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 was still working when Clara arrived, but he didn’t seem to notice her presence. She was disappointed, although she wasn’t sure why. He had barely noticed her in the pie shop earlier, so what made her think he would suddenly be excited to see her when he was in the middle of hammering away at a wall? Clara did her best to push him out of her mind. Sure, he was drop dead gorgeous, but other than that, she barely knew him. There was no sense in pining over someone just because he was good-looking. For all she knew, he had a wife or girlfriend waiting for him at home. She felt foolish for even thinking that someone as handsome as Carter would be available.
Clara focused her attention on meeting the Burning Claws Crew. As Riley had promised, everyone treated her like a long-lost friend. Riley had already called ahead and given Ian a quick overview of Clara’s story, and he welcomed Clara warmly, telling her that she had nothing to worry about here: none of his clan had ever heard of the Blizzards or the clan wars, and he wasn’t interested in harming a female shifter who had taken no part in the bloodshed, anyway.
Ian’s lifemate, Charlotte, offered Clara a glass of wine in a red Solo cup, and then took over the task of introducing her to everyone.
“You’ve already met Riley. This is her lifemate, Hunter. Luke is standing next to Hunter with his lifemate, River, and behind them are Trevor and Bailey. Zach is at the grill, but you’ve already met him. His lifemate, Mindy, is across the grass over there, kicking a soccer ball with their little girl, Sophia.”
Clara felt her head spinning as she tried to remember all of the names. “I hope there’s not going to be a pop quiz on who’s who at the end of the evening,” she said.
Christine laughed. “Don’t worry, there’s no quiz. But you’ll catch on quickly, anyway. It’s a lot all at once, but everyone is such a character and has such a unique personality that you’ll have them sorted out in no time.”
Clara took a seat at one of several picnic tables near the grill, and was soon joined by the other women of the clan, who were all interested in meeting a female shifter. They were even more intrigued when they discovered she was a polar bear shifter. They asked her to shift her hand so they could see, and Clara glanced nervously in the direction of where Carter had been fifteen minutes earlier. She didn’t want him to see that she was a shifter, and she doubted anyone else in the clan wanted that, either. Ian noticed her gaze, and reassured her that Carter was gone.
“He was just wrapping up for the day when you got here,” Ian said. “He can’t do much in the dark, anyway, and the sun sets so early these days. Don’t worry. We don’t talk much about shifting when he’s around. I don’t think he’s the type of human to freak out about it, but you never know.”
Clara nodded, then turned her attention back to the women at the picnic table. River was practically bouncing in her seat. “I love polar bears!” she exclaimed. “Show us your polar paw.”
Clara blushed. She wasn’t used to being the center of attention, and she didn’t exactly enjoy being in the spotlight. But it did feel good to find a group of people excited about getting to know her better. She raised her right hand, let out a low growl, and shifted the hand from human flesh into the white, furry paw of a polar bear. Long claws extended from the end of the paw, and the women oohed and ahhed over how fearsome her hand now appeared.
Clara blushed deeper, and shifted her hand back to human form with a shrug. “I don’t really think of myself as fearsome,” she said. “I guess I’m just used to my bear form. Besides, I’m actually pretty small for a polar bear. Pretty much all of the shifters in Alaska were larger than me.”
“Still,” River said, “It’s pretty badass to know a woman who can shift.”
“Oh, great, guys,” Luke called out from behind the grill, where he had joined Zach. “Looks like we’re all gonna be old news. Who cares about guys shifting when there’s a badass girl around shifting at will.”
“Uh-oh,” Ian shot back, “Looks like someone’s feeling a little threatened by a woman. Maybe you should do a few more pushups and actually get some muscles on those arms, if you want your woman to pay attention to you.”
The whole group burst into laughter at Ian’s comments. Clara even smiled, despite still feeling tense about being the center of attention. This group clearly liked to cut up and have a good time. And despite Ian’s comments about Luke’s arms not having muscles, there wasn’t a single shifter in the group that didn’t look like he could tear down a house using nothing more than his own brute strength. The men of this clan had impressive physiques. And they had all chosen beautiful women for their lifemates. Clara felt like her own face was a little on the plain side, but no one seemed concerned with how she looked. And everyone acted so friendly. This group didn’t seem like the type to judge people based on how they looked.
