Hunter Raines sat at the bar, sipping his whiskey mournfully and wondering what his friends were doing right now with their mates.
They’d come out here for a job, but things had gone sideways, and now at least two of his friends looked like they were planning to stay.
So perhaps it was time to move on.
He’d always had wanderlust, traveling from place to place and enjoying the journey. He’d stayed with Garrett and Grayson for so long because they travelled for work, and well, he liked them.
But now they had other things, people, to focus on, and Hunter was a lone kitty once again.
Which, if he thought about it, wasn’t so bad.
“Drowning your sorrows?” Mina, the bartender, asked, walking over to him. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, with dark hair and pretty green eyes. She was also happily married, as most women seemed to be in this town.
“Nah, no sorrows here,” Hunter said. “Just changes.”
“Ah.” Mina topped off his drink. “Thinking of moving on now that your friends are hitched?”
He shrugged. They weren’t officially hitched, but they were mated, which was even more serious in the shifter world. They wouldn’t have much time for him anymore, and that was fine for him as long as they were happy.
He’d just have to find a new way to do life.
“I’d set you up with someone myself if there was anyone here,” Mina said.
Hunter sort of wished there was someone around that he could play with, but he also had avoided making connections before because he didn’t think it was fair if they weren’t the serious kind.
For some reason, settling down didn’t sound so bad anymore. He kind of wanted what his friends had. The kisses, the cuddles. Having someone to come home to. After years of traveling the country, none of it sounded too bad.
Perhaps it was time to find a lady somewhere and settle down.
He was slowly turning his glass on the counter when the door to the bar opened, letting cool night air blow inside, drawing attention.
And when Hunter saw the person walking in, he knew that attention would be kept.
It was a woman, and she was striking. Any woman walking into this bar was a shock, but this one was more shocking. She had dark hair in tight curls that framed her face and just barely brushed the tops of her shoulders. Her face was heart-shaped, features incredibly feminine, with big, vulnerable brown eyes and long lashes and a small mouth with full lips. Her cheekbones were high, and there was a natural flush to them, showing even on her darker skin tone that seemed to radiate with warmth.
Her body was lush, covered in a trench coat to her knees, where he could see skinny jeans tucked into ankle boots in black leather.
He couldn’t make out much of her body, but what he could see made him (and probably every other guy in the bar) not want to look away from her.
But he knew it was rude, so he gave her a small, welcoming wave and turned back to his drink, hoping she would sit at the bar.
As a shifter, Hunter wasn’t really interested in getting involved with anyone unless she was his mate, and as of now, Hunter didn’t know that about this woman. Not yet.
She took a seat a couple stools down, gave him a tight smile that didn’t reach her eyes, and waved down the bartender.
He was used to women trying to schmooze him or hit on him, won over by his friendly smile and his generally harmless appearance. Yes, he was tall and naturally muscled like most shifters, but he tended to have a casual demeanor about him that put people at ease. And he’d heard that his pretty-boy charm and blond hair made him less intimidating.
Not to this girl, apparently.
A few other men tried to make an approach, but she waved them away with a polite but firm smile, obviously not interested in making any kind of connection.
“And what are you doing here, darlin’?” Mina had come out to take the woman’s drink order, and Hunter had to lean in slightly to hear what she was saying.
“I… I just moved here,” the woman said.
“Mina,” Mina said, putting out a friendly hand to her. “I’m the bartender, and if you’re living here, I’m sure we’ll be good friends. Always nice to have another woman around.”
The woman looked around nervously. “Yeah. I mean… there aren’t many of us, are there? I suppose because it’s so far away from civilization.”
“Hey,” Mina said, looking mock offended as she folded her arms. “We’re civilized here, aren’t we, Hunter?”
He gave her a wink, gladly taking the invitation to join the conversation as he got up and moved over to the stool next to the newcomer. “I’m Hunter. It’s nice to meet you.”
The girl gave him a smile that looked more like a grimace and reluctantly shook his hand with a dead fish grip.
“And you are?” Mina asked.
“Oh, sorry,” the woman said, looking caught off guard. “How rude of me. It’s Kelly.”
