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Bear Lover (She-Shifters of Hell's Corner Book 6) by Candace Ayers (1)

1

Luna

I never thought I’d belong to any group, much less one in which a wild bunch of loud-mouthed women showed up naked, hung out naked, and left naked. But, I did. At St. Anon, we—they—talked shit, let out fears, frustrations and gripes, and did and said things that were kept purely confidential. Because, St. Anon was all about freedom. Gathered with the rest atop a wide, flat rock, under a weeping willow tree that was probably older than everyone put together, and feeling the camaraderie of female bonding, I’d had to pinch myself the first time I’d gone. It was so not my thing, I’d thought. Until I realized that it was exactly my thing. Exactly. Because I, too, was all about freedom.

I’d lived in Helen’s Corner for two months before being dragged to my first meeting. Sonnie had convinced me under threat of selling me only wilted carnations for my coffee table for the remainder of my days in town. Which, could’ve been numbered. I hadn’t been sure. It had still been too early to decide if I was putting down roots in the eclectic little town or not. After that first St. Anon meeting, though, I knew. It was instant. Love at first…weird group of crazy female neighbors?

St. Anon was an escape. The rest of the week, I barely saw anyone. I worked from home, I ate at home, I did everything at home. Unless I was driving into Smith to pick up packages from my post office box, I lived an isolated existence. It’d only taken one delivery to the local post office for me to realize that getting my things shipped to Helen’s Corner wasn’t going to work. Not only did it take an extra day, but Bo Taylor felt up all the packages, then knocked on my door so he could hand deliver them, all while waggling his eyebrows at me. Creep.

It would’ve been fine if I was getting care packages from my grandma, but they weren’t care packages. Per se. Although, I did need to send my grandma a gift soon. Her birthday was coming up.

So, even though I fit into a St. Anon meeting the way I fit into everything else in life, like a cat at a dog park, I’d fallen in love with it. I couldn’t help but get excited every week waiting for Tuesday to arrive. That week had been no different, until I’d come face to face with a man who’d made my whole body tremble. He’d been so big—huge—and carried a fearsome animal within him. I could feel the power emanating from him, and it was all I could do not to flinch and cower on the ground in submission. I’d learned the hard way that when facing predators, that was the worst thing you could do. Once you showed weakness, they struck.

Fortunately, human or bunny, I could run. Fast. And, I would have, too, if the man with the enormous muscles and, I had to admit, sexy tattoos, didn’t just trigger my body’s trembling with the need for fight or flight. No, my traitorous body’s trembles were from a delicious mixture of fear and heightened sexual excitement. The feeling that coursed through me was indescribable, and not, I can state honestly and emphatically, one that can be achieved solo, regardless of the type of adult toys one uses.

I’d managed to get free, thank my lucky stars, and avoid Mr. Big-Sexy-Scary, but Charlie and her mate, Axel, had cornered me a few months later.

On the one day I pushed myself to venture out of the house for some social interaction, and braved Muddy’s B&B for lunch, they’d caught me right outside and persuaded me to join them. They’d spent the entire meal either pestering me about meeting up with Axel’s friend, Mr. Big-Sexy-Scary, or making goo goo eyes at one another and flirting like teenagers. Charlie was about as subtle as a bullet train and I knew that I hadn’t heard the last of it. I left reiterating my resolve to keep myself isolated.

I guessed that the man, whose real name was Pratt, was more than just Axel’s friend. He was my mate, but I wasn’t ready for any of that stuff. Ha—understatement! Not only was I not ready, I’d never be ready. I’d moved to Helen’s Corner to escape men. I needed what Helen’s Corner had given me, someplace that wrapped its arms around me and kept me feeling safe and cozy and comforted. The almost all female town had been like an elixir. Lately, that elixir was losing its potency. Over the course of the past year and a half, there’d been an influx of males. Some, due to matchups at Sonnie’s speed dating events that she’d resumed hosting monthly, others were due to something inexplicable. Something in the stars was the phrase my mother used to describe such happenings.

Sometimes, when I sat in my chair by the window of my small, first floor studio flat, and watched the world, everywhere I looked, there were couples. Women with their mates. My new best friends had all found mates. Women I passed on the street on my way to Karmov’s Market had mates. It was infuriating. One man was more men than I cared to see, and the last thing I wanted was a mate.

I had shit luck.