Zach and Luke started piling burgers and hot dogs from the grill onto a big platter, and within seconds, the clan was surrounding the platter, piling paper plates high with food.
“Hey, hey,” Ian yelled out. “I’m sure you all are literally starving to death, but how about having some manners? Let our guest of honor get her food first.”
Clara blushed again as she realized that Ian was referring to her. “Oh, it’s okay, really. I don’t need to go first,” she said.
“Nonsense,” Charlotte said. “You’re our guest tonight. You get first dibs on the food. Take advantage while you can, because you’re only a guest once. From here on out, you’re family.”
Clara felt her heart stirring with hope as Charlotte gave her a friendly wink. It had been years since anyone had referred to her as “family.” Was it possible she had found a new family in the middle of a random town in northern California? Clara gave her new friends a shy smile, and quickly filled her plate. Charlotte poured a refill of wine into Clara’s plastic cup, and soon all of the clan members were sitting around, happily munching on the best meal Clara had enjoyed since leaving Alaska.
Soon, everyone was pressing Clara to tell her story. Most of the clan had caught bits and pieces of it from Ian or Riley, and they wanted to hear the whole tale from Clara herself. Clara ran through her history again, telling the whole Burning Claws Clan about her struggles in Alaska, and how she had been unfairly persecuted for the actions of a crazed alpha. Each of her new friends gave her sympathetic glances as they heard about the anguish through which she had lived. The more Clara talked, the more at peace she felt. She had a good feeling about this clan. They were welcoming and nonjudgmental, and, as Clara spent the evening with them, she started to actually believe that she might be able to truly start over fresh here.
And Charlotte had been right—it didn’t take long to start sorting out the names of the clan members. By the time the pies came out for dessert, Clara had figured out who was who. More importantly, by the time the pies were sliced, Ian had offered Clara a place to stay.
“We have plenty of room in the bunkhouse,” he said. “And once the expansion and remodel is done, it’ll be even better, with more private rooms and spaces. I think everyone here agrees that you’re a strong person, and my clan doesn’t like to look the other way when a fellow shifter needs help. The door is open for you to stay here for as long as you’d like.”
Clara had managed to maintain her composure for most of the evening, but Ian’s generous offer pushed her over the edge. Two tears of gratitude escaped from her eyelids, spilling down her cheeks as she smiled over at the kindest alpha she had ever met.
“I’d love that. Thank you.”
Life in Red Valley was treating her pretty well, it seemed.
Carter opened his fridge and pulled out a beer can, then popped the tab open. He wasn’t fond of drinking alone, but it seemed to be his only option these days. He downed his first can of PBR while he heated up a microwave dinner, then grabbed a second can to take to the couch along with his food. He flipped mindlessly through the channels and sipped his second beer, slower this time. He couldn’t understand what he was doing so wrong.
He’d been working hard for Zach and the crew of smokejumpers, pushing the limits of how fast he could build to get the expansion done on the bunkhouse. But, despite the fact that the crew had a barbecue every night, and Carter was almost always wrapping up his work to leave as they fired up the grill, he had never been invited to join them. Not once. Sure, Zach invited him to go for pie or to grab a coffee in town now and then. But he had never invited him to stay for a beer and a burger. Carter had thought it was a little strange, since he was on a first name basis with the whole group by now. Most of the time, when he found himself on a long job where he was around a group of people all day, he ended up eating lots of dinners and drinking lots of beers with them. He had thought that maybe the smokejumping crew just wasn’t the outgoing type, and didn’t like to invite strangers to their gatherings. He’d made his peace with that theory, until tonight.
When he saw Clara walking up to the barbecue, and joining in like a longtime friend, he had felt his heart sink. He knew that Zach had just met Clara today, and, yet, here she was—invited to join in on the fun even though they barely knew her. Meanwhile, he packed up his tools and went home without so much as a goodbye wave from anyone.
