Axman Werebear (Saw Bears Book 5) (10 page)

BOOK: Axman Werebear (Saw Bears Book 5)
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Chapter Eleven

 

Diem bounced on the bench seat of Bruiser’s truck. Over the crunchy, shell-riddled scrambled egg breakfast she’d made this morning, he’d joked that it was Bring Your Mate to Work Day. Diem didn’t care what he called it, as long as she didn’t have to spend the entire day at the trailer park away from him. After last night, and his admission about calling his half-brother this morning over breakfast, she didn’t want to be away from him for a single minute, much less an entire day.

Plus, she’d always run the numbers side of this business, and she was finally getting an up close and personal look at what the Ashe Crew, the Boarlanders, and the Gray Backs really did. And she had her very own, sexy-as-all-get-out tour guide to show her the ropes—or rather, the skyline and cables, as the lumberjacks called them.

Bruiser had already explained the theory of lumberjacking over breakfast. He’d told her about the machinery, the beetle infestation wiping out the trees, hauling schedules, who ran the processor and cables, as well as the role the Boarlander Crew of cutters played. But still, seeing the things her mate had described would be much different than trying to imagine it all.

Bruiser pulled to a stop beside Kellen’s truck and settled a yellow hardhat on her head. It was cute that he worried about her. He leaned forward and kissed her, and they giggled when they knocked hats with a
thunk
. Bruiser licked his lips in a decidedly delicious manner, then leaned her hat back and leaned in again, taking his time to pluck at her lips with sexy little smacking sounds.

“I like you,” he whispered, but she knew what he meant. Bruiser was falling for her just as hard as she was falling for him. She could tell because he was so open and honest with her. She could tell by the way he looked at her that she was precious to him.

Leaning forward, she whispered against his ear, “I love you, too.”

Bruiser’s face went comically blank as she slid from the truck. She wished she had a camera to take his picture right now. A smile as slow as molasses took his face as she rounded the front of the truck, grinning like an idiot at him through the front window.

“Hey,” he said, jogging after her as she followed the rest of the crew toward the processor. “I was going to say that first.”

“Too slow, Keller.”

“I wasn’t slow, D. I was just working my way up to it, when I was sure you’d feel it back.”

“Now you know,” she said cheekily.

Bruiser grabbed her ass and bit her ear gently before he jogged on up ahead. His eyes twinkled with happiness when he looked back over his shoulder at her. Diem’s belly dipped and warmed under his adoring gaze, and she giggled and looked at the ground as heat flushed her cheeks.

The Ashe Crew went to work, Brighton on the processor that stripped trees and cut the ends evenly so Everly could load them onto a truck for the log buyer. Kellen worked the main machinery that controlled the cables that dragged logs up the steep mountainside three at a time. Tagan oversaw the landing while he and Denison cut loops of cable with a saw that cut through metal. The rest of the crew worked down the hill, attaching the skyline cables to logs and scrambling out of the way before Kellen dragged them up toward the processor. It looked like grueling, dangerous work, but the crew was careful and worked well together. It wasn’t an hour into the work day when they were all sweating through their T-shirts and chugging water. Even though heavy, dark rain clouds blocked the sun, the job was physically demanding enough that they all were drenched despite the cooler day.

A niggling disappointment took Diem as she watched them from the landing. They seemed to have enough workers here, and no positions were lacking. She’d hoped to find some kind of work to occupy her days, but she simply wasn’t needed.

She wasn’t needed.

Diem frowned.

“What are you pouting about?” Tagan asked, chin lifted high and exposing a long dirt smear down his jawline.

“I don’t pout,” she said primly. “I was just thinking that I’m going to have to find a job in town.”

“That’s quite a commute.”

“Yeah, but I can’t just sit around the trailer park waiting for Bruiser to come home every day. I’d feel stagnant.”

“A hard worker. I respect that.” Tagan rested his hands on his hips and watched his crew shove loops of cable around a large felled tree. “Your dad won’t let you work for him anymore?”

“No. Likely, he’ll have one of my half-brothers take over my work.” In Father’s eyes, their life expectancy was much longer than hers.

Tagan jerked his head behind him, and the hairs rose on her arms as Brighton cut the engine of the processor and turned in the same direction with narrowed eyes. Bear shifter hearing was much better than dragon’s.

“What is it?” she asked as dread slammed into her gut.

