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
“Soon-to-be wife,” Zach corrected. “We’re not official yet.”
“Oh, that’s right. How much longer now?” Carter asked.
“Just over a week,” Zach said. “We’re so excited that we were able to bring Drew home to be part of our family before the big day.”
“I’ll bet,” Carter said, feeling a small pang of nostalgia as he wondered when it would be his turn to revel in the joy of having a family.
“Hey, that’s another reason I wanted to come talk to you,” Zach said. “I know this is really last minute, but I wanted to invite you to the wedding.”
Carter blinked in surprise, unable to form words for a few moments. Being invited to the wedding was the last thing he had expected when Zach came over here. Zach had never invited him to a single barbecue with the crew, and yet now he was inviting him to his wedding? Confusion etched itself across Carter’s face, and Zach must have noticed because he started trying to explain why the invitation was coming so late.
“I know it’s kind of weird to invite someone so informally to a wedding,” Zach said, “But our formal invitations were sent out several weeks ago, before I really knew you all that well. I’d hate to exclude you from the festivities just because I don’t have any official invitations left. The meal being served at the reception is a buffet, so there’ll be plenty of food and plenty of space. I’d love it if you could make it. Bring a date, even, if you want.”
Zach winked at Carter as he mentioned a date, and Carter couldn’t help but laugh. He didn’t tell Zach that the one person he would love to bring as a date was already attending the wedding. Carter had no doubt in his mind that Clara would be at Zach’s wedding, which only made him more excited to receive an invitation to the event.
“I don’t have anyone special to ask to by my date, but I would love to come to the wedding,” Carter said, then decided to explain to Zach the reason the invitation surprised him. “I could care less whether I get a formal invitation. It honestly just caught me off guard that you considered me a good enough friend to invite to your wedding. You’ve never even invited me to a barbecue.”
A pained look crossed Zach’s eyes, and Carter immediately regretted bringing it up.
“Don’t worry about it,” Carter said. “I’m not saying that because I’m mad or because I want to make you feel bad. I was only trying to tell you why I was not expecting a wedding invitation.”
Zach nodded. “Sorry about the barbecues, man. I would have loved to invite you, but we’ve had issues in the past with having people around who aren’t part of the crew. I won’t bore you with the details, but it just doesn’t seem to go over well when outsiders are unexpectedly invited to join us for dinner.”
Carter worked hard to keep his expression neutral. He smiled and clapped Zach on the back, telling him it was no big deal. He let it go, even though he wanted to ask Zach why Clara had been invited in so quickly, then. She was an outsider, too, when Zach first met her. What was so special about her?
But as Zach walked off, carrying little Drew in his arms, Carter got the feeling that there was something very, very special about Clara.
And he was going to do his best to find out what it was.
Zach’s wedding day arrived, thankfully full of sunshine and warm weather. Clara couldn’t help but smiling up at the sky as she climbed into the backseat of Hunter’s car to head to the ceremony. A December wedding in Alaska would have been full of snow and darkness, since the sun barely made an appearance in the Arctic during the winter months. But here in California, odds were good you’d have decent weather.
“All aboard?” Hunter asked as Riley jumped into the passenger seat next to him.
“All aboard,” Riley confirmed, shooting Hunter a huge smile. Everyone in the clan was in an upbeat mood, excited for the celebration and festivities that lay ahead. Riley had passed most of the work of catering the pies for this wedding off on her two newest employees. She had baked all of the pies herself, but she wouldn’t have to worry about delivering them and setting up the pie buffet. Clara had to admit that it would be nice to attend a wedding without worrying about the pie display being perfect.
When they arrived at the ceremony site, the parking lot was already packed. Mindy had been a nurse at Red Valley’s largest hospital for several years, and she had several friends and acquaintances who wanted to attend her wedding. Usually, lifemate ceremonies were small affairs, limited only to shifters and those humans who already knew that shifters existed. No one wanted their wedding ruined by humans asking questions about the strange traditions being observed, or, worse, realizing in horror that shifters existed. But Mindy had insisted that she wanted a larger wedding and she didn’t want to exclude any of her many friends. The ceremony would thus be toned down, and any references to shifting or lifemates would be couched in terms that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows among the fully human members of the audience.
Clara was looking forward to attending a wedding that was closer to the kind of celebration to which many full humans were accustomed. She had never been to a wedding that wasn’t a full-fledged lifemate ceremony, so this would be a different, exciting experience for her.