Maybe it was time for Carter to face the truth: the problem was obviously him. Something was wrong with him that made people not want to hang out with him. He had no idea what it was, because he thought he was a pretty decent guy. But since his ex-girlfriend had broken up with him two years ago, his group of friends had dwindled to zero. He had blamed it on his busy work schedule, but, now, he had finally landed a big job where he thought he would have a chance to meet some new buddies. Instead, he was shunned. Had he just become a miserable person to be around since the breakup? He had tried to stay positive, but maybe he hadn’t been positive enough.
Carter frowned as he spooned the last few bites of his microwave dinner into his mouth. He would do the only thing he felt he could do under these circumstances: he would work from sunup to sundown without stopping. He would finish the expansion for the smokejumpers as fast as humanly possible. No more breaks for pie or coffee, no more getting to the worksite at six-thirty a.m. instead of six a.m. He was going to get this project done, and get out of there. At least then he wouldn’t have to face watching everyone enjoy a barbecue without him every evening.
Getting away from the smokejumpers wouldn’t solve his loneliness problem, but it would keep him from having his lack of friends rubbed in his face every evening. That was the best he could do for now.
* * *
Despite his determination to work harder than ever, Carter’s plans continued to be thwarted by the rain. He managed to stay on schedule, at least, but he couldn’t get ahead. He was trying his best to get all of the outside work done, so that he could finish up the interior work without worrying about the weather. The smokejumpers hung around the hangar and bunkhouse quite a bit. The fire season was all but over, and with the unusual amount of rain, it didn’t look like there would be any more fires to fight this year. Zach frequently came by to chat with Carter, confusing Carter even further as to why he was never invited to join in on the barbecues. If Zach enjoyed talking to him so much, then why didn’t he ask him to grab a beer after the day’s work was done? The only bright spot for Carter was that he occasionally saw a glimpse of Clara. Even though she didn’t show any interest in him, he loved to watch her beauty from afar. He loved hearing her laugh drifting across the grassy space in front of the hangar, making it all the way to the bunkhouse where he was working to tickle his ears with its melody.
Carter found himself unable to get Clara out of his head. He got into the habit of heading to the pie shop whenever the rain kept him from working. He joked about how the pies were so good that he couldn’t stay away. But the truth was that Clara was so beautiful that he couldn’t stay away. Carter tried to build up a friendship with her, chatting as much as he could every time she was the one behind the counter taking his order. She was obviously busy, so he could never talk for very long. But over the course of the month of October and November, he managed to learn a good deal about her. She had moved here from Alaska to start over, although she was persistently vague about the details of why she needed to start over. The most he could get out of her was that there hadn’t been much of a life left for her in Alaska. She had intended to move to Los Angeles, but she was enjoying Red Valley so much that she planned to stay here for the foreseeable future. This news made Carter happy. It didn’t take long to figure out that she definitely wasn’t in a relationship, and Carter started plotting how to ask her out.
He didn’t just want to walk up to her and ask for her number, or say they should go to dinner sometime. He wanted to do something special. Something romantic. He gave himself a deadline of the twenty-second of November. It was a Sunday, and it was the beginning of what would surely be his last week of work on the smokejumpers base. He was putting the finishing touches on the interior remodels at the moment. Once this job was finished, he would have some free time to actually spend with a girl. He had a few jobs lined up for December, but nothing that would take over all of his time like the bunkhouse job had. Carter dared to let himself hope that he might not spend the holidays alone this year.
On the twenty-second, Carter made his way to the pie shop just before noon. The place was only a ten minute walk from his house, so he decided to stretch his legs and get some exercise by walking over. He had a messenger bag slung across his shoulder, where he had hidden a box of gourmet chocolates to give to Clara. He had planned a little speech about how she was sweeter than any box of chocolates, and he hoped she would find the gesture endearing instead of cheesy. His heart beat faster with excitement as he approached the pie shop, and he couldn’t keep a smile off of his face as he imagined Clara sitting across from him as they shared dinner at a nice restaurant. Carter was so focused on getting to Clara that he didn’t notice the unusually high number of cars parked outside of The Sweet Crust. Carter had never been to the shop on the weekend before, and when he walked through the front door, he was surprised by how big the Sunday morning crowd was. He was also surprised to catch a glimpse of a girl behind the cash register that he had never seen before. Clara had almost always been the one manning the front counter, and if she wasn’t there for some reason, the owner Riley had been the one taking orders.
