Authors: Moxie North
Conner was glad they had never asked about it. How did he explain, even when he willingly let his bear out it was still a battle. Each fighting for control, neither wanting to give it up. His bear dropped to all fours and sniffed the air around them. Conner didn’t feel like fighting anymore. He let the bear have full control and sat back and watched the animal run, smell, and scratch whatever it wanted. It actually calmed Conner a bit, his bear clearly was enjoying it and Wyatt’s bear was taunting him into a wrestling match. Conner’s bear was happy to oblige, the two grappling and biting. Not enough to break the skin, but enough to leave some bruises for a few hours.
It felt good to expend the energy, for man and beast. Wyatt was bigger, but Conner’s bear was sneaky, always looking for a weakness to exploit. They continued to toss each other back and forth, crashing into trees and the brush. Generally making a mess, both bears covered in leaves and twigs.
Since there was going to be no winner without one or the other getting hurt, Conner’s animal backed away and tossed his head back towards the cabins. Wyatt’s bear huffed back and they took off back towards Conner’s house. They split up as they got close, shifting back to their human bodies to grab their clothes. Again Wyatt shimmered back to standing, with Conner fighting his way back into his own skin.
The day went as expected; Dax toured the camp, checked Wyatt’s truck and found the same scent at all the scenes. They knew who their saboteur was, and even had a picture that Dax’s sister had emailed from the employee files before getting on her airplane.
Wyatt and Jinger offered to pick her up from the airport that afternoon. Actually Jinger had offered and Wyatt said she wasn’t going alone, because he barely let her out of his sight now. They had headed out a few hours ago. It would take a few more for them to return. Living this far from any major city had its advantages and disadvantages. Fresh air in exchange for long commutes to amenities.
Conner kept busy at work, reviewing the plans to plot out the new planting area. He followed up on the area they’d planted a few months before. They were lucky the trees had gotten a long soaking to get established before this dry spell started. They were heading on a month with no rain. The trees were hardy and doing well. His mother was overjoyed since she was planning an outdoor wedding for Cage and Sophie in a few months.
Finishing his rounds Conner made his way back to camp. He checked in with Cage and Dax at the office. Then told them he’d see them at dinner. His plan was to head home and get a few stiff drinks in him before he had to deal with the cacophony of noise that was sure to reach epic proportions tonight. They weren’t a quiet bunch, but with the addition of Sophie and Jinger, the girls could keep conversations going non-stop.
The noise grated on Conner and his bear firmly agreed. Women, how do they always have something to talk about? They seem to all talk at once too, over each other and louder and louder. Batten down the hatches if they start laughing, it was ear-splitting. What he really couldn’t understand is how his brothers, hell even his father, would just look upon their mates with gentle amusement. Totally off their rockers, all of them.
Conner made sure to shower and dress in clean clothes after he got home. Picking out a pair of worn Wranglers and a black t-shirt with a faded logo of Metallica on the front. Conner wasn’t a big rocker, but he went through a serious rebellious phase in his youth when he was trying to drown out his bear with rock music. Didn’t work, he just looked like a douche with long hair.
Knowing he wasn’t going to be able to delay too long before his mother started calling him asking why he was late, he headed for his parents’ home.
Walking up he saw Jinger’s car in front of the house. They must have gotten back from the airport. The house was lit up, glowing in the darkness of the forest. Conner could smell meat cooking on the BBQ in the back.
Turning open the door, he saw his brothers, dad, and Dax standing around by the fireplace in the front room. All drinking beer, except for Dax, he was of course drinking wine, pansy. Conner stepped into the group giving his dad a pat on the back and accepting a beer from Wyatt.
The smells inside the house were great, cheese and potatoes signaled Sophie’s gratin. There was the smell of his mom’s pies, it smelled like blackberry. And there was something else, something oaky mixed with sunshine. It was warm and appealing; Conner wondered if it was the fancy wine Dax was drinking.
Letting his eyes scan over the kitchen area across the room, he saw his mom and Sophie bent over a pot on the stove, clearly in deep deliberation. Jinger was facing him talking to a tall woman that Conner assumed was Dax’s sister. He took the opportunity to examine her from a distance.
She was leaning with her hip against the counter, her ample hips framed in a pair of tight jeans that cupped a lusciously round ass. She was tall, even without the scuffed cowboy boots Conner could see. At least five foot seven, she was taller than the rest of the women in the kitchen.
What was really striking was the waist length curling blonde hair. It was fluffy and shining almost white in the lights. It was beautiful and Conner could tell it probably smelled great.
Catching his attention Dax gave him a shove and said jokingly, “Hey that’s my sister you’re ogling.” Although he sounded joking, Conner’s bear got the clear warning. Stop staring at my sister’s ass, you fucker.