“Sounds like that fancy car the boar shifter drives your dad around in.”

“Shit.”

Tagan pursed his lips and arched his eyebrows. “Indeed.”

“I’ll handle my father.”

“From the look on your face, you don’t think your dad is here to just do some friendly jobsite overseeing, do you?”

She shook her head miserably and made her way toward the mouth of the thin mountain road. She could hear the car now, too, and it definitely lacked the throaty sound of one of the work trucks. Stomach souring, Diem clenched and unclenched her hands in an effort to stop them from shaking. Living in Asheland with her friends and mate had been a vacation away from the reality of her situation. The continuation of her species rested solely on her shoulders, and now she had to find a way to tell Father she was bowing out of the breeding game.

This was going to suck.

She’d grown used to smiling, laughing, frowning, showing any emotion on her face over the past couple of days, and with great effort, she smoothed her features the way Father had taught her.

The dark car pulled up and came to a silent stop right in front of her. She stared passively at the heavily tinted window and clamped her sweating hands behind her back.

Mason turned off the engine and stepped out from behind the wheel. With a nodded greeting for her, he opened Father’s door and waited, face as stoic as she hoped hers was.

A trickle of sweat ran between her breasts, and Diem fought the urge to wipe it with her T-shirt.

“What are you wearing, daughter?” Father’s formal words floated to her on the breeze as he stepped out of the car and made a show of lifting his chin to look down at her.

Void of any intelligent response, she looked dumbly down at her shirt and jeans that were now threadbare at the knees from a game of charades she’d played with the Crew the other night. She’d pantomimed an elephant in the dirt and hadn’t washed them since. Her sneakers used to be gray with purple trim, but now they were the color of the rich dirt on the landing, and mud was squished out the sides of her heel. “A T-shirt I borrowed from Brooke. Brooke is Tagan’s mate.” Hopefully he wouldn’t read the label across her chest, which was the logo of some small-town beer brewery Brooke had visited once.

Father’s nose twitched. “Hmm. I suppose to fit in you must act like the people I’ve given you to.”

Diem narrowed her eyes and regretted not bringing sunglasses to shield her dilating pupils. “Speaking of, I think we should discuss that. You didn’t give me to anyone. Bruiser and I chose to follow through with the deal you made, but it was my decision.”

Father snorted indelicately, and Diem clenched her hands harder behind her back to resist the urge to clutch air and pretend-strangle him.

“You know why I am here, so let’s get straight to the point.”

“Right. I’m very happy, and I’ve found a good match. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can breathe. I’m having fun and fitting in with the Ashe Crew. That’s what you wanted to know, right? About the happiness of your only daughter?”

Father’s face was frozen like a statue in that bored expression of his. “Don’t trifle with me, child. Have you consummated your marriage?”

“Father, I don’t think that is any of your business—”

“Diem!” A crack of power rocketed from Father and washed across her skin, covering her in a chill.

A shrill whistle sounded from behind her, and the rumbling engine on Kellen’s machine cut to nothing. When she turned, Tagan was approaching with steady strides, flanked by the rest of the Ashe Crew. Drew and Denison tossed their hard hats beside the processor, and Brighton cracked his knuckles loudly. It was Bruiser’s furious gaze that held her, though. His eyes blazed gold, and all around her wafted the scent of fur.

“I think you should leave.” Diem turned to her father and leveled him an empty gaze. “I have consummated my marriage, but we have chosen not to have children. My husband values my life over the need to procreate to make you proud of me.”

“You can’t just make that decision without considering the consequences. For me and for your kind.” Father’s words came out low, and a soft hissing sound emanated from his throat.

“I can, and I did. My fucking body, my fucking choice.”

“No, it’s not your choice! You’re my daughter. Mine! You have a duty to me and to your people. Make the sacrifice and die honorably to continue our race!” Father curled forward, his eyes melting to a steely silver color as his pupils elongated. “You’ll bear a child and be grateful for the honor!” His face was a mask of red as he snapped backward.

“Get back!” she cried as the sound of clanking armor-like scales sounded.

Father morphed and grew, his face turning monstrous as his teeth formed white daggers. Long whiskers trailed down his face as his body grew longer. Sharp claws clutched mounds of earth, digging craters into the landing as a bellowing, ear-shattering roar burst forth from his long, scaly neck. He shone in the dim light, blue and pearlescent white, a perfect specimen of what a warrior dragon should look like.

