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
“Have you tried the photo booth yet?” Carter asked, squeezing Clara’s hand as he looked over at her.
She shook her head no.
“We should try it,” Carter said. “It looks neat. There’s a remote with a switch. As soon as you hit the switch the camera takes your picture.
“Okay,” Clara said. “It sounds fun.” She was feeling buzzed from the wine and from Carter’s touch, and she was struggling to speak clearly. If Carter noticed, he didn’t say anything. He led her over to the photo booth, where a couple was in the middle of taking a series of silly shots. Carter and Clara waited patiently, and Carter continued to hold Clara’s hand. He tickled the inside of her palm with one of his fingers, and she felt delicious little shivers of delight going up and down her spine.
When the couple in front of them finally vacated the photo booth, Carter and Clara stepped inside. Clara giggled as she put on the furry white shawl and reached up to put the Santa hat on Carter’s head. Carter grinned as he grabbed the remote for the camera shutter, and then his voice took on a dramatic, serious tone.
“Ok, Miss Clara. What are we doing to do for our glamour shot? Any ideas for a good pose?”
“Hmm,” Clara said. “Should we do silly or serious? We could stick out our tongues at the camera?”
“Not very original,” Carter said. “But I do admit that it’s a classic silly pose. Let’s do that first. On the count of three. One, two, three.”
Carter and Clara both stuck out their tongues as the camera’s flash went off, and Clara blinked rapidly for a moment as she saw purple and green spots from the shock of the bright light.
“What’s next?” Clara asked.
Carter lowered his voice. “Well, I think it’s time for a serious pose, don’t you?”
“Um, sure,” Clara said, her heart racing again at the gravelly sexiness of Carter’s voice.
“Good,” he said. “Because we’re under some mistletoe right now and I seriously want to kiss you.”
With that, Carter leaned in and put his lips on Clara’s. The room faded away around Clara as she felt her body heating up from the sensation of having Carter’s mouth on hers. He held the kiss for several long moments, wrapping one arm around her waist as he pulled her in closer to himself. Just before he broke the kiss, he clicked the remote, and the camera flashed again.
When he pulled back, Clara had stars in her eyes, and they weren’t there because of the camera flashes. Carter went to grab the two photos that had printed from the attached digital photo printer, and handed them both to Clara.
“You should keep these,” he said. “To remember a lovely evening in a winter wonderland.”
Then he kissed the top of Clara’s head and left the room without another word. Clara stood still, holding the photos and watching him leave. Why did he take off so quickly? Was this just a one-night romance that would be forgotten as life’s daily grind started again tomorrow? Clara glanced down at the two photos in her hand. She laughed at the one of them sticking their tongues out. Carter had given the camera the perfect goofy expression, his eyes wide and laughing as he stuck his tongue out to the camera. Clara shook her head in amusement as she looked at the photo, but her look of amusement turned serious as she switched to the picture of them kissing.
There they were, under the mistletoe arch, lips locked and his hands around her waist. The whole thing had felt like a dream, and Clara might have thought that it didn’t actually happen if it hadn’t been recorded on the photograph that she held right there in her hand. She was still staring at the photograph when Riley walked up to her.
“Hey! There you are. They’re about to do the bride and groom exit with sparklers. Come join in,” she said.
Clara quickly put the photos face down against her leg so they weren’t visible. “Oh, okay, sure,” she said, feeling flustered and way too obvious about her discomfort. But Riley didn’t seem to notice Clara’s awkward attempt to hide the photos.
“Come on, hurry. We’re going to miss the exit,” she said, grabbing Clara’s free arm and dragging her toward the ballroom’s front doors.
Clara let herself be pulled along, but she glanced back one last time to see the beautifully decorated room. The snow decorations made her miss Alaska, but if things with Carter continued going the way they had been, she might be missing Alaska a little less.
Clara stood alongside the other wedding guests with a sparkler in her hand, ready to send off the bride and groom. She suddenly realized that she hadn’t even thought about her secret admirer over the course of the evening. She smiled as she lifted her sparkler high into the air, watching it flicker brightly against the dark evening sky.
Who needs a secret admirer when you’ve got a sexy hunk of a man right in front of you?
On Monday, Clara borrowed a truck from one of the clan members and made her way to a Christmas tree farm outside of Red Valley. She chose the biggest Christmas tree that could reasonably be tied down in the bed of the truck, and then she swung by a local warehouse store to stock up on Christmas ornaments. She chose red and gold colored ornaments, and picked up a few lighted reindeer to add to the festive ambiance. When she got back to base, she found Luke and asked him to help her drag the tree into the hangar. The Burning Claws Crew didn’t have an airplane of its own—they were always picked up by an aircraft when they were assigned to a mission—so the inside of the large hangar had plenty of open space for a Christmas tree.
Luke helped Clara set the tree up in the middle of the hangar, and then Clara started putting on the lights and ornaments. It took several hours, but the finished product brightened up the room considerably. The festive colors and glittering lights made it feel like Christmas was actually coming. Clara had just gone to set the reindeer up in front of the hangar when she saw Carter’s truck coming down the road. It took a few seconds for her mind to register the fact that the guy she had kissed the night before was now driving toward her, but when it did register, she panicked. She ran back into the hangar, and up the stairs on the side of the building that led to a small second story. Ian’s office was up there, but, thankfully, he was gone right now. Clara didn’t want to have to explain to the clan’s alpha why she was hiding out.
