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 gave Riley a hug goodbye, and then left for the night. She left the flowers at the shop. It made more sense to her to set them up there, where all of her coworkers could enjoy them, too. The wedding she catered the next day was a large one, and Clara was so busy she felt that she barely had time to breathe. She had once again completely forgotten about her secret admirer, until she walked into the back area of the pie shop and came face to face with another huge bouquet, this one with vibrant purple and yellow flowers. Riley, who was the only other person in the shop, since it was hours past closing time, raised an eyebrow in Clara’s direction.
“Mystery man strikes again,” Riley said.
Clara didn’t answer. She just went over to the flowers and tore open the card. “Hello, Beautiful. If you’re wondering if I’m going to continue to send you flowers every day, then the answer is yes. I told you I want to make your holidays magical, and I hope having beautiful flowers to look forward to every day brings a little spark of magic into the season for you.”
Clara sighed and handed the card over to Riley. “Looks like he has no plans of stopping,” Clara said.
Riley shook her head in amazement. Or maybe in amusement. Clara couldn’t tell for sure which emotion it was.
“Okay, seriously. What are you going to do to find out who this guy is? You can’t just let someone like this go,” Riley said.
“I’m not sure how you expect me to find him,” Clara said. “I’ve thought about this long and hard, believe me. I can’t think of anyone it might be, and he’s not really giving much in the way of clues.”
“Well, you have to figure out a way,” Riley said. “This guy is something special. I have a feeling about it.”
Clara smiled affectionately at Riley. “You’re ridiculous, you know that? You’re more excited about my secret admirer than I am.”
Riley rolled her eyes at Clara, who just laughed at Riley and said she was heading out for the night. But as Clara climbed into her old car and started heading for her home at the smokejumpers’ base camp, she couldn’t help but running through every possibility in her mind of who might have a secret crush on her. She had met so many men over the last few weeks. Weddings brought out an interesting side in everyone. It hadn’t taken long for Clara to realize that the open bars at weddings, combined with the romantic atmosphere, convinced every single guy that he had a shot with any beautiful, single woman.
But none of the guys had a shot with Clara. Sure, some of them had been cute enough, and nice enough. But Clara was careful about who she let into her inner circle. She had meant it when she told Riley that she wasn’t interested in casual dating. If she was going to start a relationship with a guy, she wanted it to be something they both were in for the long haul. And she wanted to be sure he was the type of guy who would be understanding when he found out she was a shifter.
That last part was the tricky bit. It wasn’t easy figuring out who was man enough not to run away when Clara revealed that she was hiding a bear within her. She’d heard from friends back in Alaska that most men couldn’t handle that kind of news. They felt threatened by a woman who held that kind of power within her grasp.
The radio station in Clara’s car was playing a commercial-free hour of Christmas music, and the tunes coming through the old speakers in her car stirred up all kinds of nostalgic feelings. Before her old clan had been thrown into chaos and ruin by a crazed alpha, Clara had loved the holiday season. She loved the traditions and festivities that the season brought, and the warmth of being with friends and family. The last few years had brought little in the way of warmth and festivity, however. Clara hoped that this year would be different, now that she would be sharing Christmas with the Burning Claws Crew. But she still felt like something was missing, and she knew what it was: love. Christmas was a beautiful season for lovers, and Clara hadn’t had a lover in a long time. Clara frowned, then hit the switch to turn off the radio. She needed a break from the jolly music.
Moments later, the skies opened up and rain started pouring down again. Clara hadn’t been here in northern California long enough to truly appreciate how unusual these constant rainstorms were, but everyone in the clan told her that they hadn’t seen this much rain in years. Clara strained to see through her blurry, rain covered windshield, and she pushed thoughts of her secret admirer away.
She knew that, whoever he was, he was trying to be sweet and add mystery and intrigue by not telling her who she was. And, she supposed, a beautiful bouquet of flowers every day was pretty impressive. Okay, it was really impressive. But she didn’t have time or energy right now to play guessing games. Let him continue to send flowers, if he wanted. She wasn’t going to bend over backwards trying to find him. If he really thought he could handle her, then he would have to come forward and show who he was.