The dragon rose high above her, eyes wild and furious.

“No!” Bruiser yelled from behind her.

Horror filled her chest as she looked back to see a giant, dark-furred grizzly rip out of the man she loved. He charged, and behind him, the Ashe Crew exploded into raging, roaring bears.

Bruiser skidded to a stop in front of her, then shoved her backward step by step with his massive weight.

“Stop! He’ll kill you,” she screamed.

No, no, no, this couldn’t happen now. Father didn’t have his complete mind when he was a dragon.

The earth shook as Father approached, eyes emotionless like an apex predator focused on the hunt. More bears circled her, hiding her, snarling and pacing as she was herded backward. The Ashe Crew was trying to save her, but what they didn’t know was going to get them killed.

“Father, please!” she pleaded. “It’s Tagan and Kellen. Denison and Brighton. You’ve looked after the Ashe Crew for years. They help you protect your treasure!”

Bruiser grunted and looked back at her, confusion swimming in the gold depths of his feral eyes.

A clicking noise echoed from above, sparks igniting in the gasses that dwelled deep in Father’s throat. That sound meant death and destruction. It was too late. Too late to reach Father. Too late to save herself, but dammit, she could try to save her friends.

“Bruiser,” she said around a sob, “I love you.” Her face crumpled, and her voice dipped to nothing. “You can’t say it back, but I know you love me, too.”

Then she threw her head back and let the dragon out.

Chapter Twelve

 

Bruiser froze as Diem arched backward, breaking bones cracking against the sound of the monster above them. She fell forward with a cry, her fingers elongating into blade-like claws as her body swelled with power and sprouted scales to cover her thinning human skin.

Power blasted against him, buckling his legs in the moment of her Change. Forest green scales shone in the muted light like gunmetal, and her belly was bright gold. She was stunning as she leapt over him and curled her body around the Ashe Crew.

Much smaller than her father, Diem’s dragon was no match for the titan bearing down on them now. Still, she cuddled them under her outstretched wing, and her yellow eyes met his the moment before heat blasted from somewhere above. Flames licked the sides of her wing, and she hunched around them tighter. A cry of agony wrenched from her throat in a high-pitched, prehistoric screech of pain.

Bruiser roared for her to let him go—struggled against Drew’s body as he suffocated along with the rest of the crew, who were gasping for breath and space as he was. The heat was too much, torching him from the outside in, until he thought he’d die from the burn.

When the flames stopped, the relief was instant. Diem, his beautiful, brave mate had put herself in between her father’s flames and the Ashe Crew, but her body buckled with the disappearance of the hellfire blaze.

Her eyes, yellow with veins of shining gold and dark, diamond-shaped pupils, were full of sadness and pain. She turned her head toward the dragon towering over her. Bruiser didn’t know what passed between them, but Diem retracted her wing and bunched her muscles. With a blast of wind that made Bruiser have to dig in his claws to stay upright, Diem flapped her wings and lifted into the sky. Without a backward glance, she struggled toward the trailer park.

Black smoke billowed from her side, and her wing was riddled with singed holes, making her flight look unbalanced and painful.

Damon shrank back into his human skin and sagged to his knees. “What have I done?” he whispered, silver eyes devastated as he watched his daughter disappear over the next mountain.

Red rage boiled in Bruiser’s blood, building until all he felt was hatred. He charged Damon, slapping him down with his claws and piercing his shoulder with his canines. He wanted to fucking kill the man for what he’d done to Diem.

Something hard hit him from the side, but he smelled blood. Tasted it. Wanted more until Damon was pale as a ghost and lifeless in the mud where he belonged.

“Bruiser,” a voice murmured over the roaring in his ears. A roaring he came to realize was coming from him. “Bruiser!” the voice said again, louder and more demanding. Tagan.

“Stop! That’s an order.”

Bruiser froze, his muscles tightening and refusing his brain’s order to murder.

“Change back. Now!” Tagan yelled, the crackle of power thick in the air.

With a pained sound in his throat, Bruiser shrank back into his human form. It hurt, because he wasn’t ready, and he sure as shit didn’t want to do it. Tagan was in control now, though.

Damon was on his knees, clutching his crimson-streaming shoulder. “I have to make sure she’s okay.”

