Authors: Zoe Chant
BEAR WITH ME
BY ZOE CHANT
Zoe Chant 2016
All Rights Reserved
BEAR WITH ME
Mark Visser ran a finger under his collar. What was the point of a tailored suit if the result was still this uncomfortable? All those measurements and fittings and he was still stuck with a shirt that was practically throttling him.
He should have just bought off the rack. Maybe he’d burst out the shoulders, but at least he wouldn’t have been stuck with so many pins.
Mark glanced sideways at the other groomsmen, wondering whether he was the only one to feel like his clothes had it in for him. A nudge on his other side jolted him back to reality.
“What’s the matter, big guy? Worried I’m going to get cold feet?” Mark’s cousin, Tom, elbowed him in the ribs again, a teasing grin on his face.
Mark felt a pang of envy as he looked at his cousin. Tom managed to make his suit look as comfortable as a T-shirt and jeans, though that could be because his head was so high in the clouds he had left mundane worries like “itchy neck” and “pinched toes” behind him.
But that wasn’t the real reason Mark envied him. Cold feet? Tom was the most excited groom Mark had ever seen, and being best man was making Mark realize just how much he longed for someone he could spend his life with.
Not that Mark’s lonely personal life was the important thing, here. He knew his responsibilities as best man. Most important: teasing the bridegroom.
Mark kept his voice to a whisper, aware of the hundreds of pairs of eyes watching them from the audience. “If you’re thinking of running, you should have done it before Nana Marj got here. Make a move now and she’ll have you hogtied before you make it ten feet.”
Tom made a face of mock fear. “Oh, no. That means … It’s going to happen. I’m really going to have to marry the love of my life.” He gave up hiding a wide grin. “We’re going to have to live together forever. Oh, the horror.”
Mark watched as his cousin tried to rein in his grin, to at least look as though he was treating the ceremony with an appropriate level of seriousness. He failed utterly, and stood there grinning like a happy puppy.
“You—” Mark shut his mouth as music swelled from the end of the room. The doors of the old ballroom swung open and for a moment, all he could see through them was a blaze of light. Then the first of the bridesmaids started to waft through, women he half-recognized as friends and relatives of the bride. From this distance he could see that they were all in a sort of dusky pink, with silver sandals twinkling on their feet.
Then more bridesmaids poured through the door. And more.
“How many bridesmaids does Kes have?” Mark muttered out of the side of his mouth.
Tom’s grin was becoming glazed. “Twelve…” he whispered.
Mark strained his eyes for a glimpse of white behind the ranks of pink and silver. He heard Tom gasp, and there she was: Kes Langridge, the woman who’d made his cousin happier than Mark had ever seen him in his life.
She had clear, light brown skin and her brunette hair was caught up in a complicated hairdo that sent curls cascading down her back. Her dress was delicate ivory, a lacy concoction that clung to a figure that, until six months ago, had been slender and willowy.
Tom and Kes had met seven months ago, Mark knew.
What would it be like to know immediately that you want to spend your life with someone? Start a family with them?
Kes walked forward, glowing with happiness. In a few months, Tom would have a child. His own family.
And it’s not even as though she’s his mate!
Mark thought, and immediately hated himself for it. Many of the Visser clan were bear shifters, but for whatever reason the gene—or whatever it was—didn’t crop up in everyone. Tom wasn’t a shifter, so he wouldn’t have a mate.
Just someone he loved with all his heart, regardless.
“Look at her, Mark,” Tom murmured, tears in his eyes. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“You’re the luckiest man in the world,” Mark whispered back, clapping his cousin on the shoulder.
The ceremony went by in a whirl. Tom and Kes only had eyes for each other; as they said their vows, it was as though everyone else in the room disappeared. Even after they walked back down the aisle together, and the wedding photographer zeroed in and starting pushing people around, they seemed to be walking in their own private paradise.
“Best man at the groom’s left—no,
The photographer, a gleefully autocratic woman with a dark pixie-cut, grabbed Mark by the elbow and wheeled him into place. Mark blinked.
“Smile, everyone! Lovely! And—groomsmen only, bridesmaids, wait at the side
Mark exchanged a grimace with Kieran, one of the other groomsmen, and took a step backward as the bridesmaids all flocked out of the way.
Mark spun around and steadied the person he’d banged into. He had a momentary impression of red-gold hair, freckled arms and a warm, herbal scent before the photographer rattled out another order. The woman raced away, giggling. Mark stared after her.
“Best man, you’re catching flies! Smile!”
Mark tried to catch another glimpse of the redheaded bridesmaid as the photographs went on, but there was always someone in the way: another bridesmaid, a selection of the happy couple’s relatives, or the photographer herself, shepherding the guests into place like an efficient sheepdog.
After half an hour of carefully choreographed photos, the photographer relinquished control of the bridal party to the wedding planner. Mark grabbed hold of Tom as they made their way through to the dining room.
“Tom, do you have a minute—” he began, but Tom spoke over him.
“What about that photographer, huh? Kes found her, the only wedding photographer who could guarantee she wouldn’t have everyone standing around for hours and hours.”
“Do you know—” Mark tried again, but it was too late. Tom turned his head as the wedding planner called his name.
“Sorry, cuz. Duty calls!” he called over his shoulder as he walked away.
Mark stood still as the other wedding guests milled around him. His mind was on fire. The memory of the redheaded woman’s scent haunted him. It wasn’t floral, or spiced, like the other women at the wedding were wearing. It was something fresh, green. Like spring.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Maybe if he concentrated, sifting through the various scents and perfumes…
. He caught a hint of that fresh, herbal scent, and his eyes snapped open. Across the room, red-gold hair glinted in the light as the woman stepped through into the dining room. He started moving toward her, pulled forward as through by a river current.
