the BBT Mining company if she gave this man a bad impression. She groaned. She probably already had.

Estelle froze, trying to think about all the things she had said and done that probably looked stupid to a man who just happened to know Greg, the person who had placed the ad. She probably came across as a clueless little twit who didn’t deserve a management position at all. And on top of that, it was obvious she had never driven up a mountain before in her life.

“Actually, kid, I told ol’ Greg to place the ad. One of those Bs stands for Blaine.”

Estelle covered her face with her hands and groaned.

“Then I’m looking for you,” she said, refusing to meet his eyes.

“What, you want to mine?” Blaine asked, looking her up and down skeptically. “You don’t much look the type.”

“Well, not specifically. I need an internship to complete my degree in business management so when my friend saw the ad she thought of me…”

“Ah, Greg placed two. Clever bastard…”

Blaine was quiet as he studied the paper first, and then Estelle. Every once in a while, she hated being a big girl. Meeting people for the first time, it often felt like they judged her before they even spoke to her, or decided she wasn’t competent or qualified just because of the way she looked. But none of those questions seemed to rise in Blaine’s eyes and he nodded.

“You’re going to want to go up the mountain a ways…it will seem scary, but you’ll get there. The building’s not at the top. You turn left on Cedar Road.”

“Thanks,” Estelle said. “Do you want a ride?”

“With someone who has never driven on a mountain before?” Blaine asked, quirking his brow. It made her laugh but his handsome face remained close to expressionless. “I think the question would be, do you?”

Estelle was a little bit taken aback. “You mean, you would drive me up?”

Blaine nodded, shrugging casually. “I’d rather drive than ride. That’s just the way it is. Either way, I’ll make my way where I’m supposed to be. Doesn’t matter to me any.”

“Well…you’re welcome to drive my car,” Estelle said after studying Blaine for a moment. She had a pretty good judge of character after living with such a terrible family dynamic for so long. Blaine seemed like he was hardened, but he wasn’t a bad man. She would have staked her life on it.

Blaine nodded. “You’ll definitely get there faster. Besides, it’s easier getting down than up. It would be a good way to start practicing. If you’re going to work for me, you’re going to have to get used to it.”

Estelle nodded and got into the passenger’s seat of her car. It was a little bit funny to sit there in a way. She had never done it before except one time when she had let Helen talk her into going out to the bar with her. But she had to admit, she liked the change of pace. She had been nervous about trekking up a mountain without anybody to supervise her or ask questions to. It was hardly a part of the curriculum when she was learning to drive in the flat land of the east coast. Now that she was out west, it seemed like a good idea to have someone there with her.

“Thanks,” Estelle said quietly as Blaine got behind the wheel.

“It’s nothing,” Blaine said without meeting her eyes. He closed his door and the car was immediately filled with his rugged, outdoorsy scent. His heady aroma nearly made her dizzy, but in a good way. She hadn’t been near anyone quite this masculine in her entire life. A lot of the wolf shifters were rugged and manly, but she hadn’t been very compatible with most of the wolf shifters she had met. It was just a wariness between them and humans, which she couldn’t blame them for.

But Blaine seemed completely different, and she watched him out of the corner of her eye as he whipped around curves that she would have had to creep through at a snail’s pace. Normally, she didn’t even let Helen drive her car. She had worked hard to get just the make and model she wanted. And yet, with Blaine at the wheel, he seemed so competent and capable that she didn’t even mind. She was at ease with him, and, unlike the wolf shifters in Stonybrooke, he was at ease with her. At least, as at ease as he would probably be with anybody else.

Blaine wasn’t looking down on her for being human, or being a woman, or even for being a big girl. In fact, the way his eyes had lingered on her and sent such a strong surge of heat through her body, she was wondering if maybe he wasn’t even a little bit attracted to her.

That was an inappropriate thought, though and she tried to push it away. Whether he was attracted to her or not, they had business to do together, and it was hardly professional for her to be thinking about the man’s sexuality before even thinking about what she might possibly do to redeem herself after what could very possibly amount to being a very humiliating encounter with a potential boss that would cost her the chance of an internship.

“This is it,” Blaine said, after whipping the car to the right and coming to an abrupt stop.

Estelle was surprised by how quickly they came upon the building, but sure enough, a large cabin-like structure was right outside her window with the letters “BBT” painted in red on a sign above the door. She had been far too consumed in her thoughts; she hadn’t even given herself a chance to enjoy the scenery. Maybe on the way down.

“Wow. It would have taken me an hour to get up here safely.”

“That’s why I offered to drive,” Blaine said with a quick wink. He turned the car off and dropped the keys in her hand, and led her inside.

“Everybody, this is Estelle. She’s going to be my new intern.”

Estelle was just as surprised as everybody else by the announcement, and she felt her eyes widen in shock and embarrassment.

“Hi,” she managed to say.

“Come on,” Blaine said. “Let’s go over my paperwork in my office.”

“All right,” Estelle said, following Blaine. He shut the door behind them and sat down at his desk. “I brought my resume…”

“Please,” Blaine scoffed. “Anyone with a brain in their head can do this job. It’s pretty straight-forward, but a lot of organizing. Do you have any experience or will you need training? Because we need someone right away.”

“I can start now,” Estelle stammered. “I’ll get a hotel in the area or something.”

“Nah, that won’t be necessary. We have cabins for out of towners when they’re here to mine. You can have one of them. Just keep your head down and nobody will bother you.”

“Does that come out of my pay or something? It did say a paid internship, right?”

“Of course, it’s paid,” Blaine said, looking at her as if she were an idiot. “And no, it wouldn’t be charged. You stay there for free for coming out of your way to help the company. People don’t always appreciate what it is we do here, so anybody who can help out is welcome to.”

“Well, I guess that means I would need a little bit of training,” Estelle said. “But basically, I have a good idea of how things are run. I just need this internship to get my bachelor’s degree in business management.”

“No shit?” Blaine said, raising a brow. “That’s impressive.”

“Thanks…” Estelle said. She normally didn’t feel shy around people, even when they were praising her, so it was strange that she suddenly had the urge to look down at her hands and avoid Blaine’s serious brown eyes.

“All right. Let’s get you started then.”

Blaine seemed inexhaustible, and soon, they were going through the rigors of training for the job. After about two hours of having the job explained in detail to her by the man in charge, he looked at her with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

“You want to see the mines?” he asked.

Dumbfounded, Estelle nodded, and Blaine grinned.

“Great. But this time, we take my car.”


Blaine wasn’t sure what made him think the kid would be able to make her way through the mines. She was dressed to the nines, and knew exactly what it took to accentuate her supple curves. Yes, that dress seemed to hug her in all the right places. Most men would think she was too much woman, too heavy really, for them, but Blaine appreciated a woman who could carry herself. It meant more to him than miles of legs on a skinny blonde ever could.

“All right, kid. This is it,” Blaine said, parking his car and stepping out.

“Wow,” Estelle said.

Blaine had brought her to the base of one of the nearby mines, where there were still people bustling around, even though twilight was falling.

“We just found a huge deposit of gold,” Blaine confided in her. “And it runs all throughout the mountain. We think this used to be a riverbed, so we’re trying to find out where it came from. Knowing the source is kind of a big deal. We’re going to make a lot of money from it.”

“That’s great!” Estelle said, her baby-blue eyes shining. “I’m glad your business is doing so well.”

“Yeah,” Blaine said, caught off-guard by her positivity. She was genuinely happy for him. She didn’t seem to realize that the company barely needed the money; except to pay for the cost of mining. He’d received a huge inheritance from his family, who had been treasurers for the bear clan since ancient times. The only thing being disputed about his inheritance was the deed to the mountain, but that would be taken care of shortly.

It was strange showing a bubbly young woman around the site. On most days, he was lucky not to get the death look from every single person he encountered. He was used to seeing crotchety bear shifters and tired humans around, exhausted and discouraged about the portals. But Estelle was neither of those things. It was strange.

“Well, anyway, it means we’re going to be really busy,” Blaine said. “We need as much help here as we can get, but we need people we can trust.”

“Then why did you hire me without even seeing my application?” Estelle asked, frowning at Blaine. His eyes lingered on her full lips; they looked soft from where he was standing. Tempting.

But no. He couldn’t let himself get swayed by physical attraction. Not only was it wildly inappropriate, but even if she was his age, it was impossible for him to be in relationships. He was just the kind of guy who sowed wild oats. And besides, after the last time…

“It’s way easier to know who you can trust before the person you’re judging knows you’re judging them,” Blaine said, pushing thoughts of the past away. They had no place in his reality anymore. It was just a horrible situation that didn’t need to be remembered. Not now, and not ever. And it especially didn’t need to be repeated.

“You’re right about that,” Estelle said thoughtfully. “Besides, you’re a bear shifter, aren’t you? You have better senses than humans have.”

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Blaine said with a slow nod. “It’s not foolproof but they do help out when push comes to shove. Works good enough for me, anyway.”

He was still feeling raw from the memories of the past attempting to surface in his mind. But he knew he was stronger than the memories. He just had to steel himself against them again, just like he had been doing since it happened. Even if that meant Jack was right and he had changed.

“Come on,” Blaine said, eager to get his mind off the past.

Estelle followed him into the deep mine and he handed her a helmet. She turned the little light on right away and he grinned.

“Scared of the dark?” he asked.

“No,” she said, looking him square in the eye. “I am nervous about the things that could be lurking in the dark, though.”

Blaine nodded. “Fair point. Come on. This is one of the new mines. We’re waiting to blow the top open until we know just how much quartz we’re dealing with…this is kind of a special operation.”

“Special how?”

“Well…just a pet project, really. And we can always use some extra hands, so if you feel like helping out in the field, you’d want to come here. We’re looking for quartz here, and finding more than we know what to do with.”

“Quartz? Really?” Estelle asked, looking closely at the wall. “Isn’t that powerful?”

“That’s what they say,” Blaine said.

“Blaine, who the hell is this?”

Ken, a dirty know-it-all of a man came up behind Estelle and glared down at her. “She don’t look like she belongs in a mine. Maybe at a department store trying to get girls who are prettier than she is to buy things.”

Ken laughed harshly and looked around for someone else to enjoy his top of the line entertainment with, but there was no one. Blaine glared fiercely at him, the blood boiling in his veins.

“Meet your new boss, you asshole,” Blaine growled.

Ken flinched away and looked at Estelle in a panic. “What do you mean by that, man? You’re my boss.”

“Well, I hired someone to help me out with the paperwork, and she outranks the muscle. So…you should probably apologize. Unless you want a problem.”

Blaine glared at Ken, who backed away. He was a coward at heart and always had been, and when he knew Blaine was angry, he grew scarce fast. Estelle looked between Ken and Blaine, clearly not looking forward to a brawl, and to Blaine’s surprise, she stared Ken right in the eye.

“What’s your name?” Estelle demanded, stepping in front of Blaine. Blaine shrugged at Ken. He was at her mercy now.

“Um…”

“Well that’s quite a name, Um. Was your mother illiterate or did she just run out of names? Had a lot of kids, did she?”

“You watch your mouth about my-”

But Estelle was just getting started. “You think you can walk around here like you own the place? What don’t you understand about consequences? You act like an ass, and you get the same thing right back at you. It kind of works both ways too. You don’t act like an ass and the people around you might not treat you like you’re treating me right now. Do you even think about how degrading comments can affect people, even a random stranger? And it’s pathetic you pick on people you’ll never have to face again anyway. What’s that say about you?”

“Well, I…”

“I’ll tell you. It says you’re a freaking coward, that’s what. And whether you feel all big in your britches by spewing that shit or not, it says far more about you than it says about me, that’s for sure.”

“It’s just that…”

“What? Spit it out.”

Blaine watched the exchange, unable to hide his amusement. He had been sick and tired of Ken’s attitude for a long time now, and somehow, without even laying a finger on him, he was tucking his tail between his legs, ready to run away.

“I’m sorry. What did you say your name was again?”

“You can call me Ms. E. Get back to work, man. You’re wasting time.”

Ken scurried away and Estelle rolled her eyes, turning back to Blaine almost as if she had forgotten he was there.

“What were we talking about?” she asked without missing a beat.

“Quartz?” Blaine guessed.

“Right, sorry. I lost track. That guy was rude as hell.”

Blaine grinned.

“Yeah, he’s an asshole. And really, he’s always been that way. I don’t know what to do with him…”

“I’d be surprised if he acts out again, at least for a while. There’s plenty to work on right now without him acting like a dick. Keep him extra busy. I bet he feels bored and unchallenged. And even if he doesn’t, the more shit he has to do the less running of his mouth he’ll get done.”

“Hm,” Blaine said, leading Estelle deeper into the mine. “I do believe I’ve made the right choice bringing you on board, Ms. E. Welcome to the team.”

***

The tour of the mine went well, but Estelle and Blaine both decided she would be more useful behind a desk than in a mine. It wasn’t that she wasn’t strong. Actually, he showed her how it was done and she was a natural at it. It more had to do with the idea of sticking a girl like her in a dark hole with a bunch of guys like Ken. It didn’t particularly appeal to any of them.

And so, Blaine drove Estelle back to the building so she could get her car.

“Come on,” he said. “I’m going to take you to your cabin.”

Estelle nodded and followed him slowly and carefully down the winding mountain roads, until they finally came upon one of the five properties with cabins built. He had chosen this one specifically because it was sparsely occupied. One family of three lived about six cabins down, and the rest were, more or less, deserted. The majority of the men preferred to live closer to the mines they were working on, and where these cabins sat was the entrance to one of the few known ancient tunnels.

Chaz and his family guarded the site, so he knew they would also be able to keep a watchful eye on the human, both to keep her from getting underfoot and to keep her out of harm’s way should the time come.

“What do you think?” Blaine asked once Estelle got out of her car. She stared at the cabin and then looked at Blaine.

“Are you sure this won’t cost me anything?”

“Oh, there’s a small price to pay,” Blaine admitted. “There isn’t any internet or cell phone connection for miles. If you want any of that shit, you have to drive about twelve miles out of your way to go into town. They have a tower there where your phone would work. But, otherwise, no, this isn’t going to cost you anything. Just so long as you take care of the place.”

But Blaine could tell he wouldn’t have any trouble of that kind. Not with this girl. She seemed to take great pride in keeping herself well-kept. And upkeep of the home could often be predicted by the way a woman carried herself. At least, that had been Blaine’s limited experience. Not that he wanted to think about that right now.

“I can’t thank you enough for all the kindness you’ve shown to me,” Estelle said, turning to Blaine, her eyes round and grateful. There was just something about her he couldn’t help but like. That was rare, though, and he tore his eyes away.

“You won’t have anything to thank me for if you do your job right,” Blaine said. “This isn’t charity. This is work. Hard fuckin’ work. And if you last a week here, I’ll be surprised.”

Estelle’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth to speak, but she had nothing to say that Blaine wanted to hear. Instead of listening, he got into his car and slammed the door shut.

If this girl thought he was some kind of a bleeding heart who was just handing jobs away to her out of pity, she was sorely mistaken. He would have to remember this when he got her to work the next morning. Then they would see whether or not she felt like thanking him.


Estelle was stunned as she watched Blaine speed away from the cabins, but she couldn’t let the man throw her off. The whole situation was vaguely overwhelming, and so she knew she would just have to take it a step at a time. It was weird that he had suddenly gotten negative with her like that. She had thought she and Blaine were getting along pretty well.

Oh well, she couldn’t let that kind of thing bother her. Estelle had vowed, a long time ago, to live in the moment. It was the only way she had survived living in a family full of skinny people who thought that having a little extra weight on the body was some kind of grotesque disease. Thankfully, she had worked hard on building up a positive body image, and it didn’t matter to her what anybody else said, especially not assholes like Ken. She was who she was, and there was no reason in hell to apologize for that.

Estelle distracted herself by going into the cabin to explore. It was already stocked with some of the basics; clean linens, soap, shampoo, and the like. But what it lacked was food. And she was sorely hungry.

She glanced at her watch and grinned. Helen wasn’t going to believe what had happened. There was no reason she couldn’t run to town before her first real shift at the company began so she could stock up on food. She didn’t even have spare clothing. Hopefully, they had some kind of retail outlet where she would be able to get at least one or two outfits until she had time for another three-hour drive back to campus.

Estelle sighed. She had many strengths, it was true, but one thing she wished she could change about herself was her impulsivity. It usually got her into trouble, but somehow, this time, it seemed to have done just the opposite.

Her heart fluttered as she thought back to her first look at Blaine. He was nothing but man. Encountering him had afforded Estelle with a rare opportunity to look inside the mind of a man who clearly had everybody’s best interest at heart, even if he didn’t know how to show it. Sure, he was a little rough around the edges, but she knew that with a little nurturing, things could really turn around for him. She didn’t know how she knew it, but she would stake her life on it.

Estelle set to work making her bed and getting settled in before hopping back in the car. Blaine had given her a tourist’s map of the mountain, and she followed the map carefully, driving slowly down the mountain roads, her heart in her throat every time she looked over the edge at the steep drop below.

Thankfully, she had always been an excellent driver and made it to town in one piece.

“Welcome!” a broad, kind-faced woman exclaimed when Estelle found her way inside a little boutique clothing store. The clothing was astonishing, and Estelle looked slowly through the racks at patterns that vaguely resembled symbols that were once rampant in ancient bear cultures throughout the mountains. She had taken a course on the Oak Mountain bear shifters at SU, and now she was beyond glad she had. Every article told a story.

“You guys, you know, bear shifters…you wouldn’t mind if you saw me wearing these, would you?” Estelle asked. She couldn’t stand the idea of offending anybody.

“Oh no! Of course not!” the woman exclaimed. “None of those symbols are particularly sacred. It’s more like random words. The one you’re holding now says ‘mountain dweller’.”

“I guess I am technically a mountain dweller now,” Estelle said with a short laugh. “All right. I guess I’ll take it.”

It happened to be a very fashionable black dress. She also picked up a red skirt and a couple of blouses–the bear shifters were snazzy dressers, apparently. At least, they were if they were women interested in fashion like she was. The miners all wore simple garments, though the sleeves and collars were embroidered and decorated beautifully with simple and natural designs.

Estelle’s stomach rumbled as she paid, and the clerk laughed.

“Do you mind if I leave my car in the parking lot here, so I can explore a little bit on foot?”

“Of course not,” the clerk said. “Take your time.”

“Thank you!”

Estelle loved to walk through new places; it was the best way to take it all in. Everything went by so quickly in the car that it was almost impossible to register it. And so, she went on foot through the town, gaping at the rustic architecture and looking for a nice sit-down restaurant where she could have some dinner before heading back to the cabin.

Finally, the perfect place sprang out at her from the corner of the road and she walked inside, hit by the sudden, intoxicating scent of food in the process of being cooked.

“Hello,” a young wisp of a girl said. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, and was at least two heads shorter than Estelle. “Just you today, miss?”

“Yep,” she said, wishing, for some reason, that Blaine had come to join her on her first trek exploring Oak Mountain. But he was her boss. That was wildly improper. “It’s just me today.”

“Great! Do you prefer a booth or a window or anything?”

Estelle smiled. “Anything is fine.”

“Right this way,” she said, grabbing a menu from the podium in front of the door and leading Estelle to her table.

The food was unbelievably good, and she left feeling much better than she had when she had gone inside.

“Come again soon!” the young server called.

“I will,” Estelle promised.

Finally, she retrieved her car from the parking lot of the boutique clothing store and got some groceries. Nothing made a house feel like a home quite like a full refrigerator. When she was satisfied that she had gotten everything she needed, Estelle crept down the steep roads once again, until she finally found her way back to the cabin. It was a good thing she had such a good sense of direction, because she had nearly gotten lost in the dense foliage of the trees. Fortunately, she had noticed a landmark; a tree that had been struck by lightning which looked to be about fifty years ago or so, and managed to find the small settlement despite any potential opposition.

It was a lucky break, and she was glad to have had the opportunity she did to have somewhere rent-free to live and a paid internship. She had heard many horror stories from friends about internships gone wrong–people who cared more about saving their company money than creating a future full of competent workers were always being spoken about. Even Helen had dealt with that type of adversity, and she was in the medical field!

Estelle sighed. She would just have to count her blessings. Her first real day of work was going to happen tomorrow, whether she was ready for it or not, and that meant she would have to prepare herself.


“That’s what I thought,” Blaine muttered, leaning forward in his chair to study the papers on his lawyer’s desk. “My grandfather left this mountain to me. I’m the one in charge of what goes on in this place and no one else.”

“It certainly looks that way. The will is very clear on that point.”

“How much longer until it’s finalized?” Blaine asked. He was sick of bickering with the dragon shifters. They wouldn’t be able to dispute a deed in Blaine’s name; a deed that showed that even the valley belonged to him and him alone to do with as he pleased. As sacred as ancient rites tended to be, there were still some modern laws the shifters of all creeds had to respect; the law of the land. It was Earth where they lived now, and although the ancient tunnels left some room for debate, if a shifter could present a deed, there was only so much they could do to legally bypass those laws.

“It should be about another month, if my calculations are correct. Give or take a week or two. It all depends on the courts, really. It’s hard to rush them along, even in cases like this.”

“Not even if I show a little fang?” Blaine growled.

But he knew by his lawyer’s face that it would be no use. Acting out, especially in court, just made relations between humans and shifters even more tense than they already were. He had to protect his people, not make them more enemies to deal with. And that was the sad fact. There were just some cases when asserting his will wasn’t the best way to go about things.

“I’m afraid we’re just going to have to wait until the paperwork is finalized before you can do anything about the dragon shifters in the valley. Maybe you can find a way to settle things peacefully until then.”

“Right,” Blaine scoffed. “Peacefully. Because dragons are known for their rationale.”

“Actually, in this world, dragons aren’t known for anything at all. They’re just mythical creatures.”

“Right. Sometimes, I forget you were raised as a human.”

His lawyer, a stern looking man by the name of Jon, smiled grimly.

“There are a lot of things I understand in ways that shifters of any breed would never comprehend, just because of the advantage of my upbringing.”

“Right,” Blaine said, standing up. Whether it was true or not, he couldn’t be bothered to sit around and listen to the blathering words of a self-interested and pretentious man like Jon. It just wasn’t what he wanted to do with his time. “Just let me know.”

“Of course,” Jon said with a formal nod.

Blaine tipped his hat and took off. He hated being in town; he belonged with all his heart and soul in the mountains. The only thing that would ever be better would be if he were able to fulfill his family’s one, strong wish – to get the bear shifters off the planet Earth and back to their own dimension. No matter what it might take.

“Where the hell you been, Blaine?” Jack demanded when he returned to the office. “We have a situation.”

“A situation?” Blaine asked, furrowing his thick brow. Those words were never good. Especially when they came out of Jack’s mouth. He trusted Jack to know what a serious situation was a lot more than he would trust any of the other assholes on his team.

“It started out innocently enough, but…”

“What the hell happened?” Blaine demanded, looking frantically around the office. For some reason, his first thought was of Estelle; the young woman he had just hired. Was she safe?

“Well…there was a landslide and some dynamite went off…an explosion. A couple of guys were injured under the rubble. One might not make it.”

“What?! Which mine was it?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Shit!”

Blaine’s low roar echoed through the office, which had grown silent enough that his voice echoed off the walls.

“What’s being done about it?” he asked as he hurried to the door.

“Well, that’s the thing…”

Blaine froze. It was hard to read Jack’s voice.

“That girl you just hired? Estelle?”

“Yeah?”

“She had a friend come up to bring her some things. Apparently, she’s a nurse and all, so she’s been on the site helping out while we get Jameson to the hospital up on Oak Mountain.”

Blaine frowned. “What kind of friend?”

Jack looked at Blaine, fury and confusion flashing in his serious black eyes. “The hell do you mean by that? We have men injured and your girl has some kind of medic friend who is helping us out right now. But we have to get up there.”

Blaine nodded and soon, they were on the way to the mine. It was raining further up the mountain, which was unusual, and Blaine’s first thought was the dragons. Myth had forewarned that dragons may have slight abilities to control weather, and if that really was the case and not just ancient paranoia, that could mean that the bear shifters were in big trouble over the disputed turf, especially if they weren’t cordial to the dragon shifters. 50 years of peace had to count for something, right?

They were too close to give up, though. As little as Blaine liked the idea of casualties in this heated, unofficial battle for the valley, he was going to do what he had to do to make sure that his land stayed his. The ancient sites wouldn’t find themselves, and the portals had been there specifically for the bear shifters. That’s why his family had guarded the mountain so fiercely. They had known they were there somewhere; located them with ancient divination techniques that were lost on Blaine. That’s why he was left with the mines if he was going to make any progress at all on his family’s goal to locate the portals and get the bear shifters back on their own world where they belonged.

“Over here, Jack!”

The sound of Estelle’s crystalline voice made Blaine pause for a moment; she sounded frantic, scared, and for some reason it made Blaine pick up his pace. But it wasn’t Estelle who was injured. It was Danny lying on the ground beside her, a man he hadn’t known well at all, but it was still a fellow shifter. Blaine knelt beside the man and sighed inwardly. He looked like he was going to survive, which was why they had probably left him there to take the more seriously wounded up to the Oak Mountain Community Hospital.

“Hey Danny,” Blaine said as jovially as he could muster. It was a tone he rarely used now days, ever since…

“Blaine,” Danny said. His words were labored, but he was smiling. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Or it would be if Blaine hadn’t already known that bear shifters were stoics. They hid their pain, whether with a pleasant smile or a dark scowl. He would know. “What are you doing here? Thought you were going to be talking about the land dispute today with your suit.”

Blaine grinned, for real this time. “It’s looking up. We’re going to have it settled soon. Maybe as soon as this coming month.”

“That’s good news,” Danny said, grunting in pain as he tried to sit up.

“Just stay still,” Estelle’s kind voice said, pressing her hand against Danny’s shoulder. The bear inside Blaine roared in silent fury upon witnessing the touch. But what did he have to be jealous about? Maybe the bear had decided to claim her but Blaine wasn’t sure that’s what the man in him truly wanted. It would be a long time coming before he would open himself up to anyone again…

“So, what happened in there?” Blaine demanded, turning his thoughts away from Estelle and back to the matter at hand. He could feel her watching him though, almost as if she knew just what he was feeling somehow…but how could she? She was just a human. And a rather unspectacular one at that. So why couldn’t he get her out of his head?

“I don’t know, it must have been the storm. Rare for this time of year, in this altitude…”

“That’s what I was thinking too,” Blaine said darkly. Estelle’s eyes locked on him curiously.

“The weather can be unpredictable,” she said.

Blaine glared at her. “Not on Oak Mountain. There are protections here. Ancient powers beyond the comprehension of a silly little human.”

Her face fell at the jibe and Blaine tore his gaze away. Why was he being cruel to her? It wasn’t her fault he was suspicious of the dark dragon arts for sending one of his mines into catastrophe.

“Blaine’s just angry that it happened. We were making progress.”

“Not enough progress,” Blaine growled. “Anyway, when are they coming back to take you in to the hospital?”

“I’m waiting on a stretcher and a truck,” Danny said with a sigh. “I hurt my back pretty bad.”

“Shit. So that means you won’t be able to work for a while.”

“Yeah, well it’s better than the other two guys. But you know us. We’ll heal pretty quickly and then things will get back to normal.”

“So,” Blaine said, finally getting to the heart of the matter. “How bad is the mine?”

Danny’s face fell and Blaine growled.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered.

“On the plus side, the vein of gold we spotted in there ain’t going anywhere.”

“No, but…”

“Come on, man. I know how important it is to you but it’s going to be all right, you know? Nobody’s going to come up here and claim it. Everyone knows that the real fight is in the valley.”

“What’s going on in the valley?” Estelle asked with a small frown.

Blaine shook his head. “It’s not your problem. Why don’t you go get Danny some water?”

“Please, ma’am. I’d appreciate that.”

Estelle nodded tersely, but Blaine could tell by the look in her eyes that she wasn’t happy with him at all. But that couldn’t bother him. The last thing he needed to be was a damn people pleaser. Nobody needed to tell him how to take care of his mountain or ask questions that he didn’t feel like answering, and that was the truth.

Once Estelle was out of earshot, Blaine lowered his voice.

“You don’t think there was any magic involved do you? The portal is so close, Danny. I can almost smell it.”

“Oh, you’re right about that. But with a storm like this it’s near impossible to say how it happened. It’s kind of a perfect offense, you know. Untraceable.”

“We don’t know for sure that dragons can control the weather at all, but you just have to wonder…”

“Why?” Danny asked, sensing the guilt in Blaine’s voice. “Did something happen between them recently that we should know about?”

“Nah, nothing out of the ordinary,” Blaine said. But that was only a half truth. The fact was that the leader of the dragons had asked for some mercy, and he, Blaine, had denied it. Even if it was to the detriment of his men and his goal.

“Well then there ain’t any point in worrying about that,” Danny said with a shrug. “We’ve got enough on our plates without adding more dragon drama into the mix.”

“Right.”

Estelle returned to them with a small glass of water and they remained crouched together in the light rain until the truck arrived and Danny was put onto the stretcher.

“Don’t worry about anything,” Blaine promised as Danny was getting driven away, further up the mountain. “We’re going to get all of you taken care of. This is nothing. You’ll be back to work in no time.”

Danny nodded wearily and Blaine was left in an awkward silence with Estelle, who was clearly still miffed at him. But he didn’t have time to worry about what this silly human thought of him or her pathetically vulnerable feelings. No…there was real work to do now, and he was the only one who could be counted on to do it.



Estelle walked slowly to her car and sat behind the wheel for a few moments, contemplating Blaine and his gruff way of speaking to her. For some reason, she had thought that they had something more than that; that he would treat her as kindly and patiently as she wanted to treat him. But the sad fact of the matter was that what they had wasn’t special in the slightest. To him, she would probably always just an ignorant human, nothing more than someone convenient to help out when nobody else would.

It had been a lucky thing that her first task of the day had been to drive to each mine so she would learn her way around the mountain and begin to feel comfortable driving on the terrifying and narrow roads that wound around it.

The task had made her smile; had made her think that maybe Blaine was a considerate and kind man, a man with a good heart and minorly tender feelings toward her. however, upon encountering him at the disaster site, she realized suddenly that she was sadly mistaken. He was just being a practical boss, helping the helpless human and aiding her in being more useful. It was always the same with powerful men; make sure every gear is in the right position so that the machine will function as a whole. No matter what it takes.

She cursed herself for being so naïve before heading up the mountain toward Oak Mountain Community hospital, where she found Helen waiting outside fighting with her cell phone.

“No service up here,” Estelle said out her open windows, pulling up beside Helen. Helen got into the car and sighed, slamming the door shut.

“No shit,” she mumbled.

“So how are the other two guys doing?” Estelle asked. And why had Blaine refused to ride up with her to check on them for himself? He had glowered at her when she asked, and said he could make his own way up on his own time. Maybe he didn’t want to be held back by her inexperienced driving. Whatever the case, he could have just said so!

“They’re all right, actually. It looked close for the one guy, but the doctors here managed to save them. They’re miracle workers.”

“That’s great news,” Estelle said, feeling optimistic for the first time since Blaine had snapped at her. “I’ve heard that bear shifters heal much faster than humans do, but I guess I wasn’t sure if it was all rumor or not.”

“There’s so much we don’t know about shifters,” Helen agreed. “I wish there was some kind of public relations course everybody could take or something.”

“Yeah, that would be ideal,” Estelle agreed. “But it would work best if the shifters could get along amongst themselves too, you know? There’s always some kind of problem, whether it’s between the wolves and the bears, or the bears and the dragons…it’s hard to keep up.”

Helen nodded. “Stonybrooke seems to have its own set of rules regarding relationships between shifter species.”

“As does Oak Mountain,” Estelle said. “I just have to try to figure out what’s going on up here so I don’t get myself into trouble. I don’t think they trust me with the whole truth up here. They keep shifter business pretty secretive around here.”

“Who can blame them?” Helen sighed. “Considering how many humans like to stick their noses into things and think that their way is the only way, it seems safer just to deal with their issues on their own. I would do the same thing.”

“So would I,” Estelle said.

Still, the way Blaine had spoken about her had been harsh to say the least. She didn’t want to think about it, but it stung despite her thick skin. She was used to people insulting her because of her weight, but somehow it seemed worse to be insulted by Blaine. Even if it wasn’t about her weight, it didn’t feel good at all.

“Anyway, I guess we should get you back to work,” Helen said. “I have some things to do around campus tonight.”

“Thank you so much for all of your help,” Estelle said.

“Sure,” Helen said, before smiling mischievously at her. “So, what’s the deal with your boss?”

“What do you mean?” Estelle asked.

“I saw him come in just before you pulled up. He’s handsome! Have you noticed?”

Estelle’s cheeks reddened and she gripped her steering wheel hard. “It’s hard not to notice that kind of thing. But he’s a shifter. Most of them are attractive.”

“That’s a cop out. You like him, right? I heard it in your voice before when we were on the phone. And now I know why.”

“You’re full of crap,” Estelle laughed. She didn’t have to let on that she was attracted to Blaine. Besides, how could she possibly justify it if he was just going to treat her like some unwanted pest hanging around the mountain when it had been his idea to hire her in the first place? No thank you!

“Sure, sure,” Helen said, an obnoxious smirk still lingering on her lips. “You obviously don’t know what in the world I’m talking about.”

“I don’t!” Estelle insisted. And even if she did, that didn’t mean she had to be pathetic about it. She wanted a man who knew her worth; not a man who was going to treat her just as badly as her family always had. Screw that!

She was almost relieved when they reached her cabin and Helen got back into her own car and waved good bye. Somehow it felt wrong for her to be on this mountain with a human like Helen, who, although she had been able to help save the bear shifters lives, was really out of place up in a mountain full of bears. She was used to the wolf shifters, but that didn’t mean that she belonged on Oak Mountain. Neither did Estelle, for that matter. Blaine had made that much clear.

Estelle glanced at her watch once Helen was gone out of sight and cursed. It was time to get back to work. Now that the disaster was averted, or at least taken care of to the best of their abilities, she was going to have to head back to the office. It was the last thing she wanted to do really, but what choice did she have? She had volunteered for this position, for better or for worse, and if she was going to keep it, she would have to get herself through it. Her whole college career depended on it, even if that meant dealing with the unpredictable Blaine again.

***

“Where have you been, Estelle? There’s paperwork on your desk I need dealt with at once!”

Blaine’s greeting to her was less than special, but she hurried to her desk where, indeed, a stack of papers was waiting for her.

“I need you to go over those documents. Just to make sure that all the conditions on this sheet are met. I know the lawyer means well, but I can’t take any chances.”

A confusing warmth surged through her as she studied the documents. They were private, official, really, and she wasn’t sure she was qualified to do this type of work. But for some reason, Blaine, who refused to look her in the eye, was asking her to double check his lawyer’s work to make sure it remained in the best interest of the company.

“Of course,” Estelle stammered, sitting promptly and putting on her reading glasses. “I’ll get these to you as soon as I can.”

She opened one of the folders and then froze, glancing up at Blaine, who was staring at her with a strange expression on his face.

“What is it?” she asked, frowning. “Because if you’re going to tear into me for no reason again, you should probably just get back in your little office and leave me alone.”

Blaine was surprised by the words but grinned at her, an expression that seemed to shock them both. He took it in stride though, and pointed to her face.

“You wear spectacles, huh?” Blaine asked, looking at her with wide, sparkling eyes.

“So, what if I do?” Estelle demanded, slapping the folder back on her desk. “Are you going to make fun of those too?”

“Make fun?” Blaine asked, his smile faltering in confusion. “I don’t think I ever made fun…”

“Nothing a simple human could understand?” Estelle went on, glaring at Blaine right in the eye. “You don’t find any issue with the way you were speaking to me out there?”

Blaine bristled visibly and for a moment Estelle almost regretted letting her temper out on him. But not for very long.

“Well I was worried about my men!” Blaine exclaimed. “Excuse me for that.”

Estelle sighed and shook her head. “You know what? It doesn’t even matter to me anymore. Just let me do my work in peace, will you?”

Blaine opened his mouth as if to reply but clamped it shut again, as if unsure of whether it was safe to continue. One warning look from Estelle seemed to be all he needed to make his mind up, and he turned away from her and headed back toward his office.

“You’re only here because I hired you, remember. Don’t get make me regret that,” Blaine said.

Of course, he was the kind of man who had to have the last word. Estelle scoffed, but somehow, the interaction made her feel a lot better. Whether he cared for her or not wasn’t even the question, it was whether they would be able to work together successfully. She would have to cut him a break. It was clear he had a lot on his mind, and if he wasn’t going to let anybody in on any of it, he was just going to get more and more aggressive. What he probably needed was a friend. And she could be a friend.

The only issue was, would he want a friend at all?


“You’re doing it wrong,” Blaine grumbled, looking over Estelle’s shoulder to check on the form she was completing.

Estelle glared up at him and shook her head. “Actually, I’m not.”

“You are. See, you’re supposed to put the…oh.”

Estelle raised her brow at him and shrugged him away.

“I told you.”

Blaine pursed his lips and walked away. So, he had been wrong about a stupid piece of paperwork. Big deal.

“Blaine, we’re having some issues with the front-end loader,” Jake said, coming up from behind Blaine.

“For fuck’s sake!” Blaine growled. “What else is going to go wrong this week? You know we only have a month left in the season!”

“I’m heading down now,” Jack said, his voice quiet and even despite Blaine’s fury. “I know it’s been rotten luck, but remember, we at least found that quartz deposit. And there’s gold close by, I can smell it.”

“Yeah,” Blaine grumbled, closing the door to the office in Jack’s face. He wouldn’t be able to relax until the lawyers got back to him about the deed to the mountain. The dragons were honing in on the territory fast, and making it sound a lot like they wanted a fight. If that’s really what they wanted, he could give it to them, but there would be a steep price to pay…

“Blaine! Jack asked if I wanted to ride down the mountain to see the front-end loader. Can I?”

Blaine was torn from his thoughts by Estelle, who had come through the door without knocking. Wasn’t she even the least bit intimidated by him, for crying out loud?

“I don’t give a shit!” Blaine exclaimed. “I ain’t your daddy.”

“Well no, but…” Estelle looked at him, her eyes twinkling as she seemed to consider her next words.

“What, you’re thinking I might fire you for leaving during office hours?”

Estelle nodded, but an easy, beautiful smile lit up her face. It was hard to be mad staring at her, looking at him like that. He let out a deep sigh.

“All right then. Just get that shit to me before -”

“It’s already done,” Estelle said, pulling a small collection of papers from behind her back and walking them to Blaine’s desk. “I guess I’ll see you later then.”

“Yeah, I guess you will,” Blaine grumbled.

Estelle’s smile widened and Blaine shook his head as she turned away to follow Jack to the parking lot. That was some girl.

He sighed, trying not to think too much of it.

“You coming or what, Blaine?”

Jack was outside the window, looking in at Blaine with a mischievous expression in his eyes.

“What the hell,” Blaine sighed. It would be good to get out of the office for a while. It was starting to feel a bit stuffy. At least outside he could oversee what was going on and have a good idea of what to expect.

They rode in Jack’s truck, Blaine and Estelle sandwiched together between Jack as they descended Oak Mountain, until they made it to the bottom, where, sure enough, the front-end loader was sitting with its scoop dangling in the air and tufts of black smoke billowing out from the engine.

“So, what happened here, boys?” Jack asked, strutting down the steep incline and down to where the men had congregated, all of them avoiding Jack and Blaine as if they were the plague.

“Tad here broke the damn thing,” one of the men said quickly, shoving a scrawny man forward. Blaine narrowed his eyes, but the men started laughing. So, they were just picking on the kid.

“All right, well whichever one of you was driving needs to come up and tell me what you know so we can get this puppy fixed. You know we have a time crunch.”

The men mumbled their agreement and then got back to work, leaving everybody busy except for Estelle and Blaine.

“So, what’s this mine for?” Estelle asked, walking casually over to Blaine. “It looks different from the other ones.”

“Not much different,” Blaine said. “We’re mostly just testing the area. See that boulder over there?”

Estelle’s dazzling baby blue eyes scanned the side of the mountain until it located the boulder and then a beautiful smile lit her face. Blaine had to look away before she realized he was staring.

“I see it.”

“Well that means that there was probably a river around here in ancient times. We’re checking for gold here, see those machines?”

Again, Estelle’s eyes followed Blaine’s hand she nodded.

“We’re stripping off the overburden so we can test the area. It will help us to map out the course of the pay dirt.”

Estelle contemplated this for a moment before finally turning to Blaine.

“What makes you so passionate about gold?” she asked, her blue eyes intent on his. Damn she was pretty. He had half a mind to take her right then and there. His claim on her must have been stronger than he thought. What the hell was wrong with that bear? Didn’t it care that she was half his age?

“You mean other than the money?” he asked, quirking his brow and doing everything in his power to tear his thoughts away from his attraction. But the bear wasn’t making that very easy.

“I guess so,” Estelle said with a soft laugh. “I would assume you wouldn’t care much about money… The shifter communities are usually really self-sufficient…”

“Well, we have our share of resources,” Blaine agreed. “I think what I really love about it is the adventure.”

“Adventure, huh?” Estelle asked, grinning.

Blaine held her gaze, the bear urging him to take charge of the situation. Maybe get her alone and find out more about her. But he was disgusted by its shameless efforts at advancement on the young girl. She was half his age!

“I’m an adventurous guy, believe it or not,” he said, unable to keep the flirtatious tone out of his voice. He glanced around at the men, embarrassed by the thought of being caught flirting with a kid, but they were all busy and hard at work. It took a lot of time to sample the area for gold, and he knew that they were on the right track. He could feel it.

“I believe it,” Estelle said, coming a little bit closer. Blaine cleared his throat.

“How’s it coming over there, Jordie?” he bellowed, ignoring Estelle’s face falling as he disengaged quickly from the conversation.

He just couldn’t let himself do this. No matter how much the bear wanted her, it wasn’t right. Blaine would just have to be stronger than his impulses, whether he liked it or not. He wasn’t going to get himself entangled with anyone. Especially not after the last time…

“Goin’ good, boss,” Jordie said, gesturing to the silt he was sifting through. “Might have found ourselves a riverbed, just like we thought.”

“Good!” Blaine said, heartened by the news. “All right then. Keep looking.”

Thank god something was going right around here. It was hard enough to be stuck in the damn place with everything messing up. He was sick of all his efforts being fucked up.

“Blaine, what are you guys doing here?”

“Fuck,” Blaine grumbled. “Geron.”

“You’re trespassing, Blaine. You know that.”

Blaine could feel Estelle’s eyes upon him; sense her confusion and worry. And for some reason, that pissed him off. Bad. No woman needed to worry about him. And fuck Geron for making her feel like she should.

“Dammit, Geron, this is my mountain. You have no right to tell me that I’m trespassing anywhere.”

Knowing that Estelle was there seemed only to escalate the situation. Blaine could not have his masculinity threatened by this annoying old Dragon shifter. He wasn’t worth the trouble or the time, and yet Blaine could feel his blood pressure rising dangerously high.

“The land belongs to nobody, but the shifter clans made a pact long ago that your kind have been completely ignoring. We stand true to the old laws, if they had not existed then why do you think that there are tunnels here that are full of ancient Dragon shifter artifacts? You can’t keep us from our heritage forever. This is our birthright, not yours. And if you aren’t careful with that giant machine of yours, you are going to find yourself destroying a tunnel that you really don’t want to mess with.”

“I think you really don’t want to mess with me right now, Geron,” Blaine growled, the bear inside of him nearly uncontrollable with rage. “We’re going to do things our way just like we always have, whether you like it or not. This mountain has been in my family for generations. “

“I understand that you feel like you have a need to explore these places. I do. And we have been patient. But that will no longer be the case, I promise you. I wish you luck.”

Geron bowed deeply at Blaine, a sarcastic, resigned smile on his face.

It took everything that he had not to lose his temper and go after the cocky old man, especially when he saw the fear and worry on Estelle’s face.

“What was that about?” she asked him, stepping cautiously forward as if she could sense his anger and wanted to be careful.

“Those Dragon assholes have been giving my kind shit for centuries. Even though this mountain belonged to my people, they tunneled in secret. They are the trespassers. And yet, they feel like every time we do something to encroach on those tunnels in our own land, that they are entitled to keep that special place. It’s a power game. And we have tried to make peace with them, and have been at peace for 50 years. But ever since my grandfather died, they have been coming after me and trying to get as much of our land as possible for themselves.”

Of course, Blaine could not tell her about the holes story. About the powerful portals that existed within the mountain. How the Dragon shifters had destroyed holy altars that essentially cause a war between the two clans. How the shifters had been seeking these portals for centuries, and all they knew was that somewhere in Oak Mountain, is where they resided.

Portals were a source of power, a direct link right back to the world where shifters belonged. Their lives were not meant to be dull and confined by human rules. No, they deserved to roam free in nature, without having any human backlash telling them that there was something wrong with them for being born the way that they were.

Ancient bear shifter magic had been able to locate the mountain, and Blaine’s ancestors had purchased it for themselves. There was an unspoken rule that well remaining on earth, the shifters had to abide by human laws and regulations. The deed was a pact, it was a reluctant source of peace. And it had been passed down throughout Blaine’s family for a long time. The Dragon shifters had respected his grandfather and his grandfather’s father before him, but they had always been looking for an opportunity to encroach on the mountain. They had always been looking for the portals so that they could exploit their power.

With Estelle standing there looking at him, her baby blue eyes full of concern and pity, Blaine found himself even more furious than he had begun. He let out a tremendous roar and took off running up the mountainside, unable to keep the bear within him from taking over. He had to be alone. All of this was just too much. He would have to do with the Dragon shifters, with or without the law on his side. He would do whatever it took to protect the mountain. Especially now that there was a girl like Estelle living on it with him.


Estelle watched as Blaine disappeared into the trees. Most of the men working merely shrugged it off and it didn’t seem to think anything of it. But still tell that Jack was bothered, and walked up to him as he continued working on the engine of the front-end loader.

“Does he get angry like this a lot?” Estelle asked.

“Yeah, he has been a whole different person than he used to be. But you can’t blame him for that.”

“What do you mean?” Estelle asked.

But Jack refused to say another word on the subject and merely cleared his throat. What do you think you going to do about the Dragon shifters? Are we in danger here? I know how territorial shifters can be sometimes…”

Estelle trailed off, worried that perhaps she had offended Jack. But he just smiled at her, his weathered old face turning handsome just for a moment. It was nice to see him feeling like he didn’t have a weight of the world on his shoulders.

“You’re right about that, little lady. Territory means a lot to us shifters. This world we live in right now has a lot of problems with shifters. It’s important for us to have somewhere to feel safe. And there’s nowhere safer than where we are able to establish ourselves and keep the outsiders where they belong.”

Estelle shifted uncomfortably, worried that perhaps Jack may consider her one of the outsiders that was best left off the mountain. But somehow, she got the feeling that that wasn’t the case.

“You know, this machine is going to take quite a while. You could take my car back up to the office if you want,” Jack said. “There isn’t any reason to be lingering around here much longer. Don’t want the guys to get any ideas. They’ll either see you and want to slack off, or will start to get a little bit inappropriate. It’s up to you of course, I don’t know what your plans are for the day. I just know I’m going to be here a while.”

“Oh, you don’t have to let me use your car. It’s a nice day out, I was thinking about taking a walk anyway. I’ll just head back up on foot.”

Jack smiled and nodded, and Estelle found herself grateful that he was the kind of man who didn’t say that the walk would be good exercise for her. Because she was a bigger girl, sometimes people felt comfortable saying things like that to her. As if trying to encourage her to get some of her weight off. She wasn’t stupid. She knew it was exercise, and she did whatever she felt like when she felt like it. Her body was nobody else’s business.

Estelle headed up the mountain, along the subtle incline of the path. In a way, she was hoping that she would run into lane, so that she could check on him and see if he was all right. Still, the bear inside of him was kind of terrifying. He was a man who was capable of doing savage things. It was something that she didn’t think about very often, not even when she was attending SU, but when she was faced with planes ferocious temper, she found herself feeling nervous about shifters in general for the first time. Would he ever hurt her?

“Oh, hello little bird,” Estelle said, pausing to study a pleasant bluebird who was quirking its head at her from a tree branch. “What are you up to today?”

The bird fluttered its wings, and the first is still thought that maybe it was some mystical way of answering her that the bluebird had, but a sudden giant drop of water landed on her face and she looked up at the sky and confusion. Thick black clouds were rolling in over the mountaintop, and just as suddenly as a deafening boom of thunder filled the air, she was in the middle of a downpour.

“Shit,” Estelle mumbled, covering her head with her hand so that she could try and see through the terrifying torrent of rain that had suddenly begun to crash down on her. She could no longer see the little bluebird anywhere, in fact she could hardly see anything at all. The forest around her took on a new life, a frightening and intimidating life. She had to hold her hand out in front of herself so that she could see as fog began to swirl around her. Steam, from the cold rain hitting the warm earth. She was blinded and disoriented as she tried to make her way up the mountain toward shelter.

But now, the trail had been lost to her and everything was wet and muddy. Climbing seemed like an impossible effort, and Estelle found herself slipping and falling again and again as she tried to make her way up what was now a steep area full of treacherous twists and turns. She grabbed what seemed like a sturdy branch, but it turned out to be a loose root sticking out of the side of the mountain. It was no longer attached to anything, whether because of testing for gold or simply bad luck. Whatever the reason, when she tried to use it to steady herself it slipped out of the dirt and she found herself thrust backward, and now she was tumbling down the hill, pain filling her body as she seemed to roll endlessly down the mountain.

And then, she stopped. There was a soft, springy body behind her that helped her to slow her fall. It was huge, but somehow, she knew without even looking at it, that it was Blaine.

He ducked down on his front haunches, a silent invitation for her to mountain. She struggled to get to her feet, he nuzzled her with his head in support as she did so, and then she pulled herself up on top of him, clinging to the course black fur of his shoulder blades.

When Blaine seemed convinced that she was steady, he rose to his feet and sprang forward, running as quickly as his legs could carry him up the mountain. Estelle had to hold on tightly, ignoring all the pain of the results of her fall. Being with Blaine like this was exhilarating. He was so massive, and so powerful, and she knew, without having to say a word, that she was safe. That even in his monstrous form, he would never hurt her.

And then suddenly, they were in front of a large and looming cabin, one that was much bigger than her own. Blaine deposited her on the covered porch, and she climbs down, her body trembling in a combination of adrenaline and fear. She was so relieved to be somewhere safe that she nearly collapsed as soon as her feet touched the ground. She closed her eyes and ran her hand through her hair, trying to center herself and reassuring herself that she was safe now and that everything was okay.

“You all right, kid?”

Estelle was shocked by the sudden masculinity of Blaine’s voice reaching her ears, and when she opened her eyes again, she gasped. He was standing in front of her, now back in his human form, his dark eyes looking pensively at her. And to top it all off, he was completely naked.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” Estelle said, her voice hoarse whisper after the experience. He looked at her, his eyes narrowed as if he didn’t believe her, and then took a step forward with his hand outstretched.

“What the hell were you doing out there?” Blaine asked,

“Jack told me that taking care of the front-end loader was going to take some time, so I thought I would try to make my way up to the office.”

“That son of a bitch,” Blaine growled, has hand dropping from Estelle’s face and forming a fist. “He didn’t even offer to let you drive?”

“I told him I’d walk,” Estelle said firmly. Jack hadn’t done anything wrong, so she felt the strong need to defend him from Blaine’s fury. But in a way, it warmed her that Blaine was so concerned for her.

“Oh, well then…”

“Yeah…”

“You probably would have ended up in more danger on the road like that anyway,” Blaine said, apparently deciding to put his anger aside.

He was looking at her in a way that she almost dared to believe was tender.

“Yeah, I really don’t know these roads well yet,” Estelle agreed, fighting the urge to reach up and touch her cheek; to feel the place where Blaine’s fingers had last touched her face.

“You’ll get there in time,” Blaine said, his eyes a deep, comforting blue. “It just takes some practice, that’s all.”

“Yeah…”

Estelle was a little bit taken aback. He was being so kind all of a sudden. She couldn’t help but focus her attention on his muscular torso; broad and powerful and virile as he gazed at her, his eyes flashing with a deep, forbidden feeling that she wasn’t sure she should acknowledge. And yet she couldn’t look away.

“Come on,” Blaine said finally. “We should get inside. I’m kind of naked.”

Estelle giggled and followed him in, where he switched on the overhead light. The cabin was illuminated with a soft golden glow, and once again she found herself stricken with the flawlessness of Blaine’s muscular body. He had the unmistakable look of a shifter, as if he spent all his time and energy tending to his own needs and climbing the mountain on foot. It made her warm; a heat that spread to a place deep inside that she didn’t even know she had. She’d dated before, but nobody had invoked that sense of raw desire. But he was her boss. And he was so much older…

Blaine turned to her, suddenly seeming to be very much aware of the power of her arousal. His eyes flashed and he almost looked angry for a moment. Was he angry at her? Was he just as aware of how wrong it was for her to feel this way. She felt embarrassed suddenly; ashamed of having such a powerful feeling near a man who so clearly would be able to see right through her.

Her thoughts froze in her mind when Blaine’s hands were suddenly on her shoulders, his eyes anguished and serious as he studied her. Estelle’s body was immediately engulfed in sensual flames, her heart pounding wildly as she returned his gaze. Suddenly, without speaking, she could sense the urgency of his need for her; the overwhelming power that radiated from his body and forced her into a state of awe and respect. This man was pure force; unadulterated power. And all he wanted in that moment was her.

Blaine’s eyes flashed golden as he allowed his hands to roam over her body, and she closed her eyes, overpowered by the sensation his fingers left trailing on her skin. She had never felt anything like it before in her life. She could feel the strength radiating from his body as she was lifted bodily from the floor and Blaine pressed her against the wall, the whole of his body pressed urgently against her.

Estelle gasped in surprise and pleasure as Blaine’s longing became apparent as their middles touched, and she moaned softly when he buried his soft lips against the tender flesh of her neck; tentatively at first, and then passionate with deep desire. The soft warmth of his tongue electrified her body, and she gripped Blaine’s strong shoulders, her legs growing weak beneath her.

But Blaine seemed to be anticipating this and supported her fully, assaulting her senses again and again with gentle, tender kisses and long, languid strokes of his hands and tongue.

Estelle threw her head back, completely consumed by pleasure as Blaine began gently rocking his hips against her, the swollen muscle of his groin shocking the most sensitive area of her body through the rough material of their clothing. Blaine’s eyes flashed at her, dark and serious as his need for her became obvious. Nothing had ever felt more urgent than her desire to be taken by him, and as soon as Blaine sensed the ferocity of her longing, the bear inside of him came out in full.

Estelle gasped in surprise when Blaine gripped her wrists with one hand, pinning them above her head and stripping them both with the other. Before she could even process what was happening, they were naked and she was staring at the dazzling muscles of Blaine’s perfectly sculpted body.

“I…”

But before she could say anything, his lips were pressed hard against hers and she was lost in the pleasure of his body as it began to explore hers. Her lips were tingling by the time they parted, and Blaine’s serious dark eyes studied her seriously.

“You’re so beautiful.”

“That’s not what my family thinks,” Estelle mumbled, annoyed at herself for saying it even before the words were out of her mouth.

“Your family is fucked up,” Blaine said simply.

All thoughts of them were wiped out of her head when Blaine’s lips met hers again, and suddenly his stiff member was pressed against her inner thigh, gently massaging the sensitive bundle of nerves between her legs, coaxing her to open up to him and let him inside.

She closed her eyes and suddenly, the head of Blaine’s cock was resting against her, tentatively pressing inside. She had never felt such a hot, overwhelming pleasure in her life, and Blaine seemed to sense this. He didn’t stop; instead, he held her tight and continued to venture in, his handsome face creased with pleasure as his pulsing muscle was engulfed inside of her.

They stood still for a moment, each of them basking in their own ecstasy, before finally Blaine began to thrust in earnest.

Estelle cried out in deep pleasure, her eyes toward the ceiling but seeing nothing; her only true sensation that of sheer rapture.

Blaine seemed to sense this and unleashed his full power inside of her, and soon she could feel every inch of his cock as it made its way inside, testing the limits of her pleasure again and again as he unleashed the fury of his desire within her.

She was rocked by the enormity of her bliss, closing her eyes to try to brace herself as Blaine’s powerful body took all it wanted to take from her. she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything, and although it was scary, it was also exhilarating as his body worked beyond the limits of normal human limitations to please her.

Finally, she couldn’t hold back any longer and threw her head back as she became overwhelmed by her pleasure. Blaine seemed able to sense she was on the brink of her climax and sped up his efforts double-time, pushing his cock as deeply as it would go and electrifying her with the explosive burst of his orgasm. Estelle’s world was suddenly on fire as she shuddered and quaked, her body rocked by a pleasure unlike anything she had ever known. Blaine continued thrusting through it all, until finally, every last drop was spent inside of her.

Blaine then took her hand and led her to the bedroom, where they laid down together and, without any fuss, fell quickly asleep.


“What the hell is the matter with you?” Blaine mumbled to himself, dressing quickly, careful not to wake Estelle up. She was sleeping so peacefully; had seemed to be a good dream that she was having to keep her so content.

He had been stupid to bring her back to his cabin, but now that he had, he would just have to be a gentleman about it and make the lady breakfast.

It had been a long time since Blaine had cooked for a woman. Bear shifters had very voracious appetites, and he wondered briefly what someone like Estelle might like to eat.

Almost as soon as he wondered, the perfect meal popped into his head and he set to work. He was going to give her a nice breakfast and let her down easy. Tell her that this was something that could never, ever happen again.

“Good morning.”

Blaine’s heart lurched at the sound of Estelle’s soft, sweet voice, and he turned to her, almost angry. Furious, actually, more at himself than at her, but the look on his face must have been enough for her to see right through him. But would she blame herself for his anger?

“Hi,” he said gruffly, turning away quickly and heading back toward the kitchen.

He had to look away as quickly as he could. Estelle looked almost more beautiful than she had been the night before. That just made it that much harder. What they had done was wrong, and there was absolutely no way that they could do anything like that again.

Still, the bear within him was grinning, urging him to look back again. giving in to temptation couldn’t be that big of a deal. He had broken the rules. They were already broken. Nothing he could do about it now. he could take her right back upstairs and…

But no, he wasn’t going to be that kind of a man. He had a plan, and he was going to stick with it. Make the girl breakfast. Explain that everything they had done had been a mistake. Then drive her back to her cabin and pretend that nothing had ever happened. Easy enough. Sure, things would be hard and awkward at work for a while, but he had been through much worse.

Forcing himself not to think about that almost made him as angry as the temptation to claim Estelle again. But he would just have to be stronger than that, no matter how big of a fit the bear within him was planning to throw. It had gotten its way once, and that was more than enough. He couldn’t let that happen again.

“You like pancakes?” Blaine asked, desperate to get his mind off his temptation.

“Yeah,” Estelle said. “I love them. Especially with eggs.”

Blaine nodded. “That’s the only way to have them.”

Estelle sat down at the table and they fell into silence as Blaine began to cook their breakfast.

“Can I help?” Estelle asked.

Somehow, the question made the strained silence between them even more unbearable.

“No, I’ve got it,” he said, refusing to look up from his task at her. Last thing he needed was to feel guilty for doing the right thing. It was hard enough, damn it.

“All right.”

They didn’t speak again until the smell of food was wafting through the kitchen and Blaine sat the plates down on the table. Estelle mumbled a quiet, nearly imperceptible “thank you,” and then let out a little gasp of surprise.

“What’s all this?” she asked, staring down at her plate.

“A little something special,” Blaine said, raising his brow. “Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all!” Estelle looked up and beamed at him, and once again, his heart hammered against his chest. God, she was beautiful. The man she ended up with would be one lucky son of a bitch.

“Well try it,” Blaine said gruffly, grabbing his fork. “It’s got a bear’s touch.”

“If I don’t like it, will you fire me?” Estelle asked, laughing softly as she brought the first bite to her lips.

“Yes,” Blaine grumbled.

She studied him, as if not quite sure whether he was serious, and then let out a beautiful laugh.

“This is amazing,” Estelle breathed, her baby-blue eyes lighting up.

Blaine couldn’t help but feel the surge of deep pride that heartened him, and he grinned at her.

“Special family recipe.”

“I believe that it is pretty special,” Estelle said, bringing another bite eagerly to her full lips. “I never would have thought to put seeds and berries in a plate of pancakes.”

“Well, we know how to utilize our resources,” Blaine said.

Estelle smiled brightly and they held each other’s gaze, probably a lot longer than they should have. That was enough. He couldn’t let this go on any longer.

“You know that can’t happen again between us, right? What happened last night…”

Estelle stopped chewing for a moment and looked at him, her eyebrow raised. Her expression implied that he was the stupidest son of a bitch who ever lived, but somehow, he still found himself on the edge of his seat waiting for her response.

“You’re the boss,” she said with a noncommittal shrug.

Blaine peered at her, shocked by her indifference. Surely no woman was going to take it that well! But when he tried to tune in with his inner bear, hoping that his heightened animal senses would be able to tell what she was really feeling, he was hurt and surprised to find that she seemed to feel legitimately relieved. She didn’t want anything else to happen between them. She was perfectly fine.

“All right,” Blaine said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He wanted to test her, to push her until he heard for himself what she really felt about it, but he didn’t want to find himself being vulnerable to a woman again. no matter what kind of woman she thought she was. no matter how strong the bear’s claim on her might be.

“Thanks for breakfast,” Estelle said, standing abruptly once she finished eating. Blaine had lost his appetite in trying to deconstruct Estelle’s response to him, and stood too.

“It’s no problem. We burned a lot of energy last night.”

Estelle quirked her brow at him, and he could almost read her thoughts. “Classy.”

“Anyway,” Blaine said, clearing his throat quickly. It wasn’t like him to be so damn blustering, but this damn girl brought out the worst in him. “I’m going to take you back up the mountain. Ain’t going to let anything crazy happen to you this time.”

Estelle looked like she was going to refuse his help at first, but then nodded slowly.

“All right,” she said quietly. “Let’s get going then.”

Blaine was surprised that she surrendered so quickly. This wasn’t the kind of woman who submitted to a fight. He had learned that much for himself in the time they had known each other. And it was part of the reason why it had been so damned impossible for the bear to resist her. but he wouldn’t make that mistake twice.

“Right,” Blaine said gruffly.

They headed out of the cabin and shut themselves into his little car. The air around him was suddenly thick with her voluptuous scent and Blaine had to do everything in his power to keep his eyes forward. No matter how much the bear wanted it, he wasn’t going to give in. not again. he wasn’t going to be that big of an asshole. She was just a kid, and they both deserved better than this. It was a stupid, careless affair that would just hurt them both in the end.

The drive was quiet, and Blaine sighed deeply to himself as he surveyed the damage.

“There was something weird about that storm last night, wasn’t there?” Estelle asked suddenly, after passing by one of the fallen trees that the wind had whipped right out of the ground.

“Seems like these days all I can do is make enemies,” Blaine answered, doing his best to keep his eyes forward, his thoughts on the road.

“Dragon shifters?” Estelle asked quietly.

“You heard of them?”

“Yeah…in one of my classes on shifter history, they said there was a myth that they could control the weather. But that had never been proven…”

“That’s something the humans say to make themselves feel better. Safer against the shifter people. But truth is that we’re all very powerful in our own rights, and there are ancient magics that have been passed down through the ages. Only a really powerful shifter warlock can change the weather, but it’s not impossible. You just have to manage to piss them off just right…”

Estelle let out a deep breath, but before she could speak again, Blaine pulled into the driveway and turned to her.

“See you in the office at 8:00 tomorrow. And not a word about any of this to anyone, it’s not really their business. Don’t want to make either of us look bad.”

“I understand.”

Estelle got out of the car and headed toward the door and Blaine sighed, even more furious now than he was before. Because when she said she understood, she was the kind of girl who actually meant it. And for some reason, that scared the hell out of him.


Estelle took a deep breath once she stepped inside the cabin and hid out of sight so she could privately watch Blaine before he left. He lingered in front of the cabin for a moment, his face pensive and dark, and then finally threw his car into drive and sped off down the mountain; a little bit faster than she was used to seeing him move.

Estelle let out a heavy sigh and slumped down into the small loveseat that had come furnished with the cabin. She was never going to be able to forgive herself for all the bullshit she put herself through. Hadn’t she known better than to succumb to the physical attraction? It was going to put her in hell, and she was already halfway there. In fact, it had been such a relief that Blaine had told her that it couldn’t happen again that she’d almost laughed out loud. She couldn’t imagine how torturous it would be to carry on an affair with an older man. Not only that, but he was her boss. And a shifter.

She knew from rumor that having relationships with men of the shifter species could be tricky for human women. The courtship rituals could be very different, and the cultures were always hard to adopt and get used to.

But there she was, thinking as if the night they had shared together might somehow mean more than it did; as if they would ever be compatible enough to actually form a meaningful relationship together. That was a laughable idea. They were just too different. Why get ahead of herself?

All that had happened, and all that would ever happen, was that he had caught her during a vulnerable time and they had somehow just given in to something animalistic and short-lived. It didn’t have any meanings, no strings attached. It had just been a horribly ill-advised way to let off steam after an adrenaline-inducing near-death experience. He had saved her life, and in some sick and twisted way, she had repaid him.

They were even now. And she would never have to deal with another issue like this for as long as she lived. That was perfectly fine by her.

Estelle cried out in fear and surprise when a shrill ringing filled the cabin.

“Estelle!”

“How did you get this number, ma?” Estelle growled into the phone as soon as she heard her mother’s voice. She had guarded her privacy with her life. Her family was toxic, and it was difficult for her to let them into her life in any capacity. Let alone casual phone conversations.

“That doesn’t matter, you know I have my ways. You know you’re my youngest child. My daughter. It’s a mother’s business to keep track of these things.”

“What do you want?” Estelle mumbled. Her mother had probably called around and harassed her friends until someone gave her the information she wanted. She had a way of being very persuasive.

“You need to come home. Your father is in the hospital.”

Estelle’s stomach dropped.

“I can’t, Ma. I’ve got an internship,” she said weakly. She didn’t want to know anything about her family. Her father was infamous for being a hypochondriac. He was probably just faking for attention again. still, something about the tone of her mother’s voice gave her a pause.

“He’s really sick. He might not make it. You need to come home now and see him before it gets any worse.”

“I don’t know. I have to talk to my boss about it,” Estelle sighed. Somehow, the idea of coming to Blaine with the information almost made her laugh out loud. He was so much different than her parents. He would probably find it difficult to understand.

“You do that then come home. It’s important. I wouldn’t call you if it wasn’t you know.”

“Sure. Bye.”

“Is that any way to talk to your mother? I raised you and -”

Estelle hung up the phone and sighed heavily. Somehow the day had gone from bad to worse. Leave it to her family. And now she had to think about whether she was willing to risk the final credit she needed to go see a man who had made her doubt her self-worth for her entire life. What a way to spend her only day off for the next two weeks.

***

“Blaine, can I talk to you?”

Blaine’s sharp eyes peered into hers and she hesitated at the threshold of the office.

“The hell do you want? We have work for you to do right now, and I know you can do it just fine.”

“It’s not about work,” Estelle said, nervous butterflies fluttering in her stomach.

“Then I don’t want to hear about it right now, kid,” Blaine said, his face darkening. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”

For some reason, irritation coursed through Estelle and she shut the office door behind her.

“Don’t be an asshole. I have to talk to you about something.”

“Shit, kid. Give me a break! I’m busy!”

“Well I need your input!”

They stared each other down until finally Blaine let out a deep, heavy sigh.

“Take a seat and make it quick for God’s sake.”

“I need to see my family,” Estelle said, sitting down in the chair across from Blaine’s desk.

“You don’t sound too sure about that,” Blaine said.

Why was it that it felt like that man could see right through her? It was unsettling, really. But at the same time, it was almost comforting to think that somebody was paying attention to her in a way that nobody else ever had.

“Well, I’m not really.”

“What have they done to you?” Blaine asked, looking squarely at her. “You don’t want to see them, and you look frickin’ miserable.”

“I don’t really feel like this is the place to talk about something like that,” Estelle said quietly, avoiding Blaine’s eye. The pensiveness of his stare made her extremely uncomfortable. She usually didn’t talk to anybody about what she had gone through with her home life.

“There’s nothing wrong with it in here,” Blaine argued. “You’re the one who wanted me to listen to your sob story so you could weasel your way out of the ridiculous workload we have now what with the shit storm the dragon shifters laid on us this week.”

Estelle stared at him blankly for a moment, but the no-nonsense look on Blaine’s face melted the walls she was holding up to protect herself from judgment about her family. He wouldn’t judge her any more than she would judge herself. Somehow, she just sensed that about him.

“Well, they aren’t the kindest bunch,” Estelle said with a heavy sigh. “My mom and dad are awful, and so are all my siblings. They needed a scapegoat to look down on and everything I do is just subject to ridicule. Or they use what they think of as faults as a way to draw attention to my weight.”

“What’s wrong with your weight?” Blaine asked, his face contorted in genuine confusion.

“Well…” Estelle was caught off-guard by his reaction. He himself wasn’t a little man. In fact, he had managed to make her feel just like she had always been afraid she would never feel with a man; small, delicate, and beautiful. He was powerful, a force to truly be reckoned with. and she had to force herself not to let her mind wander too much back to the night they had shared together. It had been magical, sure, but it was something that could never happen again under any circumstances. He was her boss. He was a shifter. But worse than any of that, he was an ass!

“So, you’re basically just telling me that they make you feel like shit about yourself. But you feel like you’re supposed to be going out of your way for them when they tell you to?”

“It’s complicated,” Estelle said, sighing miserably and putting her head in her hands. “If he’s dying, he’s still my father…I don’t want to just abandon them even though they like to use me as a scapegoat.”

“I don’t want you to go. You’re needed here.”

Blaine’s gaze was steel, and even if he was just saying it to protect her, a deep defiant anger surged through Estelle’s body and prompted her to rise.

“I don’t really care what you want,” she said, horrified by herself as the words began to spill from her lips. She had spent too much time in her life taking crap from other people though, and now that she was an adult, she defended herself automatically. “I’m going to tend to my father.”

