Authors: Sloane Meyers
Grizzly Flying Home
Air Bear Shifters, Book 3
By Sloane Meyers
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Similarities to actual people or events are entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Sloane Meyers. All rights reserved.
Grizzly shifter Chance Ayers banked his aircraft sharply to the left, making a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn. Below him, smoke from a massive forest fire curled upward toward the sky, occasionally thinning just enough to allow a view of flickering, orange flames. Chance had seen some massive fires during his two years serving as a pilot to the Burning Claws team of smokejumpers, but this blaze dwarfed all the others by far.
Chance peered through the smoke to count parachutes. One, two, three, four, five, six. Six open parachutes, indicating that his six smokejumpers were safe—for the moment at least. Jumping out of a plane was only the first in a series of dangerous tasks this crew undertook on a regular basis. Once they landed, the smokejumpers would face the unenviable task of trying to clear a firebreak in the thick forest brush before the flames closed in on them.
Chance had the easy job of the group. All he had to do was fly the airplane to the drop location and hold it steady while the others hurled themselves out of the plane and toward the smoldering earth below. Then he flew back home and waited a few days while the smokejumpers fought the forest fire. When they had finished their work on the ground, they hiked to a pickup location, where they were driven to the nearest airstrip so Chance could come pick them up. Chance’s job basically amounted to an air taxi service.
Occasionally, the smokejumpers would need an emergency evacuation from a drop location. But Chance was never involved in those rescue operations. The evacuations were done by helicopter, and Chance only flew airplanes. If you overlooked the fact that he did, in fact, fly through thick smoke on a regular basis, he had a pretty mundane, safe job overall.
Still, he loved his work. He didn’t need an adrenaline rush to feel fulfilled now, as he often had during his younger days. He just wanted to do something that mattered, and getting his crew safely to and from the forest fires mattered. He got paid well to keep his flying skills sharp, and, best of all, he got to spend a great deal of time with the Burning Claws Crew.
The Crew consisted mostly of black bear shifters, along with their human lifemates. One polar bear shifter, Clara, was also part of the crew. Clara had escaped from Alaska after a clan war years earlier, and had taken up refuge in California with the smokejumping crew. She had found a lifemate in California and decided to stay here with the new clan that had taken her in. Chance, an Alaskan shifter himself, enjoyed talking to Clara about life back in Alaska. Unlike Clara, however, Chance wasn’t certain whether he was going to stay in California permanently.
Chance had decided to move to away from Alaska after a rift in his own clan had caused tension and unrest. The alpha of his clan back home, Sawyer, was one of his best friends in the world, and Chance couldn’t imagine living far away from Sawyer forever. But, then again, Chance was settling into life here in California, and making new friends. He had grown close to his new crew members, and formed deep friendships with them. All the while, life back home in Alaska was moving on without him. Sawyer’s new wife had recently given birth to a beautiful baby girl, Storm. And Chance’s other best friend, Anderson, had found and married a sweet woman named Lexi.
Whether Chance wanted to admit it or not, things back in Alaska had changed quite a bit. Even if he moved back now, things would never go back to the way they had been, with him and his two closest friends flying airplanes like bats out of hell, as though they had nothing to lose. Chance had always intended to go back, but now, he was beginning to think that maybe staying in California forever wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. It was a hell of a lot warmer during the winter, that’s for sure. Chance loved sunshine, and there was plenty more of it here in December than there was back home in Frost Peak.
Chance was still mulling things over an hour later as he brought his airplane in for a landing, touching down on the runway in front of the hangar that served as home base for the smokejumpers. He completed his post-flight checklist and filled out his pilot logbook, and then peeked at the parking lot adjacent to the hangar. The whole clan lived in a giant bunkhouse a few hundred feet away, so there was almost always someone around. Even when the smokejumpers were off taking care of a forest fire, one of their mates was usually home. This afternoon, however, things seemed quiet. Several cars were parked in the parking lot, but many of them belonged to the smokejumpers who were busily working.