Clara followed Hunter and Riley into the beautiful church where the ceremony would be held. The windows were all stained glass, and the pews were made of rich, ornately carved wood. The church wasn’t large, but nearly all of the seats were filled already. The mood was upbeat, and Clara smiled as she looked around, trying to see if she recognized any of the faces. She saw a few people she recognized as regulars at the pie shop, waving in recognition when her gaze passed over theirs. Clara had just about settled in to her seat next to Riley when she glanced back toward the entrance and did a double take. Carter had just walked in, looking nervous but handsome as ever in a charcoal gray suit. He quickly took a seat in the back row, his eyes darting around over the crowd of people. Clara quickly turned around in her seat and stared straight ahead. She didn’t want to be caught watching him yet again. And she didn’t want to acknowledge the way her heart beat faster at the sight of him.
were the one sending her all those flowers, Clara thought dreamily. She’d be excited about the over the top romantic gesture if the bouquets came from him. She almost laughed at the thought. Carter seemed like a tough guy. The kind of man who was a little rough around the edges and didn’t have time for silly, superfluous activities like sending flowers and writing love notes. He seemed nice enough, but he was a big, muscular construction worker. He liked to be outdoors and work with his hands. Nothing about his profile fit a man who would send off bouquets as a secret admirer.
Clara turned her attention to admiring the lavish decorations at the altar, where in just about fifteen minutes Mindy and Zach would stand to say their vows. Mindy had wanted a holiday themed wedding, and she had gone all out with giant arrangements of poinsettias accented by glittering gold ribbons. A wooden arch, decorated with mistletoe, had been placed near the altar. Clara admired the decorations, then frowned as she realized that she had let her own resolve to decorate the hangar slip away into the busyness of life. She decided that she would make getting a Christmas tree a priority once Monday came along and she had a day off.
The music that had been playing in the background suddenly changed and grew louder, signaling that the ceremony was starting. Zach took his place near the altar. He was wearing a black tuxedo with a bright poinsettia bloom serving as his boutonniere. Clara turned to watch as Bailey and Ian walked down the aisle. Despite Mindy’s desire to have a big wedding and invite as many guests as possible, she kept the bridal party simple. Bailey was Mindy’s best friend among the crew, and so she was serving as the maid of honor. And Ian, the alpha of the crew, was Zach’s best friend. He was serving as both the best man and officiator of the ceremony. An odd combination, but who really followed all of the traditional wedding rules anymore?
After Bailey and Ian, Drew and Sophia came down the aisle. Drew was dressed in an adorable little tuxedo with a boutonniere that matched his dad’s, and Sophia wore a frilly white dress with a gold sash around her waist. The brother and sister made the most adorable ring bearer and flower girl Clara had ever seen. Drew went to stand next to his father, and Sophia went to stand next to Bailey. The music changed again to the traditional bridal march, and the whole audience stood and turned to watch Mindy walk down the aisle. She walked alone, her head held high and her eyes full of confidence and love as she made her way toward her groom. Her dress was shimmering and white, with long sleeves and a short train. Her veil covered her face, sparkling with sequins. She had left her red hair down, and it fell in dozens of voluminous curls underneath the glittering veil. Clara’s breath caught in her throat as she watched Mindy take her place beside Zach. Mindy looked stunning, and Clara couldn’t help but be swept away by the magic of the moment. Weddings and Christmas both exuded romance, so you couldn’t get much more romantic than a holiday wedding.
Ian kept the ceremony short and simple, and in well under half an hour, the crowd was cheering as Zach kissed his bride and led her back down the aisle and out of the church. Clara followed Hunter and Riley to their car, and hopped in the backseat again for the short drive to the reception, which was being held in a hotel ballroom. Clara resisted the urge to look around for Carter, focusing instead on the excited discussion between Hunter and Riley as they talked about what a good job Mindy had done in picking out decorations.
The decorations at the church had been nothing compared to the decorations at the reception, however. The ballroom had been transformed into a winter wonderland, with large, glittering icicles and snowflakes hanging from the ceiling. The tables were covered in shimmery white tablecloths, with large arrangements of white poinsettias serving as a centerpiece for each table. A few small Christmas trees with frosted tips were scattered throughout the room, and there was even a sparkling silver sleigh gracing the entrance to the dance floor. A photo booth, complete with another archway full of mistletoe, invited guests to don furry shawls and sparkling Santa hats to have their pictures taken. Garlands of mistletoe were scattered throughout the room as well.
“This is incredible,” Clara said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “No wonder no one has had time to decorate the hangar for Christmas yet. Planning this must have been a huge project.”
Riley could only nod in agreement as she took in the beauty surrounding them. But the decorations weren’t the only well-done part of the evening. The buffet for the wedding guests provided a huge variety of delicious foods, including soups, salads, and numerous main courses with sides. The wine flowed freely, which was a special treat for Clara. Back in Alaska, wine had been so expensive that she hardly ever indulged in a glass. Here in northern California, wine was plentiful, cheap, and good. By the time the pie buffet was opened, Clara was stuffed and slightly buzzed. But she still couldn’t resist a slice of chocolate cream pie. She’d thought she would have tired of pie by now, since she saw it all day, every day for work. But Riley’s recipes were so good that they left you powerless to resist.
