Authors: Zoe Chant
Alpha Rancher Bear
(Bears of Pinerock County #3)
by Zoe Chant
Copyright Zoe Chant 2016
All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
Most people didn't realize how much paperwork went into running a working cattle ranch.
Alec Tanner had been running the administrative side of the ranch ever since his parents passed away fifteen years ago, their car spinning out on icy roads and sending them plunging to their deaths in the Pinerock River canyon. It had happened, in fact, on a cold, snowy January day very much like this one.
He always felt a little colder on these days.
But that just made it a good time to dig out the ranch's receipts box, boot up his laptop and start up QuickBooks, and cozy up to the cast-iron wood stove in the living room. The ranch had a modern oil-fired boiler now, but on days like this Alec always made a fire in the stove. There was something comfortable and homey about the heat baking off its scarred iron sides; putting on an extra pair of socks and cozying up to the radiators wasn't quite the same.
With an armful of record books and receipts, Alec crossed the room to his desk near the picture window looking out on the snow-covered pasture. He was a big man with a slow, graceful stride, dark-haired and gray-eyed. Today, he had the house to himself. His cousin Cody was out with the ranch's hired man, Gannon, taking care of their herd of Black Angus beef cattle: making sure all the pregnant cows were under shelter and had plenty of hay, checking that none of them had decided to drop their calves early, before the usual February-to-March calving season. Later in the afternoon, before the early winter darkness, Alec planned to go out and help his cousin, but right now he was enjoying the peace and solitude of the empty house.
Alec was a man of few words. Aside from the other members of his bear-shifter clan—his brother, cousins, and the hired man—he didn't need company or want it. In the past, most days on the Circle B Ranch had passed much like this one, everyone busy with their own chores and hardly a word spoken, just an occasional "pass the coffee" to Cody or a shouted command when they were out riding range together.
These days, things were different. Once, they'd been five bachelor bears on their own, and Alec had been very happy with that. Now, two of the five—his brother Axl, and their cousin Remy—had found their mates and brought them back to live at the ranch. It wasn't that he didn't like them; they were both nice women, and they worked hard and pitched in around the ranch. But it meant having to deal with new people in his territory, and visitors, and changes from routine.
There was a knock on the door.
Case in point.
Alec sighed and closed the untouched account book. If this was Tara, his brother Axl's mate, she would almost certainly have simply barged in. Remy's mate Saffron tended to be more respectful of Alec's space. It was one of the things he liked about her.
Right now Saffron and Remy were living in a travel trailer parked beside what was going to be their house eventually, but was still a plywood shell bundled in Tyvek house wrap at the moment. If she needed to borrow something or wanted to use someone else's kitchen rather than dealing with the trailer's tiny one, Saffron would probably have gone next door to Tara and Axl's place, rather than walking across the Circle B ranch yard to the main house.
Starting to get a little worried now, he cracked the door open.
Saffron stood on the porch, bundled in a coat which failed to completely close across the bulge of her pregnant stomach. Behind her, snow swirled down in small, dry flakes. The porch roof kept it off her, but her dark mass of pinned-up hair was dotted with it, like tiny stars.
"Hi," she said, smiling brightly.
"Uh, hi." Neither of Alec's clan-brothers' mates seemed to be intimidated by him in the slightest, despite his surly alpha-bear demeanor. Saffron, in particular, always looked genuinely glad to see him, which made it hard not to smile back; he felt his lips twitching up a little at the corners.
"I'm so sorry to bother you, but I have to ask a favor." She bit her lip. "It's a pretty big favor."
"Is someone bothering you?" Alec's inner bear bristled at the idea of a threat to his clan—especially to the newest member of it, Saffron and Remy's unborn cub.
"Oh, no! God, nothing like that. No, I need you to drive me to my midwife."
His eyes dropped instantly to the bulge under her coat. "You aren't—"
"Of course not." She crossed her arms, somewhat awkwardly. "I'm only seven months along. Don't panic. No, I have an appointment today, but Remy's at work and Tara's in town shopping. In better weather, I'd just drive myself, but I don't quite trust that switchbacked nightmare you guys call a road."
The thing Alec could never admit, to her or to anyone, was that he didn't either. It was one reason why he rarely left the ranch. Not the only reason—he liked the solitude and seclusion, and preferred to leave the town trips to the other bears. But ever since what had happened to his parents, the road had been—
Well, he didn't like driving it, that was all. Especially in the winter.
He wasn't going to use the word
, even to himself. He wasn't scared, exactly. Just ... cautious.
"You can't reschedule?"
"My appointment's in an hour. I'll have to pay for it regardless, and I don't want to make her mad. There aren't that many midwives in Pinerock County. Alec, please?"