“You’ll lose the internship. You won’t graduate.”

The calm and reasonable tone of his voice made Estelle hesitate as she considered the source of her anger. She was defending her right to go see the people who had stopped at nothing to make her life a living hell. Maybe she just wanted to go back to show her father just how useless his insults had been. She had still managed to make something of herself. She was still confident and fabulous in her own right, and soon she would succeed in her chosen field. But not if she gave up her internship to go see him about it.

“Look,” Estelle said, taking a deep breath and steadying the angry wavering of her voice. “I don’t want to fight with you about this. I have the right to see my family. If I’m not back in a few days, then feel free to fire me. Tell everyone in the state that I’m a worthless employee for all I care. But I need to do this.”

For some reason, the conversation was starting to make her feel as if she and Blaine were an old married couple. She was fighting for something more than just the right to see her father. She was fighting for her independence.

“All right,” Blaine said, sighing heavily. “I’ll give you two days.”

“Two?!” Estelle exclaimed. “Come on, Blaine. That’s – “

“That’s more than fair,” Blaine interrupted, standing up to stare Estelle in the eye. “You don’t need to stay stuck in that shit for any longer than you have to be. You say what you must say and then get back home. You have a lot to lose.”

Estelle gaped at Blaine, unsure of how to respond.

“All right.”

“I wasn’t kidding. We need all the help we can get right now. Things are getting pretty extreme. I’m counting on you.”

Estelle pursed her lips, not sure what to say in response, and nodded simply. She couldn’t let him get to her. She had won. She had gotten the results she had gone in to get. It would be better for everybody if she didn’t let it make her unsure of herself. She would do what she had to do, even if that meant going back to face her own personal hell.


“What the hell has been your problem the past few days, man?” Jack growled as Blaine pushed past him and into his office. “You haven’t acted this badly since -”

“Don’t you dare even say it,” Blaine growled, throwing open his filing cabinet and digging through it to find the folder that contained a copy of his grandfather’s will and the outline of the estate he had been promised.

“Well you know it’s true. What’s going on with you?”

Blaine glared at Jack, a man about a decade older than he was, who had been there and seen him through some of the most difficult transitions of his life. He was really the only man Blaine had ever trusted outside his own family, and if Jack was telling him he was being an asshole, he knew he was just saying that for Blaine’s own good. It wouldn’t help anybody if he was going to let his feelings get out of control.

“You have any fuckin’ idea how obnoxious it is to be debating these boundaries with the dragon shifters? They don’t have any respect for my authority. And those lawyers move slower than burned molasses.”

“That’s bureaucracy for you, man. You run a business. You know all about that.”

“Doesn’t make it any less infuriating,” Blaine grumbled, slamming the file open onto his desk and pulling the papers out. “I have half a mind to shove this damn will right in Geron’s face.”

“You don’t want to deal with the results of putting Geron in any tighter of a position.”

“You think his position is tight?!” Blaine exclaimed. “If we don’t find these portals by the next equinox, it may be too late.”

“We don’t know exactly how the magic works, Blaine. You can’t let yourself get discouraged. There will always be another chance.”

“We don’t belong here!” Blaine growled, surprised by the force of his own fury. “There’s no reason for us to stay and lose men over a pissing contest over a fuckin’ mountain when there’s an entire continent where people like us don’t have to live in hiding. What about that don’t you understand? We need to find the portals. Nobody knows what will happen if we don’t make it in time. I don’t want to be responsible for ruining our chances to get the bear shifters on Earth back home.”

“We don’t know anything about ‘home,’” Jack spat. “We don’t know if it’s better or worse there. What if we came to Earth for a reason? Huh? What then? What if we find the portals and they take us somewhere we don’t know how to survive? What happens then?”

“It’s worth the risk,” Blaine growled, his voice deepening as the bear inside of him came closer to losing control. “I’m not going to deal with you telling me that you don’t know what’s going to happen. None of us know. Part of that uncertainty is what makes this timing so crucial. We’ve been looking for years, but the ancients created the calendar the way they did for a reason. We have to respect that time is limited and that means that we could be running out of it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jack mumbled, turning away from Blaine. “You need to chill out a little bit though. You’re not going to get anything done by operating with just plain fury in your heart.”

“Nothing’s going to stop me from getting to those portals, Jack. Not a damn thing. You understand me?”

Jack just shook his head and stormed out through the office door.

But Blaine couldn’t let it bother him. Truth was that he already had his fill of shit on his plate. Ever since Estelle had left to go visit her family, he had been on edge in a way he never had been before. Knowing just what that poor kid might be going through had left him surly and short-tempered. It didn’t help matters at all that things between the dragon shifters had started to get a lot more malicious. Calculated attacks on several of the mines had occurred; leaving several of the men injured in landslides and freak storms. He was reaching the end of his patience.

Blaine sighed heavily and stared at the papers scattered on his desk. They wouldn’t make a difference to the dragon shifters. Not at all. The only thing they would respect were human laws. Paperwork. And none of those things were coming through for him yet.

He shoved the papers back into his folder and took off out of the office. Maybe things wouldn’t feel so hard if he wasn’t so damned worried about Estelle. She had been terrified on her way down the mountain. The car had passed by the office just as he was stepping up to the door and he had smelled the fear. Whether it was there due to the winding mountain roads or because of dealing with her family, Blaine couldn’t be sure. But what he did know was that fear was the last thing he wanted to sense upon parting with her.

But he couldn’t care about that. Not now, with everything falling apart around him. The dragon shifters were making it obvious that until they had proof from the courts, the mountain was up for dispute and they were going to do whatever it took to gain access. The Equinox was also important to them, presumably. The shifter cultures had a lot of shared wisdom amongst them, particularly to those we were attuned with the ancient magics.

“Never let them take you by surprise,” Blaine’s grandfather had told him. “Everybody is looking for something, and it seems like all the answers lie in this old mountain. That’s why it’s been in our family for so long. We must guard it with our lives. The secrets buried here could be the difference between life and death. We must protect our people.”

They were words that Blaine had always sworn to live by, and he didn’t have any intention of letting his family down.

He left the office in a hurry, deciding that it would be more productive for him to be out on the field. The freak tornado that had torn through the mountain the day before had done a lot of damage to the mines on the base of the mountain, but the dragon shifters had known nothing about the massive quartz deposit that indicated something of immense power somewhere near the mountain.

“What do you think, boys?” Blaine asked, forcing himself to sound a lot less uptight than he was feeling at the time. “Any closer to the source of that gold?”

“Hell yeah,” a tall, lanky man with shortly cropped black hair said. His eyes flashed excitedly. “We’re definitely on to something.”

Blaine nodded. That was what he liked to hear. He continued up the mountain and paused, a reluctant smile spreading across his face. Despite all the bullshit, his men had been hard at work the past few days, and it was starting to pay off. Men were busy, shouting excitedly to one another as another batch of pay dirt was discovered.

“We’re close now, man,” Ken said, sauntering up to Blaine. Blaine eyed the man, unsure of whether to just walk away. Ken wasn’t his favorite person. Still though, his curiosity about the progress of the mine was winning out. Blaine decided to bite the bullet.

“How can you tell?” Blaine asked. Ken grinned and nodded his head toward a thin path that the men had made in the brush heading up the mountain.

“This ain’t the only deposit we’ve had luck with,” Ken said, his dark eyes sparkling. “Come on.”

Blaine couldn’t help but feel a nervous, excited tingling in his chest as he followed Ken up the pathway. When they reached the top of the steep hill, another group of men came up in the distance, the same excitement clear on their faces. There was major pay dirt here. The area was rich with gold. The original deposit was close. It was only a matter of time now.

“You see all this?” Ken laughed, slapping Blaine on the back. “It’s awesome!”

Blaine didn’t answer; he just walked up past Ken to survey the area. Ever since the last attack on the mountain, he’d told all his men to keep the location of the mines to themselves. He hadn’t even been anxious to know himself what they were up to; not since Estelle had left. He had been worrying incessantly about the damn kid. But there was nothing he could do about it. He had forbidden her from leaving, of course, but she wasn’t the kind of girl to take that kind of guff from anybody. It was important to her and he had to respect that, even if it meant she put herself in harm’s way. What kind of assholes would treat their child so badly? He had seen the wounded look in her eyes when she spoke about her family; feel the painful charge of hopelessness that consumed her. He had to be crazy to let that girl go back there. It just wasn’t right.

“Boss, come here!”

Blaine perked up at the sound of Matthew’s voice. Matt was his favorite worker, if he was going to be honest with himself. The man was young and strong and determined. And it helped that he was just as devoted to the ancient ways as his grandfather had been. They had worked together with an unspoken understanding for years, and now that he was old enough, Matt had been promoted to oversee all the mines, and knowing he was excited made the possibility of discovering the source of all that gold even more real to Blaine. Thank god something was going right, finally.

“Look at this, man. We’re rich!”

Blaine looked down at the bucket of silt, his eyes widening as Matthew shook it off and generous nuggets of gold came into view.

“That’s not all,” Blaine whispered. “Fuck the money. We’re going home sooner rather than later.”

Matthew nodded, a big, goofy smile spreading across his face, and Blaine slapped him on the back.

“Good work, son,” Blaine said. “We’re going to really get this on the road. Remember though, not a fuckin’ word about it. The last thing we need is Geron catching wind of any of this. He’ll do anything to sabotage our efforts these days. It’s best to stay quiet.”

“Oh, I know it,” Matt said, shaking his head grimly. “They know the portals opened by ancient bear magic won’t work for anyone else, right?”

“I don’t know what they think,” Blaine mumbled. “Except that they have a claim to those tunnels they started here. And we’ve been at peace for a while but all that’s changing. That son of a bitch almost killed us!”

“Us?” Matthew asked, tilting his head in confusion.

Blaine glowered, aware that if he kept talking, he might just reveal too much about what had happened between himself and Estelle. Estelle, who would make a much more suitable mate to a young man like Matthew than an aging, crotchety man like Blaine. Estelle, who had no idea just how gorgeous she was and was probably being put down right that moment by people who would never be able to appreciate her…

The thought made his blood boil, and he had to stop himself from snapping at Matthew when he laughed the question off and slapped Blaine’s shoulder.

“We’re doing all right for ourselves,” Matt said, changing the subject and heading toward the deep pit that they’d begun to dig. “We might just find those portals yet. The Equinox is on the horizon.”

“The Equinox ain’t for another month or so!”

“Not the human one, dammit Barney! Quit eavesdropping!”

“You guys are so weird,” Barney said with a deep chuckle.

“Watch what the hell you’re saying in front of me,” Blaine growled right into Barney’s face. Barney blanched and backed away, and Matthew’s easy smile faltered.

“He don’t mean anything by that, you know,” Matt said, guiding Blaine away from Barney, who shrunk away and headed off down the mountain to the other area of the mine. “He’s just a know it all.”

“Well he doesn’t know shit,” Blaine growled. “And if he says anything like that again, he’s fired. You hear that?”

Barney nodded vigorously as he disappeared down the hill, where he was soon busy stripping off the overburden. It was enough to satisfy Blaine for the time being, but the truth was that he was going to be miserable until the moment when he heard that Estelle was doing all right.

But until then, he was going to be just as surly as ever in the hopes that he would hear from her soon. A little bit of success in the mines wasn’t enough to lift his spirits. Not when he knew what kind of hell that sweet young woman was facing right that moment. He wouldn’t rest until she was right back where she belonged. And that was all there was to it.


“The hell do you mean?” Estelle’s father grumbled, struggling to sit up in his hospital bed. “I’m fine. Get the hell out of here!”

Estelle felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. She had spent all day on the bus out to visit her parents, knowing it was the most economical option for her to get out East. She still had to pay off her school and the student loans that had been piling up since she had moved out west to attend SU, and was risking her internship and graduation to see the father her mother had sworn was lying on his death bed. She had no idea what she was doing there.

“Mom said you were in trouble, so I just wanted to come and see you,” Estelle said, trying to ignore the anger and pain rising in her chest.

“What the hell for? You left. As far as I’m concerned, your fat ass ain’t even my daughter anymore.”

She had expected a lot of backlash, but now, being right in the middle of it after such a long time of being alone and in a balanced and supportive place, she was feeling lower than she ever had before. How had she grown up listening to this kind of poison every single day of her life?

“Damn, dad,” Estelle’s brother Lance said, sniggering. “Harsh.”

“Shut it, boy. This girl thinks she can live without us, disown her family? Abandon us and leave us to fend for ourselves? Forgetting everything we ever done to make her happy and take care of her?”

“Make me happy?” Estelle sputtered, completely flabbergasted by the thought. “You always went out of your way to bring me down! Any chance you got you made me feel like hell about myself!”

“You’re full of shit,” her dad mumbled. “You’re just a selfish bitch and always have been. Stupid little twit. I done told you to get the hell out of my room! You ain’t no daughter of mine. My kids stick around. They know what it means to be a family and take care of each other.”

Estelle glanced over at her brother, whose chin was raised with an air of superiority that made her want to go over and punch him right in the mouth. But she was better than that. Though she wished to hell that she wasn’t.

“I don’t know why I bothered coming back here. You’re just a sad, pathetic little man who doesn’t feel good about himself unless he has someone to put down. You’re just a bully who gets his self-worth from bullying people you think are weak. What a joke.”

The aging man glared at her fiercely, his face growing red just like she knew it would. He had never taken defiance very well. She should have listened to Blaine. It had been a mistake to come here.

“I know you’re anxious to get rid of me, so I’ll make this fast,” Estelle said, sighing deeply. “My entire life you worked your hardest to make me feel like I wasn’t good enough. You did everything in your power to disempower me; to make me feel ugly and worthless. Because maybe you feel ugly and worthless yourself. But I’m going to tell you something. No matter what you feel about me, no matter what you say, I love the woman I’ve become, and I wouldn’t change anything about myself for the world, whether that’s good enough for you or not. Your words can’t touch me anymore. And they’ll touch me even less when you’re dead.”

Estelle stormed out, her anger and her pride preventing the lump in her throat from becoming productive until she was far away from the hospital parking lot. She sank down onto a bench and began to cry, wishing more than anything that she had just stayed put in the mountains.

“Estelle!”

Estelle’s heart leapt to her throat when the sound of her mother’s shrill voice reached her ears.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Is that really the last thing you want to say to your father?”

“He’s never acted like much of a father,” Estelle grumbled, standing from the bench and wiping her eyes quickly. The only thing worse than crying was crying in front of her mother. That woman was toxic, and always found a way to make everything about herself. Somehow Estelle had survived the family dynamic, but now she felt herself suffocating under the pressure of being near people who truly didn’t know her worth. And it wasn’t her job to teach them about it. If they didn’t want to value her, they never would, and she was just going to have to deal with that. She would make her own family. She didn’t need them.

And yet it seemed nearly impossible to get away from her mother, who stood up and walked after Estelle when she rose from the bench and attempted to get out of there so she wouldn’t have to listen to any more put downs by her family. They had no right to cast judgment on her and she wasn’t going to listen to another second of their bullshit.

“Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you! I’m your mother and you will show me some respect!”

Estelle sighed, her face growing hot as the people on the sidewalk stopped to stare at them. They must have made quite a spectacle – her mother in her heavy make-up and tight clothing, hurrying after Estelle in six-inch-high heel shoes and a glare that could turn a flame into ice.

“I’m not talking about this with you, mother,” Estelle growled. “Please, just leave me alone.”

“You’re going to regret walking away from me like this,” Estelle’s mother said, her voice an icy growl. It sent a chill up her spine. “You can expect a visit from your brothers. You will apologize to your father, whether you like it or not.”

And with that, her mother turned on her heel and stalked back toward the hospital. Estelle watched her from over her shoulder until she turned the corner, and a wave of nausea consumed her. she had to get out of there. But her bus wouldn’t leave until the next day. She knew she shouldn’t worry too much about her mother; she was probably just spouting off hot air. But she knew that her family would be furious at her. She had never done anything to provoke them for as long as she had lived with them; she couldn’t bring herself to draw attention to herself after the type of abuse she had endured. But now, she had turned all eyes onto her, and there was no telling what extremes they might go to put her back in her place. At least, the place they believed that she belonged in.

Estelle hailed a taxi and went straight to the hotel she had booked for herself. It was a crummy little place, where she felt uncomfortable and unsafe. She was used to living in shifter communities, where everybody was held accountable for their actions and everybody who wanted to act like an asshole still knew how to respect others. Humans could say what they wanted about shifters, but after living among them for the past several years, Estelle had grown to really love their straight-forward ways. Much more than she had ever liked being around her passive-aggressive and toxic family.

When she arrived at the hotel, she sank onto the bed and sighed, glancing at her cell phone. She had missed a call, and was almost afraid to check it in case it was from her family. But she took a deep breath and checked anyway, surprised to find the phone number for BBT Mining Company.

Estelle called back automatically, assuming Blaine had probably changed his mind about allowing her back to complete the internship. And she wouldn’t blame him for it. Things between them had been awkward since the night of the storm. And not only that, but she hadn’t exactly been respectful of his authority. He didn’t seem like the kind of man who tolerated that kind of thing.

“Estelle?”

Estelle’s heart thudded dully in her chest at the sound of Blaine’s deep, rumbling voice in her ear. She was shocked by the physical reaction she had to something as simple as his voice, and had to catch her breath after a moment’s pause before answering.

“Hi Blaine.”

“Hi.”

She waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. Estelle sighed inwardly. Whatever was going on, he wasn’t making it very easy on her.

“I saw I missed your call,” she said, eager to get off the phone. She couldn’t allow herself to have such a strong reaction to his voice. There was no way anything more could happen between them. It just wasn’t right.

“Yeah. I just wanted to see how it’s going. I know you have a difficult relationship with your family.”

Estelle was stunned. He hardly seemed like the kind of man who would go out of his way to check on somebody’s emotional well-being. And not only that, but she wasn’t at all used to anybody having any idea what she was going through with her family. But he seemed completely serious, as if it were one of the most important things in the world how she felt. It was bizarre, really. Nobody had ever cared how she felt before, except maybe Helen. But even then, it was never anything like this.

“I…”

Estelle’s eyes filled with tears, and she cringed. She could kick herself for letting her emotions shine through like this. It was completely ridiculous. But a small sob slipped from deep in her throat and the energy between them grew tense.

“I’m on my way.”

Estelle furrowed her brow, not sure if she had heard him properly. But before she could compose herself well enough to ask, the call had been dropped. She stared at the phone, stunned, and lowered it slowly to the bed beside her. What did he mean he was on his way? He had no idea where she was!

She tried to shake off the feeling of confusion and bewilderment. She had to think clearly right now. Especially if her family was angry enough to come after her.

Estelle closed her eyes and tried to relax into her pillow. She had to accept that she had no control over what other people said or did, even when it came to her own personal safety. Her family wouldn’t do anything stupid enough to get them arrested, so she was probably physically safe.

And yet, she was afraid. Afraid enough that Blaine had seemed to sense exactly what she was feeling without her even having to say a word. Perhaps what had happened during the night they had spent together truly had connected them in a way that she wouldn’t ever be able to fully understand. She had been so sure in that moment that Blaine had cared endlessly about her in a way she had never experienced before.

But now that they had made it clear that their relationship would never go anywhere beyond what it already had, she had done everything in her power to forget the comfort and safety she had felt in his arms; the deep and intimate connection she had shared with him in the moment. There was no good in letting herself believe she would ever have any business being comforted by a man like Blaine. It just wasn’t meant to be.

Estelle groaned, shoving all thoughts of the mysterious, obnoxious man out of her head, and headed to the shower. Even if things felt like they were never going to get any better, she had to focus and take care of herself. That was all she would ever be able to do.

***

“Estelle!”

Her heart leapt into her throat and she was whipped around by the shoulder, forced to face her brother Lance.

“What are you doing here?” Estelle asked, doing her best to keep her voice from wavering.

Lance scowled at her. “You owe our father an apology.”

“He’s not my father, remember?” Estelle growled. “He said I don’t have to be his daughter anymore. Best news I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“I don’t think you understand the issue here,” Lance said, his silver eyes narrowing. “You ain’t going to get away with disrespecting the man of the house. You get what I’m trying to say? It’s kind of important.”

“Only to someone with a tiny flea brain,” Estelle growled, shoving Lance’s hand off her shoulder and trying to turn back toward the door of the hotel. But Lance was strong, and gripped both of her shoulders almost as quickly as she had been able to shake him off.

“You think you’re so much better than us, don’t you? But you’ll never be anything more than a fat, worthless bitch!”

“Lance, let go!”

Estelle fought against her brother, the same feeling of powerlessness that had haunted her all throughout her childhood crashing down upon her. Fury consumed her and she tried to fight free from his grip once again.

“Let her go.”

Estelle froze, and Lance’s lips curled into a sadistic smile at the sound of Blaine’s voice. Estelle struggled against Lance, who dug his fingers hard into the soft flesh of her shoulders in direct defiance of Blaine’s orders.

“Who the hell do you think you are, boy?”

Estelle could see Blaine now. he was standing directly behind them, glaring down at Lance. She had never noticed just how tall and burly Blaine was compared to most humans. He wore the look so well on the mountain that she had never thought twice about his impressive size. It was just natural. But here in the human world, it was apparent just how hard it was for Blaine and people like him to belong. And really, why would they want to? In Estelle’s experience, humans were terrible, to each other and to everyone else.

“Just butt out of it!” Lance said, turning to face Blaine and trying to drag Estelle along with him. “This is family business.”

“You’re not my family,” Estelle growled. “Families know how to love each other. You guys only know how to care for yourselves.”

“I think you are both missing the point here,” Blaine said, crossing his arms and tapping his foot impatiently. “This little asshole here is supposed to let go of you, because if he doesn’t, it’s going to make me very, very angry.”

“Like I give a shit,” Lance said, sneering at Blaine. “She has a lot to apologize about and if she doesn’t, she’s in for a world of trouble.”

“Right,” Blaine said, taking a step forward and nodding as if Lance were saying the most reasonable thing in the world. “I know just how difficult that can be for you. Thinking you’re the only thing in the universe that matters.”

Before Lance had a chance to open his mouth and respond, he cried out in agony and a sickening thud filled the air. Estelle blinked hard, unable to believe what she had just seen. Blaine had lunged forward, his fists clenched tightly, and knocked her brother out with one powerful thrust of his arm. Neither of them had seen the punch coming, but Lance was on the ground, his eyes lolling back toward his skull, and Estelle found herself falling forward toward his limp body.

“Easy there,” Blaine said, catching her before she landed. “Don’t want to mess up that nice dress of yours.”

Estelle blushed; the truth was that the dress was one of her favorites. She had packed it hoping that having it with her would boost her confidence when her family was being the same as they always were. But it hadn’t helped.

“I…thank you,” Estelle mumbled, steadying herself against Blaine’s broad body. “But what are you doing here? Don’t you have things to take care of at BBT?”

“I thought I’d take care of you first,” Blaine said simply, flashing her a grin that nearly made her heart stop. “You mean a lot to me.”

“Right…”

She couldn’t dare to believe what she was hearing, but the sight of her brother knocked out on the ground was pretty convincing.

“Look, I have to catch my bus. I can’t stay here another second longer. You were right, I never should have come here. It was a huge mistake. I’m sorry you felt like you had to come out here to rescue me or something, but I’m not some damsel in distress…I just…”

“Shhh,” Blaine said, surprising her by embracing her tightly. All her defenses melted and she just let herself be held for a few moments, fighting the urge that had been haunting her ever since she had arrived out east. She lost the fight this time, and broke down, dissolving into tears.

“It’s going to be fine now,” Blaine said, kissing the top of her head tenderly. “You’re not taking any stinking bus back to the mountain either. I’m a wealthy man. We’re going back in style. I need my intern back at BBT as soon as you can get there.”

“What…”

Estelle looked up at Blaine, who smiled down at her, his dark, mystical eyes sparkling in a way that made the heat rise in her cheeks. He was something special, that was for sure. How had she ever been able to deny that to herself?

“Come on,” Blaine said, leading her away from the motel. “Let’s get out of here.”

Estelle was shocked when he walked with her to a long black limousine, parked on the other side of the motel. He took the small bag from her hands and the driver quickly grabbed it from Blaine and tucked it safely in the trunk.

“After you,” Blaine said, opening the door for Estelle while the driver was tending to her luggage.

She shook her head in disbelief and climbed inside. Soon, Blaine was beside her, filling the new-car-scent of the limousine with his rugged outdoorsy musk. She had to admit that she preferred it over the scent of leather seats.

“You look like you could use a drink,” Blaine said with a soft chuckle, grabbing a bottle of champagne from the bucket beside him and pouring her a glass.

Estelle took it in a daze and sipped it quietly. Soon, they were on the road, Blaine sitting beside her, a pillar of strength and comfort. Estelle leaned back in her seat, dazed by the rapidity with which they traveled from the motel to the landing strip with Blaine’s private jet in waiting.

The next thing she knew, they were up in the air, leaving her family as small as ants on the ground behind them.


“You didn’t need to do any of this,” Estelle said quietly.

She had barely even looked at him since they’d gotten in the jet, and Blaine sighed in agitation. He hadn’t gone all chivalrous on her only to be told he hadn’t had to do it. Of course, he didn’t have to do it! That’s why it was called being chivalrous and not being a typical asshole.

“Well no shit,” Blaine said, pursing his lips at her.

Somehow, that made her smile, and Blaine relaxed. The poor girl had been through a lot. She couldn’t hide that from him. He had known from the moment she’d brought it up that it had been a mistake to go back there, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to her. She was going to do whatever she wanted to do, and that was the end of the story.

“I’m just so embarrassed,” Estelle admitted, looking suddenly at him with those sensual baby blues of hers. “You would never understand what it feels like to be completely hopeless like this. I bet nothing has ever made you feel weak in your life.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Blaine said with a soft laugh. “I’ve had my downfall.”

Estelle quirked her brow at him, her full lips drawn into a skeptical frown. “What, did you lose a fight once or something?”

Blaine laughed a little louder than he meant to and shook his head. It was weird being around someone who could make him smile so easily. He hadn’t done that in a long time.

“Kind of?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Estelle’s eyes were boring into his, and Blaine shifted uncomfortably. He wasn’t used to telling the story, but he supposed it would come up one way or another. And besides. It was just Estelle. Somehow, he didn’t feel like she would laugh at him for being a weak, pathetic asshole like other people would have. Especially the other miners.

“Jack, you know the repairman, right?”

“Yeah?”

“He’s always talking about how I’ve changed, you know. Like I didn’t used to be such a hard ass. And I think he’s right. Something changed.”

“Why did you change?” Estelle asked, her frown deepening.

“Sometimes, love changes you.”

“Love?”

Blaine sighed. He wasn’t liking this sharing thing too much. But it was a little bit too late to go back now. The girl was already listening, damn it.

“I fell for a girl once,” he began, kicking himself even as the words began to spill from his lips. “Right out of school, I knew that she was the one for me. Well, as much as a stupid kid knows anything anyway.”

Estelle smiled sadly and nodded.

“Anyway, I bent over backwards for that girl. Spent every second of my life trying to make her happy; trying to do whatever it was that I could do for her. But somehow it was never enough. She kept on wanting more and more from me. Finally, we got married, but that was just the beginning of my problems. I couldn’t do a fuckin’ thing right for her. I became a shadow of my former self; a person who just couldn’t do anything except focus on this woman who just wasn’t worth it.”

He was ashamed of himself for it, and found it difficult to look at Estelle as he spoke. She reached across the table and stroked his hand, and finally he took a deep breath. He might as well continue. Finish the damned story and get her off his back about it.

“So, one day, she goes off on me out of the blue. I had been working all day and came home, forgot to bring the laundry detergent or some shit like that, and she explodes. Tells me what a good for nothing I am. Tells me how she’s been sick of me since day one and started cheating on me with the neighbor. She wants a divorce.”

“What the hell is wrong with her?” Estelle asked, her brow contorted in anger. “Why do people think they can get away with treating others like shit?”

Blaine shrugged. “Some people will never be happy, so they just want to make everyone else feel the same way they do, I guess.”

“That’s so wrong,” Estelle growled. “So, what did you do? I hope you kicked her ass.”

Blaine raised his brow at her. “I’d never lay a hand on a woman.”

Estelle’s cheeks reddened and she looked away quickly, but not quickly enough that Blaine was oblivious to the surge of heat that coursed through her body. It perked the bear inside of him right up, demanded he stake his claim on her once again. For real this time. For good. But he couldn’t do that. Not yet. Maybe not ever. She was just too damned young for him. It wasn’t truly what she wanted. And even if it was, he knew they would never work. They were from two different worlds.

“Well what I did was shut down. I watched her carry on for another few minutes and then leave the house I had built for us to live in. I moved to the cabin and she took off with the neighbor guy; at least she tried to. I beat him close to death. I couldn’t feel anything anymore. And ever since then, the only feeling I’ve really had was anger…”

“You poor man,” Estelle whispered, coming close to her.

The words agitated him – there was nothing poor about him – but before he could tell her off about it, Estelle’s arms were around him and he found himself being embraced for the first time since his wife had left him. Nothing had managed to feel good since then, and the only thing that had given him any comfort, his anger, began to melt away.

Finally, Estelle broke the embrace and they stared at each other, unsure of what to do next. They knew they couldn’t be together. It just wasn’t practical. She was a young woman with everything ahead of her, and he was working overtime to discover the portals before the bear shifter’s ancient calendar pointed toward the equinox. They just weren’t compatible. They just had too much going against them for his claim to go anywhere.

But the bear wasn’t happy with that, and it took everything he had to keep from reaching out to Estelle and making her his own, right then and there.

“You deserve so much more…” Estelle said, studying him, her beautiful blue eyes shimmering as she touched Blaine’s cheek. “I can’t imagine what that stupid woman was thinking.”

“She only ever thought of herself, and it was my mistake to deal with it for that long.”

Blaine stood abruptly, knowing that if he looked at Estelle for even just one more moment, he wouldn’t be able to tame the bear within. He would make his claim and neither of them would know what had hit them. He just couldn’t be responsible for that. Not right now. Especially not when they were so close to finding the portal on Oak Mountain.

“I don’t think that’s the only mistake you’ve made,” Estelle said.

Blaine cringed, the scent of her arousal filling the small cabin of his jet. She wanted him just as badly as he wanted her. How could he refuse that? The bear was awake, aware, and grabbing for control. But he just couldn’t let it happen. Not this time. He had to be stronger than that.

“Maybe not,” Blaine said, turning a sharp eye on her. “But I know better than to make the same mistake twice.”

He immediately knew that facing her was a mistake. There was righteous anger on her face; she knew he was being a coward; hiding from his claim. Not only because it just wasn’t realistic, but because he was afraid of being vulnerable to a woman. The way it had ended the last time had been scarring, and he refused to make himself a slave to love. Not even if that meant finally being able to take what had so consumed his thoughts for all this time. He just wasn’t going to do it. And that made her angry. He could tell just from the way she stared him down.

“Whatever you say, sir,” Estelle said pointedly. She stood from her seat and marched to the back bedroom, where Blaine had told her she could retire if she felt the need.

Blaine sighed heavily and sank down into an armchair, taking a long swig from the bottle of whisky on the table beside him. He hadn’t had a choice, had he? He just couldn’t bring himself to jeopardize everything he had been working for just so he could gratify himself with the way too young intern. He needed to be in work mode right now, not stupid lovesick mode. And that was all there was to it.

Whether they liked it or not, the BBT Mining Company had work to do. And without Estelle in the office, safe and sound, and Blaine’s mind focused on the job, they just weren’t going to reach the portal by the equinox, and everything they had been working for would go to shit.

Blaine would never let himself be ruled by a woman again. Especially not when it counted so much to have his head screwed on straight. And nothing would ever change his mind.


“What the hell are you sitting around for? The boss wants you on the field today.”

Estelle glared up at Ken, who smirked at her.

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” he said. “It wasn’t my idea. I don’t get a say in most things.”

“Where on the field, exactly, did the boss want me?”

Ken shrugged, his infuriating smile widening.

“Guess you’ll have to ask around. it’s a big day today. Nobody is supposed to be in the office. Check the memo.”

Estelle watched Ken leave, her blood boiling, and scanned her email. Sure enough, there was a memo there directly from Blaine, telling her and everyone else doing office work in the building to join him at the peak of the mountain. Apparently, he had big news.

“He could have told me before I bothered to drive down here,” Estelle grumbled to herself.

The truth was, she had been furious at Blaine lately. Ever since they had arrived back on Oak Mountain, they had barely even looked at each other, let alone spoke. He made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her, which felt cruel, especially after opening up to her about his past. She knew she should try to be understanding about it, but somehow, she could only feel angry. He wasn’t being fair to her or to himself. He was hiding from the truth; the pure, raw feeling that drew the two of them together. And no matter how he disguised it, she knew that it was all due to his own fear of commitment.

Estelle continued to grumble to herself as she let herself out of the office and locked it behind her. she should have known something was off when she arrived and nobody was there. But seeing Ken saunter in and sneer at her had nearly driven her over the edge.

But she had been trying not to make any waves ever since things had gotten tense with Blaine. The last thing she needed was to give him an excuse to fire her from the internship and lose the credit she needed to graduate in her program. There would be nothing worse than that.

Estelle had no idea where she was supposed to go first, and headed up the mountain on foot. If nobody was in a hurry to tell her where she needed to be, then she would be damned if she decided she was in a hurry to get there. They were just going to have to wait.

“That’s her, boss.”

“Really? I never figured Blaine for that kind of guy…”

“What kind of guy?”

“Well you remember the first girl he was with, right? Rail thin…”

“What the hell are you two talking about?” Estelle demanded, too angry not to even feel afraid.

“So sorry, that was terribly impolite of me,” a tall, gaunt man with neat white hair said. He had on a shimmering blue robe with belled sleeves, and bowed at Estelle graciously. “It’s just that it appears we have an associate in common.”

“Blaine?” Estelle asked, raising her brow. “What do you want? Who are you?”

The two men exchanged sly looks, and suddenly Estelle knew exactly who these men were. The dragon shifters that Blaine had been worrying about.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Estelle said, her anger deepening. “This isn’t your land.”

The two men erupted into unkind laughter, and the tall older man stepped forward.

“You’ve got spunk,” he said. “I guess that I can see why Blaine likes you. But listen to you talking about things you don’t understand. We’re going to have to talk some sense into you.”

Estelle opened her mouth to protest, but the man smiled eerily at her and suddenly, her body felt heavy; her limbs completely frozen. The shifters came toward Estelle, their eyes serious and soon she was moving forward against her will. A sudden fear surged through her as it suddenly dawned upon her just how much danger she was truly in. And there was no way that anybody would know where she was or who she was with. Maybe she should have gotten off the mountain when she had the chance.

***

“So, what the hell are we doing?” Estelle finally managed to ask. They had been moving through the woods for at least an hour, and although she was being strung along by some form of ancient magic, she was fully aware of everything that was going on. Still, it didn’t make any sense to her.

“We’re not going to let Blaine get away with keeping these tunnels from us,” Geron said darkly. Estelle sighed.

“You do get that this is his land, right? And he’s been beyond patient with your bullshit.”

“This land belongs to none but he who sanctified it,” Geron growled, his eyes flashing menacingly at her.

Estelle was chilled into silence, and they continued through the foliage until they finally reached the entrance of a tunnel made of rock, deep within the mountain.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Estelle whispered.

“Too bad,” Frenja, the other dragon shifter, snapped at her. he pushed her forward and Estelle fell inside. The air was cool and damp, and she struggled to her feet with the help of Geron, who refused to meet her eyes.

“This task is bigger than your friend Blaine and his supposed claim on this land. We must take the mountain before the equinox. You have to understand. This is a significant task, and if you or anyone else gets in the way, you’re going to die. It’s very simple.”

Estelle had to bite her tongue to keep her mouth shut, but somehow, she managed to do it as Geron and his lackey continued on their way. The tunnel was lit by torches that were mounted to the walls, and the deeper they went, the more afraid Estelle started to be.

Finally, they came into an open area, glittering full of quartz, and Geron turned to her, his eyes reflecting the sparkle of the minerals on the walls of the cavern.

“You’ve seen something like this,” Geron insisted. “I can tell you have. Where is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Estelle growled, squeezing her eyes closed. Maybe if she didn’t look at him, his disturbing magic wouldn’t work on her.

“Don’t lie to me, child,” Geron said, his voice heavy with malice. “I know you know. And you’re going to help us, whether you like it or not.”

Estelle cried out as a sharp pain jolted through her body, and she collapsed to the ground as the world around her grew dark.


“I can’t believe you did it,” Jack said, slapping Blaine on the back.

But Blaine couldn’t even manage a smile. He knew he should be happy. He had put his mind to figuring out exactly where the source of the gold had been, and had followed the location of gold mines and quartz deposits to locate the sacred portal. And yet, he just wasn’t happy. Something was wrong.

As if to emphasize the fact, the sky above the shifters gathered around the mine leading to the portal was growing dark, and the wind, warm and cheery just a few moments before, had grown cold and biting. And to make matters worse, Estelle was nowhere to be seen. She wouldn’t just abandon him there. Not when he was going to reveal the fruits of all his labor to the crew; to everyone at BBT. Sure, the humans wouldn’t have to know anything about the portal, but they did at the very least, deserve to see the site of the biggest source of gold located on the mountain.

“Blaine…”

The word was faint; far away and weak. Nobody else seemed to hear it, but when he glanced at Jack, there was worry in his eyes, as if he sensed that something was off. Blaine was old enough by now to know better than to ignore his intuition.

Before he could stop himself, Blaine was shifting into his bear form and running full speed toward the sound of Estelle’s voice. She was afraid, and she needed him.

But as soon as he reached her scent, he looked around wildly, confused and angry at himself. It was obviously a trap. He had allowed himself to succumb to one of the oldest tricks in the book, and he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself for that.

It was too late to go back now, though, and Geron appeared suddenly, his reptilian eyes growing wide and ferocious as he shifted into his dragon form. The man was huge, but in his fury, Blaine knew that nothing would ever match his drive to protect Estelle.

A cold rain began to fall from the sky, and Blaine squinted his eyes as he was pelted by the icy water. But he knew that Geron was mostly smoke and mirrors. He might be able to manipulate the world around them, but the reality that Blaine mastered could easily be his downfall. All he had to do was find an opening. Dragons were big and powerful, but they were also victims of their own mentalities. Blaine had known that since he was a child, and h was prepared to take Geron down, no matter what the cost. His people would have the portal, even if he failed. He would risk it all to save the woman he loved. What other choice did he have?

And so, with a ferocious growl, Blaine charged forward, willing himself to see through the magic exuding from Geron. Without Geron’s mind, the rain pelting his body wouldn’t exist. That meant, it wasn’t really there. All he had to do was focus on what was really there. A dragon shifter. Another man far back, guarding a human. A weak, scared human. His Estelle.

The awareness of her presence sent a new surge of fury through Blaine, and he sliced his paw at Geron, who was using all his mental energy to keep up the illusion of the rainfall. The blow shocked Geron enough that the rain paused for a moment and Geron turned to face Blaine. He could feel his limbs growing cold, but it was clear that the dragon was trying to divide too much of his focus and spreading himself too thin.

Blaine took advantage of that and charged. He had been taught the weakness of a dragon shifter long ago, and made a mad dash behind the beast, toward the middle of Geron’s wings, where the scales were notoriously weaker. He climbed with all his might and Geron howled in rage as his claws sank into his flesh. A bolt of lightning shot down from the sky and Estelle let out a shriek. It made him lose his concentration just long enough that he, too, was electrocuted briefly, but he forced himself to keep his goal in mind, and sank his teeth into the weak spot in the dragon’s back.

Soon, his mouth as filled with blood and Geron let out a tremendous howl of pain. Blaine dropped to the ground and raced toward Estelle, who was cowering on the ground. He glared at the man guarding him, and he turned on his heel and ran away as Geron did his best to fly off the mountain, leaving a huge trail of blood behind him.

“Estelle,” Blaine whispered, shifting back into his human form and running toward her. she was shivering on the ground, unable to catch her breath after the mental hell that Geron had unleashed upon her. “Come on, kid. You’re all right. Let’s get you out of here.”

***

It took a few hours of being comfortable in front of the fire in Blaine’s cabin before Estelle ventured to speak, and when she did, Blaine moved toward her, unable to deny his love for her any longer. They had been through so much together at that point, it was futile to hide it.

“They wanted the portal,” she whispered. “They didn’t think you’d have the papers…”

“Well I do,” Blaine said softly, grinning at her. “They came through last night. That’s why I wanted everyone to meet me at the top of the mountain. I wanted to reveal the gold deposit and the deed at the same time. I guess that was kind of stupid of me, huh?”

Estelle smiled and shook her head.

“It would have been great, but they had to go and ruin it…”

“Hey,” Blaine said, sitting down beside her on the couch. “They didn’t ruin anything. The only way they could have is if they hurt you.”

Estelle looked down at the flannel blanket wrapped around her body, her cheeks almost as red as the flannel she was snuggled up in.

“You’ve saved my life,” Estelle said with a quiet laugh. “So many times, now. Aren’t you sick of having to protect me?”

Blaine turned her toward him, looking seriously into her eyes.

“The only thing I’m sick of is people out there wanting to hurt you. I’d protect you for all the rest of my days if you’d let me.”

Estelle was silent, studying him as if for the first time. “You really mean that, don’t you? I can feel it somehow…”

Blaine smiled, relieved that he wouldn’t have to justify himself to her. there were so many things the girl just seemed to understand. And now that they were together, there was nothing more stopping them. Nothing except themselves.

Blaine took Estelle’s hands in his, kissing the palms of her hands lightly. She shivered and smiled at him shyly, and he embraced her tightly, grateful more than anything he had ever felt that she was still alive.

“I’ve wanted you so much, for so long,” Estelle whispered into his ear. “You’re all I ever seem to be able to think about.”

A hot rush of desire overpowered Blaine, and he studied Estelle intently, the bear inside of him urging him to make his final claim; telling him to make sure that he was claiming her to last. It was something the bear had never done with his first wife; only with Estelle. And this time, he was going to let nothing stand in his way.

Estelle gasped softly when his hands found the softness of her flesh beneath the blanket, and his lips tugged against hers with a deep and tender passion. They kissed languidly as the bear took charge, finally able to assert itself and make its claim official.

Estelle seemed eager to take on the role of his mate, and held him close as he climbed on top of her, his body engulfed in the tingling flames of desire. She closed her eyes as her senses were assaulted by his caresses, and soon she gasped as the urgency of his longing became clear; pressed firmly against her middle; half an invitation, and half a question.

Blaine ran his hand along her thigh, pressing her legs apart and allowing his fingers and groin to explore the heat between her thighs. She was ready for him; just as eager as he was, and the bear inside him let out a deep growl of gratification.

Suddenly, the blanket was on the floor and their clothes were flying to the ground along with it, and Estelle was arching her back on the couch, her perfect breasts thrusting into the air. His mouth caught one of them and she shuddered as he tasted the sweetness of her nipple. There was nothing about her body that he didn’t love; every curve and slope was something new to love, something special to explore.

Before long, he couldn’t hide his need any longer, and he stroked the length of his shaft gently against the most sensitive area of her body. Estelle moaned softly, invitingly, and bucked her hips against him. That was all the invite that he needed, and he plunged suddenly inside of her, filling them both with the abrupt explosion of ecstasy that engulfed them as their bodies joined once again, after far too long.

Estelle cried out, the sound muffled by the couch cushion she buried her head into, but Blaine took her chin so that she looked at him.

“Don’t hide anything you feel,” he told her. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling good.”

Estelle’s full, sensual lips parted and he took them into his mouth, nibbling them gently as he gave his hips another powerful thrust. She cried out into his mouth and he grinned, overwhelmed by the sheer ecstasy of sharing his body with her and holding her once again after far too long.

He let his hands grope around the fullness of her hips; the sensual curves of her ass and belly. She was the perfect amount of woman for him, no more and no less, and he was certain in that moment that he had met his match.

They fell into a steady rhythm, giving and taking their share of pleasure, until they were see-sawing on the brink of what would surely promise to be the most explosive climax of their lives. Estelle’s beautiful eyes stared into his, rapture and sheer love radiating from her perfect features. She was everything he had ever wanted, and now that he had her, he was going to claim her and never, ever let her go again.

As if her body could sense his silent vow, it contracted sensually around his member as he was enveloped sweetly inside of her. he knew immediately that this was the first sign of orgasm, and he exploded with activity. Estelle cried out in ecstasy, her body shocked again and again by the tendrils of pleasure snaking along every nerve impulse in her body, and Blaine was sure he wouldn’t be able to hold back his own pleasure any longer.

Finally, another delicious contraction tugged at his body, the friction of which tipped him over the edge. Estelle dug her fingers into Blaine’s back, crying out in sheer rapture as the force of his orgasm erupted inside of her, and he continued to thrust his hot, swollen member until every last drop of his pleasure was emptied inside.

He held his lover close to his broad chest, their bodies closer than they had ever been before as he showered kisses onto all her face’s unique and beautiful features.

“I love you,” he whispered. “And I’m going to take care of you for the rest of our lives.”

“What about the portal?” Estelle asked with a deep yawn.

“We don’t even know how to use it,” Blaine admitted with a laugh. “But we’ll figure it out. And when we do, you and I are going to have some stories to tell.”

Estelle laughed quietly and their lips met once again.

“I love you,” she said. “I’ll follow you anywhere.”

Blaine grinned and held Estelle close to his body, grateful that, above all else, he was going to share his life with the perfect woman for him, no matter what life threw at them. They would take it on together, convention be damned. And that’s all there was to it.

The End


KING

Samantha Leal

Copyright ©2015 by Samantha Leal. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Thank you so much for your interest in my work!


The club was quiet for a Thursday. Normally, Lexi would have been knocking back shots with some of the truckers passing through, or twirling herself around a pole while they looked on and tucked ten dollar bills into her panties. But as luck would have it (or not, as it turned out), the night was so quiet nothing was going to go unnoticed…

Marv was leaning against the back wall smoking a cigarette and biting the edge of his thumb nail. She had hated him from the second she started working there, but she knew she was going to have to suck it up and just get on with it. The girls of Slate Springs were all on the lookout for easy money, and it just so happened that Lexi had the body and the guts to be able to work in the town’s only strip club. She had watched others come and go, some had made it through one shift and other’s had managed a few weeks, but it usually ended the same… They just couldn’t hack it. There was only a small set of core girls that worked the poles in Red X, and Lexi was one of them. She had the power to switch off her brain and just engage her body. She needed the cash and that was all it was to her, a job. Some girls got too emotionally involved. She had even seen some of the poor suckers fall in love with the customers, and after feeling sorry for them, she usually just got angry. What did they expect from men who went there wanting to see titties for cash?

Marv eyed her from the back of the room, the smoke trails dancing up around his eyes, but he didn’t even blink. She wanted to give him the finger, but instead she turned her back on him and smiled at Jo, the only bartender working.

“Think he’ll get mad?” Jo asked Lexi as she cast her eyes to Marv over her shoulder.

“Who cares?” Lexi said as she swigged her vodka. “It’s not our fault it’s dead.”

“He’s watching you like a hawk,” she said uneasily. “Maybe just finish that one and then go back to the pole?”

Lexi had been sitting at the bar for around thirty minutes, and she knew it was driving him mad. She could feel his stare burning into the back of her skull. He didn’t like any of the girls taking drinks for free. They either paid for them themselves or got the customers to buy them for them. No one got a free ride… not even his best girl.

Lexi scrunched up her nose and rubbed her forehead. She didn’t even know why she was doing it. She easily could have afforded to buy herself booze there, but she just didn’t feel like it. As the weeks had passed by and things had become more strained at home, she found herself on the edge of something she’d never felt before. She didn’t know whether she was about to hit her own self-destruct button, but she felt the closest she had ever been to it.

She looked over her shoulder again, and Marv threw the butt of his smoke on the ground and stomped it out with his boot. She could tell from his folded arms and intense glare that he was coming for her. She turned back to Jo and knocked back the last in the glass.

“He’s coming,” Jo whispered through gritted teeth.

Before Lexi could turn around to smile, Marv was behind her, his hands on her shoulders.

“Lexi, Lexi, Lexi…” he said heavily. “Something up?” He slid onto the stool next to her, and his presence instantly made her skin crawl.

“Nope,” she said angrily, “Why would something be up?”

Marv sucked in a lung full of air and laughed.

“Well, you’re drinking my liquor for one,” he said as he leaned in closer to her. “And you’re not shaking your ass up there on stage.”

Lexi bit back the venom she knew she was capable of spewing at him and smiled sweetly instead.

“Well, actually,” she began as she turned and stared at him dead in the eyes, “I thought you could take it out of my paycheck, seeing as, you know, you haven’t given it to me yet…”

“Paycheck,” he snorted at the joke. Marv only dealt in cash. “What are you getting at?”

“You owe me for two weeks of work,” she said seriously, “and don’t pretend like you don’t know that.”

Marv smiled and moved his mouth closer to her ear.

“Well, you better get up there and work for it then,” he said nastily.

Lexi bit her bottom lip and slid down from the stool. Even though she’d downed a couple of vodkas and was feeling the fire rise within her, she had to hold it together. What else would she do if she didn’t work at Red X? Putting up with Marv’s bullshit was just an unfortunate part of the job…

She walked away from him as tears stung the corners of her eyes. She was a tough girl—she had to be after the way her life had started. She had spent most of it longing for a father she had never met, taken cruelly by an accident before she was born. But even the tough could find things getting on top of them at times, and her problems at home weren’t helping anything. Her mother had been seeing someone she couldn’t stand and she was stuck there, desperate to move out. That’s why keeping her job was more important now than ever… If she didn’t keep the cash coming in, how could she branch out on her own?

She burst through the doors of the dressing room and one of the new girls, Candy, looked up at her.

“You okay?” she asked sweetly. She was exactly how her name would suggest, blonde hair and pink blushed cheeks on alabaster skin. A complete contrast to Lexi and her waist-length raven hair and olive tan.

“Sure,” she said as she walked to her corner and rooted through her bag. She found her make-up and sat down on the floor. As she pulled out her lipstick and pouted in the handheld mirror, her nerves started to calm.

Deep breaths , she reminded herself.

The music from the club quieted, and the dull clap of the few customers drifted through.

“So slow tonight,” Candy said as she chewed a piece of gum and applied mascara. She was sitting at her dressing table in a pair of white stockings, suspenders, and nipple pasties.

“Tell me about it,” Lexi said as she stood up and looked at herself in the mirror. Every time she caught sight of herself, she was reminded as to why she did so well in Red X… She had one of the most naturally curvaceous and stunning bodies of all of the girls. Her waist nipped in delicately and her breasts and behind swelled out either side of it, giving her a perfect hourglass figure. Girls paid huge money to look like Lexi… And she drove the men wild.

She flicked her hair and psyched herself up. It was her turn on stage, and she was going to give it hell. She was going to work so hard Marv’s jaw would be on the floor, and he would have no choice but to cough up and stop holding her hostage with irregular pay.

“Knock ‘em dead,” Candy called after her, and Lexi slid into her sky-high heels and headed for the door.

“Thanks, hon,” she smiled.

Candy was kind of dumb but a sweetheart all the same. There was a part of Lexi that hoped she would stick around and not quit after a few weeks of the lecherous truckers and Marv’s bad attitude.

Lexi skipped out of the dressing room and jumped up onto the small rectangular stage in front of the bar. She could count the eyes on her, and it made her nervous. She much preferred the busier nights. It was easier to calm her nerves with free drinks and blend into the sea of people and other girls working the room, but tonight she felt like the only person out there and with Marv’s devil eyes grinding into her, she just wanted the ground to open and to disappear.

A heavy rock tune blared out from the speakers behind her and she hooked her leg around the pole and started to spin, right to the floor. She worked her way up and down, licking her fingertip and smiling at the small scattering of truckers. She wiggled her hips and hooked her hands into her panties before pulling them down and throwing them out across the stage. When she was naked, she was a different person and it was only a matter of seconds before the eyes seemed to melt away and she was completely uninhibited. There was a part of her that found the whole thing liberating… She was one of the rare ones—she never felt degraded.

When she finished her set, she did a fun little bow for the crowd and blew them a kiss. She walked back over to the bar where Jo was waiting with a glass of water, and she drank it fast. Marv was still sitting on the stool, and he leaned over to her.

“Not bad,” he said as he lit another cigarette. “Maybe I will pay you after all.”

Lexi nodded her head and smiled at him. “So generous of you,” she said sarcastically.

Jo was called to the other side of the bar by a customer, and she wandered over to serve them. Lexi was still standing in front of Marv in nothing more than her underwear, and she could feel his eyes crawling all over her.

“You know,” he whispered as he leaned in and sniffed her hair, “you can have as many free drinks as you like if you play ball.”

She tensed. What exactly did he mean? Lexi turned her head and stared at him.

“I’m sure we could work something out,” Marv said as he trailed a finger down her arm. “I wouldn’t mind seeing what you’re made of. If you know what I mean…” A smile flickered across his lips, and Lexi felt the bile rise to the back of her throat.

Six months she had worked for him and she had always known that at some point it would come down to this.

“I guess the only thing I should be surprised about is that it took this long,” she said with a laugh.

“Huh?” Marv asked.

“I mean, how many of the other girls have you driven away acting like this?” Lexi’s tone changed from playful to angry.

“It’s up to you, sweetheart. You want your pay and to keep your job… You know what I want from you.” He licked his lips.

She knew that if only it had been busy that night, none of it would have happened. Marv wouldn’t have been drinking, she wouldn’t have been noticed skimming freebies from the bar, and he probably would have been in a better mood because the place would have been raking in cash. But all of those factors together meant that they had ended up there, having that conversation, full of aggression and a battle of wills.

Lexi needed the job more than anything, but no one was going to speak to her that way.

She looked down at the floor and breathed in deeply.

“Fuck you, Marv,” she said as she re-met his gaze. “FUCK YOU.”

The smile dropped from his face, and he reached out and grabbed her by the hair. It all happened so fast, but within seconds she had gone from being stood at the bar talking to her pervert of a boss, to being dragged out into the night and thrown out onto the street.

“Fuck the rest of your pay!” he spat as he loomed over her from the doorway. “I don’t ever want to see you around here again, you little bitch!”

The door slammed behind him, and Lexi looked up at the stars. She lay on the dusty sidewalk in only her underwear and no way to get home…

She had really done it this time.

Now she really was screwed.


The next morning she woke up to the sound of her mother banging around the house, and she rolled onto her side and rubbed her head. It was pounding and she felt the familiar pang of a hangover working its way in.

For a split second, she almost forgot what happened the previous night. It was just like any other morning, waking up and wishing she had saved enough to get the hell out of that house, but then all of a sudden, reality hit.

Marv had thrown her out of the club.

She’d been fired.

Lexi pulled the cover up over her head and wiped her eyes. There was no stopping the tears this time, and she realized that the dull thud rumbling through her skull wasn’t just from the fact she had had one drink too many, but also because of what Marv had done to her.

That was assault , she thought as she delicately touched her scalp. And the tears flowed freely.

Lexi had always been the type of girl to want to make her own way in life, and she had so far managed to get by. But when she had gone to work at Red X, something changed inside of her. She had become desensitized to so many things that it was shocking how upset she was about being fired and the way Marv had done it. It was as if he had flicked a switch in her, and her sensitivity was rising to the surface.

“Lexi!” her mom called up the stairs. “Want breakfast?”

She couldn’t even face calling back, and she pulled the pillow around her ears. Her mom would get the message soon enough.

When it hit noon, she finally crawled out of bed and went over to her mirror. In her drunken haze she had flopped down to sleep without removing her make-up and her mascara had now snaked down her cheeks like a blotchy, black river.

“I must have really been crying,” she said aloud.

She picked up a cotton swab and some remover and swept it gently over her eyes. Within a few moments, she resembled herself again and felt so much better. She grabbed her towel from the edge of the bed and went out into the hall. By the sounds of things, her mom’s boyfriend wasn’t home so she relaxed and made her way to the bathroom.

With the shower on full force, she let the room steam up and let the moisture work into her pores. She had so many morning rituals, but this was by far her favorite. She could sit there for hours and just breathe in the steam and let it soften her skin. It always felt as if she was getting rid of the grime from the club and starting anew.

She climbed into the shower and washed her hair quickly. She was going to have one hell of a day if she were going to convince Marv to give her the job back. The last thing she wanted to do was beg, but she was hoping by the time she got there he would be calmed down and she could use the excuse of going to pick up her things as a way in.

She applied just enough make-up for it not to look forced and dressed sensibly in a pair of tight jeans and a cut off t-shirt. The day was warm and the sun was high overhead as she walked down the side of the highway. Slate Springs was a small town that many would consider just a through-road, but there was so much happening there underneath the surface that it had kept her there for most of her life.

She couldn’t remember the day she realized that the constant buzz of truckers and people passing through wasn’t completely normal. But slowly things had worked their way to the surface and Lexi had started to catch on. Slate Springs was a town built on illegal affairs, and although Lexi had always done her best to stay away from it, she had the feeling that things were about to change…

As she approached Red X, the neon lights on the pair of dangly heel-clad legs still flashed red from the night before. Marv must have gotten so drunk that he forgot to close down properly. Lexi could see his car outside and those of a couple of the other girls, and as she made her way to the back door, she just hoped she’d make it inside before he came out and saw her first.

She pushed open the back door and walked quickly down the darkened hallway. She could hear the dull drawl of voices working their way back from the club room as she dipped swiftly into the dressing room.

It was empty, but she recognized Candy’s purse and the scent of her perfume. Maybe she had pulled an all-nighter and stayed there, maybe it had gotten busier, or maybe she had just come in to pick something up like Lexi had, but she all she knew was that she was glad it was her there and not one of the bitchier girls.

She scooped up the clothes she had left and cast her mind back to how Marv had thrown her out into the street wearing only her underwear. She was lucky she had managed to run home fast and no cars had passed her on the way. She knew she wouldn’t have been able to explain what had happened without incurring Marv’s wrath once more. When she had found all of her things and shoved them into her bag, she glanced quickly around the changing room. Even though she knew she was going to plead for her job, she had the distinct feeling that this would be the last time she’d be there.

She opened the door and went back out into the dark hallway. She could hear Candy’s laugh from the bar, and she heard Marv shouting something about restocking the refrigerators.

She cautiously creeped to the door of the club room and peered through the small glass window. Marv was leaning against the bar and Candy was behind it. He was ordering her around and obviously loving every second. Candy tried to laugh and make light of what was happening, but Lexi could see she was clearly exhausted. He must have had her there working all night.

Lexi pushed the door open and slowly stepped inside. It took Marv a moment to notice her, but when he did, his face went from amusement to disbelief before settling on anger.

“What’s the matter?” he spat. “Come back for more?”

“Marv,” Lexi stepped forward. “I don’t know what happened last night, but I don’t want to lose my job here, okay?”

Candy was looking at her hopefully, dark rings of tiredness engulfing her eyes.

“Well, maybe you should have thought about that before you started acting like such a brat,” he said as he threw his inventory down on the counter. “Walking around in here like you own the place, huh?” he laughed.

“No,” she shook her head. “It wasn’t that at all. It’s just, I’m having some…some personal problems.”

“Well, your personal problems aren’t my problems. Leave them at the door, sweetheart,” he sneered.

Lexi looked from him to Candy and then at the bag at her feet.

“Well, I just came to get my things, anyway,” she said. “And to ask if I’m still working tonight…”

Marv ignored her for a moment, and she thought that he was thinking it over before she noticed the big vein on his forehead throbbing with rage. She took a step backwards before he turned on her and lunged forward. He grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her towards the front door. Lexi dragged her heels and tried to pull away from him, but he was too strong.

As he yanked open the doors, the sunlight flooded the darkened room, and it was so bright, it blinded her. Cars and trucks were thundering down the highway, and as Marv hurled her onto the dusty ground for the second time in twenty-four hours, he kicked her lightly in the calf.

“Are you fucking stupid?” he spat. “I told you the score last night.”

Lexi shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked up at him with determination in her eyes.

“Fuck off, Lexi,” he said. “You don’t want to play by my rules, then there’s no job for you here.”

“You can’t do that!” she said as she got to her feet.

“Yes,” Marv turned on his heel and laughed. “Yes, I think you’ll find that I can.”

He disappeared inside for a moment before coming back out into the light and throwing her bag at her. She caught it against her stomach and felt the wind knock out of her.

“See ya, Lexi,” he said with an evil laugh as he pulled the doors to Red X shut.

She stood there dumbfounded for a moment before she got angry. And when the anger came, it burst out of her like a demon. She hurled herself at the doors and thumped her fists on it.

“I’m going to make you pay for this, Marv!” she screamed. “You just wait!”

There was no sound from inside, and a truck honked its horn as it passed her by. She picked up a rock and hurled it at the flashing red legs before making her way back down the highway. Who knew where she would go…

She couldn’t face another day at home, and now she didn’t have Red X to escape to. She was going to have to think outside the box and be resourceful. She was going to have to look for something she had never looked for before, and although the day was stretching out blankly before her, she had a pretty good idea of where she could go…


She slid into a booth at the diner and pulled out her cell phone. She had a text from Candy asking her if she was okay and what she planned to do now. Lexi wanted nothing more than to text Candy back and tell her she didn’t really have a clue, but she knew it would go straight back to Marv. Now that Lexi was no longer at the club, Candy was going to be his go-to girl, and she would be under his thumb until he got sick of her or didn’t get what he wanted.

She looked up at the waitress and smiled. She ordered a strong coffee and a plate of pancakes before she turned off her phone and looked out at the dusty roads.

There’s got to be something I can do in this town that won’t involve selling my soul , she thought. But she wasn’t convinced. If she wanted to make good money, she wasn’t going to earn it as a waitress. She opened the paper and looked at the house listings. There was barely anything in a ten-mile radius and nothing in Slate Springs she could afford. Even though the town was small, the rent seemed unnaturally high, and she had no clue who even owned these houses that were being leased.

After the waitress served her, she savored her coffee and picked at the pancakes. When she was done, she looked up at the clock and realized it was almost 3:00 pm. The day was passing her by in a weird flash, and she had no clue what she was going to do with herself now that she had no job to go to.

She ordered another coffee and was about to dive back into the paper when she heard the rumbling of engines coming over the desert. She stopped and looked out of the window and waited for them to come into view. Even as a little girl, she had been fascinated with them, but her mother had always told her to stay away. She said they brought nothing good and only led to trouble.

The glinting silver caught in the sun and exploded over the horizon. Even though Lexi had spent most of her life scared of the bikers, she was still enthralled every time she saw them in a crowd together. They always pulled her in, even though she tried to resist. When she had worked at Red X, the odd one had come in to see Marv and left him looking worried. A first for a guy like him, so they must have had some power behind them. Lexi had always wondered what they got up to in their clubhouse and what their bar was like on the other side of town, but having grown up there and hearing the stories of how dangerous they were, she had never dared venture that way.

The metal and growling engines were like a swarm coming over the rise and down the highway. The men on the backs of the bikes were all different, but all had a sexy edge that was impossible to deny… They oozed danger, and it turned her on. Lexi bit her lip as she watched them go past in their convoy, heading back over to the other side of town to do whatever it was they did.

She thought they had all gone until she heard the rumbling get closer, and she saw that four had broken away from the convoy and were pulling into the diner parking lot. Lexi tensed up as she sipped her coffee and looked around to see if anyone else had noticed, but the other clientele seemed to consist mainly of truckers who didn’t look the slightest bit interested.

The bikers stopped opposite the windows and one by one got off their rides. Lexi watched them with a strange fascination as they removed their helmets and stretched their broad shoulders.

She had seen some of the bikers around town on occasion, but they usually stuck to their own side and didn’t seem to come down to Main Street or where Lexi spent the majority of her time… And apart from the odd visit to Red X, they rarely even ventured into the club either. This particular set of men seemed younger than some of the old-time bikers. They were more her age and were all incredibly hot. They wore thick leathers and had tattoos and silver rings dusting their knuckles. Their big masculine hands clamped around cigarettes, and they exhaled plumes of smoke into the sky.

Lexi found herself licking her lips, and her heart started to race as she watched them. They were all so mean looking, but they radiated sex appeal and danger, and it was driving her wild. She had always done her best to stay away from the bike gang because of what her mother told her about them. She had always seemed to want to instill fear in Lexi, controlling her so that she never got involved with them but had never really told her why. As she sat there then in the diner, though, she couldn’t look away. Ever last inch of them was pulling her in and rousing her curiosity.

She brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear and found herself smiling as she watched them. Out of the four, she couldn’t immediately distinguish which one she found the most attractive. They moved like a pack, banded together and clad in a leather uniform. But that quickly changed when one of the tallest of the four turned around and locked eyes with her through the window.

His eyes were so deep and dark, they engulfed her at once and Lexi found herself trying to catch her breath. She looked away quickly before steadying herself. Looking back up, she found him standing with his arms folded against his bike and smiling at her. A smile crept across her own face, and she looked back down. She was desperate to keep watching him, but butterflies were pounding her insides and her heart was racing. She breathed in deeply and cast her eyes to the side. He was still leaning against the bike with a cigarette clenched between his teeth, and his dark brown hair was blowing in the light breeze, wisping down around his eyes. His skin was a dark olive, just like Lexi’s, and she watched as he pulled his leather jacket off and exposed his broad, muscular, tanned shoulders. He was unlike any other man she had ever seen before, and with each move, he made his muscles flex under his vest.

The four of them finished their cigarettes and made their way towards the steps of the diner. All of them walked heavy on their big, black boots, and they thumped up the stairs and swung open the door. The bell tinged as they stepped inside, and Lexi was aware of a few people swiveling on their chairs and looking over their shoulders. One of the waitresses looked at them coyly and sucked the tip of her pen. The four men strode over to the counter and slammed their hands down on the top.

From her vantage point, Lexi found herself slipping down in her seat and watching their every move. She knew it was wrong and that she shouldn’t be so interested by them, but there was just something so appealing… Maybe it was because she had always been warned away. Now she was up close with some of them properly for the first time, and she couldn’t tear her eyes away.

The biker who had caught her eye turned and looked at her. Completely embarrassed that he had caught her looking, her heart skipped a beat and she quickly looked down at her menu. Even though she had an empty coffee cup and the remnants of the pancakes on the table in front of her, she tried to hide behind the menu as if she were searching for something else to order.

When she finally had the nerve to lower it, her eyes met his instantly. He was sitting on a stool high up at the counter facing her and staring at her with a smile on his face. Lexi felt her own smile open up and a small laugh escape her lips.

“What’s funny?” he said, trying to stifle his own laugh.

Lexi shook her head and brushed her hair back over her shoulder. For a girl who had—up until that morning—taken her clothes off for a living, she was finding herself incredibly shy around him. He was quite possibly the only man that had ever done that to her. She pushed her coffee cup away and picked up her purse. She had to get out of there. If she didn’t, who knew what might happen.

When she got to her feet, the biker did too. He walked over to the table and folded his arms across his chest. When she turned and saw them so close to her, her whole body froze.

“You’re not leaving?” he asked.

Lexi felt herself blushing. “Well, I’ve…” she couldn’t think of one good thing to say as a reason for her to be going anywhere. What could she possibly tell him? Oh yeah, I need to get back to the spare room at my mom’s house so I can climb into bed and cry myself to sleep… Or: I need to get back to the strip club and beg my pervy boss for my job back yet again…

Even thinking it made it seem like more of a reality, and she smiled up at him and shook her head.

“No, I’m not going anywhere,” she said spontaneously. “I’m just running to the little girls’ room.”

He held up his hands in apology and watched as she walked slowly past the counter and to the back where the restrooms were located. When she was inside, she slammed the door behind her and leaned against the wall.

Oh my God, she breathed out. He is so fucking hot.

She ran the tap and looked at herself in the mirror. Her make-up was still perfectly intact despite the heat, and her hair looked just as groomed as it had when she had left the house earlier in the day. She pulled a lipstick out of her jeans pocket and smoothed some on her lips before flushing and opening the door.

Back in the main area of the diner, she walked back to her table and was relieved to see that the bikers had moved away from the counter and were drinking beers in one of the booths. She sat with her back to them, completely terrified that she would keep catching his eye and making even more of a fool out of herself.

The bell tinged and Tammy, one of the waitresses and Lexi’s close friend, bounced through the door. She spotted Lexi right away and hurried over to her. She slid into the booth and threw her arms around her.

“Oh my God,” she panted, “are you okay?”

Lexi wasn’t surprised that Tammy knew about what happened with Marv already. Slate Springs was probably one of the smallest and most gossip-filled places in the world.

“Yes,” she nodded, “I’m fine.”

“What a piece of shit he is.” Tammy smoothed a comforting hand over the side of her head. “I never liked him.”

“Me neither,” Lexi admitted, “but work is work.”

Tammy wrapped her arms around her and squeezed her tight.

“How did you find out, anyway?” Lexi asked.

“One of the new girls up there came by Dad’s store earlier,” Tammy rambled. “She was all ditzy and blonde, with barely a brain cell and she was jabbering on about how Marv had got rid of one of the best girls at the club, and the more she talked, the more I knew it was you.”

“Did she say anything else?” Lexi asked, half cringing. She hated the idea of being the talk of the town.

“No,” Tammy said with a sigh. “Just that she can’t believe it either.”

“Well, her and me both…” Lexi rubbed her temples. Just talking about the events of the past twenty-four hours was giving her that sickening headache again.

“What are you gonna do?” Tammy asked her as she got to her feet.

“No idea,” Lexi shrugged. “I really have no idea…”

Tammy smiled sympathetically and walked over to the counter as she pulled on her apron. Lexi watched her and wished she had chosen a simpler way of life. Tammy never had any trouble working at the diner, her paycheck was always on time, and her boss wasn’t a sleaze. Now, that was all Lexi wanted.

“Hey,” the man’s voice came from behind her.

She turned and looked over her shoulder and was met by his wonderful eyes.

“You having some trouble?” he smiled and his whole aura pulled her in again. With just a glance, he was wrapping his arms around her and pulling her so close she didn’t think she would ever be able to break free—or want to.

