Authors: Moxie North
Realizing she wasn’t coming out of that bathroom anytime soon. Conner finished getting dressed and paused when he heard the shower turn on.
For some reason, the thought of her washing his scent off her pissed him way the hell off. Slamming out the door, he did make sure it was locked before jumping into his Jeep and peeling out of the parking lot.
Conner decided to bury himself in work. With Kenzi at the motel, she was less of a distraction and he could keep his bear in check.
There were no further sightings or scenting of Tony, the elusive saboteur. It really rubbed Conner raw that this asshole was wandering around touching their equipment without being seen.
Granted they had around fifty employees at any given time and, to be honest, most of them looked the same. Loggers tended to come in one form. Burly, plaid, bearded, and usually kept to themselves. They worked too hard to spend their time swapping recipes with their coworkers.
Wyatt had been smart enough to start posting photos of Tony around the camp. This at least gave them another fifty sets of eyes to watch out for him. Would be a lot harder to mess with something when everyone knew your face.
That being said, work still had to be done. It had been three days since his run-in with Kenzi at the hotel. He knew she visited his mom during the day when she knew he would be gone. His mom would remark on how she was helping with the wedding which was invaluable since they were so behind on their plans.
He also couldn’t avoid her scent at his mom’s, so he started making excuses why he couldn’t come over. He knew it was chicken shit, but it was survival of the fittest at this point.
Today he was heading out to a clear-cut they had worked a number of months ago. The dry weather had let the piles of slash dry out and it was time to get rid of them before they could start planting.
Conner had his team readying the water trucks to meet him up there. They had their permits to burn and his crew had done this hundreds of times. Still, it was always risky to light a pile of brush and timber as tall as a house on fire.
As he aimed his truck down the narrow dirt road, he could see the piles of brush in the distance. He drove as far as he could before hopping out. Deciding to walk the perimeter to ensure the fire break was still clear, he took off to circle the area.
Making it halfway around, Conner was as far away from his truck as he could get. Seeing a glint of light, he saw the caravan of work and water trucks pulling up behind his rig.
He raised his arm to try and catch their attention when he heard a crack, then a whoosh. Turning around behind him he saw a figure near the edge of the trees, down a slope where he hadn’t walked yet.
Realizing he hadn’t smelled him because he was downwind, he took in a breath and immediately detected something else. He’d acknowledged the residual smell of gasoline and oil left from the machines used to cut and clear the land. But near the pile he was standing next to, there was a scent that was much stronger.
His eyes on the man in the distance, he started to call out, then caught the flicker at the man’s feet. A line of fire raced towards him and straight into the brush pile clearly doused in fuel. He managed to jump to the side before the pile ignited into a ball of flame.
Bright red and orange flames licked to the sky. Conner felt the heat and the concussion that came off the fire as it exploded over the dry timber.
His bear was yowling, trying to tell him something. Adrenaline coursed through him. There was a pain shooting across his leg and one side of his torso, but he ignored it. His thoughts were on the man who was turning and running into the woods. The man who had tried to kill him.
He stripped off his clothes as he ran, it was the only moment he acknowledged some of his clothes were charred away in spots. Conner was easily able to use a claw to rip through the clothes in a flash and shift in a hard crack of light as he made his way down the slope away from the fire and towards the man that must be the elusive Tony.
Conner ran fast breaking through the tree line, his bear roaring into the woods, hoping to scare the man. In response to the sound, man and beast heard the sound of a motorcycle engine turning over.
Shit, he’d never catch him now. He wasn’t going to give up. Enough was enough, this man had to die and Conner was willing to be the one that did it.
His bear ran full out, the pain and heat still burning through his leg and side. They ran in the direction of the motorbike. Tracking only by scent, but the man was long gone.
Finally slowing, the pain started to flare. Conner forced his animal to stop and looked at his leg.
Long black marks showed charred flesh, even on his bear the hair was burned off. Missing skin, meant missing hair. His side was blistered and bleeding, the burns more painful where the fire had licked at his skin.
What was left of his adrenaline was swiftly fading. Looking around, man and beast tried to get their bearings. They had run so far, without thought to their direction.
Conner realized they were close to the cave where he’d talked with his brothers. Telling his bear they needed time to heal, his bear was happy to find somewhere to rest.
Seeing the cave, Conner was ready to take back over. His bear growled, no he was right, Conner thought. He’d heal faster if he was shifted.
Walking into the cave, his bear lumbered to the dark cool area in the back and lay down, careful to avoid his injuries.
Conner was tired. He’d failed to run down Tony. He got hurt and he was furious at himself for letting his guard down. And most of all, he was mad that all he could think about was Mackenzie.
He knew he needed rest, so Conner let his human mind fall asleep, sure his bear was on watch.
* * * * *
Cage got the call from the foreman that someone had lit the slash piles on fire before they’d arrived. Conner’s truck was there, but they couldn’t find him anywhere.
The fire had spread, the additional fuel lighting the ground around the piles on fire too. The local fire department and the forestry service had been called in. The fire break was containing most of the problem, but they weren’t able to put everything out. They were waiting to see if they were going to have to let the whole thing burn.
It would devastate the area. They wouldn’t be able to replant for years. The ground would need time to recover. And if they couldn’t get the fire out, well then that was something Cage wasn’t ready to think about yet.
He called out Wyatt to handle the crews at the site and bring over any equipment the firefighters might need. Cage also called his mom to let her know what was happening. He knew he needed to find Conner.
Sitting on the couch at the main cabin, Mackenzie could hear the call from Cage. Conner was missing and there was a fire. She didn’t even hesitate to bolt out the front door. Sophie’s voice calling out to her to stop and Connie telling Cage she’d left.