He sighed. Remy and Axl's wives were part of his clan, which meant they were his, just as much as his brother and cousins. And an alpha took care of what was his.
"Let me get my coat."
To his dismay, she threw her arms around him and stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Thank you, Alec. I really appreciate it."
"Uh ... you're welcome." He tried not to extricate himself
aggressively. Hugs: really not his thing.
By the time he came out in his winter gear, she'd helpfully brushed all the snow off his truck and climbed up into the passenger side. He did a quick, automatic check for winter gear behind the front seat (flares, chains, emergency kit—the usual), started the truck and turned around in the wide yard that separated the various outbuildings of the Circle B. The main ranch house was across the yard from Axl and Tara's little house, with the shell of Remy and Saffron's new house next to it. The cattle barns were ranged in a semicircle along the other side. At the rate his clan kept adding new family members, they were going to have a whole village back here eventually.
Fresh snow sifted down onto the truck's windshield. "So how's Remy's new job working out?" Alec asked, to take his mind off the fact that he was going to have to drive down the road to town for the first time in weeks in a snowstorm.
Unlike the rest of the clan, Remy had no particular inclination or talent for working with animals. He preferred machines, and was an avid motorcycle enthusiast. Right now he was working part-time with a mechanic in Wildcat Forks.
"He seems pretty happy." Saffron held her hands to the vents, which were starting to blast out hot air. "He gets a little bored on the ranch."
"If he's bored, he could try helping out more," Alec muttered.
Saffron laughed. "If you tried that argument on him, no wonder he ran off and got a job at the first opportunity."
Alec shifted to a low gear as they half-drove, half-slithered down the first steep stretch of road. He hadn't chained up before leaving because Axl and Remy had been driving in and out with no problem, and hoped that wouldn't be a mistake. He tried not to clench his fists too tightly on the steering wheel; at least his gloves hid the white knuckles that he knew he'd otherwise be displaying. Through the snow-draped trees, flashes of the canyon were intermittently visible off to the side, a dizzying landscape of black rocks and white snow.
"What about you?" he asked, resolutely fixing his eyes on the road. "Does the solitude bother you?"
Saffron glanced at him, and he clenched his teeth; did she find it weird that he was being chattier than normal? But she answered him seriously. "No, I don't mind at all. I grew up in a small town. It's very peaceful out here. And I've been busy with my correspondence classes."
There was more, but he didn't hear it, because they were coming up to
curve, the one where his parents had slid over the edge. After the accident, Alec had built a rudimentary guard rail, a log fence on the edge of the steep cliff plunging into the canyon. He still didn't think it would stop a vehicle traveling fast, though—and it was easy to go fast on the long steep stretch beforehand. He'd once seen Remy tear down it on his motorcycle and fishtail in a turn so close to the edge that the rear wheel of his bike had almost slipped off. Alec had chewed out his cousin so thoroughly for that stunt that Remy hadn't spoken to him for days.
His wheels slid when he braked, and his heart leaped into his throat. But the truck took the turn smoothly, as it had every other time he'd driven this way.
He realized Saffron had gone silent in the passenger seat. "Are you okay?" she asked cautiously.
"Don't I look okay?" It came out snappish.
"Well, it's just that you look ..." She hesitated. "Really stressed."
"I'm driving down a road
didn't want to drive on. In a snowstorm. Yes, it's stressful, and I need to concentrate on it."
Saffron went quiet. Alec immediately regretted snapping at her, but the words were out. Too late to take them back.
And alphas didn't apologize.
Charmian Russell was in her native element: ordering people around.
It wasn't exactly that she meant to. It was just that, after fifteen years of being Pinerock County's go-to girl for midwifery, she was used to telling people what to do. She ran the Pinerock County Birthing Clinic, she trained younger midwives and doulas, and she spent all day, every day patiently running new would-be moms through the basics. Was it really any wonder that she had trouble turning it
Especially on a day like today. The roads were terrible, and she was the only person in the clinic. Fortunately they didn't have any clients on the verge of going into labor right now, but she'd taught a relaxation class in the morning and then had a meeting with another of her new moms to go over nutrition and check on the baby's progress.
Rather than feeling unhappy and overworked when she was at the clinic alone, Charmian enjoyed it. She got to do things exactly her way.
"Let's see," she murmured, paging through her calendar program on her computer in the back office. The only other appointment this afternoon was a routine wellness checkup with Saffron Hayes-Blake at 1 p.m. Assuming Saffron didn't cancel, of course. She hadn't called, and usually Saffron was very good about not missing her appointments, but Charmian knew that Saffron lived way up in the mountains somewhere, and wouldn't blame her for not wanting to drive to town in the current road conditions. After Saffron's appointment, though, she decided to close the clinic early. Anyone who had an emergency could call her, and it would be nice to go home early, while there was still time to enjoy some daylight. She could go skiing or go for a run.
