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
Carter blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the gray light of dawn surrounding him. He was lying on his back in a strange bed, looking up at a strange ceiling. He looked around, confused for a few moments, until the events of the previous day came flooding back into his mind.
He had hardly believed it when he saw the headlights of a vehicle heading toward him at the cabin last night. He’d been even more surprised when he saw that Clara was the one who had shown up to rescue him. He still had no idea how she had known where he was, or that he had needed help. But of all the surprises Carter had had last night, the biggest one had been watching Clara turn into a bear. He closed his eyes as he remembered Clara, suddenly, inexplicably stripping naked in front of him, and then transforming into a polar bear.
Carter opened his eyes and stared up at the strange ceiling again. All of the details got a little fuzzy after that. He thought he remembered getting into Clara’s car, and then being carried into the hangar at the smokejumpers’ base. He remembered people rushing around him, covering him with blankets. And he remembered finally feeling warm. Carter sat up slowly, realizing that he was in a room in the bunkhouse. He had renovated this very room, and many similar to it. The smokejumpers had wanted to turn the bunkhouse into more of a traditional house rather than a dormitory style bunk room. When they had first arrived, they had all been bachelors, but now they were all parts of couples, with plans to have children. Zach’s kids had been especially excited to have their own room.
Carter stood, testing how his legs felt. He had multiple bruises on them, but otherwise they seemed okay. He put his hand to his forehead to feel the gash that had been there. It hurt a little when his finger touched it, but it felt dry, so at least it wasn’t bleeding anymore. He rubbed the side of his forehead that was gash-free, and tried to figure out what to do next.
He would have to talk to Clara, or at least to someone here before leaving. Since his truck was still up by the cabin, he couldn’t just sneak away unnoticed. And, honestly, he didn’t really want to sneak away unnoticed. He wanted to know what the heck had happened last night. Part of him thought that the whole bear thing had been a hallucination, just a product of his hypothermic mind. But a bigger part of him knew that the bear had been real. There was no way Clara could have moved that beam on her own, without some sort of supernatural strength. He had really seen the women he loved transforming into a polar bear right in front of him.
Carter stopped short as the phrase “woman he loved” ran through his mind again. It had been an unexpected, unplanned thought. But it was true. He loved Clara. He had been circling around telling her how he felt, but now he knew it was time. He had to find her and talk to her. He wanted to understand what he had seen happen at the cabin last night, and he wanted to make her understand that he was ready to lay it all on the line. The bear detail had surprised him, but it didn’t change the way he felt about her.
Carter looked down at his clothes. The black hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants looked unfamiliar to him, and he realized that someone must have changed him into dry clothes belonging to the other smokejumpers. Carter glanced around the room for his own clothes but he didn’t see them anywhere. He shrugged, and started for the door to his room. He would try to find Clara. Maybe she knew where his clothes were, but, regardless, he needed to talk to her.
Just before Carter could open the door, however, a knock rang out on it.
“Carter? You awake in there?”
It was Ian, the crew leader. Carter reached to open the door, and was surprised when he found not just Ian, but Ian and Clara both standing right in front of him. Clara was holding two mugs of steaming black liquid, and she held one out to him.
“Coffee?” she asked.
He nodded, and took the cup from her without a word. She looked tired, and he wondered how much she’d slept last night, or what time it had even been when she rescued him. He had lost track of the hours that he’d spent pinned under that giant beam. Despite the bags under her eyes, though, she still looked beautiful. Her hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail, and she wore a navy sweatshirt over dark gray yoga pants. The outfit gave away just enough of her curves to make the blood pump faster throughout Carter’s body. He realized then that he was staring, and he tried to smooth over the awkward moment.
“Um, thanks. For the coffee. And for saving my life last night. I don’t even know how you knew I was there, but I can’t thank you enough.”
“You’re welcome,” Clara said. “I just did what anyone would have done, if they knew they had a friend in danger. It’s a long story, but there’ll be time for that later. Right now, we just wanted to come make sure you’re feeling okay.”
“I feel great, actually. Maybe just a little bit tired, still. But other than that I feel almost good as new, which is surprising considering the night I had.”
Clara nodded and smiled. “That’s good. Mindy—she’s a nurse, you know—looked at you and said you had a mild case of hypothermia, but that you should recover quickly.”
“I’ll have to thank her, too,” Carter said. “It would appear I owe a debt of gratitude to several people this morning.”
“We’re all happy we could help out,” Ian said, joining the conversation. “But we wanted to know if we could talk to you for just a moment. If you’re feeling up to talking at the moment, that is.”
“Of course. Come on in,” Carter agreed, although he found the ominous tone in Ian’s voice a bit unsettling.
Ian and Clara came into the room. Carter and Clara sat on the full size bed, and Ian took the single wooden desk chair that the room held. Ian coughed uncomfortably a few times before beginning his questioning.
“So, we know you had quite an ordeal last night. We want to see how much you remember of Clara’s rescuing you. Do you recall anything strange or out of the ordinary happening?” Ian asked.
Understanding dawned on Carter. This was about the bear. Carter didn’t want to beat around the bush with them, and, besides, he wanted some explanations himself. He got directly to the point. “I saw Clara turn into a polar bear. I’d say that’s a little out of the ordinary.”
Ian did his best to school his features, but Carter saw the surprised, worried look crossing Ian’s face before he could completely stop it.
“Look,” Carter said. “I’m not sure what happened, but I’d like some answers. You both obviously already know about this phenomenon, or whatever you want to call it, that allows a human to become a bear. But it was quite a shock to me. I’m not going to try to get you guys in trouble, which seems to be the concern here. But I’m genuinely curious as to how in the world this happens.”
