Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1) (7 page)

BOOK: Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)
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I shut the door and went around the other side. I gripped the car keys
so hard I drew blood again. Wiping it on my jeans so she didn’t see, I got in
and started the ignition. I slammed the truck in drive and reached my arm over
the seat so I could see to back out. She was so close. If I moved my fingers an
inch I could touch her shoulder. From the corner of my eye, I watched the rise
and fall of Nora’s chest as she breathed in deep. Her pulse jumped in a vein
near her throat. As I backed out, I followed the line down. Her breasts swelled
just beneath her tank top. Bloody hell, what I wouldn’t give to just edge that
thin strap away and trail my tongue over her pink nipple.

The bear simmered. I gripped the steering wheel hard and hoped to God I
could manage to be this close to her without the stiff hairs sprouting on my knuckles
as I held off the shift. As soon as I got away from her, I was going to need to
let the bear out and stay in him all night. Otherwise, I was going to explode.

Nora sat in furious silence as I took the curves hard and drove her out
to the truck stop. It killed me to leave her here, but it’s what she said she
wanted. It was the right thing to do. We’d intruded on each other’s lives
enough. I needed to keep my head down, my bear in check, and focus on restoring
my crew’s confidence in me. I didn’t need the distraction of a human woman who
may or may not be trying to bring heat down on the mine.

“Jax?” Her voice came to me as if it were underwater. Blinking hard, I
looked around. We were already at the truck stop, and I swear I don’t remember
getting there. It was a solid twenty-minute drive from the cabin, and I
couldn’t recall a single thing about it.

Nora put her hand on me. “Hey. Are you all right? I’ve been calling
your name for like thirty seconds and you’ve been just…I don’t know…gone.”

I shook my head. “Sorry. It’s been a stressful few days. It’s not about
you. I didn’t mean to be a dick back there.”

The easy light came back into Nora’s eyes. “Yeah, well, there’s a lot
of that going around. I was just trying to say thanks again. You’ve gone over and
above helping me out twice now. Even though you think I’m some bleeding heart
busybody, I was just saying, good luck with…well…whatever has you stressed
out.”

She put her hand on my arm. Maybe if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have done
what I did. It was just too much though. For both of us. That electric spark
flared again and my eyes went to hers. She felt something too. God. Shifter or
not, there was something different about this girl, and right then, I just
wanted to taste her.

If she sensed it, I’ll never know. But she leaned in then and licked
her lips. I moved toward her. For the second time, I pressed my lips to hers.
Rockets launched behind my eyes and my blood roared in my ears. The bear hummed
beneath my skin and my eyes went dark. I squeezed them tight. Nora groaned in
my mouth and it damn near undid me.

When she pulled away, her eyes widened. Thank God for the dusk, because
she didn’t quite understand the swirling shadows she must have seen in my eyes
just then. Fuck yeah, I was going to need to shift all the way and soon. I
wanted her. Badly.

“I…I…I have to go,” she whispered, spooked by something. No. Not
something. Me. Reality slammed into me hard, making my dick throb. Because she
was just a girl, after all. And that made her the one thing I couldn’t have.

“Yeah,” I said, my throat ragged. “You do.”

Nora fumbled for the door handle, then backed out of the car. She froze
for a fraction of a second, pressing her fingers to her swollen lips where I
kissed her. Then, she turned and walked away.

 

Chapter Seven

Nora

I couldn’t sleep. I tried every trick I knew. A glass of wine,
listening to classical music through my headphones, then finally pacing up and
down the hall of my apartment. The men in my life had me spinning.

Aaron hadn’t tried to get in touch with me. He had my purse and cell
phone, but he left no emails or calls to my landline. I’d been angry with him
out in the woods; now, with the clarity of a few hours behind me, I was
downright furious. His behavior out there amounted to a proposition. Get with
him, or lose my job. Sure, I could find another one probably, but that was
beside the point. I needed that paycheck to make my rent payment and next
month’s big tuition bill before the fall semester started.

Then there was Jax. My lips still felt swollen from the kiss he gave me
just before we parted. The man straight up had me seeing stars, and that too
was the last thing I needed. My current level of hot water came from my own bad
judgment about men. No matter how delicious that kiss had been or how my whole
body seemed to simmer with desire around Jax, I couldn’t let it lead me into
another bad choice.

No. It was better if I just cut my losses and came up with a plan B. My
lease ran out in six weeks and then I was supposed to head back down to Mount
Pleasant for my second to last semester of school. The bonus Damon Spence had
agreed to pay me for the calendar was what I planned to live on until January.
I didn’t have rich parents like Aaron did to cover for me. Hell, my parents
usually had more trouble making ends meet than I did. Dad was on worker’s comp
from his construction job after he’d had a bad fall at work. My mother worked
at a bank for barely more than minimum wage, but her M.S. had flared in the
last few months and she’d been house bound. It had always been my dream to find
a job making enough money to take care of them and pay them back for everything
they’d done for me. Now, it looked like I’d be heading back home to Traverse
City with my tail between my legs hitting them up for a place to stay if I
couldn’t afford to pay my own bills.

