Authors: T. S. Joyce
“You want to lay in it?”
Alyssa stripped out of her jacket and hung it on the coat rack, then made her way across the refurbished wood floors to the hammock. With one last excited glance at her man, she settled into it carefully. “Now feed me grapes and fan me.”
Clinton snorted. “I can feed you beer and tacos and open the window.”
She snickered. “Good enough.”
“Clinton!” someone yelled from outside.
“What?” he screamed.
“Do you want to go camping tonight?”
Clinton growled and threw open the door. “Why the fuck would we go camping, Harrison? We live in a trailer park. We’re basically camping right now.”
“Okay, I was trying to be nice and ask you politely, but since you’re being your usual asshole self, we’re all going camping as a crew. Pack up.”
“Clinton, pack your shit up and let’s go. You have an hour.”
Clinton roared at his alpha so hard his veins popped out of his neck, then he slammed the door.
For a moment, there was nothing but the noise of the creaking hammock, but then he turned to her, looking cool as a cucumber. “You want to go camping?”
“Uhh, I thought you didn’t want to go.”
“Nah, that’s just a show for Harrison. Everyone gets worried if I get to pliable. I love camping.”
Alyssa burst out laughing. “You are the terror of the trailer park, aren’t you?”
“Do you find that sexy?”
He strode over to the fridge and threw it open. “Then yes. Do you drink real beer or that girly fruity shit beer? I have the regular stuff in stock, but I’ll have to ask Bash if he has any of the girly ones. He probably still has those stupid little miniature umbrellas to put in them. Or I know for a fact he has, like, eight boxes of wine.”
“I don’t really like any beer or wine. I don’t like the taste of alcohol.”
Clinton tossed her a frown over his shoulder like he didn’t understand that word combination. “What do you drink when you go to bars?”
“Whatever gets me drunk quick so I can’t taste the alcohol anymore.”
Clinton’s grin turned wicked. “You ever had trashcan punch?”
“It is for about one sip, and then you don’t taste nothin’. We’re gonna trailer park it up tonight then. Come on. I have to get Big Blue.”
“What’s that?” she asked, flopping ungracefully from the hammock onto the floor.
Clinton was rummaging through a cabinet above the stove, pulling down bottles of liquor. “Big Blue is a cooler.”
“I didn’t bring any extra clothes for camping,” Alyssa murmured, looking down at her dark wash skinny jeans and flip-flops.
“You’re dressed fine. We probably won’t sleep anyway. Just wear that. I’ll bring you one of my sweaters and a blanket, too, just in case you get cold. And then if you’re still cold, you can give me a hand-job in the sleeping bag and warm yourself up.” He waggled his eyebrows once and went back to shoving the alcohol he’d collected into a cardboard box.
Damn, after what he’d been through, she was proud that he could joke about that stuff with her.
“Come on, woman. You’re helping make the camp booze.”
“I’m a terrible bartender.”
“And I’m a shit teacher, but you can’t really screw up trashcan punch.”
Okay then. Alyssa snatched her jacket off the rack as Clinton tugged her out the front door, the box of libations tucked under his other arm.
The trailer park had been quiet a few minutes ago when they’d driven in, but now it was organized chaos as everyone was running around excitedly, packing supplies into the back of a giant red pickup with black rims and rooster tails of mud splattered down both sides.
But when they saw Alyssa, one by one, the Boarlanders slowed their action and gathered behind the red truck.
Clinton shoved his way through them and set the box on the tailgate. Then he yanked a giant blue cooler from the back and tossed the bystanders a filthy look. “What?”
“Hi, Alyssa!” Bash said.
“Oh.” Clinton slung his arm over her shoulders and lifted his chin. “This is mine. Don’t touch, or I’ll eat you.”
“She is your what?” Harrison asked carefully, his blue eyes sparking with challenge.
Clinton shrugged. “Just…mine. And I don’t want to hear shit about it either, so save it.”
“Holy crap,” Kirk said around a red rope candy that hung from his mouth. The behemoth was looking at Alyssa as if he’d never seen her before.
“I like your red toenails,” Bash said.
“Thank you.” Alyssa grinned and held her foot out, spreading her toes. “Clinton painted them.”
The red rope candy hit the dirt, and now Kirk was staring at Clinton with his mouth hanging open. The others all wore similar expressions.
