Authors: Sloane Meyers
Tags: #Paranormal, #Polarbear, #Shifter, #Erotic, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Supernatural, #Suspense, #Romantic Suspense, #Danger, #Holiday, #Christmas, #Adult, #Forever Love, #Yuletide Greetings, #Seasonal, #Christmas Time, #Winter, #Snowy Weather, #Red Valley, #California, #Black Bear, #Smokejumpers, #Accident, #Painful Past, #Revelation, #Festive Season, #Action, #Adventure, #Mates, #Series
Beary and Bright
A Fire Bear Shifters Holiday Story
By Sloane Meyers
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Similarities to actual people or events are entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Sloane Meyers. All rights reserved.
Clara Walsh squinted through the darkness and heavy rain, trying to keep her car in the correct lane as the storm around her grew stronger. She’d been hoping to make it all the way down to Monterey tonight, but she was still north of San Francisco, and visibility was nearing absolute zero. She should have pulled off the highway for a while to find somewhere to eat dinner and wait out the storm. But despite her better judgment, Clara continued driving. She wasn’t all that hungry, and she didn’t feel like being around other people right now.
Clara wasn’t in a hurry, necessarily. She was driving to Los Angeles to start over, and it didn’t matter much whether it took her ten days or two to get there. She’d left Anchorage, Alaska exactly seven days ago, and had been driving as quickly as possible for no other reason than she only had the goal of
to keep her occupied. She’d been driving between nine and ten hours a day, stopping late in the evenings to grab a quick bite to eat and hole up in the cheapest motel she could find. She’d slept in her car twice, when she was too far out in the middle of nowhere to find lodging. She’d actually enjoyed those nights, staring up at the bright sky of stars through her car’s windows. The early fall nights were cold, but not unbearably so. With a thick blanket spread across the backseat, Clara had actually been quite cozy sleeping in her vehicle. And she hadn’t minded saving the cost of a motel, either. With a quickly dwindling balance in her checking account, Clara was already crossing her fingers that finding a job when she got to Los Angeles wouldn’t be too difficult. Maybe she was an idiot for thinking that she could make it in a city that had chewed up and spit out so many others, but Clara figured it couldn’t be much worse than how she’d been living in Alaska. Besides, if she failed, all she had to do was pack up her car and move on to the next destination. No big deal.
Clara had spent the last two years floundering around in Anchorage, trying to blend into the crowds of Alaska’s most populous city. She’d taken a job as a package handler at the large FedEx hub in town, and saved up a small nest egg. Small was the key word there—her savings only amounted to about one month’s worth of living expenses, if she was estimating generously. But she’d decided that it was enough, and had set off to find a new home. Los Angeles had been a random choice, inspired by her fascination with the celebrity tabloids that always tempted her from the displays in the grocery store’s checkout lines. And she’d lived in the colds of Alaska her whole life, so she was curious to see what it would be like to live somewhere that wasn’t covered in ice and snow for the majority of the year. On September first, she’d left Anchorage in her rearview mirror and started her journey south.
The drive had been relatively smooth until tonight. Clara couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her car, and she finally gave in to the nagging voice of responsibility in her head that said stopping for the night would be the only responsible thing to do. She clicked on her turn signal and started taking an exit for a town called Red Valley. Billboards along the highway promised gas, lodging, and food, so hopefully she would be able to find all three there. As she pulled up to the stoplight at the end of the exit ramp, she squinted through the rain and saw a blinking neon motel sign to her right. The vacancy light flickered on and off, beckoning travelers to come in and get a room. Perfect. She turned to her right, happy to see an option so close. She was ready to get off the road and into a dry room. But as she pulled into the motel parking lot, her happiness quickly faded. A loud popping sound started underneath the hood of her car, and before she had even made it to a parking spot, her engine was making an awful screeching sound. Just as she put the car in park, the motor sputtered and died.
“Great. Just great,” Clara said. She turned the key on the engine to test it out, but nothing happened. Clara let her head fall against the steering wheel. She should have known this was going to happen. Her car, while well-maintained, was almost ten years old. In her typical reckless style, she hadn’t taken into account what she would do on this trip if the car broke down.