“No, I’m alright,” she smiled, but she could already feel the tears pricking up behind her eyes.

She looked down at the table as her vision started to blur. The bikers were all in the corner, laughing and joking and clinking beers, but Lexi was aware that one of them… Him … was coming closer. His boots stomped across the linoleum until his huge frame was looming above her. She let her eyes trail up and trace the perfect lines of his body… the tattoos that covered him, all up his arms, were so intricate and exotic… full of skulls, dancing women, roses, and thorns. He put his hands on the table in front of her and bent down. He was so close, she could feel his hot breath on her skin, and she tingled from the inside out with desire for him. The chemistry between them was electric. She had never felt anything like it before in her entire life.

“What’s the matter?” he asked with a whisper as his hand moved next to hers. “Just tell me what I can do… I’ll never see a pretty girl cry.”

She looked up at him and their eyes locked again. She could feel the connection between them intensifying with each passing second. She didn’t even know his name, but she could tell he was a man who was about to change everything…


He slid into the booth opposite her and clicked his fingers for Tammy to come and serve them.

“This woman needs a beer,” he said with a crinkled smile. “On me.”

Lexi wiped her eyes on the corner of her wrist. Tammy was over his shoulder looking at her concerned, but Lexi smiled and nodded her head.

“Thanks…that would be great.”

Tammy nodded and said, “Coming right up,” before making her way back to the counter.

“So,” he said, splaying his hands across the table, “I’ve never seen you before.”

Lexi smiled and felt herself relax. “Well then, you haven’t been looking.”

A smile danced across his lips, and there was something in his eyes that was more than lust… It was pure animalistic need.

“I’m King,” he said.

“Lexi,” she held out her hand.

When their hands locked together and she felt his skin against hers for the first time, her heart thumped hard in her chest. She found it hard to tear herself away, but when she did, he picked up the beer bottle with his big, rough hands, just as Tammy appeared at the booth with one for Lexi.

King passed it to her and then held his into the middle of the table.

“To new friends,” he said as he clinked his bottle against hers.

“To new friends,” Lexi smiled.

The other bikers at the back of the room were watching them and started wolf whistling. King flipped them the bird, and as they all made their way over to the table, he shook his head and took the ribbing.

“Don’t worry,” one of them said. “He’s a gentleman.”

Lexi laughed as she watched them slap him on the shoulder one by one as they went to the door and made their way outside.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” King called after them.

The bikers all mounted their rides and started revving their engines. Lexi found herself transfixed with them as they all growled out onto the highway on their powerful machines.

“You ever ridden a bike before?” King asked her.

“Never,” Lexi smiled. “But I’d like to give it a go.”

“Well then, maybe I’ll take you sometime,” he winked.

She felt herself blushing, and she sipped on the beer to try and disguise it.

“So,” he began, “you gonna tell me what your friend was talking about?” He nodded over his shoulder in Tammy’s direction and stared at Lexi deep in the eyes.

She shuffled on the spot for a moment, unsure of whether she should be telling a stranger her personal problems, but he seemed determined to know, and maybe he would be able to help her in some way…

“I was fired by my jackass of a boss last night,” she exhaled. “He threw me out onto the street by my hair and told me never to come back.”

His eyes widened and his face hardened.

“He threw you out?” he scowled. “Well that’s no way to treat a lady.” His grip on the bottle tightened and he curled his lip.

“He’s a prick,” Lexi continued. “I never liked working for him, but like I said to my friend, work is work…”

“Where were you fired from?” He took another swig.

Lexi felt herself blushing again. She had never been ashamed of her job as a dancing girl, but there with King, she suddenly found herself not wanting to admit that she had stripped for cash.

“Red X,” she whispered, waiting for his reaction.

“The strip club?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

Lexi nodded.

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” he smiled. “Gorgeous little thing like you…” He winked at her, and she felt herself relax.

“Well, I certainly don’t work there anymore,” she said. “So basically, I’m screwed. There’s nothing around here for someone like me. I can’t work in a diner… It would drive me nuts. I like action! I like to feel empowered, and Slate Springs doesn’t exactly have much to offer in that department. Even if it’s built on a world of crime.” The second she said it, she slapped her hand across her mouth and her eyes almost popped out of her head. She had momentarily forgotten who she was talking to and her heart nearly hit the floor.

King smiled with amusement and shook his head.

“Well, maybe that’s what you need,” he grinned. “To get involved with some of that. I reckon it would keep you on your toes…”

“Oh yeah?” she challenged.

King nodded and drained the last of his beer from the bottle.

“Come around our bar tonight,” he said as he got to his feet. “We sure could use a girl like you, and I know I’d like to see more of you.” He winked at her before he turned on his heel and made towards the door.

Lexi wanted to call after him, to ask him to wait. She wanted to keep talking with him and to get to know more about him. After just a brief conversation, she was hooked and it felt like it was all over too soon.

“I’ll be there at nine,” he said before he pushed open the door and made his way back out into the burning sun.

Lexi watched him with bated breath as he climbed onto his bike and started the engine. He was so raw and powerful, and just watching him pull away and out onto the highway made her skin prickle with desire.

He disappeared into the distance and Lexi didn’t pull herself away until he was completely out of sight.

“Who was that?” Tammy said as she rushed over and slid into the booth opposite Lexi.

“King,” she grinned. “He’s one of the bikers…”

“One of the Forsaken Riders?” she asked excitedly.

“I assume so…” Lexi twirled the beer bottle in her hands.

“He was hot as hell,” Tammy grinned. “But they’re all such bad boys… Be careful, okay?”

“He just overheard our conversation,” Lexi said. “Think they must need someone to work in their bar… He wants me to go over there tonight.”

Tammy’s eyes widened with excitement. “Oh my God, are you going to go?

Lexi shrugged and started blushing again.

“I don’t have many other options do I?” she asked. “No job… desperate to get out of my mom’s house… How else am I going to get a place of my own if I don’t have an income?”

“But aren’t they like…” Tammy hushed her voice, “ criminals ?”

“What, and Marv isn’t?” Lexi snorted. “You wanna know why he fired me? Because I wouldn’t hook up with him, Tammy. The guy’s a perverted asshole. At least King seemed to be genuinely nice!”

Tammy shook her head and stroked Lexi’s arm.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” she said sadly. “Marv is a complete jerk. You’re better off out of that place.”

“I know,” Lexi sighed. “It just feels so shitty to have been humiliated like that…” She felt the tears welling up behind her eyes again and breathed out deeply.

“Well,” Tammy said, “the Forsaken Riders have been in this town for decades, and they’ve never really given anyone I know any trouble… Who cares what they do behind closed doors or what deals they’ve got going on? If there’s a job there and you want it, then go for it.” She smiled with encouragement.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “You’re right… I’ve always tried my best to stay away from all of that stuff, but what other options do I have?”

Tammy shrugged.

“I’m going to go,” she said as she got to her feet. “I better get myself ready.”

She slapped some cash down on the table top and Tammy got to her feet to give her a hug.

“You’re going to be great,” Tammy smiled. “Let me know how it goes tonight, okay?”

“Of course,” Lexi beamed. “You’ll be the first one to hear all about it.”

“I wonder what it’s like in there,” Tammy said excitedly. “I’ve heard so many stories from various people who end up in here late at night, but I’ve never been in myself.”

“Me neither,” Lexi said as she picked up her purse. “Only one way to found out, I guess.”

“Sure is,” Tammy smiled. “And hey, you never know, your hot new biker friend might even kick Marv’s ass for you.” She laughed and winked.

“Ha, if only!” Lexi grinned.

As she made her way back out into the afternoon sun and began her slow walk home, she suddenly couldn’t believe how random the past twenty-four hours had been. Maybe she was making a mistake in taking King up on his offer. She could be walking into a situation worse than what she was in at Red X… But she had to find out.

The bikers’ presence in Slate Springs had unnerved her when she was younger, but as she had grown up and become a woman, she had a mind of her own and knew she couldn’t listen to her mother forever. It was time for her to form her own opinions and not just live rules set for her by a mom who didn’t respect her judgment. She had hated Dereck, the boyfriend, since the moment she had met him and expressed her concerns to her mom on many occasions, only to be met with a wall of silence or excuses. When her mom had moved him in, it had broken Lexi’s heart and she felt as if part of their bond had been torn. Now they were all stuck under one roof, and maybe The Forsaken Riders could offer her a way out. She had managed to save some cash from her work at Red X… and maybe King would be able to help her to get Marv to pay up the rest if she impressed him enough that night.

As she walked along the side of the highway, her mind was quickly made up. She was doing the right thing. She was going to go over there and she was going to give it her all. She was her own person, and she was in charge of her own destiny. And she had the feeling that she was heading in the right direction.


As she walked in the front door, she could immediately hear and smell Dereck. The stench of stale booze and sweat hit her the second she entered the hallway, and she rolled her eyes. She always tried her very best to avoid him, but their paths crossed at least once a day since he had moved in, and she couldn’t stand it.

“That you, Lex?” her mom called from the kitchen.

She debated just running straight upstairs and ignoring them both, but she knew she couldn’t keep it up forever. What if she didn’t get the job at the biker bar? She would be stuck under the same roof with them for a whole lot longer.

She walked down the hallway and into the kitchen. Dereck and her mom were sitting at the table drinking gin, and Lexi eyed them cautiously as she made her way to the refrigerator.

“It’s four in the afternoon,” she said. “Do you really need to be drinking that?”

“Coming from the stripper?” Dereck snorted.

“Dereck,” her mom slapped him on the shoulder, but laughed along with him. “You alright, sweetheart?” she asked. “You didn’t seem yourself this morning.”

“I’m fine,” she answered.

She wasn’t going to tell her mom about where she was heading that night. She knew it would only cause an argument, and she had enough on her mind without having to deal with even more shit at home.

She pulled a large bottle of water from the top shelf, smiled at them both out of courtesy and then left the kitchen. She went straight upstairs and into her room, where she closed her door and pushed her desk chair up against it. Even though it wouldn’t keep anyone from coming in, she liked the feeling of being just that little more shut off. She liked feeling cocooned and safe.

She unscrewed the cap on the water bottle and swigged greedily from it. The day had been so hot and after the booze she had put away the night before along with all of the walking she had done in the day’s heat, she was feeling so dehydrated she was dizzy.

She lay back on her bed and stared up at the ceiling. The dull thrum of an argument filtered up from the kitchen below, and she rolled her eyes. She always wondered what it would have been like if her father hadn’t died before she was born and they had been a happy family, if Dereck had never existed to them and they were a solid unit of love and trust. How she wished she could just escape and get the hell out of there. They always seemed to argue when they’d been drinking, and it was becoming more frequent. Lexi couldn’t remember a day or an evening when she had come home and they both weren’t glued to a bottle. She knew it was only a matter of time before he started using his fists, and she didn’t want to be around to see it happen. Her mom wouldn’t listen to her, and she had even offered to pay most of the mortgage every month so it wasn’t as if Dereck was there out of necessity. But the facts were simple, her mother loved him and was always going to put him first, and that was that.

The clock ticked on her bedside table, and she knew she had several hours before she had to make her way over to the bar. She rolled over and closed her eyes, letting the cool breeze from the window blow around her as her mind raced with thoughts of King and what it would be like seeing him again. Her body ached with exhaustion, and within moments she was falling soundly asleep.

She awoke with a start, surrounded by darkness. She rolled over and squinted up at the clock on her bedside table. Her stomach dropped as she realized it said 9:23.

“Shit!” she shouted as she jumped up from the bed and turned on her table light. She looked in the mirror and her make-up was half smudged on one eye and she was hot and sticky.

“I can’t go looking like this!” she said as she ran through into the bathroom and yanked on the shower.

She could hear the sound of the TV downstairs accompanied by the grunting of Dereck’s snoring. She knew they would have both polished off the bottle of gin and fallen asleep on the couch.

Don’t ever let me end up like them, she thought.

After she had showered and spritzed herself with perfume, she slipped into her tightest pair of low-cut jeans and a little black tank top that enhanced her best assets. She plumped up her lips with red lipstick and outlined her eyes heavily with kohl before she stepped into a pair of black stilettos and grabbed her purse. It was just after 10:00 pm and she was late, but she hoped King would still be there.

As she left the house and ran out into the night, her heart was racing with anticipation. It was time for her to go to the other side of town to a place she had never been, which was shrouded in mystery and intrigue…The Bleeding Bullet. She was actually about to walk in there and hopefully get herself a job. She smiled as she kept walking. She felt strong and determined. She was going to take control of her life and ensure she never had to put up with Marv or her mom and Dereck’s shit ever again.

This is the first day of the rest of my life , she thought. And even though she knew it was a cheesy cliché, she also knew it was true.

Her heels clicked along the dusty roadside and the cool breeze that came along with the night was welcoming. She breathed in the fresh air and walked quickly. She didn’t want to keep King waiting much longer.

As she passed through to the other side of town, her heart began to race. Her palms started to sweat as she suddenly questioned her own decision. With each step she took, the more the roads seemed to quiet, and there was a different feel around the place. Nothing was the same as it was just half a mile in the other direction, and she felt as if there were eyes on her every move.

She could hear the music thumping through the streets and cars began to fly past her with people hanging out the windows and cat-calling into the night. Bikes seemed to be on every street corner and the bikers on them eyed her with intrigue as she passed. Some of them wolf-whistled and some of them grinned maniacally. She kept her head down and walked quickly. As she rounded another corner, The Bleeding Bullet stood out in the darkness. Red lights illuminated it from the ground and out front were rows upon rows of bikes and men drinking and smoking. Girls hung around them wearing fishnets and miniskirts, and she couldn’t help but think they wouldn’t have looked out of place at Red X. Truckers were entering the bar with their square caps and handlebar moustaches and cars full of college kids from the city seemed to be flocking there out of curiosity. It was so alive and buzzing, Lexi couldn’t believe she had never been there. Out in the middle of nowhere, in a small desert town, it seemed to be the place to be, and it excited her more than she ever thought possible.

She strode forward confidently and walked through the swarm of bikers clad in leather and silver. She climbed the three steps to the main door and pushed it open. The noise coming from inside was intense, and she could tell the place was full to bursting. When she stepped inside, nothing could have quite prepared her for how awesome the atmosphere was, but she instantly had a grin plastered across her entire face. It was dark, with low red lights, and rock music thumped through the crowds as men and women danced together, grinding on one and other and entwining themselves in passionate embraces. Girls danced up high on the bar and knocked back shots while they poured whisky into men’s mouths straight from the bottle. Lexi watched them all from her vantage point and couldn’t believe she had been wasting her whole entire life out of fear. This was exactly her kind of place and she knew if she started working there, she would love every second.

She looked around, still in awe of everything she was seeing, when a rough but gentle hand hooked around the waist.

“You’re late,” King breathed into her neck.

When Lexi spun around, she was face to face with him. The heat between their bodies was already on fire, and she felt a tingle of desire between her legs.

“I’m sorry,” she smiled and bit her bottom lip.

“Now, how do you expect me to give you a job if you can’t even show up on time?” He raised his eyebrow in jest.

“I didn’t realize I had to be here right at nine,” she said playfully. “I thought I could come down any time.” It was only half true, but she hoped he would buy it.

“I guess,” he winked. He slid an arm around her shoulder and led her over to the bar. The further they got into the crowd, the louder and busier it became. King held onto her tightly, and the crowd seemed to part to let them through.

At the front of the bar, he pulled out a stool for Lexi and lifted her up onto it. She smiled and had to catch her breath when she realized how strong he was and how easily he lifted her, as if she were as light as a feather. He leaned into her and over to one of the serving girls to ask for two vodkas. The girl eyed Lexi with suspicion but smiled and poured the drink over ice before giving them to King. He passed it straight to Lexi and took a sip of his own.

“So,” he spoke into her ear because of the noise, “I’m glad you came.”

“So am I,” Lexi giggled. “I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. It’s great!”

“Yeah, we try,” he said.

“Is this place yours?” she asked curiously.

“It’s the club’s,” he said vaguely. “I hope I cheered you up a bit today, anyway,” he continued, clearly wanting to change the subject, “You looked miserable when you were talking with your friend in the diner.”

“It was a pretty rough morning,” Lexi admitted.

King smiled and moved closer to her still.

“There aren’t many girls that catch my eye in this town,” he whispered, “but there’s something about you, Lexi…”

She swallowed hard and looked up into his eyes. They were so warm and inviting, and even though she knew he could easily be trouble, she also had the overwhelming urge to throw all of her common sense out the window and just go for it for once. It had been such a long time since she’d been with a man. After she started working at Red X, she had found it impossible to even consider a relationship, but there was something about King that was different. It was like he understood her and could see into her soul.

She took a sip of her drink and looked up at him nervously. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled himself in closer. She could feel his hot breath on her neck, and she could smell his cologne. He swept her hair over her shoulder and then leaned in towards her and kissed her.

It was the most sensuous kiss Lexi had ever experienced. His tongue parted her lips and massaged against hers. She wrapped an arm around him too, and they were locked together with so much passion, it felt like they would never be able to break away.

When their first kiss did end and she looked back into his eyes, she saw something that she had been missing her entire life. King was a piece that had always been absent, and even at this early stage she could sense that he was about to change her life forever.


King took her hand and led her away from the bar. The music and noise from the crowd was so loud, they could barely hear each other and he took her to the back of the room, where there was a small section of leather couches. It seemed to be a more intimate and exclusive part of “The Bullet” as King called it, and Lexi instantly felt like she was being accepted into his secretive world.

He looked deeply into her eyes as he held tightly onto her hand, with his other wrapped delicately around her shoulder.

“I’ve been wanting to kiss you like that since the second I saw you through the window today,” he smiled. “You took my breath away.”

Lexi felt herself tingle all over with desire and nodded her head in agreement.

“I felt exactly the same,” she whispered. “It was instantaneous.”

King nodded and leaned in to kiss her again. She couldn’t believe how close to him she felt after only knowing him a few hours. But there was something between them that was just right. When she looked into his eyes, everything seemed to click into place.

“So,” he said as he gestured around the bar, “what do you think?”

“I think it’s fantastic,” Lexi grinned. “It looks like a lot of fun.”

“Oh, it is,” he laughed. “And I know you’d fit in here well.”

“What do you want me to do?” she asked coyly.

“Tend the bar?” he suggested vaguely.

“I thought you said there was a position?” Lexi was confused.

“Well…” He held his hands up. “Maybe I have a slight confession.” He smiled at her and licked his bottom lip. “I just had to get you to agree to see me again.”

“What?” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“I needed an excuse to get you here,” he said. “So, what do you want to do here?”

“King, is there a job or not?” Lexi was beginning to get annoyed.

“If you want one, then there’ll be something for you.”

“Oh what, so you’re just giving me charity?” She got to her feet and was about to storm off when he grabbed hold of her wrist and pulled her back to him.

“Calm down,” he laughed. “I’m a major shareholder of this place, and I want a girl like you here at The Bullet, okay?” He was holding onto her by the shoulders. “It’s not charity, Lexi, believe me.”

She pouted and looked down at the ground. She wanted to get mad at him, but she knew she was overreacting, and he was only trying to help. She would be such a fool to reject his kindness.

“Okay,” she said grudgingly, “I’ll work for you.”

“Great,” King slapped his hands together. “And I promise I’m a much better boss than that last asshole you were working for. We’ve all heard stories about him…” he trailed off and looked out across the bar.

“Yeah, well, I’m sure they’re all true,” Lexi confirmed. “He’s a crook and a liar and he still owes me two weeks wages.”

The rage seemed to be building within King, and she could sense that he was on the verge of exploding. He cupped her face and looked at her deep in the eyes.

“I’ll get it for you,” he said. “Just leave it to me.”

Lexi knew she should have told him not to, but she needed the money, and Marv deserved to be a little scared. She’d told him that she would make him pay, and maybe this was her chance.

“So,” King said as he lit a cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke up towards the ceiling, “when can you start?”

“Whenever you want me,” she smiled.

“I want you right now,” he whispered suggestively.

Lexi’s skin tingled and the butterflies in her stomach started up again. Desire was growing between her legs, and even though she had only just met him, she knew that she would gladly go to bed with him right then and there.

“Well,” she said shyly, “just name a day and time.”

“Tomorrow night?” he asked. “How about seven? Come on down, and I’ll show you the ropes and introduce you to everyone.”

Lexi nodded and smiled.

“That’s enough work talk,” King said as he took her by the hand again and led her back into the swarm of bodies. “We need another drink.”

At the bar, they wrapped their arms around one and other and knocked back shots. King kissed her and ran his hands through her hair, and for a man who was so wild and untamed, she couldn’t believe what a gentle touch he had. She could tell he would be a dominating and expert lover and she found it intimidating, but she also couldn’t wait to find out.

As the night progressed and they got to know each other better, King introduced her to some of the other bikers from The Forsaken Riders. Faces and names all blurred together, but there were ones that stuck in her mind… Monikers like Lynx, Tanner, and Carter all swirled around her head as she shook hands with the big, burly, handsome men, and King looked on at her adoringly.

When she finally looked at her cell phone, it was nearly 3:00 am and the tiredness was beginning to creep up on her. She was having such a good night, she didn’t want it to end, but she knew she had to get herself home and have a good night’s sleep if she was starting her new job tomorrow.

“I better get home,” she whispered in King’s ear as they lounged back on one of the leather couches and she ran her hands through his hair. “But thank you,” she smiled. “For everything you’ve done for me today.”

He looked up and her and shrugged. “It’s no problem, Babe.”

She leaned in and kissed him softly on the cheek. His stubble grazed against her lips and her sex pulsed.

“Let me give you a ride,” he said as he got to his feet and pulled her up with him.

He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and walked with her towards the front door. All of the guys she had been introduced to hollered goodbye and waved to her through the crowd that was still going strong.

Out front there were still as many bikes and revelers as there had been when she had arrived earlier, and King seemed to know every one of them as they passed them by.

He led her to the big machine she had seen him riding earlier at the diner, and he helped her onto the back before he climbed on and started the engine. She gripped onto his waist as he revved the bike with a loud growl. She was both nervous and excited as he pulled away from The Bleeding Bullet and out onto the streets of Slate Springs. They thundered down the roads and onto Main Street so fast that she barely had time to register how far they had gone in such a short span of time. Her heart raced with the speed and exhilaration, and she nuzzled into King’s back. She felt so safe and protected with him, and she knew that whatever she was feeling, he was feeling it too. Their connection was growing stronger with each passing second, and she was already looking forward to the following night and her first shift at The Bullet so she could see him again.

She directed him towards her house, completely not thinking that her mother may hear the revs of the bike. At the back of her mind, she believed on some level that both she and Dereck would be still comatose from the gin, but she hadn’t really thought about it at all.

King pulled up at the sidewalk at the foot of her drive, and Lexi slipped off the back of the bike and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Thank you for a wonderful night,” she smiled before she kissed him passionately again.

King took hold of her and pulled her close, he ran his hands through her hair and made her body shiver with lust.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Babe,” he breathed as he revved the bike’s engine again.

Lexi stepped back from the road and waited on her driveway as he thundered off down the street and her pulse quickened. She was hot all over and almost panting with desire. It had taken all of her willpower not to invite him inside, but as she watched him disappear into the night, there was a part of her that wished they could have spent it together.

She heard the click of the front door come from behind her, and she spun around with shock to see her mother standing in the doorway.

“Who the fuck was that, Lexi?” she demanded. Her voice was so loud it cut through their quiet neighborhood and set some of the local dogs off barking.

“Mom!” she hissed. “Keep your voice down!”

“Me?!” She was drunk and aggressive and Lexi found herself backing away. “You’re telling me to be quiet, you little slut? What the fuck were you doing with one of those bikers? What have I told you about them, huh?”

“You can’t control me forever,” Lexi threw back at her. “I’m twenty-two, I can see whoever I want.”

“Not while you’re under my roof!” her mother hollered into the night.

Dereck appeared blurry eyed from behind her and looked ready for a fight too, but Lexi wasn’t going to stick around and find out. She turned and marched off down the street, away from them both while they shouted after her and called her every name under the sun.

She didn’t have King’s number, and she didn’t know where she should go until she remembered that Tammy had asked her to let her know how her night had gone. She sat down on the curb at the end of her street and watched the lights go out at home and pulled out her cell phone. She reluctantly pressed dial and held it up to her ear.

She answered on the second ring, but she still felt guilty.

“Tam?” Lexi asked shakily. “Tam, I’m so sorry to call this late… but would it be okay if I came over?”

***

In Tammy’s small kitchen, they huddled together and drank cocoa while Lexi filled her in on the events of the night. Her eyes sparkled with excitement but hardened with both sympathy and anger when she heard of how she had been treated by her mom.

“You’ve got to get out of there, Lex,” Tammy said, shaking her head. “They’re destructive.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m not too far off now,” she smiled optimistically.

“I’m so glad you’ve got this new job,” Tammy pulled her robe around herself and yawned.

“God, I’m sorry,” Lexi got to her feet and tidied away the mugs and biscuits. “I just didn’t know where else to go. You get yourself to bed, I’ll be fine on the couch.”

“Never apologize,” Tammy laughed. “This is what I’m here for.”

She stood up and hugged her, and then the girls both made their way to bed.

As Lexi lay awake on the couch, she looked up out of the window above her at the stars. Even though she had just had the most up and down two days of her life, after meeting King, things could only get better… she could feel it.


The following morning, she waved Tammy off to work and pulled herself together. The sun was blazing high in the sky again, and she could tell it was going to be another hot one. She couldn’t face going home and having to deal with her mom and Dereck, and she had hours before she had to make her way back over to The Bleeding Bullet, so she decided to raid Tammy’s closet and look for an outfit she could wear for her first shift. Even though the previous evening was all turning into a blur of excitement and new faces, she had noticed that most of the bar girls were wearing denim hot pants and tight black tees. She flicked through the clothes in Tammy’s walk-in-closet and pulled out the only thing that would remotely come close to The Bullet’s uniform…a low-cut tank top to wear with her jeans. King hadn’t given her any direction in the clothing department, so she didn’t suppose it really mattered. But at the same time, she was desperate to make a good impression to ensure she clicked and fit in with all of the other employees as soon as possible.

She went back through to the front room and flopped down on the sofa. She had another long day stretching out ahead of her, and she didn’t want to leave the house for fear of bumping into her mother. She knew if she heard that Lexi had taken a job at The Bleeding Bullet, she wouldn’t hear the end of it and may even be kicked out of the house. But if Lexi avoided her, she wouldn’t have to lie or get into an argument.

She cast her mind back to the night before and began to daydream. She conjured up the images of the other bikers that King introduced her to and how they all had the same dangerous edge.

Tanner and his sandy blonde hair and dragons breathing fire etched all over his skin, Carter and his shaved head with thorns creeping up his neck and down across his knuckles. And Lynx with a portrait of the ferocious cat with the same name right across his back. They had all been so wild, but also easy to talk to, and she had been so surprised so far by what she had seen. From what her mom had told her, she had expected evil criminals, but these men all seemed to have a genuinely decent side, and Lexi found it unbelievably endearing.

King . She had barely known him twenty-four hours, but he was consuming her thoughts with every waking moment. She lay there on the couch and imagined his rough hands all over her. Undoing her top and pulling it down to expose the huge swell of her breasts. She imagined him parting her legs and pushing his huge weight down on top of her until she felt him rock hard and stiff, bulging out of his leathers and begging to be adored. Her heart was racing, and she had the overwhelming urge to slip her hand into her panties and touch herself while she thought of his incredible body and no doubt even more impressive manhood, but she stopped when she remembered where she was… She couldn’t do that in her best friend’s house. She was a guest. If she had been at home, alone, in her own room, then she would have peeled them down and slipped a finger inside herself and felt her delicious wetness. She craved his touch so badly, she didn’t know how long she would be able to hold off spending the night with him. She wanted to be a good girl, but bad was in her blood. She had been wild before she met him, and even though he was bringing out a good side in her, he was definitely also appealing to her own wicked desires. She breathed out deeply and closed her eyes.

Stop, she coached herself. You only have a few hours before you see him again.

And although she knew that was true, her lust still raged on…

***

Tammy returned home from work in early evening as Lexi was in the final stages of getting ready for her first shift.

“You look incredible,” Tammy smiled.

“Thanks,” Lexi laughed. “I’m sure you recognize the top.”

“Sure do,” she said as she sat down. “But what’s mine is yours, yada, yada, yada…”

“I know,” Lexi beamed.

“How are you getting over there? Want a ride?”

Lexi could tell that Tammy was desperate to check the place out for herself.

“Sure,” she smiled. “Why not?”

“Awesome.” Tammy started to unbutton the top of her diner uniform. “Well, I better get changed, just in case any of these hot bikers happen to look in the car and see me!” She skipped off into her bedroom and Lexi giggled as she watched her go.

As it came closer to seven o’clock, Lexi was fully ready and waiting for Tammy to finally appear with her car keys. She was starting to become nervous about the night ahead and what it would be like being brought into The Forsaken Riders MC.

Tammy appeared at the doorway and smiled.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Yep,” Lexi got to her feet and linked arms with her best friend. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

They drove down Main Street, carried on past the water towers and to the other side of town. Tammy seemed both nervous and excited for her, and she tapped her hands on the wheel as she sang along to the radio.

“I can’t wait to see this place,” she laughed. “Maybe I should quit my job at the diner and come and work here with you.”

“That would be amazing!” Lexi slapped her hands together. “Imagine us both dancing on the bar and pouring whisky into guys’ mouths.”

Tammy roared with laughter. She had always been the more conservative of the two and Lexi couldn’t imagine her ever being that kind of girl.

They rounded a corner and it loomed up out of the darkness in front of them. The red beams pierced the night sky and made it look like the gateway to Hell. Bikes and bikers lined the streets, and it looked much busier than the night before. Not only because of the clientele, but also because there seemed to be cop vans swarming along the street. Lexi’s mouth dropped open as she tried to squint and see what was happening, but from what she could tell, they were just surveilling the place.

“Jeez,” Tammy said. “You sure this is safe?”

Lexi nodded her head and felt the familiar dance of butterflies in her stomach.

“I sure hope so,” Lexi said. “Welcome to The Bleeding Bullet…”

***

Tammy watched her from the safety of the car as Lexi strode on ahead and walked towards the main door. She weaved in and out of bikers and cops and kept her head down as she got to the foot of the stairs. She turned back and waved at Tammy before she began to climb them and found herself at the entrance. Her nerves were subsiding, and as she could hear the gentle pounding of music coming from inside, it reignited all her excitement from the previous evening.

She pushed the door open and stepped inside. The bar was busy, but as it was still early it didn’t seem as out of control and loud as the night before. Lexi stood in the doorway and looked around. She could see a few familiar faces that King had introduced her to, and she smiled and made her way over to the bar.

The girl who had been serving the night before was there, and she smiled and waved her over.

“Lexi?” she called as she leaned over towards her.

“Yes!” Lexi smiled.

“I’m Sasha. King asked me to keep an eye out for you.”

“Is he here?” Lexi asked, leaning in closer.

Sasha nodded and motioned towards the back of the room.

“He’s out back,” she smiled. “Why don’t you come around here, and I’ll get you started. He’ll be out any minute.”

Lexi smiled and accepted Sasha’s invitation. She had felt a little intimidated by her the previous evening, but now she was being friendly and King had obviously told her that Lexi would be starting.

“I haven’t seen you around here,” Sasha said as she poured one of the bikers a drink. “How do you know King?”

“We just met,” Lexi admitted. “I lost my job and he offered me something here.”

Sasha smiled and handed her a cute little apron to tie around her waist.

“You might find this useful, or you may just want to throw it in the trash,” she laughed. “Not many of the girls wear ‘em.”

She started to explain to Lexi where everything was behind the bar and told her she would get the hang of it in no time. Even though she had barely poured a drink in her life, she threw herself straight in and started serving customers right away with a big smile. The men in there certainly seemed to appreciate her, and she could tell that she was a topic of conversation for some of the regulars. She flicked her hair and worked the bar like she had been there forever, and it wasn’t long before she felt like she really had been.

She turned and watched Sasha climb up onto the bar. It was nearing 8:00 pm, and she leaned over to Lexi and whispered, “This is the time things really start to heat up in here.”

She climbed up onto the counter top and with a bottle of whisky in each hand, she stomped up and down, clicking her heels together and motioning for the music to be turned up louder. Lexi laughed and looked on in admiration. She couldn’t wait to get up there and do her thing, too, but she wasn’t sure if King would want her to…

As if he had read her mind, she suddenly sensed a pair of eyes on her and she looked to the back of the room to see King leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette and watching her with a smile. Lexi blushed and stroked a strand of hair behind her ear before she waved shyly and waited for him to come to her.

She didn’t have to wait long. Within moments, King was by her side and pulling her into his arms and running his hands through her hair.

“You look amazing, Babe,” he breathed. She could taste the intoxicating mix of liquor, smoke and mint.

“I hope this is alright?” She held out her hands to show her tight little outfit, and King exhaled and nodded.

“It sure is,” he grinned.

“You didn’t give me much guidance,” she said playfully. “It’s a good thing I pay attention, huh?”

He pulled her close to him again and nibbled her earlobe playfully.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “Is Sasha showing you the ropes?”

“Yep,” Lexi smiled. “She’s great, I like her.”

“She is,” King nodded. “She’s worked for us for a while, and she’s definitely the girl to show you around.”

Suddenly Lexi felt an overwhelming urge to thank him again for everything he was doing for her.

“I really appreciate all of this, you know?” she smiled. “I won’t let you down.”

“Babe, you could just turn up here every night looking sexy as hell and I’d be happy,” he winked. “I’ve got to get back to the office,” he motioned to the back of the room. “There’s a meeting going on in there. I take it you saw the cops?”

“Yeah, what’s all that about?”

“Same old,” he sighed. “Trying to pin some bullshit on us and just looking for facts to back up their claims…which they won’t get, so don’t you worry.”

He leaned in and kissed her again before he trailed his fingertip down the side of her cheek and walked away. Lexi stood and watched him leave and a wave of disbelief washed over her. She still couldn’t believe that she had met someone that she could see herself falling for.

She hugged her arms around herself and smiled before Sasha stamped her boots down on the counter in front of her and waved for Lexi to join her up there.

“Come on, New Girl!” she called. “You’re up!”


The night passed quickly, and by the time 2:00 am rolled around, Lexi was exhausted. She and Sasha had danced up and down the bar and poured vodka into each other’s mouths and tequila into some of the customers’. They sang and grinded and had the time of their lives. Lexi couldn’t even believe that this was going to be her job, to basically party and have fun. She thought working at Red X was easy, but this was even easier. At least at The Bullet she didn’t have to take her clothes off and keep men happy.

She felt the protective gaze of King all evening, and although he didn’t seemed to mind her dancing on the bar with Sasha, she could also tell that he had a spark of jealousy in him. He watched her shaking her hips and licking her fingers, and she could see the desire in his eyes. The second she had come down from the bar, he had swept her up in his arms and told her how incredible she was.

Now her shift was over, and although the bar was nowhere near closing, King had his arm around her and was whispering in her ear.

“Come back to the clubhouse,” he said as he flicked the tip of his tongue up the side of her neck.

Feeling him against her like that was driving her wild with lust, and she knew her only other option was to go back to Tammy’s. She couldn’t keep her hands off him any longer, so she smiled and nodded and let him lead her out of The Bullet and towards his ride.

As they flew through the streets, she let her arms fly free above her head. The booze had made her confidence shine, and she was no longer scared of the speed and power that came with the bikes King so dearly loved. He howled and laughed as they weaved around the roads. Before long, he was pulling off the highway and into a parking lot just on the outskirts of town.

Lexi had heard about this place, but nothing could have quite prepared her for what she was about to see. She had heard that the bikers had a secret clubhouse, off the beaten track and hidden from view, but she had wondered if it was just the stuff of legends. Now she was there with King and they were crawling slowly up a dusty dirt road, out and away from any street lights and into the shadows of a thousand sparse trees.

“Where is it?” Lexi asked him.

“Where we won’t get disturbed,” he grinned over his shoulder.

She wrapped her arms tightly around him and nuzzled into his neck. The further they went, the darker the road ahead of them became, and the stars shined brightly overhead. King slowed right down and suddenly the road dipped and disappeared into a steep drop. She clung to him and looked down ahead of them. She could see a scattering of lights in the distance and the outline of a big building with smaller ones all around.

“This is it,” he said. “The Forsaken’s Clubhouse.”

Lexi looked on in awe. Even though the darkness was keeping it all the more secret, she could tell that it was going to be impressive.

The house was three stories high and old and rickety on the outside, but on the inside it had been transformed into something else entirely. It had shiny surfaces and barely any furniture. It was a place for men to gather, but it looked as if it had been cared for by a woman. They seemed to be the only people there, and although it was big and cavernous, Lexi felt claustrophobic in the dark. She clung to King’s arm and let him lead her towards the big staircase in the center of the hallway.

“Do you live here?” she asked.

“No,” he admitted. “I’ve been staying here for a while, but I have my own place.”

“And where’s that?”

“Not far from the bar,” he grinned.

“So why are we here?” she asked curiously.

“I’ve been staying here for the past two weeks,” he breathed. “One of the old boys isn’t so well.” She could see the tears pricking his eyes. “We all want to be on hand.”

Lexi rubbed his shoulder and took hold of his arm.

“Come on,” he smiled.

He led her up the stairs to the top floor. He pushed open a door and flicked on the light to reveal the most incredible bedroom. It was large with a huge bed in the center, with wooden floors and colorful cushions scattered around the corners. There was leather and metal everywhere and out of the corner of her eye, Lexi was sure she spotted a gun. She turned around so she didn’t draw attention to it.

“I’ve been thinking about getting you alone since yesterday,” he smiled. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“So am I,” Lexi admitted.

King crossed the room and opened a built-in cupboard to reveal a refrigerator. He pulled out a bottle of whiskey and poured them both a glass over ice.

“You did well tonight,” he said. “I was impressed.”

“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint,” she smiled.

King passed her the glass and she held it to her lips. As she sipped on it, she felt the warmth tingle her insides.

“I paid Marv a little visit,” King said as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

“What?” Lexi stuttered.

“I told you I’d sort it for you,” he smiled. “Here…” He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out an envelope. “It should all be there.”

He passed it to her, and Lexi opened it in disbelief. She counted the money and King was right… It was all there.

“How did you…?” she began. “Did he…? What did you do?”

King shrugged and wrapped an arm around her.

“Don’t worry about that,” he smiled. “It’s taken care of, and he won’t be bothering you anymore.”

Lexi couldn’t believe he had done it for her, but she was more than grateful. She placed her drink down on the desk and wrapped her arms around King.

“It’s funny,” she whispered. “But I’ve never felt like this about anyone…”

King stared at her deep in the eyes and leaned in and kissed her.

“Neither have I,” he whispered. “The second I saw you in the diner, I knew I had to have you.”

He pulled her closer to him, and she could feel the taut muscles beneath his vest. His arms were so big and strong, she felt tiny in them, and as he lifted her up and carried her towards the bed, all she could think of was how she couldn’t wait to feel King’s real power.

He lay her down and climbed on top of her. Even though they were both still fully clothed, she felt more vulnerable than she ever had. King pulled at the buttons on her jeans with his big hands and ripped them open. He worked them down over her hips and leaned forward and kissed her on the stomach and then down to the tops of her panties. Lexi gasped, and with each new touch she fell deeper into uncontrollable need and desire for him. And when he moved further up her body and kissed her neck, she trembled beneath him. He took hold of her breasts and squeezed them over the top of her bra before slipping a hand up the side of her tank top and pulling it off over her head. She was just in her underwear now, and he sat back and looked at her. He nodded and smiled with approval and bent down again to kiss her. Lexi opened her legs and invited him between them. The roughness of the leather worked against her and she knew she couldn’t wait to rip off his clothes and see all of him.

He lifted her higher up the bed and slipped his hand around the back to unhook her bra. He did so in a flash and her huge, voluptuous breasts heaved free. He moaned and rubbed his face in them. He buried his lips into her folds and kissed her, nibbling with his teeth and pulling lightly at her soft, chubby skin.

“I’m going to destroy you,” he growled as he stood up and pulled her to the edge of the bed. She sat in front of him and watched as he removed his vest and then undid his leathers. When he moved them down and his manhood sprang free, Lexi gasped and looked up to him with pleading in her eyes. He was so big… so perfect… so hard . She had to taste him. King wrapped his hands up in her hair and pulled her closer to him, rubbing his tip across her wet, welcoming lips.

She opened her mouth wide and took him right to the back of her throat. He was so huge, she knew her jaw wouldn’t be able to take it for long, but she wanted him so badly, she had to have him. King bucked his hips lightly forward and moved one hand down to between Lexi’s legs where he stroked her clit slowly from outside her panties before slipping a hand inside and finding her sex. When he touched her for the first time, she felt him grow harder in her mouth. She was soaking wet and ripe for him, and as he slipped a finger up into her juicy cunt, he moaned…

“Yeah, Babe.”

Lexi moved her hips and grinded against his hand. He felt so good and his touch was so expert, she never wanted it to end. King withdrew from her mouth and lifted her onto her feet before turning her around and bending her down over the edge of the bed so she was on her hands and knees and her pert, round behind was facing him.

He took hold of her hips and positioned the tip of his incredible cock at the opening of her pussy and teased her with it. He rubbed himself up and down, and Lexi moaned with delight. Just when she thought she couldn’t take anymore, he paused and waited before slowly and powerfully sliding his cock right up inside of her. Lexi threw her head back and cried with pleasure as he fucked her and made her tremble.

It had been so long since she had been with a man, but she knew the second King entered her that he was going to be the best sex of her life. His balls were so huge and they slapped up against her as he drove his cock into her, working up to his explosive release. As she felt his thighs tense and his breathing became sharper, she couldn’t hold on anymore and unraveled around him. Her tight muscles contracted around his length, and he joined her, shooting his load right up inside her.

They collapsed down on the bed and King withdrew slowly. His cock was still throbbing and the cum seeped out of her as he lay next to her and kissed her lightly on the shoulder.

“That was intense,” he panted. “No one has ever made me cum like that before.”

Lexi looked up into his eyes and smiled. The situation was more than mutual.


As the sun came up that morning, Lexi lay back as King explored her with his tongue. She lay sprawled out beneath him as he licked every inch of her and pleasured her in ways she had never thought possible. There was something between them that was so strong and powerful, she knew that they wouldn’t be able to leave each other alone. He licked her nub and flicked his tongue up and down her slit before powering it into her, and she came hard and fast again. He seemed to worship her and her body, and when the sounds of other men in the house suggested that they were stirring, she cuddled into him and fell asleep in his arms.

Later in the day, she awoke to find herself alone. King’s clothes were gone and Lexi sat up and reached out for her jeans and underwear. She dressed quickly and opened the door to the room cautiously. She stepped out into the hallway and waited for a moment. She could hear voices and she waited to see if she could recognize King’s.

“Hey,” he suddenly said from behind her.

She jumped and gasped. “You scared me!” She slapped him playfully on the arm.

He looked incredible, and she had to steady herself as she saw him dewy with water from the shower and his hair flopping down around his eyes. His skin was so perfectly tanned and decorated with ink, he looked like a work of art himself.

“Come here,” he growled as he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. She could feel him growing hard and she wanted nothing more than for him to ravage her again, but Tammy would be sick with worry and she knew she had to get home.

He pulled her back into the bedroom and closed the door.

“Last night,” he said, “was one of the best of my life.”

Lexi bit her lip. She couldn’t keep the grin from her face and all she wanted was to live it over and over again.

“Mine too,” she kissed him softly.

She could hear the voices downstairs getting louder, and it wasn’t long before they were calling for King.

“Busy day,” he said with disappointment.

Lexi pouted and kissed him again.

***

When they were ready, King led her downstairs by the hand. Compared to the night before, the house seemed alive and there was action in every room. She wasn’t the only woman. Girls were draped over the beds of other biker’s bedrooms, and Lexi almost felt embarrassed until King reassured her.

“You’re more to me than this,” he said.

They walked around the galleried landing, and Lexi noticed a collection of people at the doorway to one of the rooms. The men were all standing solemnly, and King squeezed her hand.

“The old boy,” he whispered sadly.

Lexi managed to find a gap in the crowd and could see that they were around the bed of an older man. He lay there, still with a long beard to his waist, but he looked frail and very sick.

“Oh my,” Lexi said with sympathy.

King nodded and steered her away from the room. She couldn’t believe the solidarity they all had. They were taking care of him to the bitter end.

“What happened to him?” she asked as they went out into the sunlight and away from any lingering ears.

“Cancer,” he said as he lit a cigarette. “Been through all they can do, so now it’s just a matter of time.” He clicked his teeth.

“I’m sorry,” Lexi said.

“Me too,” King nodded. “He was one of the greats, a founding member. Seems so unjust that someone so strong can be reduced to that.”

Lexi rubbed his shoulder before they climbed back onto his bike and he started the engine.

As they pulled away from the clubhouse, she looked back at it and how incredible it looked out there in the middle of the desert. It was almost like a secret town in itself, there were so many buildings. The house was like a castle standing tall in the center, and she had found its King. She smirked to herself for thinking it and then wrapped her arms around him again.

He took her straight home and she asked him to leave her at the end of the street. She was feeling more confident than ever that she had made the right choice, and she had to see her mother. She didn’t want to avoid her forever, and she was going to come clean. She kissed King goodbye and told him she would see him later. As she walked slowly down her street, she felt empowered all over again. King had gotten her money for her, and she had a wonderful new man along with an exciting job.

She started up her driveway and was relieved that Dereck’s car was missing. When she got to the front door, she stopped and waited a moment, bracing herself for the onslaught of abuse.

She put her key in the lock and opened the door. When she stepped inside, the first thing that hit her was the silence. She cautiously called, “Mom?”

There was a small part of her that thought for a moment that she wasn’t going to answer, but then she heard her croaky voice coming down the hallway from the kitchen.

“In here,” she said.

Lexi wandered down and saw her sitting at the table. This time there was no gin and Dereck was nowhere to be found. Her mother looked up at her and sighed.

“I suppose you think it’s funny just running off like that and scaring me half to death?” she challenged.

“No, actually,” Lexi crossed her arms over her chest. “But I didn’t want an argument.”

“Where have you been?” she got to her feet.

“Why does it matter?”

“Because I’m your mother, and I need to know!” She was shouting now, the rage was building up behind her words.

“What do you care!?” Lexi screamed back. “I stayed at Tammy’s, and then I was at my new job! If you weren’t so wrapped up in douchebag Dereck, maybe I would have felt like telling you that Marv fired me!”

“What for?” she snarled.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lexi lowered her head and felt tears rising. She hated arguing with her mom, but it was all they seemed to do these days.

“And that fucking biker?” her mom spat.

“What?” Lexi shot her gaze up to meet hers.

“I hope you’re not going to be so stupid to get involved with them. I’ve told you your entire life to stay away from them! You better not defy me now!”

Lexi shook her head in disbelief and went to leave the room.“I am seeing one of them. His name’s King, and he’s the most sincere and loyal man I have ever met!”

Her mother’s face dropped, and she seemed lost for words.

“And not only that, but I’ve started working at The Bleeding Bullet… And guess what, there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop me!”

She marched out of the kitchen and made her way to the stairs. Her mom ran after her, screaming her name until Lexi finally stopped and spun around to face her once more.

“If you want to fuck up your life, then you go ahead,” she spat, “but don’t come crying to me when your heart is broken and you’re out in the cold.”

“What are you even talking about?” Lexi shook her head, completely confused. “Since when has this ever been a topic of conversation?”

“Are you really so stupid?” her mom asked. “Have you really never figured out why I don’t want you anywhere near those men?”

Lexi shook her head, but the feeling of dread that was slowly crawling over her was clutching her tight.

“Your father!” her mom spat. “Your father was one of those goddam bikers, and I never saw him again after he knocked me up and ended up in jail!” She collapsed onto the floor and burst into tears. “Fucking Reid…”

Lexi eyed her furiously.

Could she be serious?

“Reid? Was that his name? You told me my father died,” Lexi said coldly. “You told me that you were going to get married and that he was a salesman from Scottsdale and that he was killed in a car accident before I was born.” She shook her head in disbelief.

“Lexi,” her mom pleaded.

“Have you been lying to me my entire life?” She couldn’t believe what was happening, but the tears bursting out of her mother were telling her all she needed to know.

Without another word, Lexi stormed up the stairs and slammed her bedroom door. She pushed the chair up against it and frantically pulled her clothes out of her closet and threw them into bags.

She was done.

She was leaving.

She could hear her mother’s sobs echoing through the house, but she didn’t care. If she had only known that her father was still alive, she could have gotten to know him. She could have had a real parent, whether he was in jail or not. She cried as she zipped up her bags and opened her bedroom window before throwing them out onto the front yard. She hadn’t climbed out of her window since she was a teenager going out to meet boys, but she just couldn’t face seeing her mom’s face again. As she worked her way down the drainpipe, she bit back the tears, and when she jumped down onto the ground, she scooped up the bags and slung them over her shoulder.

There was only one place she wanted to be and that was with King. But first she was going to have to see Tammy at the diner.


She burst through the door, and Tammy looked up, startled. Lexi sat down at a booth, shaking and wiping her eyes.

“Oh my god,” Tammy hissed as she ran over to her. “What’s happened? Did that biker hurt you?” she asked.

“No,” Lexi breathed. “My mother… She’s really done it this time.”

She filled Tammy in on everything that happened, from her night with King, to returning home and being delivered the biggest blow of her entire life. She sobbed and wiped her eyes while Tammy comforted her and told her that surely everything would be okay.

“She’s kept me away from them out of spite,” Lexi sniffed. “It had nothing to do with her being afraid for me or my safety… She was being selfish and cruel because he broke her heart…”

Tammy nodded and sighed. “I can’t believe she never told you… God, he could have been here this whole time.”

Lexi started to cry, and Tammy wrapped her arms around her.

“You have a name,” Tammy said reassuringly. “And you have King… He must know him or have at least heard of him?”

She had been so caught up in the revelation that it hadn’t even crossed her mind that maybe there was still a chance she could find her father. She looked up at Tammy and smiled.

“You’re a genius,” she said. “I can’t believe I didn’t even think of it.”

“Go back to my place and sort yourself out,” Tammy said as she handed her a key to her apartment. “I’ll be done here in the next couple of hours, and I’ll come over to the bar with you for your shift tonight. Let’s talk to King and see if he knows Reid.”

“Thank you so much,” Lexi smiled as she hugged her friend. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

***

After she had showered and revived herself she sat in Tammy’s front room as her mind raced over and over. No wonder she had such a wild side to her—her father was an outlaw and it was in her blood. She had always been so fascinated with the bikers, so drawn to them, but her mother had kept her terrified and held hostage with threats. Now she knew the truth, and she was determined to find out who Reid was.

She dressed for work and just as the sun began to set, she and Tammy got into the car and made their way over to The Bleeding Bullet. The cops were there again, swarming the streets like flies. With the knowledge she had now, this was the first time she hadn’t felt like an outsider venturing into this part of town. She knew they were her people and she welcomed it with all she had.

“Will King be there?” Tammy asked her as she pulled up at the side of the road, the only car in a sea of bikes and cop cars.

“He said he would be,” she whispered.

The girls got out of the car and walked towards the bar. Even though Lexi was nervous about asking King about Reid, she could also feel how tense Tammy was beside her.

When she pushed open the door, the music blared out at them and Tammy’s eyes grew wide with amazement as she watched the girls dancing on the bar and the men cheering them on.

“Wow,” she said. “Is this what you do?”

“One shift down, hopefully many more to go,” Lexi winked.

They moved through the crowd and approached the counter. Sasha was behind the bar serving, and she waved and winked at Lexi.

“Is King here?” she called, not wanting to delay another moment.

“The office,” Sasha shouted back.

Lexi smiled and thanked her before she grabbed hold of Tammy’s hand and led her further into the crowd. They passed around the back of the bar to where Lexi had seen King watching her the night before. They passed the leather couches and started down a dark corridor that was almost hidden out of view.

“I think it’s down here,” Lexi whispered.

As they moved swiftly down it, her heart began to race. For all she knew, Reid could be there at that very moment. She didn’t have time to pull all of her emotions together. She just had to find out if there was any truth to her mom’s tale and whether he was still around. They came to a door and Lexi leaned up and knocked on it. She didn’t know if she was in the right place, but she could hear men’s voices behind it, and it wasn’t long before the sound of locks being turned broke into the hallway. The door heaved open and Lynx peered out at them.

“Hey, Lex,” he exhaled a plume of smoke. “You after King?”

She nodded shyly before he disappeared back inside. The girls waited for him to reappear and when he did, he had King by his side.

Even though her mind was fraught with possibility, Lexi couldn’t help but notice the look Lynx was giving Tammy. He was staring at her in the exact same way King had looked at her the day they met, and she was surprised but happy to see that Tammy seemed quite taken with him, too.

King held onto her by the arm, instantly sensing something was wrong.

“Are you okay?” he said. He led her further down the hall, leaving Lynx and Tammy together.

“No,” she said, feeling the tears welling up again. “This is going to sound crazy but…” She didn’t even know how to begin.

“It’s okay, Babe,” King soothed her. “Come on, just tell me…”

“My mom,” she sobbed. “She went crazy when she found out I was seeing you, and then today I go home and she tells me it’s because my dad was part of the Forsaken Riders… She always told me he died before I was born… It’s so fucked up, I just don’t know what to do.”

King was looking at her in disbelief and he pulled her to him and hugged her.

“How the hell could she do that?” he asked her.

“I don’t know. But she gave me a name…” she said with trepidation. “And I want to know if you have any idea who he is.”

King led her further down the corridor and opened a door to a side room. Inside it was nothing more than a dark closet with a couple of chairs, but he pulled on the light and sat her down.

“I can see you’re in shock,” he whispered. “It’s okay, just calm down.”

Lexi began to cry again. She was so lucky to have found King amidst all of the bad experiences she had been through. It had been the craziest week of her life.

“Okay,” she exhaled once she had composed herself. “She gave me a name, but I don’t know if there’s anything in it… She said that she got pregnant and that he went to jail and then she never saw him again… After that, I was too angry so I stormed out, but she did give me a name.”

“Go on…” King said as he squeezed her hand tightly.

“Reid,” she exhaled. “She told me his name was Reid.”


King’s hands shook as he held onto her.

“Reid…?” he asked her. “Are you sure?”

Lexi searched his face for answers. He clearly knew something, but he wasn’t giving her the information.

“I wouldn’t just pull that name out of thin air, King,” she said with irritation. “Do you know him or not?”

He scratched the back of his neck and nodded slowly.

“Yes, Lex, I do,” he said sadly. “He’s the old boy… The one we passed in bed this morning…”

In an instant, Lexi felt every single emotion she thought she could ever feel. She went from disbelief, to anger, to regret, to sadness… This man, her father, had been in Slate Springs all along, and now he was dying.

Tears welled up behind her eyes, and King pulled her to him.

“I don’t know what to do,” she confessed. “Should I tell him?”

King shrugged and kissed her on the forehead.

“Only you know what’s best,” he whispered.

***

When they left the side room, Lynx and Tammy were still by the office talking like they had known each other forever. King whistled down to them.

“I’m taking Lex over to the clubhouse,” he said. “Let Sasha know she won’t be on the bar tonight.”

He wrapped his hand with hers and kissed it.

“Will you be okay, Tammy?” Lexi called to her friend.

“Sure,” Tammy grinned. “I’m sure Lynx will look after me.”

He nodded and smiled at her, and Lexi and King made their way back down the hallway, straight out through the bar and into the night.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “You need some answers.”

He lifted her onto his bike and started the engine, and they flew out of the street to a whoop of men cheering and the blue daze of cop car lights. Lexi felt completely different from how she had only hours before when King was taking her back to their secret headquarters. Then she had been excited and full of curiosity, and now she was shaken and full of dread. What if her mom had made the whole thing up? Or what if Reid didn’t want to know?

As they flew down the highway and pulled off the main road and onto the dirt track, she kissed King on the back of the neck and whispered, “I’m so glad I found you.”

He turned his head to the side and said, “Babe, so am I…”

They pulled up at the house and a soft glow of lights came from most of the windows. It wasn’t late, and she could see movement inside.

“Before we go in,” she said to King. “Tell me about him…”

He smiled and pulled her to him.

“Reid was one of our founding members, and he’s more than well respected. If he’s your father, you’re from a family of legends. You’re outlaw royalty… No wonder I found you and can’t let you go.”

Lexi felt herself blush and ran her hands through his hair. She looked into his eyes and although she was scared to death, she knew that if she had him by her side, everything would work out okay.

They entered the house and made straight for the stairs. King held her hand as they climbed them two at a time and walked around the gallery to the doorway that was now empty, save for one of the other bikers who sat on a chair inside the room with Reid at his side.

Reid looked up and smiled.

“King,” he said. “Who’s this lovely little thing?”

Even though he was frail and clearly sick, his voice was still strong and boomed through the room. King smiled and looked down at Lexi who was now almost shaking. He let go of her hand and she moved into the room, searching Reid’s face for some flash of recognition.

She pulled up a chair and sat down next to him and stared at him deep in the eyes, and it was then that she saw it. The resemblance between them was definitely there. Their eyes were the same, their complexion. Reid was her father… She had found him.

She held the old man’s hand and felt the tears roll down her cheek. He nodded slowly and his lip trembled. He saw it too.

“She told me she got rid of you,” he whispered, the tears filling his own eyes. “If I’d have known… I would have found you.”

Lexi lunged forward and hugged him. In an instant, they both knew that they were father and daughter. Kept apart for a lifetime because of a poisonous woman.

There was so much to talk about and so much to learn. They laughed together and Reid told her how happy he was that she had found someone like King. A strong, lawless man after his own heart. When he began to tire, she and King went back upstairs and lay together in bed. She hadn’t wanted to leave her father’s side, but it had been so overwhelming and she needed a chance to digest it all. She had been on the biggest rollercoaster of her life, and as she looked back on the events of the past few days, she almost couldn’t believe it had all happened to her.

“I’m going to look after him from now on,” she said. “I’m so glad I found him…”

“You’re one of us,” King said as he held her tight and kissed her softly. “This is your house now, too. You don’t ever have to go back there.”

Lexi smiled and nuzzled into him. She had finally escaped her mother and Dereck, found her father who she had longed for her entire life, gotten herself a new job and found the man of her dreams.

“I guess miracles can happen,” she said as she looked up at King and he smiled.

“There’s so much more to come, Babe,” he said gently. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

THE END


Lynx

A Forsaken Riders Standalone MC Romance

Book 2

Samantha Leal

Copyright ©2016 by Samantha Leal. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


Tammy checked her rearview mirror as she started the engine and sighed. It was the time of day she hated more than anything, the beginning of her night shift, when she had to leave the comfort of her cute little home and get herself to work. The diner wasn’t exactly a hard place to earn a living, but she still resented having to be up late when the majority of people she knew were out having fun and being young, when Tammy was slaving over a hot stove and making small talk with truckers.

“Just eight hours to go,” she said to herself with a laugh as she backed out of her driveway and swung out into the street.

She turned on her lights and crawled along slowly, delaying the inevitable. She often thought about putting her foot down on the gas and just driving into the night. It was one of her favorite fantasies…

What if one day I just disappeared and never came back?

At the beginning of every night shift, the same thought crossed her mind. She imagined flying down the highway with her window open and the wind in her hair, the music turned up loud and her heart running free, but she knew it would never happen. Slate Springs was her home and always had been. Everyone she had ever known and loved was in that town, and she wasn’t about to desert them now, even if her future did seem pretty bleak without a significant other.

She drummed her nails on the edge of the steering wheel and accelerated.

“May as well get there and start earning those much needed tips,” she said as she clicked her tongue against her teeth.

She knew it was likely to be a slow night, but she may as well give it all she had and get what she could. For a good girl like her, it was the only place in town to make an honest living. Tammy was humble and had learned from the best. Her father was a regular fixture in the community with their family’s hardware store that had been supplying Slate Springs for generations. She easily could have drifted into there and became a manager, but she had wanted to get out on her own and do something different with her life. Even if that just meant being a waitress at the local diner working for minimum wage. Plus, when it came to the store, her brother Dean seemed to have it covered. He and her father had the brains and the brawn to run the place. Tammy only would have been in their way.

As she turned a corner and merged onto the freeway, a roar came out of the dark behind her. Tammy felt her stomach clench and her heart race as she realized it was them

One by one, motorcycles started to growl quickly beside her. She smiled and watched them as they weaved around the road and left the scent of gasoline hanging in the air. Her heart fluttered just at the sight of them. Those men were bad to the bone, but she also knew they were some of the sexiest she had ever seen. They didn’t regularly come into the diner, but recently a small group of them had stopped by and she got a good look at them for the first time in her life. They were young, strong, and lawless, and even in the dark she could see the bulges of their muscles rippling down their arms as they gripped onto the handlebars of their Harleys.

“Yikes,” Tammy breathed out as she fanned her neck with her hand. “Forbidden fruit.”

She smiled to herself. She was so straight-laced and conservative, the mere thought of her hooking up with a man like that was laughable. Yet ever since her friend Lexi had started dating one of The Forsaken Riders, it was all she could think about.

Tammy and her friends had always done their best to stay away, but suddenly the secret world of Slate Spring’s only Motorcycle Club had been thrust into Tammy’s path without her even asking for it. Lexi, her best friend, was recently fired from her job at Red X, the local strip club, and found herself taken in by one of the bikers and offered a new job at their bar, The Bleeding Bullet. She would never admit that she was jealous of Lexi. Tammy only wanted the best for her friend and would always support her, but she kind of envied the way she had been seduced by King… He was strong, masculine, and instantly devoted to her. It was the sort of relationship that Tammy had always craved but knew she would probably never find.

As she watched the bikers disappear into the darkness ahead of her, she bit her lip and smiled. Now that she had her link to them, who knew what could happen…?

***

As she parked outside the diner and turned off the engine, she could see through the windows that it was busier than normal for a Thursday evening. She pushed open the driver’s door and stepped out onto the dusty ground. The air was still hot and thick, even though the sun had been down for hours. As she walked towards the steps, the sweat started to prickle up on the back of her neck.

Inside, music blared from the jukebox and Jamie, the other waitress who was on for the night, looked up and smiled.

“Hey, Doll.” Jamie chewed gum and blew a big pink bubble before it burst and caught along her chin.

Some of the truckers who were just passing through turned on their stools and eyed Tammy sleazily as she made her way behind the counter and tied her hair up into a long ponytail.

“How’s it been?” she asked Jamie.

“Slow until an hour ago, and then suddenly it all just exploded.” She chewed the gum loudly and leaned against the stove as she looked at Tammy thoughtfully. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing,” Tammy said defensively. “I’m fine, why?” She smiled to try to hide the feeling of inadequacy that was racing through her. Even though Tammy had worked herself out of debt, gotten herself a nice apartment, and was independent, she’d recently felt the strain of not having a man in her life, and it was really affecting her confidence.

“You sure?” Jamie smiled at her warmly.

“Yeah, of course,” she lied.

When Jamie returned to the front and left Tammy alone in the kitchen, she sighed heavily before Paul, one of the chefs, burst through the back door.

“Hey, Tam,” he said with his wheezy smoker’s voice.

She smiled at him and pulled her apron down from the hook before tying it around her waist. She checked the clock… It wasn’t even 9:00 pm, and she felt as if she could crawl into bed and sleep for a week. She stretched and looked out at the customers. Jamie needed her help, so she would have to banish thoughts of a perfect love and get on with what she was there for… To work and earn money.

“Evening, Sir,” she beamed as she approached the counter and took her notepad out of her apron pouch. “What can I get for you?”

***

A few hours later and the diner had quieted enough for the girls to rest their tired legs. Tammy sat up on one of the bar stools and sipped coffee as Jamie worked the jukebox, choosing her favorite cheesy 80s dance classics. The nighttime rush was over, and this was the hour that Tammy enjoyed the most. The people who seemed to frequent the diner at that time were usually locals on their way home after a night of drinking, and it was when all of the gossip came their way.

Tammy massaged the back of her neck with her thumb and forefinger and closed her eyes for a moment. As Whitney Houston blared through the diner, she could have been anywhere in the world. She remembered a night when she was younger and more carefree; the exact same song had been playing when an old boyfriend kissed her for the first time while they sat in the back of his car and looked out the windows at the stars. Even though no one could see inside of her head, she felt herself blushing at the memory. It felt like a lifetime ago and she sighed.

“Earth to Tam,” Jamie joked as she knocked lightly on her forehead with her knuckles. “Are you seriously asleep?”

“No,” Tammy pouted without opening her eyes. “Just resting.”

“You shouldn’t have come in tonight. You look wiped,” Jamie said as she scooped up a thick piece of lemon meringue pie and started to pick at it with a fork.

“I’m fine, honestly,” she smiled.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the clock as the hands ticked slowly around to nearly 1:00 am.

“Three hours to go,” she yawned. “I guess I better do something around here. If Joe sees any of the surveillance video, he’ll want to fire me.”

“Yeah, right,” Jamie said.

Although the wages were shitty, at least Joe was a good boss. There were so many questionable characters in Slate Springs, Tammy considered herself lucky that at least she had been employed by a man who seemed to have a decent set of morals. He was always fair with the waitresses, and he never overworked them. Tammy had heard horror stories from some of her friends about their employers, so she knew she couldn’t complain… at least she knew Joe was always going to be good with money.

The bell tinged on the door behind them and the girls turned to see Candy, one of the strippers from Red X, tottering into the diner on her six-inch heels.

“Hi, guys,” she smiled sweetly.

Candy was a young, naïve girl who had found herself in town around three months before. She got sucked into working at Red X by Marv, the owner, and now it looked like she was going to be stuck there for some time…especially now that he had fired Lexi.

“You’ll never guess what,” Candy said as she sat down with wide eyes, “One of the bikers turned up at the club tonight and threatened Marv.”

Tammy’s ears pricked up, and she leaned over so she could get the full story.

“Really?” Jamie said with a huge grin. “What happened?”

“He just burst in and dragged Marv out back… Said he had a score to settle.”

“What did he look like?” Tammy asked eagerly.

Candy shrugged and tapped her long fingernails along one of the menus.

“Dunno… Tall, dark…handsome,” she laughed. “Cliché I know, but it’s all I’ve got.”

She ordered a burger and fries, and Jamie rang it through to the kitchen. Even though Tammy had only seen King once with the rest of the bikers when they came into the diner, she was pretty sure that the man Candy saw was him protecting Lexi.

Lexi had left Red X earlier that week under a cloud and without being paid. Marv insisted on collecting all of the girls’ earnings before dividing them up and choosing how much to pay them. Lexi had despised him and regularly told Tammy how much, but now it looked as if she had someone to fight in her corner.

“You seen Lexi much?” Candy asked as she outlined her lips with bright pink gloss and pouted in a handheld mirror.

“Not really,” Tammy said, which wasn’t strictly true. Lexi had been staying with her on and off since she began fighting with her mother, and now that she was caught up with the bikers, even more drama seemed to be heading Lexi’s way.

She turned on her heel and wandered back to the kitchen. She pulled her cell phone out of her bag, and as if by magic, Lexi was calling her. She hurried out the back door and into the cool night air.

“Lex,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Tam?” Lexi whispered.

“It’s the middle of the night,” she laughed. “Are you up working too?”

“I’m in the bar.” She could feel the smile coming through Lexi’s words even though she couldn’t see her.

“And your new gentleman friend?” Tammy asked playfully.

“Waiting for me inside,” she cleared her throat. “I just wanted to say thank you for all of your help.”

Tammy smiled. “Anytime.” And she meant it.

“I’ll be back sometime tomorrow,” she said. “I better go now, love you.”

She hung up the phone, and Tammy felt nothing but love for her friend. At last, it seemed as if one of them was having some luck in love.

As Tammy wandered back into the diner, she couldn’t help but wonder when it was going to be her turn…and if the small town of Slate Springs was hiding a man good enough for her, too.


The following morning Tammy woke up early, knowing that she had to pull herself together and head over to the diner for yet another shift. She had wanted to take the day off but knew she was better off busy, especially when she was in a funk. The more she thought about her friend Lexi finding love, the more she found herself craving a man of her own.

She jumped out of bed and went into the bathroom. The air was muggy and hot, so she turned the shower on cold and gasped as she stepped into it. She washed away the grease from the night before and got out as fast as she could, wrapping her hair up tightly in a towel and shivering as she pulled her robe around her shoulders. She had so much energy considering she had been up until the very early hours. As she dressed quickly and dried her hair, she cranked up the radio and tried to stop feeling sorry for herself.

As she pulled into the parking lot at the diner, she could already see the buzz of life inside and knew she was in for a busy day. Luckily, she didn’t have to be there too long; she had arranged with Jamie so that she could leave in the middle of the afternoon, rather than working up until the night shift girls came in.

A line of trucks were parked outside, and there were some unfamiliar cars, too, suggesting they were tourists or travelers passing through.

“Morning,” Jamie grinned as Tammy opened the front door and smiled as wide as she could.

“Good morning!” she replied.

“Well, someone is certainly in a much better mood,” Jamie joked.

Tammy rolled her eyes with a smile as she went behind the counter and reached for her apron. She was starving and knew the chefs would rustle something up for her fast, but she didn’t want to look like she was taking liberties. She got straight to serving as many customers as she could.

Today is a day for engaging and keeping busy, she thought as she approached her first table with her pencil and notepad ready. And I am not going to feel sorry for myself anymore!

The next few hours passed quickly in a haze of cooked breakfasts, large pots of coffee, and the sweet smell of maple syrup. When the lunchtime rush had calmed slightly, she finally took a break and let one of the chefs make her a grilled cheese sandwich before she started clearing tables again.

She kept thinking about how happy Lexi sounded on the phone the night before, and she really was pleased for her. She knew how hard it was to find someone to love. But she also had an unsettled feeling, like something bad was about to happen.

She made her way over to one of the corner booths and started to stack up the dishes as high as she could. She gathered them into her arms and walked around the back of the counter and into the kitchen. She ditched them on the side and went back out into the main body of the diner, when suddenly the door burst open and the bell rang. For the second time in twenty-four hours, Tammy felt as if their friendly psychic connection had pulled them together. Lexi came rushing into the diner with tears rimming her eyes.