When Clara had finished her pie, Riley tried to drag her to the dance floor. But Clara wanted to let her food settle a little first, so she begged off and continued to sit at the table, enjoying the festive atmosphere and watching the dance floor fill up. When one of the waiters came around to offer Clara a refill on her wine glass, she agreed, even though she thought she thought she might burst if she drank the whole glass. She sipped slowly for about fifteen minutes, then decided to head to the bathroom before coming back to hop on the dance floor. She took a few extra minutes at the bathroom mirror to smooth her hair and reapply her lipstick. She thought she looked a little tired, but there wasn’t much she could do to fix that right now.
Clara stepped back into the reception room and put her small purse back at her table, then turned to head to the dance floor. As she walked across the room, she heard a familiar voice calling out her name.
“Hey, Clara! How are you?”
It was Carter. Clara felt the now familiar feeling of her heart racing with excitement as she turned to look at him. He had taken off his suit jacket, leaving him in a black dress shirt with a charcoal gray tie that exactly matched the shade of his suit paints.
“Hey, Carter. Nice to see you. It’s a little strange to see you in a suit, since I’ve only ever seen you out working on the bunkhouse in old jeans and shirts. You clean up nice.”
“Thanks,” Carter said, running his fingers through his stiff blonde hair. He must have put some sort of mousse or gel in it, because it remained perfectly in place, even after his hand went through it. “You don’t look so bad yourself.”
Clara blushed as she felt Carter’s eyes sliding appreciatively over her body. She was wearing a strapless red cocktail dress that hit just above her knee. Clara loved wearing strapless dresses, because she felt like her shoulders were her best feature. She loved to show off their simple, subdued strength. She had brought along a black, furry shawl in case the evening cooled down too much, but it was so warm in here that she doubted she would bother wearing it until she went outside to leave. Clara also wore shimmering black strappy heels, which she hoped made her legs look longer.
“Actually,” Carter said, dropping his voice so it took on a husky tone. “You look stunning.”
Clara’s blush deepened, and her heart beat so quickly in her chest that she feared Carter might actually be able to hear the sound.
“Thanks,” she managed to squeak out. “It’s nice to have an excuse to dress up.”
Carter smiled. “That’s very true. I love having special occasions to look forward to.”
Clara smiled back at him, and then decided to take a little control of the situation. She was worried that this conversation would end, and Carter would disappear into the wedding crowd. If that happened, she might not have another chance to talk to him tonight. And Clara wanted to keep talking to him, so she asked the question before she could stop herself.
“Do you want to dance? I was just heading over to the dance floor.”
Carter look surprised, but his smile widened. “Of course,” he said. “I’d love that.”
He took Clara’s hand and led her to the dance floor. Just as they arrived, the rowdy remix of a well-known pop song ended and gave way to the soothing tunes of a love ballad. Clara suddenly felt self-conscious. She hadn’t intended to ask Carter to slow dance when she asked him to the dance floor. But he didn’t miss a beat. He put one hand on her waist and grabbed one of her hands with his other hand. He drew her in close to his body, and started gently swaying to the music. Clara felt lightheaded, like a teenager dancing with her crush at a high school dance. Carter smelled like sandalwood, and his body was warm and strong. Clara closed her eyes, trying to bring some semblance of calm to her heart as it pounded out of her chest.
Carter didn’t try to talk to her during the dance. He didn’t joke around, or make small talk about how nice the wedding and reception had been. He just breathed huskily in and out, in and out. Every now and then, the sexy stubble on his chin would brush against Clara’s forehead. For most of the song, she didn’t dare look up at him. She was afraid of what she might see in his eyes. She feared seeing the depths of his desires, and she had a feeling those desires were written all over his face right now. Clara tried to think rationally. Carter was sexy, and his quiet manner made him seem like the strong, silent type. But was he the type that could handle a bear? Clara really wasn’t so sure.
The song ended, but neither one of them moved to exit the dance floor as the next slow ballad started playing. They stayed for a second song, and a third. As they swayed through the third song, Carter moved his hands so that they completely enveloped Clara, drawing her in so that her chest was pressed against his chest. Clara sighed and savored the sensation of his heart beating against her. She wanted the song to go on forever, but, of course, it came to an end after a few minutes. The DJ switched to another fast number, and Clara looked up questioningly at Carter. His eyes were burning with the same desire she felt blazing in her own eyes. For a few moments, they stood there, holding each other’s gaze while other couples started boogieing around them. They were an island, standing still in the middle of a sea of moving people.
Carter reached down and grabbed one of Clara’s hands. The fire and heat of his touch sent waves of passion shooting through her body, and she let him pull her off the dance floor, powerless to do or say anything else. Carter continued leading her through the dozens of tables, which were mostly empty at this point, except for a tired guest here and there, taking a break from dancing.