After the St. Anon meeting, which was amazing and secret, as always, I’d planned on going for a run and then heading home to test a new gadget that I’d been sent from one of my favorite companies. I had big plans. Instead, I ended up running with the other female shifters and then sitting naked on Carter’s front porch while she passed out cupcakes. What female shifter could refuse cupcakes?

Sonnie, Charlie, Denny, Carter, and Muddy were all staring at me after Charlie brought up Axel’s friend. I was shy by nature and being put on the spot like that was torture. I considered shifting and running away, but knew they’d just ply me with questions the next time they saw me, so my best bet was to answer.

“What about him?”

Charlie rolled her eyes and shoved the last bite of her cupcake into her mouth. Talking around it, she laid into me. “Come on, Luna. Axel swears that he’s a good guy. And he’s your mate! You can’t ignore that.”

Watch me. I forced a smile and shrugged. “I’ll get around to scheduling a meeting with him.”

“Scheduling a meeting? What is he? Your accountant?” Muddy snorted. “Besides, I thought you’d already met him.”

Charlie scoffed and shook her head. “She’s been a jumpy little bunny about it.”

“Hey. Watch it.” I frowned and tore my second cupcake in half. “I’m not being jumpy. I’m just not interested. And busy.”

Muddy giggled. “In your line of work, I imagine being busy is quite stimulating.”

The rest of the women looked confused. Denny shifted her position on the stairs and rubbed her huge baby bump. “What do you do, Luna?”

I gritted my teeth and shot Muddy a look. There was a reason that I hadn’t told everyone what I did for a living. It was kind of unusual and not what people expected when they looked at me. “I review sex toys.”

There was a loud snort. “I’m sorry. I thought I heard you say that you review sex toys.” Charlie’s eyebrows raised practically to her hairline. She suddenly went into a gasping fit as she swallowed the cupcake wrong.

As Charlie coughed, Denny leaned back a little and grunted.

Denny looked uncomfortable. “Are you okay, Denny?”

She nodded. “I’m fine. I want to hear more about sex toy reviewing.”

Carter waggled her eyebrows. “All the details.”

Sonnie laughed and then gasped. “Well, not every detail… you know, you can leave a few out.”

Everyone laughed and turned back to me, but I was watching Denny. It had been the fourth time she’d clutched her protruding belly in the past twenty minutes. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Denny looked down and wiggled, adjusting her position again. “Sure. Tell us more about your job.”

Everyone else shifted their attention to Denny, and that time, we all noticed the pulled look on her face. She was definitely in discomfort. I moved closer to her and put my hand to her forehead. She was clammy. “Are you having contractions?”

Charlie screeched. “Are you in labor?!”

Denny’s eyes were saucers. “Labor? No! It’s not. It’s too early! I have another two weeks before my due date.”

I gasped as she grabbed my arm and squeezed. Her grip was like steel and I had to struggle to not yank my arm away. “Denny, we don’t have to be medical professionals to know that something’s up. What’s happening?”

Fat tears filled her eyes and poured down her cheeks. “I’m not ready! This can’t be happening yet.”

Carter wrapped her arm around Denny’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Den. You’re going to be great. We’ve got to get you to the hospital.”

“No!” She shook her head and sent her hair flying. “No hospital. I’m fine. It’s just gas. It’ll pass. I’m-”

Screaming. She was screaming. Charlie pulled her phone from god only knew where and then she was screaming.

“Honey, what are you worried about? You’ve been so excited about this baby. You’re going to get to meet her finally.” Sonnie stroked her hair out of her face and tried to soothe her.

“I’m not ready. What if I’m no good at this? What if she hates me?”

I watched as her face contorted in pain again. Her contractions were too close together. “How long have you been having contractions, Denny?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been ignoring them. A while.”

“Shit.” I looked around at the small group of women and blew out a breath. “Early or not, I don’t think this baby is waiting two more weeks for you to be ready, Denny.”

“What?! No. I need Raif! Where’s Raif?!”

“He’s on his way!” Charlie was right back at Denny’s side, comforting her.

I wrung my hands together and hoped I didn’t regret what I was about to say. “I had to deliver my sister’s first kid when I was younger. We couldn’t afford the hospital. I read a lot of books about midwifery…if we can’t get you to a hospital, I can help.”

Denny let out another piercing scream and somewhere close by, a wild howl echoed in the night. Raif was on his way. When Denny heard that call from her mate, something in her settled. She looked up at me and nodded. “It will be okay.”