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 Shaw eyed the sky suspiciously as it darkened with gathering storm clouds.
“Damn it, not again,” he said aloud, throwing a hammer back into the large toolbox in the back of his pickup truck. He had just returned to work after taking a break for lunch, but now he wished he hadn’t spent that precious half hour chasing down chicken tacos. He was about to be rained out of work again. The rain was unusual for this time of year, and it was putting a serious damper on his construction schedule. He’d promised Zach Brooks, the guy who’d hired him for this job, that he’d have the expansion complete by the end of November. But if these damn thunderstorms kept sweeping through, he was going to fall hopelessly behind. September was more than halfway over, so time was running out.
Carter let out another stream of curses just before Zach rounded the corner of the large airplane hangar that Carter’s truck was parked near.
“Speak of the devil,” Carter said, giving Zach a wave. “I was just trying to figure out how to come tell you that this rain is putting me behind schedule. I’m still hoping to finish by the end of November, but it’s getting tight.”
Zach walked up to Carter’s truck and leaned against it. Carter marveled, not for the first time, at how large Zach’s muscles were. Zach worked as a smokejumper, hurtling himself out of airplanes to fight wildfires, so he had to be in top physical shape. Carter wasn’t doing too badly in the biceps department himself, since his job as a construction contractor required a lot of physical labor. But every time he looked at Zach, he felt like he hadn’t spent enough time at the gym.
“It’s alright, man. I know you’re doing the best you can. This rain is weird. It’s keeping the forest fires under control better than usual, though, so that’s good. It looks like the wildfire season will be ending on the early side this year. I’m gonna have a lot more free time than normal this fall, which isn’t a bad thing. I’ve got a wedding to plan.”
“No shit, man? You’re making things official with Mindy?”
“Yup. We’ve been planning on a December nineteenth wedding. Mindy loves Christmas so she wanted a December wedding. She’s going to have everything be holiday themed. I’m pretty much going with whatever she asks for. My big contribution is watching our little girl Sophia so that Mindy has all the free time she needs to prepare. The wedding theme isn’t as important to me as getting to marry her, but you know how women are about weddings. They want the fairy tale setting and all that jazz.”
Zach laughed, and Carter dutifully laughed along with him. But, deep inside, Carter felt a pang of sadness as Zach casually talked about getting married at Christmastime. Carter had always been a fan of the holidays, but the last few years had been lonely and sad for him. After his girlfriend of many years had left him, he’d thrown himself into his construction company. Business had really taken off, but it had left him with little time for a social life. At first, that had been okay. He’d been so brokenhearted over his ex-girlfriend that he hadn’t been interested in anyone else. But now that he had several years of distance from the breakup, he wasn’t really missing her anymore. What he
missing was being part of a couple. Despite his tough guy exterior, Carter was a big romantic at heart. He would love to have a woman to spoil, and to keep warm at night. But none of the women he had met in Red Valley seemed interested in him. Maybe they thought a lowly construction worker wasn’t worth their time. Or maybe they thought he wasn’t good-looking enough, even though Carter thought he was doing okay in the looks department. Who knows? All Carter knew was that for the last few Christmases, as soon as the holiday decorations started going up in the stores—which had been happening in freaking October—he started feeling a deep melancholy in the depths of his soul. He had always believed that there must be someone special out there for him, but as the years started passing with no sign of her, Carter wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep believing.
Zach’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Hey, earth to Carter? You still listening, buddy?”
“Um, sorry. I got sidetracked thinking about holiday plans,” Carter said, his face heating with embarrassment. Zach would probably think Carter was pathetic if he knew Carter had been daydreaming about someone to kiss under the mistletoe.
“No worries,” Zach said. “I was just asking if you had ever tried the pies at The Sweet Crust. Hunter’s girlfriend owns the restaurant, and the pies are to die for.”
“Nope, never tried them. Although I’ve been meaning to. I’ve heard a lot of good things about that place.”
“Well, I’m on my over there to pick up some pies for the smokejumping crew, and I’ll probably have a coffee and slice of pie myself while I’m there. Want to join me? It doesn’t look like you’ll be getting much work done for the next few hours, anyway.”
Carter eyed the sky and furrowed his brow thoughtfully. Part of him wanted to stay and keep working, just in case the storm ended up not being as big as it looked. But the other part of him really wanted pie. He was still hungry, and that storm didn’t look like it was going away anytime soon.
“Alright, sure,” Carter said, closing the lid on his toolbox and locking it shut.