Lexi sat down at a booth in the corner, shaking and wiping her eyes on the corner of her sleeve. Tammy felt her jaw drop as she quickly ran over to her.

“Oh my god!” Tammy hissed. “What happened? Did that biker hurt you?”

“No,” Lexi breathed. “My mother… She’s really done it this time.”

***

The girls had been friends their entire lives, and although Tammy knew that Lexi had problems with her mom, she never could have been prepared for what she was about to tell her… Lexi shook with both anger and disbelief as she told Tammy about how her mother had lied to her for her whole life, convincing her to stay away from the bikers, then admitting that morning that it was because her father was one of the Forsaken Riders who was still alive and possibly in Slate Springs.

“No way!” Tammy gasped.

Lexi’s mother had always let everyone think that Lexi’s father had died, and now here she was, telling her that he could be very much alive and could have been living down the road the entire time.

“She’s kept me away from the bikers out of spite,” Lexi sniffed. “It had nothing to do with her being afraid for me or my safety… She was being selfish and cruel because he broke her heart…”

Tammy nodded and then sighed.

“I can’t believe she never told you… God, he could have been here this whole time.”

Lexi started to cry, and Tammy wrapped her arms around her.

As Tammy tried to reassure her, she knew that her friend would soon be on a one-woman mission to find out the truth, and she was going to have to help her. Tammy had always tried herself to stay on the right side of the law, and she had never ventured to the other side of town where the bikers lived, played, and hung out at their elusive clubhouse, but now she didn’t see how she could possibly avoid it.

“Go back to my place and sort yourself out,” Tammy said as she handed her a key to her apartment. “I’ll be done here in the next couple of hours, and I’ll come over to the bar with you for your shift tonight. Let’s talk to King and see if he knows anything.”

“Thank you so much,” Lexi smiled as she hugged her friend. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

As Lexi left the diner, Tammy let out a huge sigh of relief. The past week had been a crazy one thanks to her friend, and she rubbed her temples.

“What was that about?” Jamie asked. “Trouble with Marv?”

Tammy thought back to what Candy had said the night before about one of the bikers going into Red X and threatening the owner… if King had done that for Lexi, God knows what he would do about her mother. Tammy swallowed hard and knew she wasn’t going to be able to work any longer.

“I’m sorry, Jamie,” she said in a daze as she grabbed her purse and made for the door. “I’ll cover you another day, I’ve just got to get out of here.”

Jamie looked at her dumbfounded as she crossed the parking lot and jumped into her car.

“I wished my life had a bit of excitement,” she said to herself as she started the engine.

She flew down the highway and headed for home. She was going to have a long day ahead of her, calming Lexi down and getting ready to go and help her with the inevitable round of questions. If Lexi’s mother was telling the truth and her father was part of the Forsaken Riders, then he could be there at the bar… she may have even met him without knowing. Lexi and Tammy had been such good friends for as long as she could remember, and she knew that Lexi wouldn’t want any other person with her. Even though she was partly nervous and partly excited at the prospect of setting foot in a biker bar…she also knew she was obligated to do it for her friend.

She thought back to the previous evening and of how a group of them had thundered past her on the highway. Their mean demeanor and wild ways were so different to anything Tammy had ever known or experienced. She didn’t have a clue how she was going to remain calm being around them. But if Lexi had found something with one of them… then surely they couldn’t be all bad? Lexi had a wild side and had always been the more outgoing of the two girls, but she had a heart of gold and wouldn’t settle for anything or anyone that wasn’t worth it.

Tammy pulled up on the driveway of her apartment building and raced to the door. As she pushed it open and went inside, she could hear Lexi’s sobs coming from her front room.

“How could she do it to me?” she cried. “If you can’t trust your own mother, who can you trust?”

Tammy wrapped her arms around her and pulled her close.

“You can trust me,” she said seriously. “And we’ll sort this out, okay?”

“I need to see King.”

“And I’m going to come with you,” she said with a flicker of excitement. “Let’s relax now and get ready. We’ll head out when you’re due to start your shift.”

“Are you sure?” Lexi looked up at her with hope in her eyes.

“Of course,” she stroked her head with her fingertips. “Even if the idea of going to that side of town does scare me half to death.”

“We’ll be fine,” Lexi sniffed with a smile.

Tammy left her for a moment to collect her thoughts and went to her bedroom. She quickly yanked open her closet and rooted through it to uncover the most badass outfit she could find. After having such a sheltered upbringing, she was going to have a hard time finding something even remotely risqué, but she had to give it her best shot.

Her hands closed around a low-cut black tank top and a tight pair of jeans.

“These will have to do,” she said to herself as a little smile flickered across her lips. Even though she was worried about Lexi, she knew everything would work out in the end, and her curiosity was reaching a boiling point just thinking about stepping inside The Bleeding Bullet.


The more Tammy thought about Lexi’s situation, the more she wanted to remove herself from it, but that was going to be practically impossible now that they were in her car and driving to the other side of town. As the turned down each street and the familiar sights of Slate Springs gave way to ones that Tammy had never seen before, her pulse quickened and her skin prickled with nervous heat.

She was so curious and yet so afraid. What if she walked in there and felt like a complete fool? She didn’t want to stand out in a crowd of tattoos and nose piercings with her clean skin and silky blonde hair. She twirled a strand of it around her index finger as she looked out at the road and wondered what would happen if she walked in there and wanted to leave… The last thing she could do was abandon Lexi in her hour of need. She bit her lip with frustration and turned to Lexi and smiled.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Lexi sniffed. “I’ll be even better once I’ve got some answers.”

They rounded another corner and a wall of flashing blue lights seemed to puncture the darkness ahead of them. Cop cars swarmed the streets and as the women crawled slowly through, the officers shone flashlights in at them.

“Is it always like this?” Tammy asked with concern.

“I’ve only been here twice,” Lexi admitted. “Seems pretty normal to me from what I’ve seen…”

“Great,” Tammy said sarcastically, her nerves reaching new heights.

She parked the car amongst the cop vans and they both got out and onto the sidewalk. The Bleeding Bullet was standing tall and proud in the night ahead of them, drenched in red strobe lights and lasers, with motorcycles and big burly men covering the front steps. Tammy noted how they seemed to be the only people in a car, and she looked at the other women who were outside, wearing ripped fishnets and leather miniskirts.

“They look rough,” she whispered to Lexi, but she didn’t seem to hear her.

Tammy carried on moving, but she was tense. Even though she was desperate to see what was inside the bar, she could feel her nerves overwhelming her.

Lexi pushed the door open and went inside, and Tammy took hold of her hand as they made their way through the crowd together. The bar was dark and dingy and completely crammed. People swung from the ceilings and danced on tables. Rock music blared from the speakers so hard it vibrated through the floor beneath them and seemed to work its way into Tammy’s throat. The girls who worked there danced on the bar and poured liquor into men’s mouths straight from the bottle.

“Is this what you do?” Tammy asked Lexi with amazement.

“One shift down, hopefully many more to go,” she said.

Tammy’s eyes were wandering everywhere. Men and women were in tangles of lust in every corner of the room and the atmosphere in there was electric. It was like she had stepped into another dimension that oozed sex and sin, and she was right in the center of it all. She didn’t know where to look. She knew she was blushing and her heart was racing. She turned to find Lexi in the crowd and saw her speaking to a girl working behind the bar. The girl pointed over her shoulder, and then Lexi reached for Tammy’s hand and pulled her around the side of the counter and down towards a hallway at the back.

As they wandered down the dark hallway, Tammy’s nerves were escalating. For a girl like Lexi, being in situations like this might be the norm, but for an innocent girl like her, it was terrifying. She had no idea what any of the people in The Bleeding Bullet were capable of, and she feared she would get caught up in some kind of fight or worse. She stuck to Lexi’s heels as she marched down to the end of the hallway and stopped outside of a large black door. Lexi raised her hand and knocked. They seemed to be standing there forever, until finally the door creaked open and a man came into view and instantly took Tammy’s breath away.

She wasn’t aware of what he was saying; all she knew was that he was incredible. His shoulders were broad and his eyes were piercing blue. His big, rough hands gripped a cigarette, and as he sucked on it, Tammy suddenly found herself thinking how smoking had never looked sexier. She shook her head quickly and snapped herself back to reality.

“You after King?” he asked Lexi in a deep, gruff voice before his head turned and his eyes fell on Tammy.

Tammy felt the heat rise in her cheeks again, and she exhaled to calm herself down. Lexi nodded and the man disappeared back behind the door. Tammy’s palms were sweating as she whispered quickly to Lexi, “Who is he?” but there was barely a second before he appeared at the door again with King by his side.

Lexi launched herself at King, and he soothed her before taking her off down the hallway. Their voices were hushed and hurried, and Tammy turned back to stare at the man in front of her as he eyed her closely with a smirk on his face.

“You look so lost,” he said finally, and Tammy didn’t know how to respond. He laughed a little and moved closer to her, making the hairs on her arms stand on end.

“Maybe I am…” she finally managed to whisper.

She had no idea what she was doing or what she even wanted from this situation; all she knew was that she suddenly didn’t mind waiting around in the darkened hallway at the back of The Bleeding Bullet anymore.

“I’m Lynx,” he said confidently as he held his cigarette up to his lips and sucked on it.

Tammy watched the way the smoke danced up around his nostrils in delicate waves.

“I’m Tammy,” she said, shyly glancing at the floor.

“You work in the diner on the highway?” Lynx asked her.

She looked up, surprised that he would even know anything like that. She nodded.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“I’ve seen you around,” he grinned.

The tension between them was instant and she barely knew where to look or even how to hold her hands. Suddenly her whole body felt like it had been awakened and was out of control. She felt awkward and gawky, like she needed to be doing something with her limbs or she would look uncomfortable.

Lynx smiled and leaned in closer.

“Relax,” he hissed and exhaled a plume of smoke down the side of her neck.

“Sorry,” she blushed. “I just, I…”

“You’ve never been here before?” he asked as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Tammy shook her head and smiled sheepishly.

“I’ve only met Lexi twice, but she seems pretty wild,” he said. “You don’t seem like that to me at all… You’ve got an innocent quality about you.”

Tammy felt the blood rush into her cheeks, and she wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole. She dug her toe into the ground and twisted it.

“Maybe I should get going,” she said before she looked down the hallway to find King and Lexi, but they had disappeared.

“No way,” Lynx said, taking another step towards her. “We don’t get pretty little things like you in here every day.” He winked, and Tammy suddenly didn’t feel so intimidated by him anymore.

“Well, what’s in it for me if I stay?” Tammy challenged as she popped her hip and looked up at him with a grin. She had never been so brave before and didn’t know where her nerve had come from, but there was something about Lynx that appealed to her wild side, and she was eager to let him coax more out of her.

“How about I get you something to drink?” he suggested as he pulled the door to the room behind him closed and reached into his pocket for a set of keys to lock it.

Down the end of the corridor, Lexi and King appeared from a closet and called to them.

“I’m taking Lex over to the clubhouse,” King said. “Let Sasha know she won’t be on the bar tonight.”

Lynx nodded and Lexi called down to Tammy, “Will you be okay?”

Even though she didn’t want her friend to leave her there, there was no way she was going to pass up on the opportunity to have a drink with a good-looking man.

She smiled and giggled, “I’m sure Lynx will look after me.”

Lynx looked down at her with a wide smile on his face and hooked an arm around her shoulder.

“She’ll be safe with me,” he called down to King and Lexi.

When Lexi and King left, Tammy felt her pulse quicken again. Now she really was alone there, and even though it was the last thing she’d been expecting, she was determined to enjoy it.

“So,” she smiled shyly at Lynx, “how about that drink?”

He wrapped an arm around her waist and led her through the bustling crowd. The men and women who were in The Bleeding Bullet all seemed to have a dark edge, and she moved between them all cautiously, not wanting to make eye contact in case she angered any of them. Tammy had lived such a quiet life, and she had been so innocent and sheltered that stepping into this kind of world was completely alien and nerve-racking.

Lynx pushed his way through the crowd and pulled Tammy in front of him so she was wedged up against the bar. He slammed his huge hands down on the counter top in front of her, and it was like she was in a cage. He had her pinned there, and although it felt strange to be so dominated by someone she had just met, it also made her feel unbelievably safe. She felt a rush of desire roll through her, and she bit her lip as Lynx leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “Tammy… Tammy… Tammy…”

She couldn’t help but smile. Just hearing him say her name was driving her wild, and she had to squeeze her legs together to stop herself from being overcome with lust.

“Whiskey?” he whispered. “It’s pretty much the only thing we drink around here.”

“I’ll trust your judgment,” she replied without turning her head.

He was sniffing the side of her neck, and she could feel his warm breath on her cheek. She was desperate to turn to look at him properly, but she knew the second they locked eyes, something would change between them. It was such a strange feeling for her to feel so instantly connected to another person. Especially a man. Tammy had spent most of her life avoiding the opposite sex, but it seemed that the second she had opened her heart up to the possibility, she walked into the most unlikely place and met someone like Lynx.

“So,” he said as he motioned to the girl behind the bar and ordered their drinks, “where have you been hiding? And what made you come down here tonight?”

She felt herself blushing again and knew she couldn’t avoid his eyes for much longer.

“I guess I’ve never really had a reason to come over here before,” she whispered.

“Well, sweetheart,” Lynx said as he took hold of her chin lightly with the tips of his fingers and urged her face up gently to his, “you sure as hell do now.”


As she stared into his eyes, she realized she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anyone. That scared her, but even if she had wanted to run away, there was no way he was going to let her. Lynx was so strong, so powerful, so dominant… He pinned her there against the bar, and the scent of his cologne mixed in with the booze and smoke was the biggest turn-on Tammy had ever known. He gripped her chin and moved his mouth closer to hers so their lips grazed… Was this actually even happening? Was she dreaming?

“I suppose I do…” she whispered, desperate for his lips to lock with hers.

He seemed to hold her there for an eternity, teasing her with the promise of a kiss she so badly wanted but was too afraid to ask for or take for herself. A wicked smile danced across his lips and his blue eyes pierced into her own. She felt her knees trembling and she gripped onto the bar top, redirecting her energy out through her fingertips so she wouldn’t hurl herself at him.

“No Lexi tonight?” the girl on the bar called to Lynx from behind them.

He let go of Tammy’s chin and moved away from her slightly. Her heart instantly hit the floor, and she turned to glare at the girl behind the bar.

“Hey, Sasha,” he said. “No, King had to take her somewhere.”

The girl nodded and returned Tammy’s evil gaze. For someone timid and nice, she sure was feeling angry and protective over having that moment with Lynx taken away from her.

“Hey,” he said, grasping hold of two glasses of whiskey from the side of the bar. “How about we go and sit down?”

Her heart was pounding, and she suddenly had the overwhelming urge to be as far away from Sasha as possible.

“Sure,” she smiled.

She followed him through the crowd and to a table in a quieter corner of the room. Tammy waited for him to place the drinks down and let him pull the chair out for her. She sat down and he sat opposite her, but he pulled her chair close to his so their legs were almost entwined.

“So,” he said before taking a sip of his drink, “tell me something about you.”

Tammy gazed off into the distance. It was so loud in there, she was finding it hard to gather her thoughts, and she had no idea what she could tell him that wouldn’t instantly bore him and make him wish he were speaking with someone a lot more exciting.

“There’s not much to tell…” she admitted.

“I don’t believe that for a second.” He slipped an arm around the back of her chair so they were even closer.

Her mind raced. What could she say?

“Honestly, I live a very quiet life,” she smiled sheepishly.

“But you’re friends with wild Lexi?” He raised an eyebrow as if he was mocking her.

“Well, they say opposites attract,” she shrugged.

“Don’t they just…” Lynx grinned.

She felt herself blushing again and she combed a strand of hair behind her ear with her fingertips.

“Well, okay, I work as a waitress…” she began. “My dad owns the hardware store in town. My mom died when I was little so he and my brother raised me. I’ve lived here my whole life… Not much more to say.” She took a sip of the whiskey and nearly gagged at how strong it was.

When she looked up and met Lynx’s eyes, she saw something in them that she could only recognize as sadness. She waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. She was sure that she could see tears clouding his vision, but he blinked them away.

“Are you okay?” she asked as she reached out and rested her hand on his knee.

He blinked again and smiled. “Sure,” he said quickly, and then he looked over his shoulder and into the crowd.

She didn’t know what she had said or done, but something had changed between them.

“I’m sorry,” she said with confusion. “Did I say something?”

Lynx smiled and got to his feet.

“Listen,” he said, “I better get back to the office…” He scratched the back of his neck, and Tammy felt fire roll through her. He was brushing her off.

She got to her feet too, and they stood face to face for a moment before she turned on her heel and began to shove her way through the crowd.

She felt so stupid… So goddamn stupid… What was she thinking? She was nothing like those people! Of course a man like Lynx wasn’t going to be interested in a boring little good girl like her!

She pushed her way between some people and found herself being shoved back in return. The tears were welling up behind her own eyes, and her vision was blurry.

She had to get out of there.

The booze had made her dizzy, and after she finally reached the door and pushed it open, she gasped and breathed in a lung full of cool, outside air to try and revive herself.

She felt as if the whole world was looking at her, and she staggered down the steps in a haze of embarrassment and fear as she jogged quietly between the swarm of bikes, bikers, and cops and made her way quickly to her car.

She fumbled for her keys, and when she found them, she jabbed them into the lock and opened it as fast as she could. When she climbed inside and locked the doors behind her, she sighed and realized she was shaking.

“What the hell just happened?” she said as she looked at her hands. They trembled in front of her, and she knew she was going to have to wait a moment to compose herself. Her head was spinning, and she had no idea what she had done wrong or why she had freaked out so much when Lynx seemed to be giving her the brush off… All she knew was that she was so embarrassed and she would never have anything to do with the bikers ever again.

She ran her hands through her hair and exhaled loudly before she slipped the keys into the ignition and started the engine. She pulled away from the curb and began to turn around in a mess of bikes and cops as they gathered in the road and seemed to be building towards some kind of confrontation. Tammy started to panic as she fought with the steering wheel and desperately tried to get the hell out of there.

As she finally managed to turn the car around and put it into drive, she took a quick look over her shoulder and to her surprise, she saw Lynx. He was standing on the steps of the bar, watching her pull away.

She turned and ignored him as she drove off into the night. Her heart was still thumping and her mind was racing with confusion and embarrassment. She had thought that he had been interested in her… Everything he had done and said pointed to that, but then it was like a switch flipped and he couldn’t wait to get away.

She reached for the radio and turned it on just to take her mind off it all. She felt so mortified. How could she have been so stupid?

As she drove on and the quieter, darker side of town gave way to the roads she recognized well, her heart rate seemed to slow, and she felt much more calm. It wasn’t late, and she knew there were places she could go, but all she wanted was go home, crawl into bed, and forget this entire night had ever happened.

As she pulled into her driveway, she took her phone out of her purse and sent Lexi a quick text:

I’m home so if you need to stay here, I’ll leave a spare key in the plant out front. I hope you’re okay, I’m thinking of you and hope you got your answers. X

She doused a cotton swab with make-up remover and dragged it across her eyelids. She had never worn so much black eyeliner in her life, and she felt silly now for trying to be someone she clearly wasn’t. She pulled off the black tank top and tight jeans and left them in a pile on the floor. She could try and be like Lexi all she wanted, but the simple fact remained… She wasn’t her. She was Tammy, a simpler, meeker girl from a solid family that didn’t have secrets and lies at their core. A man like Lynx was exciting; he was different and a good distraction, but there was no way he was honestly going to be interested in someone like her… someone so reserved compared to all of the sin and wild ways he was accustomed to.

After pulling on her PJs, she climbed into bed and wrapped herself up in her warm blankets, and she suddenly felt better. There was no need for her to feel embarrassed… It wasn’t as if she had tried to kiss him and been turned down. He flirted with her, he offered to buy her a drink, and they just sat and talked for half an hour… Really, she was worrying over nothing. It wasn’t her fault if he’d been bored by her. At least she was being herself.

She leaned over and turned off the light and lay down on her pillow. Even though the night air was still heavy and dense, she felt a coldness inside that she couldn’t shake.

Maybe it’s the rejection, she thought to herself before she pulled the covers up around her face again and closed her eyes.

As she drifted off to sleep, her mind raced and she couldn’t shake the feeling of Lynx’s deep blue eyes on her. Even though she wanted to forget him, her night was filled with dreams consisting only of him…


When she woke up the following morning and looked at the sun bursting in through her window, she sat upright and stretched before the memories of the previous night came crashing back. Her head swirled with possibilities and of what she had done wrong… Even though she kept telling herself that she had nothing to be worried about, she couldn’t help but feel stupid for thinking that something was going to happen with Lynx.

She got out of bed and went down to her kitchen. The apartment was empty so she knew that Lexi must have stayed the night with King.

Tammy opened her window and started to boil some water to make a big cup of tea. As she waited for it, she slipped some bread into the toaster and sat down at the table, hugging one of her knees close to her chest. It had been a long time since she had a day to herself, and although she would have loved to have spent it hiding away, she felt as if she really should head on over to the hardware store and see her dad.

The kettle boiled and the toast popped up at exactly the same time, and it made her jump. She spread strawberry jam on the toast and clutched the hot tea, allowing its rich aroma to wake her up even more. For all that had happened the night before, she was feeling positive. The attention had awakened something in her, and she felt sexy and alive for the first time in as long as she could remember.

After breakfast, she showered and did her hair, straightening it with a flat iron and pinning up half away from her face. She applied a light lipstick and mascara, and she looked fresh faced and much more like her old self. When she opened her closet door, she flicked through the hangers, debating what to wear… It was so hot, she knew she was going to be limited, so she settled on some cut-off shorts and a white t-shirt and sneakers.

It was almost eleven by the time she left her apartment, but she felt spritely and alive and decided to walk instead of drive for a change. She knew she didn’t hit the gym as often as she should, and having a car meant she rarely exercised at all. But she had a newfound interest in making sure she took care of herself, and she knew that the walk and fresh air would do her good. As she rounded the corner and approached Main Street, she smiled at all the familiar faces and waved to the shopkeepers. They all knew her, and she knew them. It really was a pleasant place to live. It seemed so bizarre to her even then that there were two completely different sides to Slate Springs. If a person had just been passing through, they would never even imagine that outlaws ran the other side of town and that The Bleeding Bullet was a haven for drug deals and who even knew what else.

Just thinking about the bar sent a chill through her. She pushed it to the back of her mind and focused on where she needed to be. She smiled and waved to Mrs. Smith, an old lady whose daughter ran the florist’s shop on the corner. She stopped and gave her a hug.

“Good morning, dear,” Mrs. Smith smiled.

“Good morning! How are you?” Tammy beamed.

The little old lady was sitting outside of her daughter’s store with her crossword and a cup of green tea in a china cup. Tammy had always found her so adorable and loved the way she always had a different tea set with her. Mrs. Smith was one of the fixtures of Slate Springs that would go down in legend; she was such a regular face, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t know her.

“I’m good, thank you, my darling,” she purred. “And you are looking as radiant as ever… Found yourself a husband yet?” she pried with wide eyes.

“Not yet,” Tammy shrugged.

“Let me fix you up with my grandson,” Mrs. Smith said excitedly. “He’s nineteen and wants to go to law school!”

Tammy smiled and patted Mrs. Smith’s bony shoulder.

“Thank you,” she laughed sweetly, “but I think he may be a bit young for me.”

She hugged the old lady goodbye and carried on down the street. It was days like this when she wanted to kick herself for having her fantasies of escape. She loved the town, and she knew she would never leave. She just wished she had a potential suitor to be set up with… And not someone who was only nineteen!

As she approached her dad’s hardware store, she felt a familiar warm fuzz in her belly. She really needed a hug from the only two men in her life never to disappoint her.

“Hey, Tam,” Dean smiled as she opened the door and the bell tinged high above her head. Her brother was handsome in an unconventional way, and he had never had any problems with the ladies. Dean had always been a bit of a stud around Slate Springs, and he was somewhat overprotective of his little sister… Sometimes she wondered if that was part of the problem of why she never got asked out.

“Hey,” she smiled as she leant over the counter and hugged him. “Where’s Dad?”

“Out back,” Dean said. “Go tell him I need to step out for ten minutes, and he should be out here. Unless you want to fill in for me?” he wiggled his eyebrows.

“No chance,” she laughed. “I do enough work around here.”

“Yeah, right,” Dean gibed.

Tammy made her way out to the back of the store and into the stock room. She found her dad on his hands and knees and in the middle of an inventory.

“Hello, bug,” he smiled as she knelt down and hugged him. She held onto him a little longer that morning. The times when she felt a bit sorry for herself was when she missed her mother the most.

“Hey, Dad,” she said into his neck.

“And what do I owe the pleasure today?” He slapped his hands together to get rid of the dust from a stack of forgotten boxes.

“Nothing, I just wanted to see you both,” she smiled. “Feels like forever.”

“I think it was only Monday,” her dad laughed. “But I’m not complaining.”

“How’s it been this week?” she asked, gesturing to the store.

“Slow,” her dad said seriously. “I’m just not so sure how long we’re going to be able to keep this place afloat.”

“Don’t say that, Dad.” Tammy felt her heart sink. “We’re always okay…”

“Mmm-hm,” he murmured uncertainly. “I’m not so convinced this time.”

The business had experienced problems in the past, and although she had been aware of them, Tammy usually stayed out of it. Her father was a proud man, and he didn’t like to admit when things weren’t going well. Tammy knew that something really must have been up for him to mention it, and it made her even more bummed out.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Tammy asked cautiously.

“No,” he smiled as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m not spending the only real day I get with my daughter being negative… Come on, tell me about your week.”

Tammy’s mind instantly jumped to Lynx and the fact that she had been inside The Bleeding Bullet. But she knew she could never tell her father or Dean. It would be asking for trouble.

“Oh, I haven’t been up to anything much,” she said lightly. “Just the usual… Work, chilling out, sleeping.”

“Best way to be,” her dad winked and picked up his clipboard.

“Dean needs to head out,” she said. “Want me to cover out front so you can work back here?”

Her dad looked around at the mountain of stock on the floor and the boxes around his feet that seemed to be bursting at the seams.

“If you wouldn’t mind?” he asked.

“Of course not!” She hugged him again and made her way towards the door. “That’s what I’m here for!” She smiled brightly and walked back down the hallway to the front of the store.

Her heart started to weigh heavy in her chest, and when she saw Dean, she held out her hands and shook her head.

“Why didn’t you tell me things were bad here?” she whispered.

“Oh, you know Dad,” Dean said dismissively. “He never wants to worry you.”

“But maybe I could help… I mean, think of all of the people that come through the diner each day. I could be advertising somehow. I don’t know.”

“Oh yeah, because how many folks passing through really need anything we have here?” he snorted. “It’s regular customers and people from town… That’s all we can hope for and all we’ve ever had.”

She could sense the sadness in him too, and she knew why; whereas the town would always support each other and the businesses there, sometimes it just wasn’t enough. She doubted her dad had raised prices for over a decade, and with the cost of living rising each year, they were going to start struggling eventually.

“You go and do what you need to,” Tammy said with a sigh. “I can watch over things here.”

Dean slapped his sister affectionately on the shoulder and made his way to the front door.

“I owe you one!” he called back to her. “Want anything from the store?”

Tammy shook her head and watched him go. After losing her mother, she knew whatever adversity was thrown at her family, they could handle it… Maybe her dad would just have to break out of his comfort zone a bit and admit he needed to move along with the times.

As she sat and toyed with the cash register, she began to daydream about hiring a designer and getting the store set up online so they could reach people throughout the country. There had to be ways they could revive the business and keep themselves afloat. Tammy was positive that they would be fine. She was just going to have to convince her dad to start thinking outside the box a little.

Dean was back before she knew it, and they sat and chatted for half an hour before she headed back to see her dad and then decided it was time for her to head home.

“Catch you later, boys.” She smiled and blew them a kiss.

As she started on her slow walk home, she stopped and bought herself a magazine and an iced coffee. She wondered how Lexi was and if she would be hearing from her. She looked into her purse and checked her cell phone to make sure she hadn’t missed any calls, but all that was waiting for her was a text from Jamie asking her to come through on a favor…

Jamie: Seeing as you bailed on me yesterday, please can you cover my shift tonight? X

Tammy groaned but knew she owed her. She just ran out of there without any warning, and she didn’t have any other plans. She reluctantly placed the magazine into her purse and typed a hasty reply:

Sure, I’ll be at the diner for 6pm x

“So much for my lazy day,” she said aloud as she left Main Street and continued to the outskirts of town.

***

As the evening came around, she found herself glad to be heading out and having something to do. Normally nights in alone were something that she relished, but after being so brutally dismissed by Lynx, she wanted to keep busy and not have time to think about the fact that she was twenty-five and unmarried.

She drove to the diner in silence, and when she got there and saw that she was the only waitress working, she was relieved. There was only one chef in the kitchen, and she could tell it was going to be more than quiet. The owner Joe was sitting behind the counter, and he looked surprised when Tammy walked through the door.

“Hey, you,” he smiled. “I thought I had Jamie on tonight?”

“We swapped shifts,” she said. “She had something she needed to do...”

“Ha, when doesn’t she?” he joked with a shake of his head.

“Doesn’t bother me,” Tammy admitted. “I’m glad to be out of the house tonight. Nice just to have something to do and a place to go, you know?”

Joe looked at her sympathetically, and she instantly wished that she hadn’t said it. It was like she was looking for a pity party.

“Well,” he smiled, “I’ll leave you to it. We’ve had the quietest day on record, so I can only imagine tonight will be like a graveyard… But if the unthinkable happens and you’re inundated, just give me a call and I’ll be back to help out.”

“Thanks, Joe,” she smiled as she started to refill some napkins. “Have a good night.”

He waved at her as he left, and she watched him walk out to his truck.

“Looks like it’s just you and me, Mick!” she called back to the chef, but he was too busy reading a book while stirring a pot of chili on the stove. He looked up at her and grunted with a nod and then went back to his copy of War and Peace .

Maybe she would have been better off at home… There wasn’t a single person in the place, and she was already bored as hell. Without thinking she made her way to the jukebox and chose Madonna. As “Like a Prayer” blasted out, she decided to dance as she cleaned the tables. If she didn’t have Jamie to keep her busy or any customers to serve, she may as well have a little bit of fun…


After two hours of boredom and only one customer, Tammy was actually debating calling Joe and asking if she could close early. Mick hadn’t moved from his station in the back and was still glued to the book he hadn’t put down since the second she walked in there. She sat on one of the stools at the counter and watched the news. Even though she could see the images and hear the words, she wasn’t taking any of it in. She glanced at the clock, and it said it was nearly 9:00 pm. She thought of the long night stretching out ahead of her and wished she had just told Jamie she would cover for her another time. Then she remembered the magazine she had bought and left on her coffee table. She put her head in her hands and groaned with a little laugh at her luck.

Just when she was going to resign herself to a night of virtual insanity through boredom, she heard the familiar growl of a bike out in the parking lot and her fists clenched. In the back of her mind, she was praying that it was Lexi and King, and that for some reason they had gone back to Tammy’s apartment and found that she wasn’t there and had come looking for her. But there was also a part of her that knew the second she heard the engine exactly who it would be. She swallowed hard and her heart began to pound so violently she could hear the blood pumping through her ears.

The engine of the motorcycle ceased and she looked ahead at Mick who had peered away from his book for a moment, trying to see who was outside. Tammy was desperate to turn, but at the same time she couldn’t. If she did and it was him, what on earth would she do?

As her heart raced with anticipation, she tapped her foot against the counter and bit the corner of her lip. She heard the crunch of boots on the gravel outside and the thud of them coming up the steps before the creak of the door and the ting of the bell. When she finally had the nerve to turn on the stool and face the door, her heart was already in her mouth…

He stood there with those gorgeous blue eyes, a smile that would melt even the coldest heart, and in his silver-ring-adorned hand, he held a single red rose.

Tammy looked at him in disbelief and shook her head.

Lynx walked forward, his whole presence filling the diner with so much power she didn’t know where to look. She couldn’t meet his gaze, she was too hurt, too humiliated… All she could do was stare at the way his chest heaved under the vest he was wearing and the ripple of his muscles. She had been so enamored the night before that she hadn’t even noticed the tattoos across his knuckles and the ring in his ear. As he approached her, she found herself wanting to get up from the stool and take cover behind the counter. She wanted to make him pay for what he had done, to make him as embarrassed as she had been. But instead she looked up and allowed her eyes to lock with his, and in an instant she was claimed.

“What are you doing here?” she tried to say angrily.

Lynx sat down next to her and lay the rose on the counter.

“I came to apologize,” he said seriously.

Tammy looked at him deep in the eyes to try and gauge his sincerity. He seemed completely genuine.

She got to her feet and turned her back to him. She walked to one of the booths in the corner and cleared the condiments and cutlery away to busy her hands.

“I know you’re mad at me,” he said. “And I really am sorry.”

She ignored him again and walked around the back of the counter so there was a barrier between them.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said sternly. “We were only talking for what, half an hour? You didn’t do anything.”

He looked hurt at her dismissal. “I acted out of line,” he said, “And I want to make it up to you.”

He picked up the rose and held it out to her. It was such a strange sight—this huge, dangerous man with his big strong hands clutching such a delicate flower. It was almost poetic. The rose could easily have been Tammy, ready to get crushed right there in his palm.

She didn’t reach out and take it, but he didn’t lay it back down, either.

“We had a connection,” he continued. “Something instant. I’m sorry for suddenly going cold.”

Tammy scrunched up her lip and tried not to look fazed.

“I’ll explain it all to you, but I wanted to come down here and apologize and let you know that I want to see you again. I want to take you out, properly…” he trailed off and his eyes moved over Tammy’s shoulder and into the kitchen.

She turned to see what had caught his attention, and it was Mick, his eyes wide, listening to their every word. Tammy shooed him away and then turned back to Lynx. She could tell that he was certainly sorry.

“I’ll think about it,” she said sternly, and then she turned and went back to the register, where she picked up her pen and notepad. “Now, can I get you something to eat or drink, sir?”

A wicked smile flashed over Lynx’s lips. “How about a beer?” he asked.

“Coming right up,” Tammy grinned cheerily.

She unscrewed the cap on the beer and passed Lynx the bottle. When he took it from her, he kept hold of her hand and placed the rose inside of her fist.

“I’m not leaving here until you accept this,” he said with his gruff voice. “And believe me, I mean it. I’ve never got a woman flowers before.”

Tammy felt herself blushing, and he seemed to like it when she went shy on him. His lip curled with delight and his grip tightened around her wrist. As they looked into each other’s eyes, all of the passion and lust from the night before came flowing back, and Tammy could barely stand it. Her heart was pounding and she couldn’t look away, but she knew he was bad for her… How could she play his games and possibly win?

“Thank you,” she whispered as she held the rose up to her face and breathed in its sweet scent.

“No,” he smiled. “Thank you, for giving me a second chance.”

“Well, I haven’t agreed to that yet,” Tammy said playfully. Lynx seemed to find it funny—he cracked a huge smile and looked down at the beer bottle before taking a deep swig.

“I can tell you’re going to be the type to keep me on my toes,” he said.

“Really?” Tammy was genuinely surprised. “I actually think it’s going to be the other way around…”

Lynx winked at her and sipped his beer.

“What time do you get off?” he asked hungrily.

“I’m here for the rest of the night,” she said with disappointment.

“Close early? I’ll take care of your boss for you…” Lynx suggested.

As soon as he said it, all Tammy could think of was Marv and Red X and how Candy said one of the bikers had been there threatening him.

“No!” she said defensively. “My boss is a good man… I don’t need him bullied, thank you.”

“Hey,” he held up his hands. “Relax… I just meant I’d think up an excuse for you, that’s all.”

Tammy felt embarrassed yet again. She had to stop jumping to conclusions. She was obviously getting him all wrong.

“Okay,” she said finally. “I could close in say, two hours?”

Lynx looked up at the clock on the wall and got to his feet.

“I’ll be back for you at midnight,” he said with a wink. He walked slowly towards the door and out into the dark with so much swagger it was almost overpowering.

As she saw him leave, her whole being seemed to be tingling with electricity. Her head was swimming with excitement, and all she wanted to do was scream and clap her hands with joy. She turned to the only other person capable of sharing this moment with her, but Mick was just looking at her with a judgmental expression.

“Those bikers are trouble, girl,” he said matter-of-factly. “Better take care of yourself.”

She dismissed him instantly and grabbed her purse before going into the ladies’ room. She was going to need all the time she had before he came back at midnight to prepare…

***

In the restroom, she flipped her head upside down and managed to add volume to her hair with the hand dryer. When she rooted through her purse, she found that she had several bits of make-up hanging around in there, including the same pink lipstick she had worn earlier that day. As she looked at herself in the mirror, she had to remind herself that he had seen her at work and still wanted to ask her out, so surely he wasn’t expecting her to look exceptional. Her confidence was going up and down like a rollercoaster… One moment she felt on top of world and ready to open her heart and her mind to a new relationship, and the next she was questioning everything. She couldn’t understand what a man like him could possibly see in her when he was used to such a crazy lifestyle, but then a little voice at the back of her mind told her that maybe that was the point. Maybe he saw something genuine and safe in Tammy… Someone innocent, reliable, and kind.

“Just keep your feet on the ground,” she told herself as she stared at her reflection in the mirror. She had never been one for giving self pep talks, but she figured if she was ever going to do it, this was as good a time as any.

She opened the door to the restroom and strode strongly back into the restaurant. It was almost midnight, and she couldn’t wait a moment longer.

“Okay, Mick,” she called back to the kitchen. “Shut it all down. We’re getting out of here.”

Mick rolled his eyes but started to close down the kitchen. Tammy turned off the lights one by one. She locked the front door and turned the sign to say they were closed.

“Don’t you think Joe will be mad?” Mick asked nonchalantly.

“It’s only an hour,” she said. “It’s been dead all evening.”

“I guess.” Mick grabbed his coat and headed for the back door. “Oh, and Tam,” he said. “Don’t worry, your little secret is safe with me.”

She smiled sheepishly and waited for him to leave. She didn’t know whether he had meant it genuinely, or as a bribe or a threat, but she didn’t care. As she closed up the diner and locked the back door, she could sense that she was on the verge of something big, and she couldn’t wait to find out what lay ahead.


She waited behind the diner and looked up at the stars. It was such a clear night and although it was still warm, there was a definite breeze in the air. It whipped around her ears and blew her hair over her shoulders as she looked up at the heavens. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the moon hung big and full over the mountains to the west. She gripped her purse tightly and walked slowly around to the front of the diner. On the highway, trucks thundered past with a toot of their horns and she was thankful they could see the diner was closed. She had even turned off the neon roadside sign and would explain to Joe the next day that she had heard some strange buzzing coming from it and was worried it may spark and set off a desert fire from being so old.

She felt like she was waiting there for an eternity. Even though she knew she left the diner earlier than midnight, she began to second guess everything as she waited at the roadside for Lynx. Then she snapped herself back to reality.

Nothing’s even happened. You’re just going for a ride and a talk, she told herself.

The more she thought, the more she convinced herself that he was just interested in friendship… Maybe he went cold because he has a girlfriend? But then why would he turn up with a rose?

The more time that she had to think, the more she drove herself crazy with theories, and when she finally heard the roar of the motorcycle’s engine coming out of the night and over the rise, she breathed out a long sigh of relief.

He was coming for her.

And he was near.

She bit the end of her pinky as she waited to catch sight of him through the darkness. The light at the front of the bike pierced through like a laser and she held her hand up to her eyes and squinted. Lynx spun into the parking lot and the wheels kicked up a spray of dust and dirt.

“Hey, babe,” he said smoothly.

Tammy felt a rush somewhere deep inside of her that she hadn’t felt for a long time. She waited for him to come to her, and when she saw him standing tall and proud after he climbed off the bike, she knew again why it was impossible to ignore him. Even if he had upset her the night before, he was there now and taking it all back. And he looked utterly incredible.

Lynx held out his hand, and she slid hers into it. Hers was so small compared to his. As he pulled her close to him and lifted her at the waist to place her delicately on the back of the bike, she felt a little pulse of fear.

“I’ve never been on one of these before,” she said as she looked up at him with innocent eyes. “Don’t go too fast.”

Lynx let out a low laugh as he climbed on in front of her and pulled her arms around his waist.

“Well, then,” he said as he revved the engine, “I suggest you hold on tight.”

He kicked the bike into gear and spun them out of the parking lot with a screech of the wheels. Tammy pulled him close and squealed as he joined the highway and began gaining speed.

“Oh my God!” she cried as she laughed and nuzzled into the back of his neck.

She didn’t know what she’d been expecting from climbing onto such a powerful machine with him, but the feeling was so exhilarating and exciting, she felt like she was on top of the world.

“Faster!” she found herself calling to him, and Lynx nodded and pushed the bike harder, propelling them down the highway and weaving in and out of cars and trucks.

As they flew at breakneck speed, Tammy could barely catch her breath. She clung to him like a child, and even though she knew what they were doing was dangerous, she was loving every second.

Lynx turned off the highway and started down the quieter streets that led into town. She had no idea where he would take her at that time of night, but she was open to anything. After spending so much of her life being sheltered, she felt like she was finally breaking free.

He finally slowed as they approached Main Street and, after pulling the bike up towards the curb, turned off the engine. Tammy’s heart was still racing as he climbed off the front and held out his hand for her to join him.

“That was wild,” she laughed as she slipped her hand into his and climbed down from the bike. “My heart is about to burst out of my chest.”

Lynx smiled and pulled her along the sidewalk towards the convenience store, which was the only thing open on Main Street that time of night. The automatic doors slid open, and Matt, one of the workers there, looked up and was panic stricken for a moment before he noticed Tammy.

“Hey, Tam,” he called to her. She waved back at him shyly.

Lynx pulled her along to the refrigerators at the back of the store and held her hand as he picked out a crate of beers.

“What would the lady like?” he asked with a smile.

Tammy shrugged and was about to say she didn’t know when he leaned forward and collected a bottle of chilled white wine. He held it up to her, and she smiled.

“You’re a classy girl,” he said. “I’m guessing you didn’t enjoy that whiskey I got for you last night.”

Tammy smiled and felt the heat rise to her cheeks. She hadn’t liked it, but she was never going to admit it to him.

At the cash register, Matt stared at them as if he couldn’t figure out what on earth was happening. Tammy pretended as if there was nothing at all interesting about her standing there with one of the outlaws. As they turned and left, she waved again over her shoulder and just hoped to God he wouldn’t let it slip to her father or Dean. The last thing she needed was the third degree from either of them.

Lynx held onto her hand, and they walked slowly across the road and out into the back streets of Slate Springs. Tammy never would have walked down there alone at night, but with Lynx by her side, she knew she was safe. The town wasn’t the kind of place where bad things happened to the locals, but you could still never tell. And with all the rumors of what the bike gang brought to town, it was always better to be safe than sorry.

“I stumbled across this place one night,” he said as he gripped her hand tight. “I needed to get out of the clubhouse just to think for a while, and I ended up riding down here.”

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“You’ll see,” he looked down at her and smiled.

As they turned the corner, the streets opened out and in the middle of four connecting roads was Springs Park. Tammy looked up at him and smiled.

“You’d never been to the park before?” she asked sweetly.

“Never had reason to. I’m not from around here.”

Tammy smiled and let him lead her into it. They walked across the grass, and she kicked off her shoes so she could feel the wetness still clinging to it softly from the sprinklers.

“Where are you from?” she asked as he sat down on a bench and pulled a beer free from the cardboard case.

“Is it important?” He cocked his head to the side playfully.

She decided to try a different approach. “Well, have you been here in Slate Springs long?”

He nodded slowly and then took a swig from the bottle.

“I’ve been here a very long time,” he said sadly.

She recognized the same look in his eyes from the night before and knew that she couldn’t bare for him to dismiss her again. Whatever had happened to Lynx, Tammy was obviously reminding him of it or was bringing it back to the surface. She picked up her shoes and went over to sit down next to him.

“You know, you were right about our connection,” she said. “But if you don’t tell me what the matter is, I’m just going to keep thinking you don’t really like me.”

“I think we’re just alike, that’s all,” he said with the same sadness. “What you talked about last night brought something up that I hadn’t thought about in a long time.”

Tammy cast her mind back and tried to remember how their conversation had gone, but she’d just told him a brief summary of her life and didn’t really understand how that could have moved him so deeply.

“My mother,” he said finally, as if reading her mind. “What you said last night about you being raised by your dad and your brother… Well, it just kind of struck a chord.” He took a swig again and wiped his forehead.

“In what way?” She moved closer to him.

“I was on my own for a long time,” he said. “Foster homes… Horrible places… I didn’t have a family until I found the Forsaken Riders, and when I moved in with them, it was the first place I called home.”

Tammy felt her throat tighten. She hadn’t been expecting such an honest confession.

“I’m only telling you this because I realized how I acted yesterday, and I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t genuine,” he turned to look her deep in the eyes. “I like you a lot,” he said. “But I guess I’m still battling some of my own demons.”

Tammy reached out and let her fingertips graze the top of his knuckles.

“I know how it feels to feel alone and lost,” she said quietly. “I know what happened to me isn’t quite the same, but I know how it feels to lose people you love.”

Lynx tensed up and shook out his shoulders.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” he said gruffly.

“Why shouldn’t you?” She took his hand in hers and squeezed it. “Maybe we’re more alike that we realized. Don’t people always say that the ones who walk into your life come for a reason?”

Lynx nodded his head slowly and smiled. “I guess they do.” He looked down at her.

As she looked up at him and at how stunningly attractive he was, she saw his eyes held so much hurt and emotion. They were so blue and deep, it felt as if she could fall into them and get lost forever. Lynx was nothing like she expected him to be… He was strong, yet sensitive. He was powerful, yet could be soft. He was a real man, and yet he wasn’t afraid to be honest about how he was feeling. Tammy squeezed his hand again and wished she was a little bit closer.

She unscrewed the cap on the wine and took a sip straight from the bottle. The air between them was heavy with silence and although she wanted to ask him more about what had happened to him in his past, it was hardly a great way to start their first date.

“Lexi was at the clubhouse all day with King and Reid,” he said finally.

“Did she find him?” she asked with shock. “Reid? Her father?”

Lynx nodded slowly.

“The old boy,” he said sadly. “He’s been the closest thing to a dad I’ve ever had, and now he’s dying.”

Tammy felt a twist in her gut. Her friend had finally found her father after a lifetime of longing, and now he was going to be taken from her anyway.

“Is she okay?” she asked.

Lynx nodded and smiled.

“Fate,” he said, squeezing her hand.

They sat together in the dark, and he wrapped his arm around her. Tammy drank from the wine bottle slowly and told him all about her mother and of how she had grown up in Slate Springs longing for something exciting to happen her whole life. Lynx listened to her intently and seemed totally in awe of her. She couldn’t believe that she was holding the attention of this man, and each time their eyes met, she felt a flash of desire spear her heart.

“It’s a nice town,” he said. “A good place to grow up.”

“Why do you all stay away from Main Street?” She was finally feeling brave after downing nearly half of the bottle. “The bikers are like this big enigma. No one can figure them out or decide whether to be afraid of them or not.”

Lynx laughed and pulled his arm around her tightly.

“I wouldn’t think any of the townspeople here would have anything to worry about,” he said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.

“I guess it’s just small town mentality,” she offered. “I mean, people always fear what they don’t understand…”

He nodded as he exhaled a plume of smoke into the air.

“Yeah,” he said. “Something like that.”

Out of nowhere, there was a crunch of gravel behind them and the sound of a car engine. Lynx sat up straight and turned around, totally unfazed by the intrusion, but Tammy felt her heart begin to race with dread.

“Who’d be out here so late?” she asked breathlessly.

Lynx squinted into the dark and rolled his eyes. The headlights were blaring at them and making it impossible to see what kind of car it was, but he seemed to recognize it immediately and he got to his feet and grinned.

“Hey, boys,” he said cockily. “You must really miss me?”

A blue light rolled around inside the car and lit up the night before it shut off along with the headlights. Both the front doors opened, and two cops got out with flashlights and cuffs swinging from their belts.

Tammy swallowed hard and pulled her knees up to her chest. She knew the cops from around town, and she recognized them immediately from the diner. Lynx stood there holding his arms out, sucking on his cigarette and grinning at them with relish.

“Just thought we’d check in,” one of the cops said as he shined a light on Tammy. She tried to turn her face so she was hidden, but he clearly recognized her, too.

“Check in?” Lynx laughed. “Well, alright…”

He threw his cigarette butt on the ground and re-joined Tammy on the bench. He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close. The two cops loitered in front of them, shining their flashlights at the crate of beer and wine and then back on them.

“Ma’am, could we please see some identification?” one of the cops asked Tammy, and she felt herself wanting to shrink.

She looked up at Lynx who nodded approval for her to cooperate with them, so she reluctantly reached into her purse and pulled out her driver’s license. She handed it to the cop who had asked and watched him studying it carefully with the help of the flashlight. He looked from the card and to her again and again, before finally passing it back to her.

“You’re the diner girl,” he smiled. “I thought I recognized you.”

She nodded slowly but didn’t utter a word.

“Well, folks, just thought we’d stop by and say hi.” The cop’s tone was condescending and antagonistic, and she could feel the tension coming from Lynx. He was using all of his willpower not to explode with anger.

“Good night, officers,” he said through gritted teeth as the two cops backed away and opened the doors to their car.

“We’re always watching, Lynx… Remember that,” one of them said as he ducked into the car and slammed the door closed behind him.

As they backed away, Tammy breathed out a sigh of relief, but when she turned to Lynx, she could tell he was seething.

“What was all that about?” she asked with concern.

“Fucking pigs.” He breathed out through his nose as he reached into his pocket for another smoke. “They’re up our ass at the moment, that’s all…”

He lit the cigarette and dragged on it deeply. His demeanor had completely changed from before they had shown up, and Tammy could sense the night was over.

“Well,” she smiled, “I better be getting home…”

He looked up at her and they locked eyes. The intense blue pulled her in again.

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a long week.”

Tammy nodded and waited for him to join her. They walked back to his bike, and he lifted her on before he started the engine and took her home.

As they wove through the streets, Lynx drove slowly and purposefully, and this time the adrenaline she had felt earlier in the night was nowhere to be found. She clung to his hips and breathed him in. Even though the night had been fraught with emotion and unwanted intrusions, she had still had the time of her life.

When he pulled up to her driveway and helped her down, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him delicately on the cheek. He held onto her waist tightly and pulled her closer to him, his animalistic nature breaking through for just a moment as he pinned her against the bike and pushed himself against her. She could feel the ripples of his rock-hard muscles, and she gasped as he leaned in closer and kissed her so deeply it took her breath away. The kiss was so intense and hungry that she never wanted it to end.

He left her there in the driveway and climbed back onto his bike.

“I’ll come for you tomorrow, babe,” he said with a smile before starting the engine and disappearing again into the night.


She was lying on her back with her legs wide apart, and he was clinging to her hips. As he pulled her forward towards the edge of the bed she murmured for him to stop, even though she didn’t want him to.

“Stop being such a good girl,” he whispered as his hand traced a line up her stomach and stopped just under her breasts before moving down to her panties and slipping them off in one quick movement. She arched her back and breathed in deeply. He was right there, inches away from her sex, and there was no way she was going to be able to deny him.

As he gripped onto her tightly and buried his face amongst her folds, she let out a gasp and held onto the headboard as he slowly and deliciously ran his tongue the full length of her slit. The sensation was incredible, and she could barely breathe. No one had ever done that to her before, and the feeling of his stubble brushing against the inside of her thighs sent her into even more of a frenzy. His tongue was hot and experienced, his touch electric and powerful, and as she threw her head back and bucked her hips up to meet his mouth, he plunged his tongue inside of her and she unraveled in a wave of heat and incredible pleasure.

“Lynx!” she gasped aloud. When she opened her eyes, she sank down in the bed, realizing she was alone and she had just had the most amazing dream of her entire life.

Her heart was pounding and her skin was dewy with sweat. She sat up and pulled the covers around herself, cocooning her arousal. She couldn’t stand it… She was too turned on and all alone. She pouted and sighed as she fell back against her pillow. She remembered the night before and how he had kissed her outside on the driveway. The memory of his scent and his power made her pussy throb again, and without even moving, she knew she was soaking wet.

I am too much of a good girl, she thought. Maybe it’s about time I was bad…

She thought back to the last time she had been with a guy and realized it had been years. She had a high school boyfriend who she eventually broke up with not long after they graduated. But he wasn’t a man… Not like Lynx was. He had been nothing but a boy and the prospect of being made love to by a strong, sexy biker was almost too much for her to handle.

“But I want it so bad,” she said aloud.

Her body was still so ready and her nipples were erect and aching to be touched. She rolled over and bit her lip.

When is he coming for me? she wondered, checking her cell phone.

She hadn’t given Lynx her number, but there was a part of her that wished he had asked Lexi for it if he had been over at the clubhouse. With no messages to greet her, she sighed and decided her fantasy would have to wait until later. She had no idea when she would see him again; all she knew was that when she did, she was going to pounce on him.

She made herself coffee and turned on the TV. An old sitcom was on, and she half watched it while she painted her nails a rich red and flicked through social media. After she had been awake for around an hour, the buzzer to her apartment sounded and she picked up the phone to see who it was.

“Hello?” she said.

“It’s me!” Lexi called from the other end.

Tammy buzzed her in and waited eagerly for her to climb the stairs. She wondered if she had seen Lynx and if she had heard that anything had happened between them.

When Lexi came bounding in, Tammy could tell instantly that she was happy.

“You found him?” she asked her eagerly.

“Oh my god, Tam… Yes!”

Tammy jumped up and hugged her, and Lexi’s eyes welled up with tears.

“I can’t believe this is happening, but yes, I found my dad.”

She told Tammy how she had gone to the club house with King and he had introduced her to Reid, one of the oldest members of The Forsaken Riders.

“He’s so sick, Tam,” she said with a sniff. “But I’m just glad I got to meet him and we’ll have some time together… I’ve been robbed of so much.”

Tammy rubbed her arm sympathetically. She knew how much this meant to her friend, and she was so pleased for her that she was getting to spend some time with her father before he passed.

“And I believe you have news…” Lexi raised her eyebrows and Tammy blushed immediately.

“Well…” she trailed off.

“I can’t believe you’re digging one of the bikers!” Lexi slapped her hands together ecstatically. “I never, not in a million years, thought that you would end up getting mixed up with those type of guys… Not that I can talk!” She burst out laughing and smiled.

“I know, it’s crazy,” Tammy admitted. “I never thought I would, either… But there’s something about him, he’s just so different.”

Lexi’s eyes fell to the floor, and she looked uncomfortable for a moment. Tammy picked up on it instantly and grabbed hold of her hand.

“What are people not telling me?” she asked seriously.

Lexi looked up at her again and went to open her mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“Lexi,” she shook her slightly. “What happened to him? Why do I get the feeling that something terrible has happened, and I’m being kept in the dark?”

Lexi sighed and rubbed her temples.

“I don’t really know how to tell you this,” she said heavily. “I mean, if it was anyone else, I don’t know, I think maybe they could handle it, but I’m not so sure about you…” She trailed off and looked into the distance.

“Lexi,” Tammy said angrily, “you can’t keep something important from me… I have a right to know, if I’m getting involved with him. I’m already in way too deep!” She got to her feet and stood in front of Lexi confrontationally, like if she wasn’t going to tell her, she was ready to throw her out.

“He told me about his past…” Tammy tested the waters. “About the foster homes…and about how The Forsaken Riders are the only real family he’s ever had…”

Lexi pulled her knees up to her chest and sighed.

“Yes,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, that’s right.”

Lexi was still not telling her something, and Tammy knew she was going to have to force it out of her.

“Listen Lexi, you’re like a sister to me. So why the fuck this is taking you so long to spill is really lost on me…” She crossed her arms over her chest and breathed in deeply.

“He just got out of jail, Tam!” Lexi spat the words as if she couldn’t bear to say them, and they were so venomous and harsh, they felt like a punch in the chest.

Tammy shook her head and rubbed her eyes.

“Jail?” she asked with disbelief. “What for?”

“For murder, Tammy… Lynx has been inside for over ten years, and he just got out.”

The whole bottom of her world seemed to drop out in that instant, and she gripped to the side of the couch for support.

“You must have it wrong,” Tammy said as she sat back down next to her friend and put her head in her hands. “How could he have done something so terrible?”

Lexi shook her head and bit her bottom lip.

“King doesn’t think he did…” she trailed off. “He wasn’t part of the riders back then, but apparently he’s protecting someone.”

Tammy’s head was spinning… If what Lexi was saying was true, Lynx had just spent over ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“This is too much to take in,” she said and she realized she was shaking.

“He’s not a bad guy, Tam,” Lexi said sadly. “And I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want to ruin this for you…”

Tammy could feel the tears coming, and she covered her eyes and started to sob.

“How could I even consider taking this any further?” she cried. “I’ve never even left Slate Springs, I have zero life experience… How could I shack up with a convicted murderer?”

“He didn’t do it,” Lexi grabbed hold of her hand. “But it’s going to follow him around for life, and I thought you should know. Okay?”

Tammy got to her feet and pointed towards the door.

“I need to be alone for a while,” she said. “I’m not mad, I just really need to get my head around all of this…”

“I’m sorry,” Lexi said as she tried to wrap her arms around her, but Tammy shrugged them off. “I really am. But I couldn’t not tell you. You only would have found out anyway.”

“It’s fine,” she said as she marched to the door and opened it up wide. “I made you tell me. I just need some time to think, okay?”

Lexi nodded and made her way out into the hallway. “Whatever is going on with you two… You know if it’s worth sticking with or not. I know it’s a lot to take in, but I honestly don’t think he’s a bad guy. I just think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Lexi turned on her heel and clipped down the hallway. Tammy closed the door behind her and slid down the wall. She was shaking with nerves and disappointment. When she met Lynx, she honestly thought there was something different about him. Their connection had been so intense, and she had even thought he was The One. She could see herself having kids with him and walking down the aisle towards him. She would have given up anything to be with him, but now, barely forty-eight hours into their relationship and he had already made her feel like a fool twice.

She looked across at her cell phone lying pointlessly on the table. After rushing over to it, she dialed Lexi and held it to her ear.

“Lexi,” she said when she picked up. “I need you to ask King for Lynx’s number…”

“Are you sure?” Lexi asked.

“Yes,” Tammy said defiantly. “More than anything I’ve ever been sure of in my life.”


The time it took for Lexi to respond with Lynx’s number seemed like the longest stretch of time Tammy had ever endured. In the meantime she jumped in the shower and scrubbed her skin raw. Even though she still smelled of him, she no longer knew if she wanted to.

She had to see him.

She had to speak to him.

She had to know…

When her phone finally beeped and the number flashed up on her screen from Lexi, she copied it directly into her contacts and pressed dial. She held the phone to her ear and waited impatiently for him to answer, but to her dismay it went to voicemail. She didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, but she took a chance. As the line went cold with a beep, she took a deep breath and left him a message.

“Lynx, it’s Tammy… I’m sorry for calling you so early, but I have to speak to you. Please can you call me as soon as you get this…?”

She hung up and wiped her eyes. She couldn’t give him any idea what she was about to ask him, or he’d be able to lie to her. He could prepare his story.

She lay back down on the couch and closed her eyes. Even though she had only been awake for around two hours, she felt exhausted and emotionally drained and fell easily asleep.

***

Waking to the beeping of a horn and the growl of an engine, she opened her eyes. She was still on the couch, lying on her back and baking in the midday sun. She sat up quickly and jumped to look out of the window. For a moment when she saw him there, sitting astride his bike in his sexy leathers and wearing his gorgeous smile, she almost forgot why she had called him there. But it came flooding back within seconds, and her heart sank.

He seemed to sense that something was wrong and his smile fell too. Lynx climbed from the bike and walked quickly to the front door of her building. Her hands were shaking as she unlocked the door and went out into the hallway. She waited for him there, and she could hear him running up the steps two at a time. When he got to the top, he was breathless, and she swallowed down the tears, willing herself not to get emotional.

“Babe…?” he said cautiously. “What’s the matter?”

Tammy walked back inside her apartment and let him follow. All of the fight inside of her seemed to drain the second she heard his voice. Could it all be a lie? What if Lexi didn’t want her to be happy?

She sat down on the couch, and Lynx entered slowly. He looked around at her little home and smiled at a photograph of her as a child with her mother that stood proudly in a frame on her bookcase.

“Cute,” he said as he picked it up and ran his finger along the frame.

“Did you kill someone?” she said it before she had a chance to change her mind.

Lynx calmly put the photograph back down on the shelf and turned to look at her with hurt in his eyes.

“I was going to tell you…” he began.

Tammy jumped back to her feet and held up her hands. “This is crazy,” she said, backing away from him. “I can’t believe I just welcomed you in here!”

He sighed and shook his head. “Will you please let me finish?” He was calm and he sat down on the arm of a chair and stared at her.

Tammy stood in front of him, unsure of what to do next. Her instincts were telling her that she had nothing to fear, but he obviously knew what she was talking about…and he wasn’t denying it.

“Tam.” He looked at her with tear rimmed eyes. “I wanted so badly to tell you why you’ve never seen me around here before. But I didn’t want to scare you away.”

“So you just lied?” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“I just wasn’t very generous with the truth,” he sighed. “I did go to prison, but I didn’t kill anyone. And you’re probably the only person I’ve ever admitted that to in my entire life.”

She shook her head with disbelief and shrugged.

“Well, Lexi seems to think you’re innocent, too… So if you’ve never told anyone you didn’t do it, why the hell would she think that?”

He rubbed his eyes and breathed out deeply.

“King has always suspected I was covering for someone… But I could never tell anyone at the club. It’s not right for the other person to pay for a mistake that’s already been absolved.”

Tammy could tell he was being honest, but it still didn’t change the fact that he had spent the past ten years of his life in prison. He was a criminal, even if he was innocent… He must have been mixed up in something pretty horrific to be accused of murder.

“I don’t know what to say,” Tammy said as she sat down and tears began to roll down her face. “I want to trust you… But this is so hard for me.”

Lynx rushed to her side and wrapped his arms around her.

“You have to believe me, I’m not a murderer. I’m what you’ve seen, okay?”

“But the way you were with me the night we met… And now this…? I just don’t know who you are.” She wiped her eyes, and even though she couldn’t bear to be near him, she knew she couldn’t stand to be apart from him, either.

She was addicted to him.

He had pulled her in, and his big, rough hands had a hold on her heart.

He tilted her chin up so her eyes locked with his and the deep blue swirl of his soul worked her over and made her feel calm and like she was falling into a trance.

“The second I saw you, I knew I had to have you,” he whispered. “I’ve never been so attracted to a girl before… I’ve never wanted a woman like I want you, and I’ve never felt so fiercely protective and ready to fight for anyone… Do you understand?”

Tammy felt a shiver roll over her entire body. Just hearing him say those things, knowing that he felt exactly the same way she did, was more than she could’ve ever hoped for.

“I didn’t do it.” He kissed her lightly on the lips. “But I had to go away and protect the person who did.”

He ran his hand through her hair and kissed her again. She was so confused, but at the same time, everything seemed so clear. She knew in her heart that he was being genuine. She had known it from the second they met, and that had allowed her to open up to him like she never had with anyone before.

He pushed her back onto the couch and climbed on top of her. Clinging to him, she wrapped her legs around him. The heavy scent of last night’s liquor, stale cigarettes, and gasoline clung to him and it drove her wild.

“I don’t ever want to lose you,” he whispered as he kissed her ear and down her neck. “When I met you, I knew you were the one…”

Tammy pulled his face up to meet hers and looked at him dead in the eye. His features were so open and honest, and the fact that she had only been thinking the same thing a few hours before proved to her that this was meant to be.

She had to believe him.

She had to give this a shot.

“I trust you,” she whispered and he kissed her again.

He lifted her up from the couch, and with her legs wrapped around his waist, he carried her into the bedroom. He lay her down and she watched him as he pulled off his jacket and vest up over his head. His chest was richly tanned and perfectly chiseled. She had never seen a man so godly before—his entire physique was like something she had only seen in her dreams. He moved forward and climbed on top of her. His chains and jewelry jangled against her and she ran her long fingernails up his back. His tattoos were black and aggressive, and it wasn’t until he sat back and turned his head slightly as he took off some of his chains that she caught sight of the magnificent piece of artwork adorning his entire back.

She gasped and sat forward, holding onto his shoulders and turning his back towards the sunlight.

“Wow,” she breathed. “This is….”

“A lynx,” he said with a smile.

She ran her fingertips over the most wonderful portrait of a wild cat that she had ever seen. Its teeth were bared and its eyes were bright and wide. It looked full of life and vitality, but it was also dangerous and ready to attack.

“I love it,” she beamed. “It’s amazing.”

“Not as amazing as you,” he said as held her neck and traced kisses down to the tops of her breasts.

She lay back and let him remove her clothes, piece by piece, and when she was beneath him fully naked she opened her legs wide and let him see how wet and ready for him she was.

He grunted at the sight of her pussy and pulled at his belt, ripping it off and jerking down his trousers so his thick, engorged cock sprang free. Tammy whimpered. She was in awe of him, and as he towered above her holding his dick in his hands, she knew he was going to fuck her so hard with it. She almost unraveled right there before he even touched her.

He climbed on top of her and she wrapped her legs around him. Rolling with her, he pulled her on top of him and held onto her hips.

Tammy gasped. She was so nervous to have him inside of her, but she also couldn’t wait to feel him in his entirety. He pulled her forward as he pushed the tip of his cock to the opening of her sex and held her there in place. He looked up at her, deep into her eyes, and as she held her breath, he pulled her down onto him, spearing her and filling her up so she felt split in half.

The heat spread through her and she cried with pleasure as she rode him and grinded herself up and down. Lynx grunted and moaned as he held onto her at the waist, but it was only a matter of time before the alpha male in him took over and he had to be in control.

He flipped her onto her back, and as he held onto her neck he pushed himself deep inside of her, burying himself in her folds as he fucked her hard and slow.

Tammy had never experienced anything like it. He was such a man, such a powerful, animalistic man who was full of aggression and lust that it was turning her on even more with each thrust.

She could barely hang on any longer, and as she unraveled beneath him and her orgasm tore through her, Lynx’s thighs tensed and he grunted into her neck as he exploded inside of her. She felt his hot and powerful seed fill her pussy, and her tight muscles gripped onto his shaft as he pumped and emptied himself into her.

He collapsed down next to her and pulled her close to him. Both of their hearts were hammering in their chests, and Tammy could barely hear anything over the rush of blood that was thumping through her whole body.

“That was incredible,” Lynx panted as he kissed her forehead.

Tammy nuzzled into him and breathed him in. In that moment, she realized that she didn’t care what anyone else was saying about him, or even if he had murdered someone ten years ago. All she knew was that she had fallen for him harder and faster than she had ever thought possible.


As the day turned into night and they lay together exploring each other’s bodies, Tammy knew she had found her soul mate. Everything about Lynx fit with her perfectly, and there was nothing she didn’t want to tell him.

She told him of how she longed for a family, and he agreed with her. He explained how he had always felt the same and couldn’t wait to have one of his own. He opened up about his past and his childhood, confiding in her about how he had been treated badly, abused by his guardians, and eventually fled when he was fifteen and found himself in Slate Springs without a penny to his name and not a clue of how to look after himself.

“What happened?” Tammy asked him with eager eyes.

“I met one of The Forsaken Riders,” he smiled as he ran his fingertips through her hair. “They took me in, put a roof over my head, gave me a job… They saved my life.”

Tammy had no idea how it must have felt to be so alone in the world. Even though she missed her mother dearly every day, she had always had the love and support of her father and Dean.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” she whispered before she gave him a single kiss on his chest.

“I’m not anymore,” he said. “If it hadn’t of happened, I never would have wound up here with you.”

Even though he was right, she still couldn’t help but feel like a lot of his life had been either traumatic or wasted being locked up in jail.

“Who were you protecting, Lynx?” Tammy blurted the words out before she even knew she was going to say them.

He sat up and rested his forearms on the tips of his knees.

“I can’t tell you that, Tam,” he said gently as he turned to look at her.

She felt herself stiffen and she knew that if he ever wanted her to believe a word that came out of his mouth ever again, then he didn’t have the option… He was going to have to tell her.

“All you’ve been saying since the moment we met is that I have to trust you,” she said as she pulled herself up. “Now don’t you think it’s about time you trusted me?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment before he took hold of her hand.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked.

Tammy searched his face for an answer, but she would never be able to guess. She shook her head and he dropped his.

“It was Reid, babe…” he said with a sigh. “I was protecting the only man who ever really took care of me.”

Tammy felt the blood rush into her head, and she felt dizzy. Reid, Lexi’s dad, had murdered someone and Lynx had protected him and done the time.

“But why?” she asked with confusion.

“Reid was the one who took me in when I found myself here at fifteen,” he shrugged. “He’d already been away and done time, and he wasn’t well…” He stopped for a moment and Tammy could see the tears welling up behind his eyes.

“It was my fault he did it in the first place. I botched up a job, we got caught. It was either Reid shot the guy whose shop we were turning over, or we were all going down.”

Tammy shivered.

“I couldn’t let him go back inside,” Lynx said. “It would have finished the old boy off…”

“But he’s sick now?” she said, her confusion mounting.

“The cancer came back,” he nodded. “I’m glad he didn’t spend the last years of his life rotting away in some jail when it was my fault he would have been there in the first place.”

He sniffed and then smiled.

“So now you know everything,” he concluded. “But you can never tell Lexi…or King, for that matter. The code of The Forsaken Riders is one that can never be broken, and King wasn’t around when all of this went down. Okay?”

She nodded and reached out to stroke his arm once more.

For a man who had lived on the wrong side of the tracks since he was a kid, Lynx was wise and full of integrity. When he confessed his darkest secret to her, she knew why she loved him… He was just like her underneath it all. Under all of the muscles, the piercings and tattoos, and the scent of booze and smoke, he was a kind-hearted man, and he had won her over with his honesty.