“No you fucking don’t,” Bruiser yelled. “That job belongs to someone who actually cares about her. She isn’t yours Damon. She isn’t anyone’s.” He lurched for him again, but Drew and Brighton held him back. “You’ll go to your house, and you’ll wait for me to bring you word. And if she dies, well then you fucking die, too.”

Bruiser shoved off Drew and strode for his truck.
God, please let her be okay.
He turned the engine and spun out of the lot, spewing gravel as he went.

The trip down the mountain toward the trailer park was hell. He sped around slick corners and switchbacks, reckless on the cliff edge. He didn’t slow until he reached the dirt road that ran down the center of the Asheland Mobile Park. The truck skidded through the dirt just as the first raindrops splatted across his windshield.

“Diem!” he shouted, slamming the door.

He searched his house first, but she wasn’t there. But the second he crossed the threshold of 1010, he knew he’d found her. The soft crying gave her away. Fuck. He took a deep breath, preparing himself for the worst, and made his way into the bathroom.

The lights were off, and she lay naked in the empty tub, knees drawn up like a shield and her arms wrapped around her legs. Her long, dark hair hung in tangles around her shoulders.

“Don’t,” she said in a hoarse voice as he reached for the light switch.

“Okay,” he murmured, dropping down beside the tub. “Can I see?”

“It’s best if you don’t.”

“Diem, I—”

“I’ll live, Bruiser.” Diem sniffled and wouldn’t meet his eyes.

He waited, heart constricting with the waves of sadness that pulsed from her.

“He doesn’t care about me at all,” she whispered at last. “He only cares about what I could do for him.”

Bruiser knew exactly how she felt, orphaned and abandoned. Uncared for. If he could, he would’ve given his bones so she didn’t feel this way.

“He seemed regretful.”

“Don’t defend him.”

“What did you mean about treasure? When you were trying to talk him down, you said the Ashe Crew was helping him protect his treasure.”

“Don’t you know anything about dragons? We covet treasure and protect it all our lives. It’s not like legends say, though. It’s rarely precious gems and bricks of gold hidden in some cave somewhere. It’s something we attach to. Something we grow to adore in our lifetime. For my father, these mountains are his treasure. It’s why he has bear shifter crews up here clearing out the beetle-rotted trees. It’s why he hired Danielle to study the impact on the ecosystem here. These mountains are his to protect for always.”

“And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“What is your treasure?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked in a broken voice. “It’s the thing I can’t help but protect with my life. My treasure is you, Bruiser. You and the Ashe Crew.”

Bruiser’s throat thickened until he couldn’t speak without his voice cracking. Gently, he hooked his finger under her chin and turned her face out of the shadows into the muted light. The skin on her cheek was red and painful looking, and as he dragged his gaze down her body, her entire left side matched in intensity.

“Will it scar?”

Diem sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve never been burned by dragon’s fire before. It’s one of the only things that can penetrate my scales. Yet another reason our kind was doomed from the beginning. Our females didn’t survive their breeding years, and our males burned each other to ash fighting.”

Bruiser brushed the backs of his knuckles down her uninjured cheek. “You protected us today. Saved us, my brave, strong mate. Even if you scar, you will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

A single, shining tear slipped down her cheek as she laid her face against his opening palm.

“What do you need?” he whispered, desperate to ease her pain.

“A poultice. Danielle would know where to find the herbs I need.”

“Okay.” He lifted her hands to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “I’ll go get her. Diem?”

She turned her head, exposing the angry burns down her face. Burns she’d taken to protect him. “Yes?”

“I love you, too.”

A smile took her face. It was small, here one moment, gone the next, but it counted. It was the first sign that Damon hadn’t broken his warm mate.

She squeezed Bruiser’s hand and murmured, “I know.”

****

Bruiser sat in his truck in front of Damon’s house, weary to the bone. Rain pattered against the windshield, the wipers wicking it away in a never-ending cycle.

He’d wanted to storm Damon’s castle guns blazing after what he’d done to Diem, but that wouldn’t solve the hurt that had been done today.

Gritting his teeth to stifle a growl, Bruiser slid from the car and slammed the door, then jogged up the rain-soaked flagstone steps that led to Damon’s house. The mansion was austere and dark, etched into the stony surface of the cliff behind. Windows covered every wall of the modern architecture, but from here, it didn’t look like any lights were on. He thought of Diem, sitting in the dim bathroom, burning. Perhaps dragons dealt with pain better in the dark.