Twenty minutes later, he was following Zach through the front door of The Sweet Crust. The place was decorated a bit on the cutesy side, but Zach assured him that the pie slices were anything but frou-frou. As they approached the counter, a woman wearing a flour-covered apron appeared from the back of the shop. When Carter saw her face, his heart skipped a beat. She was stunning. Her dark hair was pulled up into a neat bun, but he could still tell that it was sleek and shiny. Her eyes were a shimmering jet black color that Carter had never seen before on anyone. Her smile lit up her perfect oval face with its perfect smooth skin, and Carter found himself trying to steal a glance at her left hand to see whether she was wearing a ring or not. He hoped not—because if this woman was available, he was going to do everything in his power to make her his.
But she was wearing plastic gloves of the variety that cafeteria workers often wore, and Carter couldn’t see whether there was a ring under the gloves or not. He started trying to come up some clever questions to ask to find out if she was available, but clever had never been his forte. He was generally more of a direct person, but he knew some girls didn’t like it when your first interaction with them was a request for their phone number.
Carter realized his thoughts were running away with him again, and he snapped back to reality. That’s when he realized that the woman’s smile had frozen stiffly on her face, and she seemed to be eyeing Zach warily. The corner of Zach’s lips had turned down into a slight frown, and something was obviously making him uncomfortable.
“I didn’t know Riley had hired anyone,” Zach said to the woman. “What’s your name?”
“Clara,” the woman said.
, Carter thought.
What a perfect name. Clara and Carter. That has a nice ring to it
Zach didn’t seem impressed with the name, however. He was eyeing Clara suspiciously. “You’re not from around here are you?” he asked.
“No,” Clara said, glancing sideways at Carter for a moment before looking back at Zach. “I’m from Alaska.”
Carter raised his eyes in surprise. He had never met anyone from Alaska.
“Polar?” Zach was asking. Carter wasn’t sure what he meant by that question, but Clara nodded as though it made perfect sense.
“Does Riley know?” Zach asked.
“No. I didn’t see any reason to alarm her. I don’t think it affects my ability to work here one way or the other.”
“Well, you can tell her, if you want,” Zach said. “She’ll understand. She’s dating one of my clan, uh, I mean one of my buddies.”
Clara glanced at Carter again, her eyes full of questions. “Does he know?” she asked Zach, her voice barely audible.
Zach shook his head no. “He’s not part of the, uh, group. I hired him to build an extension onto the bunkhouse where I live. Riley lives there, too.”
Carter looked back and forth between Zach and Clara. It sounded like they were talking in some sort of code. “You guys aren’t making any sense. Do you know each other from before or something?”
“Um, not exactly. I had just heard of people, um, like Clara before,” Zach said, as though that explained everything.
Carter frowned. He wasn’t sure where Zach was going with this conversation, but he wanted to direct the topic more toward whether Clara was available.
“I’m Carter,” Carter said, since Zach seemed to have forgotten to introduce him. He extended his hand toward Clara.
“I’m Clara,” she said, even though she had already given her name right in front of him.
“Nice to meet you,” Carter said. “So, you’re from Alaska? How long have you been in Red Valley?”
“Just a few weeks,” Clara said. “I wasn’t planning on staying here, but life just sort of happened. Now that I got this job, and things seem to be working out well, I think I’m going to stick around. I just have to find a permanent place to live. I’m at a motel right now, and it’s not exactly the coziest or most economical place to stay.”
“Let me talk to my boss,” Zach said, jumping in again. “He might be willing to let you stay at our bunkhouse, given the, uh, circumstances.”
Clara’s eyes widened. “Really?” she said to Zach, her voice filling with the sound of gratitude. “That would be so amazing.”
Carter frowned. He usually liked Zach, but he didn’t understand the conversation Zach was having with Clara right now. They both seemed to be in on some sort of inside joke. In a huff, Carter turned his attention to the pie menu written in colorful chalk on a chalkboard above the counter. He shouldn’t be surprised that Clara didn’t appear interested in talking to him. No woman ever was. But her disinterest hit him a little harder than usual, for some reason. There was something about her stunning beauty and infectious smile that drew him in like a magnet.
He wanted to get to know her better, but Zach was oblivious to Carter’s interest and was hogging the conversation. Carter shifted his focus to deciding on a flavor of pie. There were a lot of options, making the choice difficult—but Carter had a feeling he was going to be visiting the pie shop frequently in the coming weeks.
And not just for the pie.
Clara took a deep breath and ran one of her palms over her forehead. She needed to return to the back of the pie shop to continue baking pies, since several large catering orders had come in today. But she couldn’t resist standing by the front counter for a few more moments, watching the two men who had just taken a seat in the restaurant with their giant slices of pie and mugs of coffee.