Mark could have screamed in frustration.
“Yes?” he said, fighting to keep a growl out of his voice.
The pale gray eyes of the wedding planner scowled at him from behind her tortoiseshell glasses. “You’re out of line. Wait back here with the maid of honor until it’s your turn to walk through.”
“What? But I … Oh. Right.” Mark obediently shuffled into place. The maid of honor, a black woman in her twenties with a wide smile and hazel eyes, laughed at him good-naturedly.
“It’s a good thing she’s here to tell us what to do, right? Who knows what might happen if we were left to walk in to dinner in the wrong order.”
“The sky would fall,” Kes intoned from behind them. “And, lo, all of my aunties would leave the poor wedding planner terrible Yelp reviews for insulting tradition. God, I’m hungry, though.”
“Is it an insult to tradition if the bride passes out from hunger before the meal?” Tom suggested, putting his arm around his new wife.
“Probably,” she replied glumly. “Oh, we’re moving, go go go!”
Dinner went smoothly. Mark didn’t even notice what he ate, but he managed to pull his head in long enough to remember his best man’s speech, and the embarrassing-but-not-too-naughty stories from Tom’s youth. At last the bride and groom stood up for their first dance.
The dining room was alongside the ballroom, where the ceremony had been held. As Kes and Tom stood up and made their way hand-in-hand between the tables, the wall between the two rooms folded back like paper.
A gasp along the table to Mark’s left made him turn his head. All through dinner, he’d been craning his neck trying to see where the redheaded bridesmaid was seated, and now, here she was, laughing in delight at the concertina wall.
Her eyes were a sparkling blue-gray, like glacier meltwater, ringed by delicate lashes. The freckles he had noticed on her arms were sprinkled across her face, as well, not quite hidden under her makeup. Entranced, he followed them down her neck, where they grew thinner and then exploded in a constellation across her shoulders.
After that, they disappeared beneath her dress. Mark shifted in his seat, suddenly aware that his body was
aware of the woman sitting less than ten feet away from him. He was half hard already.
Mark flexed his thigh muscles, willing his erection to go down. When he felt he could trust his body not to betray him, he leaped to his feet.
The music was playing. Kes and Tom were having their first dance. Everyone else was expected to start dancing, too, and he couldn’t bear the thought of anyone but him dancing with the gorgeous redhead.
He half-stumbled into several chairs on his way over to her. Eyes turned his way, but he ignored them. His eyes, his whole being, was focused on just one woman. Just her.
He barreled to a stop by her chair and she looked up at him, a question in her bright eyes. He cleared his throat.
“Do you—would you like to dance?” he stammered, his tongue suddenly tied in knots.
She bit her lip, and he noticed that she had a particularly large freckle just above her top lip, on the left-hand side.
“I, um,” she began, and Mark’s stomach tightened.
“It’s okay,” he said quickly. “I mean, you don’t have to—”
“No, it’s not that I don’t want to,” she broke in hurriedly. “I just don’t know how to dance … This dance…” Her voice trailed off.
“I think it’s a waltz,” Mark offered. “I don’t know how to dance it, either. Want to give it our best shot?”
The bridesmaid grinned. “What the hell. At least we’ll make Kes and Tom look better, right?”
He held out his hand and she grasped it. Her grip was stronger than he’d expected, her fingers slightly callused, and he felt a thrill of excitement race down his spine. He led her out onto the dancefloor, every nerve in his body tingling.
They stood together for a moment, her hand still in his.
“So,” she said, drawing out the word. “Not-waltzing. From spying on Kes over there, I’m deducing that my hand goes on your shoulder…”
She stepped in close to Mark and slid her hand up to his shoulder. Mark swallowed, and gently placed his hand around her waist.
Her dress was of some soft, silky material that clung close to her waist and breast. He could feel her skin’s heat through it, and knew with breathtaking awareness that she would be able to feel the heat of his own hand on her. Her hips shifted as she moved and Mark bit his lip to keep from moaning aloud.
She licked her lips and Mark paused, hypnotized by the action. She cleared her throat.
“The waltz is the one-two-three one, isn’t it?”
Mark’s mind was a blank. “Probably?” He forced himself to focus on the music. “It does sound like it…”
He was about to take an experimental step to the beat when the music changed. If the waltz had been graceful, then whatever this tune was, it was … Sensuous.
Mark glanced sideways at the other dancers on the floor. They were leaning in to one another, dancing with eyes closed. He looked down and saw that his partner had been doing the same surreptitious check. She caught his eye and laughed.
“This makes things easier, doesn’t it?” she said, a teasing hint in her voice. “There aren’t really any steps to learn…”
“I guess not,” Mark agreed. His head was buzzing, and he was surprised he’d managed to speak without tripping over his tongue. Slowly, gently, he drew her toward him, feeling the taut muscles of her waist under his hand. She let herself be drawn in, and he heard her breath hitch as their bodies met. The sound sent a rush of desire coursing through him, so intense that Mark almost gasped.
She looked up at him, a tentative smile on her face, and pulled her hand out of his, trailing her fingers up his arm until her hand was resting on his shoulder. The movement pushed their bodies closer together and he felt her breasts press against him. Her pupils were wide in the low light of the ballroom.
His mouth dry, Mark let his free hand drift down to her shoulder, then farther, tracing the outline of her body. He could barely hear the music anymore, just the thud of his pulse, and the sound of her breath, hot and sweet on his face.
She pulled his head down to whisper in his ear, “I don’t think we’re very good at dancing.” There was laughter in her voice, but something else, too: something familiar to Mark, because he felt it, too. Hunger. Longing.