Chance listened for a moment, and after straining his ears he heard the faint sound of laughter from the bunkhouse. The place wasn’t empty, after all. Chance frowned, unsure if he wanted to talk to anyone right now. His mind and heart felt heavy, and he just wanted to zone out for a while. He racked his brain, trying to think of somewhere to go to be alone, and he finally settled on heading into town to see a movie. There was nothing quite like going to a movie by yourself when you wanted alone time, and Chance occasionally went to the theater on his own when things got too crazy and chaotic around the hangar. Right now, he needed space. Things were calm on the outside, but his mind felt like it was in chaos. Two and a half hours of sitting alone in a dark, quiet theater was just what he needed.
Chance snuck into the bunkhouse and quickly changed out of his pilot’s uniform into a pair of relaxed fit jeans and a snug, gray t-shirt. The laughter was louder inside, and he could tell now that it was Mindy, Zach’s lifemate, playing with their children, Sophia and Drew. Chance paused for a moment to enjoy the sound of the children giggling at whatever game Mindy had come up with to play with them, but then slipped out silently. He hopped into his red truck and rolled down the windows, letting the hot, July air blow powerfully across his face as he made the fifteen minute drive into town.
Red Valley was an unassuming, medium-sized city in Northern California, just big enough to ensure you had enough restaurants and stores to keep you interested, but not big enough to leave you feeling lost in the crowd. Chance loved living here. He was close enough to San Francisco that he could easily go into the city if he was craving a true night out, but he was also near huge Redwood forests with amazing hiking trails—and plenty of places for a bear to run free. And, although his bear side didn’t mind frigid winters, he had to admit that his human side didn’t miss the prickly, tingling feeling of cold settling in and taking over your body. The nights here got cool, especially in the winter, but the temperature was never unbearable. And the summers were downright amazing.
Chance breathed in deeply as he slowed down and turned onto Main Street in Red Valley. The streets were quiet today, even for a weekday afternoon. Chance suspected that had something to do with the small heat wave that was happening right now. The locals here tended to stay indoors when the temperature fluctuated too far away from seventy-five degrees. But Chance had never liked being cooped up indoors, especially for something as silly as temperature swings. He parked his truck in front of his favorite theater and rolled up his windows before hopping out with a smile. The warm air felt soothing to him, and he took another deep breath for good measure before heading inside.
The theater was dark and quiet, just as he’d hoped. He surveyed the list of available movies, and decided on a generic-looking action flick that had started five minutes before. Perfect timing. He would only miss the previews, which he didn’t care much about, anyway. Chance handed his ticket to a bored looking teenager and then made his way to theater number seven, where he planned to zone out and watch
Soldiers of the Universe
for the next two and half hours. The previews were still playing, and Chance was tempted to go grab himself a large popcorn and giant soda. But he let out a sigh and forced himself to stay seated instead. He was trying his best to be healthier, and movie food was pretty much the opposite of healthy food.
Chance looked around as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and could only make out two other people in the theater. A couple sat a few rows in front of him and to the left, both of them with their feet propped up on the seat in front of them. Chance decided to follow their lead, and stuck his own feet up in front of him. The movie finally started, and Chance settled in to watch as a new race of aliens tried to take over planet Earth, only to be stopped by a man whose muscles put Arnold Schwarzenegger’s to shame.
After thirty minutes, Chance was happily absorbed in the movie and had completely forgotten the worries about his future that were weighing down on his mind. He had zoned out so completely that it took him a few moments to realize that the action on the big screen in front of him wasn’t the only action this dark theater was seeing. But no one could have missed the bloodcurdling scream that came from the woman several rows in front of him, right after one of the alien lords got its head chopped off.