And why was she hiding out? Was she really that nervous about how Carter would act around her, or what he would say? Clara frowned. It wasn’t that she was scared, exactly. It’s just that she hadn’t thought about the possibility of his showing up here today. She wasn’t prepared to talk to him about what happened. And how could they see each other without talking about it? Clara could hear voices entering the hangar, and she realized it was Luke and Carter. She breathed as quietly as she could, straining her ears to hear what they were saying.
“Wow,” Carter said. “This looks really festive.”
“Yeah, it’s really nice. Clara set it all up,” Luke said. “None of us have had time to slow down and appreciate the holidays yet, so I’m really glad she took the initiative. And she did a great job, too. Look how perfectly decorated that tree is. It looks like something you would see in a fancy department store.”
Carter chuckled, and there was a pause. Clara guessed they must be admiring her handiwork. Eventually, Carter broke the silence.
“So, are any of you guys going anywhere for Christmas? Or is everyone staying here to celebrate together?”
“We’ll all be here,” Luke said. “Even Zach and Mindy are holding off on a honeymoon until after the holidays. What about you? Going anywhere to see family or something?”
“Naw, I’m just staying around here,” Carter said. Clara thought his voice sounded sad, but Luke didn’t seem to notice.
“That sounds great. It’s always nice to avoid the crazy holiday travel,” Luke said.
Clara heard the front door to the hangar open, followed moments later by Riley’s voice.
“Oh, hey, Carter,” Riley said. “I didn’t know you were still working out here.”
“I’m actually done. I just forgot some tools here so I came by to pick them up. And I’m glad I did, because I was treated to this magnificent view. This tree is something else.”
“I didn’t even know we were getting a tree,” Riley said.
“Clara went and got it,” Luke said. “And I have to say that she did a pretty awesome job.”
“That’s no surprise,” Riley said. “That girl has some talents. Where is she now?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in a few hours,” Luke said.
“Hmm, okay. Well, I’ll see you boys later. I need to go drop something off in Ian’s office for him and then go find Clara.”
Clara froze and stopped breathing. Shit. If Riley saw her up here and said something, Carter and Luke were going to hear it. As Riley came up the stairs and around the corner to where Clara was sitting with her back against the wall, Clara wildly shook her head no and put her fingers over her lips, hoping Riley wouldn’t say anything too loudly.
“What the heck?” Riley asked.
“Shhh,” Clara said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I don’t want him to know I’m here.”
“Who?” Riley asked, still talking loudly.
Clara rolled her eyes heavenward before whispering. “Carter. And can you keep it down. I’m trying to hide out.”
Riley gave Clara a look that said Clara was crazy. Then she walked past Clara and into Ian’s office, where she left an envelope on his desk. When she came back out, she peeked around the corner and looked down the stairs, then looked back at Clara.
“They’re gone,” she said.
“Are you sure?” Clara asked.
“Yes, positive. Now, do you want to tell me why you’re hiding from Carter?”
“Because I kissed him at the wedding.”
Clara sighed. “I kissed him at the wedding. We slow danced, and then we did the photo booth, and he kissed me under the mistletoe arch. So I even have photographic proof that the kiss happened and wasn’t just a product of my wine-buzzed imagination.”
Riley’s eyes were wide. “You have to catch me up here. I thought you said he wasn’t interested in you at all. And why are you hiding from him just because you kissed him?”
“Because I panicked. I don’t know if a long term relationship with him would really work. He seems like a tough guy who wouldn’t be able to handle having a bear for a partner.”
Riley sighed and sat down against the wall next to Clara. “Just because a guy is macho doesn’t mean he won’t be able to handle a bear. Maybe he’s so confident in his own strength that he won’t feel threatened by you. I mean, look at Carter. Even though he’s not a shifter, he’s practically a bear. Those muscles of his are intense.”
“I know. It’s silly to worry about. I just got caught off guard because I thought he had barely noticed that I existed, and then all of a sudden last night he was kissing me. I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
“But you do like him?”
“Well, yeah. I don’t know him that well, but he seems like a pretty cool guy. And, hello, that body? How could I resist?”
Riley laughed. “Well, if you hide like this every time he comes around, you’re not going to get anywhere with him.”
“I know,” Clara said. “It just caught me by surprise that he was here today and I hadn’t thought through what I want to say to him next time I see him. I’ll be more prepared next time. By the way, did I hear you say you were looking for me? Did you need something?”
“Oh, yeah. I wanted to tell you that there are more flowers at the shop for you. Another delivery today. I didn’t open the card, but I’m assuming it’s a sugary sweet romantic sentiment, as usual. Dang, Clara, look at you. Kissing Carter and then being stalked by a secret admirer. You’re a popular girl,” Riley said.
Clara blushed and looked down at her feet. “Well, I’d be a whole lot happier if all of this attention translated into finding an actual lifemate. It’s nice to feel wanted, but it’s even better to feel loved.”