“Your faces all look so dumb right now,” Clinton said through a smirk. “I’m gonna be better at this than all y’all.” He sauntered off toward one of the other trailers. “The bar has been raised, dirtbags.” He twirled his hand in the air and flipped them off over his shoulder.
Alyssa was trying not to laugh, really she was, but Clinton was hilarious. It would’ve been different if he really meant offense, but this was the show to distance himself from people. And what a show it was, because she’d seen the real, quiet, gritty side of him. She loved both.
Beck recovered first. “Hi,” she drawled out, her light green eyes wide as she offered her hand. “I know we all met at Moosey’s, but I guess I just didn’t think we would ever see you again because Clinton is…well…Clinton.” She shook Alyssa’s hand hard enough to rattle her bones, and then introduced everyone officially, even little Air-Ryder, who was drawing on the porch of one of the trailers with colorful sidewalk chalk.
Harrison’s gaze was still locked on where Clinton had disappeared into a trailer near the front of the park. “Uh, Alyssa? I’d like to extend a formal invitation to join us on our camping trip tonight.”
“I sure appreciate it, and I whole-heartedly accept. I haven’t been camping in forever. I’m not really wearing the right shoes, but Clinton said that was okay.”
“What size are you?” Audrey asked.
“Seven and a half.”
The alpha’s mate nodded and offered Alyssa a pure and genuine smile. “I’ve got you covered. Come on, girlie.”
She tugged Alyssa’s hand toward the first trailer on the left of the Boarland Mobile Park sign. And thirty minutes later, Audrey had Alyssa all decked out in calf high hiking boots lined in faux fur over her skinny jeans, and an extra sweater that hugged her curves. She thought she looked pretty good in her new get-up, and when she stepped outside, chatting excitedly with Audrey, Emerson, and Ally, Clinton’s hungry attention said she looked all right by him, too. He dragged that sexy silver gaze up and down her body twice as she approached, lingering on her curves. With a grin, she pulled her folded jacket away from her and did a slow spin.
“Woman, you look fine as hell,” Clinton said as he unscrewed the lid of a bottle of Everclear.
“Wait, are we doing trashcan punch tonight?” Ally asked, a hint of excitement in her voice.
“Sure are,” Clinton muttered as he poured an entire bottle of Everclear and one of tequila into Big Blue.
“What can I do to help?” Alyssa asked.
“Slice up those oranges and toss ’em in, sexy.”
She and the girls settled into a line against the tailgate, cutting up fruit and cracking up as they tossed the sliced citrus into the cooler with the liquor. Audrey poured in a giant jug of fruit punch, and Ally dumped in frozen cans of pineapple juice and limeade, and when they were done and the cooler was half-full, Alyssa ripped the top of a giant bag of ice and poured it in carefully.
And then when they’d stacked the back of Harrison’s truck and Clinton’s truck with boxed tents and roll-up sleeping bags, food, charcoal, a small mountain of snacks, bottled waters, juice boxes for Air-Ryder, and a hoard of those multi-colored, fabric bag-chairs, they piled into the trucks and were off.
As Alyssa bounced side to side with the ruts of the washed-out back roads up into the mountains beside her man, she couldn’t stop smiling. Today was definitely not like any day she’d ever had in her life. Everyone was being so nice, and welcoming, and she loved watching the different dynamics in the Boarlander crew. Everyone joked and teased, but no one got offended or hurt. Instead, there was this beautiful ebb and flow of laughter and banter.
Clinton flashed her one of those good smiles as he navigated the muddy road behind Harrison’s truck, and then shocked her to stillness when he leaned over and kissed her on the lips quick. Just a peck to say he cared about her, and he didn’t mind who was in the back seat watching them.
She felt completely and publically claimed in front of the people Clinton cared about the most, and it meant more to her than she could ever express.
Today had been the most emotional day in her memory.
But it had also been the best.
What was this strange feeling in his chest? This annoying flapping that happened when Shae laughed or came back with a witty retort to one of the Boarlanders’ teasing.
They were giving her a hard time for choosing him, but it meant they were accepting her. If they ignored her, or gave her the cold shoulder, then Clinton would’ve been nervous. As it stood, Shae was like a damn snake-charmer, Boarlander edition.