Clara wasn’t the type of girl to sit around and wait for anyone.
Despite claiming, to herself and to Riley, that she was not impressed by her secret admirer, Clara couldn’t deny that he knew how to romance a girl. As the days passed, the messages only got sweeter, and the bouquets more beautiful. By the time she had received a week’s worth of bouquets, Clara had to admit that she was starting to look forward to the daily deliveries. Still, she didn’t know who this guy was. And he didn’t know who she was. All of his romantic intentions might disappear once he found out that his love interest had a secret bear within her.
Luckily, Clara had a lot of distractions that kept her from thinking too much about her secret admirer. On December ninth, Clara agreed to babysit Zach and Mindy’s daughter, Sophia in the morning. Zach and Mindy were on their way to the courthouse, where they would officially adopt their new son, Drew. Clara didn’t consider herself to be an expert with kids, but she figured she could manage for a few hours. Besides, Sophia was a sweet, well-behaved child. Clara enjoyed spending time with her.
The sun was out that morning, so Clara and Sophia decided to enjoy the break in the rain. They took a soccer ball outside, and spent the better part of an hour kicking it back and forth. Clara got so warm that she took her hoodie off, and she marveled at the fact that she could be outside in just a t-shirt in the middle of November. Right now in Alaska, the temperatures would be well below freezing. Clara could hardly believe that Christmas was just a few weeks away. It didn’t feel like the holiday season to her, with no snow and warm weather. Clara briefly thought that she should get a Christmas tree to decorate for the hangar. No one had done that yet, presumably because anyone with free time was helping take care of last minute preparations for Zach’s wedding. Clara had a little time during the week, though. Maybe she should borrow a truck to run to one of the Christmas tree farms and pick up a towering pine for the hangar. Clara mentally added this to her list of things to do as she played with Sophia. The little girl laughed and kicked the ball, her ponytail bouncing as she ran around with boundless energy.
“Auntie Clara, watch this!” Sophia said, then launched the soccer ball as high up in the air as she could. She collapsed into a fit of giggles as the ball came back down.
“Wow,” Clara said, doing her best to show an appropriate level of amazement at Sophia’s feat. “You threw that ball really high!”
Clara smiled as Sophia ran to get the ball, which had rolled a short distance away. She wondered if she would ever have a chance to kick a soccer ball around with her own little cub. She hadn’t had much time over the last few years to think about things like the future. She’d been too busy just surviving. But now, as she watched her young charge run around, she couldn’t push away thoughts of wanting her own child. Clara was still lost in her fantasy of having a lifemate and cubs when a large bang behind her startled her back to reality. She turned around, and saw Carter at the top of a ladder on the side of the bunkhouse. It looked like he had just dropped a small toolbox from the roof to the ground, and he cursed as he made his way down the ladder to retrieve it.
Clara felt a strong feeling of desire run through her as she watched him. He hadn’t been around lately, and she’d thought the bunkhouse project had been completed. She had been a little disappointed when she didn’t get a chance to see him at the base now and then. His gorgeous face and muscular physique never failed to make her heart race faster. Seeing him out there hammering away every morning when she left for work had been a nice way to start her day. A small part of her had also been relieved when he finished his job and moved on, though. Seeing him every day had also served to remind her that he wasn’t interested in her. He never seemed to notice when she was around. Clara always comforted herself by assuming that he was just too focused on his job, but after a while even that didn’t lessen the anguish of never getting even a small wave of hello from him. Did it really matter whether he wasn’t interested because he wasn’t into her, or because he was too busy? Either way, the end result was the same: Clara would never be with Carter. She had resolved to forget about him, and she had, for the most part. But she couldn’t exactly ignore him when he was right in front of her.
“Sophia, honey,” Clara said. “Wait here just a minute. I’m going to go see if Mr. Carter needs help.”