As if they could sense my distress, my land line rang. My father was
pretty much the only person who called me on it. I let out a breath and
squeezed my eyes shut tight before answering. He knew me well enough to sense
something was wrong just by the sound of my voice.

“Hey, butter bean!” Dad’s gravelly smoker’s voice made my heart warm.
He’d given the things up for good two years ago, but the damage was done.

“Hey, Daddy. You’re up early.” It was just past six a.m. He knew I
usually woke early to take a morning run before getting ready for work. Today
though, I was too keyed up to do even that.

“How’re things up north? You need anything? Money? One of Mom’s care
packages?”

I smiled and pressed the receiver against my forehead. God, I hadn’t
realized how much I needed to hear his voice. “I’m okay. I have everything I
need.”

“You sure? She’s working on a batch of her ginger snaps this afternoon.
They keep pretty well in those Christmas tins she saves.”

“Yeah? She’s feeling that well today? Well then that sounds about
perfect. Except tell her not to go overboard, she’s going to make me fat.”

My father made a noise in the back of his throat. “Whatever, bean. When
you were still playing volleyball, you damn near ate us out of the house worse
than any teenage boy. The only thing that ever grew big on you were your feet.”

I barked out a laugh and held up my size ten flip-flops. The boys in my
high school used to call me Bigfoot. They also didn’t call me much else. I was
taller than all but about three of them. I’d been everybody’s best friend and
“one of the guys,” but went to my senior prom stag with a bunch of my
girlfriends. College had pretty much been a lather, rinse, repeat proposition.
Then, I met Aaron. God. He was the rich kid with the family name everyone knew.
When he showed interest I hadn’t known what to make of him. He’d been polite
and took me to restaurants and places I never could have afforded on my own.
So, in the beginning, I’d felt like a princess. Then of course, he started to
show himself for the toad he really was.

Dad asked me a few more mundane questions. I ended up lying to him
about everything and hated myself a little for it. But, I didn’t want to worry
him. He had enough on his plate dealing with my mom’s health, doctor’s
appointments, and claims adjusters. They’d been trying to cut his benefits for
the last year, and I knew it took a toll on both him and Mom. Yeah, the last
thing he needed was me adding another worry to his long list.

My mom got on the phone at the end and talked to me with her sweet,
sing-song voice that used to irritate the hell out of me when I lived with them
full time. Today though, it made me homesick. After a few minutes, we said our
goodbyes as I told them I needed to get ready for work.

Work. Aaron and work. I checked my email again. Still nothing from
either Aaron or his father. Even if Aaron’s threat to fire me hadn’t been
serious, I knew now I couldn’t stay at Vista either way. Something Jax said
replayed in my mind.
Maybe not this second, but that guy is trouble.

He was right. I’d tried to downplay everything in front of him for
reasons I didn’t quite understand. Maybe because for at least a few seconds, I
really thought Jax might have ripped Aaron’s throat out. And for those same few
seconds, I think I might have enjoyed watching. It didn’t make me proud of
myself, but I’d sensed something very dark in Aaron yesterday too. He’d never
come at me like that. The way he’d turned tail and run, leaving me alone in the
woods shocked me too. I’d be damned if I’d let him or any man treat me like
shit. If it weren’t for my financial situation, I could easily have flipped him
off and never looked back. For now though, I was going to have to suck it up
and head into the office. He owed me my things back, plus some answers. I’d put
a lot of work into the calendar already. Damon Spence was going to pay me for
my time at least. Beyond that, it depended on a few things.

As much as my parents’ call made me homesick, it emboldened me. My
father had raised a proud, strong daughter who didn’t take crap from anyone.
Just like him. I put on my best black power suit, my three-inch heels because
fuck it. God gave me tall genes, and today I’d use them against that sniveling
jerk. I had an extra set of car keys in the kitchen drawer. I grabbed them and
headed out the door.

I was still fueled by adrenaline and a fair amount of rage when I
walked into the Vista Foundation offices. Aaron was nowhere to be found, but
the receptionist at the front desk turned white and wouldn’t meet my gaze when
I passed her.

Shit.

I marched up to the tenth-floor offices and to my own desk. My blood
boiled with anger at what I found. Someone had taken the liberty of packing my
things into a cardboard box, all neat and tidy for the walk of shame of the
newly fired. My purse sat perched at the top of all the other personal items
I’d accumulated like a potted plant, a few pictures of my parents, and some
pens and pencils. The laptop at my workstation was already gone.

“Where’s Aaron?” I said, trying to keep my voice even as I turned back
toward the tenth-floor secretary. Her name was Kim and she was here for an
internship. She gave me a weak smile and tucked a pencil behind her ear.

“Nor, I’m really sorry. He didn’t come in this morning. But, Mr.
Spence. For what it’s worth, Aaron is the one who packed up your things. But
remember, you don’t work for him. If I were you, I’d go see what he has to
say.”

