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
The next day passed in a blur for Clara. She spent the whole day at the shop, baking pies for Christmas orders. The shop didn’t have any more weddings scheduled until after Christmas, but the phone had been ringing off the hook all day with nonstop requests for pies. Everyone wanted a Sweet Crust pie to add to their holiday dinner plans, and Riley wanted the shop to do its best to meet as many requests as possible.
Riley baked alongside Clara for most of the day, while Sara and Cathy manned the front counter. Clara actually enjoyed the frenetic pace of the day. The nonstop schedule kept her from looking at the clock even once, and before she knew it, Riley was grabbing her keys to lock up the front door.
“You should head home, Clara. You’ve been baking since five a.m. and it’s seven p.m. now,” Riley said.
Clara frowned. “You’ve been doing the same.”
“I know, but I’m the owner. I’m expected to never get a chance to catch my breath. You should at least go grab some dinner.”
“Tell you what,” Clara said, wiping her hands on her apron. “I’ll agree to go grab dinner for both of us, if you’ll agree to at least take a fifteen minute break and eat with me when I get back.”
Riley smiled. “Deal,” she said. “What about that Thai place we love? I wouldn’t mind some coconut curry chicken.”
“Done,” Clara said, already hanging her apron up and grabbing her purse.
Thirty minutes later, she and Riley were sitting in the back of the pie shop, scarfing down their noodles and rice while aromas of apple, cinnamon, and sugar surrounded them. They made small talk about the weather—it was pouring rain again today—and discussed the upcoming Christmas dinner the clan would be having. The dinner would be the biggest celebration the clan had put on all year, and Clara couldn’t wait for the festivities.
“Hey,” Riley said. “We’ve been so busy I hadn’t thought much about it until now, but you never got flowers today, did you?”
Clara froze as she realized that no delivery had arrived that day. Her heart started sinking with a foreboding feeling. “Oh my god, you’re right,” she said. “That’s so weird.”
“Huh,” Riley said, then shrugged. “I guess whoever the guy is got tired of his little game?”
“I don’t think so,” Clara said slowly. Her whole body was inexplicably filling with dread, and she could feel her bear stirring within her. Something was bothering her bear, and she suddenly had the awful thought that her lifemate was in danger.
“Are you okay?” Riley asked. “You look a little pale. Don’t worry about not getting flowers. I’m sure the guy had something come up today. I doubt he all of a sudden decided he didn’t like you anymore after over twenty bouquets and notes.”
Clara frowned and shook her head. “It’s not the flowers themselves I’m worried about. I think he’s in danger.”
“Just because he didn’t send flowers? Don’t worry, Clara. It’s a busy time of year. I’m sure something out of his control just came up.”
But Clara couldn’t keep herself from worrying. Not when her bear’s warning growls became more insistent with each passing moment. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, as a primal protective instinct overtook her body. The pieces all clicked into place at once. Whoever the bouquet sender was, he was her lifemate. And he was in danger right now. She had to help him.
“Do you think you can manage by yourself for the rest of the night?” Clara asked, already reaching for her purse and sweater. “I have to go find him.”
Riley had a perplexed expression on her face, but she just nodded. “Of course. You’ve done an amazing amount of work already. But how are you going to find him?”
“I don’t know,” Clara admitted. “But I will.”
Then she was gone, rushing out the door and to her car, spurred on by a sense of urgency like she had never felt before.
Hands shaking, she put the keys in the ignition and decided the only clue she really had was the name of the flower shop. Surely, they must know who he was. In fact, they must know him very well by now, since he had given them business every single day this month. Clara looked up the address in her phone and followed the GPS to the shop. It was about a ten minute drive, and it started pouring rain again while Clara was driving over. She cursed and tried to go as fast as she could without risking spinning off the slippery road.
It was after eight p.m. when she arrived at the shop, and the hours on the door said they closed at eight p.m. But through the glass of the storefront window, Clara could still see an employee inside, tidying up. She started pounding on the front door to get the employee’s attention.