“Sorry, is that your sister talking to Jinger?” Conner coughed a little to clear his throat. Just watching her was making him drool. So what, he got caught staring, it was a fine ass to stare at.
“If you’ll behave, I’ll introduce you,” Dax offered. Giving him a nod, he watched Dax call out, “Hey, Kenzi, come meet Conner.”
Conner watched as the tall blonde goddess turned to look at Dax. She was still laughing from whatever she had been talking about to Jinger. She looked at her brother first, gave him a sweet smile. Watching her, Conner took in a beautiful face, lush full lips, an oddly petite nose and shocking golden eyes. With her blonde hair, California tanned skin and those eyes, she seemed to glow.
Then those eyes turned to him and his breath caught in his throat. A whooshing sound started to pulse in his ears. His bear was roaring, frantic to be heard. The whooshing turned into the loud constant beat of his own heart, he heard it skip, then skip again as it resumed a new stronger beat. Without a doubt he knew what it meant. His heart and hers were now in sync. His feet were on the floor, but he was looking down on the scene from above.
Eyes. Those amazing eyes that seemed to change colors as the different emotions played over her face. Now toffee colored eyes were staring back at him in complete shock. He knew, she knew, there was no denying the magnetic pull. Conner’s mate, his mate was a cougar, a shifter like him. She was here, standing mere feet away from him. He was overwhelmed. No, that wasn’t even the word for it. He felt like a bus had just hit him, every muscle in his body strained as his bear tried to push out to smell and touch his mate. He wanted to taste and claim now, not later.
He watched as her breath caught, then caught again as she struggled to come to terms with what was happening too. His first thought was to comfort her, he needed to hold her, tell her it was all right. Bear wanted that, wanted him next to her, the sooner the better.
But as always, Conner held his bear back. Held himself back. This was not fair, he wasn’t going to be the puppet of some unseeing fates. They forced a bear on him when he didn’t want one, he wasn’t going to let them decide who he was going to love.
Fuck, love? He wasn’t in love, he didn’t even know this girl. That’s how crazy this was. He was a man, he could make his own choices, goddamnit.
“Hey man, you okay?” Cage gave him a nudge. He wasn’t sure how long he and what was her name? Kenzi? had been staring at each other. It seemed like hours, but he was sure it was mere seconds.
Without thinking, the second Cage touched his shoulder, he lashed out with a shove. “MINE!”
“Fuck me!” Cage took a step back, his head whipping between Conner and Dax’s sister.
Dax let out a very unhappy growl that had all but two sets of eyes turn to the angry cat.
A quiet fell over the group as everyone turned their attention back to Mackenzie and Conner
Conner looked at the beautiful blonde and watched her mouth, “Mine.”
It was too much, Conner turned and dashed out of the house. He ran stripping off his clothes and let his bear push out of him in agonizing ferocity. Bear wanted to turn back, claim his mate, but Conner didn’t let him take over. He forced him further into the woods. Leaving his mate behind.
What he didn’t see is the minute he turned for the door, the eyes of Mackenzie Hayes filled with tears as she ran into her brother’s arms.
Conner ran until even his bear couldn’t go any further. He’d reached a high point on the mountain behind his house where he knew there was a small cave. Lumbering into it, he collapsed against the wall and his bear was more than happy to let him take back over.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes later when two bears came into the opening of the cave, both looking pissed and out of breath. In a shimmer, Cage and Wyatt were standing in front of him.
“What the fuck! Why the hell did you just bail?” Wyatt demanded stepping closer to Conner.
“Do you have any idea what kind of insult you just threw out to Dax and his whole family?” Cage stood with hands on his hips in a very disappointed father pose.
Conner let his head fall into his hands, how the hell was he going to explain this to them?
“Your mate, man! You found your mate and she’s a shifter! No awkward conversations, well aside from the one where you explain why you ran out on her. That one might suck just a little bit,” Wyatt offered, looking chagrined once he realized what he’d said.
Sighing Cage stepped in and sat down across from Conner. “First, I want to tell you how thrilled I am to be sitting buck naked in a cave in the dark, thanks for that. Second, why on earth would you run out on your mate? I understand the timing was less than ideal with all of us standing around staring at you. But we would have given you privacy, a chance to talk. Instead, you ran out without a word. Well besides the ‘mine’, which Wyatt and I totally understand.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Conner answered, moaning into his hands.
“Well, try starting with why you ran. Were you embarrassed?” Wyatt prodded, trying to help him explain.
Shaking his head no, Conner felt the knot in his throat tighten at the thought of being honest with his brothers. Would he feel better or worse if he told them? Would they even understand?
“Come on man, you can tell us anything. We are both fresh off the bachelor boat too, we know what you are feeling,” Cage encouraged.
“No, no, I don’t think you do,” Conner said staring at his feet in the dirt.