No last name was forthcoming, so Hunter just looked at Mina and shrugged.
Mina pulled a beer from the tap and set it in front of the newcomer. “Here’s your drink, on the house. I’m assuming you’ve been on the road. Nothing to eat?”
Kelly hesitated, then nodded.
Mina smiled. “I’ll be right back with a sandwich.” Then she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving just Hunter and Kelly at the bar.
“Um.” Kelly glanced sideways at Hunter. “So she’s friendly.”
“Yeah,” Hunter said. “Mina’s good people. And as you saw, always happy to have new girlfriends around.”
Kelly sighed. “I doubt I’ll be much of one. I’m planning to live kind of a ways out of town. I like my privacy.”
“Oh? Where at?”
She gave him the address, but he didn’t recognize it. “I’m just looking for some peace and quiet. That’s all.”
Hunter wanted to try one of his many lines on her, but he didn’t. As much as he liked to flirt and to see a pretty woman smile, he could sense it wasn’t the right time for that.
She was guarded, maybe more than anyone he’d ever met. So what was the reason for that?
Mina came back with her food, and she ate quietly, as if trying to avoid drawing any more attention to herself.
Hunter wondered about the reason for that. He didn’t see a ring, and she appeared to be alone in a new town, late at night. He should probably just leave her alone since she seemed to want that, but there was something about her that just drew him in, and he didn’t know why.
“So where are you living?” Mina asked, plonking her elbows on the bar and leaning in to listen.
Kelly gave Mina the address, and Hunter watched as Mina’s eyes widened and she stood up abruptly.
“Oh, honey, no. Not that old place.” She shook her head, dark curls bouncing. “It can’t even be safe there.”
Hunter’s ear perked up at that. A woman unsafe? He couldn’t have that.
“I… I think it’s safe,” Kelly said. “It was just what I’m looking for.”
“It needs work,” Mina said. “I can’t even imagine it’s up to code.”
“It is, just barely,” Kelly said. “I had it inspected.”
“The inspector must have been blind, then,” Mina retorted, wiping her hands on a towel before serving another beer. “I’m telling you, girl. It ain’t safe. It’s so far from everything, too.”
Kelly smiled softly. “That’s exactly what I’m wanting.” She pulled out her wallet and paid for her dinner, leaving a twenty on the counter. “Thanks for everything. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.”
Then she hopped off her stool and walked out of the bar, hips swaying alluringly as she left.
Mina gave Hunter a narrow-eyed look that said he’d better go after Kelly. Not that he needed it. He’d already planned to go on his own.
He jogged out of the bar and let the door swing shut behind him. He saw Kelly walking in the darkness toward a car parked on the other side of the street.
He quickly caught up to her, putting his hands up when she turned around, startled by his approach.
“What are you, a stalker?” She put a hand on her chest. Her ample chest, he noticed.
“No,” he said. “Just wanted to make sure you got out to your car. It’s late.”
She cocked her head, folding her arms as she stared him down. “I know your type, Hunter. Cocky. Player. You probably come on to every new girl in town, and she probably falls for your game. But I’m not here looking for a booty call. So you can just take your charming self somewhere else.”
“So you think I’m charming?”
She shook her head in exasperation as she got into her car, slamming the door. She didn’t spare him another look as she pulled off into the night, leaving nothing but dust in her wake.
Hunter sniffed a few times, eyes narrowing. She’d also left the scent of fear in the air, despite her brave words.
Kelly was definitely running from something, afraid of something, and Hunter was going to find out what that something was.
He’d just found a reason to stay in Silver Lake after all.
* * *
As Kelly walked up the steps to the cabin that would be her new home, she could see why Mina was concerned.
The stairs creaked and made ominous little cracking noises, and there appeared to be loose beams up by the roof. Maybe the inspector was blind, but Kelly was kind of glad the house had passed inspection.
It was the only home in her price range, and as long as she was careful with it, she should be fine.
She tried to shake thoughts of the handsome man who’d followed her out of the bar, looking concerned for her.
Mina had seemed to like him, if that meant anything.
Former Kelly would have taken him up on his flirting, bantering the night away with him and enjoying his company.