And Damon was in pain. As the door creaked open, the stink of acrid agony assaulted Bruiser’s sensitive nostrils.

Damon’s driver stood by the door with the saddest expression in his eyes. “Diem?”

“She’ll live. Where is he?”

Mason shut the door behind him with a click and nodded his chin. “This way. I’ll take you to him.

The house was a maze of minimally furnished living spaces, oversize bathrooms with gold fixtures and dark wallpapers. Great hanging chandeliers remained unlit in every room, and Bruiser’s soggy work boots squeaked across pristine white marble floors. At a double doorway at the end of a wide hall, Mason stopped and gestured, palm open.

Bruiser nodded his thanks, then pushed open the heavy mahogany. Damon Daye stood facing a wall of windows with his back to Bruiser. His hands were clasped behind him, and the lights were off. Rain pattered against the glass, making the soft hum of the storm the only sound.

Bruiser approached and stood beside him, staring down at his truck.

“I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever come in,” Damon said quietly. “Then I thought it was bad news that kept you in your truck, and I believed the worst.”

“She lives.”

“But she’s marked?”

Bruiser swallowed hard at the image of the red burns that stretched across half of her body. He nodded.

Damon inhaled deeply and released the breath. “Have you come here to try and kill me, anyway?”

“No. I came here to try to fix this.”

Damon’s silver gaze jerked to his, and his dark eyebrow arched high. “You’ve surprised me.”

“To be honest, I’ve surprised myself. You don’t deserve for me to champion you, but Diem deserves a better father than the one you’ve been.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” Bruiser asked, rounding on him. “Because it seems to me you’ve gone so deep into your own head and your own traditions that you’ve become calloused to what bearing children really does. It will actually
kill her
, Damon, your only daughter. You didn’t marry her off to see her happy. You sentenced her to die. To die.”

“I studied genetics and each generation. I chose breeders who would give the next generation the best chance of survival. Diem’s odds of living through childbirth are better than her ancestors.”

Bruiser closed his eyes against the urge to take an ax to the man’s jugular. “And how good a chance do you calculate for your daughter?”

“Twenty percent chance of survival.”

Bruiser huffed a humorless laugh. “And that’s good enough for you?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Then please, Damon. Please help me to understand.”

“I’m not like you,” Damon gritted out, eyes blaring. “I’ve lived hundreds of years, and I’ve stopped aging. Immortality sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? Live forever and never age again. Except it’s not. Immortality means you watch everyone you love die. I buried my first human wife when she was eighty-four. My second one at seventy-six. My third lasted a little longer, but my fourth took her own life at barely thirty years old. She said she couldn’t stand aging while I stayed the same. Every dragon woman I’ve had a child with died. The line became diluted, and immortality ended with me. I buried my children, one by one. My friends, family. Everyone I loved found the sweet solace of death, leaving me here alone until I couldn’t feel anymore. Everyone dies in the blink of an eye, Bruiser. At least to someone like me. I’ve grown cold over time, convincing myself that I don’t feel anything anymore. I don’t grow attached to mortals because they will wither away, and my heart is already too heavy with the pain of loss to bear the burden of another passed soul I’ll never meet in the afterlife.”

“But can’t you see? One life is all your daughter has to live.”

“But if there are no more dragon children, I’m the last of us. For the rest of eternity, there will be no connection between me and the rest of the world. My sons have only had bear shifter children. There is too much grizzly in their lineage. Diem is different.”

“But you can’t sentence her to death for your own gains. That’s not what a father does.”

“I know.” Damon’s voice hitched, and he winced. “I just got so focused on the end result that I lost sight of what was right in front of me.”

“Your daughter is special, Damon. She’s amazing, and you’ve failed to really see her. She isn’t bearing children. That’s not to say we won’t adopt or search for a human surrogate to carry our child in the future, but she will never, ever carry a baby at the cost of her own life.”

Damon’s nostrils flared as he sighed a defeated sound. “I thought I’d made a mistake giving her to you.” Damon’s Adam’s apple dipped low as he swallowed. “But it seems I gave her to the right man. To someone who could make her feel loved and protect her where I fell short.”

BOOK: Axman Werebear (Saw Bears Book 5)
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