Ian’s face seemed to relax at Carter’s words. “Have you ever heard of shifters, Carter?”
“Shifters? Sure. Like the mythological werewolves and such?”
“Sort of. We’re bear shifters. All of the smokejumpers except Charlotte are black bear shifters. Charlotte, and the other women here except for Clara, are fully human. Clara is a polar bear shifter. We took her in because we try to take care of our fellow shifters.”
“Okay,” Carter said slowly. “I’m still not quite understanding what a shifter is, or how this all works.”
“Shifting is a genetic trait. It’s not some kind of disease that you get from being bitten by another shifter, which is probably what you’re thinking of when you think of werewolves. It’s just a genetic mutation. You’re either born with it or you’re not. There are several shifter clans scattered throughout the United States and Canada, representing all kinds of bears—black bears, polar bears, grizzly bears. I even heard there’s a clan of panda bears down in southern California.”
“So…there’s just a bunch of half bears roaming around?” Carter asked his eyes widening. “Is it just the U.S. and Canada?”
“No, of course not. They’re all over the world. I just wanted you to understand that there are many shifters walking among you, right here in the country you live in.”
“How many shifters are we talking about?” Carter asked.
“No one knows for sure,” Ian said. “We tend to keep our shifting abilities in the shadows. I can tell immediately when I meet another shifter that they are a shifter, but I don’t have an exhaustive list of how many shifters there are, or where they live, if that makes sense.”
“Yep, makes sense,” Carter said, still trying to process this information. Next to him, Clara fidgeted but still did not say anything.
“When Clara moved here, she was trying to get away from the aftermath of shifter clan wars in Alaska,” Ian said. “Zach recognized her as a shifter and we took her in. Life as a shifter gets tough sometimes, and it always helps if you have other shifters around. Being with other shifters is a safe place of sorts. When you’re around shifters or people who know about shifting and accept it, you don’t have to worry about accidentally doing or saying something that would tip someone off about your unique abilities.”
“I take it not everyone is accepting of shifting.”
Clara and Ian both laughed bitterly.
“No,” Ian said. “Many humans fear us, and start campaigns to destroy us if they find out we exist. Entire clans have been wiped out by senseless bear hunts. It’s frustrating, because we aren’t here to harm anyone. We just want to live peacefully with our friends and family.”
“So, basically, you want to make sure I’m not going to start a bear hunt,” Carter said.
Ian nodded, and looked expectantly at Carter, waiting for his reply.
Carter laughed. “I’m not going to start a bear hunt. I’ve known you guys for a while now, and you’ve been nothing but wonderful to me. I have to admit, my feelings were a little hurt that I never got invited to any of your barbecues, but now I understand why. You didn’t want full humans around.”
“Sorry about that,” Ian said. “Now that you know who we are, you’re more than welcome to join us for our next barbecue.”
“Really?” Carter asked, a bit surprised by the sudden invitation.
“Yes, really. We’re not trying to be exclusive. We’re just trying to stay safe.”
Carter nodded. “I understand. And I still have a lot of questions about shifting, but mostly just curiosities. Like, does it hurt? Do you have complete control over it? Do you have to shift every so often to keep your shifting abilities sharp?”
Ian laughed. “It doesn’t hurt. It feels mostly like a lot of pressure building up, so it’s a little uncomfortable. But not painful. Yes, we have complete control over it. And usually we try to shift at least once a month, although a little less isn’t a big deal. Once a shifter cub learns to control their shifting, it’s kind of like riding a bike. It just comes back to you.”
Clara fidgeted again, and Carter looked over at her. “Well, I’m not going to freak out about shifters hiding among me. I’m very thankful that Clara had the ability to save me. I’m not sure how that would have turned out, otherwise. How did you know where to find me, or even that I was in trouble?”
Clara smiled. “It’s a really long story,” she said. “How about I tell you on the drive back to get your truck?”
“Sounds good,” Carter said. He couldn’t hold back a smile at the thought of spending all that time in a car, talking to Clara. He knew she was worried now that he thought she was strange, or something to be feared. But he felt quite the opposite, in fact. He felt intrigued. Curious. Desperate to know more about the beautiful bear he had fallen in love with.
“I’ll leave you two to sort out logistics of getting his truck back, then,” Ian said. “I just needed to make sure, as clan leader, that you weren’t going to cause trouble for my bears. Hopefully you can understand that and aren’t offended by my concern. It’s just a precaution.”
“I understand,” Carter said. “Although, now that I know about your secret, I hope you really will allow me to hang out here with everyone. I could use some friends, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know everyone on the crew during my time here working on the bunkhouse.”
Ian smiled kindly as he stood and clapped Carter on the shoulder. “You’re welcome here anytime, man. Thanks for being understanding.”
Ian waved to Carter and Clara, then left the room, leaving them to several moments of awkward silence.
“What time is it?” Carter finally asked.
“Early. About seven a.m.”
“Damn. You guys don’t mess around with getting the day started, do you?”
Clara laughed. “No, I guess we don’t We should probably get going, though. I was supposed to be at the pie shop at five a.m. this morning, so I’m already way behind schedule,” she said.
“I’m really sorry for the inconvenience,” Carter said. And he meant it. He did feel really badly about the trouble he’d caused. “I could probably get one of the guys to take me back to the cabin.”
Clara shook her head no. “I’ll take you. I already told Riley I was going to be several hours late. And I think we have a few things to talk about.”
Carter felt his heart beating faster at her words. He had to admit that he was relieved she hadn’t passed off the job of getting him back to the cabin. And he knew they needed to talk. But he was suddenly nervous at all the possibilities of what she might say. He didn’t have much time to prepare himself for the car ride, though. Clara was already standing to leave, saying something about transferring their coffee into travel mugs for the drive.