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
Clara had fallen into a comfortable rhythm over the last few months. Her job at Riley’s pie shop kept her busier than ever, and, what little bit of free time she had, she spent hanging out with her new friends. Ian hadn’t officially made her a clan member, but she felt just like one of the crew. The nightly barbecues had slowed down due to the crazy rainstorms that continued to increase in number as November wore on and December arrived, but the crew still had dinner together almost nightly. The inside of the hangar was spacious, and the group often sat in there when it rained, drinking beers and laughing together as they enjoyed an evening meal.
Clara saved up enough money to put a small down payment on a car. It was an old, used clunker, but it ran. Riley had been more than willing to let Clara ride back and forth with her to the pie shop, but their work hours didn’t always match up. Clara had also borrowed vehicles from the Burning Claws Crew here and there, but she didn’t like inconveniencing people or worrying that a vehicle might not be available when she needed it. Having her own car gave her a sweet sense of freedom and independence, even if that car was old and ugly.
Even though she had wheels now, the idea of continuing her journey to Los Angeles never crossed Clara’s mind. Her life was here. Business at the pie shop continued to grow, and The Sweet Crust became a well-known name on the wedding circuit. Having a selection of pies from the Sweet Crust in lieu of a wedding cake had become the dream of every bride in northern California, and every Saturday and Sunday through March was already booked. Many Fridays had already been reserved as well. Clara’s weekends became a blur of hauling pies to beautifully decorated reception venues, and watching wedding guests devour the treats with delights. Riley had hired a few new people to help out with the day to day operations of the store, and she was already talking about expanding into a larger shop. During the week, Clara didn’t spend much time at the shop during business hours. But she did often spend early mornings there, helping Riley bake. Business was booming, and Clara and Riley were both happily busy.
Usually, Clara and Riley each catered to a different wedding, so that they could bring the pies to twice as many brides. But sometimes, if the wedding was a larger one, they would work together. Those jobs were always Clara’s favorite. Riley had quickly become her best friend, and working with her was much more fun than working alone. Late in the afternoon on December first, Clara sat in the back of the pie shop with Riley, going over the schedule for December, and she was delighted to see that there would be several larger weddings over the course of the month.
“But, of course,” Riley said, “Our most important wedding this month is December nineteenth.”
Clara grinned as she looked at the block for December nineteenth on the calendar, where “Zach and Mindy” was written in large, bold letters.
“I can’t wait!” Clara said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been to a lifemate ceremony. And I think the holidays are so romantic. What better time is there to have a wedding, really?”
Riley grinned. “I know. It’s going to be such a special day. And Mindy told me this morning that the adoption for Drew is going to be finalized on December ninth, so he will officially be part of their family before the wedding. They’re going to make him the ring bearer, and Sophia is going to be the flower girl.”
Clara smiled. “That’s going to be so cute. I’m so happy for their whole family. And what big hearts Zach and Mindy both have! Drew is a lucky little boy to be adopted by such sweet parents.”
Riley nodded. “Mindy is an amazing mother. She balances working as a nurse with spending time with Zach and Sophia—and she’s planning a wedding and getting everything done for Drew’s adoption. I know Zach is helping, but still. She’s pretty much superwoman. I know she’s really excited about Drew becoming part of their family, though. She’s volunteered for a long time at the orphanage that has guardianship over Drew. She wanted to adopt him before, but the director wouldn’t let her because she wasn’t married or in a serious relationship. He said no one would be there to be a father figure for the boy, which was ridiculous because Mindy works with a ton of great guys at the hospital who love kids and would make great role models. But, anyway, now that Mindy’s getting married the orphanage is letting her adopt Drew. He’s close in age to Sophia, so it’s going to be really fun for them to grow up together. He’s not a shifter cub, but he’ll grow up around shifting so it will be normal to him. And little does the orphanage know that the husband Mindy found is half bear.”
Riley and Clara both laughed, and then Clara looked down at the calendar full of wedding dates.