Sophia nodded, barely looking up as she concentrated on dribbling the soccer ball between her feet. Clara shook her head in wonder as she started walking toward Carter. It was really sad that a five year old was more coordinated than she was.
Carter didn’t look up as Clara approached him. He was picking up tools that had scattered all over the ground when the toolbox fell. He continued to curse under his breath, and didn’t notice Clara until she cleared her throat loudly to announce her presence.
“Oh, hey,” Carter said, his cheeks reddening a bit as he looked up and noticed Clara standing in front of him. “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s okay,” Clara said. “Sorry to startle you. I just wanted to see if you needed any help. It looks like your toolbox took quite a nasty tumble.”
Carter sighed. “Yeah, I’m so annoyed. I like to keep everything in here organized, and now it’s a mess.”
“Can I help?” Clara said, repeating her offer.
Carter looked up at her, and a strange look passed over his face. It almost looked like a flicker of desire. But it disappeared so quickly that Clara thought she must have imagined it.
“Naw, it’s okay,” he said. “Thanks, but it would take more time to explain how to organize it then to just do it myself.”
“Okay,” Clara said, nodding. “Well, sorry you dropped it. Good luck getting it all back together.”
“Thanks,” Carter said, then went back to organizing the tools. That would have been a good time for Clara to bow out gracefully, but gracefulness had never been her strong point. She stood there awkwardly, trying to think of something else to say. Carter finally noticed the silence, and looked up to find her still standing there.
“Was there something else?” he asked, but in a kind voice. He didn’t sound annoyed or impatient, just curious. In fact, his face had an almost hopeful expression on it.
“Oh, um,” Clara said, struggling to come up with words. “I just was wondering what you’re doing here. I thought you were done with the bunkhouse project. I really like the expansion, by the way. The bunkhouse is almost like a real, giant house now. But I didn’t think I’d be seeing you around here anymore after you were done with that.”
Carter’s face fell, as though he had been expecting her to ask something else. “Yeah, the bunkhouse project is completely done. But Zach asked me earlier this week to replace all the gutters on the house as well. He said it’s just about due, and between the adoption and wedding planning, he doesn’t have time to do it himself. Don’t worry, though. This project should only take me a day, so I’ll be out of your hair again soon.”
Clara couldn’t tell if Carter was seriously insulted or just messing with her, but she didn’t have much time to figure it out. Sophia was growing tired of playing alone, and she started calling out for Clara.
“Auntie Clara, come
. I can’t play soccer by myself.”
“Be right there, sweetie,” Clara called back. Then she hurriedly turned to Carter. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not bothered by your being around. I just wondered what you were doing.” She flashed him a big smile, and he nodded and gave her a small smile back. She wasn’t sure if he believed her, but Sophia was starting to call out to her again, so Clara gave Carter a little wave and then ran off. She turned around one more time before she got to Sophia, thinking she would catch a glimpse of Carter back at work. But he had stopped reorganizing his tools, and was watching her.
Clara quickly turned back around and bit her lip thoughtfully, thinking that maybe she hadn’t imagined that spark of desire in his eyes, after all.
* * *
Carter watched Clara walking away, his heart pounding in his chest. When he saw her walking over here, he had half expected her to tell him that she knew about the flowers. But she seemed oblivious, asking instead whether he needed help picking up his tools. The gesture had been sweet, but it was true what Carter had said: her helping would take much, much longer than just doing it himself. She had asked a few questions about what he was doing, and Carter couldn’t help but wonder whether she was asking because she was glad he was back. He had tried to get her to say more by joking that he would be out of here before she knew it, but her response to that had been a polite assertion that she didn’t mind him there. He hadn’t been able to read anything into it, and, as she walked away, he was mentally kicking himself.