“True. Give it time, though. You never know what’s going to come of either of these situations,” Riley said, and then suddenly sat straight up. “Oh my gosh, you don’t think Carter is your secret admirer, do you?”
Clara laughed and shook her head no. “I’d be shocked. He doesn’t seem like the romantic type, you know? Besides, don’t you think that if he was he would have come clean last night? It would have been weird to slow dance with me and kiss me and not mention that, oh, by the way, I’m the guy that’s been sending you exorbitant amounts of flowers.”
“I guess,” Riley said. “But maybe he wants to keep up the intrigue a bit longer?”
“I guess anything’s possible, but I’d be shocked,” Clara said, then stood up. “I should finish up the Christmas decorations before it gets dark. Wanna help?”
Riley stood as well. “Sure, I’ve got a little bit of time. But I’m warning you I might be grilling you with more questions about Carter.”
“Whatever, there’s not much to tell,” Clara said, ignoring Riley’s laughter as she made her way to the stairs. She peeked carefully around the corner before heading down, just to make sure that Carter was nowhere to be seen.
* * *
Carter swore under his breath as he turned his truck toward town. He was developing quite a sailor mouth these days, but it couldn’t be helped. Not when he was faced with constant reminders that Christmas was coming, and he was still alone. He was running out of time to do something about it, and he was beginning to think that relying on the secret bouquets alone was a risky idea. What if that wasn’t enough for her? He should give himself plenty of time to convince her that he was more than just pretty flowers and romantic notes. He had a lot to offer a woman. He was strong, and decent-looking. He had a house, and owned his own successful business.
He was a catch, wasn’t he? So why hadn’t he been caught?
As Carter drove, he realized that, deep down, he knew the answer to that. He hadn’t wanted anyone to catch him. It was time to admit the truth. He’d spent so long pushing everyone away, both friends and potential love interests, because he was afraid of being hurt again. But the fear of loneliness was becoming stronger than the fear of having his heart broken. And Clara was the one who had broken through that invisible barrier. She just didn’t know it yet.
He had hoped to see Clara when he swung by the smokejumpers’ base today. It was true that he had left a tool there, but it wasn’t a very important tool. He had just wanted an excuse to potentially run into her. He told himself that if he did see her, he was going to ask for her phone number, and ask her to dinner. Then, at dinner, he would reveal that he was behind the flowers. Hopefully, she would be impressed. He had thought about telling her while they were dancing at the wedding, but he chickened out. The moment had been too perfect, and he hadn’t wanted to ruin it by throwing such a surprising revelation into the mix.
But Clara hadn’t been around at all when Carter got to the base. The first person he’d run into had been Luke, who helped him find his lost tool and showed him the Christmas decorations in the hangar. The tree Clara had put up made Carter’s heart ache. It was a perfect tree, tall and full, and adorned with glittering red and gold ornaments. He could tell she had put hours of work into the project. The sight of it filled him with an even greater longing to have her by his side this Christmas. He could almost imagine them sitting there together next to the tree, snuggled up close and sipping hot chocolate as Christmas carols played in the background.
Carter had stalled Luke as long as he could, asking questions about things like how he had liked Zach and Mindy’s wedding, or how Luke’s woodworking business was going. Asking about the woodworking business had been a mistake, though. Luke perked up and offered to show Carter his latest project—a large table he was crafting for the dining hall in the bunkhouse. Carter had no choice but to follow Luke away from the hangar and to the loft above the bunkhouse where Luke had set up his workshop. Carter knew the odds of running into Clara up there were next to nothing. He did have to admit, though, that Luke’s table was pretty impressive. The man had some serious woodworking talent.
After a thorough explanation of how the table was being designed, Carter had decided it was time to leave. He didn’t even know if Clara was around, and he was wasting time that he should be spending getting started on his latest job. He had just taken on a project fixing up an old log cabin in the woods. The cabin hadn’t been used in years, and had fallen into a horrible state of disrepair. The owner wanted it fixed up so he could let his daughter and son-in-law use it for weekend getaways. It needed quite a bit of work, but the owner was willing to pay whatever Carter requested, so his time would be well-compensated. The place was located about an hour’s drive from Carter’s house, and, although long commutes annoyed Carter, the job paid too well to pass up.
It was too late and too dark to go start on the cabin today, but Carter needed to buy some supplies and get his tools organized. He would do that now, and then be ready to hit the ground running in the morning.
A few hours later, satisfied that everything was ready for him to leave bright and early the next morning, Carter went to his freezer to grab yet another frozen dinner. He really needed to find something better to eat, but it was just too easy to heat something up and leave it at that when you were living by yourself.
As the microwave hummed, Carter went over his to-do list, and realized he had forgotten one thing. He grabbed his pen, and wrote “Order flowers for Clara” at the bottom of the list. He smiled as he wrote the words, thinking about how he had less than a week left of flower deliveries before Christmas Eve. He could hardly wait to see the look on Clara’s face when she realized it had been him sending the flowers all this time. Hopefully it would be similar to the look she had given him right before he kissed her at the wedding a few days ago.