Mackenzie didn’t care. All she could think of was Conner. Her cat was urging her to go faster. They rounded the back of the house and she managed to strip out of her clothes in record time. Shifting while she was still running, her cat took off, scenting the air for any sign of Conner.
Her animal ran towards the smell of smoke. Even miles away it was wafting over the tree tops. It must be a huge fire to create such a cloud. As the smell grew stronger, she picked up another scent, it was faint and smelled off, but it was Conner.
She tracked the scent up a hillside until she encountered a cave entrance in a rock wall. She knew Conner was in there.
Cautiously approaching the cave in her cougar form, she could make out the shape of a large bear against the back wall. Her cat could also pick up the smell of a wound. Mackenzie let herself shift back into her human skin and crept forward. She didn’t want to startle his animal.
“Conner? It’s me, Mackenzie. I’m coming in, okay?”
A huffing noise came from the bear. As she got closer she saw there were patches on the bear’s flank and leg that were still scorched, but had started healing. A few areas already closed and pink.
Crouching down next to the bear, she slowly raised her hand towards him. The bear dropped his head, allowing her to brush her fingers over his fur.
Inside the giant animal, Conner was so glad to see Kenzi. He wanted to scoop her into his arms, hold her tight against him. But as he tried to shift, he realized he couldn’t. He tried again and his bear chuffed and shook his head under Kenzi’s hand.
What the hell? He tried again, his bear roared back at him in his head. It was like an unmovable force as he tried to shift again and again. Nothing happened.
His bear was happily getting petted by its mate. There was no way he was giving this up. He’d been denied too long and Conner realized that he didn’t have the strength of will to force the shift.
He mentally sat back and watched the scene play out. Kenzi had taken a seat next to the bear, he flopped his head into her lap.
“Aren’t you going to shift?” She was running her fingers through the coarse fur.
Bear huffed on her legs. “Ah, need a little more healing huh? I’ll stay with you. You scared the crap out of me, Conner. I’ve been so mad at you. When I heard your brother call, it didn’t matter anymore. I had to find you. I may not like you much right now, but you are still my mate. And I’m still yours. The longer you fight it, the more painful it is for both of us. It’s not just you, you know. There are four souls here that are trying desperately to find each other. And there is only one person standing in the way. You.
You really are outnumbered. We’ll win in the end you know. Cat, bear, and me,” she said sighing.
“Actually, I kinda like you not getting to talk back to me. Not that you’ve talked much at all. You have no idea who I am. Haven’t bothered to ask. I bet your brothers know more about me than you do.”
Bear licked her leg in sort of an apology. She took it, scratching behind his ear.
“Since you need a little more time, I’ll fill you in on some things about me. What do you say?”
The big head in her lap rumbled. He sounded quite content with his current situation.
Mackenzie started to tell Conner all about her family. The vineyards they ran. The wine they made. She told him about how she loved to swim. She played tennis and would eat anything that was made out of chocolate. She’d even eaten a chocolate covered grasshopper once, just to get her fix.
Conner could do nothing but listen. He was still in pain, but the sound of her voice soothed him. Offering him some kind of release from the healing process. He felt like shit too. He’d had sex with her twice and didn’t even know her middle name. Her birthday or her favorite color. Conner wanted to ask her, but the bear was still firmly in charge. His missed opportunities to get to know her were stacking up. What if he’d been hurt worse today? What if she’d been there with him?
That thought made his bear growl menacingly.
“What? Are you in pain?” Mackenzie was worried when she felt the anger roll through the animal. She wasn’t scared of him, but she still knew that a big animal like him had big teeth and claws. Her instincts were more than aware of the danger.
Bear sniffed her neck then gave it a lick before settling back down to her lap. “Flirt,” she said with a little laugh.
“You are a very nice bear, but I wish I could speak to Conner,” she told him. Bear yawned loudly, Kenzi figured she’d better settle in for a while.
At some point Kenzi nodded off. The giant warm blanket draped over her lap had woman and cat contentedly purring. Their mate was right there, safe and they were alone. It was easy to nod off.
Mackenzie came awake with a start when bear raised his head and rumbled towards the cave entrance.
A giant bear was standing there sniffing ahead to scope out the cave. Conner’s bear was big, but this bear was huge. Shielding her eyes against the setting sun, she saw the bear shimmer and there standing completely naked, was Cage.
“Been looking all over for you two. I didn’t even think of this place before I’d ran most of the mountain,” he said, walking in. “I started tracking too close to the fire and couldn’t catch your scent.” He sat down next to Conner’s bear, his eyes scanned down the length, seeing the hairless, but now mostly healed burns.
“Got a little singed did ya?”
Bear growled at him, then swung his head towards Kenzi then back, growling again.
“Hey buddy, I’ve got a mate. I don’t even see yours, don’t worry,” Cage said softly, his Alpha voice rumbling behind it to reassure the bear.
“Has he been like this the whole time,” Cage asked Mackenzie.
“Yes, I figured he was just waiting to shift back. Then I fell asleep. He’s quite the snuggler in bear form. Human, not so much,” she said with a laugh.
“Well how about you shift now so you can tell me just what went down today,” Cage requested of Conner.
Bear raised his head and swung it side to side in a clear no.
Cage’s eyebrow shot up. “No huh? Is that Conner saying no, or you?” He looked deep into the animal’s eyes.
Whatever he saw got him laughing.
“What’s so funny,” Mackenzie asked, clearly not on the same page as the brothers.
“He can’t shift; his animal has him pushed so far back all he can do is wait him out. I’ve heard about this before. Animals being denied too long, they finally get fed up and take over. Sometimes for hours, sometimes days. I know Conner won’t tell you this, but since he’s not here to tell me not to, I will. Conner and his bear need to work some things out. Things that have been festering for a long time, by my guess.”