“Try us, you might be surprised,” Wyatt said, sitting next to the entrance, joining their naked little conference.
Conner felt as if his world, that was up until now, a total challenge for him on a daily basis, just explode, or implode, he wasn’t sure. He struggled to keep a hold on his animal and deal with his issues. Now he had another person to consider, a person who the fates had, for some unknown reason, matched with him.
What if she was awful? Maybe the universe decided he deserved to be tortured by some horrible, shrewish wife for not appreciating what they gave him before? Did the fates do that kind of thing? Punish those that didn’t appreciate what they received? Like a really vindictive Santa Claus?
“Fuck me, fuck me,” Conner growled into his hands.
“Dude, seriously, talk to us. I’m sure your bear is thrilled, isn’t he?” Wyatt tried to keep him talking.
Of course his bear was thrilled, he thought. Bastard wanting nothing more than to run off, mate, make babies, and spend his life licking berry juice off his paws. His priorities were a bit skewed with his human counterpart’s.
“You guys wouldn’t understand, you can’t,” Conner started.
“Conner, talk, man,” Cage ordered in his Alpha voice. Sitting in a cave freezing his balls off warranted the use of the timber that would get Conner talking.
Not being able to resist the instinctual command of his brother, the Alpha, he started talking.
“I don’t want my bear.”
Silence hung in the cave, Conner looked up to his brothers, both with masks of confusion on their faces.
“I never wanted my bear. I don’t like him. No, it’s not that I don’t like him. It’s that I don’t understand him.”
More silence from his brothers.
“What else can I say?” Conner was exasperated.
“What do you mean, you don’t want your bear?” Wyatt shook his head, like a confused puppy. Cage didn’t respond, staring at him, no expression now on his face.
Sighing, Conner leaned his head back on the cave wall. “What did you feel like the first time you knew who your bear was?”
“I don’t know, I’ve always known, I guess,” Wyatt answered, not sure how to explain it.
“What about you?” Conner asked Cage.
“He’s always been with me, from my first memory,” he acknowledged.
“Well, I remember being around six, when I was out playing and saw a coyote in the woods. I heard this horrible roar inside my head. Scared the shit out of me. I’d forgotten what he sounded like. I had no words for the sensation of that. I realize now, it was my bear warning me about the danger. But I hadn’t heard him in years. He was silent until that day. Ever since the day I chose to ignore him.”
Seeing the shock on his brothers’ faces, he decided he’d better continue and get it all out before he lost his courage.
“I figured that wasn’t how things worked with you two, so I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t like that extra noise in my head, so I often tried to tune him out. Ignore him for lack of a better word,” he admitted.
“After that, the first time I was supposed to shift, was excruciating. We fought inside me for control. I didn’t know how to let him out. I knew how desperately he wanted to run, but I was too scared to let go. I was afraid if he shifted, if we shifted, I’d never be me alone, again.”
The shame at admitting the truth, out loud for the first time had the heat building up in Conner’s chest. He felt the tears welling in his eyes, not that what he said wasn’t really how he felt, but that now the truth was out there. No way to take them back, no way to escape his brothers’ judgment.
Dropping his head to his knees, Conner waited for the shouting, the anger. It never came.
Instead, he heard scraping, the sound of movement on the cave floor. Then he felt strong arms wrapping around his shoulders.
“Runt, you should have told us, we could have helped you. Talked about it,” Wyatt said close to his ear.
“He was afraid we would judge him for it,” Cage said wisely.
Conner managed to nod against his knees. He didn’t feel like he deserved his brothers’ understanding. It would have been easier if they were mad or disgusted. The quiet acceptance was too much for him to take.
Pushing away from his brothers he raced out of the cave, shifting hard and letting his bear out. His animal didn’t balk at giving himself over. They ran until they were back at his cabin, he grabbed a clean set of clothes and threw them on. Heading outside he jumped in his Jeep and peeled out heading towards the highway.
Pulling into The Chinook, he parked and exited the Jeep. Slamming through the door, he barely took in that the place was packed to the rafters. He’d walked past a number of motorcycles out front and knew the crowd wasn’t going to be the kindest of sorts.
Not really caring, he strode to the bar and gave the bartender a head jerk. Recognizing him, he poured a double of whiskey. Tossing it back, he shoved the glass back and gave another nod. A double pour again.
“Hey buddy! You mind letting that barkeep serve the rest of us?” A man called from the other end of the bar.
Conner looked up to see a barrel-chested biker, who was more fat than muscle, glaring at him. The glass in front of him empty.
“Hey, asshole, you hear me!” The fat man called out over the din of the bar. The conversation dropped to a dull roar at the loud proclamation. The biker’s buddies taking notice now, their eyes scanning down the length of the bar to Conner.