He fuckin’ loved watching her slip into this notch that had been missing from the crew. He’d picked well. Good bear. At least the monster was good for something. Shae. She was the best part of him. The brightest.
Her giggle trailing off, she took another sip of trashcan punch from her red plastic cup and snuggled against his side. In a rush, she tensed and retreated, but he grabbed her arm and prevented her escape. She’d been doing that—forgetting to be careful.
“I’m okay,” he murmured against her ear. “I like you up against me.”
He and the boys had dragged up logs around the fire they’d made, and they were all leaning against them, relaxed, plates of half-eaten food in laps, cups all around, smiles on every face. Hell, maybe he was even smiling. He’d never given a single thought to what his face was doing until Shae had told him his smile “felt like home.” Home? Yeah, made sense to him. They had been each other’s everything when they were kids. Some part of her had clung to that. God, he was so lucky that she’d come back to him.
Clinton picked up his drink and looked inside. It was full, an orange slice floating at the top. Shockingly, he was sober. Why? Because Shae was doing something strange to him. She was making him want to be clearheaded in case she needed anything, in case she needed his protection, in case she didn’t like Drunk Clinton.
Shae swatted a bug off Emerson’s leg and said, “I just saved your life.”
“My hero,” Emerson swooned. “Oh!” Emerson grabbed Shae’s hand and pressed it against her belly. Clinton could see the languid movement of her baby from here, and he couldn’t help but smile when Shae lowered her lips to Emerson’s belly and said, “Hallooooo, baby bear cub.”
Bash chimed in. “I’m gonna put, like, thirty babies in her.”
“That is untrue,” Emerson said. “He’ll put maybe two, and then this baby-factory is closed. Being pregnant is hard.”
Across the fire, Beck snuggled closer to Mason, who cuddled a sleeping Air-Ryder against his chest. And the smile they gave each other was so tender, Clinton had to look away.
Someday, he would give a baby to Shae if she wanted to build a family with him. Far from now, when he was better and more stable. He would never admit it out loud, but he’d been watching Mason, taking notes, because someday he hoped to be the type of father he was to Air-Ryder.
He’d never dreamed of that until Shae had come back into his life. He was a broken vase, shattered on the floor, and she was his glue. She made him think about what he wanted. Made him think about goals and improvement since he wouldn’t be able to keep her like he was.
Shae pulled her cell phone from her pocket and frowned at the screen.
“Who is it?” he asked. Nosy? Probably, but he liked to know everything about her.
“My parents.” Shae shrugged. “They have been calling a lot, which means they found out I came here, but I don’t want the lectures.”
“They raised me in a bubble. Small town, and while I was recovering, they had a tendency to alienate me. My old friends never came around, and my parents got paranoid every time I tried to take a risk. And I love them, so eventually, I just stopped worrying them by becoming the most boring creature on the face of the planet. They’ll tell me to come back home if I open up a line of communication.”
“You should answer. They worry. You’re a grown-ass woman on vacation. They can’t keep you from that stuff, but you can let them know you’re safe.”
Shae snorted. “My parents would love you.”
Clinton allowed a dark chuckle. “I don’t know about that.” They had loved him once, but then everything had gone to hell.
Shae pouted up at him, her eyes so big and beautiful, her cheeks glowing with the pulsing light of the fire. Unable to help himself, he dipped his lips to hers and sucked that pout gently from her bottom lip. He loved the way she melted against him in an instant, like they were meant to be one person. Good mate, always reacting to him and making it easy to lose himself in touching her. He’d been afraid Amber’s damage would reach its inky tendrils from his hardened heart right into Shae’s, but so far, it had been the easiest thing in the world to trust his mate with his body.
When he eased away—mostly because he was now rocking one enormous boner—she let off a happy little noise and smiled drunkenly at him, her eyelids heavy. “I’m going to call my mom real quick.”
Clinton bit her neck gently until she giggled and eased back. “I’ll keep your spot warm. Good luck.”
And a few minutes later, she returned with a slight frown marring her pretty face. As she settled back beside him, she said, “Huh. They told me they loved me and were proud of me, and that they hoped I had fun for the rest of my trip.”
“That’s good.” Phew, because he had been a little worried Dana would let it slip about Shae’s past.
“And then they said they were really sorry, but when I asked what for, they clammed up and said their goodbyes.” Her dark eyebrows arched high. “That was weird, right?”