Charmian was only five feet tall, but she was a small wiry bundle of muscle. In winter she went skiing, in summer she swam and hiked, and all year 'round she worked out. This was partly because she liked being healthy and feeling fit, and partly because she took her job very seriously. In the course of delivering babies, she had to holding up labor-weak mothers, turn babies around with her hands, and sometimes get herself and her 4WD Jeep up some very steep, twisty backroads, which more than once had involved using the winch on the front of the Jeep to get it unstuck. She didn't ever want physical weakness to come between herself and her ability to do her job.
The front door of the clinic opened and closed, and Charmian heard voices. It was ten minutes 'til one. Looked like Saffron had made it after all. She closed the calendar program and went out into the hall.
In the entryway, two people were stamping snow off their boots and taking off their coats. One of them was obviously Saffron. The other ...
He had to be a relative of Saffron's husband Remy. He had the same general look, big and strong, with broad shoulders and capable-looking hands and a strong-featured, handsome face.
But Remy didn't have those piercing blue eyes, that looked across the clinic and seemed to stare straight into Charmian's soul.
She didn't see Remy and find herself wanting to tear his clothes off.
She'd never had such a powerful, visceral reaction to any man before. When this guy looked at her, it knocked the breath right out of her. He'd stopped in his tracks, too, in the process of pulling off his knitted hat. Now the hat was half on and half off, revealing curls of sweat-damp dark hair plastered to his forehead. She wanted to brush them back from his brow. Actually, she wanted
them back ...
What the hell.
Charmian got a firm grip on herself. She was no blushing girl, to fall all over herself at the sight of a handsome guy. And, okay, this guy was
good looking, but that was still no excuse for the tingling in her belly and the weakness in her legs.
Besides, Saffron was coming forward, hand outstretched. "Charmian! I realized about halfway down the mountain that I should have called ahead to make sure the clinic was open, but cell service is really spotty up there."
"Don't worry about it. I hope you drove carefully." Charmian gave the younger woman a quick hug, having to stand on tiptoes and lean over the round bulge of Saffron's pregnant belly.
"Oh, I was fine. Alec is a great driver. Have you met Alec, by the way? He's Remy's cousin."
said Charmian's libido.
What a wonderful name. Very strong and masculine. The sort of name that makes you want to strip off your underwear right here and—
Shut up, libido. No one asked you.
Alec was still standing in front of the door. He'd managed to finish taking his hat off, but looked a trifle shell-shocked, and he was looking everywhere but at her. His gaze couldn't seem to find any place to rest.
Charmian had seen that look on the faces of numerous husbands, boyfriends, and fathers during the years she'd been running the clinic. This might be the 21st century, but the Pinerock County population was still composed mainly of farmers and ranchers, and most of the guys in the area were hard-working, beer-drinking, salt-of-the-earth types who communicated mainly in one-word sentences. Their trips to town tended to focus on feed stores, hardware stores, and bars.
The entire birthing clinic, in contrast, was almost aggressively feminine. There were soft colors everywhere, and soft carpet; there were toys and baby books and colorful plastic furniture. The walls were decorated with posters showing stages of pregnancy and happy mothers in soft sunlight carrying happy-looking babies. Charmian had decided early on that the clinic needed to be designed to make women comfortable and set them at ease. If their husbands and brothers had a problem with it, in Charmian's opinion, they needed to man up and get over it.
Still, for some reason it irritated her badly that Alec wouldn't look at her. After that first time, and the electric spark that seemed to have jumped between them, he wouldn't make eye contact.
"Hi," she said with a bright smile.
Alec made an acknowledging grunt, and that was it.
"Be polite," Saffron said, nudging him. "Charmian, before we start, I have to run and use the bathroom. I'm sure you're used to that."
"Of course. You know where it is."
"So, I'm just going to run some errands ..." Alec began, and trailed off.
"My appointment's an hour," Saffron called. "Come pick me up at two!" And she darted off down the hall—she hadn't been kidding about the
Alec started to pull his hat back on, backing toward the door. Charmian found his rapid retreat as irritating and baffling as his refusal to look at her. She marched over to him while he was still struggling with his snow-covered outside gear, and stopped in front of him, where he couldn't
look at her, at least without being openly rude about it. She stuck out a hand. "I'm Charmian, Saffron's midwife."
"Uh, hi." He darted a quick look at her, and then away. His demeanor was almost shy, and yet not; it was as if she made him very uncomfortable.
Does this guy have a problem with women or something?
"Hey." Charmian waggled her fingers at him. "I don't know about you, but where I come from, when people offer a hand to shake, it's polite to shake it."