I let out a bitter laugh and murmured some cryptic warning to her. I
felt a little like a shit. None of this was Kim’s fault and I wouldn’t be
surprised if Aaron hit on her next. Kim mouthed “sorry” to me, and I felt even
worse. I pursed my lips and gave her a quick nod.

“Good luck,” I told Kim. “And you might want to steer clear of Aaron.
Just a word of advice.” Kim’s eyes went wide, then she put her head down and
stared at her computer screen. A shadow fell over her and I realized we had an
audience.

“Miss Gentry.” Damon stood just outside his office. He gave me a stern
look and folded his arms in front of him. I straightened my back and marched
into his office.

Damon asked me to take a seat, but I told him I’d prefer to stand. In
my heels, I had an inch on him and I intended to use every advantage God gave
me.

“I’ll make this brief,” he said. “I don’t like ugly scenes. My son came
to me last night with some concerns about your work as of late. These are
concerns I don’t personally share. I’m hoping you can see your way clear to
ignoring my son’s boorish behavior.”

Damon turned and grabbed an envelope off his desk. He handed it to me. My
fingers shook as I took it. I opened it to find a check for five hundred
dollars.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not going to stand here and pretend this is
something else. You’re firing me because your son has figured out that I don’t
want to date him. That’s quid pro quo sexual harassment by any metric. You
can’t fire me for that. It’s against the law.”

Damon’s shoulders dropped and he pushed his wire-framed glasses further
up his nose. Until this moment, I hadn’t noticed how much Aaron really did look
like him. They had the same hooked nose and downturned mouths. Damon’s hair had
turned cotton white and stuck out in tufts at his temples.

“Miss Gentry, you misunderstand me. No one is firing you. To the
contrary. I told you I don’t share my son’s opinion of the work you’ve done so
far. I want to keep you as part of the Vista Foundation family longer term.
Consider that a bonus.”

My spine prickled. This was hush money. What in God’s name was Damon
Spence afraid of where I was concerned? I wasn’t sure how to play this. He
narrowed his eyes at me and took a different approach.

“You’re pursuing a business degree. This is probably the first job
you’ve ever had that didn’t require you to wear a hairnet. Am I right? The
Vista Foundation and the Spence family have impeccable reputations in important
circles. This is a good career move for you any way you look at it. What’s the
expression about not looking a gift horse in the mouth?”

I bit my lip to contain my anger. It would do me no good to lash out at
him. He also had a point, and the truth of that left a bitter taste in my
mouth. The Spences were worth millions. Aaron had a U.S. congressman for an
uncle, and they had businesses all through the state. Still, every instinct
inside me told me something was wrong about all of this. Aaron clearly wanted
me gone. Damon was bending over backward to keep me happy. I trusted neither of
them.

“Thank you,” I finally said. But I put the envelope back on his desk.
“But I’m not finished with the calendar project. Why don’t you hold on to that
until I am? Then you can decide if it’s worth the bonus you offered me. I just
need to get the SIM card back from Aaron so I can finish work on it.”

Damon stayed rock still but for a tiny flicker at the corner of his
eye. “I’d rather hang on to that,” he said. “It’s got some really impressive
shots on it. We’ll get you a brand new one and you can start fresh.”

My SIM card? Was he kidding? What could he possibly want with the thing?

“Okay, but it looks like Aaron packed up my company laptop. Could I at
least get that back?”

Damon smiled. He reached down into one of his desk drawers and handed
me my laptop. I clutched it to my chest and started to back out of his office.
The sooner I got out of there, the better. This whole thing was just beyond
strange.

“And why don’t you go ahead and take the rest of the day off? Aaron had
you working after hours for a few nights. You’ve earned it.”

Giving Damon a nod
, I left and went back to my desk. Kim tried to look
busy as she watched me unpack. I was just about to leave as Damon suggested
when an idea came to me. I’d made a copy of the pictures from the other night
on my hard drive. I had a flash drive in my purse and stuck it into the USB port.
As the desktop fired up, I sighed with relief to see the pictures file I made
was still there. I transferred a copy to the flash drive and stuck it back in
my purse.

It might be a small thing, but a swell of satisfaction rose up in me.
There was something so odd about the way Damon reacted when I asked for my
memory card back. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but for now it made sense to
have my own copy of whatever interested him. I threw my bag over my shoulder for
the elevators without looking back.

As I walked back into my dark apartment, Jax consumed my thoughts. He
was protecting something out there near the pioneer cabin. He’d been guarded
and defensive when I asked him about it. Now, Damon Spence tipped his hand
expressing a similarly out of proportion interest in the pictures I took.

I sat down hard on my living room couch and grabbed my personal laptop
off the coffee table. My camera sat next to it. I pulled the flash drive out
and stuck it into my laptop. I still hadn’t looked at all of them myself yet.
But, apparently Damon Spence had.

Leaning back against the couch, I started to click through every frame.
I had some really great stuff in here. I’d captured the lush green foliage, a
panorama of the forest, a slow, trickling stream that made the small pebbles on
its bank sparkle like diamonds. Never mind the Vista Foundation, I might be
able to sell some of these on my own.

BOOK: Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)
7.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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