Here he was, spending hundreds of dollars to send her flowers with romantic notes, and yet when she was right in front of him, he couldn’t manage to come up with anything sweet to say. In all honestly, part of the problem was that he didn’t really want her to know yet that he was behind the flowers. He wanted to build up to a grand finale and reveal on Christmas Eve. If all went well, and he had swept her off her feet with nearly a month of bouquets, then he wouldn’t be spending Christmas alone this year. But maybe that was stupid. Maybe she would just think he was the weird stalker type, and be freaked out by all of the over the top attention. Maybe he was just too much of a hopeless romantic—emphasis on the hopeless part.
Carter had started to seriously consider ending his bouquet campaign as he watched Clara walk away. But then, she had surprised him by turning around to look at him. And when he saw her eyes, he knew that he had a chance with her. She turned around quickly, obviously embarrassed to have been caught looking at him. But in the brief moment that he caught her eyes, he saw it: desire. Maybe it wasn’t strong. Maybe it was just a curious interest. But there was something there, and he was going to keep pursuing it. He pulled out his phone to call the flower shop, just to make sure that everything was on track for the bouquet of yellow roses Clara would be getting later that day. The note with the card would read: “Dear Beautiful, I know that yellow roses signify friendship. As you may have guessed by now, I’m interested in much more than just friendship with you. So why the yellow roses? Because I don’t just want to be your lover. I want to be your friend, too. I want us to walk through life together, hand in hand, our hearts full of both friendship and love.”
Today’s note was the longest one Carter had written. He knew it would barely fit on the small card that the flower shop sent with the roses. And he knew that it definitely sounded like the musings of hopeless romantic. But he didn’t care anymore. If he had a glimmer of a chance with Clara, he was going to chase after it with all of his energy.
Carter went back to working on the gutters, feeling more excited about his chances with Clara with every passing minute. He became so engrossed in his thoughts and his work that he almost didn’t notice when Zach and Mindy returned, holding the hand of the little boy they had just adopted. But it would have been impossible to miss Sophia’s excited shrieks when she saw that her parents were back.
“I have a brother! I have a brother!” she shouted as she ran across the yard and wrapped the little boy in a giant hug.
Carter paused in his work, watching from his vantage point at the top of the ladder as Zach introduced the little boy to Clara, who bent over and gave him a hug. Within minutes, Sophia and her new brother were kicking the soccer ball around together, and Clara had disappeared, apparently relieved of her babysitting duties.
A soon as Clara disappeared into the hangar, Carter turned back to his work. He wanted to finish this job today, and he had to keep up a steady pace if he was going to manage that. He worked steadily for the next hour, ignoring the hunger pangs in his stomach. He wanted to get in a little more work before he took a break for a late lunch. Just as his stomach started to insist that he really did need to stop to eat, Carter heard someone calling his name from the ground. He looked down and saw Zach standing there, holding his new son in his arms.
“Hi there,” Carter said, starting to climb down the ladder.
“You don’t have to come down,” Zach said. “I just wanted to come by and introduce my son to you. This is Drew.”
“It’s okay,” Carter said, continuing to climb down. “I was just about to break to grab something to eat, anyway. Congrats on the new son. It looks like Sophia was pretty excited to have a new brother.”
Zach grinned. “Yeah, she knows Drew from before. She spent a short amount of time at the orphanage where Drew was living. Long story, but anyway, they’re very happy to be reunited.”
Carter reached the bottom of the ladder and held his hand out to Drew. “Hey, buddy. I’m Carter. It’s nice to meet you.”
Drew put his hand out and shyly shook Carter’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Carter,” he said. Carter flashed the boy a big smile, and then turned to Zach.
“Looks like he’s already got pretty good manners for a kid his age,” Carter said.
Zach smiled. “Not bad for a five year old, eh? Mindy is probably the one to thank for that. She’s volunteered hundreds of hours at the orphanage, and she likes to make sure the kids learn social niceties. She wants to make sure they won’t feel uncomfortable or unsure of what to do when they end up in common social situations.”
“Your wife sounds like an amazing person,” Carter said, glancing over to the field where Sophia was once again playing soccer, this time with Mindy.