She looked up at him, and he pulled her close to him. She knew her life was never going to be the same again. She had met the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with. He was going to be the father of her children, and she was never going to be looked at the same in Slate Springs ever again. Less than a week before, Tammy had barely even laid eyes on any of the Forsaken Riders, but now she and Lexi were in deep, and they were beginning the lives they had always dreamed of in their own unique ways.

She was no longer going to be sweet, innocent good girl Tammy. She was going to be Lynx’s woman, a wild cat just like him. And she was going to make sure that they fought for each other, their family, and their right to their love over and above anything else...

THE END

Read on for a preview of book 3 in the series, STEEL


ARLO

Samantha Leal

Copyright ©2016 by Samantha Leal. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


1.

Poppy felt like high-fiving her boss as she walked out of work on that miserable Thursday afternoon, but it wouldn’t have been on his hand… It would have been right in his face. She tried not to scowl at him as she brushed past and made for the exit, but her feelings were too strong to hide. He was everything she hated about men, and yet, she was stuck with him day in and day out with no way of escape. He was arrogant and rude, and completely inappropriate when it came to flirting with her outrageously, and yet, she felt as if she had to grin and bear it just to stop herself from becoming the target of even more cringe-worthy advances.

She had worked at the store for six months, and although it had originally been as a stop gap, she was starting to fear that maybe working the cash register at a convenience store was going to become her destiny. Nothing else had presented itself to her in the time that she had worked there, and she still found herself in the same position at home. She was working the same shift every day and living with her crazy family. She couldn’t help but wonder when life was going to pick up and she could really start to live, instead of just existing.

As she made her way to the car, she felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders and as she sank down into the driver’s seat, she breathed a sigh of relief. She had survived another week, and now, she was officially on vacation.

She started the engine, put the car in drive and reversed out of her parking spot. She rolled down the windows and cranked up the music, and even though she knew that he could possibly still see her and that it would no doubt get her fired, she lifted her hand up out of the window and flipped her boss the bird as she sped out of the parking lot.

Poppy tapped her hands on the wheel as she made her way through town and thought about the week ahead. It had been a long time since she had been on vacation, and she couldn’t wait to get away for a few days and just unwind. Even if she was going with her family, she was sure that there would be moments when she could take herself away from all of their drama and spend some time by herself. She deserved it, after all.

She turned a corner and she could see her family home up ahead. Most days, when she approached, she was just glad to be out of work, but today was different… She had left there under a cloud that morning and she was dreading facing her mother. She thought back to the argument that had taken place in the kitchen, back when Poppy was still weary with sleep and her mother had thought it was the opportune moment to drag to the surface all of Poppy’s insecurities and fears. She knew, more than anyone, that she was nearly twenty-five and didn’t have a solid career, a place of her own, or a man… But she didn’t want to be reminded of it, and especially by her mom.

“You need to shape up, Poppy,” she had said. “And fast, because you’re not getting any younger… It’s about time you were finding yourself a man, settling down and really thinking about what you want to do with your life…”

It had made Poppy want to cry. The words were like venom and they had hurt. But she was a strong girl, and even though it had cut her deeply, she was determined that she wouldn’t dwell on the opinions of others.

As she pulled up into the driveway and looked up at the house, she could see her family inside, they were all buzzing around and preparing themselves for the week ahead. Her younger brother was jumping around the kitchen and even though he was sixteen, Poppy still saw him as a little kid. She smiled. Even though he could be a nightmare at times, he was still more fun to be around than her tricky parents.

She slammed the car door behind her and walked up to the house. The sound of their voices all drifted out to meet her and she had to suck in a lungful of air as she prepared herself to enter. Her mother’s words still echoed in her mind, and even though she had decided that she would try to forget, it was proving more difficult than she had thought.

“Poppy,” her father said with a wry drawl as she opened the door and stepped inside. “How was your day?”

She had been expecting a scowl or a look of disapproval, but he seemed happy for once, and so did her mom. They all flitted around the island in the center of the kitchen whilst her mother prepared dinner, and her younger brother James kicked his soccer ball up from the floor and onto his knees.

Poppy smiled back and set down her purse as she closed the back door behind her. Her mother looked up and smiled sharply from between tightly closed lips.

“Good, thanks,” Poppy replied as she walked over to the refrigerator and opened up the doors.

James kicked the ball again and the slap, slap of it hitting the floor and then his knee was the only sound in the room. There was a tension in the air, but Poppy wasn’t going to give in to it. She was free from work and her pervy boss for ten whole days, and she was going to damn well enjoy it.

“Smells good,” she beamed as she turned and smiled at her mother. “What are you cooking?”

“Pot roast,” her mom said as she raised a suspicious eyebrow. “I thought I may as well use up what was left over before we head off.”

“Great,” Poppy smiled as she slapped her hands together. “I’m starving.”

The tension began to evaporate and James stopped kicking his soccer ball and sat down at one of the high stools next to the island.

“What time are we leaving?” he asked as he reached over and grabbed a handful of chips from a bowl on the counter. “I want to get there as soon as we can so I can head out to the lake and go fishing.”

“Bright and early! Don’t you worry!” their father grinned.

Poppy felt like rolling her eyes but knew that she had to remain chipper. She smiled from ear to ear and nodded enthusiastically. Even though she was looking forward to the break, the idea of the car journey with her highly strung family was kind of terrifying.

“Are you packed?” her mom looked up at her and Poppy instantly felt herself tense.

“Not yet,” she said sheepishly. “But I will be…” She turned and grabbed a glass from one of the cupboards and ran it under the faucet. She sipped the cool water and tried to ignore the daggers shooting from her mom’s eyes. Poppy was sure that they used to be friends, but since she had returned from college and fallen into the small town trap of working for peanuts and living back at home with her parents, it was like all of her mother’s admiration for her had vanished. It killed Poppy inside, even though she would never admit it.

“We won’t wait for you if you’re late,” her mom said waspishly. “We want to enjoy our vacation, not spend it waiting on you.”

Poppy tensed and felt tears prick the corners of her eyes. She turned and headed for the door.

“Don’t worry, I won’t get in the way,” she said, instantly regretting agreeing to go away with them at all in the first place.

“Where are you going?” her mom asked. “Dinner is almost ready.”

Poppy shrugged and shook her head. “It’s okay, I’m not hungry anymore,” she said as she walked out of the room and slammed the door lightly behind her.

As she walked up the stairs, her heart was pounding and her fists were clenched tightly together. She had never been so humiliated and she couldn’t believe that it was her own mother that was making her feel so small and useless. She pushed open the door to her bedroom and closed it behind her and let out a heavy sigh. She knew it had almost been too good to be true to expect her family to be in a good mood when she had come home… But at least they wouldn’t be confined to the house for the upcoming week.

Poppy threw open her closet doors and looked inside. She had a huge selection of denim shorts, skimpy tees, and dresses, which she could pair with sneakers or sandals, but her motivation for her vacation had pretty much all disappeared.

“Come on,” she coached herself, “once we’re there, you don’t even have to see them.”

She pulled her suitcase out from the bottom of the closet, heaved it up onto the bed and opened it. She would pack fast and then she would get herself to bed. She didn’t want to wake up cranky and then have to endure the car journey feeling even more annoyed and agitated than necessary.

She folded in the clothes and breathed a sigh of relief. She would switch off and try to forget her mother’s cruel words and the feeling of dread that she had inside of her. It had been a tough few months back at home, but this weekend, she was escaping it all and heading for the mountains. She could spend the entire week lying in the sun, basking by the lakes or even heading up in the lifts to the tops of the mountains to ski, hike or take in the views. She didn’t want to admit that she would much rather be lying on a beach somewhere, sipping a cocktail and being waited on by hunky men in tight underwear, but whatever this little mountain town had to throw at her, she would have to make it work.

She closed the suitcase and pulled it down to the floor. As she flopped down on the bed, her stomach was growling with hunger and all she wanted to do was sneak downstairs and take a plate of food, but she wouldn’t give her mom the satisfaction. Instead, she wrapped her blanket around her shoulders and closed her eyes.

Only one more sleep and then she would be out of there. Whether her family were in tow or not, she was going to make sure she had the best vacation ever.


2.

The open road stretched out ahead of them and Poppy lay her head lightly against the window, dreaming of being out there and being free. She had always romanticized of what it would be like to run far, far away, but she had never had the nerve. As she sat in the back of the car with her mother, she pretended that that was exactly what she was doing. She was no longer a lost girl on a family vacation, she was a woman on the run. A woman on the hunt for her destiny. A woman who knew what she wanted.

A little smile flitted over her lips and she closed her eyes, satisfied. It was a good feeling to pretend sometimes, but she only wished that it could all be real.

“So, the GPS says we’re about an hour out,” her dad said over his shoulder. “You gals okay to keep on going or do you need a rest break?”

Poppy just wanted to get there. She didn’t want to stop and drag out the painful journey any longer than necessary, but she had the feeling her mom may have other ideas.

“I could do with stretching my legs,” her mom said as she cricked her neck. “So, yes, let’s pull over when you can.”

Poppy rolled her eyes underneath her sunglasses and stifled a yawn. Up in front, James turned on the radio and some classic rock drifted through to the backseat. Their father tapped the wheel and hummed along to the tune.

Poppy spied the sign for the rest area before anyone else and debated not saying anything, but she knew it was pointless.

“Ahh, here we go,” her dad smiled over his shoulder as he slapped on the indicator and started to pull to the side of the highway and off onto a dusty road.

They pulled into the parking lot and Poppy looked around. There was a small gas station attached to a convenience store and an old looking block of restrooms out back near some woodland. She scrunched up her nose and tried to decide whether she should just sit tight and wait for them to return, but her legs were stiff and her mind was buzzing and she had to get out of there. She leaned over and opened up the car door, and as she stepped out into the afternoon sun, she stretched her arms high above her head and reached for the sky.

She hadn’t looked at the time when they had left home earlier that morning, but she could tell that they had already passed lunch time without a stop or pause in their driving. Poppy’s dad was like a man on a mission. He wanted to get his family to their destination, and then they could think about other things such as eating or taking a break. She was surprised that he had even suggested that they pull over in the first place.

“Right,” her mom said as she walked around the side of the car. “I’m going to the little girls’ room…” She giggled like a child and then hurried off toward the patch of woodland and the block of toilets that looked old and abandoned.

I’m not going in there , Poppy thought. She could almost feel the tickle of the cobwebs that were no doubt covering the ceiling and walls in there, and she shuddered. She was surprised her mother was being so relaxed about heading in there herself, considering how high maintenance she usually acted.

“God, just get me to our cabin,” James sighed as he leaned back against the car door next to Poppy. “I can’t take much more of being stuck with these two…” He yawned and scratched the back of his neck.

“Well, at least I’m not alone there,” Poppy laughed.

They watched as their dad talked to the gas station attendant and then walked slowly back to the car and started to fill it up.

“I wish I hadn’t said I would come,” Poppy whispered.

James looked almost offended and then half laughed.

“Well, at least it’s only a week,” he said. “Free holiday… You know what they say…” he raised his eyebrows. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Poppy rolled her eyes again and she had the distinct feeling that she was going to be doing that a lot on this particular trip. Even though James was young, he was a total smart ass, and she could tell that he was going to spend as much time as possible trying to get a rise out of her. She ignored him and sighed.

Her dad was still humming the tune that had been playing on the radio and her mother was nowhere to be seen. She looked across at James who looked half asleep behind his shades and she reached down into the backseat and pulled out her purse.

“Back in a minute,” she said to no one in particular as she turned her back on the car and began to walk over to the convenience store. She was going to need to be prepared to get through the next week with the three of them, and she hadn’t thought anything through, but as she stood there in the rest area, she knew what she needed more than anything.

Booze.

She pushed the door to the store open and tried not to let the man behind the counter realize that she could feel his eyes all over her as she made her way up and down the aisles. She prayed for a miracle, that somewhere inside of that dusty little store, there would be a few bottles of wine, or at least a miniature bottle of vodka, but she was completely out of luck.

“Fuck,” she hissed as she turned on her heel and made her way back to the front of the store.

Instead, she found herself at the magazine rack and pulled down a dusty and very old copy of Cosmo. It was two years old and she could tell that this wasn’t the kind of place that would restock regularly, but if she didn’t have alcohol to help her through the rest of the car journey, then out of date beauty tips and celebrity gossip was going to have to do.

She put the magazine down on the counter and smiled sheepishly at the man who was serving her. He looked only half awake, but his red-rimmed eyes were fixed directly on her and it made the hairs on her neck stand a little on end. She looked down at the floor self-consciously and willed him to hurry up, but he took his time looking on the front and then back for the bar code, and when he scanned it and it didn’t go through, he spent another few moments looking for a price tag. Poppy tapped her feet and bit her bottom lip. Each moment she was spending in there was making her more and more uncomfortable, and so when she heard the bell on the door ting behind her, she almost didn’t notice, and she certainly hadn’t seen the big black truck pull up in the parking lot.

She sighed again and rubbed her temples. Behind her, a set of heavy footsteps were approaching and she tensed when she realized that it wasn’t James or her dad, as her eyes gazed on them still standing outside by the car, watching as her mom walked slowly back across the dusty track from the woodland toward them.

She heard the big heave of breath behind her, and she could smell something sweet and intoxicating. The man behind the counter sighed and dropped the magazine back down on the side and then made to move out from behind to go over to the rack when Poppy eventually had the nerve to turn around and face who was behind her.

The heavy footsteps and the hot scent of cologne were still hanging prominently in the air, and as she turned her head slowly, she felt almost pulled and compelled to be close, even though she had no idea who or what she was up against.

As her eyes fell onto the man waiting in line behind her, her heart almost stopped beating. She looked up at him nervously, all six foot five of him and his broad, wide set shoulders. He was muscular and tanned, his arms bulged out of the sleeves of his tight t-shirt and she could see the harsh black of tattoos snaking their way down his neck. She swallowed as she took him all in and she almost didn’t dare let her eyes follow all the way up to his face…

His neck was thick and scattered with dark stubble, and when she looked over his square and prominent jaw, her heart started to flutter. She had never seen anyone so attractive in her entire life. When their eyes met, she felt something inside of her click into place, but she instantly looked down at the floor. She couldn’t bear it… He was too handsome, too powerful looking, too perfect. His eyes were a deep brown and they wanted to pull her in, she could feel it. She was breathing quickly and her arms were trembling. She dug her nails into her palms to try and snap herself out of it, but she could feel his eyes on her. He was staring right at her and he was smirking.

She looked up to him again and as their eyes met, she felt something flash over her, something animalistic and so very carnal she knew that she was going to be able to ignore it. His eyes glistened and all she could hear was her own heart beating. He was unusual. She couldn’t figure out why, but there was something about him that was raw and powerful. Something almost wild.

“Okay,” the guy behind the counter interrupted as he stepped back behind the register. “That’s six dollars.”

Poppy struggled with her purse as she pulled out her cash and she could feel the fluster spreading out all over her, she just hoped she wasn’t burning red. The man behind her shifted on the spot and she took a deep breath as she readied herself to turn around after the boy had given her the change.

When she did and she saw him in front of her again, there was no denying the pull between them. This stranger was tall, dark, and devilishly handsome, and even though they hadn’t said a word to each other, suddenly, Poppy felt full of hope.

Maybe the mountains will have something to offer me after all , she thought to herself as she walked back to the door at the front of the store and pushed it open. The bell tinged above her head and the huge, hulk of a man turned and smiled at her again. As her eyes locked in on his she felt a shiver roll over her and she was sure that a low, gruff growl escaped from his lips, almost as if he just couldn’t hold it in.

She felt her cheeks flush crimson, but she brushed her hair behind her ear and smiled back bravely. It had been a long time since she had found herself attracted to a man, but this was definitely a step in the right direction.

As the door closed behind her, she felt her whole body sag. She had no idea if she had just made a fool of herself, or whether she was finally coming back out of her shell, but whoever he was, he had helped her on her way and for that, she was smiling from ear to ear.

She climbed back into the car and looked out as he strolled across the parking lot and back to his big black truck. He was so big and brutish, he could easily have been an animal. But she liked it. Her dad started the engine and as they pulled away, Poppy couldn’t help but sink down into the seat and start her daydreams all over again.

I just hope all of the men out here are like him , she thought with a smile. If that’s the case, then I’m going to have one hell of a week.

“Come on then,” her dad called into the back. “Last push now, we’ll be there within the hour.”

Great , Poppy thought. And for the first time all day, she actually meant it.


3.

Lost Creek was a small, picturesque mountain and lake town full of charm, and as their car passed the sign to welcome them, Poppy couldn’t help but smile. It had been a long time since she had gotten away from the hustle of city and suburban life, and being out there in the virtual wilderness was starting to appeal more and more.

The sign loomed up in front of them, ‘Welcome to Lost Creek’ and she looked at how, amongst the woodland depicted on it, there were wolves and bears nestled deep within the trees.

“Do you think there’ll be a lot of bears out here?” she asked, feeling uneasy.

“Well, it is the mountains,” her dad laughed. “I’m sure there’s at least one or two.”

Poppy swallowed nervously. She had never been overly confident when it came to big, wild animals and for some reason, bears had always frightened her in some way. She thought of how she had longed to wander off on her own, and now the image of her being mauled out in the woods flashed across her already anxiety-ridden mind.

For God’s sake , she told herself internally, stop being such a drama queen . She rolled out her shoulders and pulled her sunglasses up from over her eyes so that she could take in the view.

The small town was absolutely beautiful and it almost took her breath away. It was so quaint and pretty, it was almost like a Swiss village from a storybook. She looked at all of the buildings that lined Main Street, all made out of big logs and timber, the evergreen trees that were on every corner, and the delightful uniqueness of each little store, bar, and hotel that were like nothing she had ever seen before. It was a feel good place, somewhere that instantly appealed to her soul, and she wrapped her arms around herself and felt comfort deep inside.

“Isn’t this lovely,” her mom said as she peered out onto the streets too. “I can’t believe we’ve never visited before.”

And she was right. The fact that they had only driven around four hours to get there, it did seem as if it should be the kind of place that they could have been visiting since they were kids.

“Oh well,” her dad said, “better late than never, ay?” He laughed and slapped the steering wheel.

He made a left and continued off and away from Main Street and further up into the mountains. James read the map in the front and clicked his teeth together as their father turned down the stereo as if that would somehow help them find their cabin more easily.

“I think it’s just up on the right over this ridge,” James said as he scratched behind his ear.

Their dad slowed and began to turn off the main road, and sure enough, there, right in front of them was a small log cabin village slightly set back. All of the cabins were unique and different, but all were positioned so that they had a stunning vantage point that looked down the mountain and down into the town.

“Wow,” Poppy said. “These are fantastic!”

As their dad snaked the car around and pulled up outside number three, everyone’s eyes were fixed firmly on what would become their home for the next week.

It was a three story log cabin spread out over an incline, with a big decked veranda that ran along the entire outside of the property. It was big, with floor to ceiling glass windows and a modern feel to it even though it had been built to represent something from another time entirely.

“I wonder who designed these things,” Poppy said as she slipped off her seat belt and stepped out into the crisp air.

They hadn’t traveled far up into the mountain, but the air already seemed so much cleaner and fresher. She breathed in deeply and let it fill her lungs and when she exhaled, she felt better already.

“Well, I believe our suite is on the top floor,” her mom said. “So you two can fight it out over the other bedrooms.”

James and Poppy looked at each other and she felt that familiar pang of sibling rivalry. She could feel herself twitching, ready to run, but there was also a part of her that knew that she was too old to be dragged into a petty squabble over who would have the bigger room.

“Look,” she said with a shrug, “I don’t mind… You go ahead and take whichever one you like best.”

She felt all eyes on her again, for what could easily have been the hundredth time that day, and she held up her hands.

“What?” she asked. “I honestly don’t mind, let James pick.”

And then she turned her back on them and walked out over to the fence that kept cars and people from accidentally falling off the side of the mountain and looked out over the town.

It was almost two p.m. and she could feel that it was alive down there. She wondered what sort of places there would be to hang out on an evening, and she bit her bottom lip as she thought back to the man at the gas station, the mountain man who had relit a fire inside of her that she had thought was long gone.

“Pops,” James called from somewhere behind her. “These rooms are insane, you need to get in here and check them out!”

She turned and looked up to her brother who was hanging out one of the massive windows and waving his arms like a child and she waved back and nodded.

“I’ll be right there,” she said as she started her walk back up to the cabin.

When she pushed the door open and entered for the first time, she was in awe. She looked up at the high vaulted ceilings, the rich, warm wooden beams and the cozy rugs and blankets that were draped across the floors and furniture. It was like stepping into some kind of winter wonderland, even though it was summer and the air was warm and crisp. The kitchen opened out off the main living space and a balcony ran around the edge of the top of the room. She could certainly get used to living like this. She felt more than at home there, and as she stepped out onto the long, wooden veranda and saw the view properly for the first time, her breath was almost taken away.

“This is incredible,” she whispered to herself as she looked out across Lost Creek. Her spine was tingling and she knew, in that instant, that she was going to really enjoy herself there. It felt like nowhere else on earth, and she sensed that there was a certain kind of magic flowing through it. She couldn’t explain how or why, but it was reaching out and grabbing her, pulling her in and making her want to stay forever.

“Wanna see your room?” James was leaning in the doorway behind her and broke her train of thought.

Poppy nodded and followed him inside and although she had been expecting her kid brother to be his usual jackass self and leave her with the shitty room on the back of the house with a single bed, he had actually done the decent thing and given her the biggest room, with a plush looking king size bed and a marble lined en-suite.

“Wow,” she smiled, “I’m impressed. Didn’t fancy this one yourself?”

“Nah,” he shrugged. “I know what you women are like, I’m sure you’ll get more use out of it.”

He turned and walked back across the hall and Poppy closed the door behind her. The room was like a palace compared to the room she was currently living in at her parent’s house, and she instantly felt as if a weight had been lifted.

I really did need this , she thought. I was beginning to suffocate back there.

She walked over to the tall windows and looked out at the stunning view yet again. She knew she should really unpack, but the town was beckoning and she didn’t want to wait a moment more. She turned and made her way out of her bedroom and into the main body of the house.

“Want your suitcase?” her dad called to her as she approached the front door.

“I’m going to unpack later,” she said as she swept her long blonde hair up into a ponytail and picked up her purse. “I’m going to head down into town for a look around.”

Before she gave him or her mother a chance to question where or why she was leaving so soon, she skipped out the front door and let it close lightly behind her.

The fresh mountain air hit her again and she breathed in the delicious scent of pine. She had never been one for the outdoors, she was always the kind of girl who preferred shopping and being pampered to roughing it and going on expeditions. But now that she was amongst the wilderness, a new found urge to explore was over-taking her. She looked up high into the mountains and she could see snow capping the tops. It was hard to believe that with it being so warm and sunny where she was that high above her it was a different story.

“Magic,” she grinned as she stepped out of the little village of log cabins and made her way back down the main road. As she walked along, the sounds of the town were increasing and she felt her anticipation grow along with them. As they had driven through, her eyes had flashed from one side of the road to the other, and she had found it nearly impossible to take anything in properly. Now she was out there and on her own, and all she wanted to do was have a real good look around and find somewhere that she could unwind for an hour or so, get something to eat and forget that she maybe wasn’t as happy as she would like to be in her real life.

The town was bustling as she walked along Main Street, and each little store and restaurant caught her eye. The town was full of locals, but she could also see that there were plenty of tourists. It was obviously a popular spot for skiers, fishermen, and walkers; there was so much to do, it was a hive of activity and she almost didn’t know where she wanted to go first.

She stood and looked around and waited for something to jump out at her, and sure enough, before long, a little diner on the other side of the street suddenly seemed to come to life. It was built out of timber like the rest of the buildings, but it had an old red neon sign on the front that was buzzing brightly and had a real vintage charm to it. She looked up and read the word Arlo’s and she instantly knew that it was going to be the kind of local place that would be welcoming and warm. She crossed the road and headed straight for the door, and as she pushed it open, she knew that she wasn’t going to be disappointed.

The lights were low inside, and the bar, tables, and booths were all crafted out of a deep, dark wood. It felt warm and cozy in there, and as she stepped in and the door closed lightly behind her, she didn’t feel at all self-conscious. It was relatively busy for the time of day, and she moved into the main body of the restaurant and crossed over to the tall bar counter where several truckers sat on high stools, reading newspapers and eating big, thick sandwiches.

A waitress with long black curly hair and a tiny waist came out from the kitchen in a red and white checked dress and a white apron. She twirled her hair up high into a straggly bun and pinned it with a pen before she looked up, smiled a big wide smile in Poppy’s direction and made her way over to serve her.

“Welcome to Arlo’s,” she grinned. “Are you eating with us today?”

Poppy’s stomach growled and she nodded enthusiastically. “Yes please,” she said.

“Just you?” the waitress asked.

Poppy nodded and then the waitress turned and presented the bar and the only high stool left that was empty in front of it.

“Sure,” Poppy said, “that’s great.”

She climbed up onto it and watched as the waitress moved around the back of the counter and picked up a menu. She slid it across the bar to her and when Poppy picked it up, she felt a stickiness to it that made her wince.

“Oh shoot,” the waitress laughed as she looked at her own hands. “Looks like Arlo’s signature hot sauce has been spilled again.” She shook her head and swiped the menu away before passing Poppy a clean one, complete with a hot, moist towel.

She rubbed her hands clean and then looked up at the waitress who was watching her with intrigue.

“Is this your first day in town?” she asked, and Poppy nodded shyly.

“Yes,” she said, “I only arrived around an hour ago.”

“Vacation?” the waitress grinned.

“Yes,” Poppy nodded, “with my family.”

“You don’t sound too enthusiastic?” the waitress laughed.

“Well, you know how it is…crazy parents…annoying little brother…not enough of my own space.”

The waitress nodded and sighed, “Yep, I know it all too well...” and then she turned and served another one of the truckers down at the end of the bar.

Poppy noticed that her name tag said that she was called Willow and she knew that she would remember it because she had never heard it before. What a beautiful name , she thought. And it suits her too…

The waitress was lean and her hair was so soft and bouncy, she really was willowy. Poppy looked away, aware that she was staring and going into a daze, but it wasn’t long before the waitress was back in front of her with a notepad in her hand.

“So, what can I get you?” she asked with her pencil poised.

Poppy’s eyes flickered behind the bar, and even though she knew that she really should be eating something, her stress levels were still peaking and all she wanted to do was unwind and relax. She was on vacation, after all.

“I’ll take a bottle of dry white wine and whatever you recommend from the snacks,” she said with a sigh.

Willow the waitress winked at her and smiled. “A girl after my own heart,” she laughed as she leaned behind the bar and opened the door to one of the low refrigerators. She pulled out a crisp and cold bottle of wine and set it down on top of the bar.

“That looks perfect,” Poppy grinned.

Poppy sat and picked at the nachos in front of her whilst she slugged back her Sauvignon Blanc. She had been in the bar for around an hour and even though she was nowhere near tipsy, the wine had relaxed her enough for the tension to leave her entire body and she felt warm inside. Willow had kept checking in with her over the time she had been sitting there, and Poppy was glad that she had chosen to come into Arlo’s because she felt as if she had instantly made a friend.

Willow was kind and sweet, and she seemed to know all there was to know about Lost Creek.

“You need to check out The Nowhere Bar on an evening, especially Friday,” Willow had said. “It’s where everyone our age hangs out. Sometimes they have bands playing, sometimes it’s just full of people having fun, but you get quite a few tourists in there so it’s always good for meeting new people too.”

“Sounds great,” Poppy smiled as she took another sip of wine. “I’m all for meeting new people and having fun.”

And she really meant it. Since she had moved back home after college and got stuck in this horrible rut, she had felt herself becoming more and more withdrawn. All she wanted was to feel like herself again. To feel alive and as if she were really living. She had felt sedated for so long and now she was more than ready to snap herself wide awake.

“Where else is there that’s fun?” Poppy asked.

Willow thought on it for a moment and then she half smiled and shrugged. “I mean, I guess it depends what you’re into, but there’s something for everyone. If you like skiing, get yourself up the mountain, if you like relaxing, then the lake will be for you. There’s some great hikes out in the forests and then around here, on Main Street, there are tons of restaurants and bars. You’ll see, though, that one end is kinda different from the othe ” She was cut off by a trucker hollering down the bar to her and she excused herself and moved off to serve him.

One end is different from the other? Poppy thought. What does she mean?

But before she even had time to think about it for a second more, she heard the door slamming open behind her and a heavy set of footsteps enter. The sound was familiar, and so was the scent of cologne that came with it. Poppy’s heart started to thump in her chest and she realized that she was suddenly hot and bothered.

Could it be ? she thought before she built up the nerve to turn around.

But when she did, she could barely keep the grin from her face. Her heart danced hard in her chest and she felt her cheeks blush red all over again. Standing right there behind her was the big hulk of a man from the gas station. And he had noticed her all right, too, and he was coming right her way.


4.

Poppy turned back to face the bar and she was so nervous that all she could hear and focus on was the blood pumping through her and thumping in her ears. She could sense him moving closer, and it wasn’t long before he sidled up next to her at the bar and his huge frame seemed to block out the light that was shining in behind him. She breathed deeply, willing herself to turn and look at him, but too nervous to follow it through. He seemed taller than she remembered as she tried to focus on him out of the corner of her eye, and he smelled so good she had to bite her bottom lip.

He leaned over the bar and waved at Willow. She smiled back with a grin that went from ear to ear and Poppy’s heart instantly sank. There was too much familiarity there for him to just be a customer or someone passing through, and she wanted to kick herself for being so foolish, for lusting after a stranger and building up hope when she had only laid eyes on him once.

She dug her nails into her palms and picked up her wine glass. As she threw her head back and sipped quickly, she instantly felt a warm wave of calm roll over her. But she could still feel his eyes on her. He was taking her in, every last inch of her.

“Trucks out back with the new AC unit,” he said gruffly. “Not that we’ll need it if every day’s like today…”

Willow walked over and pressed her hands down on the counter top and Poppy had to resist every pull that was screaming inside of her to turn and look at them both head on. She continued to look down at the ground and sip her wine slowly, her eyes flitting every so often to the very corners to try and catch a glimpse of him again.

“Thanks, Boss,” Willow said. “Maybe Jimmy can come by and set it up next week.” She wiped her hands on an old dishcloth and threw it down behind the bar.

Boss

The word reverberated around Poppy’s mind and she felt herself sighing with relief as the tension left her body. Willow knew him because she worked for him… Now this was getting interesting.

Poppy still resisted the urge to turn and smile, but she could feel the man’s eyes on her and now Willow’s too.

“Something caught your eye, Arlo?” Willow said teasingly, and finally Poppy had to give in and turn her eyes up to meet them.

He was stood with his arm against the rough wood of the counter top and he was leaning casually and effortlessly. He looked so cool and at ease, it was as if he knew the place inside out, and with what Willow had just alluded to, it made perfect sense why.

Arlo … He wasn’t just the manager, the diner was his.

Poppy smiled sheepishly and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. After being so confident when she had seen him in the gas station earlier that day, she suddenly felt exposed, on show, and desperately self-conscious.

“I saw you before,” he said with his deep, smooth voice.

And Poppy nodded and bit her bottom lip.

“Oh, you two have met?” Willow chipped in as she leaned in between them with a big smile on her face. “Well, that’s cute! This here is Poppy, she’s in Lost Creek on vacation and just arrived today.”

“Poppy…” he smiled and whispered her name.

As the words left his lips, they sent shivers down her spine and she had to look down to compose herself.

“This is Arlo,” Willow said, “and as you can probably guess by the name of this joint, he is the man in charge.”

He shrugged and scratched behind his ear.

“Yes, that’s me…large and in charge,” he joked and Willow let out a loud, hearty laugh.

Poppy giggled and brushed her hair behind her other ear nervously. She suddenly had the overwhelming urge to fidget, and she didn’t know what to do with her hands. To compensate, she reached for her wine glass again and took another sip.

Arlo’s eyes were heavy and on her. His whole presence was strong and intense and it shook her to the bone. In almost perfect timing, the trucker on the other side of him paid up and got to his feet before tilting his cap, and as he walked away, Arlo reached out and grabbed the high stool he had been sitting on, and pulled it down beneath him. He sat there and nodded to behind the counter.

“I could do with a beer,” he said. “It’s been a long day so far.”

Willow smiled and reached down into one of the refrigerators and when she passed him back the bottle, Poppy watched with half awe and half complete lust as he ripped the top from it with his teeth. He licked his lips and took a long, drawn out swig and then rested the bottle back down between his hands.

Willow moved away and began to serve a new set of customers and Poppy felt as if she and he were the only two people in the room. Everything else around them seemed to evaporate, the noise and movement around them blurred into obscurity.

“So you’re here with your family?” he asked her as he looked down at her with those deep, brown eyes.

“Yes, my parents and my kid brother,” Poppy said with a nod. “I agreed to come just for the break, but as soon as I got into the car with them, I realized it was likely a mistake…”

He laughed, “Does that explain the daytime drinking?”

Poppy smiled and nodded. “It sure does,” she said. “I just had to get out of there for a bit, and I guess it’s always good to get an idea of where you are.”

“I’m the same,” he agreed. “Whenever I travel, the first thing I do is get a lay of the land.”

Poppy had never thought of it like that before, but she knew exactly what he meant. It was good to scope out new surroundings and to know as much as possible. Knowledge was always power.

“And how long are you in town for?” he asked as he took another drink.

“Just for a week,” she said. “I’m sure I could do with a longer break, but when it comes down to it, I’ll probably be more than ready to get away from the family by then.”

Arlo laughed and looked at her warmly.

“I’m sure they’re not all that bad,” he said.

“Hmm,” Poppy smiled thoughtfully. “I guess not, they just have their moments.”

He nodded and looked behind him as the door opened and let in a bright stream of light from outside. In the doorway stood three big shadows and Arlo smiled and nodded in their direction. Poppy squinted as she tried to see their faces, but they were silhouetted and all she could make out was that they all looked big and burly just like him. They were so similar, in fact, it was as if they could be brothers.

Arlo looked back to Poppy, downed the last of his beer and then rose to his feet.

“It was great to meet you, Poppy,” he smiled as he touched her hand lightly. “I hope I see you in here again later…” His fingers were lingering on top of her hand and his touch was electric. His skin against hers felt like it was on fire and she swallowed hard to stop herself from shaking and stammering over her words. This moment of first touch felt different to anything she had ever know. Her eyes met his again and she felt something strong forge between them. Something binding and something very real.

When she couldn’t think of anything to say, because she was so taken aback, he smiled at her again and winked.

“I’ll be back in here all evening, call in if you can…” He trailed his fingertips away and turned to walk toward the three big men who had now moved into the bar area of the diner and were all in deep conversation. Poppy looked down again and breathed out deeply, her heart was racing and even though there was no reason for her to feel nervous, she felt as if she were walking along a cliff edge.

There was something about him that was unnerving, even though she could tell deep down he was nothing but good. There was a danger to him, an edge that was mysterious and wild, but she couldn’t place it. Around the edge of her consciousness, the words feral and predatory played around… but in a good way. In a very good way indeed. She chewed the inside of her mouth as she watched him shake hands with the other men who seemed so like him, and then they all turned and walked to a door at the very back of the room, almost hidden behind the bar, and disappeared out of sight.

Poppy picked up her glass and drank the remainder of her wine and then she waved toward Willow. She smiled back at her and made her way over and leaned across with her arms on the counter.

“You want another or are you done?” she asked warmly.

“I think I’m done, for now, anyway,” Poppy trailed off.

“Want me to cork it for you?” Willow asked as she picked up the bottle and held it up between them.

Poppy shook her head. She didn’t want to go back to the cabin with a half empty bottle of wine. She had the feeling her parents would be pissed enough as it was seeing as she had pretty much ditched them the second they had got to town. “No thanks,” she sighed. “But what time do you guys close?”

Willow grinned and shrugged, “Whenever we feel like it really. Depends how the crowd is, what else is happening in town… If Arlo fancies locking in and letting his friends have a private party…” She wiggled her eyebrows mischievously and Poppy smiled, she liked the sound of that.

“Well, I’ll come back later,” she said as she got to her feet. “I like it in here…”

“And he likes you…” Willow said.

Poppy stopped in her tracks and turned back around. Willow’s eyes were bright and glinting underneath the low lights, they seemed full of mischief and games.

“You think?” Poppy asked.

“I know …” Willow confirmed.

Poppy was speechless for a moment. She had no idea if this girl was anything more to Arlo than a treasured employee, but she didn’t want to risk saying anything that may dampen her chances, she knew how bitchy girls could be.

“Well, I’ll see you later,” Poppy smiled, trying to brush off what had just been said between them. “So lovely to meet you, Willow.”

Willow smiled back and waved.

“And you,” she nodded. “Hope to see you later!”

Poppy nodded and headed for the door. As she pushed it open and stepped out into the daylight, she shielded her eyes and blinked. She hadn’t realized how dark it had been in there, but now that she was back out in the open and she could see the town in all of its glory again, she realized what an idyllic place it must be to live. She felt on edge and unnerved by Willow’s assured attitude, but Poppy had to remind herself that she wasn’t at college anymore, and not all girls wanted to stab you in the back.

“Some people are just genuinely nice,” she whispered to herself as she started to walk back down Main Street and head toward the road that took her up to her cabin. “And it’s about time you stopped being so wary of every single person you come into contact with.”

It was a habit that was going to be hard to break, but she knew, for her own sanity, she was going to have to give it all she had.

She walked back to the cabin feeling slightly merrier than she had been when she had left earlier in the day, but a heavy tiredness was also creeping through her and pulling her down. She reached into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. It was almost six p.m. and she could hear some of the cabins all around the mountain livening up. Music drifted out across the woodland, along with the sounds of cheers and laughter.

Poppy couldn’t help but think of the big, comfortable bed waiting for her back at her own cabin, but she didn’t want to climb into bed and miss a potentially rocking night at Arlo’s. The man himself had said that he hoped he would see her again, and she knew that she would never forgive herself if she didn’t go along and see what Main Street was like at night.

She rounded a corner and she could see her cabin ahead. Her mom and dad were out on the veranda, sat at a table and uncorking a bottle of wine of their own. She could also see James right at the other end of the deck, past the hot tub, lying on a sun lounger with his headphones on, tapping his feet along to the beat. They all looked relaxed and calm, without a care in the world, and it made Poppy feel even better.

Maybe this vacation is all we need to get along again , she thought as she waved up to them and then approached the main door and pushed it open. Maybe we’ll bond and go back home with a clean slate… And although she didn’t quite believe it, she couldn’t help but hope.

“How was town?” James asked as Poppy stepped out onto the veranda, pulling off his headphones.

“Good,” she beamed. “It’s such a gorgeous little place. Really picturesque and by the looks of things, lots to do.”

“Where did you go?” her dad asked from the other end of the deck.

“Just a little place called Arlo’s… It was half diner and half bar… Quite cool, really.”

“Sounds… charming…” her mom said waspishly.

Poppy fought back the urge to roll her eyes.

“Well, whilst you were off gallivanting we’ve all eaten and unpacked,” her mother continued. “So whenever you’re ready to move your mess… Your case is still in the hallway.” She didn’t look up to Poppy, she kept her eyes fixed on the magazine that she was reading and with a pang of annoyance, Poppy realized it was the copy of Cosmo that she had bought back at the gas station.

She wanted to stay and fight, she wanted to snatch the magazine right out of her cold, rigid hands, but she wouldn’t. She would rise above it and would never be the reason that a big family feud broke out on their first day in Lost Creek.

“Well, I’ll get sorted now then,” Poppy said instead, her voice sickly sweet. And then she turned on her heel and stormed back into the house. She grabbed her suitcase from the middle of the living room and started to drag it behind her.

She walked along the long wooden hallways and listened to her heels clicking along the pine. She was raging with anger, but she was determined not to rise to the bait. She and her mother hadn’t always been this way, Poppy could still remember a time when they had gotten along and it made her sad to rake over the memories. So much had changed, and she didn’t even know why.

When she got to her room at the end of the corridor, she pushed open the door and closed it behind her. She heaved the case inside and up onto the bed and unzipped it. As it pinged open and she looked at all of her clothes inside, she knew that it would take her a while to organize everything but that it would be worth it. She thought back to Arlo, and to his big, brown eyes, his broad shoulders, his stubbly chin and the way he was so tall and muscular, it was almost as if he were a giant. Back at home, she never saw men like him and was surprised at how fast her attraction had grown for him. He was all she could think about and already, the features of his face were slipping away, so much so that she was desperate to see him again.

She pulled all of her clothes out of the case and dashed over to the closet. As she hung them up, she eyed each and every piece she had with her and mentally tried to put together outfits for the entire week ahead, for each and every occasion. When it came to that evening, she was going to have to pick wisely. She wanted to look drop dead gorgeous, and yet, like she had made little to no effort. She chewed the inside of her cheek with nerves and raked the hangers back and looked at a long black skirt that she had with her. She hadn’t thought that when she had come to the mountains that she would need something like that, but maybe it would come in handy after all. With a black crop top and a crocheted cardigan, she was bound to look incredibly boho and free-spirited and nothing at all like the mountain girls that wandered around Lost Creek. And if there was anything Poppy knew, it was that she needed to stand out and be different if she wanted to reel in her man.

Lost Creek was a small town, and although she was still battling to get back her confidence, Poppy knew that Arlo had seen something in her that he liked, and that she could win him if she wanted him.

She held the outfit up against her again and smiled in the mirror. She could do this, she knew she could… It was time for her to shine.


5.

The sun had set whilst Poppy sat out on the veranda on the side of the hot tub, with her feet dangling in the warm water. She looked out at all of the twinkling lights of Lost Creek and smiled. It really was a lovely little town, and its warm buzz was pulling her back down and into its folds.

The noise from revelers down on Main Street drifted up the mountain to meet her and she tried to subdue the butterflies that were ferociously fluttering inside of her belly.

Come on Poppy , she coached herself, you’ve got nothing to be nervous of…

Behind her, she heard the sound of her mother storming down the hallway, calling for her father and for James to hurry and get ready for dinner. It was late for them to be leaving and going out to find a restaurant, but Poppy didn’t mind. She had no intention of joining them anyway.

She rose to her feet and felt the long skirt swish down around her ankles. She ran her hand through her hair to fluff it up slightly and took a deep breath. Now that she was up and moving, she didn’t feel so apprehensive anymore. She looked through the tall windows and at her mother stood beyond them and their glare in the kitchen. The way the lights were so bright in there meant that it was probably impossible for her to see Poppy, and yet, it gave Poppy herself a rare moment of observing the woman who had brought her into the world, without all of the snarls and aggression that had been spewing from her as of late. She looked almost innocent in there on her own, but with a strange pull that was as if she had some kind of sixth sense, her eyes suddenly rose and fixed on Poppy. Whether her mother could see her or not, she knew that she was there, and the cold, hardness returned to her eyes and it made Poppy shiver. Whatever had happened to her mom, there was no love for her there anymore. And although it made Poppy desperately sad, she was determined that it wasn’t going to affect her confidence anymore.

Just being away from home, in a new environment was already having a positive effect, and she was feeling much brighter and enthusiastic for the future. Without telling her mom, brother, or dad where she was going, she turned on her heel and walked off and out into the night.

Main Street was heaving when she reached the end and started on her slow walk down toward the diner. All of the lights twinkled and made the town look even more like a winter wonderland fairy tale, and it reminded Poppy of something she had once seen in a Disney film. For all that it was a brisk night, she felt warm inside and the slight chill in the air didn’t bother her in the slightest. She walked with her arms swinging free and a confidence that she hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

When she reached the middle of Main Street and saw the warm, red glow of the neon sign of Arlo’s, she felt the butterflies reawaken inside her belly. She bit her lip and suppressed a grin as she approached and stood outside the door.

Men and women were hanging around on the stoop, some were smoking and all of them were drinking. From their accents, and what she had heard from both Willow and Arlo, they sounded local. But there was also a smattering of people walking around the streets and some outside the diner that were definitely from elsewhere, no doubt in town on vacation just like her. She made her way through them slowly and smiled shyly. As she reached the door and pushed it open, a blast of music hit her straight away and she could see a band playing in one of the corners and people jumping up and dancing around them.

Poppy looked toward the bar and was relieved to see Willow was still behind it. The crowd was busy and she was in the middle of a ton of people all barking orders at her for both food and drinks.

Poppy walked around slowly and cautiously, almost every booth was taken in the place, and a lot of the tables that were around on the floor were also full. But she didn’t want to sit there anyway, Poppy only had one spot on her mind and it was where she had been earlier that day. She thought back to how Arlo’s presence had hit her the second he had walked inside, and something within her knew that, at that precise moment, he wasn’t there. It was as if she could sense him the minute he was near.

She made her way to the bar and was lucky enough to jump onto one of the high stools. Men and women were all clambering around her, shouting drinks orders and waving menus, and although it was crazy and hectic, Willow didn’t flinch. She kept her cool and just moved from customer to customer, serving them one at a time.

As Poppy sat on the stool, she pulled her cardigan close around her out of nerves, but she quickly felt her skin prickle with heat and she knew that she was going to have to remove it. Her tiny waist was visible between the band of the skirt and the bottom of the crop top, but she didn’t mind. She felt sexy for the first time in years and now she was amongst other young people, she was keen to stand out.

Willow looked up and caught her eye just as she slipped the cardigan off her shoulders and she smiled and did a wolf whistle. Poppy laughed and shrugged.

“Looking good!” Willow called to her. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Poppy smiled and nodded back and then, as if the earth had moved and an alarm was sounding, something around her just suddenly changed.

He’s here , she thought, as her heart started to pound.

The hairs on the back of her neck seemed to tingle and although she couldn’t see him, she could sense his eyes on her. She wanted to turn and look for him, to search for him within the crowd, but she knew that she had to play it cool… He had to come for her. She didn’t know how she could tell, but he was hunting her.

Willow bounced over to Poppy and leaned across the counter.

“Evening girl,” she smiled. “So, what can I get you?”

Poppy thought back to earlier in the day, of how intoxicating the wine had been and of how it had relaxed her and made her feel human again. Even though she felt a million times better than she had when she had walked into Arlo’s then, she still wanted the same kick.

“What I had before please,” she laughed.

“Fantastic!” Willow beamed. “So, you couldn’t stay away, huh?” she asked as she reached down and behind her to one of the refrigerators and pulled out a cold bottle of Sauvignon.

“I certainly couldn’t,” Poppy joked. “I couldn’t wait to come back actually…” She trailed off and she could feel Willow’s gaze right on her.

“I think I may have an inkling why,” she winked.

Poppy felt her cheeks flush crimson again and she brushed her hair behind her ears. She didn’t know where he was hiding in there, but she knew he was watching her. She could feel him. His presence was so powerful it was overwhelming.

Willow placed the bottle down in front of her with the cork removed and passed her a clean glass. She poured some for her, right to the top and Poppy lifted it and nodded her head before she sipped.

Behind her, she could sense that someone was approaching through the crowd, and she couldn’t help but smile. A rough hand landed on her shoulder and when she turned to the side to look up and her eyes landed on him again, it was as if she had returned home. There was something about Arlo that was so addictive and unusual, and yet, it was as if he was the person she was supposed to be spending time with. There was a draw to him that she just couldn’t explain.

“So you came back,” he breathed as he slid in next to her. His hot skin touched hers and she felt sparks fly between them. She could barely keep the grin from her face, but she wanted to remain calm… To act cool… To be the strong woman that was hidden deep inside of her, trying desperately to break free.

“Of course,” she said as she lifted her glass and took another long, drawn out sip. “I’m a girl of my word.”

Arlo smiled and Poppy noticed that his arm was resting on the back of the stool she was sitting on.

She looked around and motioned to the crowd. “Is it always this busy in here on an evening?”

He nodded and moved closer.

“Most of the time, yes,” he said, “But tonight, I think we’re extra packed because a lot of the weekend people are starting to arrive.”

“Like me?” she teased with a grin.

“I thought you were here for the week?” he winked. And Poppy laughed.

“Hey, Boss,” Willow called from behind the counter. “What can I get you?”

He pointed down into one of the refrigerators and Willow gave a knowing nod. She reached down and pulled out a large, silver tankard with a big grizzly bear for a handle and ran it underneath one of the beer taps.

“What’s that?” Poppy said with wide eyes.

“Oh, its Arlo’s king cup…” Willow said mischievously.

“King cup?” Poppy asked.

“Sometimes, when I take the night off, I like to act the big shot,” he said with a wry smile. “King Arlo of Lost Creek needs the gear to back it up.”

Poppy just laughed and shook her head.

“You two are crazy,” she said.

Willow passed him the tankard and he held it out in front of him and waited for Poppy to raise her glass too. She followed his lead and the tips of their glasses touched.

“To new friends,” Arlo said as he clinked his tankard against the rim of her wine glass. “I have a feeling you’re going to like it here Poppy.”

She blushed as they looked into each other’s eyes. And when she sipped her drink, they didn’t break eye contact. His were so deep and consuming, it was as if she could fall into them and never pull her way out.

When the moment passed and a silence filled the air between them, Poppy set her glass down and turned her body so that their knees were almost touching.

“So, I thought you were supposed to be working tonight?” she asked.

“Well, I was,” he said. “Until you walked in.” He smiled.

“What do you mean?”

“I decided I’d rather take it off and get to know you a little better.” He brushed his fingertips against her elbow and Poppy felt a fire raging inside of her. “It’s not every day someone as beautiful and innocent as you walks into a place like this,” he whispered.

Poppy’s heart hammered in her chest and she had the overwhelming urge to wrap her arms around his neck and pull his face to hers, but she had to resist. She couldn’t just lay it all out there for him on the day that they had met. She wanted to make him work for it. She wanted him to crave her so much he couldn’t stand it. So much that it would drive him mad and she would be all he could think about.

“Well, thank you,” she smiled shyly. “And it’s not every day I travel to a strange little mountain town and meet a man as intriguing as you.”

A wicked smile flashed across his lips and he moved in even closer.

“Come on,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here, I want to show you something.”


6.

They held hands and walked quickly down Main Street. Poppy was still clutching her bottle of wine and Arlo looked down at her and laughed. His skin was red hot to the touch as if he was part magic, and his hands were huge. As he gripped her hand and their fingers locked together, she couldn’t help but marvel at how big and brutish he was next to her. She was so tiny compared to him, his arms were so wide and thick and his muscles looked so swollen and tight they could burst. She felt herself getting hot and flustered. The sexy scent of his cologne was still heavy in the air around him and it was twisting at her, lighting up all of her senses and pulling her in even more. He was sparking her intrigue and keeping her interest with each passing second and it was becoming addictive.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked breathlessly as she tried to keep up with his big, wide strides.

“To the good end of town,” he said as he looked down at her with a grin and kept pulling her forward.

She couldn’t help but laugh, but she had no idea what he was talking about. Surely where he had his business must be the good end of town? Why would he want to drag her away from there and to somewhere else, no doubt giving another bar their custom?

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who would rather patronize another bar to their own,” Poppy joked. “You sure you don’t own this entire town?”

He looked down at her and smiled wryly and then he laughed and kept on walking.

As they approached a small intersection, Arlo suddenly stopped and seemed to tense. Poppy didn’t realize for a moment that he was looking down the adjoining road, his lip curled, and a wicked look of disgust flashing over his entire being. In an instant, his demeanor changed.

“What’s the matter?” she asked when she realized and her gaze followed his.

He was glaring down at what looked to be a dark and blackened out bar. One that could have almost been a nightclub if it wasn’t so out of place in such a small, quaint town. It was bare on the outside, and it sat amongst the little wooden buildings around it like a vile cancer. Bleeding out its blackness onto the street and walls around it. Standing on the corner outside were a group of men, all dangerous looking, smoking cigarettes and wearing dark clothes. Arlo was staring at them with hate in his eyes, and it wasn’t long before one of them noticed him. Poppy stood there on the corner and turned to glare at him with the rest of the group.

“Who are they?” Poppy whispered nervously. But Arlo didn’t reply. He was breathing in and out heavily, his whole frame heaving, and his fists gripping her hand tight. A growl seemed to vibrate from between his teeth and with alarm Poppy looked up at him with wide eyes.

Did he just growl…? She thought with confusion.

“Come on,” he snarled as he started to stride away from them, and off further up Main Street. “I don’t want to have to worry about them tonight.”

Poppy looked up at him and could sense how angry and wound up he was. The men, whoever they were, had rattled him and brought a bubbling rage to the surface.

As they walked on, something had changed in him and he was no longer the man that she had met and decided to leave the diner with. She stopped in her tracks and looked up at him.

“Come on,” he said gruffly. But Poppy shook her head, he was unnerving her with his unpredictability. It was almost as if he were a wild animal that could attack her at any moment.

“Maybe this was a mistake,” she said sternly. “I mean, it’s not like me to just run off with some guy I’ve just met…and I don’t know… You don’t seem too happy all of a sudden, maybe I should just leave you to it.”

His shoulders sagged and he looked annoyed, but not with her, with himself.

“I’m sorry,” he said genuinely. “It’s just, they caught me off guard… Which is stupid, because it’s not like I don’t know their place is there.” He took a step closer and brushed a strand of hair behind Poppy’s ear. “Listen, I’ll fill you in as soon as we get where I want to show you, I promise.” His eyes were so warm, she felt as if she really could trust him, but all of her senses were telling her to run…that she was in danger.

“But… I…” she stammered.

“I know you feel it too…” he said as his hand cupped her cheek. “I felt it the second I saw you in the gas station. I felt it earlier today when I found you sat in my bar. And I feel it right now.”

Her whole body felt on fire and she couldn’t tear herself away. Every word he was saying was true, even though it felt completely crazy. But he was so right, there was something between them that was bigger than anything she had ever felt before. Something instantaneous and so powerful it was impossible to ignore or walk away from. She looked into his eyes and searched for any sign of deceit, but there was nothing but openness and honesty, and she knew that she had to let herself be vulnerable. She had to explore it and have faith. She was an adult and she knew her own mind, and this, in the very moment, was what she wanted more than anything.

“Okay,” she whispered. “Show me.”

Arlo smiled and gripped her hand tightly before he turned and continued to walk along the road.

Main Street was much longer than Poppy had anticipated, and as they carried on forward, she realized how the vibe of the place seemed to change the further they moved away from where they had originally started out at Arlo’s.

He looked down at her as if he was trying to gauge her reaction, but she didn’t look up to meet him. The street seemed warmer down where they were walking now, as if that was in any way possible. The whole atmosphere of the street was more vibrant, the buildings seemed to pop with color and the people who walked around all seemed happier and were grinning from ear to ear.

“Have we stepped into another place?” she asked with a laugh.

“I’m glad you noticed,” Arlo said. “Not quite, but I will explain.”

As they carried on walking, Poppy was absolutely fascinated with the life going on around her. All of the shops were still open, selling brightly colored ski wear and steaming cups of hot chocolate and marshmallows.

Arlo wrapped a protective arm around her and waved to everyone they passed with ease and familiarity.

“We’re further up the mountain,” he said. “You won’t have realized when we were walking that we were on an incline.”

Poppy turned and looked behind her and she could see that the road did indeed dip down and they were much higher than the rest of the town.

“Jeez, how did I not notice that,” she laughed. But then she remembered how out of breath she had been.

It was as if the darkened bar with the group of sketchy looking men had been a cutoff point. As if the intersection had almost divided the town in two, and the side they were on now was higher, friendlier and warmer. But when she had been down on Main Street earlier, she had already felt as if that part of town was much nicer than anywhere she had been before. So now, it was as if this new part of town was heaven. It was like being in a fantasy land and even though the cold prickled her skin, she didn’t mind. It was like magic.

Arlo led her toward an older looking tavern and he waved to the big, burly man with a red beard who was guarding the door. He smiled warmly and opened it up for them and as they stepped inside, the sweet scent of ale hit all of Poppy’s senses.

“Wow,” she laughed, “what is this place?”

Everything inside was merry, the lights were low, men and women were drunk on booze and happiness, music blared out from a jukebox in the corner and the chubby, red-cheeked girls behind the bar climbed up and danced along the countertops. They slapped their thighs and swung around each other, laughing with glee, and Poppy couldn’t help but grin and clap her hands.

“You like it?” Arlo asked as he looked down at her.

“God yes!” Poppy laughed and Arlo pulled her closer to him and breathed in every inch of her.

She felt so warm and protected in his arms, and she felt privileged to be shown this secret side of such a wonderful town. It was as if she was being given a backstage pass to a show she should have never seen.

“Come on,” he said, “Let’s sit down.”

He pulled her toward an empty table in the corner and Poppy slid onto the long banquette seat. Arlo turned and looked to the bar and held up his hand; within an instant, a small, rosy-cheeked blonde girl came skipping over with a wide smile on her face.

“Hey, Arlo,” she beamed. “And friend?” She nodded her head down to Poppy with a genuine warmness.

“Hi there,” Poppy smiled.

“What can I get you guys?” the girl held out her hands and presented the bar behind her.

“I’ll take one of Lost Creek’s finest,” Arlo smiled. “And I think Poppy here should try one too.” He raised his eyebrows mischievously.

The waitress clapped her hands together and turned on her heel and Poppy looked around again at all of the people in the bar. They all looked so friendly and kind, so welcoming and warm.

“This is a lovely place,” she said.

“With us being further up the mountain here, we get a lot of skiers on their way home,” he said. “It’s one of the livelier places to go in town.”

“I would never have guessed that this place was even here… That Main Street extended this far,” she said. “It’s so different to down near Arlo’s.”

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “It sure is.”

Poppy noticed a sadness come over him and she wanted to probe but didn’t want to overstep any boundaries.

“Hey Boss!” Another one of the waitresses called over and Poppy realized it was to Arlo. He waved back to her and smiled.

“Boss here too?” Poppy laughed. “So you do own this entire town, huh?”

Arlo laughed and looked shy for the first time since she had met him. “Maybe not the whole town,” he said coyly. “But certainly a good chunk of it.”

He was so aloof and mysterious. When she had seen him in the gas station and initially been attracted to him, she had just assumed that he was a trucker making his way across the country.

“So this bar is yours too?” she asked.

Arlo nodded. “My family was some of the original settlers here in Lost Creek,” he said. “A lot of the buildings along Main Street and a lot of the land is ours.” He said it almost with embarrassment.

“So you must know every girl in town then,” Poppy said cheekily to gauge his reaction.

“I do,” he laughed. “And trust me, none of them have ever caught my eye or sparked my interest like you have today…” He trailed off and he was looking deeply into her eyes again.

Every time their eyes met, it felt as if a part of her soul was being broken away and given to him. And it was as if she was collecting pieces of him too. Each passing second brought more familiarity and her attraction was growing.

“Here you go,” the waitress interrupted their moment and placed two heavy tankards down on the wooden table in front of them. “Two of Lost Creeks finest!”

“Thanks, Jo,” Arlo said as she turned and walked away.

“Lost Creeks finest?” Poppy asked as she picked up the tankard of sweet smelling beer.

“It sure is,” Arlo smiled. “Brewed right here by my family themselves.”

Poppy was taken aback, yet again. He was a man of many secrets and surprises. And she couldn’t wait to find out what he had in store for her next.


7.

As they walked arm in arm back down Main Street, Poppy was warm inside and she tottered along on her drunken feet. Arlo was protective over her, and he kept her close, making sure that she was steady and that he helped her back down the mountain toward the middle of Main Street.

“You never did tell me who they were,” Poppy said as they approached the intersection.

The bar that they had passed earlier with the group of men outside still looked dark and moody, but there was thumping music drifting out into the night from inside and two tall men wearing sunglasses flanked the doorway.

Arlo snarled again in their direction but carried on walking. He pulled Poppy with him and when they were far enough away, he leaned in closer to her ear.

“Lost Creek is a town of two halves,” he said quietly. “My friends and I run one part of town and the guys who we saw earlier… The one’s outside that bar…they run the other.” His voice was full of venom as he said it. So much so that it made Poppy nervous.

“And I take it there is some rivalry?” she asked cautiously.

“More than just a bit,” he said. “It goes back a long, long way… They’re no good.”

Poppy turned and looked back to the intersection. They had walked past the bar to get to what she could only assume was Arlo’s part of town, but the diner which was in his name was clearly at the other end, and therefore, on the other group’s turf.

“But your diner?” she asked with confusion. “If it’s down here, does that mean that it’s in their part of town?”

Arlo looked down at her and smiled.

“You’re smart,” he said. “Yes, it is. My family owned a lot of property down here at one time, and then they all came in and took it over slowly and now they’re trying to turf me out.” He shook his head. “But they won’t win. I’ve owned Arlo’s pretty much since I was born and my dad named it after me. There’s no way I’m going to let them push me away.”

“But…doesn’t it feel uncomfortable?” she asked.

“Sure does,” he laughed. “But I can handle it. I’m not afraid of them.”

“And what’s the deal with Willow?” Poppy asked. She had wanted to ask all evening, but she was only just now getting the courage.

“Willow’s worked for me for years,” he said. “She’s a good member of my team, but sometimes, I do wonder where her loyalties lie.”

Poppy felt an uneasy feeling creep over her. She didn’t like the thought of there being someone in Arlo’s midst who could potentially screw him over.

“Do you trust her?” she asked.

Arlo paused for a moment and thought on it. “Yes, I trust her,” he said finally. “But I’m a firm believer of always being prepared.”

Poppy smiled and squeezed his hand.

They reached the outside of the diner, which was still alive with music and people drinking inside.

“Well, thank you for a lovely evening,” she smiled.

“You don’t think I’d let you walk back on your own, do you?” Arlo asked with a cheeky grin.

“Well, I didn’t want to assume…” she winked.

He wrapped his arm around her and they began their walk back up into the next mountain range. The twinkling lights slowly started to become smaller behind them and they felt like the only two people in the world.

“There are bears out here in this forest,” Arlo said as he looked up at the night sky. “And wolves…”

Poppy shuddered at the thought. Even though she had never been afraid of either animal, the idea of them being around her and stalking her through the night was terrifying.

“There’s no need to be afraid,” he assured her. “But I just want to make sure you get back to your cabin safely.”

“Thank you,” she smiled.

They continued walking and when she saw the familiar shape of her cabin up ahead, she pointed it out to him and he nodded his head.

“I remember these all being built,” he said. “One of the old families in town own them all.”

“I really love it here,” she said. “It must have been wonderful growing up here.”

“It certainly had its moments.”

Arlo looked at her and stopped for a moment. When she turned to face him, he wrapped his big arms around her waist and took hold of the base of her back before he pulled her closer to him. They were under the light of a billion stars shining down on them, and nothing had ever felt more perfect. Even though she had wanted to kiss him since the minute she had laid eyes on him back in the gas station, she was glad that they had waited until they were right there in that very moment.

She reached up and ran her hands across his broad shoulders and when he pressed himself against her and their lips finally met, it was as if things were always meant to have been that way. His tongue flicked against hers and his lips were soft and warm. His whole body felt on fire, she had never felt a heat like it before and she knew deep inside of her that he was different, that he was part man and maybe part something else… but she couldn’t work out what or why.

Maybe it’s just our chemistry … she thought as she ran her hands through his hair.

“I’ve had the most incredible night,” she whispered as their lips parted and she panted with a passion that was overwhelming her. “Thank you for taking me up the mountain…”

“Thank you for coming with me,” he said. “And for trusting me and your instincts.”

They kissed again and then Poppy reluctantly stepped back. She easily could have thrown away all of her cares and ripped his clothes off right then and there, but she wanted to wait. She wanted to get to know him more and she wanted it to be special. Their first kiss had been so perfect, even though they had had more than enough opportunities to lock lips before then, and she was glad it had happened that way.

“Good night, Arlo,” she smiled. And then she turned on her heel and started to walk up the steps to her cabin. She could feel his eyes on her as she made her way to the door and when she turned to wave to him good-bye, he was still standing there, waiting.

“Good night,” he said and it broke through the night.

When she closed the door behind her, she leaned against the wall and sighed. It had been one of the best nights of her life. She was completely smitten.

Poppy sat in the hot, comforting bubbles of the hot tub. Steam rose up into the air around her and the grand vista of the mountains was all laid out before her. She had spent the night having wicked dreams about a big, muscular man who was tearing at her clothes, biting her neck and nibbling her fingertips. He was so big and strong he was like an animal and it turned her on so much she had woken in a sweat, her heart pounding and her pussy moist with desire. Now that she had met Arlo, there was no way she could walk away from him. He was consuming her thoughts every moment, even when she was fast asleep.

In the cabin, the sounds of her family returning from their hikes and a day on the mountain filtered out to meet her and it wasn’t long before James opened the door onto the veranda and ducked outside.

“Hey,” he said as he threw down his backpack and made his way over to the side of the tub.

“Hey,” Poppy smiled from behind her sunglasses. “How was the hike?”

“Lame,” James said. “It’s stunning scenery out there, but I’m bored.” He leaned back onto one of the sun loungers and yawned.

“Did Mom and Dad go with you?” she asked.

James shook his head. “No,” he said. “They argued on half of the walk there and then Mom stormed off into town.”

Poppy rolled her eyes. It sounded like typical behavior from her mother.

“Do you think she’s changed?” Poppy asked.

James thought for a moment and then shrugged. “She definitely isn’t as kind as she used to be,” he said sadly.

Poppy nodded in agreement. She couldn’t help but feel that her mother was just sick of them both and was more than ready to enjoy her adult life, kid free. But Poppy was an adult, she didn’t need her parents and the sooner she could get out of their house, the better.

“Maybe I really shouldn’t have come here,” she said as she trailed off. “Maybe I should have just stayed at home.” Even as she said it, she knew that she didn’t really feel that way because of Arlo. Now that she had met him, she knew that she would be forever grateful that she had come to Lost Creek.

“Nah,” James said. “I’m glad you’re here… Keep the old bag in check.”

Poppy burst into laughter and so did James. Even though they had had their moments when they had been growing up, she could see now that he was on the brink of adulthood too. She knew that when she did finally leave and get as far away from her parents as she could, that James would be just fine. He could handle himself and he had shown a certain maturity of late that had made Poppy proud to call him her kid brother.

“Right,” she said as she stood up and reached for her towel. “I better get sorted, I’m heading out tonight.”

“They’re having dinner here,” he said. “And I met some skaters when I was down in town earlier so I may go back to Main Street and hang out.”

“Sounds good,” Poppy beamed. “We can walk down together.”

James nodded and smiled.

They walked down the mountain road and butterflies began to form in Poppy’s stomach. Even though she felt as if she knew Arlo already, it still made her giddy to think about seeing him again. James walked along with his hands in his pockets and his skateboard under his arm and when he saw the group of guys he had been chatting to earlier, he made off, throwing a casual wave over his shoulder as he went.

Poppy could see that Arlo was waiting outside the diner for her and she couldn’t help but grin. He looked so handsome leaning there against the wall, a cigarette clenched between his fingers and a wry smile on his face.

“Hey,” she said as she got closer to him.

“Hey you,” he replied as he wrapped a big arm around her tiny waist and pulled her in closely. He threw his cigarette down on the ground and stared deep into her eyes. When he kissed her, she felt weak at the knees and she ran her hands through his wiry hair.

“It’s so good to see you,” he breathed. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

“Likewise,” she smiled as she bit her bottom lip playfully. And it was true. She hadn’t been able to get him out of her mind. From the second she had woken up, she had been thinking about this moment and what it would be like to kiss him again.

“Who’s the kid?” he asked as he nodded toward the direction that James had wandered off in.

“My brother,” she said.

Arlo’s eyes thinned as he tried to focus on who he was with.

“He’s with some of younger Lost Alpha’s,” he said almost in a whisper.

“The what?” Poppy asked as she spun around to see what he was talking about.

“They’re just kids like him, but their older brothers and fathers are connected to this side of town. What I was telling you about last night…”

“Should I be worried?” she asked with panic.

Arlo paused for a moment. He watched the way the group of teens was just acting like normal. Surely they wouldn’t do anything stupid to a tourist and risk the town’s good reputation.

“No, of course not,” Arlo said with a smile. “I was just letting you know.”

“Okay,” Poppy said with confusion.

He slid his arm around her shoulder and then he began to walk with her away from the bar.

“So,” he said, “I want to take you somewhere special tonight.”

“Oh yeah?” she asked playfully. “And where would that be?”

“My house,” he said mischievously.

Poppy’s heart jumped in her chest and she brushed her hair behind her ear nervously. She wanted to go to his home more than anything, but she didn’t want to act too keen. She wanted him to fear that she would say no.

“What do you think?” he asked cautiously.

She bit the inside of her cheek and looked up at the sky.

“Hmm, let me think about that…” she teased.

He nuzzled into her neck playfully and pulled her into the street.

“That’s it,” he said with a sexy growl, “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Poppy laughed and let him drag her away jokingly, it was almost like he was pretending to be a caveman dragging his woman back to his cave.

As they walked off into the forest and they were properly alone, she couldn’t help but undress him with her eyes. Each bulge of muscle was so tight and pronounced it was driving her to distraction, and he was so perfectly sculpted and tanned.

“I don’t live far,” he whispered in her ear as they continued walking along the forest path. The scent of pine was heavy in the air and it was so fresh and clear that it heightened her senses and seemed to make everything feel more real.

As they rounded a corner and the big, split level log cabin came into view, Poppy’s breath was almost taken away again.

“Wow,” she whispered as she looked up into the trees and saw how modern and immaculate it was. It almost looked like a wooden space ship, half timber and half glass peeking out of the tall evergreen trees.

“I designed it with my friend,” he said. “He’s an architect who moved back to town after college. He’s built a lot of the properties around here, especially for my crew and me.”

“Your crew?” Poppy smirked.

Arlo looked down at her and gave a wry smile. She jabbed him in the ribs to mock him and he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her in close and ruffled her hair.

“You’re a piece of work,” he laughed. “You always have a question and a challenge. You never just let me tell you a story.” He laughed and kissed her on the top of her head.

“Well, it wouldn’t be any fun if I just listened, nodded and smiled, right?” she quipped.