Carter waited in line for several minutes, hoping that Clara was just in the back to work on baking for a bit. The new girl’s nametag read Sara, and Carter asked her about Clara.
“Clara?” Sara repeated. “She’s not here today. She’s working at one of our catering events. The requests for pies at weddings and other events have become too much for Riley to handle on her own. She hired me and another girl to help out here in the store so that Clara could start helping her with catering.”
“So, Clara’s not going to be in today?” Carter asked.
Sara gave him a funny look. “No, not really. She’ll be here for a few minutes at the end of the day to drop off dishes and stuff from catering, but it’ll probably be after the shop’s closed. Did you need to leave her a message or something?”
“Uh, no, it’s okay. I’ll catch her some other time. For now I’ll just take a slice of the apple pie and a large coffee. To go, please.”
Sara nodded and rang up his order, and Carter left the shop feeling deflated. He had pumped himself up to finally ask Clara out, and he had stupidly not considered the possibility that the pie shop would be crowded, or that Clara wouldn’t even be there. He took his pie and cup of coffee and walked back to his house to eat it in the solitude of his kitchen. He would just try again tomorrow. He’d take a quick lunch break from working on the bunkhouse and run by the pie shop to see her.
But Clara wasn’t at the pie shop the next day, or the day after. Sara, or the other new girl, Cathy, seemed to have taken over watching the front counter of the store. By then, Carter realized he had to stop showing up at the store every day or he was going to look like a total creeper. Not only that, but he was going to gain ten pounds from eating a giant slice of that delicious pie every day. He had to come up with a different plan.
He furrowed his brow in thought as he drove away from the pie shop, trying to figure out a way to see Clara outside of the pie shop. He might see her at the smokejumpers’ base on one of the few nights he had left to work there, but that wasn’t a sure thing. Besides, getting her alone there might prove difficult, and he wasn’t keen on asking her out in front of the whole crew. Not only did he fear the embarrassment of being rejected in front of everyone, but it just didn’t seem that special or romantic to put her on the spot in front of her whole group of friends.
And Carter wanted to do something special and romantic for her. He wasn’t exactly the king of romance—as his ex-girlfriend had been fond of reminding him—but he was a caring person who cared about making his woman happy. He wanted Clara to know that if she agreed to be his woman, he was going to make her happy. Carter couldn’t keep from smiling at the thought of Clara being his woman. But how could he show her how much she already meant to him? How could he show her that her smile lit up his day every time he saw it? Or that her shimmering, jet black eyes were the most beautiful pair of eyes he had ever seen? He had to find a way to show her just how special she thought he was.
As Carter turned onto the road that led back to the smokejumpers’ base, a DJ came on the radio, enthusiastically announcing the next song.
“Coming up next is another Christmas song, White Christmas! I know there’s not much of a chance that we’ll have a white Christmas here in northern California, but, hey, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a classic Christmas tune. I can’t believe it’s almost December, but here we are. I love this season, and I’m so excited to start bringing you Christmas tunes to get you in the holiday spirit. It’s the season of love and romance, everyone! Get ready for a magical December, and tune in to let us be the soundtrack for your holiday season.”
As the first notes of White Christmas filled his car, Carter rolled his eyes heavenward. Here we go again, he thought. The season of love and romance, and I still haven’t found anyone. But before he had spent too much time pitying himself, an idea suddenly hit him. It
the season of love and romance. What better time to be an over the top romantic, and show Clara how he wanted her to be the one making his holidays magical. Carter screeched his truck to a stop and then made a u-turn in the middle of the road. He was heading back into town: he had one more errand to run before going back to work.