From the moment they walked into the store, Clara’s heart had been racing. First, with excitement when she saw the blonde one, Carter. He was tall and muscular, with clear blue eyes that looked like pools of water against his tanned skin. He had what appeared to be a few days’ old stubble covering his chiseled cheekbones, and his gaze was intense. She hadn’t been able to keep her eyes off of him, and she had smiled brightly, hoping he would catch the flirtatious tilt of her head as she greeted him and his friend.
But a few moments later, her heart had started racing for a different reason: fear. As soon as the smell of bear hit her nose, and she realized that the other man, Zach, was a shifter, Clara had started to panic. She had frozen in place, hoping that she really was far enough away from Alaska that Zach wouldn’t know about the Blizzards.
As Zach started talking, Clara had relaxed. Zach clearly didn’t know that she was a Blizzard, and he had even offered to ask his alpha if she could stay with his clan. Clara had heard stories of shifter clans who looked out for other shifters, but it had been so long since another shifter had treated her with anything other than contempt. She had begun to doubt that caring, kind shifters existed anymore. And finding out that Riley was dating a shifter was a pretty shocking revelation. Clara still wasn’t sure that she wanted to admit her own shifter status to her boss, but Zach seemed confident that Riley would be cool with it. If Zach’s alpha did end up letting Clara live with the clan, Riley would find out, anyway, since she lived with them, too.
By the time Clara had realized that Zach wasn’t going to hurt her, she had lost her opportunity to flirt with Carter. Carter seemed to have lost interest in the conversation, and had moved on to perusing the menu board. He ordered a slice of the pumpkin pecan pie and a black coffee, then took a seat halfway across the restaurant, where he was now sitting with his back toward Clara. Clara admired his broad shoulders. He was just as tall and muscular as Zach, which was saying something since Zach was a shifter and Carter was not.
Clara glanced at her watch and did a double take. It was later than she had thought, and she needed to get back to work. She took one last longing look at Carter, and then headed for the back room. She lost herself in baking for several hours, blitzing through the list of pies she needed to make. As she put the finishing touches on the umpteenth apple pie she had made that day, she was suddenly startled by Riley’s voice.
“Hey, how are things progressing?” Riley asked.
Clara jumped. “Oh, god, you scared me. I didn’t even hear you come in!”
Riley laughed. “Oh, sorry. I came in the back door. There’s no bell on it.”
Clara nodded and wiped her hands on her apron. “Things are going great, actually. I’ve almost finished baking everything you requested for today.”
“Excellent!” Riley said. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I hired you. I’m so much less stressed, and I’m actually getting to sleep some these days. Imagine that!”
Clara laughed, but her laugh sounded stiff and hollow. She had decided earlier that afternoon to tell Riley that she was a shifter, but now that Riley was standing right in front of her, she was feeling less sure of herself. Riley noticed Clara’s nervousness, and called her out on it.
“What’s wrong? Your face is looking a little pale.”
Clara took a deep breath and decided to go for it. What did she have to lose? She hadn’t even officially found a place to live yet. If Riley kicked her to the curb, she could just go start over in the next town.
“Well, um, I don’t really know how to tell you this, other than just blurting it out, but, uh, I’m actually a shifter,” Clara said, forcing herself to look up at Riley’s face when all she really wanted to do was stare at the floor.
Riley’s eyes went wide, and she nearly dropped the cell phone she was holding. When she finally found her voice, all she could blurt out was, “What?”
Clara nodded, feeling even less sure of herself than before. She wasn’t sure how to interpret Riley’s shocked reaction, but the cat was out of the bag, so she might as well keep going.
“Your friend Zach came by the shop, and we instantly recognized each other as shifters. He told me that you were dating a member of his clan, so I figured you would understand if I told you that I was a shifter, too.”
Riley shook her head in amazement. “Wow. It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many of you out there, just living and walking among us like normal people. But, wait, if you’re a shifter, where is your clan? Did you leave them back in Alaska?”
“Well, sort of,” Clara said. “It’s a long story.”
Riley glanced at the list of pies to be made. There were three left. “Tell you what. Let’s knock these pies out. While we’re baking, you can tell me your story. I’m seriously so fascinated.”
“You’re not mad?” Clara asked.
“No, of course, not,” Riley said. “I’m surprised, but I’m not mad at all. I obviously don’t have a problem with shifters, since Hunter is one himself.”
“Hunter’s your boyfriend, I’m assuming?”