Clara lifted her head and let out a deep sigh. There wasn’t much she could do about it tonight. She should be thankful that the car had chosen to die here, in a motel parking lot, rather than on the highway in the middle of a rainstorm. She quickly jumped up from her car and ran through the pouring rain into the front office. Even though the quick run took less than five seconds, Clara was soaked by the time she made it to the front door.
A bell above the door jangled as she opened it, and a sleepy looking man at the front desk looked up. His eyes widened when he saw Clara standing there, soaking wet.
“Oh, no! Looks like you got caught in this storm,” he said, glancing out the front window at the rain that had been pouring like this for hours.
“Yeah, well, only for a few seconds. But it’s coming down so hard that it doesn’t take long,” Clara said, wiping off the little streams of water that were starting to trickle down her face from her soaked hair. “And to top it all off, my car just died. It literally stopped working as I pulled into the parking lot. Not my night, I guess.”
The man clucked sympathetically. “Car troubles are never fun. Are you very far from home?”
Clara thought about telling him that she didn’t even know where home was at this moment, but thought better of it and just nodded. “Yup. Far from home and I don’t know a single soul here in…what was the name of this town again?”
“Red Valley,” the man said.
“Right. Red Valley,” Clara repeated. “I don’t suppose you know any good mechanics, do you?”
The man tilted his head thoughtfully. “I do know a few, actually. I could call them and see if they could take a look for you tomorrow. I’m sure you understand they won’t want to work tonight.”
Clara couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “I understand. Tomorrow would be just fine. Hopefully this rain will be over by then.”
“It almost certainly will,” the man said. “It’s actually weird to get such a big rainstorm in September around here. But it’s good. We’re in a big drought and need the rain.”
“Well, I’m glad there’s one good side to it,” Clara said, frowning. “In the meantime, do you think I could get a room here for the night?”
The man nodded, and soon Clara held two copper keys to room 107 in her hands. She dragged her small suitcase inside and changed into dry clothes, then found a number to order pizza delivery. She obviously wasn’t driving anywhere to get dinner, and walking in this monsoon was out of the question. Clara settled in to watch a made-for-TV movie and eat the pizza from a chain she had never heard of before. The movie and the pizza were both surprisingly good, and before Clara knew it, she was climbing in bed to grab some much needed rest. Her last thought before falling asleep was that she hoped the problem with the car was something simple.
Unfortunately, that hope was quickly dashed the next morning when a mechanic came out to look at the car. Clara’s face fell when he told her the timing belt had snapped, and her engine was toast.
“But, it was replaced right before I bought the car. The guy showed me the service records for it, and that was only about twenty thousand miles ago,” Clara said.
The mechanic shook his head at her sadly. “I don’t know if the guy made up the records or if you just got really unlucky, but that’s what happened. You’d basically have to get your whole engine rebuilt, which would cost several thousand dollars. It’d cost more than the car is worth. Honestly, your best bet would be to sell this vehicle to the auction house and replace it with a different one.”
Clara’s lower lip quivered, and she took a few deep breaths to try to keep herself from crying. “I can’t afford to buy a car right now,” she said, her voice shaking.
The mechanic ran his fingers through his hair, looking uncomfortable but sympathetic. “Do you live around here? I could at least tow the car for you with my truck, and save you the tow bill.”
Clara shook her head. “No, I’m from Alaska, but I was on my way to Los Angeles. I wanted to move there to start over. So I don’t even have a home. And now I don’t have a car.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “You’re from Alaska? And you’re heading all the way to Los Angeles? Are you trying to become an actress or something?”
“No. I just needed a fresh start. It’s a long story,” Clara said. She wasn’t really interested in telling the man her whole story, and, thankfully, he didn’t seem that interested in hearing it.
“Damn. Well, I can tow it to the auction house if you want. That would be my recommendation. You won’t get much for it, but if you can’t afford to buy a replacement beater car, you won’t be able to repair this one either. It’ll cost more to repair it than to get a new clunker.”
Clara let out an exasperated sigh, but nodded. “I would really appreciate that. I guess getting something for it is better than nothing.”