“You’re asking Crazy Clinton if something is weird?” Kirk slurred. “He’s not going to be your best gauge of normalcy.”
Ally had her legs draped across her mate’s legs and was cuddled against his side, but at Kirk’s insult she said, “Hey now. I’ve literally never seen Clinton so un-crazy as he has been tonight. Alyssa is magic. She is Clinton’s ten-ten.”
“I’m gonna check the border of the campsite,” Harrison announced, standing. “Clinton, why don’t you come?”
“No, thank you. Go take a piss by yourself, alpha. Girls go to the bathroom in herds. I ain’t a woman, and you don’t need protection from the bogeyman.”
Harrison’s lips thinned into a pissed-off line, and Clinton already knew what was coming next—the order. “Now, Clinton.”
The power of his words wafted across Clinton’s skin and cowed his animal. Damn it all, he hated when Harrison pulled this crap. Clinton didn’t hold back the snarl in his chest, but he kicked out of the blanket and stood. “Fine. I’ll be right back,” he told Shae, then followed Harrison out into the dark woods.
“Look, if you want someone to hold your dick for you, you should know I don’t touch anything in miniature—”
“Who is she?” Harrison asked low.
Clinton crossed his arms over his chest and pled the fifth.
“I talked to your first alpha, and you know what he told me?”
“Carl is a vagina who should shut the hell up about other peoples’ personal business.”
“He said you had a mate named Shalene Dunleavy, who died, and another mate, who also died. So imagine my surprise when a girl with the same last name as your first mate shows up, and your bear is already so deep in devotion to her, that you, the biggest, single pain in my ass, grows manners overnight. Who. The fuck. Is she?”
Clinton tossed a glance through the woods to the soft glow of the fire some distance away. “She’s my first mate. My only maybe, I don’t know.”
“So she didn’t die?”
“No, and I didn’t tell Carl she died. I told him I lost her, which I did. And she might as well have died because she has no memory of her old life or of me. Happy?”
“You should tell her who you are.”
“Fuck off, Harrison.” He made to leave, but Harrison gripped his arm and prevented it.
Clinton growled a warning. “Careful, alpha. This story is much deeper than you can guess.”
“Then enlighten me. You lying to her? She’ll find out, and when she does, you’ll lose her.”
“And if I tell her, I’ll lose her.”
The fire left Harrison’s eyes, and uncertainty flashed across his face.
He released Clinton like a good bear, so he tossed him a bone. “Shae was taken from me and from her family when she was sixteen. For two years, she was in a testing facility because they thought she was me. They thought she was a bear shifter. They probably found out real quick she couldn’t Change, but they needed humans for their program, too. It was two fuckin’ years before I could find her and negotiate her release.”
“With myself. And part of the deal was that her memories were wiped. That’s the only way they were gonna let her live after what she’d seen, and I was okay with that.”
“Shhhhit.” Harrison linked his hands behind his head and took two steps back. Smart man because Clinton’s bear was ripping at his insides to bleed that mother fucker.
“If you were me, and Audrey had been taken, and if God-knows-what had been done to her in that two years, would you force her to relive that? Or would you let her move on and just go hard trying to make her happy for the rest of her life?”
Harrison’s eyes were on the fire in the distance for a long time before he murmured, “I don’t know, man.”
Clinton lowered his voice to an angry whisper. “I just got her back. I just got a second chance. I’m trying not to fuck it up, so please keep this shit to yourself and let me keep her.”
Harrison looked sick, but he nodded and murmured, “Okay. I won’t say anything.”
Clinton cracked his knuckles. With a pissed-off sigh that tapered into a growl, he strode off. And because he was working on himself for Shae’s sake, he remembered his manners and muttered, “Thank you,” over his shoulder.
There was no right or wrong answer. Telling her what had happened would get her scratching at memories that needed to stay buried. What would it help if she remembered what had happened to her? She would be as dark as him. Two years had ruined him. Poisoned him. Killed the good parts of him, and he wanted better for Shae.
He wanted her to be happy.
Clinton was willing to lie to her until her dying breath to keep her safe from the awful memories she’d made between those white walls. Screw what that said about him. The truth was for do-gooders, but he didn’t give a shit about anything other than Shae’s smiles.
He wasn’t lying to her.
He was protecting her.