“What about you, Riley?” Clara asked. “Any plans to tie the knot and make things with Hunter official?”
Riley laughed and shrugged. “We will, eventually. We had planned to have a wedding this fall, actually, but things got too busy with the pie shop. This business is still really young, and I want to do everything I can to make sure it gets the best start possible. Hunter has been completely supportive of that. I think Luke and Trevor are planning weddings for next summer, so Hunter and I will probably jump on that bandwagon. We’re tentatively planning to have an official ceremony once I’ve had a chance to get a team hired and in place here at the shop. So far, everyone I’ve hired has been great. Especially you.”
“Thanks,” Clara said. “I’ve loved working here, and working with you.”
“So,” Riley said, her eyes taking on a mischievous glint, “What about you? Any romantic prospects?”
Clara rolled her eyes. “Not really. I’ve met a few guys who I think are cute, but I’ve been too busy to really pursue anything. And I don’t want to waste time on a relationship unless it’s something serious, anyway. I can’t stand all this casual dating crap people do nowadays. I want a man who loves me and is truly committed to me, not just someone looking for a girl to bang for a few months before moving on to the next flavor of the season.”
Riley laughed. “I hear you. I was never much into casual dating either.”
The conversation turned back to catering plans for December, and for the next half hour Riley and Clara made lists of which pies needed to be baked for which days. They had almost finished when they heard the bell above the front door ring.
Riley looked up, surprised. “I better go get that. I told Cathy she could leave early because I didn’t think we’d get any business for the last hour of the day.”
Riley hopped up and ran to the front counter, while Clara continued double-checking their baking list for December. Clara was still engrossed in reading the list when Riley came back to the stockroom.
“Oh my god, Clara. It looks like you might have to rethink that whole ‘no romantic prospects’ thing.”
Clara glanced up, and did a double take when she realized that Riley was holding a huge bouquet of red and white flowers.
“What the heck is that?” she asked.
“It’s for you,” Riley said. “It looks like you’ve caught someone’s eye.”
Clara jumped up and grabbed the small card that came with the bouquet. She tore it open quickly, scanning for a name. But there was no name. Only a message that read, “Dear Beautiful, I hope you enjoy these flowers. During this magical holiday season, I want to show you that you are the only magic I need.”
Clara bit her lip to stifle the silly grin that was trying to spread across her face. The flowers were gorgeous, and the message was so sweet, albeit a little cheesy. But it was also cryptic. Who could have possibly sent her something like this? She had talked to a few guys here and there at the weddings she had catered. Now and then a guy would be particularly insistent on hitting on her. This bouquet was probably from one of those guys.
“Who is it from?” Riley asked, excitedly trying to peer over the large bouquet to see the card.
Clara shrugged and handed the card to Riley. “It doesn’t say.”
Riley scanned the card for a moment and then grinned. “Ohhhh, it looks like you have a secret admirer!”
“I guess,” Clara said, feeling a little embarrassed at the attention. “It’s probably just from some random guy at one of the weddings. You know as well as I do that there’s always at least one drunk guy at the reception convinced that he’s your soulmate or something like that.”
“Well, yeah, but if a guy decided to send you flowers days later, then it’s obviously not just some drunken crush.”
Clara shrugged again. “Maybe not, but I don’t have much time for a guy right now, especially when I have no idea who the guy actually is.”
“Well, maybe he has big plans to reveal himself, and this was just the warm-up,” Riley said. “You have to admit that it’s a pretty good warm-up.”
a pretty sweet warm-up,” Clara agreed. “But it’s going to take more than just a bouquet of flowers to win me over.”
Riley gave Clara a playful shove. “Oh, come on. Don’t write the guy off so quickly. Flowers this beautiful are a good start on his part, I’d say.”
Clara glanced over at the flowers. “They are pretty impressive, aren’t they? Maybe I’ll just leave them here in the shop, so we can all enjoy them.”