“Oh yeah, sorry. You’ll have to meet him. I obviously think he’s pretty cool,” Riley said with a chuckle. “I was shocked about the whole shifter thing at first, but now that I’ve gotten used to it, I’m a little jealous that I can’t shift myself. And I’ve never met a female shifter, so I’m excited to hear your story. The shifters in Hunter’s clan are all male.”
Clara breathed a sigh of relief. Riley had taken Clara’s revelation in stride, and even seemed excited about it. As Clara and Riley baked the last few pies, Clara told Riley her story, starting at the beginning, when she used to live in peace in Alaska with her clan of polar bear shifters. She explained how her alpha had started the clan wars, and how most of her clan had been wiped out in an attack by a rival clan. Then she talked about how she had spent the last few years living in constant fear of a shifter discovering her and killing her as vengeance for the bloodshed her old alpha had caused. She finished up the story by talking about how she had been on her way to Los Angeles when her car broke down and she had been forced to end her trip in Red Valley.
“You pretty much know the rest from there,” Clara said. “I was planning to just lay low in Red Valley for a while, but then I discovered that there’s a whole clan of shifters just outside of town.”
Riley was shaking her head again. “Wow, what a story. I can’t believe your alpha was crazy like that. The alpha of the Burning Claws Crew is nothing like that. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”
Clara shrugged. “Yeah, it was a bad time for all of the shifter clans in Alaska. There have been skirmishes between clans up there in the past—fights over land or hunting grounds or little things like that. But they were usually just between a few clans and were settled pretty quickly. No one up there had ever seen anything like the all-out war my alpha started. It was hard on everyone. I’m glad the war was finally stopped, but it left me without any real possibility of having a life up there. Honestly, I was even worried that Zach might have heard of the Blizzards and try to attack me, too. But he seemed oblivious.”
“Naw, Zach has had his own share of heartache, but he’s usually fine with shifters. It’s full humans that he hates. Or at least, he used to. He’s made quite the turnaround in the last several months, mostly due to his daughter Sophia. He has his own human lifemate now, and they’re getting married in December. And he’s even adopting a fully human child with her.”
“Wow, he sounds like a really great guy.”
Riley laughed. “Yeah, I guess he is. It’s still hard for me to believe how much he’s changed. He used to be awful. But he seems to have truly turned over a new leaf. I’ll be baking pies for his wedding, by the way. So if you stick around, you can help with that.”
Clara smiled. “It’s looking more and more like sticking around is going to be a possibility. Zach mentioned that his alpha might be willing to let me stay with the clan, which would be awesome because I’m still looking for a place to live.”
Riley’s face lit up. “Oh my gosh, that would be amazing! You have to stay with us. The clan lives in a bunkhouse next to a big airplane hangar, and we have so much fun. We’re always doing cookouts and bonfires and things like that.”
“Why an airplane hangar?” Clara asked.
“Didn’t Zach tell you? His clan works as a team of smokejumpers. They parachute into wildfires to help put them out. Work’s been slow right now, though, thanks to all the rain.”
Clara’s eyes widened. “A clan of smokejumpers? I’d be scared out of my mind to jump out of a plane.”
“Right?” Riley said, slapping her knee in agreement. “Hunter keeps telling me that you just get used to it, but I think he’s out of his mind. I would pee my pants if someone told me to jump from the door of an airplane.”
Clara laughed. “Well, I hope joining the clan as a shifter doesn’t involve any sort of initiation jump.”
“I’m sure it won’t,” Riley said with a smile. “Hey, why don’t you come meet everyone tonight? We’re having a big barbecue and it will be a great chance to get to know the clan. Plus, there will be a lot of beer and wine. And pie. Lots of pie, if you aren’t sick of it by now.”
“I think it’s going to take a long, long time for me to get sick of these pies. Your recipes are so good. But do you really think it’s okay if I come? Maybe I should get permission from your alpha first.”
“Ian won’t care,” Riley said. “I’m not kidding when I say that he’s pretty much the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. The only thing he really worries about is exposing the clan as shifters to the humans in Red Valley. But, since you’re a shifter yourself, that’s obviously not a concern.”
“Okay,” Clara said, nodding her head. “If you’re sure it’s okay, I’d love to come out. I have to admit, living in a motel room by myself has started to get to me. It’s a pretty lonely existence.”
“Definitely come out, then. You won’t be lonely with the Burning Claws Clan around, I promise. They’re a great group. I can give you a ride, since I know you don’t have a car right now.”
Clara grinned. “Alright, I’ll come,” she said as she handed the last pie to Riley to put in the oven.
And I hope Carter is still working there when I get there
,” she silently added to herself.