The mechanic seemed relieved that he had been given a task to do that didn’t involve trying to say the right words to a woman on the verge of tears. He nodded and started making preparations to tow Clara’s car.
Clara watched him, her heart sinking more with each passing moment. It looked like she might be stuck in Red Valley for the foreseeable future.
One week later, Clara still hadn’t found a car in her price range, and she was burning through money by paying for a motel room every night. When she looked at the situation rationally, her best option seemed to be staying in Red Valley for a while. If she could find a job and a cheap place to stay, she could boost up her savings a bit more and possibly find a car. The people here seemed nice enough, and her fixation on Los Angles was a little bit silly, when she really stopped to think about it. Northern California was a little bit cooler than Southern California, which was probably better for an Alaskan girl, anyway.
Especially an Alaskan girl with a polar bear hiding inside of her.
Clara looked at her reflection in the small mirror of her motel room’s bathroom. Despite the stress of the last week, she looked better than she had in months. The stress of figuring out how to replace a car paled in comparison to the stress of trying to hide from numerous polar bear shifters who wanted her dead. Clara’s life in Alaska had been a constant game of cat and mouse ever since her clan, the Blizzards, had been demolished. The men of her clan had all been killed, and the women and children had been forced to live a life on the run, always worried that an angry shifter from a rival clan was waiting around the corner to kill them.
Clara couldn’t really blame them for hating her. Before the Blizzards were destroyed, their alpha had gone crazy. He’d been determined to destroy every shifter clan in Alaska, so that the Blizzards would be the only polar bear shifters roaming the frozen tundra. Clara hadn’t supported his bloody, violent rampage, but she had been powerless to stop him. He had ruled with an iron fist, killing anyone who dared to get in his way. Clara had been relieved when he was defeated and his clan wars were brought to an end, but she soon realized that he had left a long trail of enemies across Alaska. Clara was easily identifiable as a Blizzard, thanks to her jet black eyes, which were the defining feature of her clan. She had tried to disappear into the larger city of Anchorage, which had provided some relief. But even there, she had an occasional run-in with a rival shifter.
Clara hadn’t wanted trouble. She just wanted to live her life and forget about the heartache and bloodshed of the past. At some point, she’d had enough. She realized she was never going to be truly safe in Alaska. Even in Anchorage, she was always watching her back, scared that an enemy shifter would find her in a deserted elevator or on a quiet back street. She was lonely, and tired of running, so she had decided to start over where no one had ever heard of the Blizzards. Los Angeles hadn’t been her real goal. Her real goal had been to disappear, and maybe Red Valley, a small, sleepy town in Northern California, was as good a place to do that as any.
Clara pulled her long dark hair up into a neat bun, and dabbed some light makeup on her face. She wasn’t much of a makeup person, so she kept it simple. Some foundation, blush, and mascara. She finished off the look with just a hint of light lip gloss. Then she pulled on her nicest outfit: a black skirt and a pale pink button down shirt. She had bought it for a date to an art show in Anchorage. Clara almost laughed at how foolish she had been, trying to actually have a social life. At what point in a relationship did you explain to a guy that not only were you part bear, but you also had to be constantly looking over your shoulder in case another person who was half bear was trying to kill you?
The outfit had spent most of its time hanging in her closet, but Clara had decided to keep it when she was packing to leave Alaska. She’d figured it might come in handy for job searching, which was exactly what she was planning to do today. She slipped on a pair of black ballet flats, and nervously eyed her reflection in the mirror one more time. She practiced a smile, hoping that it looked warm and happy enough to convince potential employers that she was a friendly, responsible person.
Clara had asked the kind man at the front desk if he knew of anywhere that might be hiring, and he had rattled off several places, mostly restaurants. Clara had never worked in a restaurant, but she figured she was a quick study. She knew how to work hard, and that was what most employers in the service industry cared about, anyway. Clara walked into downtown Red Valley with a spring in her step, feeling optimistic. Surely, one of the places on the list would need help and want to hire her.