Clara did just that, and didn’t think much more about her secret admirer the next day. She was catering a holiday party at Red Valley’s civic center, and was busy all day baking and delivering pies. When she finally arrived back to the pie shop just after closing, she wanted nothing more than to go home and fall into bed. She’d have to be up and at it early the next day, since she had a wedding on the schedule.
Clara went to the back of the shop to drop off some pie dishes before heading out. Riley was there, leaning over some vendor statements with a furrowed brow. She was so intent on whatever it was she was looking at that she hadn’t seemed to notice Clara walking into the shop. Clara probably could have left without a single word to Riley, and Riley would never have noticed. But Clara didn’t want to be rude, so she let out a little cough and said, “Hey, Riley.”
Startled, Riley jumped and dropped her pen. “Shit, I didn’t even hear you come in,” she said. I’m trying to get all of our supply orders sorted out before next week.”
“Sorry, I was just dropping off some dishes and didn’t want to head out without saying goodbye,” Clara said, already stepping toward the door.
“Wait a minute! Not so fast,” Riley said. “You got another delivery today.”
“Another delivery?” Clara asked, genuinely confused.
“Yes. Another delivery. Of flowers. Your secret admirer strikes again. At least I’m assuming it’s your secret admirer. I didn’t open the card to read it, but I’m dying to know what it says. The flowers are in my office. Come on.”
Riley led Clara to her small office, where another huge bouquet of flowers was sitting atop a stack of papers on Riley’s desk. This bouquet was blue and white, with a generous amount of greenery. Clara’s eyes widened as she took it in. Whoever her admirer might be, he was spending a fortune on flowers.
Hands shaking a bit with nervous anticipation, Clara reached for the card and opened it. Once again, there was no name. Just a sweet message that read, “Dear Beautiful: One universe, eight planets, seven continents, five oceans…and somehow I found you. I’m so happy that fate brought you across my path.”
Wordlessly, Clara handed the card over to Riley, who took a few moments to read it.
“Oh my god. That’s ridiculously sweet,” Riley said. “Are you sure you have no idea who this guy is? Think really hard. Did any of the guys you’ve met at the weddings stand out as being particularly interested in you?”
Clara thought hard, but couldn’t come up with anyone. “I don’t know,” she said. “I really can’t think of anyone who seemed interested in me beyond the normal drunken flirtation I always get.”
Riley crossed her arms. “Well, think harder. You have to find out who this guy is! You can’t just let Prince Charming send you two huge, beautiful bouquets of flowers without making an effort to find him.”
“Why not?” Clara asked, leaning over to sniff the flowers. “Don’t you think if he really wanted to be found, he would have signed his name on the notes?”
want to be found. I’m sure of it. No guy would spend this much money and effort on sending you flowers if he didn’t want you to eventually know who he is. I can’t believe you’re not more curious about this. I feel like I want to know who your secret admirer is more than you do. Aren’t you intrigued? He’s making such an effort to be romantic and sweet.”
“I don’t know what I should think. It might be sweet, but I honestly can’t remember meeting anyone in the last few months that lit any kind of spark in me,” Clara said, then furrowed her brow. “Well, I guess there was one guy…”
Riley perked up. “Who?”
“Carter. You know, the guy who has that construction business?”
“Carter? The guy who has been doing the expansion on the bunkhouse?” Riley asked.
Clara nodded. “I met him the same day I met Zach. I thought he was gorgeous. I mean, I still think that. But he didn’t say much to me, that day or afterward, so I don’t think he really noticed me. I don’t think these flowers are from him.”
Riley frowned. “Yeah, he’s pretty quiet and reserved. It doesn’t seem like a showy gesture of sending multiple bouquets is really his style.”
Clara shrugged. “Well, anyway, I need to get home and get some sleep. Whoever this guy is, it probably won’t take long for him to get tired of spending money on all of these flowers anonymously. I’m sure he’ll come clean within a few more days.”