“Damn right,” Arlo smiled.

He led her up to the entryway of the house and it was perfectly secluded and hidden by trees. Poppy ran her fingertips along the woodwork and when she glimpsed through the tall windows and sliding glass doors, she could see a wonderful fire burning inside.

“It must be really peaceful living out here,” she said as she looked out into the forest. “It’s perfect.”

“I do love it,” he said. “But I guess it’s like anywhere, once you’re used to it, its shine slowly goes.”

Poppy nodded. She knew that feeling all too well. Arlo took hold of her hand and led her around onto a long, stretched out wooden deck that ran along the length of the house and was raised up on stilts. It joined the kitchen and had a blazing fire pit that was already lit and a comfy garden couch and seats around it. He motioned for Poppy to sit down and when she did, he disappeared inside and returned with a bottle of champagne and two glass flutes.

“Are you trying to make a good impression?” she joked. “I think you’ve already got my attention.”

“I’ve been wanting to drink this for a while,” he laughed. “And what better excuse than to celebrate with a beautiful woman.”

Poppy felt herself blushing again. Even though she had already let her guard down with him, she still found it hard to accept a compliment when she was so used to being bashed and brought down by her mom.

“Cheers,” he said as their glasses clinked. “To another wonderful night.”

“Cheers,” she smiled.

She nuzzled up under his arm and he pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. It was such a strange feeling to be so close and comfortable with someone after spending so much of her life alone. But it felt so right, so natural.

“Why aren’t you tied down?” she asked. The words seemed to fire out of her mouth before she was even aware that she was saying them.

“I’ve just never met the right girl,” Arlo said. “I always wanted to feel something so powerful and intense that when I found it I would instantly know. And that’s never happened before… Well, it hadn’t until yesterday.” He looked at her deep in the eyes and ran one of his fingers down her cheek. Poppy was a tangle of nerves and desire, and she wanted to tell him that she felt exactly the same way, but she didn’t know how.

“It’s going to take someone very special to love and understand me,” he said almost sadly. “And having lived all my life in Lost Creek, I know that person doesn’t exist here.”

Poppy wanted to ask him why, but she was too nervous. She wanted him to continue, to open up, to tell her it all.

“I know this is crazy,” he said as his lips grazed against hers. “But the second I saw you, I knew that you were going to be mine. I was drawn to you in a heartbeat and I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind ever since.”

She pulled him close to her and kissed him again. This man was so big he could crush her with both hands, but his words were so soft and gentle and full of love that she couldn’t control herself. He was like no one she had ever met before, and she knew that she would never find anyone like him again.

“Arlo,” she whispered as she looked into his eyes. “I’m so glad I came here to Lost Creek, you have no idea.”

They sat together and looked up to the stars. Her heart was pounding and her mind was racing. Everything about their time together felt so right, but there was still something that she couldn’t put her finger on. What was it that was making him so different?

“Why aren’t you with someone?” he asked her.

Poppy thought about it for a moment, and she realized that she didn’t even know herself.

“After college, I moved home and I’ve been stuck in a rut ever since,” she finally admitted. “I just haven’t had the confidence or the drive to try and meet a man.”

“No confidence?” he asked. “But you’re stunning.”

“Thank you,” she said shyly. “I just don’t know. Maybe I’ve needed someone to pursue me like you have. For it to just feel right like this.”

“Maybe we’ve been waiting for each other,” he said as he wrapped her hair up in his big, rough hand and pulled her face close to his. He was so strong she felt weak in his arms and as he kissed her again and laid her down on the cushions of the couch, she opened her legs wide and invited him to climb on top of her. His touch was incredible, and with each gasp of breath and kiss from his lips, Poppy felt herself opening more and more to him. She wanted him, she needed him, and each time his hand found another part of her, her nipples hardened even more.

The stars above them twinkled high in the sky and as their bodies came closer together, Poppy was always melting into his arms and ready for anything. She wanted him, and as Arlo pulled his t-shirt over his head and revealed his huge, heaving muscles, Poppy couldn’t help but suck in a lung full of air. He was so much bigger than she ever could have anticipated, it was almost frightening. And as her eyes searched and explored each part of him, she saw his tattoo for the first time.

There, right in front of her, was a big, grizzly bear right over his heart. Its claws and jaws were dripping with blood and its snarl was so ferocious she could almost hear it growl. Arlo followed her eye line down to it and picked up her hand and placed it over the bear.

His skin was so hot it almost could have burned her and she realized, in that moment, that there was something very different about him indeed, something powerful and animalistic.

“What are you?” she whispered bravely, but Arlo just smiled at her wryly, lowered her hand and moved forward to kiss her again.

As his kiss hardened and his breathing became more rapid, Poppy knew that there was no way she could pull herself away. She was dripping wet with desire and her body was aching for him. She could feel the sharp poke of his cock on the inside of her leg and she was desperate to touch him. Arlo pulled roughly at the straps of her dress and ripped them down over her shoulders, exposing her perfectly pert and firm breasts. They were swelling with arousal and she held her breath as he lowered his head down and took one of her nipples roughly in his mouth. As he sucked and bit her gently, she gasped and moaned with pleasure. She hadn’t been with a man in such a long time, and he was so much more of a man than she had ever known, she was almost on the verge of unraveling before he had even gotten anywhere near her engorged sex.

He came back up to her face and cupped her chin in his hand before he kissed her hard on the mouth. His tongue searched against hers and he moved down to her neck and squeezed her gently on the throat.

“Arlo,” she panted, almost unable to take it anymore. She dug her nails into the skin of his shoulder and pulled them slowly down his back. “I need you to fuck me,” she whispered.

He flashed her a wicked smile and pulled her leg up and bent it around him and in one fluid motion, he hooked his fingers into her panties and ripped them off, tearing them in two. Her cunt was so slick and juicy as he slid his finger inside of her she moaned and threw her head back, in ecstasy. He worked her over with his hand and she bit her lips to stop herself from screaming up into the night. But when she couldn’t take it anymore she bit him lightly on the neck and begged him to put himself inside of her.

Arlo leaned back on his haunches and reached down for his belt. Poppy was squirming beneath him, panting and aching for his cock, and as he snapped his belt open and pulled down his jeans, all eleven inches of it sprang free.

“Oh my god,” she whispered as he took hold of it in his hand and moved closer to her.

He was so big, so fat and throbbing, she knew that he was going to hurt her, but she didn’t care. She had to have him.

Her pussy dripped with excitement and as he teased her with his thick, red tip, she opened her legs wider and held onto his arms.

“I hope you’re ready for me,” he grunted as he wrapped his free hand up into her hair and kept tight hold of her.

As he pushed himself fully inside of her, Poppy gasped with delight. A sharp pain shot through her but it was gone in seconds as the intense pleasure warmed her insides and started to rocket through her. No man had ever made her feel so good. The sensation was so incredible it was overtaking every inch of her and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from cumming.

She dug her nails into his back and gripped his huge frame tightly with her feet as he powered into her again and again. His breathing was frantic and his moans and growls so loud they were filling the forest around them. Poppy moaned into the night and as her release tensed up inside of her, she knew that she couldn’t keep herself back from the edge, she had to let herself fall over into a sweet ecstasy.

As she unraveled beneath him, Arlo’s thighs tensed and his thrusts became harder. Seeing her convulse because of him, and knowing that he had done that to her was too much for him to bear. As he shot his hot, thick load inside of her, he groaned and felt as if part of his soul had been taken. He collapsed on top of her with his immense weight and kissed her neck as the last spurts of his release powered out of him.

“Fuck,” he panted into her ear as he kissed her cheek. “That was far too good.”

Poppy looked up at him and tried to regain her breath. She had never been screwed so expertly in her life and no one had ever made her cum like that.

“It’s like we were meant to fit together,” he panted.

Arlo kissed her again and wrapped his huge arms around her.

And even though she was far too exhausted to reply, she knew exactly what he meant.


8.

“I don’t want you to go back to your cabin tonight,” he said as they lay in his bed several hours later.

After they had recouped from their crazy fuck under the stars, Arlo had swept her up in his arms and carried her into the house, to his room and made love to her again. Poppy was curled up into the nook of his arm, and they were both completely worn out and sticky with each other’s sweat.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she smiled.

She drifted off to sleep with the sounds of his breathing getting heavier beside her. It was so gruff and low, she was more sure now than ever that he was growling.

Poppy awoke with a start in the middle of the night. She sat bolt upright and looked around the room. It took her a moment to remember where she was, but it was with relief that she realized that she was at Arlo’s and not in some stranger’s bed. She reached out for him but found her fingertips stroking the mattress instead.

“Arlo?” she whispered as she looked around, realizing that she was alone.

The moon had come out from behind the clouds and it was casting silvery light all down the decking, shining in through the huge glass doors and into the room. She was naked but she wrapped the bed sheet around herself and shuffled over to the doorway and looked down the hall. The house was completely silent and there wasn’t any sign of him in the front room or the bathroom.

“Arlo?” she called again. But she knew that she was alone in the house; he was gone.

She made her way quickly back to the bedroom and looked out the doors again. She slid them open slowly and stepped out into the night. It was chilly out there but she still felt warmed through and she was about to turn and begin to walk back toward the couch and fire pit where they had started their evening when she heard the sound of branches snapping in the woodland behind her.

She froze and turned around slowly. Afraid of what may be lurking. She was sure that she could hear grunting and the sound of growls, and it was with horror that, when she turned and peered into the darkness behind her, she saw the outline of a big hulking beast. It was so big and covered in fur that as it slammed its way toward her, she almost fainted with fright.

“No!” she screamed as she held out her hand as if that in any way could defend her.

The bear was so big and powerful, the closer it came the more the deck bowed beneath its weight.

Poppy tried to push herself backward, to make it back to the doorway and inside, but she was so frightened it was as if she was frozen to the spot. She closed her eyes tightly and covered her ears. She knew that this was it, there was no way she could outrun or get away from it. She was doomed.

She thought of her mother and of how she knew that she would barely care… But then she thought of James and of what it would mean for him to lose his older sister. They had only really ever had each other, and now Poppy was going to go and get herself killed in the mountains by a grizzly bear. Even after Arlo had warned her of the dangers.

She peeked out from between her fingertips and the bear was still right in front of her. She could smell the hot stink of its breath and it opened its jaws wide and wailed up into the night’s sky.

Even though she couldn’t move her eyes from the beast in front of her, Poppy was aware of some movement out in the woodland behind it. She saw the flash of something darting quickly between the trees, and in an instant, the bear in front of her stopped and turned around as if it had sensed it too.

Poppy was cowering on the deck, right next to the wall of the cabin, her heart pounding and her palms sweating, when, suddenly, Arlo emerged from the forest, completely naked and full of rage.

The bear and he squared up to each other and Poppy’s mind was racing. Was any of this even real? Or was it just some crazy nightmare?

“Arlo!” she screamed, but he was completely focused on the bear. He flexed his huge arms hungrily and bared his own teeth and Poppy suddenly saw something come over him that was both arousing and terrifying.

The bear that had cornered her whimpered and lowered its head, it moved backward slightly, closer to Poppy, but with its shoulders hunched and its nose touching the ground.

Arlo snarled again and when Poppy looked back at him, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The man who she had just spent the past several hours exploring every inch of was changing before her. His demeanor was fiercer and his eyes were burning with power. She cowered as she watched him snarl and take another heaving step closer, but this time, she could tell that something incredible was about to happen.

He belted out a growl so loud it tore through the night and was so fierce it blew the hair back from her face from over ten feet away. He hunched his shoulders and his arms bulged with exertion, and in an instant, his skin seemed to rip open as a dark fur sprang up in its place.

Poppy rubbed her eyes. Could this really be happening? What the fuck was she witnessing?

Before her very eyes, Arlo turned from the handsome man she had got to know into a big, beast of a grizzly bear. His paws were so big and full of claws that they could have torn her apart.

She wanted to scream but she was frozen. She wanted to run but her legs and feet were heavy with fear.

The bear in front of her was also cowering and as Arlo moved forward quickly and lunged himself at the smaller bear, there was a flash of fangs, fur, and claws as the pair began to fight.

Poppy tried to hide, but she was right there and she saw it all. Arlo was so big compared to the other bear, he was like no animal she had ever seen, and as he drove the smaller bear back into the woods, Poppy honestly couldn’t believe what was happening.

She rubbed her eyes and breathed in deeply.

“This can’t be real,” she whispered to herself. But then she was suddenly aware that the Arlo bear was back, and he was right in front of her.

When she looked up and saw him right there, she looked into his eyes and she knew that it was definitely him. The man she had fallen for, he could shape shift and now it all made sense. This was why he was so hot to the touch, why he seemed so different and mysterious, why he had been so secretive and cryptic.

She tried not to cry and to instead slow her breathing. The bear moved backward and seemed to heave in the moonlight and then, in an instant, it started to convulse and shudder as the fur began to disappear and the tanned, thick muscles returned in their place.

Arlo stood there, back in his human form, and to Poppy, he had never looked better. He looked so alive and so powerful. It was intoxicating.

“You’re my woman now,” he said with a pant. “And I’ll protect you no matter what.” His chest was heaving with exertion and Poppy could feel the bond between them. Something had most definitely changed.

“What are you?” she whispered, even though now she really did know.

“I’m Arlo,” he whispered. “And like I told you, it’s going to take a very special and understanding woman to love me.”

And even though there was a sadness in his eyes, Poppy knew it would all be okay. Whether he knew it yet or not, she was most certainly that woman.


9.

Lost Creek was gearing up for its summer season and the town was already bursting at the seams with new arrivals. Since Poppy had arrived in town all those months before, she never could have imagined that she never would have ended up leaving.

She wiped down the countertop in Arlo’s bar. Since she had settled in Lost Creek with her new man, a few changes had been made to keep up with the trade and demand. A diner just wasn’t cutting it anymore, the tourists in the town wanted a sports bar, and Arlo’s was the perfect venue to give it to them.

Willow hummed a tune as she twirled her curly black hair around her long, manicured finger and blew a big pink bubble with her gum. The girls had become close over the months and it was good for Poppy to have a friend there. It had helped the place feel more like home.

When her family had left, she promised James that she would call him regularly, and she had done so several times a week. He was fine back at home with her parents and was gearing up to make his own escape soon. He had his sights on college or travel, and Poppy knew that whatever he chose, he would end up in the right place. The place destined for him… Just like she had.

After learning of Arlo’s secret, Poppy knew that she could never walk away from him. He had saved her life that night at his house, he had known that she was in trouble and he had come running. There really were bears in the woods around Lost Creek, but there was something more too… And she was still learning all about it with each passing day.

She’d heard whispers from Willow that Arlo wasn’t the only bear shifter. That his close friends and some of the other original settling families had powers too, and that although it was a secret that was concealed from the majority of residents in the town, they were also being slowly discovered.

“We have to help protect them,” Willow had said. “Both the bears and the wolves.”

From what she had managed to piece together, that is what Arlo had meant by the town being divided. Two packs were in charge of Lost Creek, and tensions were rising.

“Everything will be fine,” Arlo had assured her one night. “There’s nothing to worry about for you here.”

He had kissed her and she knew that he would never lie. They were together now. They were each other’s other half and each day, although it brought its challenges, Poppy was more than grateful that she had found herself in such a unique and happy position after so many years of unrest.

She and Arlo were so well suited, and she thanked her lucky stars every day that she had been fortunate enough to meet him.

As she started to stack the glasses behind the bar, the front door swung open and his huge, broad frame stepped forward, blocking out the natural light. As always, she could feel his eyes on her and it set off the butterflies in her belly. They all flapped their wings in unison and she had grown to enjoy the feeling. It had never left her and she hoped that it never would. She liked the nervous sensation that he gave her, it drove her on and kept her hot for him.

He swept her up in his big arms and kissed her hard on the mouth. Now that she had seen what this man had inside of him, the beast that he managed to conceal but could unleash at any given moment, Poppy would always be on her toes, and she liked it that way. It turned her on and made her heart race.

She nuzzled into his neck and thought of how far they had come in such a short space of time and she realized how true it was when people said that everything could change in a day.

It really could…

And for Poppy, it had changed in the most perfect and happiest of ways. She had finally found where she was supposed to be, and she was more than excited about her future…

THE END

The Lost Creek story continues with


Marked as the Alpha’s Mate

Pamela Avery

Copyright ©2015 by Pamela Avery. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Thank you so much for your interest in my work!


2012

Lisa Fuller jogged, her strides lengthening along the path in time to the music blaring over her earphones. She had decided to take the scenic route today, jogging down the forest path that was least popular among most joggers in Fidelity, Philadelphia.

It was quite early in the morning and the air was dewy, fresh, and invigorating. The smell of fresh pines tantalized her nostrils and she inhaled deeply as her feet pounded along the path. Her red hair was done up in a simple bun atop her head and she was clad in a skin-fitting exercise outfit that accentuated the generous curves of her waist and hips.

A noise like thunder rumbled overhead and she almost lost her footing as she looked around in amazement. It was still a bit too dark to tell but the skies didn’t seem to be cloudy. With a shrug, she resumed her jogging, humming in time to the music as a slight wind began to rustle the leaves of the trees lining the forest path. Lisa picked up her pace a little, almost running now.

She had gone almost a half mile along the forest path when she suddenly got the unmistakable feeling of being watched. Her eyes widened with irrepressible panic as she scanned the tall pine trees on either side of the path, extending in every direction as far as the eye could see. She saw no one. Fear coursed through her veins and almost automatically she started running, her breath burning in her lungs as she ran faster than she had ever run before.

Then she saw him. A huge, brown, absolutely beautiful, and deadly, bear with chestnut brown fur with flecks of gold. Its teeth were bared as it raced towards her. She almost froze in her terror. She couldn’t remember … are you supposed to freeze when you see a bear, or play dead, or run? While she tried to figure it out, he kept coming right at her in long lopping strides.

Raw fear clotted her blood in her veins and adrenaline burst through her in a rush as her terror took over and she faced forward and chose the “run away” option. He caught up to her effortlessly, his large paws closing about her waist as he lifted her in his great big paws and roared loud enough to wake the dead. She didn’t have to speak bear to recognize a roar of triumph when she heard it. His scent assailed her nostrils, surprisingly clean and nice. There was something strange about this bear. Why wasn’t she dead already? Her eyes fastened in fascinated horror on the pink inside of his mouth as he roared anew. The sound so loud she was almost afraid it would break her ear drums. Goosebumps erupted all over her hands and sweat poured down her body in rivulets. His paw encircled her entire waist effortlessly as he held her closer to his face and studied her.

Then things got even stranger as some deep survival instinct took over. This was a wild animal, but there was something different about it. There was an intelligence behind its eyes. Rather than scream she chose to speak.

“Please, please,” she panted, barely breathing through her fear. “Please don’t. I have little kids depending on me! Please don’t kill me!”

She was talking to a bear, her subconscious screamed. But even knowing that it couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying – or at least shouldn’t be able to, didn’t deter her as she continued to cry and plead for her life. Every nerve in Lisa’s body strained to breaking point as the beast kept her on level with its shiny white teeth, the size of small tusks.

Lisa struggled weakly in its arms, tears coursing down her cheeks as the animal stopped roaring long enough to look right at her out of strangely beautiful grey eyes flecked with bits of golden color. The animal seemed to freeze as it looked into her clear turquoise eyes. It blinked its great big eyes as though in confusion and Lisa wished desperately that she had a gun or tranquilizer.

The bear shook her slightly staring at her as though in wonder and she screamed anew. Then it extended one paw an d unbelievabl y stroked her cheek gently. Lisa’s eyes widened in terror; was that the signal to begin eating her?

The beast made a low sound deep in its throat, its pale gaze fastened on hers. They stared at each other for a while and then with a grunt, it gently, almost reverently, with a deftness she did not think a bear could possess, placed her on her feet back onto the ground.

Lisa stared up at the immense bear, almost afraid to believe this was happening. The beast, as though understanding her disbelief, poked her slightly with one claw on its paw. She jerked backwards, almost falling over. Then with one last glance back at it, she turned and began to run, expecting every second to hear its feet thundering after her and the large furry paws closing around her neck again.

But with every step that took her farther away, the bear just stood watching her, an almost wistful expression on its face.

It let her go.

She ran for all she was worth, gasping as she stumbled and fell. Her alarmed gaze flew over her shoulder again and then widened in disbelief; the bear was gone! In its place, she saw a naked man walking away.

He turned for one last glance over his shoulder, the distance masking his features, and then he himself disappear. She fainted on the spot in mid-stride.


2015

Lisa Fuller grinned down at three-year old Emily, sharing the little girl’s happy laughter as they both threw more bread down to the swans floating around in the pond.

Emily was a little girl with a tangled mop of blonde hair, deep-set dimples, and the bluest pair of eyes she had ever seen on anyone. Emily had the sweetest smile possible and whenever she grinned at Lisa it felt as though all was immediately right with the world. You wouldn’t know it to look at her but she had known so much tragedy in her short life it was a wonder she even knew how to smile. Children really were resilient, Lisa decided.

“Lisa?” Emily chirped, in her little girl voice.

“Yes hon?” Lisa said, tossing a particularly large piece of bread to a giant swan at the far end of the pond.

“Who’s that man over there?”

“What man?”

“Over there. He’s been staring at us,” Emily said, pointing in the direction of another bench with the typical innocence of children.

“What man?” Lisa repeated craning her neck. In today’s world, a staring stranger could spell more danger than a rabid dog. “Stop pointing Emily,” she scolded gently as she finally saw the man who had caught the girl’s attention.

He was at least five-eight, slim with straggly strands of greasy black hair that fell all over his face and sunken cheekbones and hungry eyes that spelled ‘addict’. Lisa swallowed, her hands knotting together in her lap as a slight tendril of fear worked its way down her spine.

His gaze shifted imperceptibly to Emily and Lisa jerked to her feet immediately. She clutched the girl’s hand in a protective grasp as she turned and began to walk away.

The man followed immediately, a nasty grin on his face. Lisa quickened her steps automatically; so preoccupied with getting them both away from the man that she didn’t realize they had wandered into an almost deserted section of the park.

“Are we playing a game Lisa?” Emily chirped conspiratorially, her cheeks shining with good health.

“Yes sweetie. We need to walk as fast as possible so that that man can’t catch us.”

“So why don’t we just run?” Emily suggested happily, her eyes gleaming with anticipation.

Lisa tried not to roll her eyes. Emily had only one speed; run! But on occasion, running was just what the doctor ordered. She bent a little at the waist as they walked and leaned down towards the little girl.

“Okay listen Emily, when I say ‘run’ I need you to run and hide okay? You remember where Coby hid the last time we were all here and no one could find him?” Emily nodded, her pigtails bouncing. “Okay sweetie. Run!” Lisa whispered to Emily and the little girl took off like a light.

Lisa also began to run, risking a quick glance over her shoulder. The man had also begun to run after her, his gaze trained on her. It wasn’t Emily he wanted then, she thought with relief as she picked up her pace, running in an almost opposite direction to lead him away from the little girl.

The man was closing in on her now. In fact he was so close his rank smell hit her nostrils almost choking her.

Just as the stranger was about to grab her from behind, someone dived at him and tackled him to the ground. Lisa slowed, unable to believe her eyes as the new man punched her pursuer right in the face, then flipped him effortlessly and tied his hands behind him with a trip of wire. She had never seen anyone move so fast in her entire life.

The cops showed up almost immediately and carted the man away. As he left, he spat contemptuously in Lisa’s direction, hatred burning in his eyes.

Lisa drew back, alarmed. What had she ever done to the man? She was certain she didn’t know him.

“Ex-boyfriend?” someone asked casually from behind her. She whirled; it was the man who had saved her. He stood about six feet away, his hands in his pockets as he stared after the police car.

He had to be thirty if he was a day, with chestnut brown hair with flecks of gold in it, a long aristocratic nose, thick-set eyebrows that gave his face character, a firm jaw and a wide, mobile mouth. He stared straight at her, with grey eyes that seemed strangely familiar; she felt an insanely magnetic pull.

She looked away immediately, her eyes scanning the park for Emily. She spotted the girl peeping from behind a hedge and beckoned at her. Emily came out from behind her hiding place and raced towards Lisa.

The man stood at an impressive height of six-one. His strange grey eyes trained on her face. He seemed vaguely familiar too.

He was insanely handsome, she realized with every step that brought him closer to her. A faint blush stained her cheeks and she looked away, placing a protective hand across Emily’s shoulders as the girl reached her.

“Hello,” he said in a decidedly masculine voice.

He didn’t have any particular accent she noted but his features hinted at some exotic heritage like Greek or Italian.

“Hi. Thank you so much for saving us.”

“My pleasure,” he said with a shrug.

Lisa nodded. Now that he was even closer, she could see that he had the most beautiful pair of grey eyes she had ever seen, flecked with little bits of gold color. They seemed familiar but she was willing to bet she had never seen anybody with such beautiful eyes that made one want to stare into them forever.

A strange sensation niggled through her. An unbearable sense of familiarity.

“Should I know you?” she asked unthinkingly, cocking her head to the side.

“Excuse me?” he asked, tensing.

“I don’t mean to embarrass you or something but your eyes… Have we met?”

His eyes roved over her face as though memorizing every feature, then he seemed to collect himself, “I’m sure I would have remembered.”

His eyes trailed to Emily and he nodded towards her, “She yours?”

“Not in a biological sense,” she said.

“Oh?” his eyes held hers.

“I run an NGO.”

“Really? With a special focus on kids?”

“I really can’t say much else,” she said, inclining her head slightly towards Emily.

She saw his grey eyes flicker over her riotous mane of vibrant red hair, her slightly rounded cheeks, her puckered red lips, her breasts which were so large she sometimes felt embarrassed, her broad, generous hips. She had always been a buxom woman. To her mortification, Lisa felt her nipples bead into hard points beneath her shirt.

Something passed in his eyes and he stepped back imperceptibly as he said, “Of course. Have a good evening Miss…?”

“Fuller. Lisa Fuller.”

“Of course ma’am. I hope you won’t have any more trouble,” he said and turned and strode away without offering his name.

“Thank you,” she yelled after him again. He responded with a slight wave over his shoulder, but he didn’t turn around again.

“What did the strange man want Lisa?” Emily piped up.

“I’m not entirely sure honey,” Lisa replied as she shepherded the girl back to the orphanage.

What had made that man chase after her? He had seemed to hate her even though she was fairly certain she had never met him in her entire life. And the other man had seemed so familiar and he had also seemed to know who she was.

She flushed as she remembered how incredibly hot he was. She fanned herself with her hand as she blushed some more.

Really Lisa, stop blushing over a man you would probably never see again, her subconscious chided.


Raven Kindersley sank onto the edge of his bed, unable to still the slight tremors in his limbs as he flashed back to the woman he had seen in the park. She had really luxurious, curly red hair that hung all the way to her waist; beautiful, even, white teeth that flashed every time she spoke, a face a man could stare at all day and a voluptuous body straight out of his naughtiest fantasies. The most unsettling part was that he already knew this sexy, intoxicating, absolutely tantalizing woman.

He knew who she was alright. He had been watching over her for years but this was the first time he had shown himself to her in his human form. He had met her all those years ago as a werebear and known instantly that she was his mate. She carried his mark too, even though she didn’t know it. He knew it was that mark that had attracted Ramsey to her in the park.

He rubbed his hand tiredly over his face as he tugged on his tuxedo. Now she had seen him he had to stay in her orbit. It was the surest way to protect her, even if he could never have her. Once the others knew his mate was human, they would strike. Plus, he was afraid of hurting her. She was so small, she would fit him like a glove.

His blood stirred hotly in his loins and he felt his dick prod the zipper of his pants. He was so turned on he could actually feel his hands trembling in reaction. His veins began to bulge, his pupils dilated, fur appeared around his body until it erupted all over him and his hands and legs stretched further away from his body, lengthening painfully.

He knocked back a big glass of whiskey and waited for the reaction to fade. Nothing worked. It had started and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Hastily, he tore off his bow-tie and tux and raced towards the back of the house, only managing to clear the pool area before, with a mighty roar, he turned into a large werebear. His powerful hands shoved away the small gate at the back before he bounded away into the valley behind his house.

He had chosen this house with care. It was the only house for miles and it opened up into a thick dense forest which was his favorite place to go whenever he turned.

He roamed the thick, dense forest roaring loud enough to wake the dead. He lost all sense of reasoning, prowling through the forest in search of prey. The entire night became silent, the forest absorbing his roars as he prowled mindlessly through it until the last trace of passion fueling his transfiguration faded from his veins.

He finally came to, lying naked beneath a large oak tree.

He groaned as he rose creakily to his feet He was due at a charity function and he knew Lisa would be there. He had chosen to attend the function deliberately even before they’d met at the park. Tonight had been his night to meet her in person. There was no help for it, he would simply arrive late.

***

Raven Kindersley was late! Lisa had never met the man, but he was the guest of honor. Heck, the entire charity ball was his idea. Lisa searched her memory for what she had heard about the guy but all she came up with was, ‘business shark’.

It seemed to her that a person who was a shark would be time conscious. Perhaps he had had a change of heart? Panic knotted her insides as she thought of this. Most people here had come because they had heard that a deep pocket like Kindersley was going to be there too. Heck the ball had been named for him!

What if he stood them up? More panic coursed through her and her palms began to sweat. She unobtrusively moved closer to an air vent, plastering a smile onto her face as she greeted the next person.

“Lisa? There’s someone I think you have been dying to meet,” Melissa Stilwell, Raven’s PA said in a sing-song voice.

He was here then. Lisa turned around, a practiced smile on her face. She froze immediately she caught sight of the man towering over Melissa; that was the guy from the park!

She saw the brief flash of recognition in his eyes right before he smiled at her and damn near stopped her heart. He was an extremely attractive man but when he smiled like that he was downright dangerous. If she had thought he was handsome before, when he smiled he was an absolute knockout.

She swallowed nervously as he stretched out a hand, “Miss Fuller? A singular honor.”

“You have the advantage of me. I believe we met earlier today at the park. Thank you again Mr…?”

“Kindersley,” he said as he took her hand in a surprisingly gentle grasp for such a large man. “Raven Kindersley.”

A jolt of electricity shot through her from their joined hands and she jumped, before nervously withdrawing her palm from his grasp. Her surprised gaze met his and she couldn’t help noting he didn’t look a bit surprised as he gazed steadily back at her.

A faint blush stained her cheeks as she grinned up at him, “Mr Kindersley. Can I just say how honored we are at Forwardaid for your kind donations. The children have benefitted greatly. Melissa mentioned something about an idea you were proposing for Forwardaid?”

His strange grey eyes roved over her features, touching slightly on her mouth before moving down the rest of her body. She was dressed in a long, purple-colored elegant gown. The halter neck of the gown revealed the smooth skin of her neck and shoulders in a tantalizing expanse of flesh that made him clench his fists in his pants pockets as he strove for control. Her lips were ruby-red and slightly puckered as she smiled at him. Her breasts were so big he was certain she had to be at least a 38D. She was a big woman, but she was so damn sexy it was all he could do to keep his hands away from her. Her ass swelled invitingly beneath the smooth silk of her dress; he got hard just looking at it. His first instinct was to ravish her, right there. But he couldn’t do that to her. She deserved candles and flowers and romance. He couldn’t just pounce on her and start rutting!

If the glances coming their way were any indication, he wasn’t the only one who thought she was sexy as hell, he noted jealously.

“It’s my pleasure ma’am,” he assured her smoothly as he offered her his arm and guided her to their seats.

There were many events lined up including auctions, charity fashion shows, awards; but all through the night, Lisa was completely aware of the handsome debonair man sitting beside her. Power clung to him like a second skin but he was also gracious, polite and unfailingly courteous even to waiters. He was a perfect gentleman, she decided.

Every last nerve in her body was on high alert. She was so attuned to him that by the end of the night she was tired, deliciously so. She felt invigorated though, every last one of her senses on high alert as she smiled at every one and studiously avoided the piercing grey gaze of the silent, powerful man beside her.

She stumbled to her feet, aware that a few strands of her hair were escaping her elegant coiffure as she finally steeled herself to face him and bid him good night. His gaze clashed with hers, filled with such heat and unexpected passion that she gasped aloud.

“Miss Fuller, would you care to join me for a late glass of champagne to celebrate the success of this night and the possibility of future collaborations?”

Well how could she refuse when he put it like that?

“I don’t have much of a head for champagne,” she said weakly.

“Coffee then,” he murmured, smiling disarmingly at her as he proffered his arm.

A hot blush stained her cheeks and she ducked her head in embarrassment. She had never been one to blush, not since high school anyway. And suddenly she was blushing like a schoolgirl? He also seemed like someone she should remember, but from where?

She let him guide her towards the coat area and as she was picking up her coat, he went outside, apparently to make certain the car was being brought around.

Melissa appeared at her elbow, her voice breathless with excitement as she whispered, “You seem to be getting along famously with Raven.”

Lisa fought down another wave of blushes as she said noncommittally, “He seems easy to get along with.”

“Oh I think it’s more than that. No one has ever seen him pay any woman more than a passing attention. Heck I was even thinking he was gay or something. But since he clapped eyes on you, he hasn’t taken them off. The entire show he kept watching you with such hungr y

Melissa cut herself short, and then threw a quick glance at a spot over Lisa shoulder before she said, “Pardon me.”

Lisa didn’t have to turn around to know Raven was heading towards her. Every last hair on her neck stood on high alert. The effect he had on her!

“Ready to go?” his deep voice said at her elbow and she turned to face him with a practiced smile that faltered a little when he smiled back at her, his eyes crinkling at the edges. He was so handsome she wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen him for herself.


Lisa nervously bit down on her lip as Raven pulled into the garage of his house which had turned out to be a mansion set on a huge sprawling estate that had to be the stuff of fantasies.

She was also acutely aware that she must seem painfully gauche and naïve to him as she openly stared around at the opulence of her surroundings. The silence was eerie; a huge mansion like this was like something made for the Dukes and lords of the Victorian ages to be filled with at least a thousand house guests.

It was completely empty, not a soul in sight, she noted with a shiver. God what if there was something wrong with him? How well did she know him? He could be a serial killer for all she knew.

“Are you alright? You seem cold,” he observed.

“Nah,” she said with a nervous laugh as he guided her into the biggest living room she had ever clapped eyes on.

He stared at her silently for a beat and then his grey eyes held hers with open honesty as he said, “You’re safe here. If you will believe nothing else, believe that. You have nothing to fear from me,” he assured her.

She swallowed. Now he could read thoughts? Awesome!

The kitchen area was well-lit and she watched as he made preparations for coffee, his hands sure and steady. He certainly knew his way around a kitchen which was surprising given how rich he was. He could probably afford to hire a million cooks!

“I gave them the week off,” he said, his back to her.

Lisa stared at the back of his head. He really could read minds, she decided.

She plucked a strawberry off the fruit bowl in the centre of the table, her eyes trained on Raven as she asked, “So, why did you bring me here?”

He turned to face her and whatever he had been going to say died on his lips, his silver gaze arrested on her lips and the strawberry fruit poking tantalizingly between them. She gulped when she noticed him watching her and flicked out the tip of her pink tongue to lick her lips and the juice of the succulent fruit. It was the singular most erotic thing he had ever witnessed and the top of his head almost came off, even as his dick pressed all the more insistently against his fly.

He growled, barely aware that he was moving as he crossed the space between them in one rapid stride and hauled her into his arms as his lips descended.

His tongue delved passionately into her mouth, sending tendrils of pleasure shooting through her as his hands grabbed her fleshy behind, digging erotically into the soft flesh. He caressed her buttocks, stroking and patting, before moving one hand around to cup her breast.

Lisa moaned, opening her mouth to stroke Raven’s tongue with hers. He tasted of peppermint and chocolate all at once; he tasted like all her fantasies come to life. Her small hands encircled the back of his neck and she stroked through his thick, rich mane of hair as he deepened the kiss.

His arousal swelled insistently, making him so hard he actually hurt.

Raven grunted as he licked her lips before stroking them with his tongue too. His mouth left hers to wander down her neck sending shafts of pleasure down her spine.

Lisa gasped and clung harder to him, her pulse racing as he drove her wild with his mouth. Her hand trailed down to stroke his hard, jutting manhood and she felt a delicious thrill of feminine apprehension. He was so very huge! Would he fit into her like that?

Suddenly, he growled against her lips; a distinctly unnatural sound and then he tore free of her and wrenched his lips from hers, his chest heaving with the force of his breaths.

“Raven?” she said warily.

His teeth were clenched, his palms fisted, every vein on his neck stood out in stark relief as he visibly strove for control.

“Are you alright?” she asked, laying a hesitant hand on his strongly corded biceps.

Sweat poured from him in torrents as his breath hissed out from between his teeth. He seemed to be in pain, she observed in confusion.

“Was it something I did?” Lisa asked, close to tears now as she watched him. She was repulsive! She was so fat and repulsive that just kissing her had almost sent the guy into a seizure; and not in a good way.

“Rave n ” she began, laying a hand on his chest.

His eyes flew open. His pupils were dilated so much they seemed almost like tiny pinpricks in the middle of his eyes.

“Get out!” he spat, his face contorted in what she thought of as contempt.

Raven was fighting hard to hold in the beast, that wild, untamed part of him that her kisses had unearthed. But he couldn’t very well tell her that.

Her spine straightened in affront, “Can I at least call a cab? Your place is in the middle of n o

He tossed the keys to his car at her, cutting her short, “Get out Lisa. Now! Just go!”

With one last glare at him, Lisa turned on her heel and unhurriedly strode through his front door and out of his life.

She didn’t let the tears fall until she had managed to gain the sanctuary of her bed. Then she opened the floodgates and cried.

She cried for herself; how could she have been stupid enough to think a man like that would want her. She cried for him; how could he have been so mean after leading her to believe he was nice? She cried for herself some more; no one could ever really love her as she was.

She rose to stare at her reflection in the mirror. She was overweight, she thought, curling her lips contemptuously. She was curvy and beautiful, she knew, but sometimes she wished she could shed some weight. She hadn’t jogged since the last time she had run into that beast on the trail.

A cold finger of fear pressed down her back; why was she thinking of that now? She had buried that thought and pretended it never happened.

She stared at her reflection one more time. It really wouldn’t do to pretend she was happy with her weight. Perhaps it was time to start working out again, she thought.

With a sigh, she flopped onto her bed again and slowly drifted off to sleep even as silent tears leaked from the corners of her eyes at the thought of a tall, handsome man with silver eyes with flecks of gold in them.


“Lisa? You haven’t responded to the email from Kindergarteners,” Leslie Halliday called from her desk through the open door of Lisa’s office.

Lisa rolled her eyes. The woman was a walking organizer.

“Will do, Leslie,” she yelled just to get her off her back as she pressed ‘send’ on her reply to the said email.

Another beep drew her attention to a new email; this one was from Raven Kindersley! Lisa’s hand trembled over her mouse. She had not seen hide nor hair of him in the three weeks since she had left his home after he treated her so abominably.

She had tried to return his convertible to his office but had been advised by a stern, unsmiling dragon-lady that while Mr Kindersley was out of the country, he had left strict instructions that “no one was to receive that car or any other alleged possessions of his from her or anyone else”. It had sounded official enough to make her dizzy.

She had tried returning it to his mansion but there had been no way of getting past the damn gates.

She opened the email. It was a terse, one-sentenced invitation requesting that she personally bring three kids from the orphanage for a weekend retreat at Raven’s mansion. He hadn’t even had the courtesy to sign it himself but had instead handed it off to his secretary.

“You miserable oaf! I will send the three kids alright, but someone else will bring them. You can bet your ass on that,” she shouted at the computer screen.

Reason intruded and she buried her hands in her face, laughing at herself. She was shouting at her computer screen! It didn’t get much crazier than that, and in her book, it was all Raven’s fault. First he had made her feel like the sexiest woman alive. Then he had acted as though he couldn’t get enough of her. Then, just when she was starting to relax around him, he’d rejected her for no apparent reason she could see and brought all her insecurities rushing to the fore.

Her phone rang almost at once and she jerked it out of the cradle and slapped it to her ear, wincing against the impact.

“Lisa?” a hesitant feminine voice said in her ear.

Lisa’s chin wobbled but she staunchly told herself she was not disappointed that Raven wasn’t the caller.

“Yes?” she snapped ill-naturedly.

“Um, this is Melissa. I just wanted to verify your response to our email.”

Lisa rolled her eyes. Efficient didn’t begin to describe good old Melissa, she thought uncharitably.

Her hands tightened around the phone in her hand.

“I’ll send the kids,” she got out through gritted teeth.

“I’m sorry Lisa. But Mr Kindersley also stipulated that the kids will only be welcomed and allowed free rein on the premises if they are accompanied by someone who has been there at least once. I believe you are the only person at Forwardaid who has been to his home?”

Lisa swallowed down nausea at having to face the son-of-a-bitch again. She knew exactly what he was doing too. She closed her eyes, pictured the kids’ happy squeals as they chased each other around and around the mansion. The kids won; she would do anything for them, even face a man she now loathed.

With a sigh, she announced, “We’ll be there. But there are ten kids in my specific charge. I would have to come with all of them.”

“Done,” Melissa crowed triumphantly down the phone line right before she hung up.

***

Raven Kindersley smiled across the table at Lisa, but she met his gaze with a gimlet-eyed stare that told him she still regarded him with about the same level of affection she would reserve for Jabba the Hutt. His house was awash with domestic staff tonight because he knew he would need as many hands as possible to help with the ten kids she had chosen to inflict upon him. The moment he clapped eyes on them, he knew she had chosen the ten most ill-mannered children she could find from the orphanag e deliberately.

All night she had been waiting for him to lose his cool, he knew. He grinned to himself as a flying piece of egg hit her square in her chin. The culprit, a bright-eyed tow-headed seven-year-old boy contritely bowed his head in remorse that lasted about two seconds before he was happily throwing more food with the others.

He raised his glass to her in a mock toast and watched the red color steal up her cheeks in self-deprecating humor.

She relented after that and stopped glaring at him every five minutes.

When the kids had wrought their own fair share of damage, they clambered up to bed noisily calling out cheerful goodnights that made Raven grin.

“Will you come down to my study after you’ve tucked them in?” he asked Lisa huskily, holding her wide gaze with his.

She was beautiful tonight in a long gypsy skirt that emphasized the roundness of her hips and a scallop-necked half-top that revealed a tantalizing glimpse of riveting cleavage, smooth unlined skin at her waist, and made his fingers curl into fists at his side. The faint smell of jasmine wafted up from her and assaulted his senses.

“I’ll come right down,” she promised with a smile that hid many secrets.

Raven strolled into his study, wound up. He hadn’t been able to sit still since he left Lisa on the staircase. He wanted to make love to her; he wanted to love her until the world knew she was his! But in the weeks he had been apart from her, he had learned that he had to tell her who he was. It was the only way to keep Ramsey and his pack from hurting her. They were werebears just like him, but they all resented him because he had chosen a life of exclusion away from the rest of the pack. Once they learned he had marked a human as his mate they had determined to hurt her. They would try for the last time on the 17 th of May which happened to be tomorrow. After that, they were packing up and leaving the area. Inviting her to his house for the weekend had been the only way to save her.

A sound at the door alerted him and he carefully hid his pensive frown behind a bland expression. She came in, wearing an amusingly remorseful look pretty much like one of her kids at dinner and he couldn’t help himself, he grinned openly at her.

“I missed you Lisa. I am sorry about the way I acted the last time. ”

She shrugged, “That’s fine.”

“It really isn’t,” he said earnestly, rising to his full height, his silver eyes trained on her.

“Why did you?”

“I lost control,” he said slowly.

“Isn’t that what generally happens when people have sex?”

“I’m sorry I spoke to you that way,” he said earnestly, coming closer to her.

“I thought I repulsed you.”

Raven’s eyes trailed her pretty face and figure, “You could never repulse me or any man alive. You have a body made to tempt even a monk! I have been in a serious sweat since I clapped eyes on you, didn’t you realize?”

Lisa swallowed as he reached up a gentle hand to caress her soft, pale cheeks. Electricity trickled through her just as lightening flashed spontaneously through the dark sky outside. Lisa jumped at the coincidence and Raven chuckled, gathering her up in his arms.

“It’s alright baby, it’s okay,” he crooned as his lips descended ever so slowly to hers.

His lips were soft and warm. They tasted slightly of the whiskey he had indulged in as he waited for her. He slanted his mouth purposefully over hers, sending shock waves of pleasure through her body as he loved her with his mouth.

His lips trailed to her throat, worshipping the soft, smooth column even as she tilted her head back to grant him better access.

“Lisa,” he whispered against her cleavage. “You should stop me baby. Stop me right now or I won’t be able to stop myself.”

“Oh please don’t stop,” she half-sobbed, clutching him wildly. Suddenly, she pushed away from him and sprawled on the cushion in his study, her smooth, milky thighs parting to reveal her lace-covered crotch.

The beast in him sang as his blood started a slow-boil.

“I want this. I want you. Right here, right now,” she declared breathlessly and he was lost.

Raven swallowed her words in another deep, toe-curling kiss that raised her temperature several degrees. His hands urgently grabbed at her tee-shirt, ripping the buttons from their hole in his impatience. Lisa thought his impatience was hot as he caressed the naked skin of her waist. She wound her arms tighter around him, arching her body upwards and into his.

Raven rose to his knees, jerked off his shirt and tossed it away. His hands urgently wrestled with his belt, his eyes trained hungrily on her face.

He stood up for a quick minute and yanked off his jeans. Her gypsy skirt lay around her body in a tantalizing array.

Raven swallowed. She was the most breath-taking woman he had ever seen and he knew he wanted to fuck her hard right then. He had lived for this moment all his life. Raven gritted his teeth, holding desperately to already waning control.

He leaned down to suckle her incredibly soft breasts and she moaned, “Yes! Yes! Oh Raven don’t stop.”

His hand trailed down to the juncture of her thighs and his finger slipped easily between her soft folds. She was tighter than any woman had any right to be and so wet he almost groaned aloud as he felt her juices on his fingers. He was so huge he would fill her snugly given how incredibly tight she was. He was almost afraid he wouldn’t be able to enter.

Unable to wait any longer, he tore a condom from it’s wrapper and put it on before guiding the thick, fat, head of his penis to her entrance, his gaze meeting hers as he slowly and surely began to enter her. She tantalized him, twining her waist this way and that and rubbing his already over-sensitized tip over the opening of her dripping wet pussy. His breath hissed out of him as he went deeper with each slow, agonizing thrust.

She fit perfectly around him, her vaginal muscles clamping down easily on the intruding penis. He groaned, low and hard as he finally sheathed himself in her to the hilt.

“Fuck!” he grunted.

“Well…yeah,” she moaned.

Unreasonably, he started to laugh right in the middle of the best sex of his life. This woman would be the death of him. She joined him in his laughter, her musical voice tinkling like bells.

Laughter fled as their eyes met and held. Raven began to move inside her with incredible, torturous slowness. Lisa groaned long and hard, and thrust harder against him, matching his rhythm. He increased his pace, one of his large palms, covering hers on the bed while the other squeezed one large, soft breast again and again.

“Faster,” Lisa grunted, mindless ecstasy driving her wild as all her inhibitions fled. She felt like a butterfly taking flight for the first time. She felt beautiful and free.

He raised both her legs higher, changing the angle of his thrusts as he began to glide right against her G-spot.

“Yes, there,” she groaned.

“You like it?” he asked, not ceasing his thrusts.

“Yes. Fuck me,” she ordered her gaze holding his as something shifted inside of her. She loved him, she realized, letting the knowledge wash over her as she wound her arms around him.

He increased his tempo, going higher and higher and faster until all her being centered on the mounting tension between her thighs. Lisa gasped as tendrils of pleasure shot through her repeatedly, making her almost dizzy with mounting passion. She felt herself drifting higher and higher until she was moaning and groaning as she began to cum. Fine tremors shook her from the crown of her head to the sole of her feet leaving her sated, spent and weak as a rag doll.

An intense shudder shook his powerful frame and he continued to slam into her deliciously, his hands tightening on her slim supple thighs. Soon, he was screaming her name as he came powerfully; pouring his seed into her tight, wet, willing passage until he was drained completely.

They both drifted back to earth slowly, gasping as consciousness returned. He stared down at Lisa bemused. Her red hair was all over the cushion, spilling behind her head in a mass of riotous waves. Her soft red lips were parted in remembered pleasure and her big, round breasts were heaving invitingly on her chest as though she had just run a marathon. In short, she looked like a woman who had been well and truly loved, he decided with masculine pride. Just looking at her made his dick stir warningly on the insides of her smooth, silky thighs. But she was human, he thought even as his eyes devoured her pliant form hungrily. She would be tired he thought, reluctantly rising to his feet.

“Think we can try out that huge bathtub in my room?” she asked, an inviting look in her sultry gaze.

Raven groaned, so much for good intentions; he was hard as a rock again.

He opened his mouth, intending to say something as he turned to face her but paused when he saw Lisa’s face. She had gone pale as a ghost, her eyes staring at him with horror.

“What?”

“Oh my God, don’t touch me. It was you! All those years ago it was you in the woods! I knew it! You aren’t even human!”

“What do you mean?” he asked urgently.

She pointed a shaky finger at his arm and he followed the trail to where one large furry paw was sticking out where his palm should be.

He had managed to control himself as he came to keep from turning but he hadn’t succeeded completely.


“Lisa? Don’t!” Raven pleaded desperately as she thrust her clothes into a suitcase half-sobbing.

“You were the … bear thingy that attacked me in the woods all those years ago! You damn near mauled me to death! I have been having nightmares for years no thanks to you.”

“I didn’t attack you. I was drawn to you because you are my mate. Admit it, there is this pull between us.”

“No there isn’t. Just stay the hell away from me and stay the hell away from my kids!”

“Lisa I would never hurt you! I invited you on this trip to get you away from those men who wanted to hurt you.”

“What men?” she asked, slowing now to stare at him.

“Other werebears. That day in the woods I marked you as my mate for life and only werebears can see the mark. They have been after you since that day I rescued you from that guy in the park.”

“Was h e

“Yes. Definitely. He’s a werebear too.”

“Why would they want to hurt me?”

“Because I chose a human and because I have chosen not to live with the rest of the pack.”

“Why?”

“They were hurting humans and they didn’t have to. We can eat food unlike vampires and werewolves, but they sometimes prefer to just grab and hurt humans for the heck of it.”

“And now suddenly they can’t hurt me anymore?”

“We mated. That makes you one of us in a manner of speaking. They won’t be able to so much as come near you,” he assured.

“And for that I’m supposed to thank you?” she spat. “By your explanation you brought this on me!” she yelled, deliberately ignoring his reference to their lovemaking as ‘mating’.

Raven stared at her a beat, then he sighed.

“I don’t know what to say. I couldn’t stay away from you to save myself and I have tried! For three years I just watched over you from a distance.”

Silence reigned as she slowly sank onto the bed, feeling her emotions scattering all over the place.

He knelt in front of her, his hands holding hers as he said, “I love you Lisa. You are the only woman in the world for me and being around you is absolutely terrifying for me because it sets me free and it controls me.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she told him. She could feel the fear ebbing as he held her; an unbreakable connection forging between them.

She slowly raised a hand and stroked the side of his face as she repeated, “That doesn’t make sense.”

“Around you, I can control my impulses. Ordinarily I change into a werebear when I lose control, like during orgasm, but with you it’s different. You are the only woman in the world for me, literally. Once a werebear meets its mate, it’s forever.”

Lisa looked down at him, her heart constricting in her chest. She was almost afraid to breathe. His silver eyes with flecks of gold stared back earnestly at her, open and filled with so much love she couldn’t bear to look away.

The words trembled on her lips. She held them back with a question. “I should probably shed some weight.”

He stared at her, his eyes looking so intensely into her soul as he said softly, “Honey you are a beautiful big girl. I love you just the way you are. The first time I saw you, I almost creamed my pants just staring at your cleavage.”

“When was that?”

“When you were jogging the woods three years ago?”

Lisa chuckled as he rose to sit beside her on the bed and gathered her into his arms.

“You weren’t wearing any pants. You were a naked werebear and then a naked man.”

“What were you going to tell me before you made the crack about losing weight?”

Her eyes met his, held. “I love you.”

Raven bowed his head as though in prayer as the sweet words washed over him. Then he said, his voice throbbing with emotion, “I have waited all my life to hear those words. I love you too.”

“I want to see you in your other form,” she said decisively, the last fear fading as she instinctively knew the exact thing to say.

Slowly, without so much as a noise, he morphed into the same brown bear that had accosted her three years ago with grey eyes and gold flecks in them.

He was her love, he was her future.

THE END


Cynthia Wilde

Copyright ©2015 by Cynthia Wilde. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Thank you so much for your interest in my work!


Chapter 1

Aria looked out from the top deck of the ferry. She was on her way to somewhere in Alaska that she had never heard of, in order to take possession of a cabin she had inherited from a great aunt whom she had never known. She had been looking for a change anyhow, and so with the promise of free rent and adventure, she left behind the small town in Florida where she came from. There were a few tear-filled goodbyes, but they were balanced by the fact that Aria was more than ready to start fresh somewhere new. As she looked around her at the wide open wilderness on all sides, she realized that if the awe inspiring beauty of nature up her was any indication, she would soon have a whole lot of new things to get used to.

Everything had changed as she drove northwest through the expansive country. It got considerably colder, even for June, the closer she got to Washington. The houses were separated by wider and wider spaces, and those spaces went from holding a few trees each, to being made up of whole forests. Everything just got more natural as she headed further west. She had been overjoyed to get through what she felt was the vastly overpopulated South. The further she got from it, the more she realized how much she had disliked it. Aria was on a shoestring budget, and by the time she had gotten on the 3-day ferry up to Alaska she was already getting low on funds. Traveling like this actually cost more than flying, but there was absolutely no way she was going to get on a plane. Regardless of the cost, though, or the means of travel, she was excited to be on this new adventure.

It was the third day on the ferry and she had already spent two nights camped out on the front deck. Even though the price for an actual room was astronomical, she now kind of wished she had chosen that route. The air outside was far colder than she would have imagined for early summer. At least there were many others who had underestimated the temperature as well. On the bright side, they now shared a sense of camaraderie that had been forged through the mutual trauma they had endured in the deep chill of the last few nights. Many were ending their trip in Ketchikan, but Aria was pushing forward north to around Barrow. According to her map, even once she arrived there, there would still be two more days of travel by bus as well as by boat.

All she knew about where she was going was what she had looked up, and that had in no way prepared her for the vast majestic views that had awaited her. She also had had no way to anticipate how small such open spaces would make her feel. Nature definitely reigned supreme in Alaska. The paperwork in her knapsack said that she now owned a cabin and fifty acres somewhere up there. She could feel her destiny calling to her from the wilderness.

***

Aria finally arrived at Ketchikan and then almost immediately picked up a bus that was headed even further north. Even though the trip meant several more hours of driving, it was mainly coastal roads and the views kept her in a perpetually awestruck state. She sat next to a gentleman a little older than she was for the last leg of the journey and the two talked for hours. The conversation made the time pass quickly. At the next town, she got off to catch a boat to the northern coast. Everything had been pre-booked, so it was supposed to be a smooth trip, but she was still genuinely surprised when each leg went off without a hitch. Aria decided that she would take that as a sign. Things were on the upswing.

Her first impression of Barrow was how small it was. Taking in the houses in a glance she figured that there couldn’t have been more than a hundred or so people in the whole town. But the thing that made it seem so much smaller she decided, was the way the town was so close to the shore. It looked dangerously close. She imagined it would only take one tantrum and the sea would swallow it all up in one angry surge.

Aria’s heart skipped a beat as she hopped off the boat in the uneven tide. Her legs were happy to feel the solid dock, and then actual ground underneath her. She only had one large duffel bag that the mate handed her as he waved goodbye. Everyone had been so nice and even the couple of hours on the boat had yielded several friends she would be happy to see again. It seemed to Aria that people were just different up north. She had admit that she liked the change.

Looking through her bag pockets, she found the piece of paper that had the address. She had bought a car through a man and she was supposed to pick it up. Vehicles were extremely hard to get, in large part because the cost of transporting one exceeded the value of the actual car. So she hoped that the car she had purchased was not a complete rust bucket and that it would at least get her to the cabin some 10 miles inland. Aria found it hard to take her eyes from the view though. She could see the icebergs just off the coast. It was just so … wild … and dangerous.

Aria shivered as she walked the several blocks to the address. It turned out to be a small house/restaurant and when she opened the door, several pairs of eyes were instantly on her. There was a small bar with a few stools and she went to sit down, smiling at a few people that kept her eye contact. A waitress quickly brought over a menu and asked what she wanted to drink.

Trying to prop the large bag up, she asked for the name she had written down on the piece of paper.

“Ralph!”

The woman turned her head back towards Aria and told her that he would be out in a moment. Aria asked for a Coke and settled in to look at the menu. She had ordered and started eating by the time Ralph came up from the back. He turned out to be a rotund older man that looked much like his name sounded. He gave Aria a once over that made her a bit uncomfortable.

“So you’re Aria?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Look at you, so polite. I daresay that won’t last long around here. You kind of look like Martha you know. We never knew she had nieces.

“Great niece. I think her and my mother had a falling out when they were younger. I actually never met her or even knew that she existed until a couple of months ago.”

“Tragic. Hell of a way to learn.”

His green eyes stared into hers, as if probing for something for a moment, until he finally turned away when she didn’t. It sort of reminded her of a stare down that she had with her cat a week before.

“So you ready to pick up your car? She is a beaut. I really think you are going to like it.”

Aria had hoped for a picture, or something, but the man did not seem too on top of things technologically speaking. When she explained cell phones with cameras, he snorted. But she had been a little desperate so she went on his word.

“Oh I don’t have one of those fin dangled picture phones. What do you need that for?”

As Aria looked around the man’s yard, she believed him. There wasn’t a thing in it that didn’t look like it had been there at least ten years already. He seemed to have a combination used car and salvage business – and diner. They walked to the back where he had most of the cars. They went pretty far before he finally pulled a sheet out from the wipers of a sedan of some sort. It was a beaut and though it was old, it seemed to have no outside damage. Aria did not know the model unless she looked at the paperwork, but it was a pretty powder blue and was more of less what she had had in mind. She had been warned that it would be useless 6-8 months out of the year, but for now it was perfect and she would worry about winter when the time came.


Stowing her luggage in the trunk, she got behind the wheel and looked at the directions she had written down and quickly started south, heading deeper into the overgrown wild. After about thirty minutes Aria checked the address twice before she pulled down a long dirt road. The cabin was not at all what she had expected. It was actually more of a proper family sized home than the modest dwelling she had been expecting. She noticed the road went off deeper into the woods past her property and she briefly wondered who lived up the hill.

Aria had to pinch herself to make sure she was not dreaming. She could have never afforded anything so nice on her bartender salary at home, and now she could live here in this big place – and all rent free. The estate even had the fees and taxes paid off for years to come. It had all been worked into the will. She didn’t have much in her pocket, but she knew that she would find something to do out there that would pay for food and her meager expenses. The first thing was to settle in.

Her hands touched the large support beams in the main room. They looked like they had been made from tree trunks they were so thick. Every log was cut perfectly to fit and though there didn’t seem to be any electricity running to the house from the outside, she had seen several solar panels on the roof. She was digging the Alaskan self-sufficiency already. The place was fully furnished and though it was not of her taste exactly, it was perfect for the setting, and she wasn’t about to be ungrateful. Aria suspected her tastes would be changing. She actually imagined she would be doing some changing herself. In fact, she already felt different, she realized.

Aria put her bag down in the bedroom, her bedroom, she reminded herself, and grabbed a blanket off the couch to cover her shoulders. There were a couple of rocking chairs out on the front deck, and the deck was high enough that she could see the ocean in the distance. She sat there for some time, knowing that her great aunt Martha must have sat there doing the very same thing many times. Her cheeks were beat red and her teeth chattering by the time she finally tore herself away from the view and went in to start a fire.

No Alaskan home was complete without a raging fire she decided, and Aria was satisfied that she had successfully started her first fire all by herself in the small fire place. That was the first time she had put her Girl Scout training to use in years, but it all came back to her pretty easily. She started off towards the kitchen and was happy to find several days-worth of groceries still in the cupboards. It looked like her great aunt relied heavily on canned goods, so for the most part she didn’t have to worry much about cleaning out food that had gone bad. She started a mental list of things in her head that she needed to pick up when she made her first run into town. The list quickly became too long though, and she was soon searching for a pen among the many kitchen drawers.

In the third drawer she opened, she noticed a strange drawing on the bottom of the drawer. It looked like a strange star with many points and weaving lines that ran through it. Her fingers touched the drawing and she realized that it was burnt into the thin wood.

At that very moment, smoke entered the kitchen and as she turned around she thick black smoke billowing from the fireplace and filling the air. Covering her mouth, she walked closer and realized that something in the chimney must have caught fire – or maybe it was just blocked. She had no idea how these things worked. She quickly filled a trashcan with water and doused the fire before the entire house was smoked out. Still, she had to open every door to the house to air it out properly. As she contemplated dealing with the problem with the fireplace she realized just how exhausted she was from her trip. She decided to lay down for a few minutes. Of course she was quickly off to dreamland, only waking must have been hours later, although there was no way to tell by the light outside. It never seemed to get any darker. She had heard it could daylight for months up her but it was still weird to experience. But what actually awakened her was not the light, but the cold. She realized that she had left the doors wide open.

Throwing on a thick sweatshirt, Aria quickly headed to kitchen to make some coffee and looked at the mini -mess in the living room. There was soot on most of the objects near the fireplace and the whole place now smelled like an old fire pit. She ripped up an old box she found and laid the cardboard out in the fireplace so she could wriggle in a get a look up the chimney. She did not see any light, which she decided was bad. It must be blocked, she decided.

Her fear of heights did not rest solely in flying. She was afraid to get on anything over her own height, so she was not exactly enthusiastic about what she had to do next. In the end her fear of freezing trumped her fear of heights, and so after a couple of cups of coffee and a lot of nervous looks at the precarious roof, Aria looked around for a ladder. Truth be told, she was not too thrilled to find one on the garage wall. She also found a tall wand looking thing that she thought may be the tool used for just this sort of cleaning. With the ladder settled against the house and the cleaning contraption in hand, she prepared herself for the climb. Her hands shook as much as her insides as she scaled what felt like a mountain about halfway up , before pausing to look down. She shouldn’t have done that, she quickly realized.

Aria gasped and grabbed the sides of the ladder for dear life. The vertigo made the entire world seem to swim before her for a moment and she closed her eyes tight to stop it. She was almost prepared to open them when she heard someone underneath her laughing.

“What in the world are you doing up there?”

Aria gripped the ladder harder, steeling herself in case he was going to shake it. She knew it was a man, but she was too petrified to look down. She was all of ten feet of the ground.


Darryl looked up at the tall blonde holding on to the ladder and he couldn’t help but laugh. He didn’t want to be mean, but it was a little comical. By her body language she looked like she was scared out of her wits, but as he had walked down the road, he had watched the woman apparently conquer her fear and start up the ladder anyhow. Then she had looked down and he could see the terror in her eyes. He couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him.

“Do you need some help Miss?”

“No, no, I just need the world to stop spinning for a few moments.”

That got another chuckle from Darryl and he waited patiently for her to get it together. She back stepped down at a snail’s pace, never once looking down at him. It was only when she was back on the ground and had settled for a minute that he was finally able to see her face.

“Hi,” she said.

So simple the words, but he could not respond. His heart leapt in his chest and he was fixated on her hazel eyes. They were green based with flecks of brown and gold that seemed to reflect in the sun like diamonds. His nostrils flared for a moment and he looked at her with a new interest.

“Hi.”

The words seemed ridiculous as a response. Darryl finally realized that he was staring at her by the strange, cocked look that she was giving him. She waited for him to say more, but the one syllable was all that he could manage and even then, it had come out like a croak.

“Sorry,” he said, catching himself … "do you uh, need help?”

Aria looked at him for a moment and was about to refuse on premise when she caught herself. Normally it might have been alarming to have a stranger show up like this in what still felt like the middle of nowhere to her. His easy demeanor however, put her at ease. Besides, she didn’t want to go back up there. She didn’t even know if she physically could go back up there at this point. She shook her head as she looked back at the tall, muscular stranger. He had on a jacket, but she could make out the tops and bottoms of several tattoos on his arms and neck. The man was huge and he looked slightly out of place, though just as wild as the surrounding woods. Maybe he looked perfectly in-place. She couldn’t decide, but there was certainly something different about him…besides the fact that he was hot as hell, that is.

“Yes please, actually I do need help I guess, thank you. I started the chimney on fire last night and I am thinking I just need to clean it. That is what this is for, right?”

Aria held up the brush looking contraption and he took it from her hand. He smiled again and went to one of the nearby cedar trees and pulled a long branch off of it. He handed her the makeshift tool and started up the ladder without another word. After he was on the roof and moving towards the chimney, Aria started to chatter, unable to take the silence.

“So my name is Aria, what’s yours?”

“Darryl.” He called down, without looking away from the task at hand.

“Well thank you Darryl. I guess you must live around here?”

“Just up the hill. Only house up there.”

“Oh, well that makes sense. I’m sure glad to have such a helpful neighbor. You will have to come by for dinner once I am a little more settled in. As a way to thank you, I mean.”

“That’s not necessary.”

By this time he had finished the task and Aria watched him descend the ladder. He jumped down the last few feet and came to stand before her once more.

“I insist. I promise I am a better cook then I am a maintenance person.”

“Do you mind if I take look inside? I just want to clean it from that side as well.”

Aria followed the man into her house and he cleaned the other side of the chimney with the bough. He moved away with soot on him and Aria held back a giggle.

“Here let me find you a towel.”

“Thanks…yeah, I half expected that the problem was that you had left the flue closed…but I didn’t give you enough credit,” he said as he showed her the old bird’s nest he had knocked down. “This must of been ‘installed’ over the summer months and Martha hadn’t cleaned it out yet for the winter.”

She searched in the kitchen for the towel but came back empty handed. “Sorry, I have only just arrived and don’t know where anything is yet.”

“I think Martha kept them in the bathroom.”

She looked at him quizzically, even as she headed to the bathroom in the back.

“I guess you knew her pretty well then, I mean…being neighbors and all.

“Yea, that, and she’s – she was - a family friend. She knew my father well.”

Aria handed him a washcloth that she had dampened slightly to wash the black dust off his face. There wasn’t much she could do for his clothing though.

“I’m sorry you are covered in ash.”

“It’s fine. It had to be done. Just remember that you have to do it at least once a year, sometimes twice to make sure it is totally clear. Most important is to check it before it gets too cold moving into fall and winter.”

“Thanks I will. You must come back and have dinner though. I never met my great aunt and I would really like to hear more about her. The least I can do after she left this for me is honor her memory. She seems fascinating from what I’ve heard so far.”

“She was. She will be greatly missed.”

Darryl looked solemn for a minute. He looked back at the woman as she pushed her dark brown locks back from her shoulders. She was no uneasy on the eyes.

“So have you lived here your whole life?”

“Yea. I was raised here, me and my brothers. My family has lived on this mountain for a long time. Your house is actually the only one not owned by one of my direct relatives.”

“Oh. Why is that?”

“Well, our families are still connected in a sort of way, so it was never a thing.”

The answer was vague and apparently not really meant for her to fully grasp. Rather than pry, she just nodded her head, although she definitely wanted to learn more.

“So are you here to stay, or what’s your plan?”

“That’s the plan. I mean, we’ll see what happens, but I am planning on making a go of it in Alaska. I did just spent everything I had to get here you know.”

Aria laughed, though she wasn’t really kidding. She had to make it work there or ask for her family’s help to get back to her old home. Just the thought of having to return with her tail between her legs was enough to make her sick.

“Bold move. What made you do it?”

“I don’t know really. I guess I felt drawn here in a way. I mean, I was as shocked as anyone when I heard about it from the family lawyer, but I felt like it was a sign. Silly huh? I know most people don’t believe in signs and stuff like that.”

“Oh I do. I believe in destiny too. I actually believe that it’s the signs that lead you to your destiny.”

Aria nodded and wondered how he could have known the very thing she had been thinking.

“So what do you do around here? What does anyone do up here? I mean for work, you know.”

“There is plenty to do, believe me. But let’s start with you. What do you do?”

“Well I used to bartend some and actually garden too. I figured I could get something up here doing that sort of stuff as well.”

Darryl looked at her and smiled.

“You know your aunt used to have a greenhouse, but she tore it down before last winter. She was planning on building another one. Maybe you should.”

“That’s a good idea. I was wondering what that patch of dead grass was over by the outhouse.”

“I have been looking for a secretary of sorts for my company. Would you be interested?”

Aria thought for a moment and then agreed. Darryl was turning out to be quite the lucky charm. He was helping her knock out one problem after another. There was also the fact that he was gorgeous, even with soot covering his whole front. The tiny glimpses of his tattoos had her curious. She wondered what kind of business he had.

“Well come down to my office on Monday and we’ll get you started.”

Darryl handed her a card and walked outside. He told her he had to go for a meeting and then headed back up the hill a ways, before he got into a pick-up truck that had almost magically appeared around the bend. The side of the truck had the name of Vern Holdings, but she was not sure what that meant as far as what kind of business he was in. Too bad she had no internet up here...she would have to look into that…it must be possible, she thought. But for the moment she would be in the dark about what his company did. But he had saved her hide in a few ways already, she decided she could put a little more faith in him.


Aria spent her weekend going through the old house finding little treasures and signs that gave her a better idea of just who her aunt was. More than once she wished that they had known each other. They read the same books and seemed to have some of the same hobbies. Aria also finally headed into town to do some shopping. She had only returned about a half hour earlier and was outside when she saw the black truck from the other day drive past her house. She decided to wave him down. Darryl put his window down and their eyes met.

“Did you need something Aria?”

“Yea, you want to come to dinner? I was planning on making chili.”

Darryl looked like he was going to turn her down, but then pulled in beside her car instead. Aria waited for him to get out of his truck and was surprised to see him dressed up. By his physique, she had sort of assumed he had a full jeans and T-shirt wardrobe, but the suit fit him well. He actually looked quite handsome.