“Please, let me in!” Clara shouted. “It’s an emergency. I need help finding someone.”
Startled, the employee looked up, then shook his head with an apologetic smile and pointed to the sign on the window that listed the store’s hours. Clara wasn’t sure if he could even hear what she was saying through the thick glass, but she kept pounding and yelling. The employee’s expression changed from a smile to an annoyed frown, and after another minute of Clara continuing to bang despite the employee’s numerous gestures toward the closed sign, the man came to open the door.
He unlocked the door and barely opened it a crack. Just enough so that he could speak to Clara.
“I’m sorry ma’am. We’re closed now. But if you want flowers for Christmas delivery you can still order tomorrow. We’ll be opening at nine a.m. sharp.”
Clara shook her head. She was a mess now, drenched in a mixture of flour and rainwater, her hair and her clothing soaked and spotted with the sticky aftermath of a day of baking. The man probably thought she was on the edge of crazy, but she didn’t care. She had to find out where her lifemate was and help him.
“I’m not trying to order flowers. I’m trying to figure out where someone is. He’s been sending me flowers every day this month, but now he’s in danger and I need to find him. Please, can you help me?”
The man’s frown disappeared and he started to chuckle. “Oh,
Clara,” he said. “The guy said you might come trying to figure out who he was, but I’m under strict orders not to tell you. My lips are sealed.” The man made a dramatic motion like he was zipping up his lips and throwing away the key.
“You don’t understand,” Clara said. “He’s in danger. I need to know who he is so I can find him and help him.”
The man raised an eyebrow at Clara. “So you don’t know who he is, or where he is, but you know he’s in danger? That seems a little unlikely.”
“I know, but you just have to trust me. He’s in danger, I can feel it. Don’t you think it’s weird that he never placed an order for flowers today?”
The man hesitated for just a moment, but then rolled his eyes. “Maybe he figured out that you’re actually crazy, and decided to abandon the whole project of trying to win you over. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to finish cleaning up in here so I can go home and get a few hours of sleep before I have to be back at five in the morning tomorrow.”
“I’m not leaving until you tell me who the guy is,” Clara said, crossing her arms stubbornly.
“Then you’re going to be here a long time, because I’m not telling you, and
leaving as soon as I finish closing down the store.”
Clara sighed. This wasn’t going well. The employee was going to ignore her and go home, and then what would she do? She had no other leads, no other ideas on how to find her lifemate. The sense of danger and foreboding she felt was only growing stronger, and she started to panic. She had to find out at least a name. As the employee started closing the door, she jammed her toe of her shoe into the tiny open spot and mustered up as confident of a tone as she could manage.
“I’m telling you, he’s in danger. Either you can tell me who he is, or I’ll call the police and tell them he’s in danger. Then you can talk to them directly, although I’m not sure that’s how you want to spend your night.”
The man hesitated, and Clara held her breath, wondering if he would call her bluff. She didn’t think the police would listen to a crazy looking woman soaked in rainwater and flour, saying a guy was in danger but she didn’t know who he was or where he was. But she didn’t have to convince the police. She only had to convince the man standing in front of her. And, after several moments of consideration, he seemed convinced.
“Fine,” he said, letting out a huge sigh. “I’ll give you his name. But only because I don’t have time for these shenanigans. I should have known that a month long secret admiring project was going to end with a little bit of crazy.”
The man opened the door and let Clara into the store. She followed him to the front counter, where he fished around for a pen, then wrote a name on one of the little cards that usually accompanied bouquets.
“Here,” he said, handing Clara the card. “That’s him. Now, please, get out of here and let me finish my work.”
Clara looked down at the paper in her hand and did a double take. Right there in neat black script, the man had written “Carter Shaw.”