His animal’s fur was rising in anticipation of the aggression radiating through the bar now. He didn’t even try to deny his bear the opportunity to get mad. If Conner felt riled up and confused, his bear was one hundred times worse. His bear had no outlet, no way to blow off steam. And some guy taunting him was just what his bear was looking for.
His finished the drink in front of him and he stood to his full height, slamming the glass down on the bar top.
“Why don’t you shut your fat mouth,” Conner threw out, glaring down the bar. He took in not only the man, but his whole crew that was starting to get to their feet. A small part of him was thinking maybe he’d bit off more than he could chew. His bear was growling loudly, egging him on.
Thinking maybe getting into a fistfight would help him burn off some anger, he took a step towards the bikers.
He made it all of two feet before a sweet trilling voice sounded out, “There you are sugar! I’ve been looking all over for you silly Billy.”
Turning around, there stood his mate, shining in all her glory. Hands on her waist, one hip cocked to the side. Her blond curls hanging around her like a halo.
“What the fuck are you doing here,” he growled at her.
Completely ignoring his surly comment, she kept on with her sugary banter. “Oh sweet pea, you know I said I was sorry. I didn’t mean to harp on you about takin’ out the trash. No need to go drinkin’ just to stay away from me. I’ll stop nagging, if you just come home. Please honey, I’m so lonely sitting at home all by myself,” Mackenzie said offering up an exaggerated pout.
Conner’s bear was loudly chuffing, trying to soak up her scent that was stronger than even the numerous unwashed bodies in the bar. Damn, she smelled like sunshine.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“Snookums, you know I couldn’t let you go off in a huff without trying to make amends,” she said coyly, sauntering up to him. She used one perfectly manicured finger to trail down the front of his shirt.
His bear was happier than a pig in shit from that little touch. Pathetic.
“You…shouldn’t...be…here,” he ground out, letting a little of his bear out in his voice to try and scare her.
He watched in fascinated horror as she closed her eyes and let her lips part. The tiniest gasp whispered out of her and a tremor ran over her body.
Those beautiful caramel eyes opened with her cougar shining brightly from within and she gave him a small smirk. “Do it again,” she whispered back at him.
Fuck him, she was crazy.
Grabbing her upper arm in a firm hold, he swiftly turned her and marched them both out the door into the cool night air.
Once the door closed behind them, she turned, pulling her arm out of his grasp and with one hand on her hip and the other hand poking him in the middle of his chest, lit into him.
“What on earth were thinking coming into this bar looking to pick a fight? I mean really! You might be a big bad bear, but you can’t shift and take out an entire biker gang in a public place.”
Conner really wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say to her. He was a little tongue tied. Every time she poked him, his bear growled in approval.
“Now let’s get some things straight Conner Leslie Rochon.”
Fuck him again, his mother had told her his middle name.
“How the hell did you even find me,” he demanded.
“Had your brother ping the GPS on your phone, not exactly hard,” she snorted.
Then she started in on him.
“I don’t care that you are going to be some whiny bitch about finding your mate. It wasn’t like I was in the market for a boyfriend, let alone a bonded partner. But the fates have made a decision that I’m sure your bear knows is set in stone. I’ll be honest, when you ran out, you hurt my feelings. By the way, my brother wants your balls to hang on his mantle. But then after I was assured by your parents that you were just in shock, I decided that if you need me to be the strong one then I will,” she declared folding her arms across her chest.
Conner used the short speech to try and get a grip on the myriad of emotions swirling in him. First, he was mad that he’d been interrupted before a much needed fight. Second, that she had followed him into a bar that was not a safe place pissed him off. Third, he wasn’t so pissed off as unreasonably terrified for her safety in a place like that. His bear was thrilled to see her, but horrified she could have been hurt.
Then what she said started to sink in. “The strong one? What the fuck do you mean the strong one? I’m the grizzly bear here, kitten,” he said, rising to his full height.
Mackenzie gave an unladylike snort. “Kitten? Don’t even go there, Teddy. I’m still resisting giving you a nice scratch to see how it feels when your mate is mean to you.”
“I wasn’t mean, I just left,” he yelled back.
“Don’t you yell at me Conner,” she returned loudly.
“I can’t deal with this right now, uh, Mmm, uh.” Did he call her Mackenzie? Mate? Or maybe ma’am? He had no clue.
“Mackenzie, but you can call me Kenzi. Not kitten,” she said with a glare.
“Okay, Kenzi, how about I take you back to my parents. Maybe we can talk tomorrow,” he offered. He didn’t want to talk to her tomorrow or the day after. He didn’t want a mate, he didn’t want his damn bear contentedly rumbling in his head. He wanted to be left alone.
“Don’t do me any favors, Conner. I’ll make my own way home. I’ll be at your parents’ house tonight, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future. I know what my cat wants and I’m not dumb enough to fight her. So when you’re ready, you can come and find me.”