“Wow you look good. I promise I will not ask you to clean anything tonight.”

As Darryl walked behind her his eyes were glued to her round ass swishing back and forth in her flowy skirt. It grabbed his attention like a beautiful flower in the breeze and he was unable to pull his eyes away. She held the door open for him and he walked into the house. The aroma pulled him into the small kitchen next to the entry way.

“It does smell good in here. So how is everything going?”

“Pretty good. It is certainly different here. But I like it.”

“Alaska grows on you. I think you are going to like it more and more.”

Darryl took his jacket off and set it over the back of the couch. It was Aria’s turn to gawk. The man’s muscles seemed to want to break through his thin white button up. There were more tattoos up his arms that she could see through the shirt, as well as a larger one on his back. The more she learned about the man, the more intriguing he became. Darryl rolled up his sleeves, revealing some of the tribal tattooing and her hand itched to touch it, trace it with her fingertips.

“I am not keeping you from anything, am I? I hope I have not been too pushy about dinner.”

“No, not at all. I would probably be eating peanut butter and jelly otherwise,” he said with a smile.

“Oh, I just didn’t know if you were missing family dinner.”

Darryl glanced up at her as she set a bowl down in front of him.

“Thank you.”

Darryl seemed to know all about the house and showed her how to use the battery banks and electrical system after dinner. They were standing in the small building that housed it all. Darryl barely fit inside it seemed to her. Usually the curvy woman did not feel so small, but next to him she actually felt petite. It was kind of nice.

There was a moment, where his face was so close to hers that she could have sworn that he was going to kiss her. She actually felt a spark. The moment passed though and she walked out after him a little disappointed. His eyes told her that he wanted her, but he seemed to be holding something back. When they got back in the house, she asked him if he wanted a drink. He agreed and seemed to relax, though she could still feel his heated gaze on her as she poured the glasses full of sweet tea.

Sitting together on the couch, the pair watched the fire lick around the wood in the fireplace. Aria glanced at him several times and had to remind herself that he was her new boss, though she didn’t work with him yet.

“So what is there to do around here? For fun I mean.”

His eyes filled with fire and she wished she had said it another way. He turned towards her and his eyes fixed themselves on her lips.

“There are many things to do,” he said evocatively. Shifting gears he added, “Pretty soon the place will be crawling with tourists here to experience the great outdoors.”

“Yea I heard that there are places that you can even see polar bears. That would be amazing. They are really rare I hear, and I’ve never seen one. Have you?”

“A few.”

“Where they as scary as they look on TV?”

“Not at all. Misunderstood.”

“Yeah I guess we have to take better care of their environment. So, is there anything else to do?”

“Well I like to go on hikes, sometimes go out to the ice. It is pretty amazing.”

“I heard it’s dangerous.”

“It is, if you don’t know what you are doing. I have been doing it every year around this time. It is the best place to go first thing in the morning. You should come with me sometime. Maybe next weekend.”

“I would love to. It sounds fun. I never knew that a place that was so cold could be so beautiful.”

“The view has certainly improved.”

Darryl leaned towards her, gauging if she would move away. Instead of sitting back, she leaned the last few inches to make their lips meet. She sighed into his mouth, as her tongue touched his. His body shifted close to her and his hands wrapped around her, pulling him closer to his chest. His smell filled her nostrils, manly in every way.

Darryl was inexorably drawn to the woman by her familiar smell. He had caught a whiff when he had seen her two days before. It was the smell of his pack and their mates. He would have known that she was of the blood, whether she knew who her family was or not. The two families had been connected for many years and he was finding it hard to contain himself around her. She felt as good as she looked and with each touch, he was even surer that she was made for him.

He pulled back and watched her eyes open slowly. They were completely green and they held some of the same heat that he felt in his own heart. Darryl was sure that the woman did not even know who she was to him or who she was destined to be. He didn’t want to be the one to tell her, but with no one else able to, he knew he would have to be the one when she was ready. There was need in her eyes, but he required love before he could bare himself in such a way. He had to be sure.


Aria came forward, her mouth searching for him and her body leaning against his hard chest. He groaned and decided that he could allow himself to go a little further before he had to stop himself. Darryl pulled her onto his lap and held her against him with his strong arms. Aria sighed as she relaxed into his arms and she hungrily kissed him. Her thighs found their way to either side of him, straddling his legs.

Darryl grabbed her long hair and pulled her closer, deepening the kiss until they were both breathless. He pulled away and she sucked in air as he kissed her throat gently at first and then with more fervor. Aria’s body began to react from pure animal instinct and she found herself rubbing against the hard knot that she felt pushing between her legs. Her mind was telling her it wasn’t a good idea to be getting involved with her boss, or with her neighbor for that matter, but she didn’t care at that moment. She almost felt unable to stop herself. Aria didn’t really care about anything but allowing her body to satisfy its need. All she wanted was Darryl. She basked in the passion he had awakened deep inside of her. It was crazy how turned on she was. She had never felt this level of desire and raw primal connection before.

His hands left her hips and hair, to work on the small buttons that went down the front of her dress. Aria’s hands went around his neck and pushed her cleavage towards his face. His hands went to work unbuttoning her garment all the way down to her navel. She shivered with the cold air and gasped louder when he planted his mouth on her neck. His mouth moved slowly down to her chest and then between her heaving, large breasts.

Darryl pulled back the lacy cups that held her breasts up and allowed them to spill forward. The pretty pink tips begged to be sucked and he happily complied.

“Mmm Darryl.”

She moaned his name several times as her hips rubbed against him at a frenzied pace. She needed more and she could feel herself getting wetter and wetter the longer she did it. Darryl did not seem to be able to contain himself either, as his mouth sucked harder and the other nipple was pressed roughly between his fingers. The more experienced man played Aria’s body like an expert. She really didn’t have a chance – not that she wanted one.

Aria was new to love and the ways of physical relationship. At the moment, all she could do was follow the cues her body was giving her. It was ready, even if her mind was resisting. She felt a hand going between her legs and only then did she think about what she was doing. She pulled back a little and looked down at the man she was straddling. He pressed his fingers against the thin material and growled when he felt the wetness at her core. As far as he was concerned, she was ready and they were both feeling it. He did not want to stop. Traditions could be damned, as far as he was concerned.

“Wait.”

Darryl’s hand stopped trying to push underneath the bottom of her dress. She gasped, trying to catch her breath. She looked at him with her emerald eyes. Aria was primed and ready. Even though they were both so ready and willing, he knew it shouldn’t happen this way. With Aria, he would have to wait.

His lips found hers and his fingers left her core. He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to him. He deepened the kiss and let his tongue convey his passion. She moaned as he pushed up against her. He continued to grind her hips against his, for her pleasure. The act was driving his own senses mad, but he could tell that Aria was close to orgasm and he desperately wanted to hear her moan his name in the throes of her pleasure.

“Yes Darryl, that feels so good.”

Her bare tits pressed against his chest and he could feel the hardness of her nipples pressed against him. It was torturous, but as her noises got higher pitched the satisfaction of her satisfaction made it worthwhile. He felt a sudden rush of fluid on the front of his pants and groaned.

Her body shook above him and she pulled back from his hungry mouth. She felt a bit embarrassed that she had soaked him. They were making quite a mess actually, but it felt so good. His dark brown eyes looked almost black to her as he took her in with an almost feral look. Her hips had stopped moving, but her body still convulsed around his. It took everything inside of him to set her down beside him and not rip her remaining clothes off and have her completely right then and there. He wanted more, but he knew that he should wait. He had to wait, no matter how hard it was to do.

Aria, however had no such constraints, and was not finished at all. She tried to get back on his lap. Her wantonness had taken over and all she could think about was more. She was still consumed by this intoxicating passion and would do anything to keep the man’s hands on her. The orgasm felt great, but it left her wanting even more. She wanted to feel him inside her. The feeling was a gnawing that could not be appease in any other way. He did not want to be rude, but he wouldn’t be able to resist much longer. He stood up abruptly and started to put his jacket back on.

“I’m sorry Aria, but I really have to go right now. I will see you tomorrow at work.”

Aria looked up at him dazed and not quite understanding. She wondered if she had done something wrong. Didn’t he want her? When their eyes met, she knew that was not the case. She could see his desire. He wanted her, she knew he did. His cock was hard and ready inside his pants. He just needed a little convincing. She was well beyond the point of behaving. She looked up one last time before her hand came forward to touch his hardness gently. He groaned with the first delicate touch and found himself rooted to the spot, unable to walk out the door.

“I don’t know why you think you need to go, but I just want you to know it is ok, whatever it is. I am so sorry to say that you just can’t leave before you have been fully satisfied. Actually I am not sorry at all. You’ll sleep better this way.”

Her green eyes danced as she broke the gaze and put her attention to addressing the hardness between his legs. She unzipped the man’s dark slacks allowing his cock to spring out unrestrained. Aria’s opened her mouth, allowing her hot breath to land on his length. He sighed and pressed forward until the silken head was pressed against her lips.

Aria opened wide as she moaned. He was long and thick, her jaws opening wide to push him all the way down as deep as she could before she felt the head going even further back. He couldn’t help but thrust forward as she strained to take him, feeling his manhood fill her mouth. She imagine what it would feel like to have his length penetrate her depths. She had not told him that she had never opened her legs to a man. For the moment she was happy to oblige him in this way, but soon she wanted him to fill her for real.

“Oh Aria. This is not supposed to happen this way.”

She snapped out of her waking fantasy and withdrew his length from her mouth, looking up at him. What was he saying?

“You really want me to stop?” She remained unconvinced.

Her tongue flicked the tip and Darryl made another sexy sound before his hips pushed forward, claiming her mouth again. Her throat slackened to endure the blunt head that continued to barrage her throat. She suckled hard and her hand came up to play with his balls that were still held confined in his pants. The action seemed to be the man’s end and he warned her seconds before a hot stream of his cum hit escaped into her mouth. She swallowed several times as her mouth was filled to the brim with his essence.

Darryl was awestruck, if such a word can be applied to such a scene. The view of his cock lodged in her mouth was one of the most erotic scenes he had ever seen. Her breasts were displayed unabashed from the opening in her shirt and she looked up at him with a touch of cum on the side of her chin. Her tongue came out to lick it into her mouth and he groaned again. Her smile was easy and he could smell her arousal. Her hand absently stroked his dampened cock and he was soon hardening back up with her attention. So much for his willpower.

“Mmm, you look ready for more. Was that not satisfying enough?”

“I think it felt too good. You are a very bad girl.”

His hips pushed forward and she moistened the tip with her tongue again. Pressing deeper, he watched his fat cock disappear inside of her mouth once again. This was maddening but he had to wait. She would understand in time. He had to do things the way they were supposed to be done. The moon dictated his mating and next weekend was the next time all would be aligned. He pulled out with reluctance and moved away from her searching mouth. Her eyes were shut and he bent down to kiss her lips. He tasted a faint hint of himself as her mouth opened to receive his tongue instead.

“I really have to go. It has nothing to do with you. That was amazing. Soon, I promise.”

He pushed himself into his pants and tried to ignore the large wet spot on his crotch. She said nothing as she watched him go, though he could tell that she was disappointed in his leaving. She wanted exactly what he wanted, but she still had no idea what it was that she was getting into. It wasn’t right to take advantage of her like that. He had not been prepared for the chemistry they would have either. He realized he really like her. It just felt right.

Walking out of the small house and getting into his truck was one of the hardest things that he has had to do in a long time. Every piece of him wanted to stay. It didn’t help that it was clear that she wanted him just as much. He knew that it was going to be a long week before they could mate properly, especially since he had hired her for a position that would put the two of them in such close contact all week long.


Aria stayed up for hours after she got out of the bathtub. She did not know what to think about what had just happened and actually ended up having to finish herself off, so to speak. She had never been so turned on and then turned down before. Though she had never wanted to go all the way before, she was itching to know what going all the way really was like. Darryl was going to be the one to show her. She wondered if he was the reason she had felt drawn to this cold, desolate place to begin with. She believed in fate, and maybe this was where she was supposed to come to find her true love - her soul mate.

Aria admonished herself for thinking that way. She had met him twice and climbed on his lap the second time she saw him. That seemed more like lust than soulmate. She hoped he didn’t think less of her, though she would not have changed a moment of it - except for the part where he walked away. She went to sleep fitfully, her dreams full of the wild Alaskan woods and the tattooed man that had cleaned her chimney and then failed to really clean her chimney. In her dreams though, he cleaned everything thoroughly.

The next day she got up early and made her way to the address on the card, eager to make a good professional impression. She was surprised to find herself arriving at the huge building that she had spied when she first got into town. It was no small operation he was running, whatever it was. She still was not sure what the company actually did, but she was excited to see Darryl again. The details would reveal themselves.

Passing through the front door, she was greeted by a large portrait of none other than Darryl right there on the wall. Even as she smiled to herself, he smiled back at her. It seemed fitting as she recalled visions of the night before. Her body inflamed with the very thought and she wondered if she was going to be turning crimson the entire week. She talked to the petite receptionist at the front and was directed to the elevator.

“Take it to the top floor and put in the code four-two-four to open the door.”

Confused, Aria thanked her and made her way towards the elevator. Four-two-four she repeated to herself. Kind of weird, she thought, but I guess a little extra security never hurt. There were only four floors in the building, but she felt like the elevator was taking forever. She was full of a nervous energy and an almost desperate desire to see him again. She wondered how he would act and what her job would be. She hoped he could handle being in such close proximity to him. If he touched her, she was a little afraid of how she would handle it. She imagined that all it would take would be one look and a soft kiss and she would be putty in his hands.

When she got to the fourth floor, a buzzer sounded and she entered the code on a small keypad. The door finally opened directly onto a wide open floor plan consisting, for the most part, of numerous desks and workstations scattered about in what looked to be a pretty ergonomic, worker friendly design. There were no rooms or barriers to interrupt the flow and communication. It reminded her of some TV show she had seen on the latest trends in Silicon Valley startups. As she entered, several men looked up at her, displaying a healthy interest in the new woman in the room. Suddenly she wished she had worn flats. Her heels clicked as she crossed the floor, the sound drawing the few remaining eyes that had not already noticed her entrance. She smiled at the upturned faces as she took in her new surroundings. She was instantly struck by the rather distinct type of men Darryl seemed to have surrounded himself with.

While she couldn’t see Darryl himself at first, she was immediately conscious of how much all these other men seemed to look like his carbon copy almost. They all seemed to have hard bodies, and even more noticeably all seemed to show signs at the neck and wrists that they too were heavily inked. This might not have made such an impression on her if she were at a motorcycle club or even in a gym, but they seemed decidedly out of place in what appeared to be pencil-pushing jobs. They could have also made a pretty good Chippendale’s crew, she thought.

“Aria, back here.”

As she turned to his voice she quickly forgot about everyone else. They might as well have disappeared. He was standing in the doorway of what looked to be his rather large corner office, which was built into the corner in the far back. Passing the men, she could help but feel their eyes on her. She knew she looked good in her heels and short skirt. Even more, these were the kind of men who could handle a woman like her. She only had eyes for Darryl though. Still, by the time she made it to his office door, she was beat red from all the attention. She walked on in and he closed the door behind her.

“Don’t mind them.”

She nodded, but didn’t say anything else. He was so close, she could feel his body heat. When he turned towards her, all she could think was that he was going to kiss her again. She actually closed her eyes and puckered her lips, but the kiss never came. After an awkward split second she sat down in the seat and looked down. Embarrassment was plain on her face. He was making it clear that whatever they had that was personal had no place here. She didn’t’ know if she would be able to keep them separate though. It turned out that he had wanted her as a sort of assistant or secretary. That worked fine for her, as she had the requisite skills. She wondered what he would have done with her if she couldn’t type. The relief of being a job she felt comfortable in was short lived however. Throughout the day as she typed out letters and made calls in the office it took everything she had to focus on the work at hand and not make another embarrassing move to somehow touch him. She was actually more afraid that she would not stop at just a touch. She wanted to rip his clothes off.

The rest of the week, the tension in the small office was palpable. She had come to learn that he was actually in charge of a very old family business which had mineral holdings in land through Alaska and even into Canada and around the world. They were into everything from gold to diamonds to abrasives. They even had a division dedicated to residential housing…and another for their fisheries. His family had been among the first to settle the area more than 200 years ago. Some rumored they had been here even longer, if that was even possible. Anyhow, she was even more in awe of him now. Here was a man who literally was in control of billions of dollars…and he had taken the time to stop by and meet his new neighbor…and even clean out her chimney.

She could not hold back the steamy looks she was giving him, and she was further confused by the equally hot looks he was returning her way. She wished that he would stop with his epic levels of self-control and take her right there on his desk. It didn’t help that he always seemed to glance over right while she was lost in one of her fantasies. Annoyingly the fantasies remained nothing more than fantasies as they continued to go about their work.

Thinking that maybe he had completely forgotten about their plans for her to see the ocean ice over the weekend, Aria tried to find a way to bring it up. It had been a busy first week though and the moment never seemed to arise. Still feeling chastised for apparently not understanding their new relationship, she just kept quiet as she gathered up her things and started to leave on Friday afternoon.

“Oh Aria, remember our hike? I hope you still want to go. I was thinking around noon tomorrow if that works for you. Remember to wear something warm okay?”

She nodded her head and as she walked out the door. Just like that her world turned from blackest night to the beautiful day. She knew she shouldn’t be so swayed, but she couldn’t help it. She felt like her heart was going to soar. She hadn’t even realized how disappointed she had felt before brought it up again. But all that was forgotten now. She couldn’t wait. She instantly picked up her pace as a smile practically split her face. She couldn’t wait for the next day. Who knew what might happen between them. As she walked out she again ignored the looks of the other men in the office. She had not had a chance to ask Darryl about the tattoos or who paid for the company gym membership. It did seem like Darryl was keeping her separate from the rest of the men there though. She had not been so much as introduced. It was kind of weird, but she just imagined Darryl wanted her all to himself. Well, she thought, he was going to have to put a little more on the table if he expected her to just wait around forever. She had high hopes he would do just that on their little excursion.


Noon was so slow to come Aria felt like a five year old on Christmas morning. She woke up early and then tried to get back to sleep to get some beauty sleep, but it was a waste of time. She was so excited there was no way she was going to get to sleep. Finally she had to just get up. The time still crawled by. She had a few cups of coffee and then set top figuring out what to wear. Aria settled on some semi-rugged, but very curve hugging jeans and boots. It dress obviously wasn’t appropriate. She skipped undergarments to feel a little naughty. It actually did the trick for her confidence in some weird way. Finally the appointed hour came and his truck appeared out front right on time. It was exactly noon when she looked at the clock and she had to giggle to herself. Darryl was nothing if not punctual. She liked a man who kept his word, even for something like this. When he said something, you could count on it and Aria really liked that about him. It made her feel safe as well as appreciated and valued

Not able to wait for him to knock, she opened the door when his feet hit the porch.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

Overwhelmed by her beauty and her incredible curvy figure, Darryl walked up to her and grabbed her face gently in both hands. Pushing her against the door frame, his lips met hers and his tongue teased at her mouth. She almost whimpered, as she was finally receiving the kind of attention she had so badly been craving all week. He responded by holding her even more tightly as their hips fought to rip through the very fabric of their clothes as they finally embraced. When he eventually broke the embrace and pulled away, her eyes remained closed a moment as she sought to catch her breath and compose herself.

“I’ve been wanting to do that all week.”

With his words Aria finally recovered and opened her eyes again, the green flecks sparkling even more brightly now.

“Mmm, you should have. I thought I was going to go crazy. If that is your impulse, then please follow it any time you feel the urge.”

He hissed air through his barely parted lips and kissed her again. This time his hands squeezed her braless breast and she could feel a hard knot forming against her. The way he got so easily turned on, turned her on to no end. She didn’t have to wonder if he desired her, she could feel it every time they touched. The idea of his long shaft inside of her made her go weak at the knees and she allowed herself to almost hang on him. She loved how he towered over her, supporting her with his strength.

He pulled back after a time and grabbed her hand, leading her towards the truck. They drove for quite a while before Aria could hear anything over the sound of her own heart pounding in her chest. She snuggled up against his body as he drove, allowing herself to bask in the happiness of the moment. When they finally stopped, she got out of the truck and looked towards the sea. There were still several places where the ice still reached out to the land.

She followed Darryl as he grabbed a backpack from his truck bed. He hefted it easily onto his back and they walked towards the majestic scene before them. The ice was thawing and receding weekly but it was still strong enough by all account to traverse. Aria was a nervous wreck, but she would have followed Darryl anywhere. He didn’t seem to have any doubts whatsoever about stepping out onto the ice. He was incredibly nimble for a man of his size.

They stopped several times to take in the views all around them. The sun glared off the white surroundings and she was thankful for the sunglasses he handed her. The pair watched a whale breach the water’s surface far out where a wide gap had already opened up in the ice. Aria felt a spark of magic in that moment. I felt like some kind of “sign” that all of this was somehow meant to be.

“I can’t believe I am up here in Alaska out on a floating sheet of ice. This is amazing. Thank you so much for bringing me. It really is beautiful. I never would have had the guts to come out here otherwise. Thank you for being my guide.”

She started to turn towards him, looking to initiate another embrace, when she heard a loud cracking sound. Her face went ashen, even as Darryl tried to signal her not to move, but it was too late. A huge fault opened up right beneath her and as one entire piece flipped up, Aria slid into the freezing sea and disappeared beneath the ice in a flash. Her scream was cut short and was replaced by an abrupt silence.

Darryl scrambled towards the gap in the ice, realizing he could easily join her if he wasn’t careful. He spotted her almost instantly, several feet away, under the thick ice. His fist beat at the ice near her, almost instinctively, but it was far was too thick to break through.

From under the ice, Aria was in shock from the searing cold and gripped by absolute terror as she stared wide-eyed up through the ice, her eyes darting to and fro as she beat at it and searched for a way to freedom. Through the distortion of the ice she was suddenly able to make out Darryl as he sprawled on hands and knees above her, as he too pressed his hands against the ice. But just as he was there, his hands suddenly pulled away. It had already been ten or fifteen precious seconds since she had gone under. She could not see what was happening…all she saw was shadow and a flurry of movement. She saw shadows…clothes... appearing on the ice…and a cast off boot it seemed. His hands were again against the ice except now things were no longer making sense. His hand pressed above her was changing…it had changed…She made out an enormous paw…and a second…Above her now through the ice was a mammoth shadow. It almost looked like a great white bear.

Aria knew that she was losing consciousness and that these were probably her last moments. She had liked him so much. Her body and mind were shutting down her brain was now causing hallucinations. She almost had no feeling now. The pain of the cold was gone. Suddenly she felt a massive pressure wave come through the water as the bear entered the water and swam up beside her. She felt her entire body tossed in the current as the bear positioned itself beneath her. Its massive body was pushing her through the water. Just as she saw stars and blackness closing in on her vision her head broke the surface. She felt her body lifted like a puppet’s. The bear had the belt of her jeans in its jaws as it lifted her out of the water and onto a safe patch of ice a good distance from the hole. Even as she lay there, waves of emotional relief and physical shaking coursed through her as she tried to make sense of the whole ordeal

“Strip.”

Aria heard the word in her mind and she looked over at the white bear with black markings. It was looking at her with familiar eyes. She was already so shaken her mind did not even question the impossibility of this beast. Somehow the power of the message, and some strange familiarity were enough, and she tried to pull her clothes off with her trembling fingers. The bear came forward and with a clawed paw caught at her jeans and actually ripped almost literally ripped them off. She gasped at the biting wind on her cold, bare flesh as she managed to remove the last of her soggy garments. The polar bear sat down in front of her and urged her forward with her paw. She understood and nuzzled up against it warm belly. It’s thick water repellant hairs felt dry against her cool skin. She instantly felt the warmth envelop her and after several minutes, her shaking body lay warm and still against the bear which had now curled around her. Burying her face into the warm animal, she thanked him silently, feeling the bear instantly hug her tighter.

After a short time she felt her strength coming back and she sat back up, finally turning her attention back to the miracle of the enormous bear besides her. She had one last shock to endure as she watched the bear begin to shrink and morph before her eyes. Its fur receded even the entire body began to change shape. So much for the law of the conservation of mass, she thought. The entire creature transformed almost eloquently back to that of the man she knew. Finally he just sat there, naked before her. Although she was still freezing, naked herself in the cold, she could not take her eyes off the tattooed man as he got up and walked towards her. He grabbed her hand as he gathered up the clothes he had apparently strewn about in his haste to shift and rescue her such a short time before. He handed her each item of dry clothing in turn so she could dress. Although he was still standing there totally naked, he even handed her his boots. Through the clearing haze, confusion, and outright shock of this entire experience she must have still registered an extra layer of incredulity as she covered herself with the last of his clothing.

“I don’t feel cold the way that you do.” Was all he said.

A million thoughts and feeling still fought for supremacy in her mind as the pair walked quickly off the ice sheet together. She had no idea what she had seen, but she knew she loved this man, and she knew he had saved her. They walked hand in hand.

This experience had solidified it for Darryl. She was the one and he would do whatever it took to make it work. Now she the truth of who, and what she was. His heart was still pounding from the scare he had just undergone at the idea of losing her. As the truck finally came into sight, he contemplated how to proceed. She now knew more about him than anyone else outside of his immediate clan. He did not need to worry about telling her anything, she already knew his secret. He looked back over at the quiet woman. She was boiling on the inside and he could still hear her thoughts rambling in her head. There was still one feeling that was felt over everything else. Love and lust, even more powerful though, was the acceptance that he felt from her.

“We should go back to your house, to warm up … and talk.”

Aria nodded and after a few minutes of driving, she curled her body again, against his. She laid her head on his shoulder and did her best to offer him some warmth, even if he said he was fine. She snuggled deeper into his oversized clothing as she tried to offer him some of the comfort he had so recently given her. As they drove the last few minutes to her house she almost dozed off as he ran his fingers through her hair with his free hand. By now she was curled up across the front seat of the pick-up cab and almost fully asleep as they pulled in, in front of the cabin. The day’s events had taken quite a toll on her body. He carried her inside and went to lay her down in her bed. As he tried to leave her there to rest, her arms tightened around his neck. She seemed to be getting her energy back.

Pulling his mouth to hers, his body crushed against hers, smooshing her down into the bed. The man above her growled and that time, it sent a shiver up her spine, reminding her of what he was. She could feel his tightness against her and she opened her legs to feel the stimulation against her very core. Aria didn’t care what Darryl was, she knew that they were meant to be together. She could feel it at the most primal level.

It was easy to pull his oversized clothing off of her body. Once again, she was as naked as she was on the ice, though this time they were both generating the heat to warm each other up. His hands pushed between her legs and sunk inside of her wetness as she groaned with pleasure. He broke their kiss to look down into his eyes. She squirmed underneath him, her hands clawing at his chest. She wanted to feel his bare skin on hers. She had felt lust before but now it was almost as though her very blood were boiling. She wanted this animal inside of her now.

He moved back, standing up for a moment to better his pants from her ready body. His long cock stood out hard and ready for her as well. She imagined she could see it throbbing with his heartbeat as she tried to sit up and grab it with her hand. But he pushed her away gently and instead climbed back on top of her naked body. Their lips met as he pushed his thick hardness against her slippery lips, pressing forward with an urgency they both felt. As he pushed forward he was unprepared as his cock met the barrier of her flower. He stopped his push and looked down at her questioningly. She groaned as her hips rubbed against his blunt tip. Darryl moved back, pulling his cock from between her legs, as he lowered his chest to her quivering stomach. His mouth nipped at her nipples with a touch of teeth that made goose bumps explode across her hot flesh.

Her hips moved up as he came closer with his steaming mouth. Aria whimpered as he moved closer and her hips surged higher as his tongue found her slickness. Darryl grabbed her ass cheeks in his large hands and pulled her to his face. The man sucked hard on her clit and she was soon writhing underneath him. His hold became tighter as he held her down, feasting on her quim. Darryl wanted the surge of fluid that he had made before. This time though, he wanted her to squirt it in his mouth so that he could taste it. One of his fingers pressed against her hole, delving in as deep as her innocence would allow.

The movement was just what she needed and she cried out as her thighs squeezed the man’s head. She screamed out his name and moaned as he continued to suck all of her fluid up into his mouth. He slurped and tongued her hole until she was pushing him away. Releasing her legs, they fell splayed on either side of him. He crawled back over her and positioned himself at her tightness.

He nudged the head forward until he felt the skin holding him back. Pushing ahead with a growl, he felt her tight canal give way and he surged forward into her honey hole. He cursed at her suffocating tightness and moaned as she squeezed the new filling. He bent forward and captured her bottom lip with his teeth as he drove the rest of the way in. Aria squeaked and her body pulled him in deeper.

“Mmm Darryl, it feels so big inside of me. So right.”

He pulled out and slammed back into her, her whole body jerking forward on the bed with the powerful thrust. His eyes had turned completely back and the look on his face was predatory. The beast inside was begging to come out and she could see it held together by his control. He wanted to give her time to adjust, but he had a bigger need consuming him. He pulled back and pushed back in to her small sounds of pleasure. He could feel her body tightening around him and then there was a scream that pierced the air.

“Darryl, I am coming. Oh God!”

Aria thrashed and clamped around the man’s shaft so hard. Darryl watched his length pull out of her and the sight of her loss innocence drove him forward. She begged him to go harder and faster, knowing that there was a bigger orgasm on the horizon. Aria’s eyes closed as he sat back on his knees, her thighs being held together by his large, rough hands. He squeezed her thighs tightly together and rutted in and out of her.

“One more time baby, please come one more time for me Aria. I love watching you come.”

It was transfixing and the man could tell that the woman was primed for another one. His hand fell to the top of her slit and he pressed hard on her tiny nub. She squealed with the contact and gripped handfuls of his muscles as her insides collapsed around his thrusting shaft. He gritted his teeth, trying to hold back, but when their eyes met, he was lost in her. He felt himself explode inside of her, shaking as much as her pussy walls were.

Pulling out, he laid next to her on his back. Aria crawled over to his chest and laid her head over his steady beating heart. She mewled softly next to him, her leg hooked on top of his, holding him in a full body embraced. She felt like singing, her whole body throbbing with remembered pleasure.


“So are we going to talk about what happened on the ice today?”

Darryl looked down at her and held her close. He was still afraid that his words would scare her, but he knew that they must come out. Darryl knew that it was a lot to take, though he hoped she would have an open mind because one was desperately needed.

“So you know what I am now.”

“I am not sure. I thought I saw you turn into a bear, but that doesn’t make much sense.”

“I am a lycanthrope, but instead of a wolf, my family turns into polar bears.”

“Your family?”

“Yea all those guys at work are my brothers.”

“Oh. So did Martha know about your little secret?”

“She did, but she knew that her family had their own secrets. I told you that our families are connected, I meant it. Your great aunt lived in the family house until a few years ago. It still does not feel the same without her there.”

“Why did she move here?”

“When Martha’s mate died, she no longer wanted to live in the big house. Her mate was my grandfather, so my father built her a small cottage down on the bottom of the mountain, so she was always close. It skips generations you see, so since Martha didn’t have any children, she must have known that you would be the one.”

“So what does that mean? I am confused.”

“Your blood ensures that my kind keeps going. You were mine before you were even born Aria, as I am yours. The birthmark on your chest marks you as the tattoo on my back marks me. I know this is hard to believe, but you will have our children and you probably already have some in your stomach.”

He held her, cradling her flat stomach. Aria noted the word some and she wondered if what he said was true.

“Why me?”

“Your family line was from here thousands of years ago. The legend says that there was a hard time that fell on this village and black bears killed many people. One of the medicine man imbued a man with special powers to fight the beasts and he would turn into a white bear at night to stalk out the dangerous foes. The white hid him in the snowy ice and they never saw him coming. This saved the village and he passed the ability on to his children. Your ancestor was the medicine woman and every other generation, our two families most converge, or the magic wears off.”

It all sounded like such a magical tale, one that you would tell your children and add in a moral at the end. If she had not seen him change once and then back again, she never would have believed such a fable. There were more questions that she wanted to know, but she was more interested in seeing her new home.

The man passed her small house and continued up the hill for another mile and a half in the truck. She had gotten dressed and followed him outside. He wanted to show her new home, but she still seemed to be taking it all quite well.

The road made the woman nervous and she tried not to look down off the edge. She already had doubts about the place and then the trees opened up, revealing the gem hidden behind them. The house was huge and beautiful. It was completely hidden from the main road. She never would have known it was up there

“Wow, I see your business does well.”

Darryl chuckled and kissed her on her lips.

“Our business. It will help with all of the children we will have. I have ten brothers.”

“Only brothers? And who says I am going to have that many children?”

“You cannot say no to me.”

Aria smirked, but she knew deep down that she would never say no to him. He was the man of her dreams and she was never going to let go. His eyes darkened as he put the truck in park and pulled her out with him towards the house. He opened the door and followed in behind her. In his home, he was excited to have her make it hers as well. It was a long time coming that the Alpha heard the pitter patter of his bloodline and he could not think of anyone else that was more suited to have them. His mouth came down on her surprised one and she was quickly winding her body around his.

“Now about our babies….”

Darryl grabbed her up and squeezed her sides as he dragged her up the winding staircase to their new bedroom. He barely made it through the threshold, before he threw her onto the bed and covered her with a skilled quickness. Aria was his for the taking.

THE END


Rescued by the Alpha Bear

Leela Ash

Copyright ©2015 by Leela Ash. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Thank you so much for your interest in my work!


Prologue

One Week Earlier

“Dad, there’s something over here!” he heard a young boy call. This would complicate things. Conner did not want to be found, but he couldn’t bring himself to drag his broken body out of sight. Every ounce of his being was in agony, and even the sound of footsteps getting closer drilled through his head like a jackhammer to the brain. He wasn’t sure what happened, and a part of him knew he needed to hide before the boy with the piercing voice found him, but he just couldn’t move. He was bloody and naked. That would certainly traumatize a little kid, or at least scare the shit out of him, which he also wasn’t eager to do. Besides, he didn’t need a hospital to get better. He needed food and a lot of rest. But he couldn’t move, and when he tried, pain sliced through his body.

“Oh my god, Dad there’s a naked man over here. He looks dead!” the boy shrieked. That was followed by the sound of someone else – or the boy - running towards him. Conner wasn’t sure which, nor did he really care.

He groaned and grabbed his head as he tried to lift himself. Lights flashed before his eyes, and he fell back to the ground with a heavy thud, writhing in pain. He was dying; that’s all there was to it. Closing his eyes, he gave himself over to fate.

***

Lana paced outside the judge’s chambers as he went over the notes for the case to decide whether or not there was a case at all. In her gut she knew something was off, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It was a strange case. The defendant, Cameron Marks, had no priors. Hell, he had never even gotten a traffic ticket. But now he was being indicted with three assault charges and attempted murder. One of the women whom he supposedly assaulted couldn’t even finger him. But that could have been chalked up to shock, so it really meant nothing. It made no sense, but the detectives weren’t bringing her anything she could use. He seemed to be implicating himself, but not to the point of a confession. Something wasn’t right.

The door swung open and Judge Patterson strode from the room. He was such a serious man, and she could swear that he never smiled. Ever. Not that she had much to say on that account. Lana wasn’t sure how long it had been since she had last smiled or had a good time. She didn’t even want to think about how long it had been since she had enjoyed a man’s company. And that didn’t just mean getting between the sheets, either. She hadn’t had a date in months. She shook her head. This wasn’t the time to be going over her love life, or the lack thereof.

The judge walked past her and she followed behind, hoping to get this day over with. Already she had been in court three times, and she still had two major clients to meet with. The day was far from over, but at least after this she’d be done with court for the day. She walked by the defendant’s brother, who was here to support him, and shivered. She glanced back over her shoulder to find his dark eyes staring back at her. There was a strange intensity within the blue depths, as if he were trying to read into her very soul. Lana shivered again and, averting her gaze, quickened her pace to get back inside the court room.

Now he’s someone I could picture trying to kill someone.

The thought stopped her in her tracks. Could that be why the case was so messed up? Maybe Cameron was innocent? But if so, then why would he take the heat? Stranger things had happened. Brothers could be very loyal, even to the point of serving time for crimes they did not commit. And now that she thought about it, she knew she needed to follow her gut instinct. It had never let her down before.

The sound of the gavel rang out in the room. Everyone grew silent waiting for the judge’s decision.

“Regarding the case of the state versus Cameron Marks, for three counts assault and one count attempted murder, with insufficient evidence I am forced to dismiss this case. If and when evidence is collected the case can be refiled with the state.” He hit the gavel again. “That is all.”

That was it. Even the judge couldn’t find a reason to keep Cameron behind bars, and now Lana had her work cut out for her. She had to bring someone to justice at least. She gathered her notes and placed them in her briefcase. At her back she felt eyes boring into her. A shiver of fear ran up her spine, and when she turned around Campbell Marks was staring insistently at her again. Catching himself he looked away, but not before she registered his contempt. His eyes looked even darker and more sinister than they had in the hallway. The man really gave her the creeps, and the first order of business was having someone check into his background. Something about his demeanor had her on edge. He was not a nice man, but just because he wasn’t nice didn’t mean he was the one who committed the crimes.

Or did it?

Lana didn’t know, but she would find out, and soon; something smelled rotten in Denmark, and she vowed to discover what it was.


Lana had followed Campbell Marks since the judge dismissed the case against his brother Cameron, and she’d seen a couple of things she probably shouldn’t have.

To make matters worse, he caught her.

Luckily, she had been in her car and was able to get away. It turned out Lana’s theory was correct. It wasn’t Cameron who had committed the crimes but his older brother Campbell, a man with a long history of violence and domestic abuse under his belt. He had assaulted his ex-girlfriend, and the two men she had cheated on him with.

Gross, she thought, talk about getting around. I’d be pissed too.

Even though she was thrilled that she’d been right, and her gut hadn’t led her astray, Lana wished she could kick her own ass. Since she decided to take the detective work into her own hands, she was now in a predicament she wasn’t sure how to get out of. She had evidence that she really couldn’t prove, which meant she couldn’t use it in court.

She realized too late she should have left the investigating to the police, but she couldn’t help it. She found herself wanting to prove that Cameron was innocent, even though technically it was her job to do the opposite. As the prosecutor of the case, she was going about it all wrong. To be honest, she wasn’t sure why she was so hell bent on finding out the truth. It was her job to prove without a doubt that someone was guilty. But in this case she couldn’t.

She was so engrossed in her own thoughts that she didn’t even see him coming. Campbell grabbed her and shoved her against the wall—hard. Lana didn’t have time to scream before his dirty hand covered her mouth.

“Don’t you dare make a sound, got it?” he hissed in her ear. Lana nodded, if only to get him away from her.

His stench made her gag as he rubbed against her and groaned. “Hm, you’re a big girl.” Then he had the audacity to roughly fondle her breast before backing away.

Now he was angry again. Talk about mood swings.

Lana was pissed. Any other time she wouldn’t have stood for that kind of behavior from a man, but this one just so happened to be holding a knife in his hand. Maybe things were worse than she thought. She could handle being groped. Hell, she could even handle being roughed up, but she wasn’t sure if she was up for whatever he was planning. She shivered in fear, thinking of the worst case scenario.

She began to speak but shook her head, thinking better of it. Sometimes talking got her in more trouble than it was worth. Maybe if she kept her trap shut he would leave her alone. But the likelihood of that was slim to none. This time she wasn’t able to get away.

“You stupid bitch, you should have stayed out of it. Cameron knew what he was doing. And now they’re after me.” Campbell jabbed his knife in her direction as if he were going to stab her. Lana didn’t fear many things, but in this case she certainly wasn’t feeling confident about her chances. An erratic man with a sharp weapon wasn’t a good mix—ever.

“He wouldn’t have gotten the time I would,” he continued, as if that explained it all.

She nodded, slowly understanding. Cameron was going to take the rap for his older brother. She already knew the two were only fifteen months apart, and they were closer than anyone could ever imagine. She shuddered. The things she had come across sickened her. They definitely weren’t your everyday ordinary family.

Cameron planned to do whatever punishment he got. He’d be out of jail and back on the streets before Campbell was able to commit another crime.

Maybe.

That was loyalty, and Lana shouldn’t have been surprised, but she was. She couldn’t imagine taking the blame for something she didn’t do, no matter how much she cared about the person.

She held up her hands in surrender. “Let’s calm down, Mr. Marks. I haven’t told anyone anything, and I won’t. I’ll forget about it all, and then we can go on with our lives like nothing happened. Okay?”

Campbell laughed wildly. “Yeah, like I believe that shit for a minute. I’m not stupid, you condescending bitch.” He ran a shaky hand through his dirty blond hair. “And people actually believe the shit you spew?” He stepped over her, and she cowered against the wall. As he leaned his face against her cheek, his hot breath whispered against her ear, “You’re going to pay for messing this up for me.”

Lana shuddered and gagged. The feel of his breath on her skin turned her stomach. “Please,” she said. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was asking for. At that moment she only knew that she wanted him away from her.

Conner’s beast roared, and his body shook with rage. His bear tried to break free, but even though he was still out of it from his injuries, he knew that couldn’t happen. All he knew for sure was that he needed to get somewhere and he needed to get there fast. It was the whole reason he left the hospital.

He wasn’t sure why he had felt the urgency to come this way, but even with no memory he knew not to ignore the bear inside of him. Instinct alone led him further into the city to a parking garage.

Really, what the hell?

But his other half paced inside his head, pushing him to hurry. He sped down to the lower level of a parking garage, and it wasn’t until he heard a woman’s plea that he knew why he was there.

He didn’t know shit, except right at the moment it didn’t matter. The sound of her voice tightened his gut. His beast pawed at him, urging him to follow her voice. Otherwise, he drew a blank. He didn’t know what happened before he ended up in the hospital. The doctor said his memory would return in time and it could be a little at a time or all at once. Right now, that didn’t matter

The woman cried out, and something inside him snapped. He rounded the corner to see a man standing over a beautiful, plump woman. Both man and beast wanted to kill.

Mine! his beast cried in despair.

Conner shook his head in shock.

My mate.

He took a deep breath, inhaling her delicious scent and then narrowed his eyes on the man who was touching her. The man stunk of sweat, marijuana, and alcohol. He was also very sick, but the biggest problem was his waving a knife at Conner’s woman.

Conner barreled towards the man and swung a meaty hand at him, knocking the knife to the ground. The man hadn’t even seen him coming. He was too engrossed in scaring the woman. She gasped, and when he looked down at her, he saw a tear slide down her cheek. He wanted to reach down and wipe it away, but the man had shaken out of his daze and dove for the fallen knife. But Conner wouldn’t let him get that far. In one quick move he grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck and held him up, feet dangling in the air.

“You dared to touch her!”

The man paled and lost control of his bladder. The stench of urine filled the air, and Conner held him further from his body. Shaking him again, Conner felt disgust for the puny excuse of a man.

“Did you hear me? Don’t touch what isn’t yours, you worthless piece of shit!” Conner dismissed the man as a threat and tossed him to the side, not caring if he hurt him severely or not. It didn’t matter. He was on his deathbed anyways. Instead, he focused on the woman, who was watching him with wide, innocent eyes.

Conner knelt in front of her and placed a big hand on her forearm. His heart raced at the first touch and a tingle ran up his spine as heat filled his body.

Ours, his beast rumbled from within.

Conner’s jaw fell. She gasped at his touch and looked down at his hand. He pulled it away. “Sorry.” Then he smiled. “Are you okay? He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

She swallowed and shook her head. “You showed up in time. Thank you.”

“Where can I take you?”

She pointed right in front of her. “That’s my car. He cornered me before I had the chance to leave.”

Again, Conner touched her arm. She didn’t seem as scared. Her heart had slowed to a regular rhythm. “Let’s get you up off the ground then, okay?”

She nodded and allowed him to pull her up. He gaped at the woman before him. She was a tall woman with curves any man would fall to his knees for. She held herself with a confidence most women didn’t, and he found that was sexy as hell. She wore a tight skirt and a jacket. He could tell she was some type of business woman. His bear whined, wanting to be free.

She was perfect for him. She wasn’t too short or too small that he would hurt her. Fate had led him to his mate, after all the time he spent avoiding it. Now he wondered why. He didn’t even know her name, and at that moment in time, it didn’t even matter that he didn’t know his either.


Lana kept her eyes on the biggest and sexiest man she’d ever seen. He must have been at least 6’5 because with heels she was about six feet and he towered over her. It didn’t escape her notice that he was in a hospital gown, and she sighed. Go figure he’d be a nutbag. Who left the hospital in a gown except a crazy person? His hand held hers and their gazes locked. His eyes were a deep shade of blue, and there was something about him that pulled her in. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and her clit throbbed with need. It’d been too long she since she’d had sex, and this man didn’t have to do anything. She was aroused just by looking at him. Licking her lips, she cocked her head to the side. He followed the movement with his eyes like a hungry beast, and her heartbeat quickened.

She was so engrossed in him that she forgot about Campbell until it was too late. He snuck up on her angel and jammed the knife into his side. Roaring in pain, her rescuer fell to his knees. Lana screamed and stood frozen. Then the psycho pulled out the knife and wiped the blood on his pants coming towards her.

“It's your turn, bitch. Bigger doesn’t always mean smarter.” Campbell shoved her back, and she fell to the ground. She paled, knowing that she was going to die. He was crazy and clearly had no qualms about killing. Her body shook with a fear she had never felt before as sobs wracked her body. There were no words, no getting through to him. He was clearly off his rocker. Campbell knelt beside her with evil in his eyes and poised the knife above her. Lana squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, waiting for the white, hot agony of being stabbed.

But it never came.

She heard a shrill scream and the smack of something hitting the pavement, followed by a loud, sickening crunch. When she opened her eyes, she froze. Her eyes rounded in shock and terror. She couldn’t breathe. A giant bear was standing over Campbell’s limp body. Blood poured from him and seeped over the concrete.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. The beast turned towards her with intelligent eyes.

She shook her head in disbelief and leaned back. It wasn’t possible. But where did her angel go? There was no way he picked himself up and left. Not when he went out of his way to save her, and he was injured. The bear’s eyes were the same deep blue she’d gazed into minutes earlier.

The man who saved her was the bear.

Standing up, Lana brought her hand to her feverishly hot forehead. She felt as if she might collapse, so she held onto the post to regain her balance. After a moment, though, she leaned over and vomited. Her eyes watered and tears slid down her cheeks. The stress had taken over, and as she let go, she realized something: her life was about to change and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

Conner watched his mate as she turned away from him in fear. His beast lowered his head in shame, but he wouldn’t regret saving her from the man with the knife. It was his job to protect her. He didn’t enjoy feeling her fear, though—especially her fear of him. She didn’t need to be afraid of him--he’d never hurt her. Closing his eyes, Conner tried to remember...anything.

He wasn’t doing well himself, but as soon as he had shifted, he started healing. He still tender, however, and it was too soon to be injured again. It was worth it. And even though he didn’t know who he was by name or who his family was, or hell, why he ended up waking up in a hospital bed, he knew one thing: That woman was his, and he had just protected her the way it was intended. With that in mind, he shifted back to his human self and pulled the gown back on. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

He ambled towards her slowly and placed a hand on her back. She tensed beneath his touch and he dropped his hand. “He was going to kill you.”

Plain, simple truth.

“I know,” she replied, but she didn’t look at him. “Who are you?”

Conner scratched his head. “I don’t know.”

This caught her attention. She spun to face him and laughed humorlessly. “You don’t know? You turned into a bear and killed someone, but you don’t know who you are?” Her voice rose and her face turned bright with anger or fear, he wasn’t sure which. It could have been both.

He shrugged. “I was at the hospital. The doctors said I have amnesia, so no I don’t know who I am until my memory decides to come back. What I do know is I’m a man who is also a bear. He’s a part of me, and he killed to protect his mate.” Conner wasn’t going to beat around the bush. Something clicked. It seemed being blunt came natural to him.

“I’m sorry, mate?” she sputtered.

He raised his big hand and cupped her jaw. At first she tensed, but then he rubbed his thumb lightly along her jawline and she relaxed some. “Yes, my mate.” His eyes shined with excitement. Touching her was right. “What’s your name?”

She worked her mouth a few times so he dropped his hand back to his side.

“Lana.”

“Beautiful,” he replied. She still was shocked by him. “We should probably go?” His eyes drifted to the dead man, flaring with anger. Conner would have died before letting him harm Lana.

She shook her head. “I can’t leave. I’m the prosecuting attorney for the case we were building against him. He didn’t like it.” She peeked around him at the body and shuddered. “His brother was planning to take the fall, but the judge threw out the case because there was no evidence. Until now, anyway. The police had finally tied Campbell to the crimes. This isn’t going to look good.” She bit her bottom lip.

Conner nodded, but he didn’t like this news. He wanted to take her away. “What should we say?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. At this point, we’ll both end up in jail. The police will send you back the hospital for your injury first.” She paced. “I can’t go to jail. And you can’t go back to the hospital. They’ll think you’re crazy and lock you up.”

“Then let’s go somewhere safe, and you can call and talk to your police friends. Explain what happened.”

“No, I can’t leave, and I won’t be able to come back. My DNA is on his body.”

Conner growled. “Why?”

“Probably because he rubbed all over me.” Shaking her head, she groaned. “I know what I have to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I have to call my mother.” She said it with both fear and awe. Conner wondered what her mother would be able to do to make this better. Even without his memory, he wasn’t dumb. He knew the implications she would face, and the ones he would face as well. It wasn’t a good situation. And he didn’t think his mate’s mother would be able to do much to help.

“I think we should go somewhere first, before you call your mom. It’s only a matter of time until they find him. We have a little time, though, since it’s late.”

“I can’t just run.”

“I didn’t say that, but maybe you shouldn’t be here when you call her.”

Lana nodded. “I guess. I should probably go home—and you’re coming with me. I might have something you can wear.”

Conner nodded, but he didn’t like hearing that she had men’s clothing that would fit him. His bear growled and plopped down unhappily, jealous of a past he didn’t know.


Her angel's attitude changed, and she didn’t understand why. She gestured for him to get in her car and he did, but now he sat in the passenger’s seat in stony silence. She started to ask what was wrong, but the glare he sent her way changed her mind. She had no idea why he was so mad. She was taking his advice and leaving the scene of a crime he committed. It wasn’t like her. She had always followed the rules and breaking them was tough.

She pulled out of the parking garage, carefully avoiding Campbell’s body, and shuddered. She never imagined being a part of a crime. But if it weren’t for the man sitting next to her, she wouldn’t be breathing. Deep inside, she knew he had saved her life, and now it was her turn to save him because he was going to need it. He killed a man with his bare hands. No one was going to believe it was an accident. Hell, she wasn’t even sure if it was . He hadn’t said it was. He just told her he had to protect her.

She drove out into the night. Luckily it was getting late and the sun was down. She had some time before she had to call it in, and she needed a drink, or three. But first she needed to find out what the hell she did to piss him off. He had been so sweet, calling her his mate, and now he wouldn’t even look at her.

She stopped at a red light and put her hand on his bicep. He tensed and his muscle flexed beneath her fingertips.

“Why are you mad?”

And why the hell wasn’t she yelling at him for being an asshole? Instead she was calm and actually felt like she should be apologizing for something. She didn’t understand why she felt so attached to him, why she cared so much about what he thought of her, and why she was not being her normal bitchy self when a man pissed her off.

At first he didn’t respond. But then he sighed. “You said you may have something to fit me. I’m a large man, and I don’t feel comfortable with you handing me clothes from the men in your life. My bear doesn’t like hearing about it either. We are protective and apparently pretty damn possessive.”

Lana laughed and squeezed his arm. “The clothes are my brothers’ and they are all bigger than me. It runs in the family. I figured one of them left some stuff around throughout the years.”

Suddenly, his eyes brightened and he stopped moping. “Oh, brothers we can handle.” Then he shook his head with a blush. “Sorry, for being an ass. I guess I’m not used to this, and I really don’t know how I would normally act. My bear is acting like I’m an idiot. I feel lost.”

“I get that, but please try not to make assumptions about me. We both have pasts; you just can’t remember yours right now.”

“Fair enough.”

A horn honked behind them, so she turned her attention back to driving. Speeding down the highway, Lana decided she was going to her retreat rather than her home because honestly, she was scared. She didn’t want to go to prison, and she certainly didn’t want him to go.

He was quiet again, but this time he looked deep in thought. She wondered what his life was like, and found herself growing more attached to the giant man. He was really sensitive for such a big guy. And apparently any talk of past lovers was out of the question. She smiled, feeling for the first time like she might have found someone who cherished her, and only her. It would be a nice change.

***

Lana pulled into the driveway of her family’s cabin. It was secluded and safe. She loved being in the woods, and she thought her guest might appreciate it as well. His eyes said it all, and he looked like he was going home.

“What’s this place?”

“It’s my family’s cabin. We used to come here all the time as kids, and now we come here as adults when we need to get away. No one should be here now, though. ”

“It’s a beautiful home.”

“Thank you. Now let’s get inside, and you can get cleaned up after I call my mom.”

“Sounds good to me.”

She got out of her car and stretched. This was her second home, and the longer she was a lawyer, the more often she came here to hide out. They went inside and he sat on the couch.

“So what do I call you, then, if you don’t know who you are?”

“You can call me whatever you want, I guess,” he shrugged. “A name is just a name, after all.”

“Fair enough,” she said, pulling out her phone. She dialed home and waited. As soon as her mother said ‘hello’ she got straight to the point.

“Mom, I need your help.” She proceeded to tell her mother what happened. She pulled the phone away when her mother’s voice rose too high. Her bear’s eyes widened when he heard her mother.

“I know, mother. It’s not like I asked for this.” She nodded as if her mother could see her. “Okay, so I’ll wait for you to come to me.”

Her mother yelled a little more but agreed.

“Okay, mom, see you soon. Yeah, I love you too.” She closed her phone and sighed. Her head hurt and all she wanted to do was forget this horrible day happened.

“She sounds nice,” Conner said.

“She’s great, but she is a tad overwhelming. Just a warning for you, she’s going to want to know how and why this happened…”

He shrugged again. “Sure I’ll tell her, as long as she doesn’t announce it to the world. She deserves to know since you’re my mate. Makes us family—”He stopped, and his eyes widened.

“Family, there are a lot of them.” He smiled. “I’m not alone, although all I could see were a large group of bears roaming together. Not real hopeful, I suppose.”

“Any memory is helpful right?”

“That’s what the doctors say. It sucks not actually knowing who I am. I know I was hurt badly enough to go to the hospital, plus they told me I should have died. Only I didn’t. They think it’s a miracle, but I know different. Being what I am makes me heal differently, faster, and better.”

“It’s a miracle, regardless of what you are,” Lana said, and heat rose to her cheeks. What was it about this man that made her feel so—young and desperate? “Oh and my mom said to wait it out. She’s going to pull some strings and deal with it. Then she’ll come here.”

“Pull some strings?”

“Yeah my mother is Elisabeth Walker.”

He looked confused. “And?”

Lana smiled. She couldn’t believe it, but he had no idea who her mother was, which meant he didn’t know about her family connections or her wealth. “She’s a pretty huge name in the city.”

“Oh, well, you shouldn’t be associated with me, then.”

“Too late, you’ve got blood on and in my car, and Campbell attacked me. There’s no way out of this. We can claim self-defense. And since you’re much bigger than him, that should account for how you managed to do that amount of damage. Besides, he stabbed you first. It’s tricky, but my mom is going to figure it out. She said it might take a few days…”

She gulped when his eyes clouded with lust and his smile went from adorable to downright sexy.


Conner couldn’t have been happier finding out he would get at least three days with his mate, alone, in the woods. If he had his way they would be mated before her mother showed up to try to discourage her daughter from mating with a beast. He could barely contain his bear as it was, and although she covered it up well, the scent of her arousal wasn’t helping matters. If he didn’t have enhanced abilities, he wouldn’t even know.

“I guess I should go find you some clothes so you can get cleaned up.”

“Sounds good. It’ll be nice to have something other than this dingy hospital gown.”

Or I could just stay naked.

As if she could read his thoughts, her eyes traveled down his body like she was mentally stripping him down.

All she had to do was ask.

Lana turned away from him and walked down a narrow hallway. Conner followed closely behind. Her body heat radiated against him, and he wanted to lean into her warmth. He hadn’t been able to get rid of the chill that had soaked into his bones since he woke up in the hospital. He hadn’t eaten, so his blood count was low, and being injured a second time hadn’t helped matters any.

She walked into a room she clearly spent a lot of time in. Her scent overpowered other lingering scents. He crowded behind her when she stopped and pulled open a drawer and searched through it. She easily found him clothes and set them on top. She wasn’t a tiny woman by any means, but she was still small and delicate in comparison to him. Her body molded to his perfectly.

He moved closer and brought his arms around her waist, allowing his hand to flatten across her stomach. She shivered and leaned by against him, as if she couldn’t help herself. Nuzzling her neck, he breathed deeply and took in her scent. It felt like he had finally come home. Conner licked her neck with the tip of his tongue, testing. She shivered and tilted her head to the side. His bear rumbled at her submission. He grazed his teeth along her skin, light and tantalizing. She moaned quietly and pushed further into his body.

Conner slid his hands near the elastic to her skirt and ran his finger lightly along the band. “Okay?”

She nodded her head against his chest and spread her legs further apart, which pushed her skirt up higher. Running his finger right under the waistband and tickling her skin, he growled in frustration at how tight the skirt was secured. He spun her around and shoved her skirt up around her waist before lifting her on top of the dresser. Stepping between her legs, he pulled her to the edge. She wrapped her legs around his waist and tipped her head back. The exposed tan skin tempted him. He leaned in and licked a path from the base of her throat down in between her breasts.

All at once Conner froze. He shut his eyes as his memory slammed into him. It flashed before his eyes in a sequence much like a movie. As glad as he was to get his memory back, he wasn’t thrilled at the timing. She tried to get closer, but she hadn’t even realized he had stopped.

He was the Alpha’s son, and only heir. His family was the wealthiest family in the tristate area. They owned land with petrol oil and sold it to gas stations across the country.

His mother was killed right before his eyes by an enemy clan, and his heart broke. He didn’t realize he was crying until Lana’s finger brushed the stray tears. She was watching him with sympathy. Her eyes matched the hurt he was feeling. It was like she could feel his pain. Then more came and he saw the man who had killed his mother.

He searched for him for the last few years, trying to bring justice, but the man got the better of him and tore into him, trying to shred him apart piece by piece. Conner didn’t give up, though, not until he lifted one furry paw and landed the killing blow. His bear roared into the early morning mourning his mother’s death for the last time, and telling the rest he had found her, bringing her the justice she deserved. The sun was rising and after he tore the man’s throat out, he limped into the park, trying to make it to the woods behind to lead him back home. But he was fading fast. He collapsed and turned back human. Each breath he took was unbearable. He faded in and out of consciousness.

Then he heard the boy. That was the last thing before he woke up in the hospital. Conner shook his head and brought a hand to his face, rubbing away the tears. He knew the truth now. He murdered two men in less than forty-eight hours. And even though they both deserved it, he felt like a monster. His mother had died protecting the cubs, and he had settled the score and found her murderer. He knew everything now. He was on his way home, when he couldn’t make it. He lost too much blood, and he had nearly died, but the boy found him and the hospital had managed to save him. He really was lucky to be alive. “My name is Conner Lawson.”

“You got your memory back?”

“Yeah, it all came back. I guess you helped trigger it.”

She smiled sweetly and caressed his jaw. “It’s nice to meet you, Conner.”

“It’s weird. I haven’t seen anything, and now, when I was quite happy with where things were heading, the memories came back.”

“It’s better, though. Now I know who you are, and you know who you are.” Then she paused and her eyes filled with worry. “Am I still your mate?” she asked hesitantly.

Conner chuckled. He lost his memory, not his heart. “Of course, nothing has changed. I just know where I come from now, and I have my name. I feel whole now. I have my life back, but even better, I have you. And that’s what means the most.”

“I just wasn’t sure if the memory loss maybe misread our— situation.”

Conner couldn’t help it. She was sweet and sexy, and everything he could have ever hoped for in a mate. He leaned in and kissed her. The first was barely a brush of the lips. He sucked in a breath as soon as her lips touched his back. Such a small gesture, but it was perfection.


Lana was happy he had his memory back, and she was also glad it had interrupted what was about to happen. She shook her head in disgust. Was she that desperate for affection that she’d screw the first man who touched her? She didn’t understand what she was feeling. Never before had she wanted to let go and just be with any man before. She knew it wasn’t the best time to be thinking about sex, and to top it off, the man she wanted had just killed another man and regained his memory after having amnesia. If that wasn’t inappropriate, she didn't know what was.

His memory returning was the cool down she needed. Handing Conner—it was nice putting a name to his face—the pile of clothing she found, she smiled tightly with a blush to her cheeks. “Here are some clothes you can try; shower is down the hall, last door on the right.” She stepped around his large body and took a deep breath, walking out of the room and leaving him standing there staring at her as if she’d lost her mind.

She went out to the mudroom and opened the fridge. He was most likely hungry, and she was too. Pulling out a dish of pre-made food, courtesy of her brother, she went back to the kitchen and preheated the oven. When she heard the shower come on, she went back into the room and found a pair of shorts and a tank top and quickly changed out of her work suit. It had been suffocating wearing it so long. Feeling much better, she went back to the kitchen and made some coffee. Normally she refrained from drinking it, but she was too exhausted to sleep and needed the caffeine boost.

The scent of coffee filled the cabin and she sighed, pouring a cup and trying to get the stress of the day to fall off. She put dinner in the oven and set the timer. Glancing out the window above the sink she sipped her coffee and closed her eyes. Rolling her shoulders she groaned at the pain that shot down her spine. She figured it must have been when Campbell had shoved her down. She shuddered at the thought of the man she left lying in a dirty parking lot—dead. Things were going to get ugly, and she wasn’t sure she could handle it.

A large hand slid onto her hip, and she jumped, turning towards Conner. He was wearing a pair a flannel pants and no shirt. She was mesmerized by the water glistening on his chest. She licked her lips and forced her eyes away. When she looked up, he was staring at her with a smirk. Like he knew what was going on in her head. She blushed and mumbled, “Feel better?”

His eyes twinkled. “Yes, thanks.”

“I’m making dinner, and there’s coffee if you want some.” She tried to move away from him, but he was so close, and she wasn’t a small woman. Shifting her body, she slid out from between his large frame and the counter. Her body brushed against him and heat flared in his eyes. He placed his other hand on her hip to hold her in place. She was stuck and found that once again she didn’t want to stop. She wanted this man, and for the life of her she couldn’t figure out why it was so hard to resist him.

“Lana, are you all right?”

“I don’t know, isn’t it too soon?”

He pulled her against his body and she gasped. His hard body felt right against her soft curves. “You’re my mate; it’s natural for you to want me.” It was as though he could read her mind. He knew she was feeling like there was something wrong. “Even though you’re human, you still get the effects of the mating heat.”

“That’s what this feeling is?” she asked in a whisper.

“Yes, and don’t fight it, baby. It won’t do either of us any good if you do. I won’t be satisfied, nor will my bear, until we complete the bond.”

“Bond?”

Conner tipped her head back and smiled at her. “Yes, it’s what bears do, we bond with our mate, and that connects us together forever.”

“I see,” she replied, her eye lighting with lust. He didn’t need to tell her that bonding meant hot and sweaty sex. Her body clenched with need, and feeling his cock harden against her stomach told her that his was, too. She stepped out of his reach and lifted her shirt over her head, throwing it to the floor. Her breasts felt heavy, and she reached behind her back and unsnapped the clasp holding her bra on. Conner watched her, entranced as she slid the straps down her shoulders and revealed her large breasts to him. The cool air kissed her nipples, hardening them further. She shivered and licked her lips. His eyes traveled down her body.

“Lose the shorts,” he said. His voice was laced with a need she could relate to, and the gruffness turned her on even further.

She didn’t deny him; she pushed them over her hips and shimmied her shorts down her legs, revealing lacy bikini panties. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. She blushed but smiled. He actually looked as though he wanted to devour her. “You like?”

Conner nodded his head and gulped. She was stunning and everything he didn’t know he wanted. She was strong, independent, yet he could see her shyness and thought she was the most adorable woman. The fact that she was a kick-ass lawyer and put criminals away only made her more appealing. He stalked towards her like she was his prey, and at that moment he was too far gone to worry if he was acting more animal than man. She didn’t seem to mind. He stood before her, gripping her panties and ripped them down one side. “I’ll buy you more.”

His hand caressed her hip and wrapped around her ass. It was big and firm in his hands. She gasped when he yanked her to him, and then he kissed her like a man starving. She didn’t disappoint and kissed him back, opening her mouth and licking his bottom lip before she nipped it lightly. “Let’s take it to the bedroom.”

He lifted her into his arms and sped down the hallway. He tossed her on the bed, shucked the pants she loaned him, and climbed on top of her. He couldn’t take his time, not this time. He needed to be in her. Needed to mark her and make her his. He gripped her wrists and pulled them above her head, and then he used his knees to spread her legs.

“You’re mine, Lana. Forever.” He didn’t wait and drove into her soaking wet pussy. Turns out she was ready. She cried out and arched off of the bed with such power it nearly knocked him off of her.

He kissed her lightly now and slowed his thrusts, making love to her. Sweat covered his brow, and he clenched his jaw. She moaned and thrashed her head back and forth. “Oh my god!”

He growled, more bear than man as his canine teeth lengthened and her eyes widened. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt,” he said. She nodded, completely trusting him, humbling him when she submitted. His bear preened with happiness and he struck the side of her neck.

She screamed long and loud and her pussy clenched tightly around him, bringing him to his release. He growled against her throat and thrust faster. His body was shaking with overwhelming emotions as the bond formed. He went crazy, and the bed shook and creaked beneath their weight. She lifted her hips, meeting and matching his movements. After he marked her, he nuzzled her neck before kissing her wounds. She shivered.

Their bodies were slick with sweat, and both were panting.

“Whoa,” she said, chuckling.

He pulled out from her body and rolled over beside her on his back. He closed his eyes slowing his breathing. Turning his head, he looked at his mark on her neck. It was already healing. There would be scars; everyone would know she was his. Nothing ever made him happier. He could feel her emotions: She was tired and a little worried.

“What’s wrong, baby?” he asked, turning towards her.

“What happens if we go to jail?”

“We won’t. You said your mom will pull some strings.” He hesitated saying what he wanted, but she was his mate. “We’ll go to the den and live. No one will find us. My family will keep you safe.”

“I can’t just run.”

“If it’s bad, I won’t give you a choice. I’m sorry, Lana, but I won’t allow you to be stuck behind bars. You didn’t do anything.”

“I left the scene. That looks terribly guilty. I’m just scared. I just found you, and I don’t want to lose you.” She rolled toward his body and buried her face in his chest.

“You won’t,” he whispered. And he meant it. Nothing would take her away from him.


The next morning Lana woke up hot and covered with a large male body. She smiled to herself, thinking of all the ways he had continued to make love to her. He was seriously insatiable. Her body ached in places she didn’t know existed, and she was tired. But overall, she felt amazing. She could feel the bond between them, though she wasn’t sure if it was in the same way he did. He had her heart and soul, and even though they didn’t know everything about each other it felt right.

She was a little worried about what her mother would think, but hopefully she would just be supportive like she was with every other choice Lana made. Laying there she thought about Campbell’s lifeless body. Someone would have found him by now, and she shuddered with the thought of what was to come. She wouldn’t survive in prison. Too many people were behind those bars because of her. She was the top prosecuting attorney in the area, after all.

Conner pulled her closer to his body and sighed. She watched his eyes shift beneath his lids. He was dreaming of something. It was surreal to be lying next to this man, who wasn’t only a man. He had a whole different side to him that was just as important. His bear played a major role in who he was as a person. And only once when she saw the bear standing over Campbell’s body did she fear him. He was big and cuddly. He was the perfect man to complement her. A little domineering, but mostly he was protective and apparently possessive. It was nice to be wanted that badly.

“What has your eyes crinkling so seriously this early,” he murmured, rubbing his hand up and down her side. She squirmed and giggled.

“Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing , Lana. Remember, I can feel your emotions. You’re all tied up in knots.”

She sighed. “I just want to know what’s going to happen. I’m worried is all.” And that was the truth.

He rolled onto his stomach and hovered over her. “I understand, but you can’t focus on this. It will drive you crazy. I know what it’s like. I devoted my life to finding the man who killed my mother, and look what happened to me. The only good thing that came out of nearly dying was finding you.” He kissed the tip on her nose, and she scrunched it up in disdain.

“I don’t like thinking about that, either.”

“Well, think about what it will be like to meet my whole family. You could help with the business. My father would love to have a kick-ass lawyer on our side. The oil business is a tricky one. And people try to screw us all the time. You’d be paid better than you get paid now.”

“So your family has deep pockets too, huh?”

“You have no idea, baby. It’s nice because really we can decide to never work again, and our kids and their kids, and so on for generations will be well off. We don’t ever have to worry about future generations.”

“So you’re saying our kids are going to be spoiled rotten,” she said before thinking and glanced away. It was way too freaking soon to talk about babies, but it was nice to know he had his own fortune and didn’t want or need hers. So she knew he wasn’t like other men and with her for her money.

“Babies, huh?” he said and laughed before kissing her. “I like that you’re thinking about kids with me. I wasn’t sure.”

“Of course I want children. In fact, I want as many as I can have. I’d like to stop working in a few years and be a mom full time.”

“How were you planning on being a mom if you hadn’t met me?”

“Sperm bank. At that point of planning, I didn’t feel it was necessary to have a man.” He growled and she laughed, knowing he didn’t like the thought of her carrying a baby by any other man besides him. Hell, she knew talking about past relationships was going to be a blow out. “But now I have you, so that’s moot.”

He straddled her hips and held her wrists down. He seemed to like keeping her immobile. She didn't mind it either. “You really thought it through, then?” He shifted her towards the middle of the bed and kissed her, not giving her a chance to respond.

Lana spread her legs, cradling his erection between her thighs. The tip rubbed against her and she moaned. She wasn’t sure she could handle any more, but she would certainly try.