His powerful hand engulfed hers. Even though he'd just come in from outside, his fingers were very warm ... and very strong. There was something electric in his touch. Her skin seemed to tingle with it.
He still didn't smile, or quite meet her eyes. She found herself wanting very badly to know what his smile looked like.
But this only made her more irritated. Why was she getting this powerful sense of attraction from someone who didn't even seem to
"Do I smell bad or something?" she asked.
"What?" Now he looked at her, full on.
She hadn't been prepared for the intensity of those blue eyes from up close. All the sarcastic things she'd meant to say faded out of her mind, and instead she found herself saying, "You don't have to leave. You can stay and have coffee. Even sit in on Saffron's appointment if she's okay with it. We usually see the best outcomes with new mothers if the entire family is involved."
Now that he was actually looking at her, Alec had begun to frown. "You're the midwife who's going to deliver Saffron's baby?"
"Well, eventually, yes. That's what
"Look, don't take this the wrong way, but can you actually ... deliver a baby?"
"Sorry?" She stopped, planted her hands on her hips, and stared up at him. She had to tip her head
back. "Did you just imply you don't think I can do my job?"
"Well, no, I didn't exactly mean it like that. It's just, you're so—" He hesitated, seemingly at a loss for words.
"Short?" Charmian suggested. "Small? Tiny?"
"Are you a rancher?" she demanded.
"Yeah, but I don't see what that has to do with—"
"Because you're used to delivering calves, and so you think all babies are two hundred pounds and take four strong guys to wrestle them out of their mom. You've see human babies, right? They're somewhat smaller."
"Yes, I know that, but—"
"Or, if it's
skinny little hips you're thinking about—" At this, he hastily jerked his eyes northward, because they had drifted down. "—you know it's not
hips the baby's going to be popping out of, right?" She smacked her ass to demonstrate. Now he was bright red. She had to fight to keep the grin off her face. Really, people who questioned someone's professional competency were just asking for it .... even very hot people.
"It's a legitimate question." He was scowling now. "Saffron is part of my clan. I need to know she's going to be in good hands. And right now, I'm starting to doubt
hands are the best ones for the job."
Charmian sputtered in disbelief. "What, just because I'm not a strapping six-foot farm wife? That's it. If you don't believe I can handle physical labor, buddy, let's arm wrestle."
This time she caught him totally off guard. "Arm wrestle?"
"Yes, you know how to do it, right?"
"I'm a shifter, ma'am," he countered. "We're stronger than normal humans anyway. And, uh ..." His gaze ran down her body again. All five feet of it.
Oh right. She knew Saffron's mate was a shifter—the presence of bear shifter clans back in the mountains was no secret. But she hadn't really thought it through. Still, now she felt like she couldn't back down. Especially the way he kept staring at her like that. She didn't want him to stop looking at her, but she also felt it wasn't a good idea to let him get away with underestimating her.
"Right here," she said, plunking down into one of the colorful plastic chairs at the table in the waiting area.
Alec stared at her, and at it, and then sat down very carefully across from her.
He was so big he dwarfed the small table and chairs, which were meant for prospective moms and their kids. He made the furniture look extremely flimsy. Charmian was starting to have a bad feeling she might have made a mistake, but backing down from a fight had always been something she was bad at. Backing down meant admitting she was wrong, and she absolutely hated doing that.
"What in the world is going on out here?" Saffron said behind Charmian, in a tone of amused incredulity.
"We're arm wrestling." Charmian set her elbow on the table and opened her hand. "Come on, let's do this."
Alec looked baffled, annoyed, and slightly amused, all at once. He took her hand in his big, warm one, and positioned his elbow near hers. His arm was so much longer than hers that she'd be starting out at a disadvantage even if not for the disparity in their strength, since she had so much farther to move
than he had to move
You know you're not going to win this one, right?
Charmian's common sense wanted to know.
Just checking ...
Those are loser thoughts, brain. Knock it off.
"I don't think you really want to do this," Alec said. His earlier hostility had faded into a subtle amusement, bringing a sparkle to his intense blue eyes. He wasn't quite smiling, but the corners of his mouth twitched.
It was hard not to respond to that sparkle with a smile of her own. She was acutely aware of his masculine presence across the table, intensely conscious of the strength in the big hand gripping her own.
She'd done this kind of thing before, arm-wrestling much bigger men, usually to win bar bets. Nobody expected her to be as strong as she was. Still, she was just an ordinary human, and she knew it was highly unlikely she could win against a shifter her own size, let alone someone as big as Alec.
He was going to mop the floor with her.
"Want me to say 'go'?" Saffron asked, sounding like she was trying very hard not to laugh.
"Sure," Charmian said between gritted teeth.