* * *
Carter moaned in pain as he tried to wriggle out from the huge beam that had trapped him by the legs on the front porch of the cabin. The beam didn’t even budge. Carter was starting to panic. No one knew where he was, except for his nosy neighbor Miss Edna. She had caught him leaving early this morning while out walking her dog, and had asked him a thousand questions about what job he was taking on now. He had answered as politely as he could, because he knew his elderly neighbor was just looking for a chance to have a conversation with someone other than her yappy little toy poodle. But he had kept his explanations as simple and quick as possible. He had been especially vague when she asked how late he was staying out at the cabin, merely saying he had a lot to do and might even spend the night out there.
He’d had absolutely zero intentions of staying overnight in this dilapidated, leaking cabin, but now it looked like he might not have a choice. Carter chuckled bitterly at the irony. Miss Edna might notice he was missing after a day or two, if he was lucky. But he wasn’t sure what kind of shape he’d be in at that point. Already, he could feel himself shivering uncontrollably. The temperature was dropping, and the sky looked like it was ready to let loose another torrent of rain. Luckily, the porch of the cabin was still partially covered, so Carter wouldn’t get completely soaked. He was still going to get some rain on him though, with the way these winds were blowing everything around like crazy.
He tried again to move the huge beam off of his legs, but all of his efforts were in vain. It would probably take the efforts of at least two strong men to move this thing, maybe three. Carter lay on his back trying to figure out his options. He didn’t seem to have many. His cell phone was in his toolbox, several yards away. There’s no way Carter could reach it right now. Wriggling out of this predicament seemed to be an impossibility. The only thing Carter could do was wait. He hoped and prayed that Miss Edna was feeling overly nosy tomorrow and noticed that he hadn’t returned. Maybe she would alert the police. He could survive a day like this, couldn’t he? It wasn’t comfortable, but he could survive.
He assessed his injuries. He had a large gash on his forehead that had bled somewhat worrisomely for the better part of fifteen minutes. He had tried his best to apply pressure with his hand and the sleeve of his hoodie. Finally, the bleeding had slowed and then subsided. He had several other scratches and bruises, but nothing that seemed too serious. The biggest miracle, perhaps, was that his legs didn’t seem to be broken. They were pinned under the huge beam and were going numb from poor circulation by this point. But Carter didn’t feel the kind of pain he would have felt if one of his bones had cracked. His largest concern right now was going into shock or suffering from hypothermia. The temperatures were not obscenely low, but the rain was keeping things damp, and the chill in the air was already making his body shiver uncontrollably. He also worried a little bit about an animal finding him. He knew there were bears and mountain lions in this forest. He soothed his fears by telling himself that most of the animals out here were probably hunkered down quietly, taking refuge from the rain.
But all of his other concerns paled in comparison to the thought of what would become of him if no one realized he was missing. He already felt dehydrated, and the occasional splashes of rain hitting him didn’t give him an opportunity to quench his thirst. Even if the weather and the animals cooperated, he wouldn’t be able to survive a week lying here without water. Eventually Miss Edna would realize he hadn’t been around. Eventually, the guy who had hired him for this job would grow concerned that Carter wasn’t answering phone calls. But it would take a while for that to happen, especially since most people were too preoccupied with holiday celebrations right now to bother noticing that a quiet, reserved construction worker had gone missing. Carter felt a pang of anguish hit him in the gut as he realized that if he didn’t make it out of here, he would never get the chance to tell Clara how deep his feelings for her ran.
Carter squeezed his eyes shut and prayed for a miracle.
Clara felt herself frozen to the spot as she stared down at Carter’s name, dumbfounded.
“Are you sure?” she asked the flower shop employee.
“I’m sure,” he said, exasperated. “Why would I make that up? What’s the matter? Not the guy you were hoping for?”
Clara shook her head. “No, it’s just not the person I was expecting at all. Do you know his address?”
“I don’t, sorry. Only his billing zip code, which is the zip code for Red Valley. And besides, I’m not sure I should be giving away addresses. It’s kind of private information. I gave you the name. You have to take it from there.”
Clara nodded, and went back to her car. She could tell she had long since worn out her welcome with the flower shop guy. The rain continued to pound down around her as she stared at the paper in her hand with Carter’s name on it. What next? Maybe she should call Zach and see if he had any ideas where Carter might be. He and Zach seemed to be buddies.