But her life now had no room for romance.
Once she was inside the living room, she set down her luggage and put her hands on her hips, surveying the damage.
Truthfully, the place didn’t look too bad, and she could have someone out here to fix it, once her painting picked up again.
As long as a certain bear didn’t show up.
She made sure the front door was locked and took her night bag up to her bedroom to unpack and get some rest.
As she walked up the creaking stairs, the upper floor came into view, with a living room area and several doors leading to bedrooms.
She opened the one that led to the master suite, where she would sleep.
There was a bed and a dresser and nightstand and a huge window looking out at all the beautiful trees.
If she had to be away from everyone, it might as well be here, where it was so beautiful the painter in her felt inspired.
And there was no way a bear could follow her on a plane, right?
She began to unpack, putting her stuff in the dresser, and stopped when she heard her phone ring.
She picked it up and saw her mom’s caller ID.
“Hi, Mom,” she said, holding the phone to her ear so she could continue to unpack. “Sorry I didn’t call sooner. I just got in after a stop in town.”
“Phew,” her mom said. “I know I shouldn’t worry so much. You’re a grown woman, but after the year you’ve had—”
“Yeah,” Kelly said, cutting her off. Her mom had never believed her about what was happening, had thought she was merely having a mental breakdown and seeing things.
Pretty much what everyone else thought.
“Anyway, it’s late here. I’m going to bed,” Kelly said.
“What do you think of the town there? Any nice men?”
Kelly pinched the bridge of her nose, praying for patience. “I told you I’m not dating right now. The bear—”
“Don’t you say anything about that bear! I can’t stand to hear it.” Her mom’s tone was histrionic, and Kelly knew there was no point going further on the topic.
“Look, I just want to focus on my painting and…” She trailed off, realizing she didn’t owe her mom an explanation anyway. “How are things at home?”
“Fine, except your father and I are worried about our only daughter on the other side of the country, all alone.”
“I like being alone,” she said softly. It was true to a point. She preferred being alone to being with a prying family who clearly thought her insane. She preferred being alone to being with a man who thought she was crazy or a man who finally believed her but ran off at the first sign things were real.
Compared to all that, alone was just fine.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to people,” her mom said eagerly. “I’m sure no one has read the article there, and no one will know about—”
“I thought we weren’t going to talk about it.” Kelly drummed her fingertips on the dresser, impatient to end the call. Her mom always wanted things on her terms, and right now, Kelly just wanted some rest.
“Well, we aren’t, but… you need to think about your future. Grandkids. This move is a great opportunity for you to finally move on. You know what I mean. Forget about—”
“We aren’t talking about it,” Kelly said firmly, more than exasperated by this point. How could she forget about something that still might be a danger? That no one, including her, really understood?
But there was no point telling her mom that.
“Anyway, I’m safe, and I’m going to bed. I’ll probably be out of reach for a while since I need some time to myself.”
“But we’re your family,” her mom whined. “And after what we’ve been through with all your crazy stories, don’t you think we deserve to—”
Kelly hung up the phone and took a deep breath as she silenced it.
She was used to her mom making everything about herself, but she didn’t want that energy now. Not when she was exhausted from traveling cross country to make a new, safer place for herself.
She crossed to the bay window and looked out at the trees lit by moonlight and stretching out in all directions. It was beautiful here, and she didn’t have any feeling of being watched.
But the bear had followed her before, even if not this far a distance. So a part of her was always nervous, waiting for things to go wrong.
She opened the door that led out onto the upper deck and stepped out warily, enjoying the cool night air on her skin and the feeling that she was the only being for miles.
She didn’t have to think of the article, the bear, or her mother as she simply enjoyed the rustling trees around her, the cool, pine-scented breeze.
For a second, her brain thought of the handsome man at the bar again. Hunter.
She wrapped her arms around her as she remembered his face. Why she thought about him now, she wasn’t certain.
Perhaps because the romantic in her wasn’t dead. Of course she still wanted to find someone. Maybe, if the bear stayed away this time, she could.
Maybe she’d finally escaped him. Maybe this stupid, unbelievable nightmare that left her haunted and alone was finally over.
But maybe not.