After four rejections, though, Clara’s optimism had faded significantly. Each place told her that summer was their busy season, and it was over. They wouldn’t need help until late next spring. She was welcome to try again, then, if she was still interested. Clara wanted to laugh. Next spring? She wished she had enough savings to just lounge around until then. Feeling dejected, Clara almost turned around to walk back to her motel room. But she told herself to try at least one more place on the list. After all, she was going to have to keep going until she found a job. If that meant a dozen more rejections, it was better to get them out of the way as quickly as possible. She sighed, and tried to hold her head high as she made her way to The Sweet Crust pie shop.
As soon as she stepped through the door, she knew she wanted to work there. The place smelled delicious, with strong aromas of sugar and cinnamon filling Clara’s nostrils almost immediately. The décor was also pleasing, with and bright and happy theme that could best be described as whimsical. She frowned as she noticed that the place was empty. She had a feeling this was going to be another case of the owner telling her things had slowed down as summer came to a close.
“Be right there,” a voice called out from somewhere in the back. A few moments later, a lovely woman with dark brown hair and sparkling green eyes approached the front counter. She wiped flour from her hands onto her apron and flashed Clara a big smile.
“How can I help you?” she asked, positioning herself behind the cash register.
Clara smiled brightly. “I was just wondering if you were hiring. I’m new in town and looking for a place to work. My schedule is very flexible, so I could be available almost any time you need me.”
The woman’s smile grew. “I actually do need help. I’ve been meaning to put an ad out but I’ve been so busy that I haven’t gotten around to it.”
Clara couldn’t help glancing sideways at the empty pie shop. The women must have caught her meaning, because she laughed.
“I know, it doesn’t look busy. Most of my customers that eat in come in the late afternoon. But I also do quite a bit of catering business. It’s tough to keep up by myself. I have a lot of weddings coming up. Apparently it’s trendy to do a pie buffet instead of a wedding cake these days. Which is great for me, but it means I’ve been baking like crazy trying to get everything done on my own. Oh! Listen to me rambling on like this and I haven’t even introduced myself,” the woman said, wiping her hand on the apron once more just in case any flour remained. “I’m Riley.”
“I’m Clara,” Clara said, reaching out to shake Riley’s hand.
“Do you have any experience with baking or working in a restaurant?” Riley asked.
“No,” Clara said, hoping she wasn’t about to lose a shot at the first available position she had found. “But I have experience working in fast-paced environments, so I know how to work hard. And I’m a quick learner.”
Riley tilted her head sideways and furrowed her brow. “Do you have an interest in baking? I’m willing to teach, if you’re willing to learn. But this business is my baby. It’s very important to me, and I like for everything to be done with excellence and care. I think if someone doesn’t put a little heart into their baking, it shows. So I only want to hire someone who is going to enjoy the work.”
Clara paused for a moment. She had honestly never thought about baking as a career, but she was confident that she could work hard and make Riley happy. Clara liked to do all of her work with excellence, and baking pies would be no exception. Clara stood as tall as she could and smiled encouragingly at Riley.
“I would love to learn about baking. And I promise to put care and attention into every pie I bake.”
Riley looked relieved at Clara’s promise. “When could you start?”
“Immediately. Honestly, the sooner the better. I need work.”
Riley smiled. “That works for me, because I need help. Can you come in first thing tomorrow morning? We can do paperwork and I can start training you. I’m usually here at five a.m. I know that’s early, but if you could manage to get in at that time it would really help me out.”
Clara’s heart leapt with excitement. “Of course. I’ll be here bright and early.”
Riley gave Clara a few more instructions about what to wear, and named what Clara thought was a very reasonable salary. Clara left the bakery with the spring in her step fully restored. Finding a job in one day was pretty lucky, especially since the job sounded like it was going to actually be fun. And Riley seemed like a very nice person. Maybe they would even be friends.
Now, Clara just needed to find a place to stay. She had seen several apartment complexes nearby, so hopefully one of them would have something available at a reasonable rate. If she managed to be close enough to work to walk, that would be even better, since there was no way she could afford a car at this moment.
Clara gave the air a triumphant fist pump as she stepped back into her hotel room. Maybe breaking down in Red Valley hadn’t been such a bad turn of events, after all.