Clara dialed Zach, but the call went to voicemail. She left a generic sounding message, asking Zach to call her back when he got a chance. Then she pulled up an internet browser on her phone. She searched for Carter’s name, trying to figure out whether there was any information out there that might give her more hints on where he might be. She found a website for his construction business, the uncreatively named Carter’s Construction Company. She called the number for the business but it went to voicemail. From the sound of the voicemail greeting, it sounded to Clara like she had just dialed Carter’s cell phone. She opted not to leave a message, and instead turned her attention to the business address listed on the company’s website. Clara would drive there and see if she could uncover any more clues about where Carter might be. Her worry was growing, and she contemplated calling the police. But, even though she had a name to give them now, she didn’t have anything else to back up her suspicion that Carter had run into danger. Whining that she didn’t receive her daily bouquet of flowers would probably not go over well with the cops.
The rain had petered out to light sprinkles by the time Clara arrived at the address for Carter’s Construction Company. She pulled up in front of a house, and realized that he must use his home address as his business address. All of the lights were out in the home, and Clara had a feeling that no one was home. This was probably going to be another dead end, but she decided to go knock, just to be sure. As she suspected, after several minutes of knocking and ringing the doorbell, she had received no response. With a defeated sigh, she turned around to head back to her car. Maybe it was time to give up and contact the police. After all, it was better to risk looking like a crazy person that it was to risk Carter being in danger, right?
Clara was startled out of her thoughts by the sound of insistent barking and growling. She looked up and chuckled at the sight of a toy poodle, straining against the end of its leash and fiercely trying to warn off Clara. An old woman under an umbrella was trying to settle the dog, but the dog was completely ignoring her.
“That’s quite the guard dog you’ve got there,” Clara called out to the woman.
The woman laughed with a rich, chortling sound that Clara found strangely soothing. “He thinks he’s five times the size he actually is,” she said, trying to drag the dog along as it continued to growl at Clara.
Clara laughed again, and then realized that the woman might know something about where Carter had gone. It was a long shot, since nobody talked to their neighbors anymore these days, but Clara had nothing to lose by asking. “Hey, do you know the guy that lives here? Carter Shaw?”
“Carter? Yes, yes. I know him. Fine young man. Very kind, and quite good-looking, eh?” the woman said with a wink at Clara.
Clara blushed in spite of herself. “I was just wondering if you might know where he’s at today. I was, uh, supposed to hear from him tonight but I didn’t. I just wanted to check up on him and make sure he’s okay.” Clara told herself that what she said was sort of the truth. She
expecting a bouquet from him, although she hadn’t known until thirty minutes ago that the flowers were coming from him.
The old woman frowned. “Well, Carter’s not a big talker, you know. But I did happen to run into him this morning, and he said he’s going to work on a cabin out in the woods. Funny enough, I know the cabin he’s talking about. It used to belong to a friend of my daddy’s, and I spent some summer weekends there way back when I was a little girl. Those were the good old days,” the woman said wistfully.
“So you know where the cabin is?” Clara said, trying to be patient and resisting the urge to tell the woman to focus.
“Oh, yes. I still know the address and the road out there by heart. I’m glad Bill’s having Carter fix up the place. It’s a shame it was allowed to sit in shambles for so long.”
Clara felt her heart racing. She knew, just as surely as she knew her own name, that she would find Carter at that cabin, and that he was in some sort of trouble. She got the address from the woman, along with longwinded directions, which she tried to follow along with the best she could, just in case her GPS had trouble with a cabin in the woods. When she finally managed to tear herself away from her conversation with the woman, she hopped into her car and looked up the address on her phone. She winced when she saw that the estimated time of arrival was an hour away. It was already nine-fifteen, so it would be after ten when she got there. She tried calling Carter’s number one more time, but, as she suspected, the call went to voicemail once again.
Clara revved up her reluctant engine and started the long drive. Hopefully, she wasn’t too late to save him from whatever danger he might be in right now.