Startled, Chance’s eyes darted to the woman. At first, he was annoyed. If someone was that disturbed by fake aliens being killed, then maybe they should find a different movie to watch. But he soon realized that the woman wasn’t screaming because of the violence on the screen. She was screaming because her boyfriend—or husband or whoever he was—had for some reason gone from cuddling her to holding her down in a chokehold on the theater seat. He was yelling at her, but Chance could hardly understand what he was saying through the noise of the movie. It was clear, though, that they were having an argument and that he was bent on making sure she had significant bruise marks on her neck and arm to remind her not to disagree with him.
“Scott, please!” the woman cried out, her shaking voice momentarily audible during a slight lull in the onscreen battle.
Chance felt his blood boiling, and he forgot about what was happening to the alien lords or whether the muscled hero of the movie would make it out alive. Chance had no patience for a man who would lay a hand on a woman to harm her, no matter how bad of an argument they might be in. He let out an angry roar, and bounded over the rows of seats separating him from the couple.
The man, presumably named Scott, looked up, startled, just moments before Chance’s fist hit him square on the right side of his jaw. He howled in pain, and fell backward, but quickly regained his balance and came toward Chance with wildly swinging fists.
“Mind your own business, asshole!” the man yelled, trying his best to land a punch on Chance’s face. But Chance was a large man, and strong. He had no trouble fending off Scott’s out-of-control swings. With one quick movement, Chance caught both of Scott’s arms in his own and held them still, which only made Scott angrier.
“Let me go, or I swear I’ll kill you!” he yelled. Behind him, the hero of the movie continued to slice off alien heads.
“You listen to me,” Chance said, his voice an angry, low growl. “I’m going to let you go, and you’re going to leave this theater. If you try to hurt me, or try to hurt this woman right here, I’m going to pin you down and call the cops. Then you can feel free to explain to them what you were arguing over that was serious enough to warrant punches.”
Chance shoved Scott backwards, causing him to fall over the row of seats behind him and land in a crumpled heap. The man jumped up and sneered at Chance.
“Whatever. I don’t have time to deal with an asshole like you,” he said. “Come on, Emily. Let’s get out of here.”
The woman, who was still shaking, started to stand, but Chance gently pushed her down.
“No,” he said firmly. “You stay. I’m not letting you go anywhere with him while he’s riled up like this.”
“You can’t tell her what to do,” Scott said, his face growing red again.
“Well, neither can you,” Chance answered. “Now, do you want to get out of here or should I call the cops?”
The color drained somewhat from Scott’s face, and he let out a snort of disgust. “Whatever. You can have her. She’s a total bitch, anyways.”
Then Scott turned and stormed out of the theater, leaving Chance alone with the woman, who was shaking and now had tears running down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she said, starting to stand up. “He just gets excited sometimes. I’m sorry you had to witness that.”
Chance gently pushed her back down, and then knelt down to her level, searching her eyes.
“Emily, is it?” he asked.
“I’m Chance. Look, Emily, don’t ever apologize for him. There’s no excuse for a man to treat you like that. Is he your husband? Do you live with him? Do you have somewhere else you can go? Somewhere safe to stay?”
Chance was already trying to figure out how to convince Ian, the alpha of the Burning Claws Clan, to shelter Emily. Ian didn’t like to have full humans around the shifters, but he also had a big heart. Chance knew Ian would never be able to turn away a woman who was in danger of being harmed by a violent man.
“He’s my boyfriend,” Emily said. “I don’t live with him, but I spend most of my time at his apartment. He’s not usually this bad, I promise. He’s just stressed out about work or something. I don’t know. I’m fine, really. Thanks for your help.”
Emily wiped at the tears on her face and gave Chance a brave smile. She shrugged sheepishly and stood up. This time, Chance didn’t try to stop her. They both knew that she was making excuses for a violent, ill-tempered man. But Chance wasn’t sure what he could do or say to convince a woman he had just met to leave a man she clearly felt attached to. So he let her go, watching her straighten her back proudly as she left the theater.