“You’re sore,” he said and she nodded. He kissed her lightly on the mouth. “Let me make you breakfast.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I know, but I want to.” He climbed off the bed, pulled on the borrowed pants, and walked towards the door. He looked over his shoulder and winked. “Just relax, baby. Let me take care of you.”

Not knowing what to do and figuring arguing would be pointless, she nodded and relaxed into the mattress. She really was tired. Her night had been busy, and then she woke up in tears. She didn’t know if her incident with Campbell would ever be one she got over. It had struck something deep inside her and made her feel real fear for the first time. And she hoped it would be the last time after everything got settled.

Maybe it was time to quit her job. For the past several months, she was beginning to think she was burned out. It would be nice to do something more relaxing and less dangerous. Working eighty to ninety hours a week wasn’t her idea of fun, and it left her no time for anything else. It was time for a change, and Conner offered her a chance of freedom, something she didn’t even know she wanted until he mentioned it.


It was three days of passionate and pretty much non-stop making love. Conner was in heaven. He learned everything about Lana, physically and mentally, that he could. He could have spent another week locked up in the cabin with her, enjoying her luscious body, but all good things must come to an end. She was the most beautiful person he had ever met—inside and out. Never before could he have imagined being with someone like her. In the past, women only wanted him for his family name. As much as Lana’s name was known and envied—even feared— in the human world, his was in the supernatural communities. His father was the strongest and most powerful Alpha in the United States, and Conner knew he was in line to take over soon.

The knock at the door caused him to jump. His bear growled, wondering who would be pounding on the door. But then Lana opened the door and a woman, who looked much like his mate, only older, stepped into the cabin. She was fiercer looking with colder eyes that held a wisdom, much like his father’s did. This woman knew her shit, and he hadn’t even heard her speak.

She walked in like she owned the place, and her eyes narrowed in on him. He’d gotten up to cook breakfast so he was shirtless. Her eyes traveled over his bare chest, and then she spun and locked onto her daughter with those eyes. He couldn’t see her face, but Lana blushed and beamed.

Couldn’t be bad right?

“Shacking up with the man who killed your stalker, Lana? Really, that is ‘you’re guilty and stupid one-o-one’.”

Lana gasped and looked at him before turning her attention back to her mother. “Mother, shacking up is such a horrible thing to say, and I know how it looks, but it’s not, so really let’s focus on your news. Anything good?”

Conner’s hackles rose. His bear rumbled his unhappiness at what was said and Lana’s emotions rising from nervous to worried and concerned. He didn’t want her worrying about what being with him looked like. Instead of staying quiet, he decided he would stand his ground right away. He had a feeling her mother expected Lana to be with a strong male. Well, he’d show her.

He stepped into the living room and glared at his new in-law. “With all due respect, your daughter and I are not shacking up. She’s my mate and I’m hers. It’s as simple as that. Please don’t insult what we have.”

“Mate?” Her mother asked, then stared him down. She was almost his height which was intimating enough. But Lana wasn’t shitting him when she warned him about her mother.

Damn, the women were tall in the family.

“Yes I’m her mate, and I’m not an ordinary man.” He held out his hand, remembering the manners his mother taught him. “I’m Conner Lawson.”

She took his hand and shook it like any dominant man would have. This woman was the Alpha in Lana’s family. She was strong and fierce, protecting her cub. He couldn’t help but respect her for it. “Lawson? I know that name.”

“You do?” Lana asked, surprised.

“Honey you don’t get as far and deep into the community like I did unless you network. Your father is Graham?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Conner replied.

“You come from a wonderful—” she paused as if trying to say something delicately, “and unique family line.”

Yep, Lana’s mother knew what he was. “Yes we’re werebears.”

She nodded, waving off mention of his other half, and turned back towards her daughter. “I guess now we need to talk.”

They sat on the couch, and she looked at Conner. “Why haven't you contacted your father? He could have had this problem wrapped up even quicker than I could.”

Conner shrugged. “I guess because I don’t want our kind to get under the spotlight. I changed in front of cameras, I assume. That cannot be connected with Graham Lawson. He’d be ruined, and it’d be my fault. I lost control, and it doesn’t need to fall on the rest of my clan. And if I called him, he’d drop what he was doing and fix it for me.”

“I see,” she replied. “Well, to the news first. It’s both good and bad.”

Lana sat on the couch. He sat next to her, grabbing her hand and lacing their fingers together. “Let’s hear it,” she whispered.

“Campbell Marks’s body was not found where you told me it would be.”

“What?” she yelled with wide eyes. “He was bleeding out and not moving.”

“Honey, I don’t know what to say. He was obviously unconscious or something because no one, and I mean no one, has reported him to the police in any way. Not even as a missing person. It’s like he wasn’t there. Another strange thing--there was no blood, no knife, nothing at the scene.”

Conner leaned back, perplexed. He could have sworn Campbell’s heart had stopped beating, but he had snapped into a rage when he saw the man standing over his mate.

“So that means we aren’t going to jail. We’re safe.” Lana smiled, but it faltered at the look on her mother’s face.

“No, it doesn’t mean you’re safe, Lana, it means you need more protection now. There was a break-in at your house. Everything was destroyed, and there was a note on your wall, for heaven’s sake.” Her mother handed her a printed picture:

“You will pay, bitch. I warned you.”

Lana paled, and her body shook. His beast roared. “How is this possible?” he growled, unable to keep his beast in check.

“It makes a little more sense, now that I know who’s involved. You might call your father now, because I think what we are dealing with is more than I can handle. And since my daughter is your mate, I expect you to do whatever you have to, to keep her safe.”

Seemed her mother knew a lot about the supernatural world. He had an idea of what this could be, but he wanted to be sure before he scared the hell out of his mate. His father would be the one to verify it. “You’re right, I’ll call him now.” Conner stood and walked to the room he had been spending all his time in. Lana’s phone was on the bedside table. He picked it up and took a deep breath before dialing his home number.

“Dad, I think we have a real problem. Can I get your help, please?” He told his dad what he had learned.

His dad’s reply: “Get you and your mate to the den now.” End of conversation.


Lana was pulled outside and into her mother’s SUV before she could so much as breathe. Everything happened so fast, and no one stopped to explain anything. Her mother knew more than she did about the situation, and Lana was getting quite irritated. “Can someone please tell me why you are carting me around like a rag doll?”

“Not now, baby,” Conner replied tensely. He was usually so calm and relaxed that Lana bit her lip with worry. If he was this stressed, that meant it was bad. She sighed and left it alone, but she would get her answers. This was her life, and there was no way she was going to stand idly by and allow someone else take care of her problems. It was obviously bad, but that didn’t mean she was useless in the situation—whatever it was.

Her mother opened the door and pulled her into a hug with tears in her eyes. Now Lana knew there really was something horribly wrong. “Do what they tell you to do, sweetheart, and text me when you get there. When this is all over, we’re going to Hawaii on vacation.”

Lana leaned back. “Mom, what’s going on? You’re never scared, and you sure as hell never cry. You’re freakin’ me out.”

“Honey, this is bad, and Conner and his family will explain it to you—they’ll keep you safe. I know them personally. She looked off to the side, avoiding eye contact.

“How do you know so much about his family?”

She didn’t respond.

“Mom, tell me.”

He mother bristled. “Fine.” She stepped out of Lana’s embrace and threw her hands up in defeat. “You and your brother’s father was half werebear. He never shifted, but Graham’s family raised him, until he passed, after you were born.”

Lana sputtered. “You—you always refused to talk about our father, yet when one of the boys talked about a deadbeat dad, you ripped them a new one. I never understood why.”

“It’s because he was no deadbeat. He was an honorable man who died and was also part beast, because even though he never shifted, he still had the bear’s spirit inside, much like Conner does. The only difference between him and Conner is that his bear gets to come out whenever it wants. Your father’s couldn’t. He felt like he was half of a man who didn’t fit in anywhere. He was too human to be a bear, and too bear to be a human.”

“Oh, mom, why didn’t you ever tell us?”

“Because he wouldn’t have wanted you to know. But since you have found yourself a part of the same family, I figured it was time to tell you.”

“Does Conner know?”

“No, but Graham will as soon as he meets you. You look the most like him.”

Conner jumped in the car and started it, signaling he was ready to leave but not rushing her.

“Oh, well I guess we better get going. But when I get back, you and I will be talking.”

“Okay, I love you,” her mother said, wiping away tears. Lana was flabbergasted. Her mother never cried. She never got emotional, and she never let on that she knew people like Conner existed.

***

Conner shook Lana gently. It had been a long ride, but it was time to get her inside the safety of the den. The den was protected by magical wards, which meant Campbell wouldn’t be able to find her, and eventually he would die leaving them safe. Until then Lana would have to stay with him and his family. He had overheard her mother talking and couldn’t believe how small the world was. Lana’s father was like an uncle to him. His death had left a gap in his heart, and now to find out that Lana was his child was amazing. It made sense now why she fell into the heat and submitted to him so easily, without question. Although she did not have the spirit of one, she was still part bear and her instincts were strong.

“Baby, it’s time to wake up,” he said before kissing her brow.

Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled at him until she realized why she was waking up in the car. She was running. The only good thing that came out of the whole situation was the fact that she wouldn’t be in trouble. Without Campbell’s body there was no crime, which mean his mate was free of any guilt.

“Hi,” she replied. “We’re here?”

“Yes, baby, it’s time to meet your new family.”

She glanced away as tears filled her eyes.

“Hey, sweetheart, this is good. Because here, your father was well loved and respected. No one thought any less of him because of his mixed heritage.”

“Really?”

“Of course. He was one of us.”

She nodded. He got out of the SUV and jogged to her side, opening the door before she was out of the car. She thanked him with a kiss on his cheek. He grabbed her hand and led her into the den. Finally, he was home.

His father greeted them as soon as they stepped into the main house.

“Conner,” he said and pulled his son into a hug. Then he looked at Lana and gasped. “No, it couldn’t be?”

“Yeah. She’s James’ daughter, dad.”

“Oh, my dear, come here.” He didn’t wait for an invitation before pulling Lana into a tight hug and squeezing her until she couldn’t breathe. But she didn’t complain. Her arms wrapped around him and hugged him back. Finally Conner was able to pull her from his father’s grasp. “You look so much like him, dear girl.”

Tears filled her eyes. “I do?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Dad, have you heard anything underground?”

He smiled. “It seems your rush to bring her here for protection was unnecessary. But I’m glad you’re here. It seems Mr. Mark’s body was found, in pieces and nearly unrecognizable early this morning.”

Lana gasped. “How is that possible?”

His dad glared at him. “Did you tell her anything?”

“No, she was sleeping, and I didn’t want to scare her.”

He sighed. “Come sit.” He patted the seat next to him on the couch, and she sat down, waiting for him to explain. “You see, Mr. Marks was possessed by a demon. When Conner killed him—and he did in fact kill him— a more powerful demon, one we will not name, couldn’t have them exposed so he cleaned up the mess. But since Mr. Marks was wanted by the police, he couldn’t just disappear. So he was ripped apart and only recognizable by his DNA. The demons win by shedding his blood and by knowing the humans aren’t any closer to finding out the truth. You’re lucky, though. Some demons wouldn’t have let you go, but since Conner was caught on the tape killing him, they knew there would be no reason to worry about you telling the world about its darker side.”

Lana paled. Conner moved to her side and put his hand on her shoulder. She calmed a little beneath his touch but was still worried. “So I’m safe. No one is after me?”

“No, you are good to go, luckily. Sometimes it doesn’t end this well, for anyone. I’m glad you’re here and I was able to give you good news. Now we must celebrate your mating!” He clapped his hands and stood. “The clan will be thrilled. There hasn’t been a new mating in far too long.” Then he strode out of the room, leaving behind a happy peace.

Conner loved his father, but he had just driven for two days straight. He was tired and hungry. And most of all, he wanted his mate so badly it hurt. They hadn’t stopped long enough to do anything other than get cheap food and have a bathroom break. Now he wanted more. He pulled Lana to her feet and kissed her lightly. “See, baby, I told you everything would work out. But my dad was right, we got very lucky in this situation.”

She nodded and kissed him back forcefully. It seemed she was in the mood, and he had no intention of turning her down. They both wanted to forget the stress of the past week. He lifted her into his arms and carried her out of the house. Cheers surrounded him, and he could feel Lana’s body heat with embarrassment.

He chuckled. “You can meet her later,” he told the crowd of gathered bears. All of them wanted to meet her and welcome her to the family. It was a bear’s way.

THE END


T HANK YOU SO MUCH!

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Wealthy Famous Hot and Mine

Katrina Bliss

Copyright ©2016 by Katrina Bliss. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


Erin, to the displeasure of her family and now her best friend Alicia, never liked the beach. Even as a child, she had always been a mountain person. To arrive at a compromise with Alicia, they picked a cabin at the foot of a valley, beside a lake, as their vacation spot. Not that Alicia accepted it as much of a compromise.

They were sitting in rocking chairs on the balcony of the cabin with a view of the mossy green, serenely quiet lake before them.

“Isn’t this charming?” Erin asked and took a sip from the steaming mug of hot chocolate she had been cradling in her hands. She saw Alicia roll her eyes. “What? What now?” Erin asked, shaking her head.

“Where are the waves? The half-naked chiseled men showing off their torsos? The frozen margaritas and the sunscreen lotion? This is for middle-aged people, Erin!” Alicia drained her own hot chocolate into her mouth and sighed. Erin couldn’t help but smile, her best friend had always had a knack for drama.

“You haven’t even given it a chance yet, Alicia. We’ve been here exactly what? Ten hours? And you’re making it sound like we’ve been stuck here forever. Besides, I’m nursing a broken heart and should be made to feel warm and comforted.” Erin pouted her lips. If Alicia knew how to exaggerate her misery, Erin had a few of her own tricks up her sleeves. Alicia sprang up from her chair and lunged towards Erin to give her a tight hug.

“I’m sorry, cutie. Forget I said anything. You’re right, we need to concentrate on you.” She had crouched down beside Erin now and the two girls exchanged smiles.

“I hope you haven’t been going through the messages again, Erin?” Alicia straightened her back, stood up and tightened her wrap around her shoulders. Erin sighed and shook her head.

“No, I haven’t been doing that. I’ve taken the battery out of my phone and hidden it at the bottom of my suitcase.” She watched Alicia make her way back to her rocking chair and settle down.

“How does that help? You’ve not exactly hidden it from yourself if you know where it is.” Alicia reached for Erin’s mug of hot chocolate.

“No, but in my moment of weakness, having to take all my clothes and stuff out of the suitcase to reach the battery will give me enough time to calm myself and change my mind.” Erin allowed the mug to slip out of her hands and rubbed her palms together. If the temperature dropped any further, the caretaker of the lodge promised that the lake would freeze over. Erin secretly wished that would happen. She wanted the lake to freeze, for translucent icicles to drop down and then freeze mid-way from the pine tree leaves around them. She was hoping that the bitter cold would numb her heart and muscles and stop herself from physically aching.

She hadn’t realized when Alicia had reached out and was gently rubbing the side of her arm. She threw her friend a gentle thankful look.

“Thanks for coming, Alicia. I really do appreciate it.” Her voice squeaked as she spoke and she saw how Alicia flinched. Neither of them was accustomed to Erin being the one in need of support and comfort. They had been friends since Kindergarten and Alicia had always been the one to throw a fit, cry over the men in her life. Erin was the stoic one.

“I really hate him. I hate Steve. If I see him I’ ” Alicia was spitting the words out and Erin interrupted her.

“Forget it. Let’s just not talk about it.”

“But we need to talk about it, Erin. The guy cheated on you, had been cheating on you for several months. You can’t just pretend that you’ll be able to distract yourself from it for the rest of your life.” Alicia was still drinking Erin’s hot chocolate.

“I just don’t want to talk about it now, that’s all.” Erin couldn’t keep the annoyance out of her voice. She knew Alicia was trying to help, was trying to be a friend but she didn’t want to turn into a cranky cry baby.

“This is exactly the reason why you end up going through old messages and emails. Because you’re not venting.” Alicia handed the half empty mug of hot chocolate back to Erin and stood up from her chair.

“Where are you going?” Erin was predicting a dramatic quarrel between the two of them. A day would never be complete if they didn’t go through one of these.

“I’m going to have a long hot bath, drink some wine and then try and persuade Ms. Carter to light the fire. I’m freezing out here.” Alicia was already halfway back into the cabin. She held the door open with her other hand fixed on her hip.

“You coming in?” she asked Erin, but only got a shake of the head in response.

“Just don’t stay out here too long. Come find me soon?” She sighed as she went inside and Erin grinned and drank some of the remaining bits in her mug. Despite their differences and their quarrels, there was nobody else she was more comfortable with than Alicia. In fact, Erin had always believed that if they hadn’t met in Kindergarten and she hadn’t punched a boy in the face when they were six because he was teasing Alicia, they might have never become friends. They were the opposites in school and everybody around them wondered what kept them together. The skinny blonde Cheerleader and the geeky nerd with the braces who always aced every exam, including the surprise ones.

Erin was smiling to herself as she thought about their friendship through the years, subconsciously grateful that she had something else to think about rather than Steve.

“Sorry, is someone sitting here?” Erin was jolted out of her thoughts by the voice of a man she had not noticed had now joined her in the balcony. She looked up to find him hovering over the chair that Alicia had been sitting on, her discarded wrap was still lying on the seat of the chair.

“No, please go ahead. My friend was but she’s gone in now.” Erin spoke too quickly, slightly embarrassed to be caught in the middle of deep thoughts. How long had he been there? Had she been smiling and rocking herself like a fool this whole time?

She watched as he picked up the edge of the wrap with one hooked finger, like it was something that could infect him with a fatal viral disease. He held it away from his body as he walked the short distance with it over to Erin’s side and then gently flung it over the back of her own chair. She wanted to laugh, just the sight of him made her want to burst out laughing.

He was incredibly tall, for starters. Erin wasn’t the tallest girl she knew, but she was certain that this person was at least half a foot taller than Alicia…who was the tallest girl she knew. The lower half of his face was covered in a rough salt-pepper beard and his dark hair was scruffy and brushed back, away from his forehead. Only his temples betrayed a slight smattering of grey. She watched as he quietly settled into the rocking chair, a leather-bound book in his hands. She couldn’t quite tell his age, although he was most certainly older than her. He was in a warm plaid shirt and baggy jeans. If he wasn’t a fellow guest at the cabin, he most definitely was a local carpenter or lumberjack. Her eyes fell on his thick wrists and the way the muscles on his shoulders tensed as he started flipping through the pages of his book. She wondered if he had single- handedly built the cabin himself.

“Are you a guest here?” she asked, interrupting his flipping and he looked up at her with slanted eyes. His dark green eyes contained a flicker of annoyance which silenced her, she immediately decided she would leave him alone.

“Yes,” he replied and went back to reading his book. Erin looked away from him and out towards the lake. She didn’t want to worry about how rude and unfriendly the man was being, she had her own worries to keep at bay. They should have been taking up all her energy.

“How long are you staying here?” his voice was deep and thick. It was almost like his voice boomed as it bounced off the walls of the mountains that surrounded them. She cleared her throat before she spoke. He was glaring at her, although the question from anybody else would have been a friendly innocent one. Coming from him, it made her slightly nervous. She wanted to give him the right answer, although what would be the right answer to bring a smile on his face?

“A fortnight,” she said and only now realized that she had been nervously cracking her fingers. His gaze had fallen on her hands and she stopped doing it. In her mind, she thought that he took awfully long to respond and allowed too much silence to ensue between them.

After a few seconds, he grunted and Erin wasn’t sure what kind of a response that was.

“And yourself?” she asked him but he had gone back to reading his book again.

“A month, maybe longer. I’m undecided,” he said, without looking up at her again. Erin sat back in her chair and began rocking herself gently, for the lack of anything else to do. When the chair creaked after a few minutes of silence, he looked up sharply, as if angered by the sound. Erin stopped rocking. For a second, she felt guilty for disturbing his reading and an instant later she was furious. Why would he make her feel guilty? She was as much a guest at the cabin as he was.

“Ms. Carter must have lit the fire inside by now. It might suit your reading needs better,” she snapped at him and he looked up, their eyes met. She held his gaze, even though her heart continued to pound and she wanted to look away embarrassed. He had a knowing look on his face, she was certain that he knew she was trying to make a jab at his impolite reactions to her presence.

She was surprised when he suddenly smiled. Unrealistically white teeth peeped out from between his thin red lips and the surrounding dark beard.

“I apologize for being this wound up. It’s not easy to force yourself to relax,” he said and shut the book in his hands. He leaned back in his chair and started rocking himself. Erin smiled too. She could feel her cheeks burning up.

“I know what you mean. I’m simply trying to blank out my brain,” she said and looked away. They were both looking towards the lake now in silence.

“So you’re hiding too?” he spoke after a few minutes. Erin thought about how the silence between them had been comfortable, but she welcomed the question, this question in particular from a stranger.

“Not hiding as much as escaping,” she said. She wasn’t looking at him when she answered but she could sense that he was nodding his head.

“What’s the difference though?” he asked and they looked at each other again. Erin was the one to smile and he gave a small laugh.

“You may be right,” she said, “whatever I’m doing, I plan on going back home as a new person after this.” She was still smiling.

“Good luck with that. Believe me, I’ve tried,” he said and to her dismay, opened up his book again and started to read. Erin allowed herself to continue to look at him for a few seconds longer before she forced herself to look away. When she did, from the corner of her eye, she could sense that he had raised his head to look at her. Only for a few seconds.


“That’s what I’ve always said. Beaches are just too bright and everybody is always happy. Only till the end of the vacation of course. Whereas in a place like this, one gets a chance to reflect and arrange one’s thoughts.” Erin was leaning forward, excited to finally meet somebody who agreed with her choice of a vacation spot. Xavier was laughing at her explanation. She didn’t know much about him, except that his name was Xavier, even though they had spent the past hour talking. He had drifted in and out of reading his book while Erin kept interrupting him with general questions. He didn’t seem to mind much anymore.

As Xavier laughed, Alicia opened the door to the balcony and stepped out.

“Are you seriously still sitting here? It’s freezing,” she said.

“It’s all right. I’ve had company,” Erin said with a smile and directed Alicia’s gaze to Xavier who she had only just noticed.

“Alicia, this is Xavier. Xavier, this is my best friend Alicia, whose seat you have stolen.” Erin introduced them and Xavier stood up from the chair and stepped aside. Alicia, who initially had plastered her usual pleasing smile on her face when the introductions were being made, now stood still staring at Xavier.

Erin felt a sudden pang, of a feeling she couldn’t quite identify. Judging by the look on Alicia’s face, and the fact that they had known each other for more than a decade now, Erin could tell that her friend was floored. And what Alicia wanted, she always got.

Xavier stretched out his hand towards Alicia after they had stood in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds.

“Hello,” he said, in his deep thundering voice. Alicia, who usually was great around people, always captivating everyone with her sparkling smile and cheerful personality, shook his hand in silence.

“Please, have a seat. I’m heading in for a quick shower anyway,” Xavier said and started walking towards the door. Erin could feel her heart deaden at the sight of him leaving.

“We should all have dinner together,” Erin found herself saying, suddenly and without warning. He stopped in his tracks and turned slightly to look at her. He threw Alicia a nervous quick look and smiled.

“Maybe,” he said and opened the door and slipped back into the cabin. Erin’s brows furrowed. The air between them had changed suddenly and she had no idea what had just happened to cause it. Did Alicia and Xavier know each other? The thoughts were racing through Erin’s mind and she turned to look at her friend, who was still standing.

“You’ve been sitting here, chatting with him?” Alicia asked. Erin could see that she was trying to keep her voice low, but struggling to not sound too excited or screech.

“What do you mean? Do you know each other?” Erin breathed in deeply, bracing herself to be shot at with a long winded story about how Alicia and Xavier had once dated but it went sour after she dumped in. She could feel her fingers shaking a little. The thought of the two of them together produced an actual physical reaction in her.

“I wish.” Alicia rolled her eyes and slumped into the empty rocking chair. Erin threw her another confused look, increasingly angered by the slowness of information being given to her.

“Erin! Are you serious? You don’t know who that is?” Alicia was speaking through gritted teeth. Apparently, her friend was as annoyed with her as she was with Alicia. Erin shook her head.

“Should I?”

“That’s Xavier Cowen. Umm, the Xavier Cowen.” Alicia leaned in and spoke in a near-whisper. Erin still had no idea what to make of the revelation.

“Who is he?” she asked and watched as Alicia threw up her hands, in mock surrender.

“To put it simply, he’s a movie star,” Alicia said, not happy that her best friend couldn’t share in her absolute shock and excitement. Erin was confused, then surprised and then she broke into a fit of giggles. She couldn’t help herself. The thought of Xavier, the man she had been sitting and having a heart-to-heart with for the past hour, was a movie star? It was too unbelievable, too hilarious. She nearly didn’t buy it. She couldn’t believe that he had that frivolous a profession. She hadn’t asked, but she imagined him to be a Philosophy professor or perhaps a mad scientist.

“You’re certain of it?” Erin managed to ask, through her laughs. Alicia was sitting on the chair but had her hands on her hips now, furious at Erin’s reaction.

“I wasn’t sure initially, because of the beard. But yes, now I’m certain Erin.” She had her eyes narrowed. “Stop laughing. What’s so funny?”

“I just can’t believe it. What kind of movies does he do?” Erin asked, biting down on her lips to stop herself from laughing anymore.

“He used to be the heartthrob of the rom-coms about a decade ago, but then he had a series of Superhero films that he did. I don’t think he’s been in a movie in the past few years though.” Alicia was thinking, looking away from her and her brows were crinkled. She was in deep thought, trying to mentally trace out Xavier Cowen’s Hollywood career.

Erin couldn’t believe it, Rom-Coms, Superhero flicks? She sat back in her chair and folded her arms in front of her.

“This is crazy,” she said, almost to herself, but Alicia had heard.

“Yeah, I know. I can’t believe I just met Xavier Cowen,” Alicia replied, but she was speaking to herself as well.

“I could have sworn he was a teacher or something,” Erin said and the two girls exchanged looks.

“He does look quite different than he used to, on-screen at least. But he’s still gorgeous, isn’t he?” Alicia asked and Erin absent-mindedly nodded. He most definitely was, gorgeous. The fact that she was, even remotely, attracted to a movie star was a crazy prank the Universe had played on her. Her first boyfriend, Lawrence, who she dated towards the end of college was now an award winning sculptor and Steve, her second and last boyfriend was a Physicist. She had rarely been attracted to other men and the ones she had been, were the same league. A movie star? Erin burst into another fit of laughter.

Ms. Carter interrupted them at that moment.

“I’ve served dinner at the dining table, ladies,” she said and then slipped back into the cabin.

“I’m starving,” Erin said, and stood up, stretching her arms behind her. Alicia remained sitting, still deep in thought.

“Alicia. Food!” Erin shouted a little, trying to snap her friend out of her thoughts. Alicia looked up at her, still slightly confused and dazed.

“I don’t believe it,” she said and shook her head.

“I don’t believe it either. Snap out of it Alicia. Let’s go get dinner.” Erin started walking towards the door.

“Do you think he’ll really join us?” Alicia finally stood up and Erin shrugged.

“If he’s anything like any other superstar, he won’t. Right? Do we really care?” Erin opened the door.

“You might not. But I definitely do. I’m not leaving here without a photo with him and an autograph.” Alicia had her smile back on her face as she walked through the door.

“Leave him be Alicia. He’s probably come here to escape crazy fans like you.” Erin shut the door behind her and spoke to her friend in a whisper. Alicia whipped around to face her and smiled, her eyes were glittering mischievously, which almost always, Erin knew, meant trouble.

“It’s the price he has to pay for being a movie star and being so damn hot!” Alicia winked at Erin and strutted over to the dining room. Erin breathed in deeply and tightened the cardigan around her. Suddenly, she didn’t want to be in the cabin anymore. This wasn’t an escape, this wasn’t the vacation she wanted. This was a trap, a confusion.

Through the open door of the dining room, she saw Xavier sitting at the dining table, with Ms. Carter fussing over serving him food. She heard Alicia’s high pitched laugh as Erin waited where she was, for a few more minutes. She wished she hadn’t invited him to join them for dinner.

When Erin walked in, she noticed that Ms. Carter had already served the roast to her. She took her seat, across Xavier, while Alicia sat next to him at the table. Ms. Carter soon excused herself and took a plate of her dinner out, to her own room.

Alicia was talking excitedly as Erin poured herself some wine from the open bottle beside her. Xavier had a fixed weak smile on his face as he concentrated on cutting himself a piece of chicken.

Erin cleared her throat and Alicia stopped laughing.

“So, Alicia tells me you’re a movie star,” Erin said with a sarcastic smile on her face. From the corner of her eye, she could see that her friend had thrown her a look. Xavier continued chewing the food in his mouth after which he cleared his throat as well.

“She found me out,” he said with a soft smile and proceeded to cut himself another piece. Erin took a sip of her wine and pushed the bottle towards him. Alicia had already helped herself. She watched as he poured himself a glass and took a sip.

“I apologize that I didn’t recognize you. I can’t remember the last time I saw a contemporary movie,” Erin said with another smile and he nodded.

“Please don’t apologize. It was a breath of fresh air,” he said and Alicia broke the moment with a laugh.

“The last movie Erin watched was probably Casablanca or Citizen Kane,” she said through her laughs, but Xavier didn’t join in.

“They’re both great movies.” He looked at Erin instead and they smiled at each other.

“Alicia here, obviously thinks I’m very unfashionable. However, I should definitely watch one with you in it now.” Erin finally cut herself a piece of chicken while he shook his head.

“Please don’t. That would be embarrassing. I’m not particularly proud of my filmography,” he breathed in deeply and cut off their eye contact.

“Are you kidding me?” Alicia squealed and turned towards him on her side. “The Scarlett dress? The Best Man? Little Bit of Sunshine?” she named a few more movies that Erin had never heard of and she couldn’t help herself from laughing. Xavier looked embarrassed and he turned to her with his eyes downcast.

“I loved those movies. Why don’t you like them?” Alicia continued. Xavier, as always, took a few extended seconds to respond.

“They weren’t the kind of films I had set out to do. I had to make money, so I did them.” He washed down the food in his mouth with some wine. Erin remained quiet, her suspicions were correct, he was trying to escape.

“Is that why you haven’t done a movie in a few years?” Alicia asked, leaning in towards him a little. Xavier visibly moved away and Erin smiled. This was the first time, a man was not even accepting, leave alone reciprocating Alicia’s advances.

“I want to start with a clean slate. I know now that would be impossible. My stereotype has been set in stone,” he spoke quietly and his voice seemed to silence Alicia. She was also perhaps a little offended by his reaction to her.

“Can’t you make your own movies? The kind that you have always wanted to be in?” Erin asked. He looked at her again and smacked his lips.

“I suppose I could. I want to act, though. That’s what comes naturally to me. I wouldn’t have the skill set required to produce or direct a film.” He was cradling the glass of wine in his hands. Erin poured herself some more and he grabbed the bottle from her when she was done, pouring himself some as well.

“So are you waiting then?” she asked him and their eyes met again. His green eyes bored into her own brown ones, but she didn’t look away.

“Waiting and hoping that someone casts me in a role that’ll mean something to me,” he said and kept his eyes on her while he drained his glass into his mouth. Alicia who had remained silent all this while, spoke up then.

“I think that’s selfish. You should give your fans what they want. That is what you’re good at.” She drained her glass of wine, reached for the empty bottle and then stood up to walk over to the small bar at the corner of the room.

“He should do what makes him happy. That’s not being selfish,” Erin spoke sternly, surprising even herself by the tone of her voice.

Alicia tinkered around in the bar till she found another bottle of wine that she liked and brought it to the table. Erin threw her a look.

“What? I’m sure Ms. Carter won’t mind and she’ll charge us for it anyway!” Alicia snapped and uncorked the bottle. “Anyway. All I’m saying is that Xavier is famous, rich and has women swooning over him,” she continued and touched his arm lightly. Erin saw the muscles on his shoulders tense up with the touch and he tried to delicately move his arm away.

“It’s his life, Alicia. Let it go!” Erin’s eyes had narrowed. The last thing she wanted was to have a row with Alicia in front of someone else. Especially a celebrity! Alicia was gulping down her wine and her eyes had glazed over. She had barely touched her food.

“You and your high horse Erin. I’m just telling Xavier the truth,” she said and turned to look at him. He didn’t acknowledge her but continued to eat.

“It’s not always about what other people think Alicia. It’s not all about appearances!” Erin snapped at her, clanking the cutlery down on the plate. Alicia had nearly drained the wine in her glass and was reaching for the bottle. Erin pulled the bottle away from her to her end of the table.

“Oh lighten up Erin. Seriously. This is why Steve got tired of you. Because you think of nobody else but you.” Alicia stood up from her chair with a sudden jolt and reached over for the bottle. Erin could feel her nostrils flaring. The two of them were glaring at each other.

“Erin’s right,” Xavier spoke up and they both turned to look at him. “Ms. Carter might not be happy to see that we drank all her wine without asking.” Alicia dropped her jaw, in an exaggerated dramatic way.

“So you’re on her side? Because she supports your washed-up-career choices?” Alicia laughed with a snort and poured herself some more wine.

“Whatever,” she continued, “I’m going to my room. You’re really not the charming piece of work I’d imagined you to be!” she snapped at Xavier and picked up the bottle. She left the dining room in a huff with the glass and the bottle in her hands.

Erin breathed in. She didn’t know how she was supposed to feel, furious? Embarrassed? Relieved.

“I’m sorry about that. Alicia’s been on edge ever since we arrived.” Erin tried to finish her food, but she wasn’t hungry anymore. Xavier continued with his dinner, apparently unperturbed by the scene that had just unfolded.

“Believe me, I’ve seen worse. Although, she has the personality of a movie star,” he said with a laugh and Erin smiled too.

“And the looks,” she added. They both fell into silence.

“I’m glad you agree with me. Not very many people do. My friends think I’m a fool for deserting the Hollywood scene at the peak of my career.” He was looking at his food as he spoke. Erin wasn’t entirely sure of what to say. No man had ever made himself emotionally available to her before, in fact, the only other emotions she was used to dealing with, were Alicia’s. Something told her that he needed to be handled differently.

“I’m just being honest. The only times that I’ve been happy were when I did exactly what I wanted.” She took a bite and chewed. He had finished eating and he pushed the plate away from him.

“Do you want to go look at the lake?” he asked suddenly and she smiled.

“You’ve read my mind,” she said and pushed her own plate away.


Erin wasn’t sure if it had been a good idea. Xavier seemed to be warm enough in his plaid shirt and a thick woolen jacket. She had only carried Alicia’s discarded wrap along with her, over the thin cardigan she had already been wearing. Her woolen skirt and light black stockings were barely adding any warmth.

They had walked over to the lake and she was now sitting on a boulder close to the edge, while Xavier stood a little distance away from her, smoking a cigarette. They had walked in silence for the most part, and she was amazed how comfortable she was in his company. Unlike the other men who had been in her life, she didn’t feel the need to make unnecessary conversation with him.

“I didn’t think I’d meet anybody else in the cabin. I’d heard it’s usually empty this time of the year,” he said and she saw the end of his cigarette light up as he took in a drag.

“My thoughts exactly,” she said and they both laughed together.

“I’m pleasantly surprised but delighted to have met you, though,” he said and she could feel herself blushing.

“As am I,” she said and could hear her voice quivering. She wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the fact that he looked like a Greek God under the moonlight. He took a few steps towards her as he turned his head to blow the cigarette smoke away from her face.

She was smiling at him, as she remained seated on the boulder, her legs swung underneath her gently. He was smiling too and after a few seconds of holding each other’s gaze, they both laughed together again. A little awkwardly this time.

“I bet a lot of women around the world would kill to be in my position,” Erin broke the silence and watched as he flung the still-burning cigarette to the ground and pressed on the butt with his shoes. He dug his hands deep into his pockets and looked back at her.

“A lot of men are missing out on being in my position,” he said and inched closer towards her. She wasn’t really thinking anymore. Watching him, watching her, the subtle woody scent of him and the slowly freezing lake in front of them; all of it was too surreal for Erin to be thinking logically about what was going on.

“My ex-boyfriend wouldn’t agree,” she blurted out and he sat down beside her, there was hardly any space and they were squashed together. Their thighs were touching and Erin could feel the warmth of his arm through the layers of her clothes.

“He must have been a whole new level of foolish, this Steve guy,” he mumbled, almost to himself and Erin smiled. She believed him when he said it, and somehow the anger she felt towards Steve seemed to disappear. That was the explanation she needed to hear, not that he was a horrible human being, but that he had been foolish.

“I didn’t think movie stars were this perceptive,” Erin said with a laugh and he turned to look at her again. Their faces were inches away and she could smell the smoky scent of the cigarette on his breath, mixed with the fruity whiff of the wine they had been drinking.

“You clearly never thought very highly of my profession. I don’t blame you,” he said and was going to turn his face away, but Erin stopped him. She had reached out and was holding his chin between her hands. She had no idea where she had found the courage to do it.

They looked at each for a few seconds and before she could pull her hands away, he had lunged forward and enveloped her mouth with his. She had been right, he did taste of cigarettes and wine. His tongue was inside her mouth without any soft ceremony. They were kissing with a ferocity that he had not displayed for a second before this. Her hands had dropped to his shoulders and his hands were on her back, pulling her tightly towards him.

“This is insane,” he said gruffly when they pulled apart from each other for a second. Erin wanted to giggle, out of shock, but his lips were on her again. As they kissed this time, he picked her up and stood up himself. The thought of his height returned to her, as she could feel his arms maneuvering her so that her legs were now wrapped around his waist. She had no idea where the wrap was anymore.

They were both moaning as they kissed. She could feel the bristle of his beard on her cheeks as he kissed her hard. As his tongue thrust in and out of her mouth, she could feel herself growing wet and was immediately embarrassed to realize that he would be able to feel it too, against his chest.

She pulled away from him, and turned her head but instead of coaxing her face back towards him, he started to lower her down. It was only when her back touched the slightly damp and cold twig-covered ground that she realized he had laid her down. He hovered over her, their eyes fixed on each other. His hair fell in waves over his forehead now and his eyes sparkled and there was no denying it anymore, she wanted his body.

She reached out and started to push away the jacket from his shoulders. He gave her a smirk and helped, immediately turning his attention to the buttons on his shirt after. His chest was thickly covered in hair, just like his beard and Erin ran her fingers through it, involuntarily moving her hips towards him.

His hands were on her, feeling her big breasts till he reached the neck of her cardigan. He ripped it apart and she heard the buttons pop and smiled. Her body arched towards him again and she moaned. He proceeded to do the same with the blouse she was wearing, which tore and her bra-covered breasts were finally exposed. Xavier took in a sharp breath when he saw them and she could feel herself blush. His looks on her seemed hungry…like he wanted to devour her and before she could pull him towards her, his mouth was on her exposed flesh.

With his tongue, he traced moist lines from her neck to her cleavage till, with his thumb, he started pushing the fabric of her bra aside. She felt the cold chill of the air when her nipples were exposed. She watched him lick his lips and immediately after, he had started sucking on one of them. Erin moaned loudly and arched her back up towards him. She met his groin with her thighs and she could feel his dick growing.

His hands were both on the breast that his mouth was pressed to and he was squeezing it, tightly. He sucked and bit and then transferred his attention to the other one. Erin could feel her eyes rolling in her head.

“Xavier. Please. Now,” she managed to breathe out the words. He stopped and looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you begging me?” he asked her, in his usual calm but gruff voice.

“I am,” she said and moved her hips under him. He pressed himself tighter to her and now she could feel his fully grown dick against her thigh. She wanted it inside her.

“Begging me for what?” he asked with a smile on his lips. His hands were kneading her breasts, one thumb teased a nipple. She couldn’t take it anymore.

“I want you inside me,” she said and her voice quivered. That is all he needed to hear. In one quick motion, he stood up and undid his jeans. They fell down around his ankles and he stepped out of them. His big dick sprang out and he held it in his hand as he lowered himself. He grunted as he struggled to pull down her skirt and then the stockings.

Erin felt the cold air against her skin again and she could feel the goosebumps on her skin. More importantly, however, she could now feel the tip of his dick against her wetness. When she looked up at him, his eyes were boring into her face. Her face tensed up, was he not going to do it? Was this some sort of game? She was on the verge of tears, the mixture of emotions were too much to bear.

He pushed inside her with one quick thrust. Erin felt like she was going to explode. There had been no warning and he was completely inside her. He remained suspended over her and placed his hands on her belly near her hips. He held her tightly like that as he slowly positioned himself. He was preparing.

He breathed in deeply once and she did as well, and again, without warning, he was thrusting in and out of her in quick succession. Erin could feel her breasts bouncing, her head rubbing against the leaves and twigs underneath her. The pine scented mountains surrounded them and she could see the stars dotting the crystalline sky above them. When she looked back, she realized that his eyes were still fixated on her. His rhythm was fast and he grunted every time he pulled out and moaned with every push in.

It was all too much for her, she soon realized. The excitement of the moment, the adventure, the fact that he was a movie star and also, of course, that his dick was deep inside her - she was very close to passing out. She had her eyes closed for a few seconds till he suddenly grabbed her neck and arched her up toward him. He leaned in lower and their foreheads knocked. That is when she realized that he was about to come inside her. She bit down on her lip and breathed out. His body shuddered as he emptied himself and she decided to let go as well. Erin clutched his arms and her fingernails dug into the flesh. She was screaming as her body jolted for several seconds and then slowly started to relax. He was still inside her and she was going to pass out.


He had carried her to the house; he had carried her up the stairs to the room that Ms. Carter had reserved for her. He had tucked her under the covers and tiptoed out of the room. Erin knew all of this because she had been awake for most of it, but had decided to allow him to carry on without interrupting and embarrassing him.

She was lying awake in bed now, with somewhat of a dull throb at the base of her skull. She knew it had to do with the wine. She heard a soft knock on the door and Alicia let herself in without waiting for a response.

“You’re never one to have a lie in,” Alicia said and plonked herself down on the bed beside Erin and slipped in under the covers herself. She was still in her usual silk nightgown and had loosely tied a dressing gown around.

“How are you feeling?” Erin asked her and Alicia groaned in response.

“I had too much to drink and now I feel like I want to die.” She pulled the cover over her head and muffled her voice. Erin laughed a little, but felt an ache in her head and stopped.

“I think I’m going to lie in bed all day,” she said and threw an arm over Alicia. She wasn’t sure, yet, if she should tell her about the previous night with Xavier. Alicia moaned again and turned to snuggle up with Erin.

“This is a good start to the vacation, though. You’ll have forgotten Steve in no time if we keep this up,” Alicia said with her eyes closed. Erin cleared her throat, Alicia knew that was always a sign that she had something important to discuss.

“C’mon, spit it out,” Alicia lifted herself on an elbow and glared at her.

“What do you really think of Xavier?” Erin asked and turned to look at her.

“What do you mean? Other than the fact that he’s delicious?” She smacked her lips and Erin flinched. It was also evident to her that, like always, Alicia did not remember the scene at dinner from the previous night. Once the wine kicked in, Alicia’s memory always started to fail. Erin’s silence provoked her and she crossed her brows.

“What else can you mean, Erin? Tell me now!” She sat up straight and flung her leg over Erin’s waist and sat pillion on her. Erin was expecting a volley of childish tickling and she held up her hands in defense.

“All right, okay. Hold your horses. So…We kinda went for a walk last night after you went to sleep,” Erin began, but Alicia already knew what the rest of the story was going to be. She had clapped her hands to her mouth and fell off Erin dramatically. Her head bouncing off the thick mattress. Erin was laughing but was also a little embarrassed.

“You had sex with Xavier Cowen?” Alicia was squealing and Erin tried to hush her up.

“Keep your voice down, Alicia.” She sat up in bed as well.

“You’ve barely slept with two nerds in your lifetime and then you go and have sex with Xavier Cowen? Are you kidding me?” Alicia couldn’t keep her voice down and Erin fell back down on her pillows, covering her face with her hands.

When she peeped through from between her fingers, Alicia had gotten off the bed and was jumping around the room. The wooden floor of the room squeaked with every thud.

“What are you doing? Stop that. We’re not fifteen anymore,” Erin tried to admonish her, but she couldn’t stop giggling.

“Are you kidding me? You slept with somebody; you slept with Xavier Cowen!” Alicia came over to her and shook her shoulders.

“Do you think he had too much to drink?” Erin asked with a frown and Alicia started pulling her by the arms.

“Come here. Get your butt over here,” Alicia pulled her to the mirror and planted her in front of it. She was towering behind Erin.

Erin peered at herself. Her curls were in complete disarray, she was still wearing the ripped blouse from the previous night and her woolen skirt. Alicia grabbed her breasts out of the blue and Erin squealed.

“What the hell, Alicia!” she shouted at her.

“Own it, Erin. You’ve gotta own it!” Alicia was still squealing from excitement. “Now get yourself cleaned up and make your way downstairs,” she pointed to the en-suite shower and Erin groaned.

“My hea ” she had begun to say, but Alicia widened her eyes.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Erin. You have to make him drool,” she cut in. Erin sighed and remained standing in front of the mirror.

“What’s wrong now?” Alicia gave her an enthusiastic hug.

“I just don’t want to completely ruin it, you know?” Erin turned to look at her friend.

“Are you saying you actually like him?” Alicia’s smile dropped from her face. This meant trouble. Erin didn’t respond.

“You barely know him, Erin!” Alicia shook her head. “Don’t do this to yourself. You had a good time last night. He’s a movie star.”

Erin nodded in silence. “You’re right. I know you are, but there’s just something about him. I don’t see him as a movie star,” she tried to explain, but Alicia only rolled her eyes.

“You see him as a human being…blah blah blah.” She shoved Erin in the direction of the shower again.

She turned to look at Alicia and pouted. “I don’t want to get my heart broken again. I’m worried. We’re going to be living in close quarters for two weeks now,” she said and Alicia sighed.

“We’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow, Erin. Maybe there is potential. If you’re feeling it, maybe he is too. For now, get dressed!” Alicia was authoritative and Erin passed her a mock-salute before locking herself in the shower for an hour.

•••

By the time Erin made her way downstairs, Alicia had already showered, changed and was sitting out in the balcony with Xavier. Erin had changed into a pair of casual navy blue trousers and a wooly lilac sweater. She had bunched up her thick chestnut curls on the top of her head in a messy knot and stayed away from the makeup. He had already seen her in her most vulnerable.

Alicia was much quieter around Xavier this morning than she had been the previous night at dinner. Erin stepped into the balcony, greeted them both with a chirpy good morning, and sat down on the third chair that Ms. Carter had left outside for them. Steaming mugs of tea had been placed on the coffee table in front of them and a plate of a variety of biscuits.

The lake had most definitely frozen the previous night, but not entirely and as the warm sun beat down on it this morning, it was beginning to melt.

“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” Erin asked nervously, neither of the other two had spoken and she didn’t want to make eye contact with Xavier yet.

“It’s beginning to grow on me all right,” Alicia said with a sigh and reached for her mug of tea.

“Did you sleep well last night?” Erin turned her face to Xavier but could feel her cheeks burning. He had finally looked at her; he looked drowsy and tired, like he hadn’t gotten any sleep the previous night.

Before he could answer, Alicia broke into a giggle which she immediately tried to subdue. But it was too late. Erin threw Alicia a threatening look but she had also noticed Xavier’s face fall and a certain kind of resentment build up in his eyes.

“I did, thank you for asking,” he said curtly and stood up from his chair. Within a second, he was gone from the balcony, and Erin and Alicia were left sitting by themselves.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry Erin. I didn’t mean to. I couldn’t control it,” Alicia said and leaned forward to grab Erin’s arm. She pulled it away from Alicia’s touch.

“Why do you always have to jeopardize everything? Why can’t you ever bear to see me happy?” she nearly yelled at Alicia before getting up to follow him inside.

“I’m sorry, Erin. I really am.”

She heard Alicia pleading but ignored her. She hurried inside and caught sight of Xavier’s figure disappearing in a huff up the stairs. She didn’t know exactly what to say or do, but she followed him upstairs anyway.

“Xavier, can we please talk?” she called after him, just as he was about to enter his room.

He turned to face her and then held the door of his room open for her. He did it in silence and she didn’t know what to expect but stepped into his room and he followed her. She noticed how he gently shut the door but didn’t allow it to close completely. What was he hinting at?


“You told Alicia about last night.” He said it as a statement rather than asked a question. Erin immediately felt the anger he was hurling toward her. The smile she had tried to plaster on her face had disappeared.

“She’s my best friend. And she would have found out,” she said. She remained standing near the door while he walked over to the bed but didn’t sit down.

“I can’t believe I was that foolish,” he said and ran his hands through his hair. He looked even more handsome in the morning, she thought, but immediately tried to snap herself out of admiring him.

“You weren’t the only foolish one. Evidently,” she said and he looked up at her. His eyes softened, but only for a few seconds.

“You think this was a mistake, because you’re some kind of a celebrity? That it has no effect on my life? Because I’m a lay, man?” she huffed as she spoke and crossed her arms in front of her.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said softly, but Erin could see that he was still worrying about himself, so she rolled her eyes.

He saw her do it and his expression darkened again.

“In fact, Erin, it is exactly like that. My face gets splashed across cheap tabloids because of things like this. I misjudged you,” his voice was still gruff and low pitched, although it was clear to her that he was very close to entirely losing his temper.

“Misjudged me how?” she dared to ask him.

“I thought you’d be able to keep it between us,” he answered, almost immediately.

“Treat it like my own dirty secret?” She was clenching her own arm, her nails were digging into her flesh as she spoke to him. She couldn’t stand to look at him anymore.

“I did not expect you to go gossiping about it with your girlfriend immediately after, that’s all.” He had become even quieter and his prolonged silence made her feel worse.

“I wasn’t gossiping. In fact, I misjudged you too. I didn’t think it was just about the sex,” she spat out the words and whipped away from him. She had spoken her mind, she didn’t care anymore. She didn’t care that he knew she had feelings for him in such a short while. How did it matter anyway? In his attempt to keep it a secret, he wouldn’t exactly go around discussing her with his buddies.

Xavier remained silent and it made Erin more furious.

“You can come off your high horse now, Mr. Xavier Cowen. You might be a celebrity, but you’re just like every other man out there.” She turned to look at him again and she could feel the tears prickling the back of her eyelids. This was such a huge mistake. She didn’t need another man to make her feel like a complete idiot.

“Stop comparing me to your lying cheating ex-boyfriend,” he suddenly thundered and took a few steps toward her. Erin inched away from him, he hadn’t raised his voice before and for a second, it frightened her. His towering frame loomed over her, even though he was still standing a good distance away from her.

“Not just him. You’re like every other man. You saw something you liked, but you only liked it for the night. Now you can’t take responsibility for your actions.” She tried to keep her voice low, tried to frighten him away from her with the ferocity in her eyes.

“Take what responsibility? Do you want a foot massage? A scented love letter? A marriage proposal?” Xavier said with a sarcastic laugh, even though he didn’t look like he had faith in his own joke.

“That’s really rich. Yeah, it makes me laugh.” Erin tried to laugh too. “You think that is what responsibility looks like? You’re so far out. No wonder stupid rom-coms are the only movies you get cast for.” She turned away from him again and made for the door.

But he had stopped her. His hand was gripping her arm now, his fingers embedded themselves in her flesh. She tried to ignore the force with which he was pulling her away and tried to push the door open.

“Come back here,” he said gruffly and pulled her to him. She landed with a thud on his chest, her back to him.

“You can’t just throw something like that at me and try to make a smooth exit,” he spoke through gritted teeth, but softly and into her ear.

“Why, you always get the last word, is that it?” she tried to laugh, but this time she couldn’t. His hands had now traveled up from her arms toward her neck.

“Something like that,” he whispered into her ear again and with one hand, pushed the door shut in front of her.

“Let me go now. Aren’t you afraid I’m going to gossip about this too?” She tried to wriggle herself free, but his grip on her only strengthened.

“You know what? I actually don’t care anymore,” he said and without giving her a second to react, he bent her over. In order to avoid tripping, she placed her hands firmly on the closed door in front of her.

She heard the sound of him flicking open the buckle of his belt and then unzipping. Just the sound of that made her go wet between her legs. She had no idea how he could have this effect on her. She felt his hands grab her butt and give it a squeeze before he reached over to unzip her pants.

He peeled down her pants and then wrapped his arms around her torso, pulling her closer to him. Erin closed her eyes and arched her back. She felt him slide into her as he held her tightly. She could hear him breathing raggedly behind her. His beard scratched against her cheek and ear.

It was the same feeling of being taken, of being owned by him, only this time it was without any restraint. He was pumping into her from behind as she tried to keep herself steady with the door. He was big and hard inside her, and she could feel the ferocity of his thrusts increasing with every passing second. His hands eventually found her breasts underneath the sweater and he squeezed them and played with her nipples. The combination of sensations was too much for her to deal with, she didn’t want to pass out again.

They were both moaning and he eventually let her go, placing his hands on her butt. She was completely bent over, her legs wide apart and he pushed inside her in a quick rhythmic motion. This time, he reached the edge even sooner and so did she. They both came together and she didn’t care how loud they were or that the door squeaked with his every thrust.

He groaned as he emptied himself inside her again and pulled out. Her thighs were still quivering from the intensity of the orgasm, and when he was out of her, she slumped to the carpeted floor.

“Erin,” Xavier said and she turned sleepy exhausted eyes to him. He was standing, naked from the waist down, in front of her and he had his hand stretched out toward her. She took his hand and he helped her up.

“Are you planning on tucking me into bed again?” she asked him with a shy smile. He pulled her close to him and wrapped his arms around her waist.

“Into my bed, you mean?” he spoke softly into her ear and she couldn’t help but giggle. He led the way and directed her to lie down on his bed. It smelled of him, she pressed her eyes closed and took in a deep breath of his scent. She opened them when she felt the mattress slump, he was getting into bed with her.

“I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve got some kind of hold on me.” His breathing was ragged as he spoke into her ear. His hands had found their way underneath her sweater and she felt a sharp tug on her nipple.

“I thought we were having a nap?” she teased him, just as he started licking her earlobe.

They exchanged looks and broke into laughter.


It had been three weeks. Three weeks of bliss. Alicia had left the cabin and gone back to the city nearly ten days ago. Erin and Xavier had walked to the lake and were throwing pebbles in, watching them skid over the portions that were still frozen in the lake.

Erin watched Xavier as he laughed, collecting more pebbles from the bank. She had news to give him.

“What are you looking at?” he asked her when he caught her staring. He jiggled his butt in front of her to tease her into breaking into giggles. He came over to give her a hug, but when he started pulling away, he caught sight of a serious look on her face.

“Wanna tell me what’s going on?” he chucked one of the pebbles toward the lake but didn’t look to see where it had landed.

“I have to get back to work, Xavier. I can’t stay cooped up here with you forever.” Erin bit down on her lip as she spoke, already detecting annoyance in him. He had been trying to avoid this conversation for the past few days.

“You promised we won’t speak about it till the end of the week, Erin. Can we just enjoy the day?” Like a child, he was digging the ground with his shoes. She almost wanted to forget about the important decisions, hug him and stroke his head.

“I have to be back at work by the end of the week. I need to make arrangements now. I can’t keep postponing it.” She tried to remain as calm and collected as possible. He looked up at her sharply.

“You don’t need my permission, Erin. Leave if you want to leave. I can’t stop you.”

“It’s not a question of wanting to leave. I have to. For my work. Just like you should go back to Los Angeles and stop trying to run away. It’s time you took charge of what you want to do.” She reached for him and held onto his arm, but his muscles were tensed. Even though his voice remained steady, it was easy for her to tell that he was now upset.

“So what you’re saying is that we’ll never see each other again?” he spoke after several minutes of silence. He had turned away from her so that she could see him in profile now. His shaggy blue-black beard illuminated in outline by the orange light of the setting sun.

“What do you want, Xavier? You’re the celebrity here. I’m just a simple math teacher.” She let go of his arm and he turned to look at her. They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds till he looked away.

“I don’t want to go back to LA. I don’t want you to go back to Seattle and I most definitely don’t want us to be apart.” When he said it, she smiled. She would never have admitted it, but this is what she wanted to hear from him. Despite having spent three intimate weeks with him, Xavier Cowen was still an enigma to her. She knew he was fond of her, found her irresistible in bed, but she could never be sure what she meant to him, seriously. Now she was convinced. She could see it in his eyes, and the way he refused to look at him.

“I’m glad you say that because I have some news that I believe you should know about,” she said and he looked at her with a worried expression. Erin didn’t want too much time to elapse, to give him a chance to prepare himself. “I think I’m pregnant. In fact, I’m sure of it,” she said, keeping her gaze steady on him. She watched as his expression changed from surprise to disbelief to panic and then a struggle to calm himself.

“When did you realize?” Those were his first words. Erin wasn’t so sure if it was the right decision anymore.

“A few days ago?” She hung her head down as if embarrassed. He took a few seconds, and then came forward, hooking his forefinger under her chin. He lifted up her head gently and craned her neck backward so that she could look up at him.

“All the more reason to not go,” he said.

“What am I going to do then?” She was seriously asking him. She didn’t want a hypothetical answer.

“Quit your job. Move in with me in LA.” He was smiling now, a glimmer of excitement in his eyes.

“So you do want to go back? You don’t want to live in the wilderness alone forever?” she was only joking when she said it, but he answered in all seriousness.

“I’m going to be a father now. It’s time I called my agent and have him sign me up for a few casting calls.” He was serious but smiling now, almost speaking to himself.

“Are you serious? What kind of films are these?” She was excited too. She hadn’t seen him seriously consider or talk about his work.

“Some films that won’t pay much but are the kind that I’ve always wanted to do. If I’m going to be a dad, I might as well start building my legacy.”

THE END


Katrina Bliss

Copyright ©2016 by Katrina Bliss. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic of mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


Jasmine knew she wanted more the moment she had finished. She sank back in her seat and pushed the bowl with the last creamy drops of her chocolate chip ice cream away from her, the spoon clattering in the bowl. It slid from her end of the table top until it reached the other end, grazing her mother’s arm.

“Jasmine!” her mother growled at her, while her eyes remained glued to the book she was reading. “Don’t you see? I’m a child pining for attention, Mom,” Jasmine responded and pouted her lips. Her mother turned a page of her cheap paperback and sighed.

“I wonder when you’ll begin to act your age. You’re a twenty-five year old woman. It must be all the kids you surround yourself with all the time,” she said, without lifting her head to look at her daughter.

She could be right , Jasmine thought. The only real conversations she had on a daily basis were with five-year-old tiny humans at the kindergarten where she worked. Her mother, Camilla Kiberd, had made it obvious that she didn’t approve. The unanimous dream of both her parents had been that their only child would grow up to become a doctor or an engineer; a profession that would reel in the money, in any case.

Jasmine had chosen teaching and she had chosen kids. Not for a second did she regret her decision, especially when she walked into the classroom to find a dozen shiny happy faces staring up at her. Her mother, on the other hand, never failed to remind her how disappointed she was with her daughter’s life choices.

“Your father would have been so disappointed!” is the line she threw at Jasmine from time to time; just to really rub it in.

Jasmine tore her exhausted gaze away from her mother and turned in her seat to catch the waitress’ eye again.

“What are you doing?” she heard her mother remark.

“I want some more ice cream,” Jasmine said, while she waved furiously to the waitress who still had not noticed her.

“Your sweet tooth will be the death of you,” Camilla admonished, her attention was diverted from the book finally. In fact, she always had time to throw caustic remarks at Jasmine.

“Relax, Mom. We’re on a holiday,” Jasmine said, and smiled broadly as the waitress finally began walking over to their table.

“Another one of those delicious cups of chocolate chip ice cream, please. And, Mom, anything for you?” Jasmine turned to her mother at the last minute.

“Just some coffee please. Black,” her mother spoke to the waitress curtly and smoothed the lapel of her grey jacket. She was every inch the properly dressed woman.

Jasmine watched her mother as she went back to concentrating on her book again. She had no idea where she had gotten her own looks from. While Camilla’s most striking features were her sky-high cheek bones, her straight and slim, somber lips, and a head of thick, straight hair which she now, like any proper sixty year old Englishwoman, chose to cut into a neat greying bob; Jasmine was an apple from a completely different tree. In fact, she was more of an orange. Her oval face barely gave away the hint of cheekbones; her lips were wide and in a perpetual pout, while her auburn curls were constantly unmanageable. Her mother was tall and slender, where Jasmine was petite with an ample chest – more than ample in most cases. Her father, too, had looked more like her mother than he did like Jasmine.

Jasmine sighed as she watched her mother read and gazed out of the smooth, cool glass panes that they were sitting next to. She could hear the seagulls in the sky and when she looked at it, it was bright blue and clear. She didn’t need to step outside to know that the sun would beat down on them, and yet, her mother was in a business suit. Well, she was always in a business suit.

“Aren’t you warm in that thing, Mom?” she asked.

“Don’t be silly, Jasmine.” That haughty tone in her mother’s voice which Jasmine knew so well had returned. “I couldn’t possibly have worn anything else,” she said while glaring at her daughter through narrowed eyes.

“Mom. It’s not a business meeting. It’s only a property viewing,” Jasmine suggested just as the waitress came back with the cup of coffee for her mother and a paper cup with two scoops of ice cream.

“Exactly. It is a business meeting. It’s a meeting between two individuals who will be embarking on a business contract,” her mother replied, as she gingerly pinched the handle of the cup with her forefinger and thumb. She even put her pinky finger out like only those who were royalty – or true snobs – did.

“He’s going to buy the house. You don’t need to impress him,” Jasmine said as she scooped a large spoon of ice cream into her mouth and relished the sensation of it melting in her throat. The feeling of it trickling down the heated skin on her lip was heavenly. Her tongue whipped out quickly to catch it before it fell down her chin.

“Well, if I don’t impress him and the house doesn’t sell, then I’m stuck with that place. And it’s falling apart with nobody else making any offers,” her mother’s voice had risen by a few decibels and Jasmine looked up with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay, okay,” Jasmine said, her voice muffled by the big dollop of ice cream in her mouth.

“I just can’t afford to have the property lying around anymore. At this rate it will never sell,” Camilla added and shut her book with an audible ‘swoosh’. Jasmine had never been able to develop the skill of consoling her mother. She was always too distant, too self-aware to betray the need to be consoled or allow anybody else to comfort her. So Jasmine didn’t try anymore.

“It’ll sell, Mom. The man is the wealthiest man in this town, you said yourself that he is a billionaire. This purchase will be pocket-change for him. He is clearly interested in it, and didn’t you say he knew Grandfather?” Jasmine offered instead, avoiding eye contact with her mother since she had mentioned the grandfather she never knew. Whom her mother despised.

“Yeah, apparently my father encouraged his stamp collection when he visited here on his holidays. You know, when he was shacking up with that woman,” Jasmine’s mother said through gritted teeth, her anger being vented on her molars. “At least, that is what he says in his letters. Anyway, I suppose we’ll simply have to wait and watch,” she added and opened her book again.

Jasmine couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She still couldn’t forgive herself for agreeing to accompany her mother on this trip. At least it has the potential of being a much needed holiday, Jasmine said to herself as she looked out through the window again, her gaze settling on the sprawling golden sand and the greenish blue waves crashing gently somewhere in the distance.


“This looks cozy I suppose,” Jasmine smirked as she stepped out of her mother’s car and banged the door shut.

“Careful with the door!” she heard her mother yell out to her, but she had already run up the broken steps which led to the big wooden door. This door might have been rich brown and looked polished decades ago, but definitely didn’t any longer. She craned her neck up to get a good long view at the house and to her, it was marvelous. The white paint was peeling and had gray patches of damp in the corner, the bottle green painted wooden shutters had chunks missing from them and even from outside, Jasmine could smell the musty scent of locked up spaces.

“This is pure romance,” she sighed just as her mother reached her side, joining her in staring up at the house.

“Well, if anything it’s a dead romance,” Camilla said, pulling a key from her purse.

“I can’t imagine why this hasn’t sold yet. It doesn’t take a wild imagination to know how this place could potentially look if it’s repaired and looked after,” Jasmine was chirpy and excited. Her parents had never brought her to this house before as her mother rarely ever spoke about her grandfather, but finally this dilapidated place seemed to solidify her roots.

“My father didn’t have a very respected reputation around this town. It might have something to do with that,” her mother replied as they stepped in through the door together and entered a large hallway. There was very little light inside, and the few slivers that entered through the holes in the windows illuminated the thick films of dust that had settled on everything.

Jasmine breathed in. The smell was an odd combination of old books, decaying upholstery and the scent of the nearby beach. It was heavenly and stifling at the same time.

“Somebody should have taken care of this place,” her mother said as she walked across the hall, staring up at the chandelier that had too many broken or missing pieces to count as one anymore.

“We didn’t even know it existed,” Jasmine turned to watch the older woman walking slowly along the wall, staring up quietly at the faded paintings hanging on the patchy walls.

“What does that mean?” Jasmine asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. She knew how her mother hated curiosity.

“It means that our father bought this house and lived here with his mistress any chance he could get. We didn’t know it existed until he died and left it to us.” Her mother was surprisingly talkative today and Jasmine was finding all of it very hard to believe. It was overwhelming to hear so many words coming from her mother’s mouth that didn’t include censure of anything Jasmine did.

“Are you serious?” is all Jasmine could respond with and watched as an ironic, short laugh escaped her mother’s lips.

“As if this house was going to make any difference. He drank all his money away or gave it to that woman for all we know. And this house became more of a burden than a profitable inheritance,” Camilla continued. She was turning doorknobs, opening and then shutting the doors that surrounded the circular, central hall.

Jasmine stood silently in the middle of it all. She literally had no response. She was certain that anything she could possibly say to her mother would result in a fight.

“We never met her,” her mother continued, not even noticing Jasmine didn’t respond to her earlier statement. Jasmine thought she detected a hint of despair in her mother’s voice, but then it quickly changed to anger again.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I had no idea,” Jasmine said weakly, watching as her mother stood under the chandelier.

“I just want to get rid of this house and finally begin to move on,” she continued, letting out an exhausted sigh. “As long as this house remains with me, it will serve as a constant reminder of how terrible he was as a father.”

More than being surprised at the things her mother was saying, the fact that she was so willing to talk about her father and her own feelings, was what was new to Jasmine. She decided to pat her mother gently on her shoulder, but she quickly moved away and Jasmine let her hand drop back to her side.

“The last thing I want is a pity party. Now, help me make this house somewhat presentable,” her mother said with a sudden change in her voice. Jasmine looked around her and smiled.

“When was the last time you dusted anything, Mom?”

***

Jasmine wiped her brow as she ran a wet sponge over a large glass-top coffee table in the living room for the last time. She stood up from her hunched position and looked around her. The thick curtains had been dusted down, as had the carpets; while the sofas and chairs were covered with sheets of plastic. She and her mother had spent the last four hours dusting, cleaning, and wiping as many surfaces as they possibly could. The rest had to be covered or hidden. She knew that the house still didn’t come close to what might have been its former glory, but like her mother said, at least now it looked ‘presentable’.”

“I might go down to the beach for a bit,” Jasmine said when she met her mother in the hall again.

“Why? We have to prepare for the evening, Jasmine. Don’t go running off in the middle of this,” her mother glared at her, but Jasmine had already brushed past her and opened the front door, missing the look directly but feeling it boring into her back.

“The place is as clean as it can possibly be for the moment. I’m done,” she said and walked out of the house. She could hear her mother call out to her and remind her to be back as soon as possible.

It was evening by now, but the sun was still out and bright as Jasmine walked lazily down the driveway and onto the unkempt narrow trail which she assumed would lead her to the beach. She could smell the sea and hear the accompanying seagulls, a smile creeping across her face as they swooped down on the water. The humidity had made her curls poof up and added a few inches to her otherwise slight height. If nothing else, Jasmine was grateful that she’d worn a pair of white cotton shorts and a thin printed blouse. Anything else would have been enough to roast her immediately.


When the beach came into view, Jasmine took off her leather sandals and skipped over to the sand, digging her toes into the warm, rough texture. She’d forgotten her sunglasses and her tanning lotion in the house, but she wasn’t too bothered. She took in a deep breath of the scent of the sea and kept walking. She had to raise her hand to shade her eyes, but she could see a handful of people lazing around and a few kids chasing each other. This is the life , she said to herself and smiled. It wasn’t hard to see why her grandfather had picked this town as his annual getaway.

When she came closer to the water she sat down, folding her legs in front of her and placing her head on her knees, letting the sun seep into her skin and relax the tenseness in her muscles after spending so many hours cleaning. A few feet away, a man was lying on a beach towel, his face facing the sun. He had definitely come prepared for sunbathing; his dark glasses shielded his eyes from the sun, while a book lay open and forgotten on his chest. He seemed to be much older than she, although Jasmine found herself admiring his sculpted body. His tanned skin was smooth; the muscles on his shoulders and abdomen looked effortless, as though he was involved in hard physical labor on a daily basis. His bare chest was covered in a spray of dark curly hair. Jasmine jerked her head away when she saw him shifting in his spot; she wasn’t sure if he’d seen her staring at him behind his dark glasses.

She went back to admiring the view until she was uncomfortable with the silence again. Her days spent having loud and endless conversations with five-year-olds had put her in the habit of talking incessantly. She tried clearing her throat to get his attention, but he didn’t budge.

“Lovely day,” she finally said, loud enough for him to hear. She could see that he tilted his head in her direction, but he didn’t say anything in response.

“The sun never seems to set here,” she said, trying again for conversation. This time she said it directly to him and continued looking at him, forcing him into a response.

“Yup,” was his short and succinct reply. Jasmine smiled, she had her ‘in’. She dragged her bottom in the sand and wiggled over closer to him.

“Are you on a holiday as well?” she asked him, pasting a bright smile on her face. She could sense that he was studying her, even though his eyes were hidden behind his dark glasses. He didn’t respond for a few seconds, but Jasmine continued to stare and smile. He finally seemed to let out a sigh, pulling his glasses off his face. His sparklin